Victoria leaned heavily against the door, exhaustion finally overtaking her. It had been an incredibly long day. The funeral alone had drained her. Fortunately, Anna Maria and Theresa had been there to help wait on the large crowd that had filled the tavern afterwards.
Most of the mourners had stayed late at Victoria's, all for various reasons. Some of them simply wanted to hear all the gossip, while others wanted to be there for Don Alejandro. Some wanted to be there to watch the royal lancers prepare to leave with DeSoto, while others wanted to keep an eye on the emissary. He had, after all, shown himself to be moody, in their opinions. Today, the tavern had been filled with laughter, tears, pain, and joy. Waiting on such a large crowd was usually rough, but the emotional intensity in the room had made it far more difficult.
Then, there had been the long talk with Don Alejandro behind her tavern. For over an hour, they had sat on the dusty porch, drank small glasses of wine, and mourned the loss of a man. Gilberto had always been an enigma to her, and she was discovering he had been one to his father as well. Knowing that he was Zorro only made the puzzle even more difficult to solve, and both of them knew, deep in their hearts, that they would never understand why he made the decision he did.
Don Alejandro had also spent time talking to her about responsibility and accepting guilt that was not her own. Victoria had tried to explain that she was the reason that Diego had tried to talk to Gilberto, but the caballero had refused to hear it. "It was meant to be, Victoria," he had said. "You heard Gilberto say it, and I believe it is true. Some things in life are just meant to be and, no matter what choices we make, they will happen." Victoria was not sure she agreed with him, but she did not protest. He was busy trying to find his own way of handling his grief and guilt, and maybe it was for the best that he felt that way.
Victoria stumbled her way back into her kitchen, dragging one tired foot in front of the other. She looked around the room and decided that tonight her kitchen would not receive the usual thorough cleaning. Tomorrow was Sunday, and while everyone came before Church for companionship and something to quench their thirst, no one expected a meal. She would clean it before she began fixing tomorrow's afternoon dishes.
"You look like you are asleep on your feet," a familiar voice said from behind her back. She felt the customary warmth that the man inspired flooding through her body. She did so love his voice.
Feeling a new surge of energy, Victoria turned, only to stop in surprise. Instead of the uniform of a soldier, he was once again wearing the black outfit of Zorro. He looked down at himself, almost self-consciously. "I'm sorry. I felt like taking a ride, and Toronado is the best horse in the territory. No one knew who--"
She finished walking over to him, putting her finger over her lips to tell him to be quiet. He wrapped his arms around her, and she felt an urge to laugh from the sheer joy of it. Gone were all her fears and concerns about this man. Her heart had been right; his heart was good. He, like her, had been reacting to old fears and hurts.
"You look wonderful in that outfit," she murmured. Diego's laughed, embarrassed. She pulled away from him some and ran a critical eye back over his body. "No, you really do. It looks like it was tailor-made to fit you."
Diego gently caressed her check with his glove-encased hand. They both knew whom the outfit had been measured for, and neither was willing to say his name right now. "Would you go riding with me?"
Her earlier exhaustion forgotten, she nodded. Any excuse to be held by this man would be used. Smiling, he led her out the back door. Toronado stood there, patiently waiting for them in the moonlight. She had never seen the stallion this close before, and it was easy to forget sometimes how truly magnificent he was.
Diego mounted first, easily pulling her up into the saddle in front of him. Noticing how easy Toronado took his new master's commands, when he had ignored most of Gilberto's, made her think of Don Alejandro's earlier comments. "Do you believe in fate?"
The sound of Toronado's hoofs hitting the ground filled the silence between the two humans. Finally, Diego answered. "I don't know. Not really, I guess. I believe we make our own choices, and I believe we always have the right to make those choices."
"But?" Victoria asked, hearing it in his tone, if not his words.
He laughed. "Sometimes, it seems like some paths are made easier for our feet to follow. We don't have to, and I can tell you for myself, I've often chosen the harder route, but I'm not sure I'd call that fate."
Victoria nodded, understanding his mixed feelings. It felt so right that he was here in Los Angeles. It even felt right that he was dressed in that outfit. She just was not sure that he was "fated" to be Zorro. Maybe, if people had made different choices, he would have been Zorro. They would already be married and everyone would be wondering who that handsome masked man was. She would not be fooled for a minute, though, knowing at first sight that it was Diego.
She sighed. "I guess there is no reason for Zorro anymore."
Hugging her close, he whispered into her ear. "I wouldn't say that, Señorita. The soldiers still are not prepared to handle the bandit problem this pueblo has been plagued with over the years. While I'm acting commendante, I'll work to get them prepared and, at night, I'll work to take care of some of the rougher elements."
She shivered, thinking of him fighting the bandits alone. She knew he was right, and a part of her was excited by the idea of a handsome hero that was all hers. However, she also understood the danger he was putting himself into both day and night. The soldiers could not avoid all problems during the day as they trained.
"I'll be fine," he said, obviously sensing her fear.
She smiled. "I know you will be."
She realized that they were heading towards the de la Vega hacienda at the same time Diego spoke again. "Victoria, I--I was thinking. Everyone I talked to has said that Felipe is very much a part of the de la Vega family, and I believe Father wanted to adopt him once, but Gilberto was against it."
She nodded. It was of the most selfish things Gilberto had done, in her opinion. "Well, anyway, I was thinking that maybe I could adopt Felipe."
She stiffened in surprise, and turned so that she could partially see him. "You want to adopt Felipe?"
"He deserves a part of the de la Vega inheritance, and I think he would make a wonderful son," he finally answered, sadness in his voice.
Her grin covered her entire face. "I think that's wonderful, Diego!"
"You do?" She could hear the relief and the happiness in his words.
"Yes! I think that's gr--" She stopped speaking when the rock in front of Toronado suddenly started moving. "Uh, Diego--"
He laughed. "My grandfather, apparently, was a very frightened man. I'll have to ask Father about it, but this cave has a secret entrance into the house. G-Gilberto was using it. It's a wonderful place, really. I'm planning on using it as my laboratory."
She jumped down from Toronado's back, eager to look around this secret world. She had never suspected that the de la Vega hacienda had a place like this in it. "Diego, this is wonderful!"
His laughter joined hers. "Yes, I think it is, too."
She turned to look at him, laughter still on her face and in her eyes. "I'm glad you brought me here, shared this with me."
He suddenly got extremely quiet, and she noticed he was biting his lower lip. "Victoria," he said, pulling a large chair away from a desk. "Please have a seat."
Nervous, she sat down, hoping that he did not have bad news to share with her. As he reached into his sash, he sank down to his knee. She could hear his breathing echoing in the cave. "Victoria," he said, showing her a ring that he had pulled from the sash. Ring? What a minute . . ..
"Will you marry me?"
Victoria knew she looked like a fish, opening and closing her mouth. She had not expected this, not now, maybe not ever. He was the son of a caballero, one of the wealthiest men in all of California. She was a tavern owner, hardly the quality a caballero looked for in a wife.
"Don't you even think it!" She flinched in surprise. Diego's voice echoed back at her from the cave's walls. "Victoria Escalate, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met, and not talking about your skin or your hair or your eyes--although, I do very much enjoy looking at those! I'm talking about your soul, and don't let anyone cause you to doubt the fact you are a truly remarkable woman. Now, are you going to marry me, or do I have to tie you up down here until I get the answer I want?"
She laughed, tears streaming down her face. "You love me."
Tears filled his eyes. "With all my heart and soul, Victoria. Now, say 'yes'."
He kissed her, hard. "I don't suppose I can expect any other order to be followed that easily can I?"
She shook her head, still smiling and crying at the same time. "Oh, no, Señor de la Vega. I'm not that type of girl."
"I know," he whispered between soft kisses. "I wouldn't have it any other way. You helped me to see a better me."
She hugged him tight. "Before you came to Los Angeles, I was beginning to think that justice was only a fairy tale for adults. Now, I know that justice can be slow, but it always wins the game. You showed me a better world, Diego."
He began to kiss her passionately. "Mm-mmm." Someone else was in the cave clearing his throat. As Diego pulled away from her, they both turned to see a smiling Don Alejandro and Felipe standing at the cave's passage to the hacienda. "I thought I had given you enough time, Son."
Diego's smile was unabashed. "Yes, I guess you did. We were just on our way to see you."
"Oh," Don Alejandro answered. "It looked like it." She could see a hint of a smile on his face. He was enjoying their embarrassment, the old fraud. He turned to look at her, suddenly very serious. "Well, Victoria, are you going to honor me by agreeing to become my daughter-in-law?"
She felt her old fears welling inside of her again, but she forced them down by remembering Diego's words. She would make him the best wife. "Yes, Señor, I'm going to marry him."
"Good. Then, I think it's best that we leave Diego down here to change. We have a lot of planning to do before you can enjoy your wedding night." Victoria smiled. She knew that Diego would not get more than five minutes alone with her from now until the ceremony; his father would see to that.
Looking back at Diego, Victoria walked up the arm of her future father-in-law. "Are you really happy about it, Felipe? Can you see me as your mother?" His grin was enough answer for her. She looked to the man whose arm she now held. "Are you really happy about it, Don Alejandro?" She worried about his opinion almost as much as Diego's. He had been like a father to her for so many years.
"Happy? No, I'm not happy, Victoria. That word is far too mild a word for the joy I'm feeling, knowing that you will be my daughter by law as well as by love." He pulled her close as the walked into the passage. "You know, Victoria, I'm thinking that this is also something that is meant to be."
She could hear Diego's soft laughter joining her own as she walked into the de la Vega hacienda. Maybe Don Alejandro did have a point about fate. She felt like she was home, right where she belonged.