Chapter 8

It took an astonishingly short time for Diego's fever to finally break and the despondent air that had settled over the household was suddenly lifted. The doctor read through Diego's journal and managed to make some medicinal tea's that would aid in his recovery. And even Alejandro had been convinced to take a short siesta in his own bed.

Victoria was the only one who resisted the loan of a room. Instead she chose to sit in a chair with her head pillowed on her arm next to Diego's head. She'd finally fallen asleep, her fingers laced around his hand. Diego's journal rested on the nearby table.

Padre Benitez watched the Diego and Victoria with unblinking eyes. There were no two people, he thought, who better deserved to be happy. They'd waited so long for the right moment, and the wise friar had watched the two of them tiptoe around one another for years. It was time for Diego to share his secret, even if it hadn't happened in a way he would have preferred.

The padre closed his eyes and prayed once again. Not only for the injured man lying in the bed, but for the woman he loved most in this world, his family, his home and the oppressed people he had taken it upon himself to protect.

The alcalde glanced out the door, eyes narrowed.

Mendoza sat at a nearby table, collecting the new 'income' tax. Odd, though, that Zorro had not spoken one little word against the new tax. In fact, De Soto hadn't even seen him since that one evening when he'd ripped down the notice. He hadn't even gone after the two bandits who had shot Diego de la Vega.

"Heh, good," De Soto rubbed a whiskered chin. "About time they stop depending on that fiend to ride out of nowhere to defend them."

De Soto clicked the door shut and sat down at his desk. It was nearly siesta and he was tired. Well, Mendoza would take care of all the taxpayers. And anyone who didn't pay their taxes by week's end would simply have their property confiscated. The smug man stretched his legs across his desk, leaned his chair back and closed his eyes.

But a loud pounding on his office door prevented any further slumber.

"What!" De Soto hissed.

"A letter for you, alcalde," Mendoza ushered the messenger into the office and left, before the alcalde fumed even further over his siesta being interrupted.

"What is this?" He snatched the letter from the messenger. He didn't miss the governor's waxed seal affixed to the back as he ripped it open.

The messenger left as the alcalde sank into his chair, eyes scanning the official document. He huffed and slammed the letter onto the table. "Mendoza!"

It took a few moments for the Sergeant to come running. "Sí, mí alcalde?"

"I have been summoned to Monterrey and I shall be leaving at once. You will be in charge until I return." De Stoto stood and walked around the large desk. "Be sure you carry out my orders regarding the seizure of land should anyone fail to pay the new tax."

"Oh, sí alcalde." After a moment, Mendoza added. "This is a rather sudden trip."

"Indeed." De Soto regarded the Sergeant with a curious stare. "The letter is quite detailed, however."

Mendoza waited for further explanation and the alcalde scowled. "Fine, fine. All military leaders are being summoned to Monterrey to take an oath of allegiance to - Mexico." Mendoza didn't miss the snort of disgust as the alcade said the word.

"Oh." Mendoza clearly had no idea what was going on in the world, outside of his own little life in the sleepy pueblo.

As an afterthought, De Soto addressed the Sergeant. "I want your best lancers stationed outside the de la Vega hacienda while I'm away."

Mendoza gaped at the man. "Alcalde?"

"I want to know who comes and goes. That Zorro has been strangely absent is very unusual and I think it has something to do with the de la Vegas."

"But alcalde, you can't think-"

"Zorro is probably upset that his woman is spending so much time fawning over Diego de la Vega's health." De Soto laughed.

His voice changed and he leveled Mendoza with a stern stare. "Your best lancers, Sergeant."

Mendoza sighed regretfully. His friend was ill. There really was no reason for armed lancers to prowl outside the hacienda. A thought popped into Mendoza's mind and he all but skipped over to the tavern for lunch.

With the alcalde away…what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

"Diego." The padre's soft voice broke through the cloudy haze that was Diego's consciousness.

When he finally opened his eyes, he squinted against the daylight that poured into the room. "Ugh," Diego murmured as he tried to move but pain shot through his chest and he slumped against the cushions with an uncomfortable groan.

"Rest easy, there. You've had a very difficult few days." The padre held out a glass of water and Diego took a few cautious sips.

The cough that followed caused padre to realize that perhaps the man wasn't ready for such thin liquids. The friar hid a small smile when Diego tried to cover his mouth from the cough and found one arm buried beneath a very exhausted Señorita who had fallen asleep with her head pillowed upon it.

Diego's eyes searched narrowly around the room, trying to remember, trying to understand what had happened. The padre could see the man wanted to speak, wanted to touch the young woman's hair but he was weak, and he knew it. Diego simply closed his eyes, willing the pain to subside.

But Victoria had felt the movement and her eyes snapped open just as Diego's closed. She searched the padre's face and the heavy weight on her heart lifted when she saw him smile. When she glanced back down at the bed again, her breath caught.

He was looking at her. Diego was awake!

"Diego!" her eyes lit as she wrapped an arm around his shoulders and hugged him tight.

"Vic-toria?" His voice was a mere whisper but there was a weak strength behind it. "What-" He swallowed and took as deep a breath as he could before wincing at the pain that rushed through his chest. "- happened?"

"You were shot," She answered, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes. "Trying to protect me. Don't you remember?"

Diego closed his eyes and nodded. "Yes."

"We were so scared, Diego," Victoria searched his face before stopping to stare into his clear blue eyes. She should have guessed simply from the unmistakable look in them. He looked at her the same way Zorro did. But she'd been too blindsided by Zorro's attention to see it. "I was so scared." When she pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek, his eyes widened.

The padre had to hold back a laugh at the look of shock and disbelief in Diego's eyes. There had been a lot of changes, a lot of revelations in the days that'd he'd been unconscious. No doubt, life for the young caballero would probably get a lot worse now that he was awake and able to face the Señorita's wrath.

Diego's sharp intake of breath echoed around the small room when Victoria pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I know," was all she said before Alejandro walked in, the doctor on his heels.

Diego's eyes narrowed, not quite understanding, but had no time to voice his question before his father pulled him into a gentle hug.

"Diego! Don't ever do that to me again, son!" Alejandro clutched at the man's hand. "I'm getting too old to worry like this."

Victoria could see him swallow nervously and she bit back a bubble of laughter. She didn't think she'd ever seen Diego so truly confused. She'd make him squirm a bit yet before she told him - everything.

"Let me take a look at that wound." Hernandez recognized the panicked look in Diego's eyes and sought to rescue the confused caballero.

"Out, all of you." Hernandez gazed around the room and shuffled Victoria and Alejandro out the door.

Felipe joined Alejandro and Victoria as they waited outside Diego's room. Felipe began to sign slowly and Alejandro narrowed his eyes, cursing that he could not read the boy's gestures as well as his son could.

"The doctor will be done examining Diego shortly," Alejandro advised, still trying to read Felipe's gestures.

It took only a few minutes and then they were allowed back into the room.

Alejandro marveled at the change in his son. He was alert and his eyes scanned his family carefully as they walked in the door.

"Son, you look remarkably well." Alejandro sat in the chair next to the bed and gripped his son's hand tightly.

"So - I'm told." Diego rasped. His voice wasn't quite the same, having not been used for the better part of a week, and the sound caused everyone in the room to tilt their heads and regard the man curiously.

"What?" He asked, eyes narrowing in confusion. Something had obviously happened while he was unconscious and no one was talking. He turned pleading eyes on Felipe.

The boy began signing immediately as Victoria walked to the other side of the bed and sat down, far closer to the bed than would have been customary for a simple family friend. Diego struggled with an uncomfortable nagging in the back of his mind. What had she said before she'd been shuffled out of the room? She knew? Knew what? Oh! His eyes widened as he turned his head slowly to look at her.

She grinned when she noticed the unvoiced question hovering in his eyes.

Felipe broke the uncomfortable silence by addressing Diego, hoping the man would be able to understand him.

"The alcalde - has been summoned to - Monterrey?"

Victoria and Alejandro exchanged concerned looks.

"There's - more?" Diego took a small sip of water Victoria offered, his eyes darting from Felipe to the woman he loved.

"The alcalde - ordered the hacienda to be - watched?"

"What?" Alejandro stood suddenly and turned to Felipe. "When did you hear this?"

"Just today?" Diego translated. He exchanged a confused glance with his father and then Victoria. Just what had happened while he was unconscious?

A knock on the bedroom door drew their attention and when the maid called for Alejandro, the man excused himself with a polite nod, drawing the doctor and Felipe out with him.

Diego covered Victoria's hand with his own, his eyes imploring her for an explanation.

She smiled slightly and brushed a lock of hair that had fallen onto his forehead. "Zorro has not been seen since you were shot." She waited a moment for those words to sink in. "And the alcalde himself had to capture the bandits responsible." She searched his eyes for a sign of understanding but she continued before he could speak. "He was quite annoyed that Zorro had not apprehended them before he was forced to take some action."

"Oh." Diego's eyes dropped to their entwined hands.

"I'd never noticed that before." She commented slowly and he forced himself to look at her.

"What?"

"That you never look me in the eyes."

"Oh. Well-"

"Spare me the excuses, Diego." Victoria had decided she wouldn't get angry, would give him the chance to explain, but, she was growing impatient and she knew if given so much as a moment, he'd take as much time as he could to devise an excuse. And she would believe him. Just like she always did.

She noticed him swallow nervously and hid a grin of delight. No, she wasn't going to make this easy for him.

"Victoria-"

"Diego. Be honest with me. No more lies. No more deception. Tell me the truth."

Well, she obviously knew. But how?

"You have a distinct advantage, Victoria." Diego began, taking another sip of water as she pressed the glass to his lips. "You know something that I haven't revealed to you. Not consciously, anyway."

"No." Victoria's eyes narrowed and he all of a sudden regretted speaking. "You chose to keep this news to yourself. Leaving those who care about you, who - love you, to live unknowingly with your deceit."

He forced himself not to look away. She needed to speak and he needed to hear whatever scathing words she had to say. Fortunately, his voice was steadying but it was raspier and deeper than normal. Even this seemed to irritate the fiery-tempered Señorita.

"What if you'd died?" her eyes were wet with unshed tears and his heart lurched. If there was one thing in this world he couldn't stand to see, it was a woman cry.

"I've written letters," Diego admitted slowly. "In the event of my death."

Her eyes flashed and he nearly regretted the admission. But she wanted to know. He might as well tell her everything.

"You have a lot of explaining to do." Alejandro re-entered the room and sat himself comfortably in a chair next to Diego's bed and crossed his arms.

Diego wasn't sure which one of them frightened him more. Victoria's wild, somewhat uncontrollable temper, or his father's cool, calm, and silent one.

"Your mother's wedding ring?" Alejandro asked with an amused glint in his eye that was lost on Diego.

Diego swallowed nervously. So they'd discovered the ring. How? He wondered. He hadn't expected to start with this. But, he supposed he should have. He did, after all, take something that, while reserved for Diego's future wife, was not yet truly his.

"Do you know how distraught I've been over thinking I'd lost it?"

Diego winced and glanced at Victoria who sat staring at him, an unreadable expression on her face.

"I'm not feeling too well," Diego feigned a headache. He needed some time to think about this. And he didn't have the presence of mind to answer a deluge of questions right now. He was tired and weak.

"Oh no you don't, son-" Alejandro started but Victoria stood and silenced him.

"Diego Sebastian de la Vega."

Diego winced. He couldn't remember a time that she had ever used his full name. And the only time he'd ever heard his full name used it was dripping from his mother's lips like venom. He anticipated hearing it a lot more often now that Victoria knew the truth. No doubt it'd take her a long time to get over his deception.

"You will either talk to us now, or talk to us later. But we will speak of this."

He tried to rub his face but moving his arms more than a few inches caused more than just a little pain to shoot through his chest.

"I think later would be good. I'm still a bit drowsy-"

"Fine," Victoria stalked around the side of the bed, took Alejandro's arm and pulled him out of the room. "We'll be back later."

Diego winced and exhaled a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Just as he closed his eyes, Felipe slipped into the room.

"Felipe!" Diego winced as he tried to move too suddenly. "What happened? They know? How? Tell me everything."

Diego slumped further into the bed, his face an unreadable mask. The revelation of his identity hadn't played out in any way like he'd envisioned. But he hadn't been rent limb from limb yet, so that had to be a good thing.

"So, rumor is the alcalde is being summoned to Monterrey to sign an oath of allegiance to Mexico?" Diego repeated what he thought Felipe had signed. "Interesting. If that's true, we should see a change in governmental leadership very soon."

Felipe shrugged not quite sure what to say. He'd only ever known Spanish California. But it had been a bloody fight. One he wouldn't want to see yet again if Mexican soldiers took charge of Alta California.

Diego, understanding the boy's fear sought to alley it. "The King doesn't have the military strength here to repel a direct attack by the Mexican army. He's embroiled with a war at his doorstep. It doesn't surprise me that he would let California go without so much as a fight."

Felipe nodded and as their conversation lulled, Diego's eyes began to close. Soon he was fast asleep, Felipe sitting watch in a nearby chair.

The next day, Victoria once again was sitting beside the bed waiting for Diego to explain. She found it difficult to be angry with him for long because he was obviously in pain. But she wanted to make sure he was not going to get away with such deception so easily.

"I'm going to be performing penance for a very long time over this, aren't I?" Diego asked slowly. He was a bit worried that Victoria would never forgive him. But he knew their love was real, was strong, and he was determined to do anything, for as long as necessary, as long as she forgave him for lying to her.

Victoria stared at Diego, her eyes hard. "Oh, I believe it will take years for me to forgive you."

"Well, then, perhaps I should begin now." His eyes were soft, but she didn't miss the twinkle in them as he leaned gingerly towards her.

Victoria tried her hardest to resist the pull of her heart, determined that she wanted to stay mad at him for his deceit. But his wince of pain as he leaned toward her prompted her to slide closer to him, and when his lips met hers in a gentle kiss, her resolve came crumbling down around her head.

She smiled against his mouth and leaned into his strong, familiar embrace. When his lips trailed down her cheek, she whispered, "Yes, I think you will be performing penance for a long time to come."

END