Resurrection

by Linda Bindner

A/N: This story is complete. MUCHO thanks to Noda2 and QueenNaberrie for being most excellent betas.

Prologue 1

He'd done it!

Diego had finally found the courage to tell Victoria about his secret identity! In spite of a pounding heart and the feeling that he was sure to imminently lose his most recent meal, he had looked her square in the eye and said the two words that had scared him silly for the last several years: 'I'm Zorro.' And the best part was that she hadn't immediately laughed in his face. The fact that she'd been too surprised to do much of anything wasn't important now. What was important was that he'd done it!

Even though he'd finally made that revolutionary decision to act, he later realized that he'd basically done nothing to change his situation: he was still waiting with bated breath for news of her thoughts on the subject of Zorro's identity, was still sick with fear of her eventual rejection of him now that she knew her hero was in reality the boring Diego de la Vega, was terrified that her anger was the only thing he would have to look forward to now... but still he'd done it!

The knock on the hacienda's front door the following day heralded what could possibly be her with her response to his brazen confession. He was so frightened that he was unable to move from his seat in the library, and had to rely on Felipe to answer the door. That was alright: it was how it should be. Felipe had been helping him to untangle his messes for years. Now was no different. It truly amazed him how much he already owed the young man, but Felipe never called in his debt. He simply continued to be the best support that any man could ever hope for. In many ways, he owed Felipe his life several times over, just as he owed his father, owed Victoria.

Now Felipe answered the knocking without commenting on how his mentor looked. Diego was so green that the teen was afraid the caballero would faint if this wasn't news at long last from Victoria.

It was news, alright, delivered not by Victoria, but by a strange boy from the pueblo. Diego was as pale as the single, folded sheet of paper that Felipe handed to him a moment later. With a shaking hand, Diego slowly took the note from him, gave a nervous swallow, then tore it open and began to read.

In the next second, Diego had turned whiter than white. He crumpled the paper, breathed deeply for a moment, then thrust the note at the confused Felipe. Without a word, he headed for his bedroom at the back of the hacienda.

Puzzled, and now terrified in his own right, Felipe smoothed the crumpled note that Diego had propelled into his hand and read.

Diego,

This is to tell you that I'm still thinking.

This is also to tell you that I just received word from my brother Ramon in Mexico City that his wife Juliana is sick, and to beg my help with his 2 children during her illness. I must go. It will be some months before I return. You will have your answer then.

Victoria

That was all. There was no word of scorn or comfort, love or friendship, hope or defeat in her note. There was only the information that she was leaving for the foreseeable future. She hadn't laughed at Diego outright, but then, she hadn't done or said anything at all, not really.

That sick feeling from before accosted Felipe again: he didn't blame his mentor for running to his room to hide from these new facts. He stared at the note, willing himself to find something more in it, some nugget of hope. But there was nothing, only a fairly useless note. A note that wasn't refusal, amusement, or anger. It was less than that. This wasn't anything.

Diego would now be forced to wait for several months' time to discover her frame of mind as to his unprecedented confession. It was as if she didn't already know that his disclosure had taken every ounce of courage in him to even make.

Then Felipe took a sudden indrawn breath as inspiration hit him. The barren tone of this note - it wasn't as if she didn't already know about the courage Diego had needed to utter his words... it was as if she didn't care.

That thought sat like a lead ball in his stomach. No, Felipe didn't blame Diego at all for running away. He felt like running away, too.

Z Z Z

Two years later:

Victoria had left the next day for her brother's in Mexico City, and Diego had waited patiently for many long months for Victoria to return. But Victoria didn't return. It was years later now, and she still hadn't returned or contacted anyone in Los Angeles in any way. She'd simply disappeared.

Which was an unacceptable turn of events in the life of the young caballero. Determined to find her, Diego traveled himself to Mexico City, armed with his many drawings of Victoria, sure that he would discover her whereabouts almost as soon as he arrived. Surely someone knew where she was.

But no one did. Hours turned into days, which turned into a week, which became weeks. Doggedly determined, Diego spent every hour that he could showing his drawing of Victoria at her Los Angeles tavern to anyone who would pay attention.

That was how he found himself standing just outside yet another Mexican church as he spoke to yet another Mexican stranger that he'd met on yet another Mexico City street. “Have you ever seen this woman? She's missing, and I'm searching for her. Any help you can give would be appreciated.”

The stranger studied the picture, carefully scrutinizing every aspect of it, but her sorrowful gaze met Diego's eyes in what was becoming a familiar stare. The shake of her head was as final as what her eyes had been trying to convey; she hadn't seen Victoria, either.

Diego sighed and let the woman disappear into the crowd in the street. He'd been full of hope and determination when he'd begun this search in Victoria's last known location. He knew that it was a miracle he'd even reached Mexico City, what with the instability of the new Mexican government changing every few months. But now, even with that original heartening miracle, after fruitlessly searching the unfamiliar city for weeks, his hope was dimming at last.

At first, he'd gone to the Alcalde, hoping against hope that he could help him. But the Mexico City Alcalde had been as unhelpful as de Soto had ever been. Next, he had frequented the local taverns and inns, assuming that Victoria wouldn't have been able to withstand the draw of another tavern, even a foreign one. When that had proven useless as well, he had taken to asking the doctors, both connected to the local hospitals as well as free-lance medical practitioners. If the situation hadn't been so dire, he would have enjoyed talking more in depth with several of those professionals, but his determination refused to let him squander even a moment.

Now, many moments later, he had taken to asking anyone he saw on the street if he or she knew Victoria or her whereabouts. At long last, his determination was growing tarnished and dull. With it, the hope that had buoyed his sagging spirits began to sink into what was becoming a familiar depression.

No one had seen her. No one knew where she was. It was if she'd vanished into thin air. Victoria Escalante had ceased to be, like she'd been winked out of existence by some cataclysmic event.

But the memory of Diego's heart was bigger than just such an event. It was infinite. He obviously wasn't searching hard enough.

A deep breath later, the depression once again at bay, determination and hope surged inside him. Diego start his search anew.

Z Z Z

Three years later:

It had been five years now since she had sent that note, then disappeared. Diego finally had to face the truth: no matter what she had promised in her note, Victoria wasn't coming back.

It didn't matter if she was dead, had simply relocated, hated him so much that she wanted out of Los Angeles for good, or was invisible. She was gone; end of story.

She hadn't even surfaced once in five long years to deal with her tavern. For the businesswoman Victoria had been, this was tantamount to being hung!

But that point did mean one thing for Diego that he didn't fully like to admit, even to himself: whether or not Victoria was alive or dead, she was gone - it was time for him to get on with his life.

Which was ironic. There was no life without Victoria.

Prologue 2

“Diego, can I talk to you?”

The plea, hissed in an urgent whisper, curled around Diego's ears to momentarily block out the pleasant hum of conversation at what had become one of the coveted events to the Los Angeles elite: a de la Vega supper party.

Trying to behave as if he had not just been appealed to in the most ardent whisper, Diego smiled and continued to study the painting on the wall that he was currently facing. The water in the glass he held barely shimmied, attesting to the calmness of his hand, but his heart was just beginning to quicken its pace as Señorita Lolita Melendez moved to stand closer to him, increasingly agitated.

“Diego?” This second whisper snaked out of the semi dark in the library. “Are you listening?”

Not wanting to draw attention to the fact that Señorita Lolita was now standing uncomfortably close to him, Diego forced himself to take a tiny breath instead of stepping away from her. He recalled his recent vow to get on with his life without Victoria in it, and refused to let his feet take him a single inch from the clearly distressed woman, no matter how instinctive such a move was. Besides, he had never been able to resist a distraught woman, even as Zorro, and now was no different.

Pretending to continue his study of the painting on the wall, Diego turned another fraction away from his fellow party revelers to give the señorita his full, albeit quiet, attention. “Something's troubling you, Señorita?”

Another whisper came to him on the breeze blowing through the open windows directly across from them. “I need to speak with you. But not here. Your stables - 15 minutes?”

The stables! Diego hadn't met a woman alone in the stables in... well, never. He shuddered at the image of getting caught in such a clandestine maneuver at this late date. Such a secret rendezvous could potentially sully the name of the woman in question, could ruin her reputation, could ruin his reputation, could...

Then he gave a soft, ironic snort. If his father saw his son sneaking off to the stables with a woman in tow, he would cheer, not get angry at Diego's clearly abandoned sense of decorum.

But Diego kept his disquieting thoughts to himself. A quick glance at the mantel clock to note the time, then a nod of his head was all it took for her to breathe more quietly beside him. “Thank you, Don Diego. Until then.” Señorita Lolita drifted off into the crowd like a puff of smoke.

Fifteen minutes later, that puff of smoke had solidified into one utterly terrified señorita. She wasted no time on polite chit chat once she had materialized out of the surrounding dark. “Diego, I'm in trouble.”

Diego's brows furrowed. “What kind of tr..?”

“I'm pregnant.”

Well, this came as a shock! It wasn't every day that women told him they were expecting a baby. He instantly wanted to retort, 'What am I supposed to do about it?' but his overdeveloped sense of propriety wouldn't allow him to be quite so unfeeling on the subject. His brow puckered as his puzzlement increased. “Congratulations, Señorita! I hadn't heard of your marriage. Who..?”

“That's just it,” Lolita hissed. “I'm not married!”

Not married.. and pregnant. He took her hand for a useless squeeze of sympathy. “Oh. I see your problem.”

The fingers in his hand were icy in what should have been a sign that this situation would soon devolve into something he wasn't going to like. But Diego had long since stopped noticing the details in his life. Zorro would have been sorely disappointed in him. That is, if he was around... which he wasn't, and hadn't been since Victoria's disappearance.

There were rumors, of course. It was too much of a coincidence that the man in black and that tavern owner love of his had vanished at roughly the same time. So, it was obvious that they had run away together, or that they had married in some secret ceremony, or that they had been married for years and had six children together, or that they had...

The list went on and on, with the certainty that she and Zorro had somehow ended up together. I wish, was the bitter thought that now accosted Diego's mind. But he quickly banished it and returned his focus to Lolita. “What can I do to help, Señorita?” he asked with an amount of concern that made him proud.

That's when Lolita grew even more serious. “Diego, I'm going to ask something outrageous. Don't think I've gone loco, por favor.”

What was she talking about? “I promise, of course, but..?”

“Will you marry me?”

The silence that met her inquiry was complete.

Finally, Diego quietly burst out, “Are you loco?”

Lolita dissolved into something close to tears. “Diego, you promised!”

Diego was far from feeling remorseful. “I know I did, but you're definitely loco!” he said in a rasping, forceful whisper. “How can we possibly marry? You should marry the father of your child, not me!” And what would a marriage to anybody else mean to his dreams of Victoria miraculously reappearing someday in order to marry him? He couldn't possibly..!

“Diego, she's not coming back.”

It was as if Lolita could read his mind. The quiet resolve of that declaration cut through his thoughts and straight to Diego's heart. He paused in his plea for her to summon her common sense to stare in utter helplessness instead. “I don't know what you're talking about.” In spite of his attempt to hide his continuing hopes for his future, he still sounded small, and little, and young, and naive, and hurt all at the same time.

Lolita sounded none of those things. “Yes, you do, Diego,” she firmly asserted. “It's time to let her go.”

Her calmness was at odds to his abruptly thundering heart. “I don't have anybody I need to let go.” Then inspiration hit. “Unless you mean my mother?”

The scathing look she sent to him was only partially concealed by the night. “Of course that's not who I mean. Let's not pretend, Diego. I don't have the time.”

Oh. Well. In that case... “I still don't know what you're talking about.”

Suddenly, she angrily gripped his hand in hers. “Do you take me for a fool, Diego? I never saw you as anything but the most noble of gentleman who would do anything to help someone in trouble!”

She was yelling at him, her furious whisper slicing the night with each brittle word. It was the first time someone had yelled at him since... since... “Of course I don't think you're a fool,” he slowly insisted.

“Then don't treat me like one!” At his apparent lack of comprehension, she added, “I'm talking about Señorita Escalante.”

“It's rumored she's with Zorro.”

“Maybe... though there's a man right here she should be with instead.”

So... Señorita Lolita didn't automatically think he was Zorro. Yet she had obviously witnessed his feelings on the subject of Victoria. Rather than horrifying him, as he'd always expected such a disclosure would, it simply made him curious. “Who else knows?”

At that, Lolita's lips curved upwards in a sad smile. “Just me.” Then she thought to amend, “I haven't told anyone, if that's what's worrying you.”

Diego's brows puckered again. “Does it show?”

“Of course not,” Lolita quickly refuted. “I don't even think your father knows, not really. And I'll never tell him. But that's the point.”

She'd lost him again. “What is?”

Lolita growled a breath at having to explain. “I'll never tell a soul. That's my deal. You marry me, be a father to my baby, and you'll be free to keep on loving Señorita Escalante.”

Diego's voice was sad and had a sense of finality in it. “But I won't be free to be with her.”

Lolita gazed at him in sympathetic misery. “You're not with her right now, Diego.”

Diego didn't say anything, but could only stare at Lolita in anguish.

She matched his distress with here quiet appeal, “How long do you plan to put your life on hold?”

He had the sudden sense that his life had always been on hold.

“I promise to be a very understanding wife: you can keep loving Victoria, and I'll keep loving Jorge.”

Why did that name sound familiar? It was familiar enough to jar him out of his stupor. “Jorge?”

Lolita nodded. “Jorge Hidalgo. He's one of my father's tenet farmers.”

A tenet? But then, if she was in love with..? “Does your father know about him?”

“Of course he does. I wouldn't be here, asking you to marry me, if I didn't absolutely have to!”

Sudden understanding burned through Diego. He was familiar enough with her father's temper to know what he was asking. “What did Don Eduardo promise to do to him?”

Lolita audibly swallowed. “He... said... he would... kill him... unless he disappeared.”

More understanding sliced through Diego. “Is that why he joined the military last month?”

Lolita's desperate nod was unmistakable, even in the dark. “He's stationed at Santa Barbara to fight Indians.”

He would be better off to fight with the Indians, was Diego's silent comment, but again he kept his thoughts to himself. “That's commendable, but that doesn't...”

“Don't you understand?!” Lolita hissed into the night. “The moment my father finds out that this baby belongs to Jorge, it won't matter that he promised to disappear - my father will kill him anyway, and it will be my fault! Then he'll come after me and the baby - it doesn't matter if we hide, if we move to America, if we go to Europe - he'll hunt us both down if it's the last thing he does! We'll never be safe! The only thing I can do now is get married to a respectable caballero who won't cave in to his demands that the baby is his grandchild and should therefore be his to raise as he sees fit. If that happens, my baby will turn into another Melendez to hate the world, and I can't bear that! So please! Do this one thing for me, Diego! I promise you won't regret it.”

Far from being persuaded, however, Diego was still horrified at what she was suggesting. “Besides my feelings for Victoria, you don't love me!”

“I know that!” Lolita said in aggravation. “And I'm truly sorry about Victoria. As sorry as I am about Jorge. But there are more important matters here!” When she saw that he still wasn't convinced, she added the one thing that was sure to jump start his life, “All I ask is that you give my baby some name other than Melendez.”

It was such a simple request, heartfelt and sincere. She asked that he give only his name, not his heart. “I will never love you,” Diego whispered in a despairing voice. He already knew that he was a one woman man, and his heart had long since decided that Victoria was the woman for him.

“I will never love you, either.” She said it in a subdued, matter-of-fact voice. “Please do this for me!” The appeal sounded like she was sure that her temperamental father was even now searching for her, and repeated, “Please.”

And there it was again, that plea for his help. It was as if she knew that he couldn't withstand pleas for aid. Here was another opportunity to lend his assistance to someone. He would like nothing better than to help anyone in a worthy cause, and he couldn't deny that thwarting Don Eduardo Melendez's ridiculous ideas had its merits. It was akin to thwarting the Alcalde's wild schemes. Eduardo Melendez was a notorious cheat, a thief when it suited him, and, Diego suspected, a murderer, though his wealth had always protected him when it counted. It would definitely thrill him to whisk Lolita and the baby right out from under that man's nose.

It would also get his own father off his back about marrying and producing grandchildren. Don Alejandro knew nothing of his son's inner flame for Victoria Escalante He'd thought his son had been searching for a lost friend when he'd gone to Mexico City several years before, and still didn't understand at all his son's reluctance to marry and settle down.

Marrying Lolita would also solve several other quandaries. As she had already said, he would continue to be free to love Victoria for the rest of his life; he would not have to pretend affection that he didn't feel for a wife he didn't love. She had also promised to not load him down with unwanted feelings of affection. He wouldn't have the guilt of knowing that he was making someone else as miserable as he was, even as he was unable to change his own heart. He didn't want to be miserable, but he couldn't help loving Victoria, and Victoria couldn't help being gone; the mess that had been born that day several years before with her terse note could not be undone.

“Por favor... please,” Lolita begged in a voice so soft that he almost didn't hear it. “I don't know what else to do.”

Instead of telling her his decision, Diego made another point. “Marriage is for life... what happens when this Jorge of yours comes looking for his child?”

“That won't happen,” Lolita firmly assured him. “He's too frightened of what my father will do to me and the baby to willingly put me in that kind of danger.”

“What about you? You may grow tired of being married to someone you don't love.”

“So might you,” she countered. “I can't answer for you, but I can assure you that I will never grow tired of the man who finally rescued me from my father. You're my only hope, Diego.”

He had never been someone's only hope. Zorro had, often, of course, but not Diego.

And for the first time, he found himself actually considering Lolita's proposal. But, he argued with himself, marriage was a lifelong commitment. Given that, plus his feelings for another woman, how could he possibly marry her? And what if Victoria suddenly reappeared?

Then again, what if she reappeared, but was married to someone else?

He hadn't thought of that before this moment. He didn't think he could stand to see Victoria married to another man.

Yet... Even if she was married, he assumed that he wouldn't be. If he and Lolita did this crazy thing, how could he ever forgive himself for not hanging on forever to his hope to somehow miraculously spend his life with Victoria?

But... Lolita's life depended on what he did right now, and so did her child's. Given that, how could he not help her?

Victoria would never forgive him if he didn't, even an absent Victoria. She would say that she wasn't worth the possible consequences.

She's not coming back. Lolita's words echoed once again in his mind. Victoria was gone. Jorge was gone. Don Eduardo was here, even now at the de la Vega hacienda, a guest of the dinner party. He already knew about Jorge and his daughter. It was conceivable that he also knew about the baby, and was harboring a concealed promise of a terrible temper explosion and who knows what fate for Lolita... for the baby... for Jorge.

And all Diego had to do to stop all this from happening was say one little word.

Praying that Victoria would forgive him, and that someday he would be able to forgive himself, he whispered, “Alright, let's do it. Yes.”

Prologue 3

Before he knew it, it was done. Diego was now a married man. Married for life to a woman who was not Victoria. Despair would have engulfed his heart right then and there, but somehow that expected depression never quite transpired.

Oddly enough, Lolita was the one who made certain that his usual Victoria-depression didn't take hold of him as early as his wedding night. Diego was simply too busy talking to Lolita that night to be depressed.

He found a certain amount of relief at finally being able to talk to someone other than Felipe about Victoria. Though the young man had seen the agony of the romance from the very beginning, even he couldn't sympathize with his patron like a fellow adult could. What was really gratifying to Diego was that Lolita was embroiled in her own messy love affair and could easily sympathize with him. She talked about Jorge just as much as Diego talked about Victoria. The amount of understanding between the two about their loves was much more encompassing than Diego had ever expected it to be.

Lolita told him about how she and Jorge had met. “I was out riding one day, and there was this man fixing a fence, or trying to fix a fence. He didn't have enough hands do do what he needed to do. So I offered my help. It would only take a minute, after all, and then I would be back on my ride, which was my only escape from what I called 'The house of debauchery.' Father often had house guests who just as often took liberties with the single ladies of the house when he supposedly wasn't looking. I've been groped, propositioned, assaulted, and humiliated, but never proposed to,” she wryly admitted. “It's a relief to be able to be inside a hacienda without having to worry about who else is inside the hacienda.”

Diego was surprised that it had been that bad for her for years, yet he had never heard about it. “Could the Alcalde not do something?” he asked in astonishment.

The question made Lolita bark a laugh. “What was he going to do?” she rhetorically asked. “The Melendez estate is like a sovereign country under my father's rule. Besides, he was in cahoots with Ramone, and de Soto just leaves him alone so that he won't have to deal with him.”

“What about your mother? Surely she has some influence over your father.”

Another barking laugh. “My mother died when I was born - she bled to death. I call it 'The Great Escape.' I sometimes think that she did it on purpose. What better way to leave, after all? So, it was just my father and me, and I learned early on to just stay as far away from Father as possible.” She gave her head a definitive shake. “Besides Jorge, you're the best thing to happen to me.”

No wonder she had wanted to marry him. The de la Vega hacienda must seem like a breath of fresh air after her own home.

“Do you have a knife on you?” she asked next in a cryptic request.

“A knife?” What was she on about now?

“Si,” she impatiently answered. “We need to take care of the bed, and I'm afraid that if I don't do it now, I'll forget.”

Diego was confused. “The bed?” He glanced at his masculine bedspread, thinking that it might be time to update it (he'd had it for a long time), but he couldn't think what she meant by 'taking care of the bed.'

Exasperated, Lolita held out her hand. “Si, the bed! Surely you're not that naive, Diego?”

“Naive? About what?” His perplexed inquiry accompanied his handing over of the small knife he kept to open his mail. Lolita grabbed it, and he watched in fascinated horror as she swiftly pricked the index finger of her left hand. Blood welled into the tiny cut as she first pushed the coverings aside, then held her bloody finger over sheets that were soon red with smears of blood. “Señorita!”

“Shhhh! The servants will hear you!” She let several more drops fall to the snowy white sheet. “The blood of a virgin,” she explained succinctly. “Hope you don't mind a little subterfuge on my part.”

The blood of a virgin, Diego repeated to himself, understanding her actions now, and wondering how he could have been so slow. She was taking care of the expected blood of her first time during the intimacy between a man and a woman. “You've thought of everything,” he noted in admiration.

The rueful look she threw his way spoke volumes. “I didn't reach such an old age as 26 by being foolish. I had better think of everything, because I know from experience that my father will think of it if I don't, and he has spies everywhere.”

Diego balked. “Not here! Father would never allow it.”

Her expression was now one of regret. “Yes, here. I'm sorry to have done this to you, but... Have you hired anyone new recently, or..?”

“Yes,” he said, interrupting her. “Now that I think of it, there is that new female servant from town who...”

“Let me guess... she's the new laundress.”

“Yes.”

“Here to check up on the stains on the sheet,” Lolita nonchalantly stated. “I won't have you or your father become the focus of a man like my father. He has a quick eye, and is always ready to air out people's private problems in public if he gets the chance. He's tricked me more times than I can count, so I don't feel bad about tricking him a time or two.”

Diego stared at Lolita as she gave one last swipe to the sheets, spreading her blood around like this was a natural thing. “What I don't understand is...” Diego blushed. “Well, you have to admit that most women don't know of such things.” And he indicated the bloody sheet with a wave of his hand.

Her expression was rueful again. “Most women don't grow up a Melendez.”

Z Z Z

Marriage for Don Diego wasn't much of a hardship, an inconvenience, or even a change. Lolita took care of herself, and Diego often found her taking care of him as well, usually about things that he didn't know he had to think about until it would have been too late if it had been left up to him. Fortunately, she thought of them before they happened, often halting something decidedly unpleasant before it got started. She was very good at predicting when she needed to thwart the efforts of Don Eduardo to push his new in-laws into an unfavorable public light before he even made those efforts. And he was very glad of that, as it constantly saved Don Alejandro the trouble of having to deal with a man he was ill prepared to deal with.

As the months passed, the baby grew, and soon they could no longer keep it a secret that Lolita was expecting. Don Alejandro was, predictably, thrilled.

“It will be wonderful to hear the laughter of children again in this hacienda full of adults - I can't wait to see my first grandchild!” He was so excited that he didn't even notice that except for his wedding night, his son and daughter-in-law didn't share a bedroom. A baby so soon after such a sudden wedding was unlikely, but that didn't stop Alejandro from talking about each and every kick and hiccup that his grandchild did to anyone who would listen, most notably Mendoza at the tavern in Los Angeles.

Though unexpectedly excited about the prospect of the coming baby, Diego stayed far away from the tavern that had once been Victoria's main haunt. He couldn't stand the seeming emptiness of the place as the public gathered there to eat and drink and talk. The person he most wanted to talk with was noticeably absent. Even when the Mexican government was going through yet another of its many upheavals, he couldn't get interested enough in the civic affairs of the pueblo to voice his opinion on local politics, to say nothing of riding as Zorro, who now hadn't been seen or heard of in years. He encouraged his father to go to town to talk with his many friends, but had no interest in joining him. It was simply too painful to expect to see Victoria standing outside her tavern, snapping the dust from her rugs, or serving her tavern's many patrons, only to see a stranger in her place. It reminded him once again that she was gone, and most likely wasn't coming back, especially after all this time. His expectations kept him at home, where he wasn't constantly reminded of the huge hole in his life that was her disappearance.

But even he didn't have much time to dwell on that hole Victoria had left. Before Diego knew it, Lolita's time to have the baby was upon them. Felipe had just returned the day before from an aborted attempt to attend the University of Madrid, as Diego had done, and his attention was half on the son who had just returned, and half on the child he was going to have as long as things went to plan in the guest room at the end of the hall.

When it was all over, the midwife emerged from the room to show off the writhing, red newborn son of Lolita and Jorge that everyone thought had been premature and belonged to Diego. He took the baby from the inexperienced new midwife he'd hired to help with the delivery, someone who (more importantly) would not recognize this supposedly premature baby for the full term baby it really was. He smiled down at his new son, far more excited than he expected to be.

As excited as Diego was, Lolita was the opposite. She barely acknowledged the baby, holding it only to feed it. Diego couldn't understand her attitude towards hers and Jorge's creation, but still her odd behavior persisted into the child's second week of life. 'Give her time' everyone said. This problem of Lolita's was more common than not, and time always cured the ho-hum of depression that was known to be caused by exhaustion after birth.

Then during the night when the baby was ten days old, Lolita disappeared. When her absence was discovered the next morning, Diego and every one of his hands searched high and low for her, but they couldn't find her. Lolita's disappearance was as perplexing as Victoria's had been. Women didn't just vanish into thin air.

Then, with the suddenness of a California heat wave, they found her. She was lying on the ground, her hands tied behind her back with her robe belt, her nightgown and open robe blowing in the gentle wind, a pile of boulders beside her, a knife plunged up to the hilt into her heart, and the blood pooling wickedly under her very dead body.

It had been pirates, people said. Or it had been common outlaws who had stolen her away, and she'd died before they could demand a ransom for her from her wealthy new husband. Whatever the cause, there were only two things anyone really knew for sure: after just eight months of marriage, Diego was a widower, and his baby son had lost its mother.

However, the slight curve to Lolita's lips told Diego a different story. As everyone speculated about how many pirates/outlaws/bandits had killed his wife, Diego left them all to stealthily follow the trail of a single and very feminine set of footprints that led straight from the hacienda to the pile of boulders, where a perfect cleft in the rocks could have held a knife wedged into it, hilt first. He found that the odd footprints faced the rocks rather than away from them, as he expected them to if she had been threatened, backed up against the rocks, and then murdered as she begged for her life, as everyone else was suggesting.

It didn't make any sense at all. The tail of the robe's belt that tied her hands had flapped in the wind, so long it was as if she'd secured her own hands into a tie already formed, then tightened the robe belt using her mouth. Then she'd purposely fallen onto the knife previously wedged into the rock cleft, and had instantly fallen to the ground to bleed to death. It was if she'd... killed herself. The thought of suicide made Diego swallow the bile in his mouth. He'd never contemplated suicide, not even when his despair over his lost Victoria had been at its worst. He couldn't imagine that anyone else would contemplate it, either.

But clearly Lolita had. Why would a new mother want to kill herself like that? No, it didn't make any sense at all.

It wasn't until later he found the note she had placed under his pillow on his bed.

Diego, I ask that you call him Manuel. He is your son; keep him safe. Gracias for everything you have done for me... for us. I can never repay you. I hope you find your Victoria. Lolita

This wasn't a ransom note, it was a suicide note. It certainly looked as if she had planned her death all along. However, it did explain why she'd been so reluctant to form any kind of ties to her baby.

Diego carefully kept what he'd discovered to himself. Contrarily, everybody else openly gossiped about Lolita's grisly death-by-pirates-or-outlaws-or-bandits and its horrifying consequences: it was a great sadness that Diego's new wife should be taken from him so soon after his clearly happy union. He let the people believe what they wanted on the subject of his union. The more bereft his fellow Los Angelenos thought he was, the easier it would be for him to follow Lolita's last written request.

Still, Diego couldn't help but be left wondering - how much had Lolita truly planned, for how long had she planned it, and how much had been left up to chance? When Manuel was two weeks and one day old, he thought to travel to Santa Barbara to check the military records of those stationed there, and discovered that one Jorge Hidalgo had died during an Indian raid in late July of 1828. It was suspiciously close to his wedding date of August 1, 1828. But Lolita hadn't given any indication that Jorge was already dead when she had married Diego. It did, however, explain how she had been so willing to marry a man other than Jorge. She had said at the time that it had been to keep all three of them safe, but Diego no longer believed that. Suspicious now, he realized that she hadn't needed to be kept safe, and neither had Jorge, who was already dead. It had been the baby who needed to be kept safe all along.

It was looking more and more like Lolita really had planned the entire thing, living only long enough to have her baby, then to willingly disappear from Diego's life as quickly as she had appeared.

Diego's secret relief at the ending of his marriage was prodigious, as was his subsequent guilt. He was free again practically as soon as he had agreed to the chains of matrimony. His guilt was much longer lived than his marriage had ever been.

Chapter One

20 years later:

A Diego with hair that was now more silver than black sat unmoving astride his current Palomino mare of choice, fighting to calm even this laid back animal. Shouts and whoops and curses and yells still shattered the air as the bandit Zorro quickly gave chase to the three outlaws who had attacked the Mexico City stagecoach. They'd left a dead driver, robbed the passengers, frightened the horses into plunging recklessly in their traces, then jeered crassly at the black bandit before galloping away as fast as they could go, the pueblo's bankroll in their saddlebags. Zorro had only taken time enough to ascertain the safety of the passengers, to assure them that help was on its way, and to gallantly kiss the hand of a particular young lady bound for Los Angeles with her aunt, then to dash away in immediate pursuit of the outlaws. Predictably enough, he left chaos in his wake: a mess of strewn clothing from overturned suitcases, a dead driver, frightened horses, and terrified passengers. Only the girl he had deigned to pay specific attention to was anything close to calm as she watched the hero gallop away.

As usual, the mess had been left in Diego's capable hands. He sighed, perturbed at being left holding the proverbial baby, but also admitting to himself that he had a freakish talent for soothing distraught stage passengers, for calming plunging horses, for getting things done that few were willing to do, like burying the dead before the vultures descended. It was the best and the worst part about Zorro, and always had been. Diego's curse was to be good at it. Now that he was too old to gallop around on a half wild black stallion, righting wrongs, avenging the innocent, picking sword fights, and challenging evil of every kind, he supposed he should be grateful for even this small link to the bandit he used to be.

His soft sigh, however, denoted his dissatisfaction at the way that advancing age had effectively sidelined him from his preferred role. But he figured that was fate, his destiny, his new role in an ever-changing Universe. A resurrected Zorro lived now, just as the original Zorro had surely died twenty-five years before. Diego had mixed feelings about this resurrected bandit as he allowed himself to watch the exciting departure before turning his attention to the task before him. His ride to the pueblo for the weekly livestock auction had now ground to a halt, as he had secretly planned, leaving him available to pick up the pieces that one of Zorro's adventures inevitably left behind.

A group of strangers standing near their abandoned stagecoach met his gaze, most gathered around a fainted woman. Some of the men were uselessly fanning her with their hats. The señorita whom Zorro had singled out was staring after the masked man with avid interest, and another older lady was doing her best to calm the horses while also staring just as avidly after the receding bandit in black. Ignoring them both, for they looked perfectly healthy, if somewhat rattled, Diego turned his attention to the woman who'd fainted first.

After swiftly dispatching his head vaquero to the pueblo to fetch the doctor and a squadron of soldiers, Diego dismounted, cautiously introduced himself to the group standing near the stagecoach, then examined the woman, paying specific attention to her head in case she had injured herself when she fainted.

His first challenge was to find one of the passengers who spoke Spanish. Once he did, his job became a lot easier. “She just fell over, you say?” he quietly asked one of the male passengers attending her.

“She seemed fine to me, but the moment the man... the black...”

“You mean Zorro?”

“Is that what he calls himself? Funny name.”

An ironic smile ghosted across Diego's face. “Yes, well, there's no accounting for taste. Did she strike her head when she fainted?”

“Not to my knowledge. Mr. Miller caught her before she could hit the ground. What do you think is wrong with her?”

Diego paused, still exploring her head with nimble fingers. “Well, I'm no doctor, just a passing Samaritan with an interest in human health, but my guess would be...” And he quickly yanked at her broken ankle, setting the bone with one decisive move. A gushing inhalation of air later, the woman gasped a breath and regained consciousness.

“What..? Who..?” she sputtered in English as she blinked against the bright California sunlight. “OW!” She glared at Diego, who still gingerly held her foot.

Diego deftly splinted her foot with some convenient spokes from the broken stagecoach wheel, then wrapped it. Last, he slipped his arm under her shoulders and helped her sit up. The man who spoke Spanish translated for him as he said, “You're alright, among friends. Can you tell me what happened, Señorita... uh, Miss?” Meanwhile, Diego again reminded himself that improving his English would only make his life easier. The California territory wasn't the same as it used to be - many more Americans were now living there, and learning their language was bound to ingratiate himself with the local troops stationed in Los Angeles. He had to wonder what he was waiting for?

Maybe it was his ties, no matter how tenuous, to the mother country, though Spain had long been gone from California. It definitely wasn't his ties to their Mexican followers. Those followers had caused so much damage with their constant need for governmental change over the next decades that he really couldn't forgive the way they had so confidently warred for independence only to show disinterest in the people when it truly counted. But no matter how poorly anyone of Spanish or Mexican descent was now treated, even he couldn't ignore the recent influx of Americans into the formerly Spanish territory. Letting himself learn English was simply one more concession to the occupation.

He may be willing to make a concession or two, but he was also glad that his father hadn't lived to experience it.

The injured woman was now sitting up on her own, gratefully sucking dusty air into her starving lungs, but no longer needing Diego's support. She leaned against the side of the coach, carefully didn't move her splinted foot, and took sips of water from a canteen Mr Miller had offered.

“Sip slowly,” Diego warned. “Drinking too fast will just make you throw up.” He had learned long ago that trying to be delicate and gentlemanly when a person's health was at stake was just a waste of time. But he was doubly glad that his father couldn't witness that, either. “Anybody else need help?” He looked at the passengers crowded around him.

“I cut myself on my hand mirror when it broke just now,” one young girl informed, and Diego focused on cleaning and wrapping the wound in a temporary bandage.

Moments later, he was just finishing up when he heard the distant sound of echoing hoofbeats. “That will be the doctor and soldiers from the garrison... I mean, the fort at Los Angeles.” It would still be several moments before they arrived, since he knew that sound waves bounced strangely off the cliffs in the area, but he felt sure enough of their eventual arrival that he could soothe the passengers. “They'll take your testimony, and any complaints you have. The injured should see the doctor, even if I treated you.” He gave a bashful smile. “I'm no doctor, just a friend.”

“We thank you, Señor,” the translator said to Diego, now speaking rapid Spanish. “If I might ask, what's your name?”

“There's no need for thanks,” Diego graciously said. “I'm just glad I happened to be here.”

“But we wish to thank you properly,” the man persisted.

Rather than protest again, Diego simply gave in, though he knew that leaving a Spanish name would do him no good in this American controlled country. He reached out and shook the man's hand. “Diego de la Vega, at your service.”

The man smiled and pumped Diego's hand. “Well met, Señor. I'm...”

“Diego?” The feminine cry sounded incredulously across the crowd to mix with the screech of birds in the nearby trees. “Diego de la Vega?”

Diego craned his neck, slowly rising to his feet as he wiped his hands on the rag one of his men had handed to him. “Si,” he said, glancing around to discover who had called him. “Is there something I can do for somebody?”

The next moment, he was practically knocked off his feet as a small woman threw herself into his arms. “Diego! Madre de Dios - you're alive!”

Diego was forced to take a step back or risk falling over. He instinctively wrapped his arms around this newcomer who claimed to know him, even though he had no idea who he was hugging.

Dark hair tickled his nose, and the strangest feeling of familiarity hovered at the edge of his mind, but it wasn't enough to help him identify this mysterious stranger. “Señorita, I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage,” he said to the top of her head.

“Diego, it's me!” The woman reared back to put some distance between their faces so that he could see her.

But Diego didn't need to see her face. Now, without her hair covering his nose, he got an unhindered whiff of the tavern in Los Angeles that he remembered so well. It was the tantalizing smell of stew simmering on an open kitchen fire. It was the smell of baking bread, the smell of chile con carne. It was the smell of home, of comfort, of acceptance. Without a doubt, it was the smell of...

“Victoria?” he whispered in astonishment as he slowly set the woman back on her feet. His heart suddenly thundering in a painful cadence against his ribs, he gasped a breath so dusty that it almost made him cough. He ignored his discomfort to fervently seek her face.

And there she was, quite suddenly and without any input or help on his part. It had to be one of the most anticlimactic events of Diego's life. He'd finally found Victoria, long after he'd lost all hope of ever finding her. But it was her all right, a little older, a little grayer, but definitely her. Diego couldn't believe his good fortune. He had turned over heaven and Earth looking for her, made several trips to Mexico City, both alone and with companions in the hopes of discovering her whereabouts. He had painted more pictures of her in the last years than he ever had when he'd been Zorro. In particular, he had grieved for the woman in his arms for nearly three decades. And now that he was staring her straight in the eyes after years of dreaming of this moment, he couldn't speak, and didn't know what to say if he could. His mouth soundlessly opened and closed, numbness stole over him, and he clutched her with a vise-like grip lest she vanish again. He couldn't suck in air into his suddenly aching lungs.

But he couldn't just stand there, staring at her in utter astonishment, either. Hardly daring to believe his eyes, his heart pounding so hard that it almost cracked a rib, he croaked, “I thought you were dead!”

As first sentences go, it was hardly much of a welcoming homecoming. The woman in Diego's arms was so surprised to hear it that a small gusty breath burst from her, and with that tiny sound, confirmed everything.

Diego had heard that little sound so many times coming from Victoria while in her tavern kitchen at night on his secret visits as Zorro. He associated it with better times when he'd been free to hold her, when he'd kissed her, when he had simply been with her. And for the first time, his frazzled mind fully beleived. Prickles exploded to cover every inch of him in goosebumps. Tingles forced their way up his legs, down his back, across his scalp. Astonishment froze him until he finally accepted what his eyes were already telling him: this was without a doubt Victoria Escalante, returned from... wherever she now called home.

“Victoria!” His happy cry exploded out of him and he pulled her to him again, desperately hugging what he'd thought he'd lost so long ago. When he loosened his hold enough, he let his eyes drink in the sight of her.

She was undeniably older than he remembered, but so was he. Besides the graying hair, wrinkles now exploded out from her eyes in laugh lines, showing that she at least had been amused a good deal wherever she had been. But the mouth was the same, the eyes were the same, the voice, the smell, the feel of her - nothing important had changed.

Acceptance again roared through him, and he pulled her against him in another desperate hug. “Victoria! You're not dead!”

“Of course I'm not dead!” she gurgled as soon as Diego's arms had once more loosened enough for her to speak. Diego just stared at her now in delight, feeling like he would never get enough. “You know where I've been - with Ramon.”

“In Mexico City?” he eagerly asked.

Victoria paused. “Oh. Well, no, not for years. In Guadalajara.”

Diego was bombarded with confusion. “What? In Guadalajara?”

“Si. Ramon bought a tavern there, and I cook for him, and the children help with the customers. It's near the University.”

“Why didn't you write?” he half asked, half accused, completely missing her mention of a university, which would have interested him at any other time.

Victoria took on a befuddled look. “I did write to you - twice! I always assumed that you had ignored my letters.”

Diego was stunned to hear this. “I never got any letters. Do you mean you've been with Ramon and his 2 children all this time?”

“Three children,” she corrected. “Juliana had one more child.”

Diego was going on practically before she answered. “I didn't know any of this. I thought you were either dead, or you were in Mexico City all this time, helping Ramon's wife.”

“Mama died when I was born,” said a voice suddenly at his side.

It was as if the voice acted like a bucket of cold water thrown over their heads. Recalling where she was, Victoria turned towards the woman at her side, an ecstatic smile on her face. “Maria, I'd like to present the man I've talked about so often, Diego de la Vega.”

Maria did a double-take of pure confusion. “You always said that Señor de la Vega was dead.”

“I thought he was. But I was clearly wrong!” Victoria beamed as she turned to Diego. “This is Ramon's youngest and my niece, Maria.”

Diego recognized the woman whose hand Zorro had kissed. Now he enthusiastically took it in both of his. “Victoria's niece - Buenas Dias!”

“Buenas Dias,” she replied with a smile aimed at him. This woman may be almost as small as her aunt, but her slight frame hid an inner light that fairly zipped out of her. “Tell me, who was that man who rescued us? The one in the mask?”

“That was...” Diego sent a quick glance at Victoria to gauge her reaction. She was so cool that she didn't even look at him. “... Zorro,” he finished with an apologetic air.

“Zorro!” Maria exclaimed, and immediately turned to Victoria. “But Aunt, you said that he rode years ago!”

This time, Victoria did sneak a glance at Diego standing beside her, though she remained outwardly calm. “Zorro can ride forever,” she stoutly declared in a loud and loyal voice.

The nearby clop of hooves and the jangle of bits accompanied the arrival of the American contingent from the Los Angeles fort just then.

Victoria's rather rash statement still rang in the air as Diego noted that Captain Gillespie rode at the front of his company of men. “Um... perhaps I'd better duck out for a minute or two. My presence tends to make the captain a bit...”

“Nervous?” Victoria added in amusement, ending the phrase with a word that Diego as Zorro had often used years before.

Diego corrected, “Not 'nervous' so much as 'angry as de Soto on a bad day.' He seems to think I cause more trouble than a swarm of bees.” Without saying a word, he referred to the way the captain inevitably found him cleaning up the messes left over by Zorro. Connecting him with the trouble the bandit frequently averted was only natural, but it caused many unfortunate misunderstandings. “Perhaps I'll just step aside for the moment.” He looked avidly back at Victoria before he left, once again drinking in the sight of her. “But you'll stay? At the hacienda, I mean. I'll send Juan to bring the carriage back for you and your bags.”

He quickly dispatched his men to the hacienda, and gave Juan the task of bringing the carriage back. Then he grabbed the reigns of his horse and led her to a small copse of trees at the side of the road just as the soldiers appeared over the nearest hill. As he watched Captain Gillespie from his post in the trees, he wryly admitted to himself that he missed the days when he could count on dealing with the friendliness of Sergeant Mendoza. Though that man had also been in the military, he had been much nicer and more familiar than these American soldiers. No matter how often he tried, Diego just couldn't warm up to the man in charge of these foreign soldiers. Captain Gillespie had always been rather reclusive to his Mexican subjects, and remained an unfamiliar commodity. Ironically, Diego almost longed for the days when de Soto had been in charge. He had at least understood de Soto.

Now the captain took statements from all the passengers, and noted which direction the outlaws had galloped away in, and sent three of his men galloping after them. Next he made arrangements with his remaining men to transport the deceased stage driver to the mission for eventual burial after his next of kin was contacted. Diego was glad for that - it would have been much harder for him to do a kinship search than the captain. He didn't have the resources the captain had.

Last, Captain Gillespie was arranging for the continued transportation of the stage passengers when Victoria commented that she and her niece would be staying with a friend who had promised to provide passage of his own. When asked who that friend was, due to the fact that he needed to know the whereabouts of all the citizens under his jurisdiction, she proudly said, “We're staying at the hacienda of Don Diego de la Vega. Do you know him?”

The man who'd translated for Diego was again acting in an official capacity, and repeated her words for the captain, whose reaction was instantaneous. “Oh, him.” His lips gave an unfavorable curl. “I should have known that he would be involved in this somehow. Trouble seems to follow him around wherever he goes.” Then he barked an unamused laugh. “If it wasn't for his age, I'd say he was that nuisance, Zorro. But as it is...” Gillespie's lips curled even more until he looked alarmingly like Ignacio de Soto. “If you're staying with him, you have my condolences, Ma'am.” He turned away before a shocked Victoria could respond. “Baker!”

One of the soldiers stepped smartly forward. “Yes Sir!”

“Take five men back to Los Angeles and bring another stage coach for these people. Make it quick!”

Baker saluted his understanding of the order, then rushed away to carry it out. He was much more efficient - and quick - than Mendoza had ever been.

Meanwhile, the American Doctor Saunders offered his services to the passengers, treating the Americans first, the Mexicans last, but he did treat them all, which was more courtesy than they could have counted on from the other pueblo doctor, Dr. Satterfield. Prejudice was rife in the larger pueblo of Los Angeles, barely controlled by the American military. As Diego looked on from his vantage point among the trees, he ruminated that he had benefited from the two previous Alcalde's erroneous views on social status, and then on the Mexican's view of 'ignore everybody alike.' But now that he was no longer ignored, his social status within the Spanish peerage did nothing for him.

And for once, he didn't care. His entire attention was taken up with watching Victoria. He revelled in the sight of her, at last allowing his avidity to show. She was like a tonic to him, soothing all the rough places still left over from her original disappearance 25 years before. It amazed him that after all this time, he'd found her not by perseverance, but purely by accident.

It suddenly occurred to him that he didn't know why she was traveling to Los Angeles in the first place, that he didn't even know if she was married or not. The fact that she was traveling with her niece rather than her daughter indicated an unmarried state, but still Diego didn't want to assume. He could hope, and did, that she was as unattached as he was. But, he wasn't sure yet, and didn't want to make an idiot of himself by assuming anything.

But at last he decided it was enough that she was here, by his side, finally, even if she was married. He had been looking so long for her that in truth he had given up. He was sure that she was married by now, for how could all of Mexico not appreciate her beauty and inner fire as he did? She was either married, or dead.

That reminded him... Diego narrowed his eyes, recalling what she had first said to him: 'I thought you were dead.' Why on Earth had she thought he was dead?

The new stage from Los Angeles arrived, scattering his confused thoughts. The calmed horses were added to help pull this new conveyance without incidence, and all the passengers except Victoria and her niece were transferred to this new coach. Their bags and trunks were passed down from the roof of their original stage by Gillespie's soldiers and placed to the side at her direction. At last, this second stagecoach lurched forward just as the de la Vega carriage appeared over the the hill, driven by Juan and pulled by the most well trained horse in the de la Vega stable. Diego was glad that Juan had thought to hitch Thunder to the buggy. His black coat blazed in the afternoon sunlight, making it shine like a rainbow.

“Aunt Victoria, look at the horse!” Maria exclaimed in appreciation. “It reminds me of the stories of Toronado you used to tell me when I was little!”

Victoria shrewdly eyed the gelding. “Si, he does sort of remind me of Toronado.”

Diego sauntered forward in time to hear this last statement. But instead of telling everyone that he should look like Toronado, as he was one of the famous horse's grandsons, he jauntily loaded Victoria's and her niece's trunks and bags onto the back of the carriage, tied his horse to the back as well, then happily assisted each lady into the buggy with a gallantry that he hadn't displayed for years. He joined them, and they were on their way in moments. His constant smile showed how thrilled he was to be back in Victoria's company, even if his voice was well modulated and controlled. But inside, he was simply bubbling with joy, positively ecstatic to have Victoria home at last.

Chapter Two

Upon arrival at the hacienda, he led Victoria and Maria straight to the dining room, where he ordered a light meal and some refreshing drinks before having their bags moved to his two best guest rooms. What he really wished to do was to keep the library empty in case Manuel returned from Zorro's latest adventure. Manuel had picked up the mantle of Zorro two years before, trading his father's sword for throwing knives, and becoming the best with a whip in the whole territory. He acted as less of the nuisance Captain Gillespie called him and more of a country terror. Gillespie kept the peace in the pueblo, and Zorro kept it in the surrounding countryside. Diego had taken on the role of the loyal Felipe. He may be too old to be Zorro now, but it kept him involved in the Legend in a way he never would have predicted. But despite Victoria's knowledge of his past role as Zorro, she didn't know anything more than his identity, and had no reason to suspect that he had any ulterior motive in his suggestion that they wash the dust of travel from their throats with a glass of cool lemonade in the dining room.

“It's not as good as yours, Victoria, but the cook does what she can.” His wry smile added a twist of amusement to his compliment.

Victoria smiled and blushed, making herself look at least ten years younger. “It was easy when I had the best lemons in all California grown on the de la Vega lemon trees.”

Maria showed a pleased confusion. “I didn't know that you bought lemons from Señor de la Vega's family.”

“No one could make lemonade like your aunt could,” Diego boasted. “And please, call me Diego.”

“Diego.” Maria smiled, then turned to her aunt. “You always did say that he was the nicest man in all California, Aunt Victoria. Now I believe you.”

It was Diego's turn to blush. “Captain Gillespie will tell you a different story.”

Victoria took a sip of her drink. “How long has he been stationed in Los Angeles? Why isn't the Sergeant still in charge?”

Diego made a noise resembling a snort, but covered the crass sound with a cough. Snorting was fine for his staff to hear, but a bit on the impolite side to do in front of his guests. “Mendoza stepped down long before the captain showed up. In fact, he works for you now, Victoria.”

Nothing could have surprised Victoria more. “For me?”

Diego gave a sage nod. “Your managers hired him to work the bar in the tavern. They hoped he would calm down the riotous younger crowd.”

Victoria laughed. “He probably just tells them one of his long stories to confuse them into behaving.” Then she wrinkled her brow. “But why did I not hear of this?”

Diego shrugged. “Besides not knowing where you were to ask you, the Benaltos said that you didn't need to be bothered with such a small change as Mendoza tending the bar.”

Victoria leaned forward. “And what about The Guardian, Diego? Who's editing the paper?”

Diego sighed. This still pained him, even after all these years. “The Guardian was backed by the government in Spain. When it left, the paper left, too.”

“What?” Victoria's alarmed face showed concern. “But you loved that paper!”

“It doesn't matter how much I loved it.” Diego gave a sad shake of his head.

“But you put your sweat and blood into it!” Victoria cried, incensed. “How can they just..?”

“Victoria,” Diego calmed, thrilling at simply saying her name. “It's alright. I didn't have time for it, anyway. I had the rancho to run.”

The skin between her eyes puckered. “The rancho to run? Where was Don Alejandro?” Then she glanced around. “In fact, where is he now?”

Surely she didn't expect him to still be alive? As Diego was in his fifties, Don Alejandro would have been a very old man! “Actually, Father passed away when...” There, he stopped to self-consciously clear his throat, remembering that Victoria couldn't know about any of this. “... when Manuel... was only 9 months old.”

“Manuel? And who is..?”

“He's my son.” Diego was definitely self-conscious now.

Victoria's face fell at the mention of Diego's son, and all that having a child meant, to her in particular. “Your... son?”

Unconsciously, Diego placed a hand on her arm in order to hopefully keep that stricken look from becoming rooted on her face. “It's not what you think.”

“What I think?” Victoria echoed in a carefully neutral voice. “I don't think anything.”

Maria clearly didn't understand what these words truly meant. “If you have a son, then when do we get to meet your wife?”

Diego wanted the floor to open up and swallow him. It was his worst nightmare possible - to tell Victoria of his short-lived marriage. “She... died.”

“When I was born,” said a young male voice that they hadn't heard yet. Manuel came into the room, his natural sense of grace and balance in evidence. “Father, you haven't introduced us.”

Before Diego could remember his manners and introduce them, Victoria quizzically halted Diego with her own touch on his arm. “It's so strange to hear someone call you 'Father.'” She gave a shy yet impish grin. “I like it.”

Victoria liking his parental status was loaded with so many overtones that it would have made Diego dizzy if he didn't immediately concentrate on making the introductions that his son had requested. “Manuel, this is Señorita Maria Escalante, and her aunt, Victoria. Señoritas, this is my son, Manuel.”

Manuel's charming smile faltered when he heard Victoria's name. “Victoria, as in that woman you always spoke of? The one with the tavern?”

Maria's smile made up for the one that Manuel had lost. “Aunt, your reputation precedes you!”

Diego piped up before he had time to think better of speaking. “Her reputation should precede her: I'll warrant that even after all these years, she's still the best cook in the territory.”

Victoria couldn't hide her pleasure at Diego's compliment. “Thank you, Don Diego!”

It had been so many years since he'd heard the Spanish honorific of 'Don' precede his name that it sounded strange to his ears now. “Please, call me Diego. You'll make the children nervous if you don't.”

Her impish grin grew as she teased, “We can't have that, can we?”

“Absolutely not,” he teased back with a wide grin.

Manuel looked first at his father, then Victoria, then his father again. “You're flirting, Father.” His own grin illustrated that he was very aware of what he was doing by making such an observation.

If his aim was to make his father blush, he was disappointed. Diego merely took Victoria's hand in his own, delighted at seeing her again. “I've known Victoria since I was a child, and have every right to compliment such a good friend.”

Manuel bowed low and kissed both lady's hands, paying special attention to Maria's. “Any friend of Father's is a friend of mine. Welcome to Los Angeles.”

Maria added, “That's a much better welcome than we received from those bandits earlier this afternoon.”

Manuel's brow furrowed as if he didn't already know what she was talking about. “Bandits? What bandits?”

Quickly, Maria recounted the meeting with the bandits on the road. “And another bandit drove them off. Some man called Zorro.”

“Zorro?” At his mention of his other self, Manuel was as cool as a night in February. “Yes, he's been seen around these parts for the last months. He didn't hurt you, I hope?”

Maria took on a shocked expression. “Does he hurt people often?”

Manuel's smile could melt ice. “Only those who deserve it, Señorita.”

Maria's own smile was much more noncommittal. “So he defends the people rather than hurts them?”

Diego couldn't resist butting in. “Much to Captain Gillespie's dismay, I'm sure.”

Manuel added, “Yes, he would love to get a real reason to shoot Zorro on sight.”

Victoria couldn't quite hide her alarm when she asked, “But he hasn't been given that reason, has he?” Her gaze settled squarely on Diego.

Diego was glad to hear the large amount of dismay in her voice at just the mention of Zorro - any Zorro. But he was also annoyed that once again Zorro was getting her attention instead of him. His dual identity had never confused him more than in that moment.

Irritated, he couldn't resist sending a baleful glare at Manuel while he answered, “I'm sure Zorro will end up hurting only himself if he isn't careful.”

“I'm sure he has every intention of being careful, Father,” Manuel smoothly replied.

Maria broke in on the de la Vegas' silent conversation to point out, “Such a charming man would never be anything but careful.”

Victoria sent her niece a wary look. “He's charming? How do you know that?”

Maria giggled like a much younger girl. “When I met him just today.”

The confusion mixed with just a touch of jealousy was unmistakable in Victoria's voice. “You met him?”

Maria's smile now turned into a blush. “When he kissed my hand.”

The alarm was back. Clearly, Victoria was recalling how another Zorro had kissed her hand many years before, summarily sweeping her off her feet. She must be remembering where that hand kissing had led her. “I'm not sure your father would approve of some bandit kissing your hand.”

“Oh, Aunt,” Maria impatiently scoffed. “If this is the same Zorro that you've been telling stories about for years, then Papa has nothing to fear. I'm sure Zorro is as charming now as he was then!”

Diego suddenly laughed. “I'm sure Ramon will be glad to know that - he doesn't have to call the cad out!”

Victoria lost her sense of alarm to laugh with Diego. “Yes, he wouldn't want to have to fight him.”

Diego teased, “The Ramon Escalante I remember isn't the kind to fight without good reason.”

Maria disparagingly announced, “He still isn't the kind to fight.”

Manuel observed, “You sound like you're disappointed in your father.”

Maria tilted her head in a thoughtful pose. “No, not disappointed. But this Zorro has more fighting spirit than even he shows.”

Diego took a drink of his lemonade before noting, “Ramon clearly has the Escalante temper.”

Victoria gave a pretty blush. “Which is nothing like the de la Vega temper, as I recall.” She took on a thoughtful pose much like her niece's. “What was it that bothered Don Alejandro the most? Oh yes, now I remember: everything!”

Her answer caused Diego to laugh again. “I thought for a moment that you were going to say 'The Alcalde!'”

Victoria's light laughter mingled with Diego's. “Which one?”

They laughed harder, their smiles of enjoyment shining into the room.

Manuel sarcastically rolled his eyes. “They've begun reminiscing, Señorita Maria. We should escape while we can. Perhaps you would like to rest for a time after your travels? I'll show you to your room.”

Maria stood and took the hand that Manuel offered, but protested, “I've been sitting in one coach or another for days... walking holds much more appeal. Maybe you can show me your ranch, por favor?”

Manuel smiled into Maria's eyes. “Nothing would please me more. This way.” He led her off without even asking Victoria's or his father's permission.

That oversight made Diego give a tolerant chuckle rather than causing him to instantly grow angry. “You must forgive my son - there's nothing I can do about his lack of manners, though I've tried, I assure you.”

Victoria gave a benign smile. “I don't mind. It gives us the chance to catch up.”

Diego beamed, delighted to be alone with her and not caring if he showed it. “Shall we relocate to the garden then, Señorita? You always liked our garden.”

Pleased, Victoria matched Diego's smile as they stood. “You remembered!”

Diego's delight softened to tender regard. “How could I ever forget?”

Chapter Three

Moments later, they strolled through the door and into the garden. A blaze of color and a mass of green vines quickly concealed them from the hacienda. “You kept the roses!” Victoria noted in more delight as she caressed the velvety petals of a blossom at eye level.

Careful of the thorns, Diego broke the chosen bloom off at its stem and wove it into her hair above her ear. “Of course I did. I knew that you liked them in particular, so I kept them on the off chance you might ever came back to Los Angeles.”

Such attention would have caused her to nervously blush during her younger days. It made her blush now, too, but her nerves were much less engaged. She simply seemed thrilled by the attention, especially considering who that attention was from.

“It's amazing that you thought of me when you didn't know anything about where I had gone, or even if I was still alive!” She abruptly grew serious. “I can imagine what an awful time you must have had. I know what it was like for me.”

Her serious tone affected Diego's mood, too. Solemn now, he inquired, “What happened, Victoria?”

Victoria slowly sank onto one of the wrought iron chairs situated throughout the garden. Her subsequent shrug was noncommittal. “Nothing happened. I traveled to Mexico City to see Ramon and take care of Juliana.”

“And you decided to stay,” Diego sadly noted.

Victoria's gaze settled on him. “No. At first I had every intention of coming back... to you.”

Diego's heart skipped a beat, though he cautioned himself not to get too excited right at first when he still didn't really know anything about her life. The simple fact that she hadn't returned said a lot. “To me?”

Victoria did her best to let her stare persuade him of her sincerity. “You had offered me another life... a larger one... a better one... one with people I loved, with someone I... loved.” The wistful smile she gave, and the half shrug that accompanied it was so reminiscent of the Victoria from 25 years before that Diego felt his heart flip over in a way that it hadn't done in a long time. “I couldn't help but build a fantasy around you, one I prayed would come true.”

Diego did everything but gape at her. “You fantasized... about me?” This was the best news he'd heard ever! Typically, he'd been forced to hear about her fantasies surrounding El Zorro. He never would have suspected that he was the center of her later dreams.

She covered her mouth as she laughed. “Don't look so surprised, Diego,” she said now. “Don Alejandro may not have known it, but he had a very romantic son.”

Diego's smile turned sheepish. “He never knew as much as you did about my romantic streak. He probably would have been highly disbelieving of it if he did.”

Victoria gave a mournful head shake. “That would have been his loss, then. What happened to Don Alejandro, Diego?” When he didn't answer right away, she pleaded, “Please tell me, even if it's unpleasant. I've been wondering all these years.”

She was right; he should tell her, and she needed to hear.

So Diego sat across from her, only a tiny table between them. He was aware of his desire to keep this from her, to protect her memory of a man she had counted as a dear friend, but she was looking at him so expectantly, and he found that even after all this time, he still could deny her nothing. “He was ecstatic when Manuel was born.”

“I can imagine,” Victoria said softly. “He always did say that he wanted grandchildren.”

“Yes, well, he got them,” Diego reported. “Or at least he got one, after I had adopted Felipe.” He sighed again, as if this memory of his father pained him. “He was breaking a new colt to ride when it happened.”

Victoria's brow furrowed in sadness. “Did he fall?”

Diego shifted in his seat. “Yes and no. The colt did throw him, but he survived the fall just fine. The reason the colt threw him, however... he didn't survive when the rattlesnake bit him.”

A hand flew up to cover her mouth. “Oh! I know how awful a snake bite can be! Was there nothing that Dr. Hernandez could do for him?”

“Dr. Hernandez had died a year before. I was the closest person we had to a doctor at the time, and I'm a far cry from Dr. Hernandez.”

She threw him an enigmatic look. “Could Zorro do nothing for him, either?”

Diego gave another uneasy shift in his suddenly too-small chair. “Zorro... died... after you left.”

This revelation clearly surprised Victoria, since she'd found him alive and had obviously assumed that Zorro, too, was alive. “What?”

A third shift. “He didn't have the... heart to continue, not anymore,” he tried to explain. But Diego found that now she was here, listening to him recount his feelings from that time, he couldn't expound on them the way he'd always imagined that he would.

The silence that settled on them was full of sorrow. “So... you did nothing?”

Diego winced. “Not nothing... exactly. I threw a knife... beheaded the snake a second after it bit him.” Diego remembered the horror he'd felt that moment like it had happened yesterday. “All that practice... and I wasn't fast enough. Not when it counted.”

Victoria's eyes clouded over in sorrow. For a moment, she looked as if she was going to kneel before him to give a comforting hug right there, but she stopped herself at the last minute. “I'm so sorry, Diego. I wish I'd been here for you.”

Diego saw her hesitate to comfort him, and his mood soured even more. Why was she still holding back, after all these years, and even after she had told him that she'd been fantasizing about him while in Mexico City with her brother?

To distract both of them from what had almost happened, he stated, “I'm glad you weren't here. It wasn't a pleasant time. I was... depressed.”

“I bet you were depressed!” was her exclamation. “You had a right to be.”

Diego shrugged off her solicitude, even though he had wanted that very thing a moment before. “I didn't have as much right as you did when your mother was killed, and you weren't...”

Victoria's loud snort cut him off. “Ha! Of course I was! I was depressed, lost, furious... Ask anybody. What kind of government would willingly do that to one of its citizens?” she rhetorically inquired. “I hated Spain for a long time. If it hadn't been for the tavern, I would have moved to Mexico right then and there.”

Diego hadn't heard this before. “Besides the tavern, what stopped you?” He didn't count the tavern as important enough to keep someone in one place when they wanted to be in another.

Victoria's smile was wistful again. “An older gentleman, one of the local dons, began looking out for me. He told me to hang in there, that his incredibly handsome son would come back from Spain someday and swoop down like a Greek God, just for me.”

Diego could only assume that his father had been the older don she spoke of now. Which meant that he was the incredibly handsome son. He grinned, his sour mood from before lifting entirely now. “I wouldn't exactly say that I swooped.”

Victoria grinned with him. “Oh, that night you flew through the air on my chandelier at my Christmas party - if that wasn't swooping, what was?”

Reluctantly Diego conceded. “You have a point.”

“Your flare for the dramatic was so impressive to this naive young señorita.” Victoria shook her head, as if in wonder at both of their younger selves. “You completely eclipsed yourself. I didn't even notice you for your shine.”

The irony of that statement made Diego's grin increase. “Yes, I always was my own worst enemy.”

Victoria laughed, but sobered soon enough. She uneasily admitted, “That's why I so easily believed that you had died.”

Diego's brow furrowed. “Why did you think that I had died?”

Victoria sat back in her chair to sadly contemplate the rose vines. “Well, not you, but Zorro. But after all, you were...” She didn't actually state the connection, clearly unsure if making such a link was safe. “That was when that newspaper came - The Guardian edition that Mendoza sent to me at Ramon's.”

Diego's brow furrowed even more. “I don't remember Mendoza telling me about sending you a Guardian.” The Sergeant would have mentioned something like that, wouldn't he?

Then again, even if he'd mentioned doing that, Diego had been so concerned about personal issues at the time that he doubted he would remember such a thing.

“You were still in Mexico City at the time?” Diego ascertained. “You must have been, or he wouldn't have been able to find you to give you a newspaper.”

“Well, he didn't give that newspaper to me,” she corrected. “A lancer I didn't know gave it to me.”

This tidbit piqued Diego's interest. “A lancer you didn't know?”

A pensive expression adorned Victoria's face. “He said that he had recently been stationed in Los Angeles, and that he was in Mexico City because his mother had just died, and he was there for the funeral, but he had something that his Sergeant had sent for me. That was when he gave me... the paper.” She swallowed hard, as if this memory was as painful for her as the memory of Don Alejandro's death was to Diego.

Diego now sat quiet as he thought about all that Victoria had told him. He didn't recall that a new lancer had been stationed in Los Angeles around the time of Victoria's disappearance, but again, he reminded himself that he had been too focused on himself at the time to notice details about the pueblo. “Do you remember what this newspaper said?” And who had published it? He didn't recall publishing anything at that time, either. If he didn't do it, who did?

Victoria gripped the arms of her chair with her hands, her white knuckles attesting to how hard this memory was for her. At last she forced herself to admit, “I can do better than tell you about it. I have it with me right now.”

“Really?” Diego asked incredulously.

His natural excitement at the prospect of seeing that newspaper didn't transfer to Victoria, who continued to look uneasy as she confessed, “I... brought it with me... as a reminder that... I shouldn't look for you while on this trip, that you were... dead.” Her glassy eyed stare told him how hard she was trying not to cry at this admission.

Diego instantly reached out a soothing hand. “I'm so sorry, Victoria. This trip must have been a horrendous proposition for you. Just ignore me - don't let my curiosity make you uncomfortable.” He felt like kicking himself for upsetting her.

Victoria shook her head. “No. I can't think like that. It didn't happen anyway.”

Diego's grieved look washed over her. “But you thought it did. I can't imagine how hopeless you felt.”

She looked like she might cry again, then shook her head once more, as if to clear her mind altogether of the unfortunate news Mendoza had supposedly sent her. “I'll get that paper now.” She stood and hurried into the hacienda.

Diego barely had time to wonder again about who had published this newspaper before she was back, thrusting a covered and tied rectangular object at him as if it burned her. “Here. Look for yourself.”

Carefully taking the object she offered, Diego untied and opened it to find a well-worn newspaper safely tucked inside. He grasped its fragile edges between his fingernails, knowing that the paper had to be brittle after so many years. Surprisingly, the print was hardly faded, though the edges of the paper were worn and haggard. She must have kept it out of the light for it to be in such good shape after so long.

Thus, Diego had no trouble reading the front page headline: HERO DIES.

Astonished, Diego quickly read about Zorro's untimely demise due to an unfortunate rockslide.

His astonishment increased when the second story detailed the mysterious disappearance of a certain Don Diego de la Vega at about the same time of Zorro's death. “This story even quotes my father!” Diego noted in amazement.

“Why do you think I believed it so easily?” Victoria asked in a voice clogged with misery.

Diego glanced at the back page, then the front again. “But if I had disappeared, and Zorro had died, who printed this newspaper?” He looked up at her in confusion. “I practically owned The Guardian. I can't imagine it being printed without me."

Victoria's look was sorrowful again. “There was no letter, just a note from Mendoza saying 'I'm so sorry, Señorita Escalante.'”

“That was all?” Diego inquired. “Nothing more?”

Victoria barked a laugh that held no amusement. “There didn't need to be anything more.”

Diego quietly said, “No, I suppose there didn't.” He looked at what was written in the paper's articles again. “Notice how whoever wrote this seemed to emulate my writing style.”

A ghostly smile now graced Victoria's lips. “I had noticed that.”

Diego looked again, seeing that the words used were even spelled correctly. “Whoever wrote this took some pains to get this right.”

Victoria sighed. “It seems to be a genuine Guardian, if that's what you're thinking. I've already looked all through it many times, trying to find anything that might give me the idea that this was fake.” She shook her head. “But I've never found anything wrong with it.”

“Even the advertisements look genuine.” He peered once again at the front page, then the back. “This certainly looks like the real thing.” Diego peered critically at the pages. “I would have agreed with you that this is real if I didn't know better.”

Victoria glanced up at him through lashes heavy with unshed tears. “Now do you see why I believed it?”

Diego forced a pause to his rabid curiosity to again reach out for her, remembering that this must have caused her complete agony. “I'm so sorry, Victoria. To get this so suddenly... you must have been...” He trailed off rather than voice his imaginings.

Victoria looked down, twisting a handkerchief that Diego hadn't even noticed that she had with her. “That time was...” She shuddered a breath. “I cried every night for months.” Tears pooled threateningly in her eyes even now. “It's still hard to talk about it.”

Diego's heart twisted along with her handkerchief. “I'm so sorry, Victoria. I did look for you, truly. I'm not dead... no matter what this paper claims.”

Stoically, Victoria took a shuddering breath. “But that's... why I didn't...”

Diego held the paper aloft. “This is why you didn't come back, isn't it?”

A moment passed, then Victoria gave a miserable nod. “I thought you were dead!”

The agony in the sound immediately alarmed Diego. “Sh! It's not true - obviously.”

“But I didn't know that!”

“Didn't you try to contact Mendoza... anybody?”

Victoria's features warped. “Of course I did! I wrote to Mendoza twice, and when he didn't answer, to the Padre. I figured that even if something had happened to Padre Benitez, someone at the mission would get my letter and answer me. But no one did.” Her head shake was so mournful that Diego again wished that he hadn't brought up this newspaper in the first place. “I even thought about traveling back to Los Angeles to talk to Mendoza in person. But I... I couldn't...” Her sorrow plowed into him like a physical force when she turned to him. “You were dead! How could I bear being in Los Angeles again if you were...!” She could only stare at him in acute agony. More quietly, she repeated, “I couldn't bear it.”

Diego didn't think he would have handled the same situation any better than she had. “Though in hindsight, such a trip would have shown this paper for the lie it was.” His snort illustrated his appreciation for the irony of that possibility. “It would have saved us both so much pain.”

“I'm sorry, Diego,” Victoria uttered. “ I just... couldn't.”

“No, of course you couldn't. I understand,” Diego was quick to assure. “I would have done the same thing.”

Victoria sniffed one final time, then pushed her sorrow aside to concentrate on the problem that now faced them. “But that doesn't give us a clue as to who wrote this, does it?”

“No, it doesn't.” Diego again glanced at the paper, attempting to find any fault in the articles, even a small one. “Did you ever see that lancer again?”

“No, that was the only time. But I didn't think that was strange; I didn't know him, after all.”

“And that's what's so odd.” Diego's face scrunched up with his confusion. “You knew everybody in Los Angeles.”

“He said that he had just transferred there,” Victoria reminded him.

Diego's brow wrinkled even more. “But does that make sense?” he asked. “Did the Spanish Brigade make it a habit of giving leave to lancers who had just transferred?”

Victoria gave another nonchalant shrug. “I don't know. I guess we could ask Mendoza.”

Diego noted her shrug, and couldn't contain the smile that burst from him. “I've missed your shrugs.”

Victoria grinned back, her sorrow now forgotten, or at least pushed to the side. “That's a funny thing about me to miss.”

Diego sighed, content just to be in her presence again. “Your shrugs, your smile, your walk... I missed a lot about you.” The newspaper fell to his lap as his attention again focused on her.

Victoria's smile was direct, too, but softened by the affectionate shine of her eyes. “I missed you, too.”

Diego was caught in her eyes before he knew it. His stomach clenched like it hadn't for years. Within seconds, his stomach had fallen to his tingling toes just like he remembered it doing when Zorro stole into her kitchen for their late night visits all those years before. It was as if no time at all had passed.

He was just realizing that he was unashamedly staring at Victoria, a stupid grin plastered in his face, when the sound of a familiar voice slowly penetrated the fog that had fallen over his mind. “Father, you can blink now. It's time for dinner.”

Chapter Four

Then passed the most pleasant evening in Diego's memory. Wine, water, talk, and laughter made the hours seem to fly by. Neither he nor Victoria brought up the topic of the newspaper again, instead commenting on what had transpired over the years to Padre Benitez, and finally, Felipe.

“The Padre was the main priest for our mission for ten more years after you left,” Diego informed Victoria after a scrumptious dinner of arroz con pollo. “He finally had to be forced to retire enough to let a new priest be assigned to the mission, but he continued hearing Confession along with Father Jocinto for another ten years. He died the next year - Mendoza found him sitting on that bench in his grape arbor - he'd been watching the sunset.”

Victoria gave another of her wistful expressions. “It must have been very peaceful.”

Diego's soft smile matched hers. “I like to think it was.”

A moment later, Victoria shook off her somber mood. “And Felipe? I suppose he's married, bald, and the father of ten children.”

Diego chuckled. “Felipe is married, but I assure you that he's not bald.”

“And he doesn't have ten children,” Manuel added before Victoria could ask. “Wait till I tell him that you gave him five more kids.”

Victoria's eyes widened. “He has five?”

“All girls. It's his own version of Pride and Prejudice." Diego recalled how he had once loaned that book to Victoria. “He's a lawyer for the Mexicans in the pueblo, though he still doesn't talk.”

Victoria's nose scrunched. “How is he a lawyer if he can't talk or hear?”

That was when Diego remembered that she, along with everybody else at the time she left, had believed that Felipe was deaf. He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring this frisson of time when Victoria still believed the best of him, that he hadn't purposely deceived her for years... except for his deception of Zorro's identity. Then the moment was over, and he took a deep, steadying breath prior to confessing, “Felipe only pretended that he couldn't hear. He listened instead as a... a spy... for Zorro... for me.” It no longer mattered who knew he had been Zorro, as the Spanish crown that awarded the price on his head was also long gone, but he still had a few minor problems in admitting to his former secretive ways.

But despite how Diego had claimed his link to Zorro, and though he obviously thought she would negatively react to what he considered a major news flash, Victoria only calmly took another sip of her wine. “I suspected as much.”

Diego was the one shocked with surprise. “You mean you knew?” But how could she know? She hadn't even known that he was Zorro until right before she left.

“I had years to think about this,” she informed him, clearly ready to claim his link to Zorro, too. “You and Zorro were never far from my mind.” Her smile was sad. “It wasn't much of a stretch once I knew that you were Zorro to thinking that Felipe must have helped you.”

Maria's eyes widened. “You were Zorro, Se... Diego?”

Always intent on downplaying his former role in pueblo politics, Diego gave a wan smile and only said, “Guilty.” Still uncomfortable, he hoped that Maria would talk about something else.

Maria, however, wouldn't let the subject drop. “But if you were Zorro so many years ago, then who is he now?”

Diego artlessly shrugged. “As Victoria said, Zorro rides forever. Anybody could be him.”

Her brows rose. “Don't you know?”

It was Victoria who answered. “Hiding his identity is one of Zorro's specialties.”

Diego would have instantly thought that statement was a form of criticism aimed specifically at him if he hadn't seen the slight grin curving her lips as she raised her wine glass for another sip. The amused glint in her eyes also convinced him that she was once again gently teasing him rather than displaying a festering grudge.

Diego relaxed as he also raised his water glass aloft in a silent toast only to her. “Hiding, fighting, fencing, running around at night, catching banditos - funny how I always ended up in the same place: your kitchen.”

Victoria's smile was now most definitely flirtatious. “It was what you did in the kitchen that matters.”

Diego's thoughts immediately turned erotic at the memories her innocent sounding comment evoked. Now all he could think about was her smooth skin under his hands, the flush of her cheeks when he had kissed her, the feel of her in his arms.

But he couldn't mention what he was thinking. Manuel would be absolutely shocked that his proper father had ever been so very improper. So instead, he self-consciously cleared his throat and blurted, “I admit it - I was stealing your tamales for Toronado.”

Laughter rang in the library.

Z Z Z

Hours later, Diego was still unable to sleep due to the improper and lascivious nature of his thoughts centered on one of his guests in particular. He turned on his back to stare at the ceiling, hoping that its boring blankness would rub off and calm him. After several minutes of staring, however, his blood was still close to the boiling point. “She did this to me on purpose,” he groused aloud into the darkness.

Unable to deal with his edgy mood for one more minute, he rose and slipped his robe on over his nightshirt. Maybe sitting up at his desk to read would banish these thoughts and let him sleep.

Instead, he found himself stealing on silent feet to the door of Victoria's guest room. She was right behind this door, relaxed in sleep, her cares and worries smoothed away by her slumber, her face more lovely in moonlight than... Diego groaned again at the direction his thoughts had taken. She would look just like she had looked in her bedroom at the tavern. Decades fell away as Diego continued to remember. He ruefully admitted that this was doing nothing to cool his blood as his fingers wrapped around the latch to her door and he pushed it open. He would just take a peek, for old time's sake.

Diego was practically surprised out of his skin when his gaze met Victoria's the minute he opened the door. “Wandering the halls late at night - do you always treat your guests like this?” she asked on a teasing whisper.

Smiling, Diego slipped through the door and closed it quietly behind him. “Only you,” he replied, his voice just as dry and low as hers. “You're particularly fetching in the moonlight.”

Victoria gushed an appreciative sigh. “You still say the most romantic things, Diego.” She propped herself up on her elbow to silently regard him, looking like she was doing her own appreciating now.

Diego grinned at her expression. “Actually, I wanted to make sure that this isn't all a dream.”

“It's real,” she insisted. “I've pinched myself so often in case this is a dream that I already have a bruise.” And she yanked up the sleeve of her white nightgown to show him the mark on her arm that he had no trouble discerning in the moonlight streaming through her window.

The impressive length of her long hair that now captivated him with its black and gray waves was another indication of their reality status. Gulping, Diego forced his attention back onto the mark on her arm, and grimaced. “That looks painful.”

“It is.”

“Would you like me to give you something for the pain?”

“No!” Victoria smiled sheepishly at the vehemence of her reply. “You might give me some of that Cactus Tea of yours and put me to sleep; I don't want to sleep. I don't want to miss a single minute with you.”

Diego couldn't suppress the warm smile that crept across his lips at her words. “I don't want to miss out on you, either,” he simply admitted. It was almost a relief to know that he wasn't the only one feeling the acuteness of their reunion.

“In fact, I was just thinking that if you didn't show up in the next half hour, I was going to steal through the corridors to your room,” she divulged. “I doubt your servants would look too highly on a roaming house guest, but I'm not sure I would have cared.”

“I know I don't care what the servants think.” Emboldened by her confession, Diego took several more steps into the room until he was only a foot away from her bed. His blood quickened again at his nearness to her. “I think I've missed you more at night than even during the day.”

Victoria rose to a sitting position. “It's easier to think at night - no distractions.” Her rueful breath quietly exploded into the room. “I feel like I haven't slept in 25 years.”

Hope leapt into his chest, yet he felt awkward, like a teenaged school boy with a girl for the first time. In an attempt to dispell the awkwardness, Diego sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the wall in front of him. “Victoria,” he began on a reluctant gust of air, “there's some things we haven't talked about yet.”

As she settled herself against the iron carvings of her bedstead, she got right to the point. “You mean, about us?” Her laugh cut her question off. “What else is there to talk about?”

Diego's feelings of awkwardness grew. “I... guess... there is just one thing.” When she didn't inquire what he meant, or even prod him along, he continued, “I guess... I should ask... That is, I wonder if...”

Her famous impatience crossed her face. “What is it?” Her hand inched across the blanket to gently caress the edge of his robe. “You know that you can tell me anything.”

Diego cringed at that. “I don't have any more secrets to tell you, if that's what you mean.”

“So Manuel isn't Zorro?”

Diego didn't even pretend that her supposition wasn't correct. “How did you figure that out so quickly?”

She gave a forgiving giggle. “It wasn't hard. After all, he has the right build, the right reflexes, and I assume he inherited your horsemanship skills. He is your son, after all.”

“Erm.” Diego hadn't anticipated that he would be faced with another of the assumptions that he wanted people to believe about him so soon after her arrival. But he simply couldn't lie to Victoria - not anymore. His whisper knifed through the dark, “No, he isn't.”

That caught Victoria by surprise. “What?”

Diego sighed, at once glad that this was out in the open, but not glad that it again highlighted his more deceptive personality traits. “Manuel is...” Here, Diego paused, wondering how much he should tell Victoria about his son. But one look in her eyes, and he knew he had to tell her everything. “Manuel is the son of Lolita Melendez and Jorge Hidalgo. He isn't even related to me.” Then he leaned forward to place an entreating hand on her arm. “But please don't say a word about that... to anybody.”

Victoria's expression turned from one trying to draw him out to accusing in a heartbeat. “I thought you said you didn't have any more secrets. Haven't you at least told him?”

“Um... no. I'm afraid that it would crush him to know. Besides, his mother didn't want anybody to know.”

“Diego!” Victoria softly admonished. “No matter what his mother wanted, you of all people know what keeping a secret does to somebody!”

Diego was quick to refute, “You're right - I do know! But it was about more than what I wanted, Victoria! It was a matter of life and death.”

Victoria reared back, disbelieving. “Life and death? Aren't you being a bit melodramatic?”

“I don't mean my life,” Diego explained. “I mean his.”

Victoria reared back again, even more skeptical. “But didn't you say that his mother wanted this?” And she gestured at the hacienda's walls, including the entire life that Diego led by extension. “I don't understand.”

And that was how Diego found himself whispering the facts as to his and Lolita's meeting and hasty marriage, about Manuel's birth, Lolita's death, and that she had left her child in Diego's care. “She only did it so she could keep him away from her father. You remember Eduardo Melendez, don't you?”

Victoria's expression grew pensive. “Wasn't he that caballero with the violent temper?”

“Si. You once barred him from your tavern just for his cursing, and if I remember right, he nearly ruined you by calling you a... something.”

“Yes, I remember what he called me,” Victoria tartly said.

Diego went on, “Then you know who I'm talking about. Lolita was adamant that her father was to never get Manuel. I'd have done whatever it took short of murder to keep him away from Don Eduardo. So you see, he had to think I was Manuel's father. If he had ever known the truth, he would have taken Manuel for good.”

“For good?” Victoria asked, alarmed. “You mean he tried?”

“Yes, he tried,” Diego admitted, now remembering days that he would rather forget. “Not long after Manuel was born, I went to Santa Barbara to do some military research. While I was gone, Don Eduardo and his men stormed the hacienda and took Manuel.”

“They kidnapped him?” Victoria's eyes were now wide with anxiety. “What did you do?”

Diego quirked a smile. “I thought for about two seconds of resurrecting Zorro and letting him slash Don Eduardo in two. But then I realized that Zorro could have nothing to do with Diego's problems. So I got to do the slashing.”

She was now alarmed at the thought of his killing a man, even if that man was Don Eduardo. “I thought that Diego de la Vega always had too much respect for life to kill.”

Diego grimaced. “I do, so I didn't. I slashed his curtains instead, right after I took back what Manuel's mother wanted me to have.”

The look of terror left her eyes. “Was that the end of it?”

“Um... no. I didn't trust Don Eduardo not to do anything more, so I slept in the same room as Manuel for several weeks. And right on cue, Don Eduardo climbed through the window one night, pressed a knife to my throat, and said that he was taking his grandchild no matter what his daughter wanted.”

Victoria growled, incensed that Diego has paused in his story. “Honestly Diego, you can be more aggravating than Mendoza! Just tell me - how did it all end?”

Here Diego smiled. “I pulled out the legal document that claimed Manuel was his ward when he had first taken him. I was looking at it after his first kidnapping when Father happened to see the writing on the back. It had been written on a page taken out of Don Eduardo's cattle ledger - I guess they didn't have much paper at his hacienda.”

“Diego!” an exasperated Victoria again exclaimed. “Stop stalling!”

Encouraged to hurry his narration, Diego said, “Father recognized ranch shorthand, and it's a good thing he did, or we would never have been able to read enough of it to prove that Don Eduardo had been stealing from his backers for years. As it was, I threatened to take the document to the Mexican Alcalde if he didn't leave me and Manuel alone. He laughed and ripped the paper from my hand and threw it into the fire, saying that without proof, I couldn't do a thing. So I drew out another copy of the paper and said that I could do this all night if he wanted, but that I was keeping my son.”

“I bet he didn't like to hear that.”

Diego quirked his brows. “That's an understatement. But it convinced him to leave, and he left us alone after that. I've had Manuel ever since.”

Victoria shrewdly eyed him. “But he's not yours?”

“No.” Diego gave his head an emphatic shake. “Lolita wasn't... that kind of wife,” he lamely said. “I have no children.”

“Neither do I.”

That comment answered several personal questions that Diego had been too polite to ask, but was burning to know. “So, you never married?”

A sheepish look crept across Victoria's eyes, and she played anxiously with her sheet. “I... never said that.”

Her admission sent a chill through Diego; it was his worst fear, confirmed. “So... you are.... married? But you wear no ring,” he weakly protested.

A half smile reluctantly lifted one side of her mouth. “No, I... don't.”

She didn't say more, and he didn't know what to say to draw her out. Finally, he had to prompt her with the very basic question, “Why?”

Her twiddling with the sheets increased with her rising anxiety. “Because... I haven't... haven't seen him... for ten years,” she finally got out. “I didn't want to advertise his... that he'd... abandoned me.”

“Abandoned?” The word she used surprised him. “How do you know..?”

“Because we fought right before he left for good.” Exasperated again, Victoria's voice rose, and Diego lifted a hand to warn her to calm herself lest the servants hear her.

When she didn't explain more, Diego solicitously asked, “What did you fight over?”

Victoria gave him a wan smile. “You.”

Diego reared back once more, surprised anew. “Me?”

Victoria glanced out the window to watch the moon shimmer over the countryside in back of the hacienda. “He... accused me of... pining over a... ghost... instead of loving someone who was alive - him.” Her wan smile was back. “Then he disappeared on a voyage to Europe. I never saw him again.”

Diego tried to reconcile himself to the fact that his Victoria had married. The news that he had, too, was surely as difficult for her to take. “I'm sorry.”

“Are you?” She peered at him as if knowing that he was lying.

Diego was inclined to tell the truth. “Well, no, not really.” His own gaze pierced hers. “I feel like I should be, but... Thinking of you with another man... even though I know that it's been years...”

Her hand on his arm arrested his rambling. “That's how I felt when you told me... even though I told Lolita to go to you if she was ever in trouble.”

Diego started. “You told her? When was that?”

Victoria looked guilty. “A few years after you came back from Spain.” She clutched at the sheets. “I knew... about Don Eduardo... and worried that she would get into trouble... and you were the best man I knew next to Zorro to help her out of trouble.” A slow smile showed her enjoyment of her words. “Even when you were Zorro. See - Zorro was already helping her and he didn't even know it.”

Diego gave an appreciative chuckle. “I guess he was... I was.” He immediately calmed.

She, however, looked too guilty to be calm. “I don't suppose it's easy for you - to hear about me and a... husband.”

He put his hand on her arm this time to stop her. “I should have assumed that you would marry - in fact, I did.” Then he confessed, “I hoped you hadn't, of course...”

“It was an arranged match,” she divulged before he could go on. “Ramon did it without my permission. He...” She looked away, her expressive eyes illustrating her continuing turmoil on this subject. “He thought it was best for me not to...” She turned toward him again. “... not to waste my life on...”

“... on a dead man.” Diego's comment fell like lead into the quiet room. “He thought you should move on, as would I. I'm glad you went through with it.”

Astonished, she asked, “You are?”

Caught, Diego waffled back and forth for a few moments between being honest and saying the expected thing. “Well... no, but I don't blame you,” he eventually conceded. “I married Lolita, after all.”

“Yes, but that was to help her out of trouble,” Victoria said, her natural sense of forgiveness in evidence. “She did just what I told her she should do.”

“She never said that she knew you so well.”

“She didn't,” Victoria confessed. “I just saw how her father behaved, and was worried. So one day I drew her aside in the pueblo and... I guess she listened.”

They were silent for a moment - after all, what could Diego say about this? “Manuel thinks she died at the hands of pirates, but... I think she...” He didn't know how to phrase this delicately. “She... ended things herself.” He hadn't admitted that to anybody for 20 years. It amazed him that he was willing to say even that much now.

Victoria grew concerned. “Did she?”

Diego nodded. “I could never prove it... and I don't want to. But I think she planned it from the minute she asked me to marry her.”

Victoria looked as pained as Diego did. “That would be my fault.”

Diego eyes scrunched up in disbelief. “Your fault? I don't see how. You'd already been gone for five years.”

“But she would never have done something like that if it hadn't been for me. It must have been awful for you.” Her hand still on his arm shifted until she touched his wrist.

Her touch burned his skin, but he refused to burden her with more of his feelings, not now. “It must have been awful for you,” he emphatically said instead, speaking now of her absent husband. “It must still be awful, not knowing where he is.”

Victoria blanched. “Not... really.” Her immediate smile held a hint of relief in it. “I've never admitted that to anybody. But I know that you'll understand.”

And Diego did. “We can look for him, find out what happened.”

Victoria was silent for a minute, obviously thinking. At last she shook her head. “No, I would rather not know.”

“But...” There, Diego stopped, biting the inside of his lip.

“But what?”

Diego warred with himself, arguing the two sides of his concern even as he stared at her. Finally he confessed in a low whisper, “I had hoped... you might... consent... to marry... me.” So much for not burdening her with his feelings. His heart pounded against his ribs, threatening to give him a heart attack from fear alone, but he asked anyway. As it was, he couldn't make himself look at her or the sorrow surely in her eyes. “But if you're still married...”

A squeeze of her hand on his arm stopped him. “I planned to have it annulled after he'd been gone for seven years, but he'd already done it.”

Diego was taken aback. “You can do that?”

She shrugged. “We never....” Now Victoria looked embarrassed. She cleared her throat, but just said, “I guess I only assumed it was a legal action all this time - I could be wrong.”

Diego was thinking again, his quick mind jumping ahead of himself. “We can ask Felipe about it.”

He was still thinking about Felipe when she squeezed his wrist again to get his full attention. “I believe you already asked me to marry you once before.”

Diego's gaze was arrested by her dark eyes. “And you said that you...”

“I meant what I said then... and I still do.”

His heart was beating at a furious pace once more. “Does that mean... what I think it means?”

Victoria smiled, and gave another of her artful shrugs. “I don't know, Zorro. What do you think it means?”

Diego's heart was frantically careening against his ribs now. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves in order to say, “It means that... Zorro... would like to ask you if Diego is... an acceptable substitute?”

Her half smile blossomed over her face. “I thought he'd never ask.”

His heart thundered against his ribs in such a loud clamor that he thought sure she could hear each racing beat. The other half of her mouth now caught up with her words as she leaned forward to seal his proposal with a kiss...

... and Diego amazed himself by gently laying his index finger against her velvety lips. “Wait.”

She sucked his finger erotically into her mouth instead of stopping. Diego involuntarily hitched a breath, closed his eyes, then gulped as sensations he'd never thought to have again shot instantly through him. When she released his finger, she batted his hand aside. “No.”

Chapter Five

Diego had been going to make sure that this was what Victoria wanted because once he started down this path, there was no way he was going to stop. Well, he would have found it in himself to stop if she really wanted to, but the way she was acting, Victoria also had no intention of stopping any time soon.

Her lips crashed onto his, and Diego was swamped with more emotions in seconds. The turmoil nearly smothered him in hard passion mixed with caresses that were so soft that images of rose petals leapt to his mind. His estimation of roses increased as Victoria's ardor grew. Before he knew it, Victoria was hastily pushing his robe off his shoulders to clutch at his nightshirt with iron fists. He was awed at her strength, but the sudden feel of the curves belonging to Victoria Escalante banished any further thoughts about strength from his mind.

He couldn't believe his good fortune - she was right here, in his arms, yearning for him as much as he yearned for her. He had dreamt of this moment so many times that he had trouble believing it now. However, the explosion of warmth radiating off her skin turned him into a believer in seconds.

She was so warm! His erection grew even more to probe her skin the minute her lips met his, and his blood again boiled in his veins. Her lips yeilded even as she demanded to become the focus of his world. Her hands worked up under his nightshirt and his fingers threaded through her hair to push her head harder against his. He was on his knees on the bed to better feel her, and now she rose to her knees as well, roughly yanking her nightgown over her head just prior to pulling off his nightshirt, not an ounce of shyness in her movements.

He wanted to remind her that many years had gone by since he'd had the muscles belonging to Zorro, but he didn't have the breath for the words. Victoria stole all his breath when her hot lips slid to his neck, feeling his pulse point with her tongue. His heart raced at the erotic sensations of lips on skin - such a simple thing to turn his insides to ashes so quickly. It made him want to instantly join with her in the most primitive way. He was harder than he had ever been, his erection now actively seeking out her warmth, probing her stomach, unmercifully pushing into her skin as if it had a mind of its own. Her hand moved toward it, and it instantly jumped as her fingers wrapped around it, dragging a feral groan from Diego.

His own hands roamed from her head downward. Her shoulders heaved under his hands as he massaged them before letting his fingers fall to her trembling arms. He wanted this so badly that the worry he might explode before he could bury himself inside her entered his mind. Of course, the fact that he hadn't been with another woman since coming home from Spain heightened his senses to the screaming point, scrambling his brain, turning his insides into mush. He knew that his own need was so high that he wasn't being as gentle as he wanted to be with her.

But then, she wasn't any softer with him. The fingers of her right hand wrapped firmly around him while her left hand found and kneaded where his leg met his hip, carving enticing images onto his skin. Sweat broke out on his chest, slick and hot, locking them together in frantic need. His hands darted across her breasts like they'd been drawn to them. He wasn't modest as he tweaked first one nipple, then the other, before slipping one in to his mouth. She groaned this time. Strangely encouraged by the sound, Diego unceremoniously pushed her into the sheets behind her, and almost instinctively, he found her pulsing center without even having to look. All he knew at this point was that he had to be inside her in the next instant or die trying.

He felt the wet spot between her legs and was inside her with just a few pushes. Her slickness was at odds to her tightness, and her hold on him increased until he saw only red flashes behind lids that were squeezed shut against the swarming sensations. Victoria arched her hips up to meet him as he started to move inside her, slowly at first, then frantically when her fingers gripped his hips, egging him on. He slammed into the end of her womb, and the way she wiggled against him let him know that she liked him there, hoped he would touch her there again, touch her harder, faster. The energy building in him threatened to overload his reason, made him strive for just one more touch, one more twist, one more aching thrust. Victoria had her legs around him now, pulling him closer in the sweetest move he'd ever felt. He was wanting, pushing, pulling her closer, his teeth clenched as the feeling spiraled higher and higher. They were both out of control.

Victoria flew apart on a strangled animalistic grunt of triumph that he swallowed with another searing kiss. She shivered as he continued to probe her insides, his hard length gripped by smooth talons of passion that rippled against him, squeezing him, massaging him, almost hurting him.

With a silent roar, Diego split apart at the seams, his vision tunneling down to a narrow spot named Victoria as his world exploded. He could feel himself filling her, seeking out every corner of her insides even as she touched his soul. His world coalesced into one perfect moment where he soared with her through the music of the Universe.

The moment left him gasping for breath, wrung out, completely used up, tangled, Victoria's legs trapping him in that ancient dance of give and take. He trembled above her, smashing her into the mattress, though she didn't seem to mind his closeness if he could judge by the way she rose up to meet him, caressing his chest with hers. Sticky sweat molded them together like they were one being. Her dark eyes met his blue in the best moment he'd ever experienced.

Content, she smiled. “Let's do it again.”

Chapter Six

Diego woke early the next morning feeling better than he ever had before. Early morning sunshine slanted through the room's window curtains to bathe the room in ethereal light. He lay curled around a slumbering Victoria, and both were naked, which caused him to give a besotted internal smile. He practically had to bend his long legs in half so that he hadn't spent the night almost falling off the bed, but he felt so good that he didn't even care. The musky smell in the room attested to their activities from the night before, and he couldn't help but let his previous internal grin now blaze forth in a show of complete satisfaction.

The stretch of his legs under the remaining blankets and sheets pulled her from her sleep, making her grin as well the second her gaze landed on him.

“Diego!” she said, sounding surprised to see him beside her. “You're still here.”

“You were expecting someone else?” he cheekily asked.

Just as cheeky, she said, “If you must know, I was expecting you to disappear the moment my eyes landed on you, just like the figment of my imagination that you always were.”

He hugged her hard against him. “I'm no figment. Not unless you are, too.”

She hugged him back just as hard. “We can be figments together.”

Enjoying their light banter, Diego couldn't stop himself from saying, “I would think that the gray in my hair would tell you that I am hardly a figment of your imagination.”

“True,” Victoria conceded. “I'm not likely to imagine you with gray hair. My imagination always made you look just like the last time I saw you 25 years ago.”

Diego winked at her. “You mean that I was a handsome lad come to rescue you from your life as a tavern drudge.”

Victoria swatted him, just as playful. “Better a tavern drudge than a slave to experiments.”

Diego rubbed his nose with hers. “You mean that I'm your slave.”

Victoria's sigh of happiness loudly proclaimed her satisfaction with the way things had turned out. They lay back and both stared at the ceiling, content with each other, their thoughts wandering.

But as Diego and Victoria had both always been intrigued by anything out of the ordinary, they could only expect a certain amount of complete contentment. Diego eventually hemmed, illustrating how puzzled he was now.

“What are you thinking about?” asked a bewildered Victoria.

Another sigh lent a sign of Diego's pensive state of mind. “I'm thinking about that newspaper you got.”

“Again? I'm just glad that it wasn't telling the truth,” she said, hugging him swiftly.

Diego returned the hug. “But why did you get it in the first place?”

Victoria shrugged. “I don't know.”

Diego's pensive attitude continued. “It was clearly given to you because you were a link to Zorro - the only known link.”

“So you think it was someone who didn't know who Zorro was, and since they couldn't find and torture him, they gave it to me instead?”

Diego gave a tolerant smile. “Besides Felipe, you were the only one to know my identity. So yes, it must have been someone who had a grudge against Zorro rather than Diego.”

“A grudge against Zorro,” Victoria sarcastically said. “Hmmmm - I wonder who that could be?”

“de Soto instantly comes to mind,” he answered seriously.

“But de Soto was bound for Spain after Mexico took over California - wasn't he?” she protested.

“Not yet. The Mexican takeover didn't happen until several weeks after you left. He could easily have been behind that paper.”

Victoria gave a light, disbelieving laugh. “But how could he have known I would be gone for long enough to believe what that newspaper claimed?”

Still pondering, Diego could only say, “That's the question - how could he have known?”

He was still thinking when Victoria called his attention back to her. “I think I liked it better when you were my slave - at least then you remembered that I was in the room with you.”

Diego's smile was now apologetic. “I'm sorry - I do tend to get distracted, don't I?” Now happily distracted by Victoria once more, he nuzzled against her. “I'm happy to be your slave. I am yours to command.”

With a look that said she definitely preferred it that way, Victoria gave an appreciative smile and joked, “Well then, slave, get me my nightgown from off the floor. I need to exchange it for a descent dress in order to visit my tavern today.”

“A visit to your tavern,” Diego repeated, his voice matching hers in lightness. “Shall I accompany you?” he flirtatiously inquired. “Just to make sure all the bandits behave, of course.”

“Of course,” she simpered.

Then his teasing mein fell away. “Truly Victoria, I feel like I should warn you - Los Angeles isn't the way you remember it.”

“Oh?” she asked, still a tad flirtatious. “Has it grown...” And she glanced down the length of his body hidden under the sheets. “... like you?”

His snort ruined her comparison. “It's grown, alright. Up, out, and sideways, full of bigots, bandits, and boars. I hear that Los Angeles is now rumored to be the roughest pueblo in California.”

Her arms tightened in another hug. “You'll protect me.”

He gave a second barking laugh at the ridiculous notion that she needed a protector. “Heaven help anyone who accosts you.”

Suddenly the teasing gleam in her eyes dimmed. “Is it really so bad in the pueblo?”

He considered. “There's a lot of racism right now, Americans versus anyone who's remotely Mexican. I guess I don't blame the Americans, in a way - I would want a piece of Los Angeles, too, if I were them. In other ways, I just want them all to disappear. They certainly cause enough problems.” He held out a warding hand at her obvious worry. “You should be perfectly safe at your tavern, though. From what I hear, it's the preferred gathering place for anyone of Mexican or Spanish descent. But I haven't been there for years - I guess I don't know.”

She gave him a hard stare. “You haven't been there for years? Why not?”

A sheepish look shot her way and he apologetically said, “There were too many memories... of you.”

Victoria shot him her own perplexed look. “And you didn't wish to be reminded of me?”

Diego regarded her, finally pulling her to him. “I didn't need them. I remembered you just fine on my own.”

Speechless, she simply held him.

“Besides, the other customers didn't like seeing a grown man cry.”

She tickled him, clearly not liking the image of her hero in tears. “Well, no crying allowed.”

Diego laughed. “I don't want to cry right now, anyway.” He nuzzled her again with the tip of his nose. “I suddenly have too many reasons not to cry.”

The nuzzling drew a helpless giggle out of Victoria. “Then, let's go to my tavern together. I want to check to see that everything's in order, talk to the managers that Ramon found for me, see Mendoza and Felipe, see to my accounts - that sort of thing.”

Diego peered at Victoria. “Is that why you came to Los Angeles in the first place - to check on your tavern? But why now, after all these years?”

Victoria waffled her head back and forth in uncertainty, finally telling him, “I came back to check on it, then to sell it.”

This truly shocked Diego. “Sell it! You can't sell your tavern!”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Diego blustered, “the Tavern Victoria without Victoria would just be... another tavern,” he ended lamely. “It just doesn't seem right somehow.”

Victoria looked at him curiously. “I thought you said that you never go there.”

“I don't. But...” Then he admitted, “I met you the most often in your kitchen. Just think of all the kitchen memories that we would lose if you sell it. Though... the tavern is already different, but so is the whole pueblo.” Diego considered his current relationship with Los Angeles. “The pueblo...” His voice was sad now. “It's not as friendly, not as welcoming. At least, not to anyone who's Spanish.” He looked at her, remembering that she lived in Mexico now. “Or Mexican.”

Victoria's nose wrinkled. “If it's that bad, how does Felipe stand living there? And how do you keep this ranch going if you can't sell your cattle in the pueblo?”

Diego smiled a wan smile. “I sell to the American military,” he informed her, his voice still sad. “Just because I don't like the way things are going in the pueblo doesn't mean that I can't see an opportunity when it runs over me. The fact that the de la Vegas have a contract with the Americans to keep their soldiers in beef for years is the one thing that has kept this ranch solvent and under my control.” Then he gusted a sigh. “Maybe it's a good thing that my father died when he did - I doubt that he would have been able to stop being loyal to Spain long enough to realize that the future of California belongs to the Americans, whether we like it or not.” His pensiveness increased. “I just wish they treated the Spanish and Mexicans a bit better.”

Victoria's eyes were now wide and full of fear. “I had no idea that it was as bad as that!”

He quickly assured, “I don't want to scare you, though - you'll be perfectly safe if you stay with me.” What he didn't tell her was that there wasn't a chance in the world that he would let her go into Los Angeles by herself, however. The attack a few years before on one of his female maids while at the weekly Mercado had been enough to convince him that safety was more important than independence in this case. He just wasn't brave enough yet to tell Victoria that. “Let's get going - we can see if Maria and Manuel want to come with us - we can all eat breakfast at the tavern.”

Pushing the covers aside the way she pushed the previous topic of conversation aside, Victoria grinned. “It's a date!”

Z Z Z

The tavern looked so similar on the outside to the one in his memory that the second his gaze landed on the adobe building, Diego felt as if he'd time traveled 25 years into the past. He turned, expecting to find himself seated next to his father in the carriage, and Ignacio de Soto to come storming out of the Alcalde's office, bellowing, “MENDOZA!” When his eyes landed on Manuel instead of Don Alejandro, he actually did a double take, blinking furiously in a moment of disorientation.

Maria saw him, and leaned solicitously forward from her place across from him. “Are you alright, Señor Diego?”

Firmly settled into the proper time period by her voice, Diego gave his head a vigorous shake, then joked, “Just remembering, like the old man I am. But I'm fine now, thank you, Señorita Maria. And call me Diego.”

“Then call me Maria,” she instantly shot back. “When you use a title with my name, I feel like my mother.”

Diego's eyes narrowed. “Wasn't Victoria like your mother, since your real mother died?”

Maria's coy smile washed over Victoria. “Alright, then, I feel like my aunt.”

Diego laughed and looked fondly down at Victoria sitting beside him. “I guess that makes me her Uncle.” And he artlessly took Victoria's hand in his.

“Her soon-to-be Uncle,” Victoria corrected, affectionately teasing.

Manuel balked. “What?”

The shocked tone of his voice made Diego smile again. “That's right - guess we should tell you our guilty little secret.”

Victoria grinned and leaned into his arm. “We're going to be married.”

“Married! That was fast,” Manuel said with a disapproving look directed at his father.

“Not really,” both Diego and Victoria announced at the same time, in exactly the same tone. Their instant laughter sounded the same, too. Diego ignored the clear disapproval of his son for his marriage plans and focused instead on Victoria, who was staring back at him, her eyes twinkling. They both were laughing, teasing, flirting, clearly enjoying the other's company.

Manuel glanced at Maria at his side. “It's a good thing we haven't eaten yet - I think I'm going to be sick.”

Maria was clearly more tolerant than Manuel. “You wouldn't think like that if you'd heard your father singing the praises of Victoria Escalante the way I have about how incredible Don Diego is - for years!”

“I'm not incredible,” Diego instantly scoffed. “That's Manuel's department.”

The gleam in Victoria's eyes told Diego that she completely understood his hidden message about who was Zorro now versus who was back then. “I always thought you were incredible,” she argumentatively remarked. “Especially when you were stealing my tamales.”

Peels of laughter heralded their arrival at Tavern Victoria.

Z Z Z

The minute they entered the cooler confines of the tavern, Diego's gaze immediately landed on a very white haired Mendoza standing behind the bar. His back was half bent with age, but the way he leaned on the bar compensated for his forced posture. Standing in exactly the place Victoria used to stand when she tended the tavern, his stained apron radiated out from him in puddles of white and alcoholic spills. The wild story he was currently telling to a group of young boys gathered around him, however, belied his advancing age.

“And there I was, the only one standing with Zorro as we stared into the merciless eyes of the band of 12 cutthroat banditos, each one of them ready to fight to the death. But I knew that...”

“I remember there only being three banditos, not counting Zorro,” Diego pensively corrected, his hand outstretched.

Mendoza straightened as much as he could, a smile of recognition blooming across his cheeks. “Don Diego!” he jubilantly said, and enthusiastically shook Diego's offerred hand. “It's been years!” Though he appeared to be perfectly aware of who he was talking to, he'd always had too much respect for his friend to simply announce his identity to the entire tavern, even if that identity was already known.

Diego couldn't resist his own grin at that familiar voice. “Mendoza! How are you? I've missed your stories, my friend.”

Mendoza may have been old, but he was still able to cock his head in his endearing way. “What brings you here?” His laugh was as much a wheeze as a laugh, but that did nothing to diminish its brightness. “Come to brag about that son of yours again, eh?”

Still smiling in delight at seeing his old friend once more, Diego negated, “No, not this time. I have someone else to brag about. You remember Señorita Escalante?” He pulled her from where she was standing behind him and possessively put his arm around her still slim waist. “She's come back to Los Angeles to check on her tavern.”

“Hello, Mendoza,” Victoria said, her smile rivaling Diego's. “Have you been taking care of my tavern for me?”

Mendoza gaped at her, unable to say a word, which for Mendoza was quite a state. He made a few sputtering grunts, but continued to gape at her in unrestrained amazement. A moment later, a smile slowly enveloped his face. His delight at seeing her was even deeper than the delight he'd shown at seeing Diego again. “Señorita!” he exclaimed in a completely amazed yet no less welcoming manner. “You're alive!”

Victoria's smile wavered a fraction. “Why wouldn't I be?”

Mendoza's white hair shivered as he gave his head a shake. “It's been so long since we heard from you - when your brother hired the Benaltos to manage the tavern for you, we all just assumed that you had died and he now owned the tavern. We never heard anything different.” His grimness dropped as quickly as he changed the topic. “But here you are! It's so wonderful to see you again!” He continued without letting her react to the news he'd just dropped on her, “Why didn't you tell us you were coming back? We would have planned a party!”

Focusing only on the man before her, Victoria's smile blazed out of her as she leaned across the bar for a hug, careful of his aging fragility. “It's so good to see you again!” Her grin dissolved into amazement. “And it's a surprise to find you here, working for me - I didn't even know it!”

His smile turned sheepish, a match to what Diego remembered as often coming from Mendoza. “Your managers took pity on this old man when he had nowhere else to go.” He leaned in close to Victoria to confidentially say, “I hope you don't mind, but they let me stay in that little room you have in the back - I have it decorated so nice, and they only charge me a few centavos a month.” Then his grin was back. “And I can have all the beans that I want, though they're not as good as yours.”

“I don't mind about the room at all, Mendoza,” Victoria assured. “In fact, I insist that you keep it. And you are to stop paying for it.”

Mendoza's delight as well as his chagrin were obvious. “Oh, Señorita Victoria, that's not necessary. You...”

“I insist,” she firmly added. “Think of it as a wedding present from us to you.”

Mendoza shook his head. “But I'm not getting married, Señorita.”

Diego's grin was a bit at odds to the sour look on Manuel's face right behind him. “No, Victoria and I are.” His smile settled to a look of contentment. “It's about time, don't you think?”

“But you're so old!” burst out one of the boys who'd been gathered near Mendoza. He wrinkled his nose in disbelief as he gazed up at Diego. “Only young people get married.”

Diego's eyes lit on the boy who had spoken. “Well... we got a bit sidetracked when we were young... er,” he patiently explained.

“Sidetracked for 25 years,” Victoria added. “Now we're going to make things right.”

Manuel was the only one of the group to not grin in enjoyment. Even Maria showed more joy than Manuel.

Manuel's lack of joy was forgotten when a middle aged man with longish dark hair tore into the tavern, looking frantically around until his gaze landed on Victoria still standing near Mendoza at the bar. Without so much as a word, he threw himself at her in a tight hug.

“Let me reintroduce you to Felipe,” Diego wryly said. “Obviously he heard about your sudden arrival.”

Victoria could do nothing but hug him back. “Felipe! It's good to see you, too!”

Felipe's hug went on... and on... and on. He was holding on to Victoria much longer than Diego thought was necessary. “Alright, Son, share.”

Felipe took a step back, leaving room for Diego's arm to snake around Victoria's waist again. “I'll tell you now before you hear it from any of these other good-for-nothings.” And his gaze swept around the group surrounding him. “Victoria and I are getting married. We'd like you to come.”

Felipe vigorously nodded, his smile still shy, but huge. He was clearly thrilled as much as his father was just to be in Victoria's company.

“And speaking of weddings,” Victoria muttered, eyeing Manuel a bit nervously, then moving her gaze back to her fiancé. “Diego, you wanted to ask Felipe about my annulment.”

“Of course.” Thus reminded, Diego regarded Felipe. “Victoria and I need your legal expertise. Are you free at the moment?” Felipe shrugged, then nodded, indicating that he had been embroiled in some research, but that he was willing to put it aside for his father. “Good,” Diego breathed, glad to be able to immediately deal with this. He figured that he and Victoria had waited long enough for their wedding to take place - he wanted nothing to stand in their way now.

He turned to Victoria and placed a supportive hand on her arm. “Do you mind if I just step across the plaza to Felipe's office for a moment?”

“Not at all, Diego. I'm glad you're willing to deal with this for me. I'll meet you there?”

“That's not a good idea,” Diego was quick to negate. In fact, the idea of Victoria roaming around any street in Los Angeles simply terrified him, but knew that denying her the freedom she was used to enjoying would only cause her stubbornness to rise. “Remember, I told you that Los Angeles isn't the place it once was. I'll come back for you.”

Rather predictably, Victoria laughed at his apparent overprotectiveness. “Diego, Maria and Mendoza will be with me, and it's just across the plaza.”

Still Diego wasn't swayed. “Victoria, do this for me, por favor,” he softly entreated. “I normally wouldn't insist like this, but...”

“Diego.” Victoria laughingly laid her hand on his arm this time with a gentle squeeze. “Stop fretting - I'll stay here if it means that much to you. We'll see you in a little while.”

Still uneasy, as if he expected her to disappear again if she got out of his sight, Diego started for the door with Felipe in tow. Manuel also opted to join them, declaring that he didn't know what they were talking about, and wanted to hear about Mexican annulments as well.

Once in the bright sunlight of the plaza, Felipe abandoned his reserve and familiarly socked Diego on the arm, smiling slyly up at him. It was clear what he was thinking but not saying.

With just that gesture, Diego knew that he was in for a solid amount of ribbing from his adopted son. Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he dryly said, “It's not like that, Felipe.” Then he considered the situation through anyone else's eyes. “Well, yes it is, but it's not what you think.”

Manuel broke in to say, “It's exactly what he thinks.”

Diego's sigh burst out of him. “How about we actually go to Felipe's office before we air all the de la Vega affairs in public?”

Felipe laughed his silent laugh, but followed his father as they threaded their way across the busy plaza.

A second later, they stepped into the cooler adobe building's small reception area that led into the two back rooms. Felipe's partner, Juan Hernandez, sat in one of the rooms, obviously preparing an argument for court, his dark hair falling over his eyes so that he had to keep pushing it aside so he could see.

“Juan, hola,” Diego greeted with a laconic wave.

The middle aged son of the pueblo's former doctor smiled at the small party and waved back. But a heft of the file before him showed that he was too embroiled in his law practice research to interrupt himself.

Diego nodded, understanding completely. He waved again to keep the man in his chair. “Don't trouble yourself - I just have a question for Felipe.” He well knew what it was like to focus so intently on something, and he didn't want to interrupt.

The three of them crowded into the second small room that acted as Felipe's office. A desk took up most of the space, with two straight backed chairs facing it. Diego sat in one, and Manuel took the other. Crowded bookcases covered almost every inch of space on the three walls across from the door, books and documents practically spilling onto the floor. More books covered the desk, but Felipe now pushed them aside to give Diego his full attention, looking expectantly at his father.

“It's not what you think,” Diego said again without preamble. “She found me as much as I found her.”

Thunderous, but controlled, Manuel growled, “And he says that he wants to marry her. Come on, Felipe, we've got to convince him that he's too old for such impetuous behavior.”

Diego grimaced, glad that his two sons had always gotten along well, but a bit annoyed at the way they - Manuel especially - were obviously humoring him. “Manuel thinks this whole thing is moving too fast, but I think that it's already been 30 years - what are we waiting for?”

Felipe looked between the two of them, clearly not wanting to get in between his brother and his father on the issue of Victoria. So he simply gestured, 'What happened?'

Before he knew it, Diego had related the whole story about finding Victoria again.

But just as he finished and before Felipe could sign his opinion, an energetic knocking on the door interrupted them. Befuddled, Felipe pulled it open to find a ten year old boy panting on the stoop. “I was... sent to... find... someone named... Diego!” he successfully got out before taking another gasping breath. “They need help... at the... tavern!”

Alarmed, Diego bolted from his chair, yet still able to be amazed; how could Victoria be in trouble already? She had barely been alone for fifteen minutes! But if he remembered right, Victoria was a kind of bizarre magnet for trouble. She didn't find it so much as trouble had the tendency to find her.

Before Diego could do so much as rise from his chair, though, Felipe had charged heedlessly out the door. Diego had forgotten the way that his adopted son had always felt a form of kinship with the tavern owner, even so much as suspecting a light crush on her. Diego had never questioned such hidden affection; he could hardly be one to talk, after all. But now Felipe was half way across the plaza before Diego and Manuel reached the sun-splashed steps of the law office.

And there was definitely something going on at the tavern. There was a lot of yelling and some colorful cursing coming from the patrons on the tavern's porch, most of it centered around the far right table where the meeting between the tavern's owner and her manager was in the midst of being interrupted by several men with slurred voices. The astonishment on Señora Benalto's face at speaking again to a very much alive Victoria was just beginning to slip into alarm at what the intoxicated men leeringly suggested when Felipe arrived on the scene.

By the time Diego joined them, Felipe had already thrown himself between the five drunk American men who were clearly accosting the three unwilling women as they sat on the porch to discuss the future of the tavern. Victoria was expertly fending off one man, obviously trying not to hurt him, as Maria twisted to the side, only to trip and fall into the grasping arms of another man. Though Felipe obviously couldn't order the men to leave, the way he undoubtedly wanted to, his feelings were clear as he glared belligerently at them.

The thwarted men angrily eyed the wall that Felipe had become. One man in particular seemed furious that his aim at clumsily seducing seemingly unprotected women had been interrupted. He wove unsteadily on his feet, pushing at Felipe to encourage him to move aside. But just like he'd been taught years before by Diego, Felipe only bobbed back and forth in his spot as if his feet were somehow stuck to the plaza.

When Felipe didn't move, but continued to glare with arms crossed over his chest, the man curtly growled in slurred English, “When we want... yer op... opinion, we'll... ask for it! Till then, get lost!”

By then, Diego had joined Felipe, but held up his hands, placating instead of belligerent. It was always his first instinct to find a nonviolent solution to any problem. “No trouble, por favor,” he calmly said, utilizing the few English words he knew. His manner might have been submissive, but his tone was firm. The last thing he wanted was for Victoria to get hurt almost as soon as fate had sent her to him again.

The drunk man slapped Diego's placating hand aside. “I said go away!”

Diego's tone became even more placid. “Peace. No trouble.”

But the man seemed bent on causing trouble. He slapped Diego's hand aside again.

That did it. Without hesitation now, almost as if he felt he had done his duty by allowing the possibility of a peaceful resolution to this altercation and now could do as he liked, Felipe threw his shoulder directly into the man's chest, sending them both sprawling into the dust. Victoria jumped back against the wall behind her, simultaneously yelling at her manager to fetch the stick she kept behind the bar that she used to keep order when the tavern's patrons became too rowdy. The Señora darted away just as Manuel hauled the man currently pawing at Maria out into the plaza where he had plenty of room to punch him in the stomach. The drunk doubled over, and Manuel struck him on his upper back, sending him sprawling to the dust.

Meanwhile, Diego threw himself between the two Escalante women and the plaza, protecting them from the advance of three more men. One of them threw a punch at Diego, which he effortlessly blocked with his left arm before punching another of the men in the face with stunning force. He was glad to see that all of Zorro's muscles hadn't been lost in the many years since he'd been the bandit. This second man tumbled off balance into his companions, and Diego instantly took advantage of the chaos that followed. One push, and all three ruffians landed in the dust with arms flailing.

By the time they'd sorted themselves out, Felipe had yanked his opponent up from the dirt to punch his face. Barely phased, the man grinned evilly and tossed a spray of dust at Felipe before throwing a punch that would have instantly laid out the smaller de la Vega, if it had connected.

But Felipe danced in front of the man, not staying in one place long enough for the dust to do anything but make him dirty. Elbows tucked in close to his body, he systematically jabbed his fist into the sneering face of the larger man, who appeared too puzzled at such a successful fighting tactic to do more than stand in one place and take it. Felipe finally threw a punch at him with so much force behind it that the larger man spun completely around, falling on his face in the dirt.

Manuel ducked a drunken punch, then on his way back to standing, plowed his balled fist right into his opponent's fragile groin area. The man doubled over, his hands protecting his private parts too late. Another kick knocked the man's feet out from under him, and he joined his friend in eating the plaza dust. He didn't get back up, leaving Manuel to help his father fend off his three attackers.

One of those men had drawn a knife, but Manuel didn't even flinch. He grabbed the knife hand from behind and smashed the man's wrist hard onto his bent knee - the knife went thudding into the plaza before it could cause any damage. He then flipped the man over to land on his back in the dirt.

Diego pulled his arm back to punch one of the two remaining men, but was stopped when Señora Benalto handed him the club-like stick she'd fetched from the bar. “Gracias!” He brought it up just in time to block a punch coming his way, then to push the attack aside as if he was wielding his sword once more. One mighty sweep of the club bowled the second man into the first, sending them both spread-eagled into the dirt.

Momentarily without a fight, Diego glanced up to note how Felipe and Manuel were faring when instead, he was momentarily distracted by a sudden flash of sunlight. Unable to help himself, his gaze followed the flash to land on a familiar figure standing at the far side of the plaza, studiously watching the altercation. This man's short, gray hair blew in the wind, his American style pants flapped against his shiny black boots, and his well-cut shirt rippled on his arms. He looked like any American, and was indeed standing beside Captain Gillespie as if they were old friends simply waiting for the altercation to end so they could start arresting people on the spot. But on closer inspection, the man was clearly a Spanish or Mexican dressed in American clothes. And though he looked older, and was beardless with hair so short that it was a wonder his scalp didn't sunburn, he stroked his chin in such a familiar way that a chill instantly crawled up Diego's spine.

Diego blinked furiously to clear the dust fogging his eyes so he could make sure he was seeing who he thought he was seeing, but that second gave one of his opponents time to climb to his feet again. Out of patience, Diego clubbed the man hard under his chin with his elbow and gave him an irritated shove out of his way as he grabbed at Felipe, pulling his son close.

“Look!” Positioning Felipe so that he could stare not at the American attackers, but directly across the plaza at the man, his harsh whisper bit into the morning air. “Is that... de Soto?

Chapter Seven

Gillespie and the mysterious man at his side chose that moment to break into the melee. With the sudden appearance of the American military, the fight ended just as abruplty as it began.

A ferocious scowl etching his face, Gillespie spun Diego around and pushed him into the tavern. The other followed dociley enough as Gillespie's growl filled the dusty air. “de la Vega - you again! I might have known!” He curtly gestured to one of his men who'd just arrived on the scene to haul the five drunks out of the dirt and into the jail to sober up while he personally sorted out the disturbence.

Diego groaned to himself: if Gillespie got involved in sorting this dispute, it didn't matter what he found - he fully anticipated a day spent in jail, away from Victoria. It was far from how he had planned to spend the day.

But surprisingly enough, Gillespie simply took a seat at a table in the corner where they wouldn't be interrupted, and ordered breakfast for everyone. With a clipped tone that was polite as well as forceful, he told them all, “Sit.”

They sat. A moment later, they were all served the steaming breakfast that Senora Benalto had prepared that morning, and the group began to eat as Gillespie continued to glare.

Diego ignored Gillespie as well as he could to focus on his food, recalling how much he'd liked eating at the tavern in the past. The first bite left a slightly disappointed Diego; breakfast at the tavern was just breakfast.

It must be because Victoria didn't cook the food, he decided. The food was just food instead of the manna of the Gods, the way Diego remembered it being. That again reinforced how very long it had been since he'd eaten at the tavern.

The second difference for Diego sent a secret thrill to his heart: Victoria wasn't ensconced in her kitchen, which was a sad thing in a way, but was seated so close to Diego that their thighs rubbed in such an enticing manner that it more than made up for her not being ensconced in her kitchen. Best of all was that she was sitting so close to him on purpose. If this wasn't a good thing, Diego didn't know what was. It made him completely forget why he was even here, eating breakfast in the first place.

Another difference was that his son - sons - sat across from him and Victoria, one smiling, but trying to cover his evident enjoyment of this scene, given the dire situation, the other heavily scowling and not trying to cover his emotions at all. The presence of the two men who were emotionally closest to him was a fascinating departure from what had become his norm of spending most of his time physically alone. The fact that both men had been raised by him gave him additional satisfaction.

The last difference wasn't so much good as very intriguing: de Soto himself. Diego found that besides a few glances sent Victoria's way just to make sure she was still there and he wasn't dreaming again, he couldn't take his eyes off de Soto.

No, not de Soto, Diego reminded himself. It's Nick Soto now. The name Gillespie had announced when he introduced the man to them was just the beginning of the surprises in store for him. Clearly unaware of their previous knowledge of each other, Gillespie treated them all as if they were complete strangers, using his companion as simply an interpreter. The bigger shock came when Ignacio (Nick) showed himself to be much more proficient at speaking English than his native Spanish. As Ignacio (Nick) continued to repeat everything each party said, Diego idly wondered if that was a matter of speaking English for many of the recent years, or if he was playing a part for some reason. Perhaps it was to ingratiate himself with Gillespie, who relied on de Soto (Soto) more than he might wish. Such ingratiation could only mean that Diego would have to rely on de Soto, too, for interpretation purposes if nothing else, and that gave de Soto a certain amount of power over him that instantly made the caballero extremely nervous.

Whatever the case, Diego found himself oddly indebted to de Soto for the first time ever, and that in itself was remarkable enough to make him dizzy for the next several days alone.

“Now let me get this straight,” Gillespie was saying in English as Diego pulled another piece of bread off his small loaf with his fingers before popping it in his mouth. “The five men sitting in my jail right now attacked you? That's not what it looked like to me.” His face grew hard as he finished with, “It looked to me like you were beating them senseless for no good reason.”

Ignacio paused for a minute, as if trying to decide how best to put the captain's words into Spanish, then launched into what Diego assumed the captain had said to them. The fact that he was relying on Ignacio de Soto to give an accurate accounting of what he or any of his friends or relatives said was almost enough to make him lose his appetite, but Victoria's warm hand on his knee distracted him just enough to accept the strange circumstances without comment.

“No,” Victoria quickly explained before anybody else could jump in and spoil her recitation. “Maria, Señora Benalto, and I were discussing the tavern's profits when these men appeared and tried to...” Here, she halted, and cast a questioning glance towards her niece, who merely nodded her head once, encouraging her aunt to continue. “They propositioned Maria - my niece.”

“Your niece,” Ignacio repeated, eyeing Maria in a way that was both appreciative and not particularly welcome. Manuel all but gave a protective growl, and only stopped himself when Diego surreptitiously kicked him under the table. Proprietary emotional displays would not help their case just now.

Ignacio next cast an appreciative glance Victoria's way, and Diego suddenly understood where his son was coming from.

Seemingly oblivious, Victoria continued. “They wouldn't leave when I asked them to - maybe they don't speak Spanish. They ignored me and started pawing at Maria in what I'm sure they thought was a most charming manner. That was when I tried to get one of the men's hands off her...” She hesitated, clearly unsure how to delicately phrase what she was trying to say, and finally settled on, “... her leg, and he hit me. Then I yelled for the boy to...”

“What boy?” de Soto asked, instantly suspicious, his features arranged in a disbelieving scowl. Years instantly melted away for Diego, and it felt just like they were being grilled by their Alcalde for suspicion of evading his ridiculous taxes again.

Disregarding Diego's immediate stiffening, Victoria simply gave one of her shrugs. “I don't know who he was - a boy! He was standing at the door, watching. He'd been listening to Mendoza's story, but later was watching us instead. I told him to run to Felipe's office and get Diego. It seemed like he knew what I was talking about, since he ran towards Felipe's office instead of asking questions. That was when I kicked the man who'd hit me. He was just starting to react to being kicked by a woman, I suppose, when Felipe showed up and stood right in front of us with his arms crossed. He was very protective, but didn't do anything, and the men stopped. Then Diego was there, and he said - well, you heard him. It was some kind of English word.”

“I said 'peace,'” Diego reported, saying the final word in English. “I didn't want things to get out of hand. I said it again, but it didn't have any effect. One of the men pushed me aside and told me to go away.”

Victoria nodded. “He punched at Diego. Diego blocked the punch, and Felipe hit him. And if they hadn't protected us, we'd still be out there, fighting those drunk men off. You saw the rest.”

Ignacio translated her statement to Gillespie, Diego assumed, and whatever Gillespie said back made de Soto bark a laugh and finger his chin in that manner that Diego instantly recognized. His stomach did an uncomfortable flip at the sight of it that wasn't anything like the flip that Victoria often caused it to make. It took all his willpower not to instinctively smash his fist in his face. But he held himself back, just glad that Gillespie hadn't automatically decided in favor of the Americans in this scenario. It was a far more likely outcome of that fight no matter who had started things.

Ignacio ascertained, “Felipe and...” He indicated Diego with a negligent wave of his hand, “... did nothing to prompt that fist fight?”

Victoria's face grew hard, and her hand gripped Diego's leg tighter. “No, nothing. Felipe didn't do anything but stand there at first, and Diego kept saying that English word: 'peace.' It was one of the drunk men who threw the first punch.”

Still unsatisfied, Gillespie called Mendoza over to add his testimony. The ancient man slowly ambled up to the table, and when asked about the boy that Victoria had sent, pointed to the proper one. It was clear that he didn't recognize his former Alcalde, for he didn't remark on the fact of the man's surprising presence in Los Angeles. “I sent Pablo to keep an eye on the Señorita,” he said, being uncharacteristically prescient for Mendoza. Pablo was called over to add his side of the story, and when it coincided with Victoria's, Gillespie decided he had heard enough.

He stood, his soldier's outfit making him stand out as much as Zorro's black outfit ever had. “Sorry to bother,” he said in stilted Spanish, bowing low. “Americanos at fault. Apology.” Then he simply left.

Diego was amazed. He'd expected to get arrested in spite of a translator's intercession on their behalf. He was simply eating his breakfast in order to not be hungry while jailed for the remainder of the day.

“You owe me, de la Vega,” 'Nick Soto' whisper-hissed as soon as Captain Gillespie had disappeared into the plaza, his Spanish far less broken now, his voice all but covered by the general noise in the tavern.

What he'd said was also surprising, but what followed was even more surprising.

Manuel said something in flawless English to de Soto, his expression thunderous again. Diego recognized the words for 'translation' and 'right,' and assumed that his son was commenting on the way de Soto had translated things accurately, and it was a good thing, too. He returned to speaking Spanish so everyone could understand the words of his threat as well as his dangerous tone. “I was waiting for you to turn the tables to put the Americans in a good light. My father's mentioned you many times, 'Nick Soto.'”

de Soto was nonplussed. Also speaking in Spanish, but still in a very low voice so that no one could overhear, he sarcastically asked, “And if I had 'turned the tables?'”

Manuel glowered. “I would have beaten you senseless no matter that he was here.” And he threw a shoulder towards the open door to indicate the military man who'd just left.

de Soto wheezed a laugh. “Then who would have rescued you?” He waved negligently towards Diego again, though his whisper pierced the air like a knife. “Zorro?”

Diego choked on the last piece of bread he'd just put in his mouth, coughing and gasping as de Soto sat back with a smug smile on his face, clearly enjoying the effects of what he'd just said.

Diego was still too stunned to speak. He knows?! How did he know? How long had he known? And more importantly, why had he done nothing about it?

Surprisingly, it was Mendoza who came to Diego's instant defense. “You leave him alone! It doesn't matter what Diego did 30 years ago - he's my friend, and... you should thank him for not killing you!”

It was clear now that Mendoza knew exactly who he was talking to, and the look on his face indicated that he wasn't about to take any grief from his former superior, either.

No one was more astonished at Mendoza's outburst than de Soto. Now that his one-time officer had spoken his mind, he looked oddly pleased at Mendoza. “I didn't know you had it in you!”

Mendoza merely grunted, straightened his apron, and purposely eyed de Soto as if he didn't completely trust him.

The snotty quip that would have come several years before was absent now as de Soto simply nodded his head once in understanding as the old man again moved behind the bar.

“He certainly told me,” de Soto muttered in a tone resembling admiration despite its softness.

Many years earlier, Diego had found that the best way to distract anyone from something he didn't want them to notice was to change the subject without looking like he was changing the subject, and he definitely didn't want de Soto to dwell much - or at all - on Zorro. “What are you doing here, Soto?”

“Weeeel,” intoned de Soto. “Long story.”

“We're all ears,” Diego quipped.

de Soto sighed, scratched his own ear as if he was preparing to embark on a complicated tale, then said, “I'm now an American citizen, and would appreciate it if none of you said anything about knowing me... before.”

Victoria all but growled in a voice equal in lowness and intensity, “Only if you leave Diego alone.”

de Soto didn't act surprised at all by Victoria's quick and ferocious answer. “Don't go all proprietary on me,” he jokingly muttered, and gave Diego a fmailiar slap to his shoulder. “Nothing like being 'owned,' eh, Diego? How long have you two been married? 30 years?”

“We're not married,” Victoria bluntly informed him. “And I wouldn't own him even if we were.”

“What? Not married?” de Soto blustered. His astonishment came across admirably considering his quiet tone. “But I thought...” He looked in confusion at Manuel. “I understood that this is your....” He regrouped. “But maybe not.”

Diego knew what he was referring to, but wouldn't say. “He's my son just as much as Felipe is,” he refuted now that he'd gotten his throat unstuck. “But Victoria isn't either of their... not yet.”

“She's... not,” de Soto repeated. “Why not?” He grinned his maniacal grin and stroked his chin in a thoughtful manner. “You two were the romance of the pueblo. Did you have a...” He wheezed a laugh as if thoroughly enjoying himself. “... falling out?”

That laugh irritated Diego. de Soto was just so... Diego didn't know what he was, but knew that whatever it was, he didn't like it. “If you must know, she thought I was dead for 25 years. Now, can we please change the subject?”

de Soto's reaction was immediate: he actually did a double-take. “Dead? As in, I finally managed to hang you?”

“Rockslide,” Diego dispassionately noted. “And again, can we please change the subject?”

“Rockslide, eh?” de Soto echoed, not paying attention to Diego's request at all. His puzzled gaze then moved to Victoria. “But if I remember right, Señorita, you were with your brother in Mexico City by then. How did you find out?”

As if you don't know, Diego thought to himself, clinging to his idea that de Soto had been the one to publish that paper given to Victoria.

“I was sent a newspaper,” Victoria announced, then shrewdly added, “But you know all about that, don't you, because you sent it!”

de Soto blinked in surprise at being blamed. “Of course I didn't, Señorita,” he instantly defended himself, his scowl back. “Though I'm sure it's a shock to you and...” He negligently waved at Diego again before continuing, “... that you weren't the center of everyone in the entire pueblo, I was far too worried about being sent to Spain in irons to mess around with what you did or didn't think.”

That statement made Victoria do her own double-take, and for Diego to instantly perk up. “Sent to Spain in irons?” he hissed. “What are you talking about?”

de Soto finally turned his attention from Victoria to Diego, his voice low again. “I'd had a communique from Iterbide. That upstart had the gall to threaten me with incarceration! Me!”

“Imagine that,” Diego dryly stated.

de Soto obviously thought he had been serious, for he looked amazed, and said with quiet disgust in his voice, “I know! The overblown popinjay!”

Diego glanced knowingly at Victoria. The idea of calling the leader of the Mexican insurrection a 'popinjay' was just too funny!

de Soto continued, “The Mexicans took me away - you know that. What you nay not know is that I escaped; walked right down the gangplank of that ship they'd put me on that was bound for Spain, surrounded by the other sailors on leave. I was even dressed like one of them!” He sounded like he was amazed at his own ingenuity, which was nothing new.

“Go on,” Diego tiredly prompted, afraid that if he showed too much interest in the tale, de Soto might think he was actually interested in him; Diego wanted that like he wanted to get hit in the head with a rock.

Oblivious, de Soto complied. “I saw how things were heading in California. It was only a matter of time before the Americans took over everything, no matter what the Mexicans did at the time. So I stayed in Monterey long enough to learn English, then worked my way cross country to Boston.”

“Over land?” Manuel loudly blurted his surprise. He spoke as if he knew precisely what that meant. For all Diego knew, Manuel did. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he didn't really know what he son had been up to, giving him a new appreciation for what his own father had gone through all those years ago.

de Soto shrugged in Manuel's direction and softly explained, “It was either go over land on one of those wagon trains of furs, or go by ship. Either trip would be dangerous, but I figured that this way I would at least see what the country looked like. That way, if I died, I would know... which is still more than most Americans can say.”

“What's Boston like?” Maria asked in a whisper, her eyes wide with the promise of a new and busy city. “Is it anything like Guadalajara?”

“Bigger.”

“Like Mexico City?”

“Bigger.”

The shine in Maria's eyes showed how this news boggled her mind.

But de Soto wasn't done. “It makes a place like Los Angeles look small and provincial, and the de la Vega hacienda look like a hovel.”

“It's hardly a hovel,” Diego remarked, perturbed.

de Soto almost swallowed his smile, but not quite. “I run an import/export business out of Boston. I own four ships,” he proudly stated.

Equally as nonplussed as de Soto had been earlier, Diego ignored the news of how much de Soto owned to ask him, “And what are you doing in Los Angeles again?”

“Yes, isn't it a danger that you'll be recognized?” Victoria added, clearly intrigued in spite of herself.

Again de Soto shrugged, as if he considered the danger inconsequential. “I've been here for a month, and Diego was the first to recognize me. It must be all those times he hit me.”

Diego smirked at the image that comment brought to mind.

de Soto smirked as well, though his gesture wasn't as amused as Diego's. “I'll give you that one, de la Vega. Or should I call you Zorro?” His gesture had turned decidedly evil.

Diego refused to rise to the bait. “Should I inform Captain Gillespie just who you are?” he quickly asked, leaning towards de Soto even as he lowered his voice again. “I can have Manuel translate for me, leaving him clear orders to have Gillespie transport you to Spain where you so thoroughly belong.”

de Soto laughed his wheezing laugh again, showing his understanding of the threat, and his appreciation for the man who had given it. He touched his head in a parody of Zorro's jaunty salute. “Touché.”

Victoria's hand again tightened on Diego's knee. “Leave Diego alone. I'm not above throwing you out of my tavern.”

de Soto's laughter turned appreciative. “There's that derision of yours. Oh, I've missed you, Señorita!”

That was it - Diego'd had it. He stood, unceremoniously ordering de Soto in a mild voice that fooled no one, “Keep missing her. Come on, Victoria, we have many things to discuss. Manuel can take care of the ranch for one day. Felipe, Maria - let's go.” It was only then that his gaze turned to his former Alcalde. “Adios.”

The terse good-bye did nothing to upset the former Alclade, as Diego had intended. Instead, Ignacio de Soto's delighted laughter rang loudly through the tavern - it was apparent that he didn't truly fear anything, Diego least of all, much to Diego's annoyance.

Chapter Eight

It was only when Diego got home that he realized he had forgotten all about asking Felipe his original question as to Victoria's annulment. He had to write his query on a piece of paper and have one of the small stable boys deliver it to him at his office in the pueblo, hoping for an answer before too many days passed.

He also hadn't had the time or the inclination to ask de Soto how and when he had figured out Zorro's secret identity, but as long as Ignacio didn't ever plan on using that information (and he would have already done so if that was his intention), then he didn't see the point of bringing it up now. Besides, he predicted that the threat he'd made during breakfast about revealing Ignacio's secret if he acted on Zorro's original identity at this late date was enough to deter any action on his part - he hoped.

In the meantime, Diego decreed that now was a good time for him to deliver the new oven he'd been working on for Señora Turon when her family's house had been destroyed by bandits. Zorro had managed to stop the bandits, and had saved the entire family from the fire the bandits had started, but hadn't been able to save the house. Therefore, they had to rebuild from scratch. Diego had been working on a new stove design for her new house for a month, and finally had something he could show her. He and Victoria needed to talk, anyway - he hadn't been lying when he'd said that - so it would be an added benefit for him if Victoria accompanied him so they could discuss several personal subjects while not having an audience. The best part of that idea was that nobody insisted he and Victoria bring along a chaperone. It was as if they all knew that Diego would never agree to such a suggestion, and the ensuing fight that was sure to happen wasn't worth the energy it would have taken. Diego was even more appreciative than he already was of her growing wisdom on the subject of him and Victoria.

But if he and Victoria left for the Turon's, and Manuel needed to see to the ranch, then that left Maria on her own until either Manuel was free again or he and Victoria returned. Wanting to be a good host now warred with Diego's desire to settle his own future prospects.

Maria made the decision easy for Diego. “I will be fine on my own for a few hours,” she insisted. “I can read or play your divine piano. I'm an adult - I know how to entertain myself. Now go.” She shoved her aunt and Diego towards the door to encourage them that she was serious.

The action reminded Diego of the way that Felipe had behaved in his younger years. He was smiling when he and Victoria walked out the door.

“What are you so pleased about?” Victoria instantly asked when she noted his expression.

Diego wasn't too shy to say, “I was remembering Felipe's habits when he was young - Maria reminds me of him.”

Victoria's brows rose appreciatively. “That's high praise for Maria, coming from you. I'll have to tell her that her new hero reminds you of her,” she teased.

Diego glanced at Victoria as they made their way to the wagon being loaded even now with the oven and stove combination he planned to deliver. “I thought Zorro was her new hero. Do you mean that he has competition already?”

Victoria quirked a grin at his question. “I thought you said that Felipe was married?”

“Oh, he is, and quite happily. Felipe is devoted to his wife.” Then he honestly considered things. “It's just that... he may be married, but I'm very aware of the soft spot that he's always had for the Señorita of the tavern.”

Victoria's smile was now rather sly. “Me, too.”

Diego put his arm around Victoria's shoulders in an act of affection, not caring who saw him do it. “I had the suspicious feeling you were more aware of his crush than you let on.” His voice was now full of appreciation, just as de Soto's had been an hour before.

Victoria's sly grin deepened. “A girl knows when a boy has a crush on her.”

Diego left his arm around Victoria's shoulders, squeezing gently, but heaved a sad sigh. “You didn't know that I did.”

The saucy tilt to Victoria's head belied his statement. “Of course I did.”

The sadness didn't leave Diego's face, however, nor was it replaced by surprise at hearing this. “Yes, I always supposed that you did know. You did anything about it, though, even if you knew.”

Victoria, on the other hand, was astonished to hear about this. “You knew I knew? How did you know?”

Diego's shrug was as artless as any of Victoria's. “I had to expect you to see me watching you sometime. I couldn't hide everything.”

Suddenly Victoria spluttered a laugh. “My helper Maria thought you were a love sick-puppy. But Pilar thought you were a stalker!”

That comment did bring a smile to Diego's face. “She did? I didn't know that.” His gaze turned to Victoria. “If you agreed with her and thought I was a stalker, why didn't you turn me in?” Not facing a situation head on wasn't like the Victoria Escalante he knew.

Victoria looked uncomfortable. “Pilar thought you were a stalker, not me,” she reminded him. Then her expression grew horrified. “And besides, I couldn't turn you in! That would have solved nothing, and would have hurt Don Alejandro and Felipe, not to mention you! I was more inclined to side with Maria her lovesick puppy idea.”

Diego couldn't help but squeeze Victoria's shoulders in response. “I'm still a lovesick puppy.”

Victoria's answering smile was now filled with satisfaction. “I know.”

Diego gave her a hug right there in the stableyard. “And I know that you are, too.”

Victoria hugged him back, not acknowledging the vaqueros who stood still, goggling at them. “You bet I am!”

Z Z Z

The oven was delivered with little fuss, and received with great ceremony and effusive thanks for Diego's many hidden talents. An hour later, the caballero turned the wagon towards home again, but set the horse at a much slower pace in order that he and Victoria would have the time to talk.

“What was it that you wanted to talk about?” Victoria asked once they were on their way. The mid morning sunshine slanted across the wagon, encouraging a sleepy pall to fall over everything, but she ignored that feeling to peer in interest at Diego instead.

Diego concentrated on not looking stressed or unhappy despite the seriousness of the topic he'd chosen. “We haven't discussed many things yet about...” He waved a hand between him and her. “... us.” He was proud of himself that he hadn't hesitated a bit at his announcement, even though such a discussion promised to lead to things of a personal nature. He usually shied away from anything remotely personal.

Victoria bobbed her head in understanding. “This has all happened rather fast,” she agreed. “Alright, what about us?” Victoria, it appeared, wasn't too shy to talk about them, either. The actions of the two were quite a reversal from the way they had dealt with each other when he was Zorro. Then, they'd behaved like the other was a bundle of nerves ready to explode. Now couldn't be more different.

But then again, Diego didn't want to mess this up, either. He wanted to get this right, especially since he'd been thinking of having this conversation with her for over 20 years. So he thought first, then let his mouth run away with his thoughts afterwards. “Well, I guess I'm thinking a lot of things, such as where would you like to live after we're married, perhaps here in California? You know that there's always a place for you at the hacienda. Or would you like me to live with you in Guadalajara?” He was ridiculously proud of himself for having thought about something so practical at all, and especially for mentioning this before being carried away by his tumultuous emotions of the moment. “I don't even know what kind of accommodations you have there - is me moving in with you even feasible right now?”

“Oh.” Victoria looked like she hadn't considered this aspect of getting married. “I don't know. I only have a room at Ramon's.” She grinned an appreciative grin. “I doubt Ramon would like to take on newlyweds.” She didn't say anything specific, but her statement was loaded with so many hidden overtones that Diego had to grin as well at what her words alluded to.

“No, I doubt Ramon would be very thrilled at that prospect, either,” Diego agreed, his tone nonchalant even as he too alluded to the same thing she did without saying anything specific. “We can buy a house of our own in Guadalajara.”

“We could.”

Diego heard the reluctance behind her words. “What are you thinking?”

To his surprise, Victoria gave a wistful sigh. “I'm thinking that all this will come as a great surprise to Ramon, especially since he's the one who arranged my previous marriage to Roberto.”

Diego's forehead rose to his hairline. “Roberto... So that's his name.”

Victoria grinned again. “You don't even sound jealous, Diego de la Vega. Stop pretending to be so interested.”

“Who me? Of course I'm not jealous,” Diego agreed in his most innocent voice “You know me - I'm not the jealous type.”

“I'm not fooled,” Victoria insisted knowingly. “You would be very jealous if you didn't already know that he's off somewhere in Europe.”

Putting an end to his pretense of disinterested jealousy, Diego sobered. “In all seriousness, what did you think of marriage... before?”

Victoria gave a thoughtful sigh. “Honestly... I was appalled.”

“Appalled?” echoed Diego, feeling his anxiety increase with the word. It was his typical lack of confidence in his personal relationships rearing its head again. Perhaps she was appalled at marriage in general, and would find that being married to him would be no better than being married to Roberto. Diego tried his best to calm his fears, but he only managed to choke out, “Then why did you agree... to marry him in the first place... if you were so opposed to the idea?”

This time, Victoria's sigh was apologetic. “I didn't think it mattered what I did... not anymore. I thought you were dead, and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life alone.” She rubbed her hands on her skirt, as if just talking about this subject made her palms sweaty. “I had hoped that I would eventually grow fond of Roberto.”

“Fond of him? You didn't love him when you married him?”

“Did you love Lolita?” she quickly asked.

Diego flinched just a bit. “Lolita knew I didn't love her, and never would. You're the only one I've ever loved.” He purposely took her hand in his and kissed it, followed by a quick nuzzle as added proof to his words.

Victoria laid her head on his shoulder. “The same goes for me. And that was the problem with Roberto from the very beginning.”

“That you didn't love him?” Diego asked, wanting to understand.

“That he wasn't you,” Victoria corrected. “I tried to love him, I really did, but in the end, I knew I couldn't. That's what we fought about the day he left. He'd been waiting patiently for a year for me to love him... and he just couldn't wait any longer. So I said that he could leave if he felt he had to - that I knew by then that I was never going to love him, even if we were married and you were dead. It was no use pretending that our marriage was anything close to normal. He was free to find someone else.”

Diego closed his eyes against the pain he would have felt at hearing that statement if he'd been Roberto. Of course, he never would have been in Roberto's shoes, either. Yet he had more in common with Roberto than he cared to admit. They'd both been without Victoria, for instance. “So, you were married for a year without..?” His voice trailed off, but his meaning was undeniable.

His feigned disinterest in a topic that was so personal made Victoria grin. “Er... no,” she at last admitted. “Would it have made a difference if we had?”

Diego considered. “Nooooo...”

His trailing tone urged her to curiously ask, “But..?”

Diego unsuccessfully tried to hide his growing jealousy. “It wouldn't have mattered, not really, but...” At last, he capitulated. “ I can't help it, Victoria - it's nice to know that I'm still the only one who... who does that for you, and ever has.” He hesitated, embarrassed. He could talk about a lot of things that would have made his father blush and stammer and clam up, but even he wasn't able to openly talk about... that.

Victoria smiled at even this much admission, grabbed his arm, and kissed his shoulder. “I've run a tavern, Diego,” she said candidly. “There's nothing you can say that will shock me.”

“Well then,” Diego instantly said, his voice a low whisper. “I want to stop right here, rip your clothes off, and make love to you in the sunshine, but I'm afraid of you getting sunburned, and I don't want to hurt you, ever.” His grin split his features. “Is that candid enough for you?”

Victoria laughed. “I deserved that. It would probably just shock the horse if we did, so we probably shouldn't.”

Diego wound his arm around her shoulders again. “I'm glad you think so, but I'm just a little disappointed, too.”

“Would a kiss be a good substitute?”

Diego's grin grew as he tried not to be too enthusiastic about stopping the horse to wind the reins around the brake handle. “Absolutely.”

Kissing Victoria in the open air with the wind playing havoc with the ends of her hair made Diego's emotions swell again. Only a minute went by before he felt the threatening pulse of his earlier declaration dissolve. He was more than ready to enjoy her charms again, but she kept her head enough to stop things before they got out of hand.

“This isn't very conducive to talking,” she regretfully stated.

Diego drew back to find his hands where they had no business being, not out here in the open, and certainly not before they were married, chaperone or no. Yet, he didn't feel in the least apologetic. “What can I say - you make me want to do the most outrageous things. It's a good thing Manuel isn't here right now - he would be shocked at me.”

Victoria grew serious the second he mentioned his son. “I don't think he likes me very much. He's always glaring at me.”

Diego drew the rest of the way back, uncurled the reins, and started the horse forward again before saying, “I thought it was me he was always glaring at.”

“The point is that he's always glaring,” she insisted. “I don't suppose you know why?”

Diego grimaced. “My best guess is that he's unhappy about something, but he hasn't told me what that is yet. Maybe it has something to do with Zorro.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “I'm sure I'll hear about it if it's important. Don't worry.”

But Victoria didn't look convinced. “I can't help but worry.” She faced forward again. “First, 'Nick Soto' shows up, then I find out that my niece who's never caused me an ounce of worry has not one, but two men wanting to be her hero, I'm accosted on the streets of Los Angeles like I'm a common tavern wench, you get into a fight with some drunkards, and we still haven't figured out who sent me that newspaper 25 years ago.” Her sarcastic shrug said even more. “I can't help being a little touchy.”

Latching onto one thing in that litany, Diego thoughtfully said, “Yes, that newspaper. Did you notice that our former Alcalde seemed just as surprised to hear about that newspaper as you were to get it in the first place?”

Victoria nodded. “Yes, and that doesn't make any sense.”

Diego rubbed his chin, still pensive. “Maybe I was wrong in thinking that he was the obvious one to send it. I thought he was taking some kind of revenge on me through you, but maybe not.” He was silent again, thinking of how de Soto had never acted on his information about Zorro, and therefore believing that he'd been so malicious to Victoria wasn't very sensical. “This still doesn't explain how he knew Zorro's identity, and there's no doubt that he knew all about that. Did you see the way that he saluted me?”

Victoria grew alarmed. “Yes, and that bothered me! Didn't it bother you?”

“Some,” Diego conceded truthfully. “But then again, if he was going to act on his knowledge, he would have done so by now.”

“You don't know that,” Victoria warned, clearly worried. “Maybe he's just waiting for the right moment.”

But Diego shook his head. “No, you saw how he was this morning; he's not interested in the same old things anymore. He has his shipping company now, he has money, power, prestige... all the things he wanted 30 years ago, but claimed that Zorro was keeping him from getting.”

“Just so long as he leaves us alone, he can have all the power he wants,” Victoria announced.

“But that still doesn't explain that newspaper,” Diego went on in a thoughtful voice. “I'd feel better knowing why you got it.”

“I'll feel better once we're married and I've got you safe,” Victoria grimly said.

Diego glanced at her. “I may never be safe,” he argued. “You may never be. What if by marrying you, I make you a fugitive for life?”

“But Captain Gillespie said that...”

“That's not what I mean,” Diego quickly refuted. “What if Zorro comes back to haunt us in ways we can't possibly imagine?” He opened his hands in a tiny shrug. “I might not be able to protect you from everything. What then?”

Victoria's unladylike snort split the air. “I don't need protection. If you think I'm one of those simpering...” She glared at him. “Diego de la Vega, why do you..?”

Suddenly, Diego grinned. “I love it when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Call me by my full name. It makes me feel like I'm in trouble, but it's hard to be too worried when all I care about is how amazing you are once you're angry.”

Unable to stay angry after such honesty, Victoria broke into a smile that she tried hard to squelch. “I can see that I'll have to be careful of your overprotective streak.”

“Not to mention all the ways I can distract you.”

Victoria huffed. “Is that what you were doing just now? Distracting me?”

Diego considered. “Yes... but I can't say that I wasn't being honest either. I do love it when you say my full name.”

Successfully distracted from being angry at his overprotectiveness, she once again grinned. “You've just given me exactly what I need to keep you wrapped around my finger.”

Diego smiled back. “That's where I am, anyway. You might as well enjoy it.”

Victoria's laugh trilled out to join the bird song filling the air. “I don't remember you being this honest before - I like it.”

Diego heaved a mock sigh. “I'm just putty in your hands, Señorita.” He laughed with her even now, ruminating on how very much he liked being putty, as well as having someone to be putty for. That thought led him to remember how it really had been for him these past many years without Victoria to be putty for, and he couldn't help feeling sad at the lives that fate had dealt him and her. He had never anticipated being forced to live so many years without Victoria, but even he couldn't completely disregard that life he'd had; Manuel, of course, had been the brightest aspect of that life, right next to Felipe. He didn't know what he would have done without the calming influence of both of his sons - gone insane long ago, most likely. They had always been the light shining in his eyes. He had long ago accepted that if he couldn't live for Victoria, then he would live for his two sons, no matter if they were his biological sons or not. They had grounded him, kept him sane, given his life purpose.

That purpose, however, was now changing. That is, if he could ever get over his thrill about having Victoria back in his life again and get serious about her presence there. But try as he might, he couldn't resist the urge to flirt with her, to tease her, to simply enjoy her company. It was as if he'd been serious and done serious things for the first half of his life, and now he couldn't be serious if his life depended on it... which, fortunately, it didn't.

“What are you thinking about?” Victoria inquired after he'd been silent for several moments.

“You,” Diego said, a reply that instantly made her smile up at him. “I'm also thinking about life,” Diego added. “Specifically, my life, and how it wasn't terrible before without you in it, but that it's so much better now that you're here.” He grinned down at her.

Victoria affectionately wrapped her hand around his arm again and kissed his shoulder. Sighing a gush of contentment, she laid her head on his shoulder once more, and they plodded on.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Victoria began many lazy minutes later. “Señora Benalto told me this morning: she's been saving mine and Ramon's part of the profits for the tavern ever since she and her husband Pedro began managing it. Since I'm not dead, as they thought, and the tavern is still in my name, I have over 100,000 pesos in the Los Angeles bank in the tavern's account.”

Diego gazed at her in surprise. “You have that much money?”

She lifted her head. “I guess so.”

Diego did a double-take. “You don't sound very excited about it.”

“I am,” Victoria assured. But she sounded like having so much money was nothing next to the fact of finding him again. “It just seems so unreal - almost as unreal as you.”

Diego smiled with her, his affection poring unrestrained from his eyes. “I could get used to this kind of unreality.”

Giggling like a young girl, she placed a possessive hand on his knee.

Diego looked down at that hand. “You better be saying what I think you're saying by touching me there.”

Looking purposely puzzled, she asked, “Diego, what are you saying?”

Diego held the reins with one hand, and again wrapped his free arm around the woman beside him in order to give her a one-armed hug. “I'm saying, Señorita, that you had better be up for that promise you're making-but-pretending-not-to-make. I don't think I can stand it if you're not.”

Victoria's grin was saucy and flirtatious at the same time. “How much farther till we get home?”

Chapter Nine

As they pulled into the hacienda's yard only moments later, they had a wonderful view of Maria standing on the hacienda's front steps, her hand being kissed by what looked like a thoroughly smitten Zorro. He murmured something to her that made her smile, then jumped astride his big black horse, wheeled the animal around, and galloping away.

Maria was utterly enamored of the outlaw. If they thought Zorro had seemed enchanted, then Maria looked absolutely awash with love. The stars shining in the young woman's eyes were definitely affectionate, and definitely focused only on Zorro's retreating form.

The rattling of the nearing wagon must have filtered through to her attention then, and she turned to stare at her aunt and Diego, looking as if she'd never seen them before.

“There's nothing like getting your hand kissed by a hero,” Victoria muttered knowingly as she and Diego neared.

Diego pulled the wagon to a stop, staring after the receding form of the man in black. “Why was Zorro here?” he curiously asked Maria.

“He was returning your colt that ran away the other day,” she told him in a wistful voice. “He found it wandering in a valley not far from here, and said that he recognized the brand.”

I just bet he did, Diego sardonically thought to himself. Aloud, he said, “It's a good thing that you were home to accept his 'gift.' I'd hate to have made him tie it to the front gate with no one here to thank him.”

Maria's beaming smile turned to him. “He said it was all in a days' work.”

Victoria's gaze continued to peruse her niece. “I'll warrant that he said something else, too.”

Maria blushed. “He... did.” But she wasn't any more forthcoming than that, and walked into the hacienda before her aunt could question her further.

Victoria turned her suddenly knowing gaze to Diego beside her. “We better give those two a dose of reality before things get out of hand. You take Manuel, and I'll talk to Maria.”

Diego sighed, seeing the need to grow more serious even as he didn't like it. “Just give me a moment to put the wagon away,” he said agreeably, then helped Victoria to climb down.

“Tell him everything,” she pointedly suggested before disappearing into the hacienda.

Diego's resigned sigh filled the air once again, knowing that Victoria was right, but dreading the coming conversation anyway. Ignoring his anxiety, he maneuvered the wagon into the stableyard in order to return the horse and conveyance to their proper places on the ranch.

He heard the gentle murmur of voices coming from the dining room when he entered the hacienda moments later, and was glad that Victoria had chosen to talk to Maria anywhere other than the library. She most likely knew that the library was his favorite place in the hacienda, and was encouraging him to talk to Manuel there. However, she still didn't know about the entrance to Zorro's cave that was hidden in the fireplace mantel. Making a note to himself to show her before much more time had passed, Diego tapped the trigger on the mantel with his fingers, then proceeded into the cave when the secret door swung open.

The cave was predictably empty, Zorro having not returned yet. At first, disappointment flooded him - now that he had decided to say something at last, he wanted to begin his talk with Manuel immediately. Then he had to laugh at himself: Felipe must have felt this same sense of frustration when he hadn't come back yet from his various Zorro outings. Once again, Diego had a keen understanding that he owed more to Felipe than he could ever repay.

To keep himself occupied while waiting, Diego first cast an interested eye over the experiments that he had started in his many attempts to assist Zorro, then found his way to the desk chair where he sat down with his favorite poetry book to keep him company. He was busy perusing the pictures of Victoria that he had drawn in the margins of that book when he heard the distinctive sound of the pulley system activate on the opposite side of the cave.

A large black horse entered, clearly familiar with the layout of the cave; he trotted straight to the stall meant specifically for him, and started munching the hay left there as soon as he entered. The black clad figure of Zorro hopped from his back the moment the horse came to a halt.

“Father!” Zorro exclaimed upon sight of Diego. “I never thought to see you here. I expected that you would be with Victoria.”

The slight note of disdain that accompanied her name would have been completely overlooked by anybody but Diego. He, however, knew his son too well to miss the slight change in inflection. “Why do you dislike her so much?” he curiously asked rather than responding to the comment.

Zorro shrugged as he untacked his horse. “I don't dislike her at all. Whatever gave you that idea?”

Diego practically rolled his eyes at the obvious deception. “You forget how well I know you - almost as well as Felipe knows me. You may get away with pretending for everyone else, but don't try to fool me. I've seen your thunderous looks every time the wedding is mentioned. So, what's going on?”

The saddle taken care of, Zorro removed the bridle and began to curry his horse with swift, sure strokes of the brush. “You clearly don't know me as well as you think you do - I have nothing against the Señorita. You and she have my blessing if you really want to marry - it's obvious that she makes you very happy.”

The quick brushing session over, Zorro moved to the coatrack holding his caballero outfit and began to change clothes.

Diego did roll his eyes this time. “She may make me very happy, but that's not the point. The point is that she doesn't seem to make you happy at all. Did she do something that you don't like?” Zorro didn't respond as he swiftly removed the mask, then started replacing his pants and the ebony shirt with the stiff caballero clothes. “I wish you'd talk to me, Manuel.”

Done changing and once again in his real persona, Manuel glared suddenly at his father. “Why don't you tell me why this whole thing is happening so fast? For heavens' sake, you only just met her yesterday!”

“I didn't just meet her yesterday,” Diego scoffed. “I've known Victoria Escalante my whole life! I simply found her again yesterday.”

Manuel threw up his hands as if to say 'details, details!' “Yes, and you found her again quite by accident, too! I'm perfectly astonished that you don't find that occurrence just a bit too convenient.”

“It's not at all just a matter of convenience - more like fate than convenience.”

Manuel's disdain was far more pronounced this time. “And would it be fate if she just happens to be up to something far more nefarious than renewing an old acquaintance, Father? What if she remembered that wealthy caballero that she knew so many years ago and decided to just show up so she could convince you to get married just so she can get her hands on your wealth?”

“That's ridiculous!” Diego exclaimed, his anger finally piqued. “Victoria already owns a perfectly lucrative business. What would she want with mine?”

“One never knows what the prospect of more money will do to a person,” Manuel direly warned.

“Victoria isn't like that! There's not a greedy bone in her body.”

“It's been years since you've seen her, Father!” Manuel furiously yelled. “Victoria may not be the person you remember her being! I just want you to show more caution, that's all! Give it a few more days so that Felipe has time to do some digging on your behalf! A little caution isn't so hard!”

How had this happened? Diego took a moment to wonder at the fight that had suddenly transpired. He'd come in here to warn Manuel about Maria, not to discuss his relationship with Victoria at the top of his lungs with his suspicious son. “Victoria would never do what you're suggesting.”

“How do you know that?” Manuel persisted. “She's been gone for longer than I've been alive. And when it came right down to it, you married my mother instead of waiting till the end of time for a woman who had vanished only to suddenly appear again years later!”

Diego sat up straighter in his chair and glared at Manuel. “Why don't you come right out and say it?”

Manuel glared back. “Fine, I will! Two days ago, you didn't even know she was alive, and suddenly now you're marrying her? Father, you don't even know her!”

Diego snapped the poetry book shut. “I know her like the back of my hand!”

“Then you're not looking at your hand!” Manuel accused. “She waltzes in here and just..!”

“Manuel, you might be my son, but don't you dare say..!”

“Why not?” he challenged. “Somebody has to say something before you make a complete fool of yourself!” His teeth clamped together as he ground out, “She might be completely different now than you remember her being!”

Diego vaulted up from his chair. “The only thing different about her is the fact that her hair is going as gray as mine! She's not after my money, this ranch, or you. You don't have to be concerned about...”

“I'm only concerned for you, Father, and I think I should stop this juvenile crush before you..!”

“Manuel!” Diego slammed the book against the desk till the sound reverberated off the stone walls in the cave. His troublesome de la Vega temper now fully engaged, he fought to keep his features arranged in a simple frown instead of the twist of derision he wanted to show. “This is no crush! She's my other half, my soul!” He mentally noted the look of confusion that crossed Manuel's face when he confessed that, but didn't let it register yet as he insisted, “I love her like I've never loved any woman!”

Manuel's face fell from confusion into lines of utter horror. Diego's last statement echoed in the emptiness, then faded away to an eerie silence. Diego heaved in air, broken only by the way Manuel was gushing air as well, the sounds punctuated by the constant bubbling of the experiments. They stared at each other, both angry, hurt, and confused, until Manuel gently implored, “How can you say that? Didn't you love Mother?”

And here it was, the crux of Manuel's problem with Victoria. Diego could take this opportunity to smooth things over with Manuel, could charm his way around this problem so that neither of them ever remembered that there had been a problem to begin with... or at last he could tell the truth.

“No.”

Just as Diego had always feared, Manuel seemed to crumple in on himself at that bald admission.

Feeling like he would do anything to take that look of pain away, Diego went on with his confession. “She didn't love me either.”

The look on Manuel's face was now so perplexed that it had twisted into something that barely resembled his typical image. “What are you saying?”

Diego hated to hurt Manuel like this, but knew that Victoria was right in pushing for this revelation. Secrets did nothing but hurt the participants in the end. “Your mother asked me to marry her knowing that I didn't love her, and never would love her. I married her knowing the same.”

The horror was back again. “Then why in heavens' name did you marry each other?!”

Diego sighed once, but quietly told him, “For you.”

The horror was gone, but that simply left more room for the confusion to grow to exponential proportions. Manuel's eyes continued to question his father, and before Diego knew it, he was explaining the whole thing.

“Don't you see that unless I chose to go against your mother's wishes, I had to let everybody believe you were my son, and that Lolita had been killed by pirates or banditos or what have you. To her, it was utterly imperative that her father - your grandfather - not get his hands on you. I was able to help with that by claiming you as my son. I had no idea that Lolita planned what she planned - you have to believe that.”

Manuel could only gape at Diego. “Is that why you never let me see Grandfather Melendez on my own - because you were afraid he would keep me?”

Done with lying and covering the truth, Diego's nod was perfunctory. “Yes. He kidnapped you once before when you were a baby - it wasn't much of a stretch to think that he would try the same thing again.”

“He kidnapped me?” Manuel's voice was a hushed whisper filled with calm awe.

In comparison, Diego was uncomfortable and fidgety now, but he persevered. “Yes, when you were just a few days old.”

Manuel was clearly horrified again. “But if everyone thought I was your son... he was taking me away from my own father! Why?”

Suddenly finding the top of the desk fascinating, Diego concentrated on being kind in his response. “Don Eduardo was...” He fished for a diplomatic word to describe Don Eduardo, but then gave up trying to be too diplomatic. “... terrible. He had a rotten temper.” His smile was wan. “Much worse than the de la Vega temper. Perhaps you picked up on that during his visits here.” Manuel's nod was the only thing to interrupt. “Lolita didn't trust him not to do anything, so I didn't trust him not to do anything, either. It didn't seem to matter with him that by taking you, he was taking my son. He only saw you as an extension of his daughter, who he clearly didn't like, and as the heir he never had.” Diego's shrug was nonchalant compared to the large amount of danger that Don Eduardo had symbolized. “So I kept you, just as Lolita wished. But you aren't mine according to blood. You're the son of Lolita Melendez and Jorge Hidalgo.”

Manuel's confusion was complete. “Who is Jorge Hidalgo?”

Diego hesitated at divulging Jorge's true identity, but only briefly. “A tenet farmer living on your grandfather's estate.”

Confusion gave way to the horror again. “I'm... not even a caballero? I'm the son of a tenet?” The way he said it perfectly illustrated his thoughts on being abruptly thrust into a lower cast.

Diego's voice hardened at his son's obvious disdain. “What does it matter what cast your father came from? Things like that only matter to class conscious remnants of the old ways, like Don Eduardo. The point is that your parents loved each other. Don Eduardo threatened to kill Jorge unless he joined the militia and went away. He died not long after your... conception,” he finished, uncomfortable to speak of such an intimate topic with his son. “Your mother was under her horrible father's thumb, her one love was dead, she was secretly pregnant with you, and she didn't know what to do. I recently learned that she sought my help because of Victoria.”

Manuel's confusion was evident. “Victoria?” he barked. “Your Victoria? The Victoria who just came back? The one you're going to marry?”

“The same.”

How?”

Diego had the dubious pleasure of relating how it was basically Victoria's doing that Manuel had ended up as Diego's son.

Once Diego finished, Manuel looked confused, and angry, and emotionally disgusted. Then, it all dissolved, and he laughed.

It was the last reaction that Diego expected. “You're... alright with this?” he hesitantly asked.

Manuel's gasps of hilarity echoed around the cave. “Sorry, Father! It's just so... ironic!”

Fully appreciating the situation for the first time, Diego slowly allowed a smile to crease his face. “Yes, it is rather ironic at that.”

Quickly sobering, Manuel stared at Diego. “Then I guess... I shouldn't call you... father, Father.”

Diego's visage softened. “Of course you should. You're still a son that I love, no matter who your parents truly are. I didn't know it at the time, but Lolita gave me a real gift in giving you to me.” Diego blushed at his own confession. “Loving you helped with.... losing Victoria.”

The confusion puckered Manuel's brow again. “Who is Victoria, anyway?”

Only whooshes of air from Zorro's horse broke through the pregnant silence inside the cave. Memories of Victoria from various stages of his life flew at Diego like they had wings, barraging him from all sides. Through it all, Diego could not help but give an affectionate smile. No matter how bad things got, how awful the Alcalde of the moment was, how scary the situation for Zorro, how sad it was for Diego... there was always Victoria, through it all, comforting when she could, supporting when she couldn't, loving because she couldn't help that part of herself. Best of all, she had loved him... or half of him... and that had made such a big difference.

Diego was quiet for a long time, swamped with those early and most pleasant memories of when Victoria had played such a big part in Zorro's life. She'd been Diego's inspiration, Zorro's reason for going on as long as he had, Diego's reason for being. She was a part of him - the best part. Even given how the last 25 years had turned out, he wouldn't change the years before them for anything.

Trying to find a way to illustrate to Manuel just how important Victoria was to him, he recalled the way that Zorro had stared at Maria as he'd kissed her hand only an hour before. If Manuel would understand anything, it would be how Zorro displayed his feelings.

“Victoria was my Maria.”

It wasn't surprising that Manuel understood perfectly.

Chapter Ten

“And speaking of Maria,” Diego said to Manuel, swiftly changing the subject, his voice now emphatic, “You have to tell her... as soon as possible. No; sooner. Not telling her is like...” Diego tried to think of a comparison awful enough, and couldn't. “She will think you don't trust her. Even if you want only to keep her safe, not telling her your identity will explode in your face. I know. The last 25 years are proof.” Diego tried hard to ignore his memories of the previous years - reminding himself of the worse days in the last years wouldn't help either him or Manuel at this point. He swallowed hard in order to quietly insist, “If you want a future with her, you must tell her, and tell her now, before things go any further, before they get... out of control.”

Diego again recalled how he'd felt about this issue, how he'd originally wanted only to protect Victoria, how he'd tried to do the right thing, and how it had so completely blown a hole right through his heart. He'd almost lost his reason for living by waiting so long to tell her. In fact, he thought he had, for 25 long years. 25 years was a long time to suffer the recriminations he'd heaped on himself for what he now knew had simply been a massive error in judgment on his part. When he'd only wanted to protect, he had instead appeared to distrust what he'd give his life to continue. If he could save Manuel from making the same mistake, he would feel thoroughly satisfied that all his suffering hadn't been completely for naught. “It took Victoria to think that I was dead to...”

“Dead?!” Manuel reared back in astonishment. He clearly hadn't heard about this before now. “Why did she think you were dead?”

That's right - Manuel hadn't heard about the mysterious newspaper that Victoria had received detailing his demise. Suddenly, Diego was just too tired to explain it all again. “Just tell her,” he insisted once again. “If you want a ghost of a chance with Maria, she has to know.”

“But Father,” Manuel objected. “Why..?”

“Promise me.” Diego refused to veer off that subject.

Manuel sighed. “I will, if you promise to tell me why..?”

Diego felt too drained for this, too emotional, too raw. He could only find the energy to tell his son, “Because she got a newspaper... when she was in Mexico.”

Manuel's forehead wrinkled. “A newspaper?”

How had they gotten on to this topic? Diego felt so tired that even speaking was a challenge now. “One detailing... Zorro's death. One...” He sank to the desk chair that he'd vacated a moment before, and let his voice trail off, completely spent.

“But a newspaper from who?” Manuel asked, determined to clear up the mystery.

“From whom,” Diego automatically corrected as he shook his head. “We don't know, and it's not important. Just promise to tell Maria.”

But Manuel didn't look capable of remembering anything he promised. His eyes had glazed over in thought, his face gone slack in concentration. His attention had obviously wandered from telling Maria his identity to pondering something far more perplexing.

Diego noticed his son's preoccupation, and felt intrigued in spite of his exhaustion. “What is it? Do you know something that I don't?” He couldn't fathom what Manuel might know about something as esoteric as what had happened to Victoria so many years before while staying in another country. “Manuel, what..?”

With the lightening reflexes that being Zorro had honed, Manuel abruptly bolted out of the cave.

“Manuel!” Diego's nose crinkled as he rose much more slowly from the desk chair, shaking his head back and forth, muttering to himself, “Sometimes I just don't understand that boy.” Wryly thinking that his own father had surely thought the same about him, he checked the emptiness of the library through the peep hole, then exited the cave at a much more sedate pace than his son.

Therefore, he was astonished to find Victoria and Maria standing near the bookcase to the right of the fireplace, beyond the peephole's view, books in their hands, both gaping at him like he'd materialized out of the wall itself. According to them, that's probably what it had looked like.

And of course, they'd seen Manuel come from the same place a moment before.

At least he hadn't been dressed like Zorro at the time, was the thought that ironically wafted through Diego's mind, followed by, What's really amazing is that this hasn't happened before now! “Uh... you're probably wondering where we just came from.”

Maria was the first of the two women to recover. “The thought did occur to us.”

But before Diego could respond, Victoria answered, “Your cave when you were Zorro - that's where you were.”

What could Diego say to that? Other than the truth. “Um... yes.” At least she didn't say that it was still being used as Zorro's cave. That would be a dead giveaway linking the present Zorro to the de la Vegas, and it wasn't much more to figure out that Manuel was Zorro - at least he was grateful to her for that.

But that was the last thing he was grateful for. He stood rooted to the library floor and watched, fascinated, as Victoria's emotions careened across her face, the most notable one being anger. He didn't want that anger to focus on him, so he hesitantly reminded her, “You've been there before.”

Reminding her of their original betrothal wasn't particularly beneficial in this instance. The look that now invaded Victoria's eyes was closer to reproachful than perplexed. “So Zorro's cave opens on to your library, undoubtedly a very convenient secret hideout for you, though still a mystery to anybody else.” She placed her free hand accusingly on her hip. “Just when were you going to tell me about this? When I'm old and gray?” Now she looked incensed as much as accusing. “I have news for you - I'm gray already!”

Maria laughed at her aunt's strident tone. “If I were you, Diego, I would either run right back into that cave, or start explaining as fast as you can.”

Diego's gaze swept to her. “You know this from personal experience, I take it?”

Maria nodded, dryly adding, “I bet you do, too.”

Fully exasperated with both of them now, Victoria ignored her niece to piercingly eye Diego. “Are there any more little secrets that you'd like to share with us today?”

For a second, Diego again considered revealing the secret that Manuel was Zorro, but decided making that revelation to Maria was Manuel's prerogative. “No, none that I can think of.”

Her gaze turned to the cave opening in the fireplace, closed now, but obvious if you just looked hard enough. “Why do I suddenly feel very stupid?” she angrily muttered loud enough that she had to know Diego heard her. “I should have figured this out ages ago, if I'd only been paying attention.”

Maria studied her aunt, mystified by her words and once again accusing tone. “Um... this isn't about just any old secret, is it?”

Diego's eyes hadn't once left his fiancé's, and he hardly heard Maria. “The entrance to the cave fooled many people who actually lived in this hacienda - you shouldn't feel bad, Victoria.”

Now fully focused on Diego, Victoria plunked the books in her hand down on the tiny table beside one of the chairs. “Well, I did feel stupid... though I suppose that was not entirely your fault,” she more quietly admitted. “I know that certainly wasn't your intent. And...” She took a deep breath, as if stealing herself for agreeing with something that she didn't want to agree with. “I'm sorry for being so angry when you first told me about Zorro. I shouldn't have been. It's not you I was angry at, not really.” Then she rethought her last comment. “No, it was you I was angry at, but once I'd thought about things, I was more angry at myself than at you.”

This confession startled Diego, who had always anticipated her anger on this issue, but directed at him in particular, not at herself. “That's not how it looked.”

Surprising Diego even more, Victoria gave a wan smile. “No, I suppose that isn't how it looked.”

Maria chose that moment to quietly say a soft, “I think I'll go see what Manuel's up to,” leaving her aunt and their host in the library alone with all their pent up emotions.

Diego hardly noticed her exit, or her absence. Long trapped feelings threatening to spiral out of control in seconds, he fought to contain them long enough to carefully ask, “What do you mean by that?”

Victoria sank into a padded chair near the bookcase recessed into the hacienda's wall. She looked deflated, defeated, lost, and sad. “Oh, Diego, I... I suppose I should take this time to apologize before something else happens that tears us apart again for another 25 years.”

Surprised too at her apology, as well at the way she felt the need to apologize, Diego sat in the chair across the table from her and wrapped her fingers in his. “An apology from you is the last thing I expect. I thought that I would be apologizing to you.”

Victoria's smile grew even more wan. “Yes, that's what I thought you'd say.” She squeezed his fingers. “I had a lot of time to think about this, and it truly amazes me that I didn't figure out who Zorro was much sooner than when you told me. I certainly should have figured things out.” She sighed, a gust of air that dripped sadness. “But I was so wrapped up in Zorro, in thinking of him as a hero, in the legend, in everything. You were right that day you proposed to me.” Her wan smile turned a hint bitter. “I did love the legend.” Her sad gaze met his. “You didn't become a man of flesh and blood to me until...” Here, Victoria looked away from him to study the blank wall near the window, her face guarded. “... until... several weeks had gone by, but by then I thought you were dead, and I cried so hard because...” She swallowed painfully, and when she spoke, her voice was husky and broken and strangled. “I cried... for you... but mostly because... I was so stupid.” Her eyes that she now turned on him oozed her misery. “I want to be the one for you because... I love you... you now, not just Zorro, but... I'm not sure I have the right to ask you to love me back because... I don't think I'm... good enough for you.”

Diego reared back as if she'd hit him. “I never thought... never...” He couldn't finish. All he could do was stare at Victoria sitting so gravely beside him, aghast. Diego couldn't say anything more. He didn't know what to say even if he could.

Not once had he ever considered her feelings on this, but he was considering her feelings now. If she'd been too wrapped up in the legend of Zorro to notice Diego, then he'd been equally as wrapped up in his own imaginings of her response to Zorro's identity. He'd been so sure she would reject him outright that it had guaranteed his silence for years. Now he didn't know how to explain the fears he'd had then without also showing what a coward he'd been. For he had been a coward, despite all Zorro's arrogant bravado - he saw that now. The mess their lives had become mired in was as much his fault as hers.

Finally, he simply assured, “You're not stupid, Victoria.”

But his encouraging words had the opposite effect than he expected. She laughed a bitter laugh, the tears in her eyes oozing out to drip down her cheeks, illustrating her misery, though she didn't sound like she was crying when she stated, “Of course I am, Diego. How can you think anything else?”

“How can you think you're stupid when you thought exactly what I wanted you to think?” Diego instantly asked back. “I didn't want you to see anything but the legend.”

Victoria glanced up at him before immediately averting her eyes back to stare at the wall near the window. “But you said...”

“I know what I said,” Diego insisted. “I was always worried that you only loved the legend. Of course that worried me - and if you did, it served me right.”

That statement caught Victoria's attention so much that she openly gaped at him. “How would it..?”

“That's what I wanted, Victoria,” Diego insisted, his voice now devoid of emotion lest he show too much emotion. “I thought I wanted more, but now that I look at it through your eyes...” He took a shuddering breath and explained, “I hoped that you were able to see past the legend to the man beneath the mask, but if you only ever saw the mask, then that was my fault for playing the roll of boring Diego so well for you - for you in particular.” It was now Diego's turn to stare absently at the wall. “I was more worried about you discovering my identity than anybody else.” His eyes twitched to hers and away again in seconds. “In fact, I'm surprised that you're not accusing me of always having a double standard where you're concerned.” When her brow furrowed in a show of her puzzlement, he added, “I worked so hard at keeping Zorro and Diego as two separate men to you, while at the same time giving you hint after hint as to Zorro's identity. I hoped beyond hope that someday you would figure out my secret on your own. If you figured me out, but I didn't tell you, then I could hardly blame myself for purposely putting you in danger.” His admission finished, he leaned back in the chair, as defeated as Victoria. In a tone of miserable surrender, he added, “There it is, the whole truth of the situation. Now, If you want to sell the tavern and go back to Guadalajara alone, I wouldn't blame you.”

Slowly, Victoria shook her head in denial of what he claimed she wanted to do. “I don't want to go back to Guadalajara alone. I can't sell the tavern now, anyway,” she told him plaintively. “It's Mendoza's home - I invited him to use the back room for as long as he wants - I can't sell it out from under him. Besides,” she added, brushing evidence of her tears away and nervously smoothing down her skirt. “I'm not sure I want to sell it anymore.”

Well, that surprised Diego. “You don't?” She simply shook her head again, and he protested, “But I thought that's what you came to Los Angeles to do.”

A small smile broke out through the tear tracks still marring her cheeks. “I'm not sure that I'm ready to give up on Los Angeles - there's more here than I expected to find.” This time, she looked straight at him, and there was no doubt that she referred to him with her cryptic words. She didn't blink, didn't breath, didn't do anything but squeeze his hand once more. Her eyes, however, positively glowed with the hope she had of convincing him to give them a try, now that she wasn't too enamored with a legend in black to see her best friend behind his mask. “I love you, Diego,” she nonchalantly added. “I wouldn't blame you if you dumped such a stupid tavern wench down the nearest dark hole you can find, but I hope that you can see that I'm not completely a lost cause.”

Thoroughly exasperated, Diego insisted, “You're not stupid, Victoria, not for seeing only what I wanted you to see. I would think that you would want to throw me in that dark hole.”

Suddenly she grinned. “Do I get to go with you?”

As much as he didn't want to, he had always found Victoria's smiles infectious, and an answering smile slowly crept across his face until he was smiling along with her. “I wouldn't want it any other way.”

Manuel's voice abruptly broke into the conversation before Victoria could say anything more. “Sorry to put a pall on your flirting,” he began in a grim voice as he and Maria entered the library together.

Diego and Victoria's heads came up so fast that it's a wonder they didn't hurt themselves. Diego's eyes narrowed. “We weren't flirting!”

“Much,” Victoria softly joked.

But Manuel didn't smile at her lame joke attempt, and his grim visage successfully caught their attentions. He carried a leather bound book in his hand, what could possibly be a personal journal, and Maria held what looked like... letters?

Diego's gaze settled on Manuel and the journal. “What's this? It's not your personal diary, is it?” The suspicion in his voice was unmistakable. “I don't want to find out what you're really doing when I'm not looking!”

“It's nothing like that,” Manuel insisted. “This is Grandfather Eduardo's journal - what he called 'His Gloat Book.'” He didn't mention where he'd managed to get ahold of such a thing, and Diego hoped that he hadn't stolen it, but didn't ask as he truly didn't want to know. “I didn't have time to read through all of his books until recently, so when I came across the mention of a Victoria and a newspaper, I didn't make the connection that he was talking about you,” and he gave a nod to acknowledge Victoria, “Not until Father mentioned you getting a newspaper while you were in Mexico City.”

When Manuel didn't elaborate, Diego impatiently glared at him. “What about Victoria?”

Manuel studied the journal he held for a moment, as if it would supply him with the answer his father was seeking. But instead of answering him, Manuel held the book out to Diego. “Look for yourself.”

Diego took the book carefully, as if he was long used to revering such items simply because they were books. This one was filled with scratchy writing that was already starting to fade, clearly in diary format.

“Start reading at the second paragraph on the right hand page,” Manuel instructed. “Oh, and show Victoria, too.”

Diego did as he was instructed, sitting back down in his chair and holding the book propped open on the little table between him and Victoria. He leaned in, reading:

The nerve of that that Victoria woman, that Escalante! I thought I was finished with the Escalantes when I sent that father of hers to the prison. But like a bad infestation, they keep coming back to haunt me. Today was no different - she threw me out today, and for what? Some damned cussing! Of all the stupid things! Does she know who I am? I'll fix her! I just have to think of something good first.

Diego turned the page at the break. “How educated he sounds,” he noted in an analytical way. “I wonder if he went to the University in Madrid? Or maybe he went to the Academy.” Diego turned back to the first page of the book to see if he could find a clue there. “He was definitely educated in Spain, though. There aren't any Universities in the colonies that could make him such a...”

“Diego, stop!” Victoria blurted. “He just confessed to sending my father to prison!” Her face fell into furious lines. “If he weren't already dead, I'd kill him!”

Manuel simply instructed, “Keep reading.

Diego squeezed Victoria's hand to let her know that he'd seen the same thing she had even as he did as his son suggested. The next entry was dated two weeks later.

I did it! I fixed her real good this time! That's one damned hussy that'll think twice about dealing with Eduardo Melendez! I heard she was in Mexico City with a brother. It came to me one night a few days ago that she wouldn't like hearing about her hero guy's death, that Zorro. So I snuck into the newspaper office at night and made one copy of a newspaper. I figured that if the de la Vega wimp can write and print a paper, then so can I. I had one of the old papers that de la Vega had written with me, and I based it on that. But I bet she won't even notice - she's too common to know the difference. I'm lucky she can read at all, or this wouldn't work. I said that Zorro had been killed by some rockslide outside the pueblo. Then I put in how that Diego friend of hers had gone missing - I even quoted his father! I'd be worried that she'd write to check on this, but I hired that fellow Jesus (not the name I would have chosen for him - more like Judas) that man from the territorial mailin San Diego - he's going to be on the lookout for any letters from the Escalante woman to Los Angeles and intercept them, so no one will get them and answer her back, and she won't know what's going on here. And I made that Jesus fellow go down to Mexico City and dress like a lancer and say that Mendoza sent that newspaper to her. She'll think her hero's dead and her friend's gone, that there's nothing left in Los Angeles to come back to. Sometimes I'm so clever, I amaze even myself. And if she comes back on the stage to check on any of this, I've arranged for that Jesus fella to tell me, and the stage will have an accident - I'll make sure of it. Bandits are always attacking the stage, and it won't seem strange at all that she's killed. She'll never know what really happened. I paid that man a lot of money for this - 1000 pesos! But it was worth every centavo. She'll never bother me again! I just wish I could tell her it was me who was behind all this, but then she wouldn't think what I want her to think. But that'll teach her to mess with Eduardo Melendez!

Diego felt heavy and slow, like he was swimming against a current in order to make the sudden realization of just what Victoria must be feeling at that moment.

But Victoria looked too stunned to be thinking anything. She sat, quietly aghast, silent, staring down at the journal still in Diego's hands, her face bloodless and chalky. It looked like it was all she could do not to fall over.

“Victoria!” Diego exclaimed, his hand out to steady her.

But she ignored him. “Madre de Dios,” she whispered, her eyes wide, her look appalled. “It's all my fault!”

Diego threw a glance at Manuel even as he reached again for Victoria. “Don't be loco, Victoria. Don Eduardo admits right here that he was behind the whole thing.”

Victoria was undeterred. Her voice still held to a whisper, she said, “I remember that day - he called me a... I slapped him. Everyone stood up, so he stopped, but he told me that I would regret it. Then he left.” Victoria's gaze met Diego's. He was glad to note that there was now more emotion in her gaze than the nothing of stunned numbness. “I was just glad that he didn't cause any more trouble that day. I had no idea he would...” Her eyes widened again. “Madre de Dios.”

“I remember that day, too.” Diego's voice now matched his son's for grimness. “Every man in the tavern jumped up to defend you, but you took care of things yourself when you slapped Don Eduardo. If you hadn't done what you did, a fight would have broken out - you saved countless injuries from happening, maybe even some lives.” His grimness increased. “Don Eduardo wasn't known for being someone who could control his temper.”

Despite looking a little better, Victoria still sounded numb. “All this - these years - just because he called me a...” Her voice trailed away as memory clearly seized her once more.

“That doesn't mean it was true, or you deserved it.” Diego's glare hardened even more. He had always suspected that Victoria had shielded him while he'd been Zorro, not divulging everything that she put up with on his behalf, and now he felt sure of it. “What did he call you?”

Victoria swallowed a painful swallow. “He called me...” She seemed to be waking from a particularly horrific nightmare. “Zorro's...”

“Actually, I can imagine the rest,” Diego quickly interrupted, hoping to stop her before she could tell him everything. “Don Eduardo's language was always colorful - too colorful.” He momentarily regarded his son. “What did you say this book was?”

Manuel's response was swift. “Grandfather called it his Gloat Book. Kind of like a diary, but a bragging one. He has a whole collection of them in that box that I...” He abruptly stopped talking, and just as abruptly, Diego knew why: Zorro had attained that box full of who knows what else besides these diaries, and as Manuel was currently Zorro... and he obviously hadn't told Maria about that yet... though Maria was sharp enough to figure that out for herself, since it had been Manuel who'd run out of the cave only moments ago... a cave that Victoria clearly knew about and had called Zorro's cave...

The complexities of who knew what and when they knew it was beginning to give Diego a headache.

Focusing on one aspect of this mess helped with the pain in his head. “There are other books just like this?”

Manuel nodded. “Many others.”

Before Diego could suggest that they turn these books over to Felipe, or even the authorities, Maria offered the letters in her hand. “I found these, too. They're from you, Aunt Victoria. I didn't read them, but I assume they're the letters you wrote over the years that never reached their destination because they were intercepted, just like Don Eduardo said. He must have confiscated them from that man he had working for him.”

Diego took the proffered letters, but didn't read them, either. He would read the ones addressed to him later, after he'd had time to assimilate all that had transpired. For now, his attention focused solely on the man Maria and Don Eduardo had referred to. “I know what man Don Eduardo's talking about - old Jesus Dynardo. He's been in charge of the pueblo mail for decades.” Diego recalled the gentle way Jesus had helped the young children with their own mail when he had just returned from Spain. The memory made him sick. Jesus was old now, bent with age, sick and palsied, but still very much alive... and, so it would appear, very much open to bribery.

Diego's eyes flashed with a passion that they hadn't for years. “I think we need to talk to this Jesus about stealing mail, if nothing else.” His attention again centered on Victoria, and the look in his eyes softened. “This wasn't your fault, Victoria.”

“How can it not be my doing, if not my fault?” she plaintively asked him. “How can you not blame me for..?”

Diego leaned in close to her. “Of course I don't blame you. I'm actually thankful to you, in a way.”

Her stare turned quizzical. “How are you thankful?”

Diego gave her a half smile. “I've been feeling guilty all these years for keeping Manuel with me when he really wasn't... But now I don't feel guilty at all, not if that man could do that to you. I was more than right to do what I did in return.”

Maria looked confused. “What did you do, Diego?”

Diego gazed at her, that half smile still adorning his face. “That's for Manuel to tell you.” Maria glanced at Manuel, more confusion spreading through her eyes.

Ignoring the two young people, Diego gave Victoria's hand another heartfelt squeeze. “I'm just so glad that you didn't come back to Los Angeles until after he died. You could have been killed if you had, and I wouldn't have been there to stop it.” Horror at that thought surged over him, and it was all he could do to keep his breathing regulated enough so that he didn't hyperventilate.

But even as Diego ignored Maria's obvious confusion, Manuel didn't. He took her arm and gently said, “There are several things I need to tell you. Now's the perfect time; let's take a walk.” Without further ado, he pulled her unprotesting form right out the door and into the late morning sunshine.

That left Diego alone with Victoria, who still looked shell shocked, though the color was beginning to creep back into her cheeks. He was more than glad that she seemed to be shaking off any blame she might have mistakenly assigned to herself for what had really been the vindictiveness of a truly foul tempered man. “Victoria?” he asked to get her attention, his voice pitched so low that only she could hear. “Preciosa?”

The pet name helped in fully snapping her out of whatever funk she had been in. As slow as flowing molasses, her gaze locked with his, longing and sweetness and fondness and love filling them. Her whisper floated between them, hardly more substantive than air. “Gracias a Dios - you're safe.”

Diego didn't hesitate to touch his forehead affectionately to hers, barely breathing. “And so are you.”

They sighed their contentment with that situation as one. The dual gush of air sounded with the idea that the threat to Victoria, and Diego by the strange set of circumstances surrounding it, had died with Don Eduardo. de Soto was no longer a threat to Los Angeles, or to the man he'd vowed to capture and hang. The outlaw savior of the pueblo had long since drifted into legend, despite his brief countryside comeback. No one left alive even cared who knew about Zorro's original identity, as that man had 'ridden with reckless endangerment' through the town so many decades before that it no longer mattered what he'd done against Spain when the government of the United States was far more pertinent.

With all these thoughts crowding through his mind, Diego could only think to ask, “Should we set things right at last?” He cradled her cheeks with his steadying hands, his long fingers lovingly caressing her temples. “Marry me?”

Wasting no time, Victoria gave a small smile and nodded her instant assent. “Yes, and that's the third time you've asked me that, Diego.”

He couldn't suppress his grin at her words. “No, Zorro's asked you twice, if I recall. I thought it was Diego's turn to do things right.”

“He did,” she assured, matching his wry grin. “And I will.” She softly kissed his lips. “Let's make it soon - this week, if we can manage it. 26 years is plenty long for an engagement, don't you think?”

“I think...” Diego's soft and hesitant voice sounded low in the library, until a familiar firmness invaded it, “Zorro has a lot to answer for, and more to be grateful for... but Diego has you, and you're utterly priceless.”

Epilogue

“Try again, Father,” Manuel ordered in his best tutor's voice. “And say it all in English this time. If you can't think of the right word to use, then use a different English word.”

Diego fidgeted in his library chair in order to find a more comfortable position. He and Manuel had been at this English lesson for at least an hour already, and his butt was getting tired. But nobody was likely to disturb them until Manuel said they were finished for the day, so he had to give up his hope that someone would come and rescue him.

Why he had thought that English lessons from Manuel was a good idea was beyond him. The idea had seemed like such an innocent one a month ago, and Manuel had been so thrilled with the thought of teaching his father. Unfortunately, his brain chose this particular moment to remind him of how much easier he had been on Felipe when he had been the tutor than Manuel was on him now. His memories soured his attitude even further, but he knew Manuel would be happy with nothing less than for his father to speak English, so he had nothing to lose if he really did try - even if his attempt was laughable.

Diego took a deep breath, steeling himself, and launched into the English recitation that Manuel had asked him to do. “Victoria and me... uh, Victoria and I... married in 2 marriage... happy thing... I mean, ceremony... with son my and Maria in tavern... cooking place.”

Manuel burst into loud laughter. In Spanish, he said, “Father, that was hysterical!”

At his announcement, laughter peeled from the direction of the dining room. “Diego, admit it - you've met your match in English!”

Perturbed, Diego returned to his native Spanish to holler back to Victoria still in the dining room, “If the likes of Ignacio de Soto can learn to speak English, then so can I!”

Victoria moved out of the dining room and into the library to give her belligerent husband a kiss on the top of his graying hair. “It's a good thing that Zorro didn't have to speak English - he would have sounded like a...” She let he voice trail off lest she say something that proved very unpopular.

Diego scowled, knowing what she was doing even as she did it. “Like a what?”

Victoria just kissed him on the head again. “Like the incredibly smart man we all knew him to be to speak another language.”

Manuel laughed again. “Of course, what he said in that other language didn't make sense at all.”

Diego's scowl deepened while Victoria blithely added, “Yes, but if we didn't know what he was saying, it wouldn't matter. We all would have been so impressed!”

Smiling, Maria also entered the library. “Just as long as there were no English speakers in the plaza at the time.” She planted her own kiss on her husband's head, making certain that she didn't accidentally bump Manuel with her pregnant belly.

Manuel couldn't leave well enough alone. “If there had been English speakers there, they would have died from laughing so hard!”

Victoria adopted a dramatic pose. “Then Zorro would have been charged with murder and the Alcalde would have declared that he won.”

Diego broke in, “So it's a good thing I never tried to speak English.” He pulled his wife closer and nuzzled the part of her stomach that he could reach without standing up, happy for the interruption.

For some reason, the nuzzle reminded Diego of a time when he hadn't been allowed to make such an action, then of anoher time when he'd been unsure if Victoria's annulment was legal or not, and he hadn't dared to do it. A visit from Felipe, however, had allayed his fears: the lawyer had spoken privately to Victoria for only 15 minutes before declaring that the annulment had been and still was very legal according to Mexican law, giving Diego and Victoria leave to finally marry. The two had then celebrated for the next month, but Diego never did ask either his wife or son just what had traspired during those 15 minutes. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Manuel gave an ironic snort, drawing his father's wandering attention back into the library and its English lesson, a lesson that he had failed at in a most spectacular way. “I guess it's lucky that you're not Zorro any longer, Father, since most of the bandits Zorro captures today only speak English.” He kissed Maria's pregnant belly even as she tried to keep it from bumping him. “So it's a good thing that Zorro speaks English now. At least he can say, 'Zorro rules!' and they can understand him.”

Fascinated by the casual exchange between his son and daughter-in-law, Diego watched as Manuel laid a hand reverently on Maria's stomach. Manuel looked happy and content as he gazed up at Maria, and Maria looked positively charmed at the way Manuel was so happy about their coming baby. The whole scene looked so calm, so domestic, so hopeful. So why did it leave Diego feeling slightly nauseous every time he saw it?

Oh, he wasn't nauseous at the affection between Manuel and Maria. He liked seeing that, had liked seeing it ever since the double wedding he and Victoria had had with them a year ago. He'd only been getting nauseous since Maria had announced her pregnancy. And it seemed to Diego that he was the only one who felt that way about it.

It secretly appalled Diego that no one was in the least concerned about Maria at this juncture in her life. Her pregnancy had been met by everyone with joy and happiness. Diego had met it with happiness on the outside, but had felt only oily, burning fear on the inside. He suspected that he was the only one who felt this way, and for that he was glad. He wouldn't wish this kind of paralyzing fear even on his worst enemy, not even de Soto. He would be very glad when her pregnancy was over, the baby was delivered, they were both healthy and safe, and above all, alive. So many women and children succumbed to the trials of birth and died in the childbed that he wondered how the human race managed to keep growing. But grow it did - the booming population of Los Angeles only proved that.

Clearly oblivious to Diego's thoughts, Maria nonchalantly informed, “It's almost lunchtime.”

“Thank God,” Diego energetically quipped, successfully hiding his fear at Maria's growing belly, referring instead to his English lesson.

Maria grinned at Diego, then pulled Manuel out of his chair. “No more tutoring for at least an hour - the baby needs its lunch.”

“So does her mama,” Manuel added with a smirk.

But the teasing didn't faze Maria. “If you want me to stay in a good mood, I do.”

Manuel pretended to be scared. “The Escalante temper might come out if I don't feed it.”

“You wouldn't want that,” Diego assured, grinning now as well.

“No, I wouldn't,” Manuel agreed.

Employing that famous Escalante temper, Maria fake-hollered something in English, and gave Manuel a definite shove in the direction of the dining room.

Even if no one else understood what she had said, Manuel did. “What would Zorro say if he heard you?”

Maria only laughed and pushed him again. “He would tell you to feed that baby, pronto!” They disappeared into the dining room.

Victoria leaned in close to help Diego up out of his chair, too, so that they could follow Manuel and Maria. “I know what you're thinking,” she whispered as she drew near to his ear.

Diego paused, still in his chair. “What am I thinking?” he whispered back, curious as to what she was going to say, sure that she had no idea what he was really thinking.

“You're thinking about your mother right now, and how you and Don Alejandro and Doña Elena thought that everything would be fine with her last pregnancy, too, when it most definitely wasn't, and you're amazed at how calm we all are about Maria.”

Wow. “By now I should be used to you reading my mind,” Diego whispered back in an astonished tone.

“Diego,” Victoria soothed, patting down his silver hair. “You've been reading everything you possibly can to prepare yourself for the birth of Maria's baby. She'll be fine, don't worry.”

Diego couldn't contain his fears now as they bubbled up at Victoria's innocent words. “But what if it's not? What if..?”

“Maria's not your mother.”

Diego gazed at Victoria. Her firm but guileless expression encouraged him to declare another of his inner thoughts. “Does it bother you that I thank God every day that it's not you having a baby, possibly facing death?” His expression darkened. “I know that I should feel guilty about thinking that way, but...” Suddenly, he pulled her to him and buried his face in her stomach, fears once more rising up to engulf him. “If you died giving birth to my child... I couldn't face life without you again.”

Victoria held his head to her as if she was cupping his heart in her hands. “You won't, Diego, you won't.” She knelt beside his chair, the only time they were the same height, and gazed into his blue eyes, adding a soft kiss to his lips as an extra vow. “I promise, and I never break a promise to Zorro.”

“I'm not Zorro anymore, just boring old Diego.”

“And I'm just boring old Victoria.”

Diego grinned at her, melting. “Let's be boring and old together.” He leaned in to properly kiss her.

“Father! Are you coming?”

Diego groaned his frustration at the interruption. “Manuel may not be a de la Vega by birth, but I swear that at times like these, he's channeling my father!”

Victoria giggled enticingly into his ear. “Long live Don Alejandro.”

“No,” Diego gently reminded her, and nuzzled her nose. “Long live Zorro.”

Victoria sighed at Diego's nuzzling, content. “Just as long as Zorro isn't you.” She met Diego half way, and just as their lips met in a passionate kiss...

“Father, Victoria!” Manuel's strident voice again called out. “Lunch!”

Both Diego and Victoria groaned their regret. “Coming!” they yelled in unison. Victoria rose awkwardly from the floor, then pulled Diego up, laughing at the stiffness that had set in after sitting in one place longer than a minute. Arms wrapped around each other's waist, they left the library.

The End


Back to [Zorro Stories]. Send comments to linda.bindner@gmail.com.

This page has been accessed 751 times since 2005 Jul 30.