Chapter Nineteen

zZzZz * Six days later – December 23rd * zZzZz

A numb pain in his thighs that he had grown accustomed to during the previous six days woke Diego early in the morning. The muscles in his legs were sore from the still unwonted exertion of walking and standing on his own again. Whenever he hadn't talked with Victoria, whenever he hadn't patiently answered her questions and hadn't listened to her hopes and dreams, whenever he hadn't checked on Ana's condition, he had spent every waking moment working against the weakness in his legs and with every step he had made on his own, he felt the pain in his back fade a little more and his confidence in himself returning.

However, the more he became his old self again, the more his mind seemed to be burdened by troubled thoughts. Christmas was rapidly approaching with Christmas Eve only one more day away and while he was still quite far from a full recovery, he couldn't and didn't want to stay away from his home and his family any longer. Felipe had left for the hacienda four days ago, however reluctantly. The young man still felt the tension between his adoptive father and the woman he hoped would be his adoptive mother one day. Even though Victoria would never have admitted to it, she was still quite jealous of Ana, who had found a way into Diego's heart that had been denied to Victoria so far.

She didn't know exactly why, but her confidence in their love had returned during those few fleeting moments they had spent sitting in the dirt in front of the corral. For the very first time there had been no mask between them and when she had lost herself in the depths of his blue eyes, it had felt to her as though she had been looking straight into his soul. And that had given her restless heart and soul the peace, she had been searching for far too long. With everything he was, he would be hers for all eternity and she was more than willing to repay him a hundredfold. But for that to happen they had to leave Ana's home and start their new life without the mask and also without Ana.

Diego got up and dressed, as usual ignoring the pain in his lower back and before he went to the main room he felt Ana's temperature. Her fever had broken only the day before and he still couldn't be sure that it would not return even more severely. To his relief her forehead felt quite cool to the touch and so he quietly proceeded into the other room. Victoria was still asleep stretched out on the floor on the blanket that Felipe had abandoned and left for her a few days earlier. Diego sat down in one of the armchairs and watched his lover's sleep for a while, conjuring up images in his mind what it would be like when he would get to watch her graceful and peaceful features every morning as soon as they would become a married couple.

"Good morning," Victoria's voice tore him out of his daydream and Diego returned her tired smile.

"Good morning," he whispered and was about to bend down to give her a small tender kiss, when a sharp pain bolted through his lower back that forced him to sit straight again. "That didn't go quite as planned," he grinned sheepishly, trying to hide the extent of the anguish he felt.

"You said that yesterday, remember?" Victoria sat up and got on her knees right in front of him. "Methinks a studious mind as yours should be far more adaptive than this to any situation," she teased and eventually got up, leaving a fleeting kiss on his lips before she stood straight.

"Love's known to turn any man into a fool," Diego agreed somewhat submissively and watched her checking the still glowing remnants of the previous night's fire. Victoria carefully placed some firewood on top of the glowing ambers and had to wait for a little while, before the first flickering flames began to lick on the freshly added logs.

"Coffee or tea?" she asked once she was satisfied with her efforts' results and was already on her way to the kitchen cabinet.

"Some coffee would be nice," Diego admitted. "But we need to talk," he added earnestly, his gaze fixed on the renewed fire in front of him.

"What is it?" Worry was evident in Victoria's voice as she turned to face him.

"Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and apart from my years in Spain, I cannot remember a single Christmas that I have spent without my family," Diego said quietly. "My father would never believe that I would spend this special time of the year away from home, even if I were to spend it with another relative. And you have to return to the pueblo, too. Or have you canceled this year's celebrations at the tavern?" he queried, still trying to avoid voicing the thought that he found most troubling.

"No, I have not. But I started early with the preparations. All is set and Pilar and the other women will only have to carry my plans out." Victoria set the coffeepot down and shot Diego a curious glance that instinctively made him turn his head toward her. "I doubt that my business plans do trouble you all that much, Diego." She leaned against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "It's about Ana, isn't it," she stated, her voice making it perfectly clear, that this was indeed not a question.

"You do read me well," Diego admitted, feeling shame and guilt crawling up inside him as he knew very well, that Ana was a very sensitive subject with Victoria. "It's just…"

"That you are in her debt because she saved your life and now that she's very ill you cannot leave her alone. Am I right?" Victoria finished his sentence for him, her face bearing an unreadable expression.

"Yes," Diego said at length after a while, his heart beating nervously in his chest. Not able to look at Victoria any longer, he once again fixed his eyes on the flames in the fireplace and so he could only hear her quiet steps and the rustling of her skirt as she walked towards him. A few moments passed and he felt her hands on his shoulders, her touch giving him some comfort and reassurance.

"I do admit that I am not terribly fond of her," Victoria said in a hushed voice, but loud enough for Diego to understand. "But I suppose I have to accept that something happened between the two of you, that I have yet to understand. Until then don't think of me as a woman without a heart and a conscience, Diego. While I don't know everything that has happened in these past weeks, I think I understand that you cannot simply abandon her when she is that weak and ill. It would go against everything that you stand for – and what I ultimately fell in love with." Victoria planted a kiss on top of his head and then hugged him from behind. "I do love you, Diego. I know I said terrible things the day I came here. My only excuse is not a good one. I was scared and confused. People were talking about Zorro's death and for weeks all I had that gave me hope, was that weird feeling inside of me that told me, that they were wrong, that if you indeed were dead, I would know."

"I am so sorry, Victoria," Diego sighed, on the verge of tears. "I know I should have let you know that I was still alive, but I just didn't know how without raising suspicion. Maybe I could have…"

"It doesn't matter now, Diego," Victoria interrupted him and letting go of him for a few brief moments, she circled the armchair he was still sitting in and knelt down in front of him to look him straight in the eyes. "All that matters is that we are together and there's nothing that can separate us now." She leaned up and placed a tender kiss on his lips that held all her love for him.

"I love you," he smiled when their lips had finally parted and underlined the meaning of his words with a smile.

"So it's final then," Victoria said in a matter of fact kind of voice. "We're staying. And we'll think of something to tell your father."

"Why don't you try and tell him the truth? It has done the two of you a world of good. Why should it be any different with your father?" The unexpected sound of Ana's voice startled them and made them both turn their heads in her direction. She was just standing there and watching them leaning heavily against the frame of the bedroom door. "I am sorry, I didn't mean to scare you." She was pale and the dark circles under her eyes made her look more like a ghost than a human being.

"What are you doing? You're in no condition to be out of bed, senora!" To everyone's surprise it was Victoria who spoke up first after she had overcome her initial shock of someone else being in the room with them.

"Your concern is most appreciated, Senorita Escalante," Ana said with a mild nod toward her. "However, I think Don Diego has taken advantage of my hospitality for far too long now. It's a good thing that you came, senorita. He cannot travel on horseback yet and it would be most kind of you if you agree to take him back to the de la Vega hacienda on your wagon."

"Ana…" Diego was too shocked and too surprised by her sudden change in behavior to form a single clear thought or sentence.

"You were quite right, Senor de la Vega. Christmas is a time that needs to be spent with one's family. Senorita Escalante, your father and last but not least your son were denied the exquisite pleasure of your company for far too long," Ana said and wanted to continue but was cut short by a terrible coughing fit.

"We cannot leave you alone! Not as long as you're ill!" Diego insisted and looked as though he was ready to jump to his feat, but was held back by Victoria's soft, yet firm hand on his shoulder.

"There's no need to worry about me," Ana contradicted him once the coughing had ceased. "I am quite capable of taking care of myself, Senor de la Vega. I've been doing so for the past seven years. Besides, there's nothing more that I can do for you to help you heal. Thus your time to leave my house has come." Ana paused and looking him straight in the eyes, her expression got cold. "You are no longer welcome here, senor." The words passed her lips slowly and were meant to hurt. "I expect you to leave no later than in two hours." With it said she turned on her heels and went back into the bedroom, throwing the door shut behind her.

zZzZz

Two hours later Victoria sat on the wagon waiting for Diego to hide Toronado's saddle and bridle underneath a couple of blankets on the back of the wagon. They had hardly spoken a word ever since Ana's announcement, both of them too confused by her demeanor to think clearly. When Diego had entered the bedroom to retrieve his few belongings, Ana had her back turned towards him and he hadn't dared to disturb her sleep. So he had contented himself with picking up his clothes, saber, and hat, and had left the room unaware of the fact, that his mask had slipped out from the bundle in his arms and fell to the floor. With a last glance toward the sleeping form of Ana on the bed, he had quietly closed the door and left for good.

"Don't you think you should try to talk to her? It is not wise to leave her alone like this," Victoria said, when he attempted to climb the coach box. He grimaced in pain and Victoria offered him a helping hand, which he declined in a foolish fit of pride. When he eventually sat down next to her, he was breathing heavily both from the exertion and pain and Victoria waited a few moments for him to regain his composure.

"I know that," Diego said through gritted teeth, still trying to will the pain in his back away. "But I don't think there's a way to convince her. She's too stubborn and won't listen to reason."

"I was afraid of that," Victoria said and looked in the direction Toronado had already set off to. "Why do you think was he so reluctant to leave?" she asked and gave Diego a quizzical look.

"I don't know. Maybe he's found himself a special someone, too," Diego smiled weakly and kissed Victoria's blushing cheek. Without another word Victoria clicked her tongue and her horse slowly began to trot up the path that led away from Ana's house and into the open plains.

They left as oblivious to Ana hiding behind the slightly opened front door, watching them as they drove off as they were oblivious to hot tears that ran down her pale cheeks.

AN: Argh, I do feel bad for Ana. Even though I've never planned any of this differently. But I still feel bad for her.

We're getting there. Next up: Don Alejandro. *evil grin* Probably won't happen before the weekend, though. Sorry. However, I'll happily forward any complaints to my dentist, who's probably gonna torture me quite a bit tomorrow. LOL