Two months later, the sun rose on another wedding day

Two months later, the sun rose on another wedding day.  Rushing away in a panic hours before she needed to be ready, Victoria hysterically told herself she should be used to these days now.  It was after all her third such attempt.  Her hairbrush went flying through the air.

Victoria looked down at her hand, as if demanding it to explain its actions.  Shaking her head, she stood to go get the brush.  Unfortunately, it had rolled under her bed, so it took her a few tries to finally grasp the handle.  Huffing in frustration, she again sat in front of the looking glass and began brushing her hair, but slower this time, so the brush would not get away from her.

The rain beat down on the tavern's roof.  As she gently stroked her hair and listened to the warm, soothing beat of water, Victoria relaxed.  So, her hair would not do what she wanted it to do on this wet day.  She could leave it down and curled around her face.  Diego seemed to prefer it that way anyway.

Felipe appeared in the reflection, and she smiled.  Turning, her eyes took in her handsome soon-to-be son's appearance.  She giggled, and Felipe shot her a disgruntled look.  Then, he looked down at his soaked and mud-splattered clothes and laughed with her.

Proudly, he walked in the room, holding out a bouquet of roses.  Victoria's hands shook as she took them from him.  She did not bother to ask whose idea it was; she knew by looking at their secret message.  Bright yellow beautifully intermingled with blood-red pedals, just as friendship mixed so well with love.  "Thank you for bringing them, especially in this weather."

"Da Nada!  Father spent all that time out in the rain to get them; it was the least I could.  Besides, he's driving everybody loco."  Felipe's grin told her that he was not speaking too far from the truth.

Victoria giggled and inhaled the rich fragrance.  She asked herself again how she missed all the clues over the years.  The de la Vega garden had always reminded her of Zorro, and now she knew it was the scent running through her memory.

"I'm going to make him happy," she told Felipe.

He nodded.  "I know.  Father made sure I read all the fairy tales.  I know what happens when the princess marries the prince."

Victoria's lips trembled.  "Thank you," she said from the heart.

So, her hair would not do what she wanted, and the dress she loved the month before now looked hideous on her.  So, all her friends would have their best suits ruined with mud, and they would all be sitting in the church wet and miserable.  Today was simply perfect.

***

The sun shined long enough for Victoria and her helpers to get her to the church dry.  With some careful work, they managed to do it without a speck of mud splashing up on the hem of her crisp, white skirt.  She winced in sympathy when she saw the drenched alcalde and his lancers waiting for Zorro to show; she smiled as she thought about their man standing within a few feet of them.

Entering the beautiful building, Victoria felt the butterflies fluttering around in her stomach.  Don Alejandro hugged her close.  "You are a beautiful bride, my dear."

Hands clutching the roses, Victoria thanked him.  "I hope Diego thinks so."

The man, who had been like a father to her for so many years, laughed.  "Are you joking?  Victoria, you could be wearing a sack cloth and covered in black soot, and he would think nothing more beautiful had ever walked this earth."

Victoria kissed him on the cheek, and he patted her hand before placing it in the crook of his arm.  "In just a few more steps, you are going to be my daughter.  I never allowed myself to even dream for this day."

As the music filled the church, Victoria thought about the few steps she was taking today to be Diego's wife.  Today's steps were really the final ones of many taken.  She entered the door with her escort and her eyes immediately rested on the man standing in the front.  Her eyes drank him in, barely noticing any of the people in the crowd.

However, she did notice Diego's cousin, Rafael, and his bride, Marguerita, who had made the long trip from Santa Barbara to see the wedding.  Marguerita and Victoria had been coolly polite to one another for the first day.  Then, Marguerita had laughed and said that neither one of them had captured the Fox, and were much happier with the men they had.   Victoria had laughed with the fun lady, but she could not help feeling a little smug.  After all, she had Zorro.  However, she was finding Marguerita to be a delightful friend.

Smiling, she took the first step to her future.

. . ."Victoria Escalante, your Mama and Papa told you not to follow us!"

She stuck her tongue out at the older boy, the son of her parent's friends.  She did not like him.  He always took Francisco and Ramón away from her.  She could always hear their laughter as they played, but she never was able to find them unless she followed them, as she had done today.

With all the determination her tiny nine-year old body could hold, she reached for the bottom limb.  Her arms protested as she used them to pull herself up into the tree.  Ignoring the boys' shouts, she pulled herself closer and closer to them.  Smiling proudly, she looked up at the frustrated boys and the branch beneath her feet cracked.  She barely had time to scream before hitting the ground.

Diego, pale and shaking, reached her first.  "Victoria!  Are you all right?"

Tears were in her eyes, but she refused to let the boys see her cry.  She nodded her head and started to sit up, but Diego stopped her.  He smiled reassuringly at her and said calmly, "You need to remain still, little one.  I believe your arm is broken."

Anger at him calling her "little one" flowed through her body, overtaking the pain.  She nodded and waited while the frightened Francisco and Ramón raced to get their parents and a doctor.

While they were gone, Diego told her stories of dragons and knights instead of the type of tales her Mama and Papa did.  They refused, telling her that they did not want to frighten their little girl, but Diego made sure to even re-enact some of the scenes he told her.  He treated her like one of the boys, and she found herself liking him.

When the doctor wrapped her arm tightly and explained how to take care of it, Diego told his father that she was very brave.  At that minute, she loved Diego de la Vega with all the passion her heart could hold.  All of the fruits he brought her while she was healing only convinced her that she was right to adore him.  She never told her parents that she had been climbing after the boys that day . . .

Another step.

. . . Her handsome dance partner swung her around the room, and Victoria felt like a princess.  Older now, she could appreciate the tales of romance just as much as she enjoyed the stories of dragons and knights.  She usually liked mixing them together.  Diego was the only person she had let read her story, and he told her it was excellent.

Looking up into his blue eyes, her fifteen-year old body trembled in excitement.  Finally, after all the hours of his patient training, she had the steps down perfectly.  It was her chance to show him what a wonderful wife she would make; she made sure her dress and hair were perfect before the dance.

"You look beautiful tonight, Victoria," he said softly, causing her heart to flutter.

"Thank you, Señor."  She tried hard not to blush, but failed.

As the dance started to end, Victoria asked a question that had bothered her all night.  "Why is your father so sad, Diego?"

Diego glanced over to where Don Alejandro stood talking to a group of caballeros.  His eyes were sad, but he smiled when he looked down at her.  "You are very observant, Señorita."  Victoria smiled at the compliment, knowing that for Diego, there were fewer accolades that meant as much.  Diego shook his head.  "We had a discussion about something I want to do earlier, and Father is sad about it."

Victoria caught a glimpse of her family's friend as Diego spun her around.  "Why would he be sad about it?"

Diego just shook his head again.  "Tonight is tonight, Victoria.  It's supposed to be a night of fun.  He's just sad because I'm becoming a man now."  Then, he had bowed over her hand and kissed it.

Afterwards, he turned his attention to the lovely Magdalena.   With her dark hair and beautiful blue eyes, she had all the men in the pueblo vying for her attention.  Victoria, her heart broken, received her first kiss that night, even if it had been from the wrong boy.

As she cried that night, she thought she had never experienced such pain.  However, Don Alejandro chose the next morning to share the news with her family.  His son would be leaving soon for Madrid; he wanted to attend the University.  Victoria cried again after his ship sailed . . .

One more step.

. . . She rushed around her tavern, filling orders, but her mind was two miles away at the de la Vega haciendaDon Alejandro had sent her a message that Diego's ship had arrived at port.  He would soon be home.

Her nerves were so taut she handled the soldiers badly.  She knew how to take care of customers, but today was not the day to challenge her.  One part of her mind cheered as the lemonade from the pitcher in her hand streamed over the lancer's stunned face.  The other part chided her for her lack of grace under fire.

Then, he stepped forward.  Standing behind his father, Diego only seemed to have gotten handsomer in Spain.  Gone was any sign of the boy she once knew.  In his place was a man.  He kissed her hand, and her heart beat quicker.  As they talked, she wondered if what she was feeling was just fondness for old memories, or if her heart actually beat that way for the Diego standing before her.

When the lancer grabbed her arm and tried to regain his manly courage, Diego had stepped forth.  Watching him then and a few minutes later in the plaza, ready to challenge the alcalde, Victoria believed she could fall in love with this man . . .

Another step closer.

. . . Then, she got herself thrown in jail.  It was not a pleasant experience, but her worry remained on the old don thrown in with her.  She regretted getting him into trouble far more than she lamented getting herself.  Don Alejandro had helped her so much after her Papa left.

A masked man swooped in and stole her heart.  He called himself a fox, and Victoria worked hard to trap him.  Whispered endearments and quick kisses on the hand were the only signs she had that she might be able to capture his heart.  Finally, one night, she had thrown herself in his arms for a kiss.  After that, she knew she had his love, but his time and commitment were something different.  Then, he had dropped to his knees and asked her to marry him.  Even though extremely tired from the medicine, she eagerly answered yes.  As he slid that cool gold ring on her finger, she knew he was the one.  She told herself that the occasional thoughts about her childhood crush Diego had to stop . . .

Her steps had her almost to him now.

. . . Even though she loved Zorro with a passion, her old feelings for Diego never completely left, no matter how many times she ordered them to do so.  Hearing him discuss another female made her fingers itch to slap him, and a lady who spent too long staring at the handsome caballero would find herself being treated coolly by the tavern owner.

Maria de Corazon had been the first woman who made her stomach drop.  From the moment Diego brought her into the tavern, it was obvious that their relationship was different.  Listening to the two of them talk, she realized how incredibly intelligent Diego was, and this woman could give him something no one else in the territory could--a companion to debate.  He could talk to her in a way that he never could talk to the people of Los Angeles.  They would not even begin to understand.

Praying that Diego would not marry Maria and hating herself for wanting two different men to the point of selfishness, Victoria watched them closely each time they arrived at the pueblo.  Maria always tried to be friendly, but Victoria found it difficult to respond to such overtures.  After all, when she saw Maria she wanted to scream.  Memories of the beautiful Magdalena and how she had felt watching Diego court her overwhelmed her at times.  Sometimes, in the dead of night, she wished she could see Zorro, so she could remind herself why Diego was an old dream and Zorro was the new.

Then, two men began to become one.  The day had started like so many others.  Cooking and cleaning and then waiting on customers was all she had done.  Hearing Maria's laugh drift across the room, knowing whom the lovely señorita was with, made Victoria's blood boil and freeze at the same time.

Maria's eyes never left Diego, but his immediately found Victoria's.  She smiled at him and quickly walked over to where they sat down, anxious to talk to him for today.  There were not many days that passed in which Victoria did not get to say hello to Don Diego.  Maria's eyes were cool she noticed, but she paid little attention to it.

"Victoria, we have just been discussing the history of the pueblo.  We've been to the Church and the alcalde's office looking at old records."  Diego glanced at Maria and smiled softly.  Victoria refused to admit how much her heart hurt at the sight.  "We've been at it all morning, so needless to say, we're starving for whatever you are serving for lunch!"

Victoria laughed.  "I think you will be quit pleased, Don Diego!"

He smiled at her and laughed, too.  "Good."  He knew exactly what her comment meant; she had fixed his favorite chicken dish.

"Did you learn anything interesting?"  Usually, after taking the orders, she left.  Today, though, she just wanted to stay closer to him.

Diego's eyes crinkled.  "Maria did."

"Yes," the other lady agreed, and Victoria reluctantly turned her attention to the pale female.  "I learnt that 'El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Poricuncula' is a ridiculously large name for such a tiny pueblo." 

"Well, there isn't actually anyone that goes around calling it the 'Village of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Poricuncula'," Diego told the pretty señorita sitting across from him. 

"Oh, I disagree.  All of the King's documents bear the name, so there is at least one person who calls Los Angeles by that ridiculous name," Victoria teased her friend.  Diego laughed loudly.

However, Maria frowned, taking her comment seriously.  "True, Señorita Victoria, but he doesn't live here, and he doesn't write his own documents!"  Victoria barely kept herself from rolling her eyes in frustration at Maria's lack of a sense of humor.  Rubbing her damp palms on her skirt, she refused to admit that Maria made her nervous. 

"You are right, Maria," Diego quickly agreed, and Victoria resisted the urge to frown at him.  "That would get our tiny pueblo renamed.  If he had to write out one envelope which bore that name, he would stop using it, too."  Maria did laugh at Diego's comments, and Victoria joined in before walking away to the kitchen.

Gathering two plates up into her hands, Victoria thought about Diego, about how relieved she was by how easy bantering with Diego was, and how much she worried about the unwanted desires plaguing her.  She wanted to consider Diego just a friend, and she wanted to be happy for him.  Reluctantly she admitted that Maria was a perfect choice for him.  They shared the same interests.  She was charming, and she adored him, even if Diego was oblivious to that fact.

Hearing someone enter her kitchen, Victoria turned to see who it was.  The smile left her face, and she took two steps back when she saw the malicious look on Maria's face.  "You don't deserve him," the pale woman said with a snarl on her lips.

Victoria shook her head, trying to get herself out of the strange nightmarish world she found herself in suddenly.  "Don't deserve whom?  I'm afraid I don't know what you mean, Maria," she said calmly, carefully ladling out their food onto the plates in her shaking hands.

"Diego!  You don't deserve him!"

Victoria sighed, carefully putting the plates down in front of her.  She was busy trying to sort out her own feelings and did not have the patience to deal with Maria's jealousy.  "I'm afraid you misunderstood, Maria.  Diego and I are friends."  She smiled in an effort to reassure her. 

Maria's face remained twisted.  "Oh, please," her sarcastic words grated on Victoria's eardrums.  "The whole pueblo talks about your courtship.  It is the love story of the people, they say."

Victoria almost laughed and then she noticed that Maria was serious.  She struggled to keep the anger out of her voice, but her hands remained clenched at her side.  "I am afraid that you have been misinformed, Señorita.  No one talks about Diego and me!  I am in love with Zorro!"

Maria's laugh was harsh and guttural.  "Don't treat me like an idiot!"

"I'm not," Victoria spit out, unable to control her anger any longer.  Maria was being hateful and petty, and Victoria had no patience for such behavior.  Perhaps the lovely señorita wasn't so perfect for Diego after all.  Victoria refused to admit how much that thought relieved her.

"You don't know, do you?  You honestly don't know," Maria said, the anger gone from her voice.  In it's place were awe and triumph, and Victoria felt her legs tremble.  Maria sauntered closer to her, a large smile on her face.  She leaned her face close to Victoria's.  "I have a secret to share," she whispered and Victoria shivered.  "Diego.  Is.  Zorro."

Victoria took a step back, shaking her head violently.  "I'm not sure why you think that, but you are a fool to believe it.  Everyone in this pueblo could tell you that Diego de la Vega is the least likely person to be Zorro."

Maria just laughed; the smiling happy señorita of earlier was back.  "So, you think Zorro would be the mostly likely person to be him?  Wouldn't that make it easy to capture him without the mask?  I bet even you could break some dishes, spill some grease, throw some flour on yourself, and claim that you are the world's worst cook, and people that didn't know any better would believe you!"  Victoria realized how true that statement was, and felt dread pool in her stomach.  "You don't deserve him.  You've had him for seven years, and you haven't even realized who he is.  It is so obvious.  Stay away from him!  You don't deserve him."  Waving pleasantly, Maria turned and bounced out of the room.

Victoria, shaking, sank against the table.  Her mind buzzed at the truth she suddenly knew . . .

The long trek was almost done now.  Step.

. . . "When I asked you what was wrong, you just said you had a headache," Diego said when she finished telling him about that day.

It was late the night of Don Vicente's death.  All of the de la Vega men refused to let her spend the night alone, insisting that she stay with them.  As she sat on the window still and watched the twilight, Diego sneaked into her room.  After they held each other and cried, they laid on Victoria's bed to talk.

Victoria shook her head.  "I don't even remember much after that.  I walked around numb and lost that day."

Diego's hand rubbed up and down her arm.  "I'm sorry you found out that way."

"It's I who is sorry."

Diego's hand stopped moving.  "Why?"

Victoria raised herself just enough to look into his eyes.  "I should have seen it years ago."

Diego lifted his hand to caress her face.  "No, you shouldn't have Victoria.  Father said the same thing.  Neither one of you should have seen it."

She looked down to his chest again.  "I thought he might not know, but I wasn't sure."

Diego's sigh was so soft she almost did not hear it.  "I'm afraid he didn't find out the best way either.  I told him after I returned from the tavern that morning."

Victoria did not ask what morning he meant.  She knew.  "I should have known."

Diego hugged her tight.  Whispering in her ear, he rubbed his hand soothingly across her back.  "Victoria, don't you remember the old saying?  Love is blind.  I didn't want you and Father to know.  I didn't want you to worry, and you both honored my request by not looking too close."

Victoria lay in his arms and remembered a little boy who told her stories of dragons to comfort her.  Was there any wonder she loved this man?

"Even then, after a night of thinking, I tried to deny it."  Shaking her head sadly, she sighed, "Until you came to rescue Juan and Carlos.  I rushed out to share with you what Maria told me."  She giggled.  "I was going to ask you if you thought I should warn Diego.  I rushed out that door and I froze, Diego.  Instead of Zorro sitting on Toronado, I saw Diego wearing a mask!  I looked around, expecting for everyone to see what I did, but they all watched you with the same usual expressions!"  She laughed somewhat hysterically.

"You did not act the same when I came into the kitchen that day," Diego whispered, his body tense beneath her.

Victoria reached up to softly kiss his lips.  "I'm sorry!  It had nothing to do with you being Diego!  Well, it did, but--I was confused, but when you kissed me, it was all the same.  You left, and I promised myself that I would come to this hacienda and kiss my unmasked man until his toes curled in his boots."

"All of your kisses make my toes curl, bella, but I don't remember Diego getting any kisses from you until after Felipe's adoption," he answered harshly.  She understood it came from fear and not anger.

Victoria nodded and grasped his arms tighter.  "I put on my prettiest dress and brushed my hair until it gleamed!"  Silence filled the room for several heartbeats.  "Then, Maria came to pay me a visit."

Victoria shivered as she remembered the woman's words:  "I told you to stay away from him!  You don't deserve him."

Victoria reluctantly looked up so Diego could see her face.  She did not try to hide the remembered fear.  "I told her that I had no plans to leave you alone, but she was--wild, Diego.  She warned me that if she couldn't have you, no one could."

"What do you mean?"  Diego asked, reaching over to pull the blanket across them.  Victoria's shivers slowed somewhat as the gentle warmth surrounded her.

"She said she would tell the alcalde.  I knew he wouldn't believe at first, but it becomes so obvious after you know, my love."

Light kisses made a line across her face.  "So, you thought I should marry such a woman?"

She shook her head.  "I'm so sorry, my love, but I wasn't thinking.  I was terrified!"

"Why didn't you come to me?"

"Because I knew you would try to take care of it.  Diego, she knew your secret!"  Victoria clutched her hands tighter, trying to make him understand.  "You had no way of fighting her."

Diego shook his head, making gentle shhing noises.  "You should have told me.  Being forewarned is forearmed."

Victoria sighed and slowly relaxed her taunt muscles.  "Perhaps, you are right.  When she came to me that day and demanded that I flirt with all the men at this party, I did.  'Be an actress,' she told me, and so I was.  Not a good one according to her, but I tried.  I lied to the world when I told it I didn't love you, because I knew I couldn't lie to you."

Reclining in his arms, she admitted, "I thought about talking to you later, but by then I convinced myself the evil I saw in her was my own imagination.  You squired her all around the pueblo, and she seemed to bring you comfort.  I thought she loved you, and I could understand that easily."

Victoria's voice was a bare whisper when she said, "I also thought she was right."

Diego's eyebrows creased.  "Right?  About what?"

"About me," the small figure in his arms admitted.  "I didn't deserve you."  She flinched in surprise at hearing the words coming from her mouth.  She never planned to share her doubts with him, but she was unable to hold anything back tonight.

"Victoria Escalante!  You doubt my love?"

Tears filled her eyes, and she angrily promised herself that tomorrow and every day after she would not cry again.  "Oh, I didn't doubt your love, Diego, but I thought I wasn't worthy of it."

He was silent for so long, Victoria feared he agreed with her.  Then, she felt the soft shaking in his chest and realized he was crying, too.  "Victoria Escalante, you are the bravest, most caring, most beautiful person in this entire pueblo.  How could you think that?"

Victoria kissed him in apology.  "You are so smart, Diego.  Maria was right about your intelligence!  All this years I've loved you, and I never saw who it was underneath the mask.  For some strange reason, I've always dreamed that when the mask was removed, it would reveal someone I barely knew.  I couldn't' believe that a man I saw almost every day was Zorro, because I would know he was without the mask.  I should have seen it, but I didn't."

He laughed softly, gently pulling his fingers through her hair.  "Who would have thought boring Diego was Zorro?"  Victoria could not find the words to explain what she meant; she had loved Diego de la Vega far longer than Zorro.  She should have known it was he beneath the mask.

"Do you think my father doesn't love me?" he continued.  "That he isn't an intelligent man?"

"Of course not," she protested, understanding what he was saying in the comparison.  However, her heart did not totally agree with him.  Over time, she was sure she would find it within herself to forgive her own ignorance, but not tonight.

"Victoria, remember what I said about love being blind?  You and Father love me--both as Diego and Zorro.  In the pueblo, those that don't love and admire Zorro, fear him."  Diego sat up in the bed pulling her up with him.  He held her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes.  "Victoria, people have a habit of seeing what they want to see.  You and Father were emotionally involved in so many ways.  Your frustrations at my refusal to 'do anything' helped keep you blind to what I was doing.  Besides, you and Father trusted me.  You never had a reason to even suspect that Diego de la Vega was lying to you almost every day."

"But Maria--" she began to protest, shaking her head.

"Maria was a scientist, trained to observe, and her emotions weren't clouding my identity.  She saw Zorro, whom she neither feared nor respected, for the first time within hours of meeting me as Diego.  Remember how she said Zorro was foolish and a stupid waste of my time."

Victoria laughed softly.  "She really couldn't see the good, could she?  And I never saw the truth."  She looked straight in the eyes when she told him:  "However, I've always loved both of you."

Diego drew her to him and began kissing her deeply.  Victoria felt herself being lowered to the bed, and Diego shifting to lie across her.  They both deepened the kiss for a moment, but then Diego drew back.  "I'm afraid that, if you want to take advantage of me again, you are going to have to marry me."

"You still want me?" Victoria's hands shook almost as much as her words.

Diego grinned wickedly at her.  "I think you know the answer to that question."

Victoria laughed, embarrassed by her silly doubt.  Two men totally merged into one for at the moment.  Her friend and her lover both were looking down at her.  "Well, I can tell that.  I was just asking if you still wanted me to marry you!"

"I've waited too many years as it is to call you mine, and I'm not ready to wait any longer."

Victoria understood his impatience; she wanted to call this man hers, too.  "Then, oh, yes, I'll marry you."

Diego shouted a sound of happiness and hugged her close.  He began to kiss her passionately again, and Victoria knew that he was going to let her take advantage of him after all, but they were startled out of their embrace by a knock on her door.  It was Don Alejandro.  He would spend a lot of time in the next two months interrupting the two of them . . .

The final step was done; she was here standing beside the man she wanted to marry.  She looked at the man proudly acting as her bridesmaid and grinned.  Thanks to Mendoza and Felipe she could marry this man today without putting him in any danger.  By the time Felipe finished leading Mendoza by prompts during his story, the sergeant was telling tales of Zorro's broken-hearted response on the cliff.  Within days, the stories were rampant about how everyone knew that Diego and Victoria were meant for one another.

Turning to look into his wonderful blue eyes, she smiled.  Then, she spared a second to glance at the proud young man standing next to his father.  She had wanted him to escort her up the aisle, but Diego said he would prefer Felipe standing next to him and receive her as his mother, and the excited young man had agreed with his father. 

As a child, she imagined herself crying on this day.  Most of the ladies she saw getting married seemed to do it, so she planned to sob as well as the rest.  However, turning to face Padre Benitez, Victoria's eyes were shinning with joy instead of tears.  Today was a day of rejoicing for her and Diego instead of anguish.

***

Victoria awoke to the sound of Diego's voice.  "I'm anxious to meet you, little one."

She giggled, shaking the man talking to her belly.  "I think we will have to wait a few months, my love."

He gently kissed her slightly rounded belly.  "I know, but his Papa is impatient."

She ran her fingers through his thick hair, loving him for being so wonderful.  He truly was a remarkable man in so many ways.  Oh, he was not perfect, but he was darn close in her opinion.  "Let me enjoy this for the next couple of months, and then I'm sure I'll be ready to for him or her to come out, too!"

Diego's silent laughter shook them both.  "I'm sure you will, but you have to wait a few months more."

"I know, and I must warn you:  He or she will not like 'little one'."

She felt Diego's lips curve into a smile.  Again, he softly kissed the smooth skin beneath him.  "It used to drive you loco."

She stiffened.  With mock anger in her voice, she demanded, "You knew and still called me that?"

"Only when I needed you to be angry, my love."  She felt Diego totally relax in her arms.  She knew it was the only place he would allow himself the luxury, and she cherished every time he showed her that trust and love.

Frowning, Victoria asked, "What do you mean?"

Diego sighed and shifted slightly.  "Like the day you broke your arm.  I needed you mad instead of in pain."

Remembering that wonderful day, Victoria smiled.  "It worked.  Too well probably."

"What do you mean?"

Smiling, Victoria kept caressing his hair.  Finally, she decided to share, "That's the day I feel in love with you."

Diego's sudden laughter shocked Victoria.  Sitting up, Diego gasped to catch his breath.  "That's the day I decided I was going to marry you," Diego said at his wife's odd look.  "Anyone that brave should be a de la Vega, I told myself."

Lying down, Diego gathered his wife in his arms.  Victoria noticed that his hands rested on the curve of her belly.  It was hard for her to believe, too.  A tiny part of them rested there.  Don Alejandro and Felipe's excitement were enough for everybody in the entire pueblo.

"Do you want to talk about it?" 

Victoria stiffened in her husband's arms.  After taking a few deep breaths, she relaxed.  "Not really."  Silence filled the room for almost half an hour.  Finally, "I cannot believe I almost let you marry that woman."

Diego sighed.  "Victoria, my love, you did not know.  Even Doña Belinda and Savanah did not know how truly ill she was."

Victoria remembered the sick horror she had felt after dinner when Diego read the letter.  Without a word, she had stiffly stood up and left the room.  She feared that Diego would follow her, but he had allowed her to have the time alone that she wanted.  She had known, even as she walked away from the de la Vega men, that he would not let the discussion drop easily.

"She almost killed Felipe."  Angry tears strained at Victoria's eyes, but she refused to let them fall.  She refused to cry about those months and that pain any longer.  "She almost killed him, because she thought you would marry her if you didn't have an heir."

Diego flinched at the words.  He had tried hard to hide his horror as he read aloud the message from Belinda sharing everything they had found out about Maria in Europe.  Her journal, along with her brother's recovered one, revealed that her illness had been a part of her for far longer than they suspected.  Salvador had hid many things, trying to protect her like the older brother he was.  However, it was her sometimes-odd ramblings that revealed the most to them.

"You didn't know, Victoria, anymore than I did!"

Victoria sighed and relaxed.  "I know that, Diego.  I really do."  Another sigh whispered through the air.  "I just get angry at myself sometimes for believing she could be the wife you needed."

Diego softly kissed her lips.  "I get angry at me for believing her act, too."

He started when Victoria laughed.  It held a note of sadness in it.  "Even knowing that someone was trying to hurt our son, Miguel, Felipe, and Don Armando will all still refuse to let go of their guilt."  Diego nodded, and she knew he was thinking the same thing she was.  Even though all three men had left the issue behind them somewhat, all of them took the blame for the accident.  Miguel said it was his fault for putting the bad saddle on in the first place.  Felipe took all the responsibility by claiming he should have checked his equipment before getting on the horse, and Don Armando refused to believe the story about a broken belt and held himself liable for accidentally loosening it somehow when he looked at the stallion.

"I'm tired of people feeling they are at fault."

Victoria nodded, agreeing.  "It is time to move on, isn't it?  Maria is a part of the past now, and--" She put her hand on her stomach.  "We have a future to consider."

Diego hugged her tight.  Softly, he kissed her forehead, and Victoria recognized it for the goodnight kiss it was.  However, she had other plans.  "Oh, no, Señor, you are not going to sleep!"  She sat up and straddled him.  Smiling as she looked down at his startled face, she reminded him, "You said I could take advantage of you if I married you, and I'm planning to make sure you fulfill your agreement."

Diego laughed as he kissed her.  Her hair fell around his face, hiding out the rest of the world, she knew.  He stayed focused on her.  "I can meet and exceed your demands, I think, Señora!"

Victoria's laughter rang out and carried down the hall.  It reached the library where Don Alejandro and his grandson sat.  Both of them turned at the sound and smiled.  Joy could be a rare commodity in the territory.  Life was rough, and the alcalde's cruelty dampened the spirits of the people living here.  However, Felipe's smile was huge, and Don Alejandro's own grin joined his.  Happiness was plentiful at the de la Vega hacienda.