Courtship

by Linda Vogt Bindner

Chapter 1

The cold mist of the fog penetrated the air to touch her temples like misty fingers, sinking into her very bones until a dull ache throbbed across her forehead. Damp strands of dark hair clung annoyingly to her cheeks, but she didn't take the time to brush them aside as she urged her horse faster, ever faster over the rolling floor of the valley. Darkness enfolded her, yet she knew it offered her no safety from the man she was sure must be following even now, though she had left the tavern scant moments past. Hurry, she thought, I have to hurry before he stops me; before I stop myself.

The wet air clogged her throat, making it difficult to breathe, and she found herself gasping for breath. Suddenly she jerked her head around, peering over her shoulder into the impenetrable blackness. Was that a hoofbeat she heard? Maybe it was simply the sound of her own heartbeat, pulsing the need to hurry through her body. But how could she hurry when she could hardly see where to guide her stumbling mount? With a steel grip on her fear, she forced the animal ahead, determined to reach the hacienda.

At last, just when she thought she had missed it and was about to turn back, the shadow of the low rambling house came into view. She was a bit too far to the west, but she caught her mistake in time. With a desperate sense of urgency hampering her actions, she reined her sweating horse to a sharp halt outside the hacienda's imposing gates and slid clumsily out of the saddle.

She tripped on her long black skirt, but ignored the tearing sound as she ruthlessly yanked open the gate and ran up the short cobbled walk to the carved wooden doors. Her wet palm slapped loudly on the door, the sound falling flat in the heavy California night.

No one came. It's too late! she thought. They had probably gone to bed hours ago. Oh, hurry, hurry! She pounded on the door with both hands now, her fingers curled into fists so tightly that her fingernails cut through the roughened skin of her palms. Why didn't someone answer the door?

Then suddenly the door opened, revealing a tall young man with tousled hair, his white ruffled shirt untucked, holding a candlestick. She entered past him without waiting for an invitation.

"Victoria! What is it?"

She clutched his arm. "Diego, you have to help me! I don't know what else to do! You're my friend and I know you won't sell it or keep me from it!" she babbled uncontrollably. "You have to help!"

His puzzled, concerned gaze washed over her dimly lit figure. "But... What...?" Regaining control of his questions, he quickly shut the door on the damp air and led her past the gleaming black grand piano to the library. "You're soaking wet."

"No, it's just the fog. I'm all right."

"But you have to get dry or..."

Again she grabbed his arm, her hands sliding down to curl around his fingers in a fierce grip. "No, Diego! There's no time! I have to explain before he catches me!"

Don Alejandro burst into the room, the surprise on his face matching that of his son's. "Señorita! What brings you out on a night like this? My dear, you're drenched!" The older man reached out a supportive hand, but Victoria's urgency had transported to Diego, and the younger caballero caught his gesture.

"Bring a towel, please, Father, and some brandy, while I build up the fire." His tone was terse, commanding, but his father obeyed without question.

Diego pushed her down to sit on a cushioned chair near the fireplace and soon a warming blaze rolled across her shivering body, but she knew she didn't have time to sit by a fire or get warm. They had to go, now. She jumped up and exclaimed, "Diego, we have to hurry!"

He caught her flailing hand and held it tightly in his warm grasp. "Victoria, calm down. Tell me what's wrong." He forced her to sit again, and pulled a low stool next to her chair.

"You don't understand," she insisted, rising a second time, the wet material of her skirt clinging to her legs, tripping her as she tried to move away from him and the fire.

Diego pulled her back. "Slowly. What's wrong? Tell me why you need help."

His hand was warm, strong, and reassuring. She pushed her straggling hair back with icy fingers and swallowed to steady her rushing heart. "I'm sorry, Diego."

"There's no need to apologize. Ah." He glanced up to take the glass of golden brandy from Alejandro's hands and hold it for her to drink.

The fiery liquid burned through the mist still clinging to her throat and she let the heat spread from her stomach to her toes, feeling the warmth in Diego's touch, noticing the blue softness in his concerned eyes. He was such a dear friend, she thought, and the thought gave her the courage to explain her strange appearance on their doorstep at such a late hour of the evening.

"I'm sorry," she repeated. "I know I must seem incoherent..." Victoria paused as Don Alejandro threw a thick blanket over her damp shoulders. The warmth of the fire and the blanket was steadily eating away the cold in her bones, giving her a pleasant sense of security. "Thank you, Don Alejandro, but I don't have time. The Alcalde, Diego. He stopped by the tavern this morning, before you and Felipe came for lunch."

Diego was nodding encouragingly. "I remember. He looked quite pleased with himself."

"Yes. You see, he had just told me about the law he discovered last night that..."

Felipe's entrance interrupted her explanations. He held out a white towel and she took it gratefully to wipe away the beads of water dripping from her hair, down her cheeks and to her bare arms. The boy smiled shyly, but Diego brought her attention back to the problem at hand by prompting, "What law?"

She hurried to say, "It's ridiculous. I don't know where he digs these things up." She gathered her thoughts, then plunged on. "He showed me a book of old laws. There was one that forbade women to own a business." Fear crowded her mind, again taking control and she pulled on Diego's hands. "Diego, he's trying to take my tavern!"

Alejandro sputtered, "What rubbish! I have never heard of such a law!"

"But I saw it, Don Alejandro. I saw it with my own eyes and he said he would give me a day to remove my personal belongings and try to sell the tavern before he confiscated it for the state."

"He wouldn't dare!"

"He would." Diego's quiet statement fell harder on her ears than his father's blustering anger. "Ignacio DeSoto will do anything if he believes it will bring him closer to capturing Zorro." He turned his pained eyes to Victoria. "That is why you suffer now."

"I know."

Alejandro held out the glass refilled with brandy for her to take. "But why didn't you come to us with this sooner, Victoria? We could have helped."

Victoria leaned forward. "The Alcalde positioned lancers in my tavern and at each door so I couldn't leave. And I didn't think to come to you when Diego was in town for lunch. I was so angry, I couldn't think at all."

"We'll help now," Alejandro stated. "I'll buy the tavern from you for what I have in my pocket. You can still manage the place as you please..."

Victoria's shaking head dampened Alejandro's growing excitement. "I can't sell it. When Papa left the tavern to me in his will, he made a provision for selling it. I have to have my brothers'agreement in writing or the sale isn't legal."

Diego concluded, "That way you can never be forced to sell for whatever dubious reasons someone may devise."

"Yes. But I don't have time to get their signatures before tomorrow morning... not when Francisco's in Mexico City and I don't even know where Ramon is!" She turned back to the younger de la Vega. "Tonight, Sergeant Mendoza mentioned that the only way for me to keep my tavern is to get married. And I thought of you--" Her gaze darted from Diego to Alejandro and back. The firelight glinted crazily off the shiny buttons almost buried in the ruffles of Diego's shirt, and his face melted from substance to shadow. She stopped to ask herself if she truly understood what she was doing, yet she knew it was the only way to keep her tavern. "Diego, will you marry me?" she said in one breath, running the words together, her hands tightening on his fingers in reaction to that hasty proposal.

Diego de la Vega blinked, the only movement in a face frozen to a mask of surprise and concern. Then his left cheek twitched, breaking the mold of inaction. An indefinable look passed between Diego and Felipe. In that instant she saw shock, fear, and something akin to warmth cross the caballero's widened eyes. She expected questions, arguments, pleas for her to reconsider her options and what it would mean to the feelings of love she harbored for the outlaw Zorro if she were to marry, but all he said was, "Yes, I'll marry you, Victoria," in a quiet, sincere voice, and he squeezed her hands in return.

Don Alejandro, however, was not so calm. "Are you both crazy?" he asked. "Victoria, what about Zorro? Have you considered the possibility that he may find a way around this unknown law of the Alcalde's?"

Victoria was forced to tear herself from the curious emotions she saw in Diego's eyes to confront the caballero's questions. "I know, Don Alejandro, but..."

"And what about a lawyer?" Alejandro continued. "Diego has some knowledge of the law. Perhaps he can discover a hole in the Alcalde's reasoning."

In her distress, Victoria raised her voice a fraction, disregarding that this man had acted as a second father to her for years. "There's no time!"

"Victoria, Diego!" he persisted. "Have you thought about what kind of marriage this will be? You don't love each other!" Alejandro finally exclaimed in exasperation.

Victoria saw Felipe glance again at Diego, that same unfathomable look in his large eyes. "I can think of no other way to save my tavern," she said in icy despair. "I cannot bear to see it sold to some cohort of DeSoto's to become a place of ill-repute where every customer is cheated out of their money. I made a promise to my father to keep the tavern respectable and... I can't let him down."

Alejandro was not convinced. "But these are your lives you're throwing away." He turned disbelieving eyes on both of them. "Use some common sense! There must be another way to..."

The don was interrupted by a heavy pounding on the hacienda's front door.

"The Alcalde!" she whispered, her eyes opened wide in sudden fear. Victoria stood, the blanket tumbling to the rug, and quickly moved into the shadowy recesses of the room. "He'll put me in jail if he finds me here."

"No," Alejandro moved his hands in a calming motion. "DeSoto has no cause to arrest you, Victoria."

"I was already under house arrest at the tavern!" she hissed back. "He wanted to keep me from leaving. He was afraid..."

Diego was beside her, his tall form instilling her with that same solid, quiet security she'd felt upon entering his father's house. He held up two fingers to halt her rambling tongue and asked, "How did you get out without being seen?"

"I climbed through my bedroom window and slid down a rope to the ground. I've seen Zorro do it hundreds of times."

Diego only nodded. "I'm just glad you didn't break your neck." His arm unconsciously wrapped around her waist as he spoke.

The pounding on the door sounded again, echoing hollowly through the night-encased hacienda. "De la Vega! Open this door! I know you're in there somewhere; I can see your fire!"

Victoria tensed, forgetting to shiver from the cold in her fear of the government official's wrath. "I shouldn't have come!"

"Nonsense!" Diego looked to his father and Felipe, both men standing, unmoving, on the rug. When he spoke, his tone held more decisiveness than he'd ever employed before. "Felipe, run to the stable -- quietly -- and saddle a horse. Victoria, your horse?"

"I didn't tie her, I was in such a hurry. She might have wandered."

"Two horses, please, Felipe," Diego interrupted, "just to be safe. Father, stall him! Keep the Alcalde here as long as you can."

"Diego, I don't think..." Alejandro started.

"Please, Father," he said.

Victoria watched them watch each other for several heartbeats. Don Alejandro's thinking that if his son marries me, it will not be a true marriage, that the noble de la Vegas may stop with Diego, she thought. She had no idea what thoughts were warring behind Diego's calm features. But his arm tightened around her and he pulled her just a little closer. He's never touched me like this before, she thought in her confusion and feelings of urgency.

Whatever silent communion that was occurring between father and son passed and then Alejandro slowly nodded his wizened head once. With that nod, they were galvanized into action. Felipe darted so swiftly into the darkened back portion of the hacienda that she had to blink at the shadows for a moment, unsure of his disappearance.

"You wore black," Diego was saying, his words slowly penetrating her mind. "Good thinking. It will be difficult to see. Come."

He pulled her from the concealing shadows and she stumbled along behind him in the passage. She had been a guest at the de la Vega hacienda many times, but she was not familiar enough to traverse its rooms and corridors in the dark with much assurance. Before she knew where they were, she recognized the heavy red and gold coverlet of Diego's bed and the tall bureau standing in one corner. Diego released her and she stood near the door, shivering, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering noisily in the silence. He crossed instantly to the bureau and pulled something dark from the bottomless depths of one of the drawers. She watched him, her eyes frozen open, as he deftly changed his white caballero shirt for a much darker, simpler shirt with flowing sleeves and straight cuffs. A blush crept up to warm her cheeks when she saw a glimmer of smooth skin and back muscle, but he was moving again, tucking his shirt into his trousers, divesting another drawer of more dark clothes to protect them from the wet California night. Then standing in the middle of the room, he paused.

"Damn!" he said in a harsh whisper.

"What is it?"

He looked at her and licked his lips, obviously still thinking. Instead of satisfying her question, he draped a heavy cloak over her shoulders and thrust another into her arms. "Wait here."

Victoria stood rigid on the bare tile of his bedroom. She was afraid. Her fear could not disguise the voices drifting to her ears from the front rooms; the Alcalde was telling Alejandro about the circumstances of their late night visit, and the caballero was cheerfully suggesting that the Alcalde and his lancers warm the wet chill away by the fire and stay for awhile. Grunts of appreciation at the don's hospitality overrode the Alcalde's inelegant attempts to refuse him, and she could hear them settling down in the library. But the anxiety still pounded in her temples and she fought to keep her breathing steady and quiet.

Diego was beside her suddenly, appearing out of the deep ebony curtain of night to gently take the second cloak from her cold-stiffened fingers. Relief washed over her at the sight of him. Strange, she mused, that Diego should elicit those feelings from her at such a tense moment in her life.

"Ready?" he whispered.

She nodded, though he probably couldn't see the action in the black dark. "Hurry, Diego!"

With his hand firmly curled around hers, he led her down another narrow passage and out a side door. They found themselves in the walled-in courtyard where the leaves of orange trees drooped in the oppressive air and water dripped steadily from the sloping eaves of the hacienda's roof. The snort of one of the waiting horses helped to guide them across the small garden, through a gate, and into the stable yard. Mud churned clingingly under the horses prancing hooves as she took one set of leather reins from the patient Felipe.

"Dark coats. Nice work, Felipe. We'll be difficult to see on such a black night," Diego said under his breath.

Felipe nodded and smiled hesitantly, then pushed them both in the direction of Los Angeles to hurry them along. Don Alejandro could be persuasive, but even he couldn't detain the Alcalde for long.

Victoria followed Diego out of the yard, leading her horse by the bridle, trying to pull it along as fast as she could, until they were well out of earshot of the house. They mounted and rode abreast at a trot, the fastest gate possible in such cloying darkness.

She snuggled under the heavy folds of Diego's cape, but the fog had turned to a definite drizzle and rain drops wormed past the clasped collar to tickle her neck and make her shiver. Yet through all the discomfort, her sense of hurry had not diminished, and several times she fancied she could distinguish the Alcalde and his men close on their heels in the hazy surroundings.

A moment later she realized they had left the road and struck out across the open land, still heading in the general direction of the pueblo, but through unfamiliar territory. She looked around, confused, but Diego's hand comfortingly reached for hers just as she considered halting her mount to reassess their position.

"It's all right. I know where we are," his voice rippled over her in soft waves, carried on the droplets of rain.

She choked a breath, amazed at his calmness. "Diego, are you...?"

"Have you spoken to the padre?" he asked, unwilling to allow her to voice her doubts.

"No. There wasn't time. My only thoughts were to reach the hacienda before the Alcalde caught me."

"Well, it won't be the first time Padre Benitez was woken so late at night. He'll understand, I'm sure."

"I'm only worried that the Alcalde will stop us."

"Father will keep him at the hacienda long enough for us to reach the pueblo. We'll be safe enough once we're inside the church."

Her fear, though not leaving entirely, did subside enough for Victoria to concentrate on her riding. Diego, however, rode across the rocky ground with an unsettling ease, as if he had done this same type of night riding many times before. His left hand held firmly to the reins of his mount and his right still curled around her fingers.

What are we doing? she thought suddenly, but had no time to ponder the unbidden question. They arrived quite unexpectedly at the sleeping town, slipping from the cold fog like the wraiths in her father's frightening bedtime stories. The mission loomed directly ahead of them, its bell tower and walled structure deathly white against the black backdrop of dreary sky. Victoria risked one glance at her tavern across the empty plaza and picked out the lancer posted on the porch and others standing at each corner of the building. They pulled their horses to a stop before quietly entering the holy mission from the unlocked back door, their movements undetected by the soldiers only a stone's throw away.

"Padre!" Victoria whispered into the cold interior of the sanctuary. The air was damp and heavy, the thick adobe walls doing little to keep the wetness at bay on such a night, even inside the church. She left Diego's strangely comforting presence and hurried through the shadowed hallway to the vestry, then on to the tiny sleeping quarters just off the typical walled-in herb garden on the mission's south side. There was the good padre's room and within seconds she was explaining her wish to an astonished Benitez as he struggled to tie the rope belt around his voluminous priest's robe while she led him, stumbling, to the sanctuary.

Diego joined them from his post by the double front doors. "I couldn't see the Alcalde yet, but I heard hoofbeats off in the distance." He nodded at her, his eyes serious and his hair hiding his worry-creased forehead. "It's a good bet that he's not far behind us."

"Please, Padre!" Victoria begged, taking both of the priest's hands in her own. "Marry us, quickly. The Alcalde might already be in town!" Though her voice was barely above a whisper, the desperation was unmistakable. What if he didn't agree to perform the wedding? The Alcalde would show no mercy this time. An escape from house arrest was the same as escaping from prison. The man would have every right to hang her on the spot, and the ownership of her tavern would no longer matter. A knot of acidic fear formed in her stomach, leaving a taste of bile in her constricting throat.

"But child!" Padre Benitez was saying, his typical hoarse voice even hoarser with his whispers. "Are you sure? I know I've encouraged you to marry in the past, but... how can I sanction such a hasty marriage?"

He wouldn't do it? Her cold hands tightened on his. "But, Padre..."

Diego cut off her pleas in mid-sentence. He took the padre's arm and led him a few steps away, leaning over and speaking quietly to the priest's upturned face. Their murmurs beat a cadence of panic in her ears, and her heartbeat quickened until she felt sure she had to either faint or scream in frustration.

"Victoria!"

Diego's voice again cut through the haze of panic in her mind, bringing her back to the present, helping her to calm down and take control of her emotions. A wave of gratitude engulfed her; he was the dearest friend to be doing this for her, for her family. "Padre?" she questioned Benitez.

Padre Benitez scowled heavily in the candlelit sanctuary. "I hope neither of you regret this," he warned dutifully, then his face lifted as he motioned for the young couple to take their places before him and join hands.

Victoria felt the pleasant warmth of Diego's hand close around hers in strong security. The cold damp of the rain outside still clung to her cloak and the air inside the mission, but here at the altar, before the forgiving eyes of Jesus and his sweet mother, she was warm and safe.

Zorro, please forgive me, whispered her thoughts as Padre Benitez intoned the Latin call to the sacrament of marriage.

"Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison. Dearest Lord, before you and before these gathered witnesses... Oh, my, I forgot the witness!" Benitez eyed them in a sudden panic.

Victoria spoke. "Is a witness necessary?"

"It would not be legally binding without a witness... Ah, Juan is staying here this week!" The padre hiked his robe above his ankles and bolted for the hallway he had just come from, leaving the two amazed people abandoned at the altar.

"Diego..."

"Shh," he soothed. "Everything will be fine. The Alcalde can't do anything while you're in the mission."

She wished she could share his confidence. "I admit I never thought I would be taking sanctuary of the church!" she whispered back, then was forced to giggle at the thought of her brothers' surprise upon hearing the proceedings of this night. "Francisco will probably choke the life out of me when he discovers that I eloped to save the tavern!"

Diego's soft smile showed his own amusement, but his words were enigmatic. "He'll have to get past me first," he said.

Victoria sent him a curious look, but was distracted when the padre burst into the sanctuary, pulling a sleepy Juan Miguel along with him. The teenager struggled to keep up with the padre and pull his trousers up at the same time. Victoria put her free hand to her mouth, but could not quite stifle her nervous laugh behind a polite cough.

"Sit!" Benitez pointed to a pew and Juan sat obediently. "Now, where were we? Oh, yes, witnesses." He looked up at Diego and Victoria. "God forgive me, but skipping ahead..."

There came a pounding on the front doors, and they rattled unnervingly against the bolt pushed firmly in its place to hold the doors locked together. Shouts carried into the eerie silence of the church, and Alcalde DeSoto yelled, "Break them down if you have to! I'm certain Zorro's inside."

Diego's eyebrows rose and he explained, "I locked the doors. I hope you don't mind."

Benitez nodded. "Juan, the back door. Hurry!"

Juan ran and was back in a minute and the ceremony progressed at an accelerated pace.

"Diego, do you take Victoria for your wife?"

"I do."

"Good. Victoria, do you take Diego...?"

"Yes!"

"Splendid. The ring?"

"Oh." Victoria paused, her face falling and her eyes growing large. "I forgot all about a ring."

But Diego was reaching for his cloak slung over a nearby pew, pulling a small drawstring bag from a pocket concealed in the black inner lining. His large fingers barely fit in the bag's tiny neck as he opened the strings and tilted the bag, shaking it until a small circle of gold glinted in the palm of his hand. "My grandmother's wedding band. I don't think she'll mind."

"I should think not," the padre said, plucking the ring from Diego's hand. "She's been dead for forty years."

"Padre!" Victoria exclaimed.

"The truth only hurts the ears of those who need to hide from it, my dear."

"But... Diego!" she insisted.

"It's all right. I never met her," Diego explained.

The pounding on the front doors grew more insistent. "Padre! I demand that you open these doors! In the name of the king!"

"Oh, dear. Bless this ring, oh Lord, that it may be a symbol of faith and love between these two, Diego and Victoria, amen." He waved the sign of the cross over the ring and handed it quickly to Diego. "Put it on her finger and say..."

The butts of muskets were pounding on the doors now, the racket echoing through the empty church and making it impossible to hear the padre's words. However, the sound of the bolt cracking was unmistakable.

Padre Benitez cast a worried glance to the back of the sanctuary. "Never mind! Just put the ring on her finger."

Diego picked up her left hand and she felt the cold metal contrast with his warm, soft skin as he slid the simple, slightly bent gold ring onto her fourth finger, holding it there lest it should fall off; Grandma must have been a fairly large woman, Victoria thought.

"I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may k..."

"Stop!"

The Alcalde's soldiers had at last succeeded in breaking through the locked barrier and gained entrance into the church. They stormed up the aisle, brandishing their muskets like shields, prepared to dispatch any form of resistance they might encounter. Ignacio DeSoto, his white hair dripping rain onto the gold epaulets covering his broad shoulders, strode forward to the front and waved his drawn sword through the thick air. He stopped short, all his weight resting uncomfortably on one foot, when he noticed Diego holding Victoria's hand.

"De la Vega? What are you doing here? If you're trying to help the señorita, you're too late. Now, where is he? Where is Zorro? I know he's here somewhere!"

Diego deftly stepped in front of Victoria, blocking the Alcalde's advance.

DeSoto was nonplussed at the caballero's action. "The señorita is here, and it stands to reason that so is that outlaw. Where are you hiding him? Padre!"

Padre Benitez pulled again on the rope holding his robe closed over his night shift. "Even if he was here, you could not arrest him in the church."

The Alcalde snorted. "Then my men will escort him outside the church where I can do whatever I please. Now, point out his hiding place and we will be on our way."

Victoria stepped out from behind Diego's broad back. Her heart hammered in her throat, but she refused to cower before the Alcalde. "He's not here," she retorted, filling her voice with as much anger and scathing malice as she could. "Once again, you've failed in your mad schemes to capture him."

The Alcalde brought his eyes, then his sword to bear on her. She drew in a sharp breath as the sword point leveled an inch from her exposed neck. "I've had just about enough of you, Señorita. You are under house arrest, as I recall, and my penalties for escaped prisoners are very severe."

"Ignacio," Diego began, his hands extended in a friendly gesture.

"She broke the law by illegally owning a business establishment. Now she will pay for her crimes."

The sword point came closer and Victoria was aware of two lancers flanking her from both sides when suddenly Diego stepped forward, practically throwing the lancers to the floor as he placed one large booted foot on top of DeSoto's highly polished toes and effortlessly plucked the sword from the man's gloved hand. She blinked. Had she seen that correctly? Had Diego just disarmed the Alcalde?

DeSoto blinked his surprise as well. In fact, he was so surprised that for a moment he only looked at Diego with his bearded mouth open a little, breathing the cool air.

Diego's voice was low, yet expressed his anger with admirable control to the dark recesses of the church. "That is my wife you are speaking to, Señor, and in future you will address her accordingly. As I am now the owner of the tavern in question, you no longer have justification for your accusations. Since your business here is finished, I ask you to leave this church."

Victoria joined him, taking the sword from him with shaking fingers and handing it on to Padre Benitez. Her glare lowered on the Alcalde then, and she concluded, "And don't ever show your face in my tavern again or I'll have you thrown out the back door, like all the garbage!"

"How dare you!" His face an explosion of red and purple, DeSoto reached for his pistol.

"This is a house of God!" Benitez yelled to warn them against bloodshed within the mission walls.

But Diego was faster than DeSoto gave him credit for. Victoria watched his hand snake out to catch the pistol and turn it swiftly on its owner. He held it pressed tightly against the Alcalde's belly. "You have interrupted my wedding already, Alcalde. Don't push me any further," he warned in a horrible, grating whisper that Victoria doubted she would ever hear Diego produce again.

The Alcalde's eyes widened as the truth of the situation finally sank in. He noticed Padre Benitez standing on the altar steps, the registry lying open on a small table to the left. "You're truly married?" he questioned, stunned.

Victoria proudly offered her hand to show the gold ring glinting in the sparse candlelight.

"But there were no banns posted, no witnesses!" DeSoto protested.

Juan stood up and waved sleepily at the Alcalde, and Padre Benitez said, "I assure you it's all quite legal, Señor. You can leave now and go on about your business."

The Alcalde snorted a laugh, but respectfully backed away a step from the point of his pistol. "And Zorro?"

"Is either right in front of you or a thousand miles away," Diego retorted. "It makes no difference to me. Now, please, do as the padre requested and leave this mission. Come back for your weapons tomorrow." With that irritated command, Diego turned away and took Victoria's hand in his. He handed the pistol to Padre Benitez, then proceeded to the table holding the creamy white pages of the registry and took up the gray quill in his hand. With a strange sense of triumph, he signed his name on the third line from the bottom of the left page and handed the quill to her.

Victoria glared one last time at the Alcalde before taking the feather from her husband with a surprisingly steady hand to sign her name next to his in a flourish of the letters. At last it was done.

The Alcalde had taken a lace-edged handkerchief from his sleeve and passed it across his wet brow. "My apologies, Señor, Señora. Padre." He smiled his embarrassment, then graciously bowed himself back down the aisle and left, the soldiers closing the doors behind them.

Diego's long sigh echoed heavily in the suddenly quiet room.

Victoria looked up at him, noticing the shadowy marks under his eyes and the tired droop of his shoulders. This man was now her husband, the man she had vowed to be with for the remainder of her life. She felt as if she should at least say something to him, but nothing came to mind. This was not the calm studious Diego of her past -- this man who so effortlessly defeated the Alcalde, who even held the man at gun point, was new and unfamiliar to her. She did not know what to say to him.

Diego roused himself from his silent contemplations to assist Padre Benitez in getting the sleepy Juan back to bed and to thank them both for their help. She waited for his return, the gloomy shadows of the sanctuary keeping her company as she sat patiently on the front pew.

Now that the excitement was over and she was calmly sitting down, the cold stole around her again, threatening her with its clinging, icy grip. She was tired and a little hungry, she realized, and pulled Diego's loaned cloak more snugly around her. Her hair was still wet from all the riding she'd recently done in the rain, and she combed her fingers through the tangled strands, tugging on the knots, trying to rearrange it in a semblance of order. It was hopeless, of course, but she went on fussing nonetheless, for it kept her thoughts from dwelling on her recent actions and their possibly serious consequences. During one of her battles with a particularly stubborn tangle, she felt the wedding ring slip from her finger and frantically she clutched it in her palm before it fell clattering to the mission's worn stone floor.

Victoria gazed at the ring in the candlelight, discovering several nicks in the otherwise smooth surface beside the perfect bend where the previous owner, Diego's unknown grandmother, had habitually let it rest over her bent knuckle, thus molding it to fit in irregular lines. It looked old, worn, and cherished, and Victoria decided she liked it and wanted to know more about this mysterious woman whose ring had touched the present as well as the past.

"Grandmama was quite a character from what I understand." Diego appeared near the end of the pew, his cloak in hand. "You would have liked her."

Victoria slid the ring back on her finger and rose, thinking he was ready to go, suddenly self-conscious of her old friend's new status in her life.

He stopped her. "Do you mind if we stay? For a while?" He draped the warm coat over the back of the pew and sat down beside her. He sighed. "It's quiet in here. A person can take time to sit, time to think things through without interruption."

She laughed softly at the memories his comment brought to mind. "Sometimes, when I was young and the tavern was so busy and noisy that I couldn't stand it anymore, I used to sneak over here and watch the women pray during the day. I guess Mama and Papa couldn't yell at me for going to church." He laughed with her, the rich sound rolling around the room and dying off slowly in the emptiness. "I even considered becoming a nun for a while," she admitted, still playing with the ring she held so carefully in her hands.

"You did? I didn't know that."

She laughed. "No, no one knew. I was afraid Francisco and Ramon would tease me about it, so I kept it a secret."

He glanced over at her. "Well, I don't think becoming a nun is an option any longer," he joked, still smiling.

Her own smile faded. "I want you to know how... how grateful I am to you, Diego. What you did for me tonight is..."

His hand closed soothingly over hers resting on the wooden seat between them. "I did nothing, Victoria. Promise me you won't mention being grateful again?" He watched until she nodded her silent acquiescence. "There's no need to be grateful. In fact, I'm the one who should be thanking you."

She jumped up, unnerved by the quiet seriousness that had invaded his bantering tone. "Oh, no! Diego! If the Alcalde had just kept his nose in his own business... I mean, what about your life now? I can't believe what you just gave away tonight."

"What about my life, Victoria?"

She seated herself beside him again, taking up one of his large hands in both of her own. "What if you fall in love someday? What happens when you meet the right woman, the woman of your dreams?"

He leaned forward a little, and the pressure on her hands increased. The heavy tenderness in his eyes was almost impossible to see in the dreary light. "The woman of my dreams? I ma..." he started to say, then cut himself off, his eyes holding hers for a breathtaking second. He fell back against the pew, and his fingers comfortingly caressed her hands. "We'll cross that bridge if we come to it," he finally said, his smile replacing the serious expression from a moment before.

"But Diego," she went on doggedly, determined to vent the notions plaguing her mind. "We are married now, and you have every... every..." She had to stop as new images conjured in her mind, images she had not taken time to contemplate, and still she had only the briefest flashes of children and future generations and typical husband-wife relationships. She swallowed as the blood drained from her face, but after a deep breath, she continued. "You have every right to demand..."

"Victoria, stop." He put his hands on her shoulders, turning her on the bench to fully face him. "Now, you're tired, and this should probably wait until you are more rested, but I want you to know that I have no intention of becoming the tyrannical husband and demanding anything. I... I won't touch you except in the same friendly fashion we've shared for years. I know how strong your feelings are for Zorro. Victoria, please don't cry!"

But she couldn't help crying; he was so understanding, so willing to accept everything about her, even her love for another man. "I'm sorry, Diego." She brushed away the tears on her cheeks. "But this is not fair to you at all!"

He pulled a corner of the cloak up to wipe away the remaining tears. "Remember, I'm your husband, but more importantly, I am your friend."

Victoria looked up and nodded, even managing a wobbly smile through her tears. His warm eyes smiled back, and the light gleamed off his brown hair, melting to a soft glow in the rich brown material of his silk shirt. He was right, of course. "It was an interesting ceremony, wasn't it?" she asked hesitantly. "I always imagined my wedding to be joyous, or at least during the day, not some clandestine arrangement made in lieu of being hanged." Her smile grew.

Diego laughed. "I much prefer you as my wife than in front of a firing squad, I'll admit," he joked, then sobered. "Come here and let me hug the bride. From one friend to another."

She slid into his embrace and closed her eyes, resting her head peacefully on his shoulder, glad to take the strength he offered so freely. Yet she could not get away from the fact that she loved a man who was not her husband, and now the dreams built around that love would never come true. Though she and the tavern were safe from the Alcalde, and her good friend Diego held her tightly, she couldn't stop the stray tear from streaking down her numbed cheek to land with a splash on Diego's arm.

Chapter 2

"I don't understand it, Maria!" Victoria said as she wrung the stew-covered cloth out in the bucket of water sitting at her knees. "I haven't done such things for years. Wouldn't you agree that I have become a complete klutz?"

Maria looked through the curtain of black hair hanging over her eyes and grinned. "Only since you're wedding, Señora," she teased glibly and scooped some potatoes and chunks of beef and carrots from the kitchen's tile floor to drop back in the large black kettle resting innocently on the hearthstones.

"That is not true!" Victoria retorted, but had to smile while she considered the multitude of mishaps that had occurred in the tavern during the week after her hasty marriage to Don Diego. "Well, perhaps it is, but my marital status has nothing to do with it!"

Maria sighed dramatically and reached to a shelf for an extra towel. "Perhaps not. But twenty broken glasses in one week has to be a new record. And I've never seen you burn so many tamales and enchiladas before in my life. Now you've killed this ancient kettle with one mighty swoop of your enriched skirts, and I'm sure it's because you are secretly in love with your new husband."

Victoria sat back on her knees and glared at her companion and helper. "Maria, I... I... You have been eating too many peppers again!" she finally said. "I honestly don't know where you get your ideas!"

Maria laughed and wiped stew off the side of the carving block in the kitchen's center. "Well, you gave us quite a spectacle the other day when you threw the Alcalde out the front door."

Victoria's face descended into a tight mask of anger. "I warned him not to come back to my tavern and I meant it."

"Perhaps that was the reason. But Doña Roberta thinks it was because he called Don Diego an insufferable bore and..."

"I was there, Maria! You don't have to remind me." She wrung out her cloth once more, shaking the dirty water over the rim of the bucket in her agitation.

"Oh, the Alcalde was just embarrassed about Diego disarming him so easily in the church. And I can't help but laugh when I saw you take after the Alcalde with that skillet!" Maria remembered and laughed even now, her eyes squeezed shut as she shook with the spasms of her laughter.

One look at her friend sitting amidst the beef stew, holding her sides, was all it took to banish Victoria's anger. She laughed too and said, "I do admit that it felt good to swat him over the head like that. And you! You wanted to hang the skillet in a place of honor behind the bar!"

They went on laughing, unaware of Felipe pushing aside the curtain separating the kitchen from the tavern's main room as he entered in his friendly, silent manner. Diego followed, holding the long red curtain aside to smile at them all. "Hello. We seem to be missing all the fun."

Victoria sat back and looked up, still giggling, stew gravy covering her arms up to her elbows. "Hello, Diego. Felipe."

Diego ducked his head to enter and let the curtain fall back to its place. "What happened? Did the Alcalde give you more trouble?"

Maria shot a glance at Victoria and raised her eyebrows.

Victoria grimaced. "No, I caught the edge of my skirt on the kettle handle and pulled it right out of the fire." She laughed again. "There was stew everywhere."

Felipe waved an arm in an expansive sweep around the kitchen and grinned.

Diego grinned back. "Yes, there's still stew everywhere. No one was hurt, I hope?"

Maria pointed at the battered kettle and mournfully shook her head. "Only the poor kettle, Señor. I fear it's cooked it's last pot of stew."

He laughed and lent a hand to help her to her feet. "Señorita Maria, you get lovelier every time I see you."

Flatterer, Victoria thought in sour amusement, but Maria smiled widely, eating up the compliment like it was ice water on a hot day.

He turned to Victoria and continued, "Felipe and I are heading to Santa Paula this morning to look at some livestock for Father. We wondered if you would like to come along."

Victoria's face fell. It would be nice to ride with them to that beautiful town on California's coast, and the sun had finally burned the fog and clouds of the last week away, warming the air like spring. She glanced at the mess in her kitchen and the disgraceful appearance of her filthy skirt and disparagingly plucked a carrot off the hem. "Oh, Diego, I would love to go out today, but I really can't. The kitchen's a mess... I'm a mess, and now I have to restart dinner and, oh, don't tell anyone but Maria saw a rat in the pantry yesterday. I don't know what I'll do if word gets out that my tavern is infested with rats!"

Diego crossed to her, careful to avoid any large spots of stew on the floor, and helped her up, his hand curving around her arm. "Then don't tell anyone, Victoria," he suggested in a chiding tone. "I'm sure Felipe and I can keep it a secret." He turned and smiled at the grinning teenager, who waved his arms a bit and shrugged good-naturedly.

Victoria laughed and mockingly exclaimed, "See that you don't tell anyone."

"Well," Diego went on, removing his steadying hand from her arm and wiping bits of gravy away with another cloth. "Do you need anything that I can get for you in Santa Paula?"

Victoria glanced around the kitchen, running through her mental list of items that needed restocked and found nothing that she couldn't buy next week at the Los Angeles market. Then the infamous kettle caught her eye. "A new kettle?" she suggested smoothly.

He laughed and nodded. "A new kettle. I believe we can handle that, though I don't know how we'll get it back on the horses."

She moved away then, wiping her hands, heading for the curtain. "I hope I have enough money in the cash box for a kettle that large. It should cost... what do you think... about thirty pesos?"

Felipe snorted inelegantly from his position near the door.

Diego halted her with the words, "I think I have enough money to buy a kettle, Señora," and he laughed at her sheepish smile; she was still unused to the benefits of having a wealthy husband. "With any luck, you will be able to cook more stew for dinner tomorrow afternoon. Adiós, ladies." He paused for a moment to gently kiss the top of her head before departing with Felipe through the curtain.

Victoria felt the blush begin to creep up her neck, and she forced it down with an effort. Several small things had changed since Diego had married her that foggy, cold night barely a week ago, and his behavior around her was one of them. He was more familiar, less formal towards her, and quite gallant at times. He spent as much time talking with her in the kitchen as he did reading and playing the piano, and she noticed that he often put a friendly arm over her shoulders or linked her hand over his arm to escort her to church or in to dinner at the hacienda. He even offered to purchase a newer wedding ring for her, one that wasn't so old and "used." When she politely refused, explaining that she rather liked the ancient piece of jewelry, he had it sized for her, leaving the dent untouched at her request. And this kiss, a seemingly innocent display of affection, was the fourth such kiss in five days, she realized as she added up her recent tally. The results left her a little flustered and slightly exhilarated. She, however, had yet to express any such fondness towards him.

Maria expelled a long sigh as the curtain fluttered serenely in the breeze created by Diego's and Felipe's passing. Her squat, plain face melted into languid, dreamy lines. "Marriage certainly agrees with Don Diego." She sighed again.

"Maria!" Victoria's sharp voice cut through the other woman's dreams in a second. "It's not that kind of marriage and you know it!"

"Oh, I know, and in a way it's too bad." She clucked and shook her head. "You don't even live at his hacienda."

"My home is at this tavern," Victoria insisted patiently. "People can gossip about us all they want but the simple truth is that Diego and I married to keep this tavern out of the Alcalde's clutches. Diego and I are friends; that's all there is to it." But even as she spoke, she was meticulously washing and drying her wedding band before replacing it with care on her finger. Just as carefully, she changed the subject. "We better clean this kitchen up and decide what to cook for dinner. It's already ten-thirty." She turned away, planning to empty the bucket of its dirty water prior to scrubbing the entire kitchen floor. Maria went on, dreamily pulling prepared tortilla shells down from another shelf above a long counter and cleaning a knife to cut cheese for burritos. "Still, he is very wealthy, and really quite handsome. At least, that's what the girls think."

Victoria placed the emptied bucket under the faucet near the window and vigorously pumped the handle. "Do they?" she asked, pretending to be distracted from Maria's chatter by her work. She told herself she didn't care in the least what Maria's friends thought of Diego, but she couldn't completely ignore the pang of pride and, possibly, jealousy that shot suddenly through her mind.

"Not that you appreciate it," Maria chastised. "You don't even realize that he's courting you."

That was the last straw. Victoria slammed down the pump handle and hauled the bucket roughly to the floor, splashing water all down the front of her soiled skirt. She put her hand on the worn surface of the chopping block with an irritated slap. "Maria. Diego is not courting me. He has no interest in me beyond our friendship, nor I in him. Will you please accept that and stop critiquing my marriage!"

Maria smiled cheerfully. "If you don't care, why are you getting so angry?"

"Maria! Cut your cheese!" Victoria ordered curtly, eyeing Maria, but the other girl was no longer looking at her, either dreamily or cheerfully. She was looking over her shoulder, to the back door.

"Zorro!" Maria exclaimed.

Victoria whirled around, feeling her heart turn to ice before it plunged to her toes.

He stood with his back to the closed wooden door, his satin cape hanging jauntily from his wide shoulders and a cool, confident smile adorning his handsome masked face. "Señora, Señorita, arguing on such a pleasant day?"

Victoria took an involuntary step forward, habit taking over from her common sense. Then she stopped, still two yards from him, clutching her left hand into a fist.

Noise from the main room assailed them suddenly, and Maria chose that moment to check on the welfare of the tavern's customers. She gladly slipped through the curtain and escaped the roomful of contradictory emotions that Victoria was fighting to control.

Here it was, the dreaded moment at last. All week Victoria had tried to think of a plan to take during her first encounter with Zorro, the outlaw, the man she loved as much as her own life. But no planning helped her now as she regarded him across the kitchen, unable to decide what to do.

"My congratulations on your recent marriage," he said, though he didn't reach for her hand to administer his customary kiss.

"Thank you," she managed to say through her tight throat. "I'm sorry... that I couldn't tell you about it before the... The ceremony was rather sudden and unexpected."

Zorro's face softened to a gentle smile. "I know. And I'm sorry the Alcalde treated you so barbarically."

She nodded and remained silent, staring at him out of eyes full of anguish and indecision.

Zorro took a step forward, and when she didn't retreat, another. He held her left hand quietly between his gloved palms. "Victoria, I always said that I wished you would marry, and I believe I even suggested Don Diego once or twice." His smile grew. "You kept a cool head and used your common sense when you went to the de la Vegas. Diego is a good man." He looked her squarely in the eyes. "He can make you very happy if you let him."

This was his goodbye, she knew. Her heart that had so recently plunged to her toes now began to constrict in unhappiness and pain even as she nodded agreement to his last statement. "Please." she said, but had to pause to collect her confused emotions. "Please don't be angry with me."

"Angry! I could never be angry with you, Victoria. But I must go, and this must be the last time we meet... like this. I wish you luck and much happiness in your new life. No, don't cry for me, don't be unhappy." He reached up to brush back a loose strand of hair, then thought better of it and let his hand fall to his side. "You have won something more precious than I could ever give you. It is up to you to accept it." He chuckled gently. "Perhaps you already have."

Victoria stood mute, shocked at his words, certain that her heart would break at any moment. How could she ever think that she would love Diego like she did this man standing before her?

Her thoughts were interrupted when he suddenly leaned forward to place a kiss on the top of her head in exactly the same spot as Diego had half an hour earlier.

"Adiós, Doña de la Vega."

Zorro slipped like smoke through her back door as silently as he had come, leaving her alone in the dirty kitchen.

She couldn't believe he was gone. She couldn't believe she hadn't thrown herself into his arms and professed her undying love for all eternity. She would surely not see him again outside his battles for justice against the Alcalde, and yet she didn't cry, and her eyes remained dry. Strangely, the only thing she was clinging to from their brief encounter was the spot on her head where both he and Diego had kissed her. And she realized she wasn't blushing now.

The citizens of Los Angeles did not know about Zorro's talk with Señora de la Vega, of course, but several did notice that when Diego and Felipe returned from the much broadcasted trip to Santa Paula, they had acquired more than a few choice cows and a large, black kettle. Don Diego was suddenly displaying a simple gold wedding ring on his left hand for all to see.

Chapter 3

Two days passed. Two empty, boring days of chirping birds, azure skies, and no visits from Diego.

Finally, as Victoria stood dispiritedly behind the green bar in the tavern's front room and watched the cheerful interaction of her customers, she had to admit to herself that she missed him. Which was ridiculous, she thought and berated herself severely. A platonic marriage that was not even two weeks old could certainly not change her attitudes and opinions so thoroughly. Or at least she didn't think it should.

So why was she so depressed? What did it matter if she saw Diego every day or not? Everyone knew the strange circumstances of her married life, no one so well as she, so what was the problem?

The problem, she decided, was that ambitious, arrogant tease named Carmen Saragosa. She was supposed to be visiting her aunt and uncle, Carlotta and Carlos Saragosa, and recuperating from a nasty bout of pneumonia, but she spent more time flirting with the men of the pueblo than she did in recovering from any illness. In fact, she looked far healthier than many of the Southern California women who lived in the warmer climate all the time. Nothing, it seemed, diverted her attention from flirting for long, and it didn't much matter who the selected gentleman of the hour was; caballero or peasant, single or married, it made no difference to Carmen. And Victoria had heard of several encounters between this fast little tease and the recently married Don Diego.

Victoria wasn't sure she liked these stories at all.

Stop being silly, she ordered herself. She shook her head forcefully to be rid of ridiculous thoughts and continued polishing glasses before taking the boxlike tray from under the counter and removing some dirty dishes from two tables in the corner near the fireplace. Sergeant Mendoza entered the tavern, catching her just as she prepared to retreat to the kitchen.

The sergeant removed his tall, plumed hat and fanned it in front of his face for a moment. "Señorita... oh, my apologies! I mean, Señora, can I have one or two of your enchiladas and some of that marvelous hot sauce that you make poured over them? It's very hot today, and I need my nourishment to keep up with the garrison paper work." He seated himself on a bench and placed his hat on the table top.

Victoria stopped. "Sergeant, if you're so warm, why do you want extra hot sauce on your enchiladas? Won't that just make you hotter?"

He nodded and smiled. "Oh, sí, sí. But Don Diego just told me that if you eat something hot, it will make you sweat even more, and sweating is the body's way of cooling down. And if I sweat, I will also lose some more of that weight I'm trying to take off." The last he whispered to her confidentially.

Diego's in town, she thought with an annoying surge of hope. Aloud she said, "Doesn't it make more sense to run around the plaza a few times and sweat off those extra pounds that way?"

Mendoza reluctantly considered her suggestion. "Perhaps," he said slowly, then looked up at her in pleading supplication. "Please, Señora Victoria, I'm starving to death."

She laughed. "You will have your meal in a moment, Sergeant." She was about to turn, the tray in hand, when she noticed the swirling red flounced skirt and the scandalously low neckline of the dress covering as little of Señorita Carmen Saragosa's lithe young body as was respectably possible. The woman practically announced her presence with a laugh that grated on Victoria's ears, and she was clinging very obviously to the man Victoria hadn't laid eyes on in several days. She was pulling so hard on Diego's brown-coated arm that his coat was falling slowly off his shoulder. I bet she'd like to take it all the way off, Victoria thought, not even bothering to stem the rest of the unpleasant words that flooded her mind at the sight of the young Carmen.

Irrationally furious, Victoria moved quickly to her kitchen and prepared the sergeant's order, being very liberal indeed with the amount of sauce she added to the enchiladas. She felt as red with anger as the sauce was with tomatoes and red peppers.

She was just reaching for a chunk of bread from the shelf when her husband suddenly appeared in the kitchen. She ignored him and calmly arranged the plate, bread, and eating utensils on the cloth lining her tray.

"So this is where you've been hiding," Diego teased, a pleasant smile lighting his rather homely features.

"And where have you been the last two days?" she shot back quickly.

He laughed, which irritated her even more. "Did you miss me?" he asked, still teasing.

She forced her laugh to match the lightness of his. "Not at all," she lied. When he scrutinized her more closely with his blue eyes, she turned her attention back to her tray, grateful for the distraction.

Diego was grinning, she suspected, behind her back. "I'm sorry I've been scarce lately. Father decided he wanted more cows from Santa Paula, and I didn't have time to even write a note to tell you his plans. Believe me, I would rather have been talking to you than discussing the finer points of our four legged friends in the fields, but... I thought you might ride out to the hacienda when I didn't come to town."

Victoria glanced over her shoulder at him, surprised. "Enter your father's home uninvited?" she choked.

He considered her hesitation. At last he answered, "I think you can visit my father and me without too much imposition, and without an invitation."

She nodded, turning back to the tray. He caught her arm and touched it gently for just a moment. She stopped and looked at him.

"I mean it, Victoria," he said, his voice serious and quiet now. "I want you to consider everything I have as yours."

Victoria nodded again and smiled. "Thank you, Diego." Her smile grew. "We already know that everything I own, you also own."

He couldn't hold back the laughter. "Much to our Alcalde's frustration."

"Yes. But, honestly, I will try to visit the hacienda soon. It's been almost a week since I've spoken to Don Alejandro." She lifted the tray, then stopped. "Now that I think of it, Don Alejandro hasn't been to the tavern lately either. Is he... angry... for any reason?"

Diego smiled. "Not with you."

"What happened?"

"Do you really want to know?" At her nod, he reluctantly continued. "It's not you, it's me he's disgusted with. That, of course, is nothing unusual."

Mendoza suddenly popped his head through the curtained partition and glanced once at each of them in turn, his eyes settling at last on the tray of food in Victoria's hands. "Señorita... Señora, I'm hungry."

Victoria gasped an apologetic breath. "I'm so sorry, Sergeant! Your dinner's ready... with extra hot sauce, I might add." She smiled. "I'll be right out with more water, too." She excused herself and served Mendoza at his table, spreading the plate and bread out with extra care, still apologizing for her slowness. "There's more water if you need it," she repeated one more time.

Mendoza shook his head. "I need to sweat away the water I already have, Señora. I won't be needing any more."

She smiled knowingly, but headed back to her kitchen with the empty tray. Diego was still standing where she'd left him, his hands held nonchalantly behind his back. "You were telling me about your father... Diego." She watched him suspiciously as he listened intently to her. "What's behind your back?"

He shrugged, and a lock of soft brown hair fell over his forehead. "Nothing."

"Diego," she warned. "Show me." When he shrugged again, she went forward and tugged on his arm, turning him around.

He sighed. "If you must know, I brought this for you." In his large hands he cradled a squirming, gray kitten. "For your rodent problem."

"Oh! Diego! Wherever did you find it?" Delighted, she scooped the animal into her own hands and rubbed her face into its soft, silken fur. It meowed pitifully and spat at her in fear at its unfamiliar surroundings.

"We passed by Jose Macias' farm on the way home. Their cat had a litter of eight about two months ago; this fella was the only one left."

"He's so cute!"

"She's a miniature tigress," he informed her, emphasizing the first word. "I thought she would scar my hand for life before we made it the rest of the way home." He showed her the back of his left hand where a patchwork of tiny scratches glared red against the healthy tan of his skin.

"My goodness!" Victoria exclaimed when suddenly her eye caught on the gold ring around his finger. "So this is the much commented-on wedding band."

"Oh, yes." Diego withdrew his hand to take a closer look at the ring. "In fact, that's what Father was so upset about."

"A ring?"

"You see, real men in real marriages don't wear wedding rings," he said, dropping his voice to better emulate Don Alejandro's statement.

Victoria felt the blood drain from her face. She had no idea Diego's father had opposed his son's marriage so heavily. Her joy at his gift receded, to be replaced by anxiety. "I'm sorry, Diego. I didn't know you weren't getting along with your father. It's my fault, of course..."

Diego shushed her with a look. "That is nonsense," he said emphatically. "But he has been giving me several lectures lately on the duties of a good husband."

"Lecturing? That's not like Don Alejandro." Concerned, Victoria rested the gray kitten on her shoulder, letting her hair curve protectively around the small bundle of fur as her forehead crinkled in thought.

Diego laughed, a short, curt burst of sound. "Just wait until you get to know him better. Now, don't worry, Victoria, he's just been talking to Don Sebastian too much, and that man has been filling Father's ears with all sorts of ridiculous notions."

She nodded in understanding. "About wedding rings?" Diego nodded. "Isn't Don Sebastian the poor man who's married to that horrid woman...?"

"Doña Esmerelda," he finished for her.

"Yes, that's her name. I guess I don't blame him for not wanting to claim her. I wouldn't wear a wedding ring if I were him either." Diego laughed, his eyes lighting up and his features brightening. She smiled back and shyly said, "I like your ring, Diego. I think you should wear it if you want to."

His smile softened. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I will. I always thought I would like to wear a ring if I ever got married. I guess this is my chance." He played with the band, watching it gleam in the sunlight streaming through the open back door. "You know," he went on as he crossed his arms then and comfortably leaned against the cutting block. "Father would like it very much if you accepted his offer of taking a room of your own at the hacienda."

Victoria's smile slipped a bit. The thought of her own room in that luxurious house...! "Oh, no, Diego. I couldn't. You've given me far too much already."

"Remember, my home is your home," he repeated solemnly.

She watched him, her breath halted momentarily in her chest. Then she sighed. "I don't suppose I have a choice."

"You always have a choice. But it would make him happy. He is quite fond of you, you know."

And are you? was the question that burst into her thoughts, and she resolutely ignored it. "All right," she finally agreed. "I don't suppose it would hurt anybody. And to be fair, you should have your own room here. Technically, you do own the place."

He nodded graciously. "As you wish, Señora." This time his affectionate kiss landed on her worry-wrinkled forehead, just under her hairline.

Victoria quickly busied herself with pulling the kitten off her shoulder and turning away so he wouldn't see her crimson face. She found herself wondering what it might be like to kiss him on the top of his head. Was his hair as soft as it looked? She would probably have to stand on a chair just to reach him...

"Did anything interesting happen while I was away?" Diego was asking, resuming his position of nonchalance near the block.

"Zorro paid a visit," she blurted without thinking. That was stupid, she told herself, trying desperately to collect her wits again. I'm sure Diego doesn't want to hear about me and Zorro.

But Diego seemed unconcerned. "That was nice of him. It's quite dangerous for him to come to the pueblo on a visit, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is." She wanted to tell him all about her conversation with the masked bandit, but she hesitated, not wanting to hurt his feelings, wound his pride, or open herself to probing questions that she wouldn't know how to answer. "He wanted to congratulate us on the wedding." She pulled on the kitten again, but the animal had crawled under her hair to the back of her neck, then dug her claws into the lace ruffle near the neckline of her blouse.

"Did he?" Diego asked. "I imagine he was surprised to hear about it, considering your past relationship with him."

Victoria nodded, unable to respond, still tugging single-mindedly with the kitten.

"Victoria, you're going to tear your shirtwaist to shreds if you don't stop. Now let me help." Diego was behind her then, pushing her hair over her shoulder, his hand barely grazing the skin along her neck, and releasing the kitten's claws one by one until she was free again.

Victoria instantly stepped away and righted her twisted blouse, smoothing down the lace ruffle, desperately struggling to calm her thoughts enough to speak intelligently to him.

"She's going to be a climber," Diego predicted, eyeing the cat analytically. "Oh, by the way, Father is having a dinner party tonight. I almost forgot to mention it, though it was the reason I came to town today."

"A dinner party?" she croaked, and forcefully cleared her throat. "Do you need some more bottles of wine?"

Diego smiled and shook his head in sudden confusion. "No, I'm asking if you would like to come," he explained.

Victoria's eyebrows rose as she finally turned to face him again. "Oh!"

"You could try out your new room," he suggested pleasantly.

"Of course!" she hastily assured him. "I would be glad to attend."

He nodded. "Good. Come whenever you like. The guests arrive at seven o'clock and dinner starts at eight. Oh, and here." He handed the kitten back to her with a smile.

Sergeant Mendoza caught them smiling at each other when he poked his head through the curtain for the second time that day. Sweat dripped down his reddened cheeks as he smiled wanly and said, "Señorita... Señora, do you suppose I might have another pitcher of water? PLEASE!"

Don Alejandro's dinner parties were generally very pleasant affairs with good wine, excellent food, and fairly decent conversation, as long as the Alcalde didn't stir up trouble. But the Alcalde of Los Angeles had been strangely subdued lately, probably due to his complete embarrassment at Diego's hands several weeks before. It served him right, Victoria thought, grudgingly happy about DeSoto's discomfort. Though it was hardly a fair price for all the misery he had caused the people of the pueblo, and her in particular, it was some comfort to know that at least once the man had been bested and that she'd had a hand in it.

Victoria tore her thoughts from the Alcalde and forced her attention back to Don Alejandro's party. Several families had already arrived, and her father-in-law was greeting new guests at the door. She watched Felipe step aside and hold the imposing front door open wide. She thought he looked very nice in his simple white dress-shirt and white cotton pants with the striking red sash tied at his waist. Her eyes slid past Felipe to the guests boisterously entering the foyer at Alejandro's invitation.

"Don Sebastian and his lovely wife," Diego said softly into her ear as he joined her near the piano, two glasses of sweetened tea in his hands.

She took the drink he offered and looked at it despairingly. "Diego, when am I going to see you drink something real for a change?"

He grinned at her over his glass. "Someday I'll tell you the great secret of my life; why I can't handle alcohol. Truly, Victoria, it goes straight to my head. One drink and I'm a babbling idiot."

She giggled. "And a caballero is never a babbling idiot."

"Precisely. Shall we greet the de Silvas and their son?" He held out his arm and she took it, still grinning at their private joke.

The party progressed smoothly as the time for dinner approached. All the guests Alejandro invited were in attendance and everybody seemed to be in high spirits. Soon the front rooms grew stuffy and the doors and windows were thrown open to admit the cooler evening air. Victoria was glad for a respite from the warmth, for she couldn't help but feel a little put out still while she noticed Carmen Saragosa -- "I have to invite her since she's only been visiting our pueblo for a short time," Alejandro had reasoned -- smoothly make a circuit of the room, effortlessly charming the older, married gentlemen and flirting outrageously with their younger sons. The girl giggled and laughed loudly, declaring that she simply could never marry because she would have to choose just one man and how could she possibly do that? Victoria headed for the kitchen to offer her help to the cook before she could be sick.

Five minutes later she was back after being unceremoniously ushered out of the kitchen by LaRosa, the de la Vega's cook, and ordered to enjoy herself as mistress of the house. She sought out Diego in the small crowd of ruffled women and suited men, finally finding him talking to Don Sebastian's eldest son, Alphonso, and the insufferable Señorita Carmen.

"Victoria!" Alphonso exclaimed and grabbed her hands for a squeeze. "Congratulations on your wedding! I've been out of town and just heard the news." He gave her a look of utmost respect. "Quite an exciting ceremony from what I understand!"

Victoria laughed lightly. "It was at that," she agreed politely, wishing something else interesting would happen in Los Angeles so people would stop talking about her wedding.

"Oh, weddings! What a bore!" Carmen said, her vice lilting over her listeners. She swished her satin skirts coyly against Diego's and Alphonso's legs and even managed a quick batting of her lashes before she continued, "I just love your hacienda, Don Diego. And that piano is perfectly beautiful! Do you play?"

He nodded. "I attempt to play," he answered modestly.

Victoria cocked her head and looked up at him, "Oh, you do more than make attempts, Diego." She turned to Carmen and Alphonso. "Diego is a much better player than he admits."

"Oh, please, Señor, play something!" Carmen entreated.

Diego took his pleasantly surprised gaze from Victoria long enough to promise, "Perhaps later."

Carmen's red lips drooped to a perfect pout, but Alphonso linked her arm in his and said, "Now that you've been introduced to the mistress of the house, I would like to formally present you to its master." He smiled at her, obviously enchanted by her pout, and led her away.

Victoria snorted a laugh. "Mistress of the house, indeed."

Diego shrugged his shoulder. "Well, he's right."

"I wonder what Don Alejandro would say about that."

He looked at her from the corners of his eyes. "He'd say you make a very beautiful one."

Victoria's eyes widened. "Diego! You never used to be so coolly complimentary!" she exclaimed, slightly perturbed at herself when she felt the color flame on her cheeks for the second time that day.

"I never used to be married," he quipped and grinned. "And are you not going to coolly return the compliment?"

She glanced at him, taking in his elegant, close-fitting trousers and superbly cut jacket that fit across his shoulders in perfection. "Diego, I'm sorry, but light blue just isn't your color." She smiled apologetically and calmly drifted away to the sitting room.

She couldn't help but smile at her teasing comment, but in her distraction, she unfortunately ended up joining the group of guests containing Doña Esmerelda de Silva. Diego sidled to the piano, and smiled at her.

He began playing, idly running his fingers over the keys, picking out tunes as they came to mind, then he glanced at her again, and slowly a soft melody, like raindrops falling on rose petals, floated over the guests. Don Alejandro paused in mid-sentence to glance at his son in surprise, approval showing in the stance he took to better listen to the music.

Victoria listened, stunned. She had always known that Diego liked to play the piano, but she didn't know he was so good at it. The chords flowed seamlessly together, and the melody, though simple, was performed with such emotion that every eye was riveted instantly to the man sitting behind the impressive instrument. And the beauty of it was that Diego seemed oblivious to all the attention; when he did look up, his eyes rested only on her.

Finally the last chord echoed longingly around the room, then slid away to silence as the guests expelled a breath all at once and applauded appreciatively.

Carmen Saragosa tore herself from Don Alphonso's grasp long enough to rush to the piano and lay a hand coquettishly on Diego's shoulder. "Oh, Don Diego, that was beautiful," she gushed. "Simply marvelous."

Diego smiled again. "Did you like it? I composed it only a few days ago."

Don Alejandro stepped forward and offered his admiration. "Truly, Diego, that was excellent. When did you find the time to create such a lovely song?"

Diego stood up, pushing the piano bench back, and shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I couldn't sleep one night. I guess the muse just hit at the correct time."

"Keep that muse going and you'll be a famous composer someday!" Alphonso joked as he collected Carmen's hand from Diego's arm.

Diego laughed. "I doubt that."

Carmen resisted Alphonso for a moment longer. "Play something else, Señor. Please." Her auburn curls danced over her shoulder and she leaned in closer to help Diego choose some music from the sheets arranged on the music rack. Victoria rolled her eyes. Alphonso managed to pull Carmen away as Diego settled into another piece, and the general conversation resumed.

Doña Esmerelda was speaking, the red and gold peacock fan held in her hand clicking importantly on her knee. "Well, it's all very nice to spend one's nights playing the piano, but surely we all have little time to be messing around with melodies and the like." She laughed and the ladies clustered around her chair laughed agreeably and nodded their heads. "So, tell us, how is married life, Señora de la Vega? I hope things are settling down now."

Victoria didn't miss the fact that the older woman had chosen not to use the more formal and official title of doña when addressing her. Not that she cared, she told herself, but it grated on her nerves nonetheless. "Oh, Señora de Silva, my marriage is many things, though I hope it never quite settles down as you might wish a marriage to," she answered politely.

One of Doña Esmerelda's pencil-thin eyebrows rose archly to meet her black hairline. "Of course, I pray it is everything you wish it to be." She opened her fan, then clicked it shut again, the only outward sign besides the eyebrow that she was taken aback by Victoria's comment. "Naturally, I've always wondered about the young de la Vega. He's such a placid, studious man." She laughed proudly. "My Alphonso spends every minute that he can in the practice yard, a sword in hand, determined to become the best swordsman in the southern territory. It's a pity that your husband can't find the time to improve his skills with the sword. It is such an elegant weapon." Esmerelda glanced again at the women surrounding her, and they nodded on cue.

"Absolutely," Doña Inez Quinterra agreed.

"Very elegant," Señora Vincente repeated.

Doña Esmerelda continued, "The times we live in are so unsettling; a nice tune on the piano is soothing to the nerves, but I always say a strong sword can be extremely useful. Perhaps Alphonso can take time from his grueling schedule to offer Don Diego some lessons?" She smiled obligingly from her throne before the sitting room fireplace.

Victoria swallowed to allow herself time to rein in her temper just enough to formulate a scathing reply. "Well, I'm sure my husband's skills with a sword are quite sufficient for our times; he did study swordplay at the University of Madrid. And I believe that any man who can take the time from encouraging the violence of useless swordplay to compose beautiful songs on the piano should be greatly admired. As to lessons from Don Alphonso, perhaps it would be more beneficial for Diego to give him some lessons on manners, as your son doesn't appear to know how to behave properly with a lady in public."

Doña Esmerelda's shocked eyes flew to the corner of the library where Don Alphonso had finally succeeded in corralling Señorita Carmen and was proceeding to suggest all manner of improprieties from the hooded look in his eyes and the seductive smile on his face. His mother sat paralyzed in her chair, completely astounded.

Victoria smiled coldly and swept her long red skirt aside to walk past the startled women. She headed quickly for the dining room and from there planned to escape the stifling formalities of the guests by retreating to her room to finally let loose her hold on her temper, when a hand pulled her through the door and into the kitchen.

"Let go of me!" she ordered, and her anger didn't cool in the least when Diego released his hold prior to draping his arm around her shoulders. She moved back a step, a hot retort on her lips, but stopped as he turned to the cool adobe wall, his shoulders shaking uncontrollably.

"Diego, what is wrong?"

He didn't answer; he just leaned against the wall, shaking even harder.

Now her anger was gone and she was worried. Was he sick? Was he victim to strange seizures that he had never mentioned before? "Diego, what is it?" She brushed strands of black hair away and reached out to touch his heaving back.

Suddenly he took a deep breath, his chest and back expanding under her hand, and exploded with a roar; he was laughing.

Victoria's anger returned and she snatched her hand away. "Diego de la Vega! This isn't funny!" Slowly he slid to the floor, still laughing silently in his fury of humor. "I just seriously insulted an important guest, Don Alejandro is probably going to kill me, and all you can do is sit on the kitchen floor and laugh?" She glanced at LaRosa in despair, but the cook only grinned widely and checked the twenty roasting quail one more time. "Diego!"

He calmed enough to catch one of her hands clutched in her skirt and pull her down near him. "Did you... did you see her face?" He turned appealing blue eyes on her. "I thought she would surely... explode!" Diego threw his head back and laughed louder.

It was infectious. Victoria giggled. "She did look rather like a bloated cow, didn't she?" She giggled again, and before she knew it, she was leaning heavily on his shoulder, laughing too hard to support herself. She pressed the back of his hand to her forehead while she held her aching stomach with her other hand.

They were still laughing when Don Alejandro found them. "Diego! Victoria!" he said in irritation. "Our guests are seated at the table, and here you two are, rolling on the floor. What are you about?"

"Sorry, Father!" Diego paused, looked at Victoria, and laughed again.

"Diego, stop," Victoria panted. "I can't quit if you don't stop first!"

Alejandro groaned. "All right, children, it's time to rejoin the party. Victoria." He hauled her to her feet while Diego wiped tears from his eyes with a linen handkerchief. "Diego, look at you; a grown man, sitting on the kitchen floor! Your suit's getting dirty."

Diego stood and brushed off his trousers. "Oh, you never liked this suit anyway."

"That is hardly the point," Don Alejandro said ferociously.

Victoria, still out of breath, curled a hand around Diego's arm. "We're very sorry, Don Alejandro."

"I should hope so. Now, let's try to behave like adults, shall we?" He turned to lead the way to the dining room, but paused to softly confess, "I have to say, Victoria, that you set Doña Esmerelda back on her feet superbly! Well done!" He pushed open the kitchen door and politely smothered a laugh behind his hand.

Diego fondly circled his arm about her waist and leaned down to whisper, "Thank you for defending me so roundly," in her ear.

Unaware that she was even doing it, Victoria placed her own arm around Diego's waist and added an affectionate squeeze. "You're welcome."

Life in the social avenues of Los Angeles had begun.

Chapter 4

Months passed, and according to Doña Esmerelda's wish, life did settle down in a way.

In reality, very little of Victoria's routine daily life changed. She still rose before dawn to bake the day's bread, she paid strict attention to her customers' satisfaction with her service, and she kept rigid accounts of the tavern's sales and profits. However, her marriage added several things to this typical, ho-hum existence she'd been living for the past eleven years. She improved daily on her bantering and flirting abilities while Diego visited the tavern, she spent several hours a day explaining her behavior towards her husband to Maria, and in her small amount of free time she chased the little gray kitten around the kitchen, determined that the animal would eat only scraps and rats rather than the choice tidbits that always seemed to be frying in a skillet just within reach of her incredible claws.

Victoria named the cat Isabella after Queen Isabella of Spain. Maria had laughed, but Victoria felt that the cat displayed a far too regal bearing to be called something simple, like Señorita Gato, which was Maria's suggestion. So Isabella ensconced herself in the tavern soon after that first day Diego handed her to Victoria, and she demanded respect and unending admiration from her owner and each of the tavern's patrons. In return, she conveniently cleared the tavern, its rooms and pantry, and eventually the surrounding buildings, of rodents of all kinds, including all the rats.

Business at the tavern prospered. At Diego's gentle persuasion, she hired two more helpers, one a burly though incredibly friendly man named Antonio Antony, who, despite his name, was a formidable enemy once he lost his temper. There was an immediate decrease in rowdy customers after he began tending the bar. Though Antonio had spent most of his early adult life on the open sea, he liked Los Angeles and the steady wages he earned from Victoria, and he stayed, cheerfully pouring drinks and giving his opinions on local and not-so-local politics.

Besides paying fairly generous wages to her employees, Victoria made sure that the de la Vegas received their fair share of her profits as well. Diego had his own room reserved at the tavern, and he opted to use it occasionally, just as Victoria chose to remain the night at the hacienda every now and then.

Victoria did her best to keep her rather odd relationship with Diego on a friendly, businesslike level. But as their teasing and flirting became more personal with practice, she knew she was slowly failing in her endeavor. Her feelings for Diego were much harder to contend with than she had ever imagined they would be.

When he slept at the tavern, they usually stayed up late, long after closing and everybody had either gone home or climbed the stairs to bed. They played card games, told stories about the day's events, or just talked about nothing in particular. Diego taught her the finer points of playing chess, and Victoria patiently explained the different nuances between good and bad bottles of wine. During the day, even when he had time only for a quick visit, he invariably brought something for her; a wildflower he'd picked on the way into town, a book he thought she might like, and once he brought a new dress, declaring he'd never seen her wear one and was wondering what she would look like. It got to the point where finally she could deny the obvious no longer; she was being courted by her husband.

But there were still several things she didn't understand about Diego. He kept strange habits, disappearing for hours at a time with little or no explanations. Whenever trouble started brewing anywhere in the pueblo, he would vanish along with Felipe, heading who-knew-where to do mysterious tasks that he lightly explained aside when she questioned him. Sometimes she caught him looking at her with such intense calculation in his eyes that it unnerved her to ponder what he was thinking. She considered the possibility that he had met a woman who struck his fancy, and that he quietly slipped away to see her when everyone else was too busy watching the pueblo's troubles unfold to notice him. But then what would be the point of paying so much attention to his wife? Confused, she usually managed to bury these persistent, nagging ideas at the back of her mind. One thing she was sure of, though; there was more to Diego de la Vega than met the eye.

Victoria had little time to spend thinking on the private life of her husband, however. Business was brisk due to the Alcalde's pressure on collecting the yearly revenue taxes, and Zorro made numerous appearances in the pueblo in attempts to stem DeSoto's tyranny. She always watched the bandit from her tavern's porch, surrounded by the crowd of cheering citizens. Except for the odd times when he glanced her way as he scanned the crowd, and once when he made sure of her safety while bullets ricocheted dangerously close to her position on the porch, she was painfully aware of the fact that he completely ignored her. She remembered growing tired of his dashing gallantries in the days before the wedding, but now she sort of missed the attention he had offered her. It had made her feel special and honored to be chosen from the crowd by the heroic outlaw. The attention Diego paid to her was nice, but it wasn't the same. No matter how hard she tried, she could not imagine her husband being dashing and debonair.

Such as right now, she thought, and snuck a glance at him from her position at the opposite end of the bar. Diego and Felipe were drinking coffee and talking to Antonio and Maria about one of Shakespeare's famous plays. He was wearing his usual blue pants and a darker blue vest over the ruffled caballero shirt and though he leaned an elbow on the bar and listened intently to Maria question the plot line that he had just explained, she couldn't help but think he looked just a little... fussy.

"So these two kids got married anyway? How old did you say they were?" Maria was asking.

Diego shrugged and pursed his lips. "Oh, no one's absolutely certain, but some scholars guess around fourteen and fifteen."

"Fourteen!" Antonio whistled, impressed. "When I was fourteen, I was too busy causing trouble on the docks to notice any girls, let alone take the time to fall in love with one."

Maria twirled a towel around her hand and used it to wipe up a spot of spilled coffee from the counter. "Well I think it's very romantic."

Felipe blinked at her in astonishment. He gestured wildly with his free hand while more coffee sloshed from his cup to the counter top.

Maria rolled her eyes behind the thatch of bangs hanging untidily on her forehead. "I know they died, Felipe. But that wasn't their fault; their parents caused all their problems and in the end, caused their deaths in a roundabout way."

Antonio snorted, a huge expulsion of air from his massive chest. "Well I for one could not marry a girl against so much opposition. Love isn't worth it," he declared.

Diego raised an eyebrow. "Love can be a very strong, driving force, amigo. If you let it, love can even create miracles."

Victoria didn't miss the sideways glance he sent in her direction. She studiously ignored it and pretended to be very interested in the column of numbers she was adding in her accounts book.

Antonio continued. "That young fella...?"

"Romeo."

"Yeah. He should have been out carousing with his friends rather than going to masked balls and hooking up with what's-her-name. It would have saved him a lot of trouble."

Felipe smiled and pointed at Antonio, nodding in agreement.

Maria snorted this time. "And he probably would have been killed carousing and the story wouldn't be nearly as interesting."

Antonio shook his head, unconvinced. "No. Love just messes with your mind. You can't get involved if you want to make things happen in this world."

"I disagree," Diego stated, straightening up and taking a sip of coffee.

"Do you care to explain, Señor?" Antonio rumbled.

Diego looked at the bigger man glaring at him from behind the bar, and Victoria half expected him to smile and say he didn't wish to argue, as he often did when he and Don Alejandro discussed explosive topics. This time, however, he calmly continued, "Improving the world is important, Antonio, but what good are your improvements and ideas if you don't have someone to share them with? Part of the battle to change things is having the incentive to change them in the first place; the rest of the battle is so much easier if you know there will be someone at its end to admire your work."

Felipe grinned suddenly and motioned in the air.

Diego grimaced. "Somehow I don't think a dog would appreciate a new water system for the pueblo or a well-written play as much as a human, Felipe."

Antonio bellowed a laugh. "A dog! Very funny, Felipe!"

"No," Diego shook his head. "The kind of love I'm talking about is like that, yet far more exciting than the friendship of a dog. Or a cat." He gestured towards Victoria, catching her watching them this time. "This kind of love is supportive and gentle, and so powerful that once you've felt it open your soul to another person, life can never be as full without her." His forehead creased in thought and he stared at Victoria. "It sweeps you away with its passion and beauty before you're even aware something is happening," he finished softly. Then he blinked and abruptly looked away to the partitioned shelves behind the bar.

They were silent for a moment, four pairs of eyes trained on Diego in astonishment. Then Antonio broke the spell. "Sounds awful to me."

Diego smiled in distraction. "At least, that's Shakespeare's portrayal of it. I'm sure it's not the same for every couple in the world."

Alcalde DeSoto joined them as he wiped his hands with a napkin after finishing his breakfast. Victoria had finally relented and let him back in her tavern, but she still refused to serve him herself. Now he clapped his hand on Diego's back and mockingly said, "Expounding on the topic of love, eh, Diego? You, after all, do know more about the science of courtship and marriage than we poor simpletons, don't you?"

Victoria caught her breath at the intended insult. She wondered if she should prepare to reach for the heavy skillet kept under the counter when Diego slowly turned to face the Alcalde.

"Love is a glorious triumph, Alcalde. Any man who reduces it to a mere science is doomed to a quick and absolute failure." One corner of his mouth lifted to a a half-smile. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to help my father prepare for his trip to San Diego tomorrow." He nodded pleasantly to Antonio and Maria, and briefly touched Victoria's hand before walking calmly out the door. Felipe followed, grinning.

The Alcalde looked to her. She glared back at him, shut her accounts book with a snap, then crossed to the kitchen without another glance.

She was startled to find Diego coming from her tiny pantry at one end of the kitchen, two apples in hand, as the curtain fell silently closed behind her. "I thought you'd gone home," she said.

"Oh, I'm on my way. Felipe decided at the last minute he was hungry."

She smiled a closed-lipped smile. "That's nothing new," she teased.

He laughed back. "No. It seems the older he gets, the more he eats."

"I guess he's still a growing boy, isn't he?"

"Yes." He nodded and was about to leave again when he paused before her. "Will you be joining us for supper tonight?"

She shrugged affably. "If you wish."

He gazed down at her, unblinking. "I do wish. But only if you wish it as well."

She smiled. "I would be most happy to, honored sir."

He nodded once and his voice low, answered, "Until then, fair lady." He tenderly kissed her forehead, paused, kissed her again, then turned and left quietly through the back door.

Victoria breathlessly sank to a bench pushed conveniently against the wall, the accounts book falling uselessly to her lap. Dashing was nice, she thought suddenly, but it certainly wasn't necessary for a successful courtship.

Dinner at the hacienda was excellent, as always, and Victoria ate too much, as always. Don Alejandro retired early since he planned to be on the road to San Diego before sunrise the next day, and Diego disappeared with Felipe to the stables behind the hacienda she guessed. Thus she found some unaccustomed free time on her hands. She wandered, directionless, around the hacienda, pausing to look at pictures hung on the walls and statues and graceful knickknacks displayed in advantageous corners. Don Alejandro had collected quite a number of art objects over the years, and he knew just how to decorate his rambling house to perfection. She smiled to herself until she discovered she had unwittingly wandered into Diego's private quarters.

Victoria stopped and peeked self-consciously into his sitting room. It was empty, and only a few pieces of paper scattered on an old desk in the corner indicated that he even used the room. She edged slowly to the desk and glanced hastily at the neat writing covering the pages, discovering that he was in the middle of composing several fairly good poems. A copy of four Shakespearean plays weighted the pages down and Victoria smiled; so that's what had prompted the discussion that morning. Still smiling, she drifted on into the bedroom.

The same red and gold spread covered the bed, and the heavy cream-colored curtains fluttered in a breeze coming through the open window. The curtain wrapped around the mahogany bed post in lazy curls of material, and she straightened it as she remembered the last time she'd been in this room. She recalled her fear, the clinging dampness of the night, the panic she'd felt while she listened to the Alcalde demanding to know her whereabouts. She glanced at the bureau and wondered if the cloak Diego had loaned to her was once again neatly folded and stuffed into the proper drawer. She was sure it was; Diego wasn't exactly a man of disorder.

She stood in the center of the room to stare at the large bed and wondered what it might be like to really be married to Diego. She knew he'd almost been married once before, to a young woman named Sofira, whom he had met in Madrid. They had planned to marry because they were in love and she supposed they would have had a normal married relationship. He would have been an affectionate husband, she thought, and they probably would have had many children... A picture of a muscular back and glimmering white skin followed thoughts of children, and she left the room in a rush as the picture melted chaotically with other remembered peeks into the more personal aspects of her husband's life. This was no way to encourage a platonic relationship, she chided herself severely, and went to her own room in the hopes that a more mundane job, like washing her hair, would restore her typical, businesslike demeanor.

Several hours later she was outwardly calm at least. Though doing her best to fall asleep, her mind still spun with questions, and those questions lead not to answers but to more questions. It was ridiculous, she thought, to think so hard about a man she wasn't even supposed to care much about. She was considering the possibility of him and another woman, and she was painstakingly rejecting every female in the pueblo as possible candidates. They were all either too rich or too poor, too young or too old, too devoted to their own husbands or too happy about being unmarried. Of course, there was the chance that she might not be from Los Angeles, and Victoria's thoughts jumped immediately to Carmen Saragosa. Ugh! Carmen was just too... Carmen for Diego. Though she had heard that the young girl was once again visiting the pueblo, she believed Diego had better taste than that. Carmen was much more suited to Don Alphonso, who had little brains in his head, so there wasn't much danger of him becoming bored with Señorita Saragosa too quickly. Diego, however, did know something about the sweeter yearnings of the heart, for he had spoken so eloquently on the topic that morning in the tavern. So who was it that had captured him so thoroughly? She went on pondering, but this line of thinking did not help her solve the enigma of Diego de la Vega. All it did was give her a pounding headache.

She sighed and climbed from under the covers to light a single candle resting on the polished oak table beside her bed. The dim light danced unevenly across the expensive rug on the floor, creating no heat in the cooled room to warm her or dry her still-damp hair, and Victoria threw a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the chill. She was standing in the middle of the rug, looking at her blurry reflection in the window panes, when she saw the figure of the man so prominently on her mind materialize behind her.

"Victoria!" he exclaimed, his face lighting up at the sight of her. "I thought you'd gone to bed hours ago."

She turned, gaping a bit at his rumpled clothes and hair lying tousled across his high forehead. The tails of his white shirt hung untucked as they had on their wedding night so many months ago. But what caught her interest first was that his shirt was hanging open, except for the bottom two buttons, indicating haste when he'd last put it on. She caught a good view of his tanned neck and smooth chest and stomach shining enticingly in the yellow light of the candle. "Diego. What are you doing?"

He gestured to the front of the hacienda with his thumb. "I was just locking up for the night." He looked at her more closely. "You don't look so well. Are you feeling all right?"

Victoria blinked and banished the surge of curiosity that flooded her mind at the sight of her disheveled husband. "I'm fine. I have a headache," she blurted. "I can't sleep."

The concern cleared from his eyes as he smiled in agreement. "Yes, it's hard to sleep when your head hurts. But be patient, stay right there; I have just the thing to help."

He disappeared into the dark passages beyond her room and minutes later returned, carefully bearing a cup of steaming tea in his hands. With some disappointment she noted that his hair was brushed back and his shirt properly buttoned and tucked into his brown trousers. "Tea?" she questioned, wrinkling her nose.

"Not exactly. I've been reading some medical books, and this is something I discovered one day when I had a headache myself. I crushed some kola nuts and added them and just a bit of sugar to the tea. It may taste odd, and it might keep you awake for a time, but I guarantee it will take care of your headache."

She took a hesitant sip of the tea, and it did taste bitter, but not so bad that she couldn't stand it. "What is this nut you're talking about?"

"The kola nut. It grows on a tree in Africa."

"Africa! You do get around, don't you!"

He laughed, and the candlelight twinkled in his eyes. "You know, the tea works better if you eat something with it. Let's see what we can find in the kitchen."

"No, I'm fine, truly, Diego," she insisted. "I ate so much at dinner that I'll explode if I eat any more. And you don't need to spend your time fussing over me..."

"Victoria, you are the most stubborn woman I have ever met." Diego gently took her hand in his and pulled her out of the room. "Besides, I like fussing over you," he added quietly.

She obediently followed him to the kitchen, wondering at how often she had done the things he had asked lately simply because he had asked them. It would have made more sense to stay at the tavern that night since she had to be back early enough to prepare breakfast, and it was her turn to make the bread, too. But she liked spending time at the hacienda. And she liked the feeling of Diego's soft fingers curled around her hand. No, it didn't make any sense at all.

They found some grapes in a bowl set on the dining room table and retreated to the library to talk and empty the bowl. Diego lit a candelabra and waited while Victoria quickly finished her tea, contentedly popping grapes into his mouth and chatting about Don Alejandro's trip to San Diego.

Victoria set the empty tea cup on the chess board and reached for a grape, aware that she was slightly light headed, and everything she looked at seemed to stand out in sharp focus. She was probably just tired, she told herself. Aloud, she asked, "Diego, how did you know all those things about love that you mentioned this morning?"

"What do you mean?"

"That stuff about - oh, what was it - sharing your accomplishments with someone, opening up your soul, all those Shakespeare things. What made you think of all that?" She chewed the skin off the purple grape and let the flesh of the fruit squash under her teeth, crunching hard on the two seeds hidden within. Without thinking, she swallowed the grape, seeds and all, and reached for another one.

Diego raised an eyebrow and looked at her as she plucked two more grapes from the bowl. "I thought you weren't hungry."

Victoria stared at the grapes in her hand as if seeing them for the first time, and the lightheaded sensation increased. "I changed my mind." She giggled. "Well?"

Diego took a deep, thoughtful breath and straightened in his chair. "I guess I just read some plays and poems and thought about what it must be like..."

She didn't let him finish. "You were almost married once before, weren't you?" She blinked her heavy eyelids several times and ate another grape.

Now his look was one of surprise. They had never spoken of their previous romances before. At last he nodded a shrug. "Well, yes, I..."

"In Madrid, wasn't it? Were you excited? I mean, you were in love with her, right?"

Diego slowly exhaled through pursed lips. "Yes, I suppose I was, but things just didn't work out." He smiled quietly at her through the dim light.

Victoria shivered under her shawl as a cool draft climbed from the floor up the length of her nightgown. She pulled her knees up to her chin and covered her cold feet with the length of white material bunched near the arm of the chair. "Do you still love her?" she asked innocently.

Diego looked sadly off to the distant corners of the shadowed room, lost in memories. "No," he finally said. "I don't love her anymore."

She shook her head, strangely exhilarated rather than saddened by his soft admittance. She shivered again. "That's too bad... for her. Then who are you seeing?"

His eyes widened. "What?" he spluttered, coming out of his reverie to sit up even straighter.

She closed her eyes on the now tilting room and took a slow, clarifying breath of air. "When you disappear. You do all the time, you know. When were you going to tell me about these secret meetings you have with this mystery woman? Hmm?"

He gaped at her, his eyes as wide open as his mouth. "Another woman? Is that what you think? That I'm seeing someone else?"

She sighed and drooped against the arm of her chair. "What am I supposed to think? What with the way you were dressed tonight, or half-dressed, I should say. I hope she's not someone like Carmen Saragosa. She would make any man completely miserable."

Diego laughed. He sat back in his chair and breathed a loud explosion of laughter. Victoria dreamily wondered what was so funny, yet she couldn't quite focus her thoughts long enough to formulate an answer. But she found herself giggling along with him.

Eventually Diego managed to say, "Victoria, if you only knew the truth! That is the silliest idea you've ever come up with. And I assure you, I am not seeing any women on the sly."

She was still giggling tiredly, leaning heavily on the chair's padded arm. "Then where do you go, Diego? And why aren't you seeing other women? I think you would make a good husband someday."

He smiled. "God grant that I will," he said, still laughing lightly at her. Then he leaned forward, his voice as gentle as the smile curving his lips. "Victoria, did you drink anything tonight? Any sherry or brandy?"

She giggled harder. "Just water at dinner and that tea you gave me! What was in that? You could sell it and... I don't know, make people lightheaded for a nominal fee. But be careful or the Alcalde will tax away your profits!"

Diego chuckled again. "Perhaps someday. But I think I put too much crushed nut in your tea. Or maybe too much sugar. I didn't take into account that you're a much smaller person than I am. This is a most interesting effect." He knelt before her and felt her accelerated pulse. "How's your headache?"

She looked him squarely in the eye. "Did I have a headache?" It was hard to remember for sure. "Well, it doesn't hurt now. It's just spinning a little. It's like being drunk, I suppose."

"You're dizzy?" He felt her forehead under the damp bangs.

She nodded. "Dizzy and tired and relaxed... It's not so bad with my eyes closed." She smiled and pulled his hand down to kiss his palm. Now why had she done that, she wondered?

"Victoria." Diego stopped, his hand still trapped in hers. "Are you...?" He stopped again, his voice breaking with hesitation and uncertainty.

"Am I what? I'm very tired now. I thought you said I wasn't supposed to get sleepy. Maybe I should go to bed." She managed to uncurl her legs and rise to her feet. "Good-night, Diego. Thank you for the tea." With no clear intention in her mind, she leaned down to kiss his smooth, soft cheek but at the last minute changed direction and kissed him lightly on the lips. Even in her befuddled state she was aware of the softness and warmth of his lips and of the beautiful explosion of desire that swept through her mind and body.

Then she left him and was comfortably curled up in bed before she had time to think about what she'd just done.

She lay awake the rest of the night, staring at the ceiling, reasoning with herself, arguing against her conscience, realizing that she was the world's biggest fool. Like an idiot, she had allowed herself to be swept away, just as Diego had described in her tavern. Now she had no choice but to admit it; she was in love with her husband.

And she was not at all sure that he felt the same about her.

Victoria finally fell asleep around sunrise, her dulled senses ignoring the sounds of birdsong and horses leaving the stable yard. When she woke, it was nine o'clock and she was sick with dread and apprehension. What was she going to say to Diego? Worse yet, what if she said something, and he laughed the whole incident off? Perhaps if she was very quiet, she could escape the hacienda without seeing him...

But there was no need for such subterfuge. LaRosa brought a small breakfast to her bedroom before she had a chance to even get dressed, and relayed the message that Don Diego wanted her to feel free to come and go as she pleased during his absence. Upon questioning, the cook informed her that he and Felipe had accompanied Don Alejandro to San Diego. They would be gone a week.

A week!

Chapter 5

A week can be a very long time.

There are 168 hours in a week.

The tavern could easily serve close to 300 meals in a week, and probably one thousand drinks if it were August, reportedly the hottest month of the year. A lot could go on in a week.

That week was the dullest in Los Angeles history.

The weather was gray, threatening rain for days on end. The Alcalde stayed in his office, not bothering to cause any problems. Dreary weather makes dreary people, Victoria discovered, feeling drearier than most of the citizens of Los Angeles.

Business was slow because people stayed home. Even Isabella wouldn't go outside, pushing her nose up whenever Victoria opened the back door to entice her with some fresh air. She just wanted to lay by the fire in the front room and get fat off the cooked beef that Antonio fed her when Victoria wasn't looking.

Not that Victoria paid much attention to anything. She was thinking about Diego's comment that once a person falls in love, life is never quite the same. Well, that much is true, she thought. Now that Diego was not at the tavern to visit her every day, she could attest to the emptiness of life in general. The old things just didn't excite her any more.

I can't even read, she thought in disgust and dropped her book on the empty cushion beside her. The hacienda, like the tavern, wasn't the same without Diego, and the library was even worse. The darkness of the days made it difficult to read without a candle, even during the afternoon siesta hours, and she kept daydreaming about what she would say to Diego when next she saw him. Actually, she thought more about what she might do. She had several choices. She could go on as before and ignore these insistent emotions to throw herself at him. She could talk to him and try to discover exactly what he thought of her. Or she could dispense with all preliminary action and seduce him on the spot. The second idea was the most practical, but seduction had a certain appeal to it. And invariably she laughed at herself for considering any plan to secure Diego for herself. A year ago she would have died at the thought.

Why then, she wondered, had she never seduced Zorro?

It didn't matter, she decided and rose from the library's elegant couch to wander aimlessly around the room. A moment later she was seated again, determined to read another few pages of the novel Diego had suggested, just to see what happened next to Robin Hood and Little John, if nothing else. Thus the entrance took her completely by surprise.

"Victoria!"

The front door flew open and the cold, damp air blew through the front hall and into the library. Victoria jumped up in fright.

"Are you here?" came the call again; Diego's voice.

Diego was home? They weren't due back for at least three more days. She fiercely told her heart to calm down as she hurried forward, her cream skirt twisting around her ankles to hinder every step.

Then he was there, standing before her, larger than she remembered. He wore a long brown cloak that almost brushed the floor, and black trousers. She didn't think she had ever seen him wear black before.

"There you are!" He reached out to her, clasping her fingers in his cold hands.

"You're cold! And wet! Your hair's practically dripping." She reached out to smooth back the damp strands hanging over his forehead. "What are you doing home so early? Has something happened?"

"No, no, nothing's happened," he assured her. "Felipe is still with Father, helping to finish his business in San Diego, and they're both perfectly fine. It's starting to rain, but I think I beat the worst of it." Diego worked the clasp of his cloak, but his fingers were so stiff from riding that he needed her help to remove the heavy, damp cape. "I wouldn't be wet at all, but I went to the tavern first, thinking you would be there. Antonio and Maria think I've gone crazy, I'm sure."

"Well, no one's crazy, and I'm right here. Come to the fire and warm yourself. I'll get you something hot to drink." Victoria took his wet cloak and hurried to the kitchen just as the raindrops began to patter on the hacienda's red tile roof. She was glad to escape so quickly and give her heart a chance to calm down, for right now it sounded in her temples the way the rain sounded on the roof; erratic.

She carried the coffee to him in the library, and he stood from kneeling beside the hearth to take the cup from her. He held it gingerly in his large hands, then deliberately set it down on the mantle without taking a drink. Diego turned to her with a smile and quietly gathered her into his arms for an unprecedented hug. He held her tightly, his sigh brushing the top of her hair. "I missed you," he admitted.

Thrown completely off balance by his actions, she nonetheless took advantage of their sudden closeness and pressed her cheek into the ruffles of his shirt. He smelled of wet horses and cool autumn air. "You missed me!" she exclaimed, managing a mocking tone of disbelief. "You've only been gone four days!"

He laughed. "Well, in all the... how long have we been married?"

"Seven months."

"Three weeks."

"And two days." She laughed with him.

"I should have known that. I had a lot of time for thinking about trivial things while on the road with Father. Anyway, in all those eight months, I've seen and spoken to you almost every day. I missed your conversation and insights." He withdrew his embrace, taking her fingers in his for a second, then releasing even them. Victoria felt suddenly cold, but Diego turned away to retrieve his coffee and stand near the replenished fire.

At odds as to what to do, and with half-formulated plans of seduction jumbling in her mind, Victoria haltingly returned to the couch and her forgotten adventure novel. "You missed very little here," she informed him, pleasantly conversational. "It's been gray, the Alcalde has been behaving exceptionally well, and Isabella is getting quite fat."

He nodded, listening yet distracted at the same time. Finally he lowered his coffee cup and said, "Victoria, may I ask you a question?"

Her eyebrow rose. "Of course."

"Are you still in love with Zorro?"

Victoria's head jerked up in surprise. Her breath halted in her chest and finally expelled in a long, hissing sigh. "I should be," she said at last and dropped her gaze from Diego's face. "But no, I don't think I am."

He stood beside the mantle, and nodded his acceptance of her answer. He turned away, then looked at her again, his eyebrows drawn together over the bridge of his nose. He set the coffee cup on the mantle with a clunk and hesitantly joined her on the couch.

"As I said, I had a lot of time to think while riding," he began, tensely sitting on the very edge of the cushions, as if he might spring up at the slightest provocation. "And I discovered that I was running away from you."

She stopped him. She didn't want to hear what his next words might be. "Diego, you don't ha..."

"I married you for more reasons than simply to help a friend in trouble," he relentlessly continued. He licked his lips and leaned forward, his eyes trained on the swirls in the rug under the soles of his dusty boots. "I know I promised that I would never... treat you in the typical... typical manner accustomed to most husbands..."

Before she could think, Victoria extended a hand and impulsively touched his knee. Her heart hammered in her throat, but she was sure she wasn't as terrified as Diego looked. At her touch he scooted away a foot, still refusing to look at her, and tried to continue what sounded like a well rehearsed speech.

"I... I thought... we..." he explained ineloquently as she pursued her chosen course of action despite her numbing uncertainties; Victoria stubbornly took his hand and bravely brought it to her lips for a soft kiss.

Diego lifted his eyes from the floor, only to steadfastly glue them to the wall opposite her position beside him. "Victoria, if you keep that up, I don't think I can hold to my promise much longer."

With a sigh she kissed his hand again, noticing how warm it was now when only a few moments before it had been icy cold. She moved closer until her knee touched his, and gently drew him around to face her. Cautiously, as if she had never attempted this act before, she lifted her face up to his, feeling his warm breath wash across her cheek. Then she leaned in and kissed him.

The kiss was tense, uncertain, and far from romantic. But Diego's hands came up to grip her shoulders, she reached up to touch his cheek, and suddenly she understood what it meant when someone melted into someone else -- Diego loosened his hold on his restraint and drew her into him with lips that were suddenly and incredibly soft and sensuous. She answered his change by relaxing against the curves of his body and opening her lips in unmistakable invitation.

His lips left hers and he longingly kissed her cheek, the tip of her nose, and his fingers pulled the combs from her hair, letting the freed strands cascade over his hands.

Quietly she said, "Diego, what you're saying, then, is that you want to make love to me?"

His answer kissed her ear. "Desperately. For seven months... for years."

Desire roared over her at his words, so strong that it would have taken her breath away if there had been any breath left to take. She didn't nod, she didn't say anything. However, she did slide her fingers down the buttons of his shirt, slowly easing all but the bottom two buttons from their precisely sewn buttonholes.

Diego stood, pulling her up with him. "I'm sorry, Victoria, but I don't think I can stand to be near you any longer without... And I can never stay away." His lips claimed hers again before she realized that she had relinquished control of the situation to this incredibly passionate man.

Not that it mattered. Oddly enough, she decided she rather liked not being in control, letting her unexplored emotions take precedence over everything else. She allowed her hands free will to roam where they wished and they immediately buried themselves inside his loosened shirt, caressing what she had obviously wanted to touch for a long time.

This brought a few of Diego's words through the haze in her brain to her conscious attention. "What did you mean, for years?" she questioned lazily, still leaning into him.

Effortlessly, he picked her up in his shaking arms and gently kissed her cheek. "First, please allow me to indulge in a fantasy I've played thousands of times in my mind. I'll tell you what I meant later," he promised, and without another word, carried her calmly to his bedroom.

Making love with Diego was awkward, painful, and far more beautiful than she had ever imagined it could be. Certainly neither of them had much experience with the more intimate relations between a man and a woman, yet their lack of knowledge only heightened their sense of wonder and fulfillment at this long-awaited consummation of that originally hasty marriage. And just as he had done after the frantic and fearful wedding ceremony, Diego tenderly held her as they lay catching their breath, their legs entwined together, his arms securely circling around her.

Victoria gently rested a hand on his chest and softly kissed his pale shoulder. A placid calm had replaced her previous desire, and she had time to think as she curled contentedly against the intoxicating warmth of her husband's body. Oddly enough, some of Zorro's parting words came quietly to mind. He had suggested that Diego could make her happy if she let him. Somehow Zorro must have known how things stood between her and Diego better than she did. Victoria smiled; Zorro was a very wise man.

Diego's leg jerked suddenly against her, and she knew he was falling asleep. Her hand slid languidly from his chest along his side to give him a loving hug. She was careful not to wake him, but his eyes slowly blinked open to gaze at her in adoration. A slow smile curved his lips.

"You look very beautiful," he whispered, bringing her hand from his side to his lips.

Surprised, Victoria discovered she was blushing. Would his words ever stop having that annoying, though admittedly intriguing, effect on her? Part of her hoped she would spend the rest of her life in a semipermanent state of flushed cheeks. "Thank you," she answered on a sigh of complete relaxation.

He caressed her reddened cheek and kissed her forehead.

"Diego," she said, interrupting his affections, catching his hand with hers, her voice suddenly serious.

He paused and concern flooded his eyes. "What is it? Did I hurt you?"

She shook her head and said, "No, of course not," to dispel his fears, then asked, "Can you please tell me what you meant? That you've been wanting to... for years?"

Diego's smile returned and his eyes focused on the ceiling as he considered a response. Leisurely he answered, "I have been in love with you since I first returned home from Madrid."

Victoria lifted her head from his shoulder to stare at him, incredulous. "Madrid? But that was ten years ago! Diego, you're not... Why didn't you say something?" she demanded.

Unfazed by her scolding tone, he chuckled. "You must admit, Victoria, that you were a bit... preoccupied, shall we say, by rather formidable competition. Declaring unrequited love can be extremely intimidating."

Realization slowly dawned on Victoria. "Is that why you so readily agreed to marry me? Because you were secretly...?"

Now he interrupted her. "Saying that I secretly planned or wanted anything from you is saying it a bit too strongly. I did love you all that time, and I still love you, very much." He stopped to kiss her passionately, and she felt her desire for him rise again with the unexpected display. "However," he went on, his words mingling with his kisses, "marriage to you was far more than I ever dared to dream about."

Still not fully understanding, she persisted, "Why? If you wanted to marry me...?"

"There were other things to consider," he gently interrupted.

Victoria sighed, feeling rather frustrated in her curiosity. It was ridiculous, she mused, not to know very much about her own husband, especially when he appeared to be so very ordinary in daily life. She shook her head and kissed his throat, then the soft skin below his ear. "You are a much more intriguing man than I could have thought was possible, Diego de la Vega," she said and laughed softly into the curve of his neck.

Diego's arms tightened around her. "I hope you still think so after I finish telling you all the little details about this mystery man you've married." He smiled crookedly at her. "You know, I thought I could handle being married to you, that I could simply be content to see you every day and know that you were finally safe. But I was wrong; I couldn't handle it and I knew it in a matter of days." He sighed a guilty little sigh. "I wanted you to love me."

She propped her head up on her elbow to look him squarely in the eye. "I do love you," she whispered, and leaned down to kiss him longingly on the lips.

Diego reacted instantly, rolling on top of her, giving himself entirely to their shared embrace. The rain pattered pleasantly on the roof over their heads, but they were blissfully oblivious to any form of distraction.

Needless to say, Victoria never made it back to the tavern that rainy day.

When Victoria did manage to return to the tavern, it was only to prepare the three meals served each day and to fend off Maria's unending stream of calculating looks and manipulating questions. At night she returned to the hacienda where she and Diego ate a delicious dinner, (delicious particularly since she didn't have to cook it), read to each other or talked over tavern and ranch business, and then curled into each other's arms at night for intimate conversations and even more intimate silences. For the four days between Diego's return to the hacienda and Don Alejandro's arrival, they were alone and completely happy to remain that way for as long as possible.

Then on the last night prior to the senior de la Vega's expected journey home, Victoria brought a bottle of wine with her from the tavern. "And I am determined to see that you drink your fair share," she told Diego as she poured him a glass during their quiet dinner of roasted chicken.

Diego played distractedly with the stem of his glass, not taking a drink, and looked up at her as she stood uncertainly beside his chair, the carafe of red wine still in her hand. He remained silent and at last she set the crystal bottle down and leaned against the table edge. "Diego, are you going to tell me what's on your mind? You look far too serious to be fretting over your intolerance to wine."

With an effort he gathered his thoughts and smiled warmly. "I was thinking heavy thoughts. I'm sorry." Diego reached for her nearest hand and cradled it gently in his own as he hesitantly said, "Perhaps it's time to tell you why I must stay away from the mind-numbing effect of alcohol."

Confused and suddenly worried, she watched him rise to his feet, her hand held tightly in his. "What is it?"

He sighed and kissed her forehead. "I'm afraid that if I tell you, you may learn to hate me for deceiving you so long. However, you will also understand why I had no choice. At least, not until you gave me one."

Victoria's confusion grew. "Do you have some deep, dark secret you don't want anyone to know? Are you in some kind of trouble?"

He smiled. "No, it's not as bad as that. But come." He led her by the hand from the dining room and into the library. "You have questioned me before on the way I disappear quite often. You even thought I was seeing another woman." Diego laughed teasingly at the mortified flush that rose on her cheeks. "But you will see that isn't exactly the case." He paused right in front of the fireplace and turned to her. Feverishly he clasped her hands in his. "Do you love me, Victoria?" he asked in a suddenly distraught whisper.

Victoria looked at him towering over her, and shook a little in reaction to his haunted question. "Of course I love you, Diego. Please, what is troubling you?"

Diego took a deep, steadying breath. "I have not been completely honest with you... about a great many things, my Victoria. Now you shall know the truth, because I love you and trust you above all others." Then he squared his shoulders and, with one more quick glance at her, touched his hand to an elevated decoration below the mantle of the library's fireplace.

To Victoria's astonishment, a hidden panel swung aside, revealing pale flickering shadows of candlelight and the curious sound of a horse stamping a hoof against a stone floor. Her husband's hand wrapped warmly around hers, and she looked at him, a thrill of excitement slowly crowding the concern from her veins. "Diego, what...?"

With a calm smile, he cut her off by leading her through the small door, out of the warmth of the hacienda and into a new world as captivating to her as Diego had ever been.

The pale light cast a soft, yellow glow over the set of five stone steps they descended. Diego had to duck his head when he rounded the corner to emerge into the larger chamber, his hand still firmly, desperately, clutching hers. Victoria could feel his fingers trembling even now. When he moved aside so that she could see beyond his considerable bulk, she understood why.

They stood in Zorro's secret cave.

Victoria felt the blood drain to her feet and her face stiffen in a numbed mask of surprise. Hardly able to breathe, she looked around the familiar yet unfamiliar room. She saw the intricately carved, rattan chair behind the large, worn oak desk with its rendition of The Thinker sitting squarely on one corner; the many-colored butterfly collection that he had painstakingly set out over what must have been several months' time; the long table covered in jars, books, bottles, tubes, and bowls of odd colored liquid; the open stall housing the powerfully beautiful black stallion contentedly munching hay as if everything was normal; the coat tree and the mirror bearing a perfect reflection of the room, its clutter, and the long satin cape that shone regally in the dim light.

"Zorro!" she breathed, unable to say anything more.

At first she thought that Zorro merely kept his belongings and equipment in this secret cavern behind the de la Vega hacienda. With Don Diego's scholastic help, the outlaw would gain a great advantage over the government troops. Then an image of Zorro, one more vivid and stark than she'd been able to conjure in months, rose behind her eyes. The black silk mask, the striking blue eyes, the trimmed mustache, the firm jaw, the cool sweet lips were all there, brought to life again after lying dormant for the many weeks since the wedding. And she turned to behold the same features in her beloved husband.

"You!" she rasped in a burst of exhaled breath.

Silently, unblinking, he nodded, and his grip on her hand tightened.

Victoria turned away, staring at the wall, her breath coming in short gasps now that she remembered to breath, her eyes darting from one object to another, settling on nothing. Diego is Zorro, she thought without emotion. The man she had loved for so many years turned out to be her husband! Her husband! She loved her husband now, after the last four incredible days...

Then realization of Diego's confession finally struck her. She had made love to this man, shared the innermost parts of himself, had promised her life and love to him... and he had never told her!

"Why didn't you tell me?" Victoria choked out as all the emotion she had restrained came flooding through her body at once.

Looking almost relieved that his secret was finally disclosed, Diego put his hands on her shoulders and helped her to sit on a high stool beside the work table. "Oh, Victoria, I wanted to! You have no idea how many times I was tempted to reveal the truth. But I was a coward; I didn't want you hurt, didn't want you involved."

"Involved!" Victoria jumped up, indignation now vying for control over her surprise. "I am your wife, Diego! After all this time... Before the wedding, you... How could I not be involved!"

Diego stopped her with that whiplike response she'd seen when he had disarmed the Alcalde. "I said I was afraid!" he insisted fiercely. "Please listen and hold your temper; try to understand!"

"But Diego," she cried as the disappointment engulfed her. "You were so normal! And now..." With a listless gesture to the rack holding Zorro's black outfit, she sank back to her stool, her legs too tired to hold her up.

Diego's soft laugh rolled over her in a comforting wave and he released his grip on her arm. "Of all the reactions I envisioned, this disappointment was not one of them."

She looked at him, not even energetic enough to send him a glare. "Please, Diego, don't laugh."

"I'm sorry. But I always lived in dread of you being disappointed that Zorro was Diego, not that Diego was Zorro."

Victoria considered his statement, some of the bitter disappointment ebbing away as she attempted to see the situation from his point of view. She managed a tiny smile. "Yes, it is rather ironic, isn't it?"

He chuckled again.

Holding his hand loosely in hers, she said again, "Oh Diego, why didn't you tell me before this?"

He sighed, his laughter dying slowly with the renewed seriousness of their discussion. "For your own safety. I could not let you meet the man known as Zorro. You know that, of course. When you came to me that night... it was like an opportunity, a precious jewel, dangled before me. I... I couldn't resist you. I thought that if nothing else, by marrying you, I could at least keep you safe from the Alcalde. As long as you were alive, I had a chance to convince you to love me..." His voice trailed away and he looked at the cold flagstones making up the cavern's floor.

He looked so despondent, so lost, that Victoria couldn't help but to impulsively kiss his hand, then to wrap an arm around his waist and pull him close. "But you came to me as Zorro, at the tavern, not long after the wedding," she insisted in puzzlement.

"I remember. I shamelessly wanted to see how you might react, what the possibilities were that you could forget Zorro's existence."

She nodded as her amazement at that decisive act grew. "Even if I did forget Zorro, how could you be sure that I would fall in love with you? At least as Zorro you had reasons to... to... well, to kiss me and hold me."

"I know. Believe me, I thought about that!" Diego laughed again, a frightened, hollow sound that echoed on the stone walls. "And I wasn't sure at all that your feelings would change. I was afraid that by securing you in marriage, I had lost you forever."

Victoria gazed up at him, watching his hair fall over his forehead, the droop of his shoulders. "You would always have my friendship," she reminded him.

Slowly he shook his head. "It wasn't enough. Not where you were concerned. I was ready to throw myself at your mercy when I came home from San Diego. I couldn't stand it any longer."

She marveled at the distress openly displayed on his face and in his voice. Victoria rose and enfolded Diego in a tight embrace, wanting to calm his frenzied emotions, to erase the pain he was feeling. "It's all right, Diego."

"I loved you so much, Victoria!" he exclaimed, holding her so hard that she couldn't breathe beneath his arms and her tightly laced corset. She didn't care, though, as it suddenly dawned on her that this man, this mighty dueler for justice, this skilled swordsman and feared outlaw, was still just an ordinary man who badly needed her. Zorro had loved her, but he had not needed her. Diego, on the other hand, was different, wonderfully different.

Gently Victoria moved her head so she could lightly kiss his neck exposed above the collar of his white shirt. "What made you decide to tell me this now?"

Calmer, he disengaged himself enough to look at her and brush her cheek in a tender caress. "My happiness these last few days," he answered, his lips curved in a quiet smile. "How could I be so completely married and not share my largest secret with the woman I loved? I was dying of guilt each time you looked at me. I believe..." He sighed, giving himself time to collect his thoughts. "Love is built on trust," he finally said, adding a kiss to her forehead. "I very much wanted you to trust me, but the only way to build trust is through honesty. It was your right to know the secret of Zorro's identity."

Victoria looked at him, seeing so many things about her husband that she had often ignored. "Now I understand why you always disappeared. And that night when I had my headache and you came into my room half dressed...? Were you riding somewhere?"

"Yes," he nodded. "I was needed at several farms to deter the Alcalde's troops from collecting their unjust taxes." His voice hardened as he spoke, and his eyes narrowed at his mention of the oppression the people of Los Angeles suffered daily.

"You were out, saving the poor farmers, and all I could think about was you seeing another woman!" Victoria snorted in embarrassment.

Diego laughed and admitted, "I was flattered that you cared so much to be jealous."

"Hmm. Well, I guess I'd rather that you helped the citizens of the pueblo than chased an ungrateful woman," she teased. "And I suppose I can get used to loving Zorro again, at least in secret."

Diego had laughed at her teasing, but sobered now as he seated himself on the vacated stool and gathered her into his lap. "Victoria, I think you understand my desire for justice in Los Angeles..."

She leaned against his warmth, content just to feel his touch. "I do, Diego."

"... but I want you to understand that I'm willing to relinquish my sword if you wish it."

"Diego! No!" A finger resting gently on her lips stopped the unspoken protests rising on her tongue.

"As I said to Antonio, if I don't have your approval, I don't have the heart for the work. We both have much to gain from Zorro, but were he to be captured and my identity discovered, we have more to lose."

"Diego, I would never ask you to relinquish your gift, your calling, for me," she said fervently, laying a hand against his chest, feeling the heat from his skin and the steady thump of his heart beneath her palm. "But please be careful."

He smiled. "I promise. After all, I have too much to live for to become careless now."

Victoria nodded, satisfied. She knew she would always worry when Zorro rode so courageously into town, brandishing his sword, defying the Alcalde with his smooth confidence and cocky grin. Suddenly she laughed.

Diego smiled. "What are you laughing at?"

"To think, the Alcalde...!" She laughed harder, unable to go on.

"What?"

"The Alcalde... he's such a... a fool!" Victoria leaned into Diego's shoulder, trying to catch her breath. "The way he treats you, with such scorn... and you're Zorro!"

Diego's soft rumbling laugh blended with hers, the duet filling the room, making Toronado pause in his dinner to watch. Their laughter melted into a kiss, which in turn gave way to the burning passion that Victoria and Diego harbored for each other. To the horse, this emotion was something of a mystery. To Alcalde DeSoto, it was unfathomable. But to the two bound together by God, law, and love, the world was theirs, and all was just as it should be.