This story is based on characters from the New World Zorro (also known as the Family Channel Zorro). This particular story is © 2009, Kathryn Grant; however, the name, visual likeness, and character of Zorro are controlled by Zorro Productions, Inc. This story is a non-profit effort written for the enjoyment of other fans of Zorro. It is not intended to infringe upon any rights of Zorro Productions, Goodman/Rosen Productions, New World Television, the Family Channel, the Estate of Johnston McCulley, or anyone other party. All rights reserved. This story may be saved for your personal enjoyment, but because of copyright restrictions, it may not be distributed or sold.
This story begins just before the series ends and moves on from its delightfully tantilizing conclusion. It is dedicated with gratitude to the exceptional actors of the New World Zorro, and to Zorro fans everywhere.
"What, Felipe?" The rushing sound in Diego's ears made even his own voice sound strange to himself. Everything around him seemed to spin as he looked down at the body of the man he now knew to be his brother—Gilberto Risendo, or more accurately, Gilberto de la Vega. As he looked back at Felipe, it took all his effort to concentrate. Felipe's dark eyes were filled with concern as he signed his last sentence again.
"Yes, of course, you're right." Diego turned to Don Alejandro, whose face was still white with shock. "Father, we must get you inside and dress your wounds."
The elder de la Vega shook his head as if to clear it. "I'm fine," he countered, "but you are bleeding. Let me see that arm ..." Diego grimaced as his father took his right arm. "Son, your shirt is soaked with blood, but the fabric isn't torn or cut. We had better take a look at that."
"What about the Señora?" Diego asked. It had become second nature to divert his father from anything that would link him even remotely to Zorro. The wound to his arm—a musket wound Zorro had received during Toronado's recent rescue—could be such a link. Yet Diego realized with an odd mixture of discomfort and relief that his father might even now know too much for the secret to be kept any longer.
But the diversion worked, at least temporarily. Don Alejandro looked down at Ynez Risendo, still kneeling by the fallen emissary, as anger and grief played out on his face. Alcalde DeSoto interjected, "The Señora will, of course, be kept in the jail until her extradition to Spain, where she will face charges of kidnapping and accessory to attempted murder." DeSoto addressed the Señora: "You will come with me back to the pueblo, Señora. We will send a wagon for Risendo's body."
The Señora's voice shook with anger. "I will not leave my son!"
"He was not your son!" cried Don Alejandro. "Do you have any idea what you have done? You stole his life! I can't begin to..."
It pierced Diego to the heart to see such anguish in his father's eyes—something he had not seen since his mother's death. Quietly, he cut in: "Father, we must get you inside." Looking at the Alcalde, he said, "Felipe can ride into town to ask Sergeant Mendoza to return with the wagon." Felipe nodded as Don Alejandro looked away.
"Very well," DeSoto responded. He added, in a voice that brooked no argument, "I will guard the Señora and Risendo's body until Felipe returns."
Diego nodded. He put his good arm around his father and the two of them walked slowly back into the hacienda.
By the time Sergeant Mendoza returned with the wagon, Don Alejandro's wounds were dressed. Diego had been unable to slip away to tend to his arm, but thankfully his father seemed to have forgotten about it. Now they stood in the courtyard and watched in silence as Sergeant Mendoza and the Alcalde lifted the body onto the wagon, and Ynez Risendo climbed up beside it. "Alcalde," Don Alejandro suggested, "why don't you take Dulcinea. I will ride in the wagon with the Sergeant."
"Thank you, Don Alejandro." If DeSoto was surprised at this unusual generosity, he didn't show it. The Alcalde, Diego, and Felipe walked toward the stables, prepared their mounts, and followed the wagon out into the barren stretch between the hacienda and town.
As they rode along, Felipe gestured subtly to Diego, and they gradually dropped behind the others. When they were a discreet distance back, Felipe motioned to Diego: "Your father asked where you had learned to fence like that." Diego gave a wry half-smile. Everything had seemed so clear as he made the calculated choice to fence with Risendo. But now, he realized, he had crossed a bridge over which he could not return. What explanation could he possibly give his father for his swordsmanship, or worse yet, for hiding it? What explanation other than the truth?—the truth he had so carefully guarded since he had assumed the identity of Zorro.
Felipe signed again: "What will you do?"
"I don't know, Felipe—I don't know. I'm open to suggestions."
Felipe spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. Diego continued, "After the shock wears off, my father will have all kinds of questions, and you know my father—he won't rest until they're answered to his satisfaction. Perhaps it would be better to tell him directly, and trust him to ..." Diego's voice trailed off as he looked into one possible future. They continued on in silence broken only by the soft clop-clop of the horses' hooves on the dirt road. Gradually they caught up with the others, and before long they reached the pueblo of Los Angeles.
As they entered the pueblo gate, Diego scanned the town square with practiced subtlety. As the bright red of Victoria's skirt caught his eye, he realized he had been holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, and breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Simply seeing her brought him a sense of much-needed calm.
But it also raised the inevitable question which had been lurking just below the surface of his consciousness: If it were time to tell his father about Zorro, was it time to tell Victoria as well? If the secret could no longer be kept, he would rather tell her himself than have her learn it from someone else.
He took a deep breath, trying to quell the peculiar apprehension he felt only when he thought about revealing Zorro's identity to her. "The man behind this mask," he had told her once, "is afraid of only one thing in this world—that you love a hero with whom he cannot possibly compete; that if this mask were removed, you would still be in love with Zorro, and not with the man of flesh and blood." Victoria was always kind to Diego, but it was clear she found him ... well, a little dull. He had, he thought ruefully—and not for the first time—succeeded perhaps a little too well with his pleasant but inept public image. Despite Victoria's reassurance that she loved the man behind the mask, he couldn't help wondering how she would really feel when she found out Diego and Zorro were one and the same.
His thoughts returned abruptly to the present as the entourage came to a halt. The corporal of the king's guard approached, and the Alcalde reined in Dulcinea. "Corporal, I'm now reassuming full command of this pueblo. You and your men shall leave here first light tomorrow. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
There was no resistance from the corporal. "Sí, mi Alcalde."
The Alcalde and the others dismounted, and Felipe secured their horses to the hitching post near the tavern as the Señora climbed slowly down from the wagon. "Take the body away, please," DeSoto said. Sergeant Mendoza waved the wagon on, but no one moved for a moment. "Private, take it away!" The wagon creaked off, and Don Alejandro turned to face Ynez Risendo.
"You stole my son"—his voice almost broke—"and filled him with hatred. I can forgive him, but you, Señora ... never." Señora Risendo's face tightened and she turned away.
"Not so fast, Señora. Private Esquivel!" The Alcalde beckoned to a young lancer standing nearby. "Escort the Señora to the jail and make sure she is put securely behind bars. We will make arrangements for her return trip to Spain in the morning."
"Muy bien, Alcalde." Private Esquivel took the Señora's arm and they started toward the jail.
Sergeant Mendoza, who had been standing nearby, crossed himself and said to the two de la Vegas, quietly and with heartfelt gratitude, "Gracias a Dios. It is over."
The Alcalde interrupted, his usual arrogance completely absent. "Sergeant, report to me in my office. We have much work to do." Mendoza saluted smartly, donned his lancer's hat, and walked back to the Alcalde's office. De Soto turned to Don Alejandro and hesitated, looking uncomfortable. "Don Alejandro—I had no idea he was your son."
"None of us did." From the huskiness in his voice, Diego could tell his father was near tears. "You also saved a son of mine—and that I will never forget."
"Nor I," added Diego. Suddenly he knew why his father had let the Alcalde ride his prize mare. The irony struck him: here they were, rightly thanking this man for saving Diego's life—the same man who would shoot Zorro in an instant. The genuine gratitude Diego felt was a pronounced contrast to the frustration and even resentment he had come to feel toward the Alcalde over the last several years, which added to the general disconnectedness he was feeling.
The Alcalde nodded. "Well, if you'll excuse me, I have a compelling need to see Padre Benitez." Alejandro looked both surprised and pleased. Diego was somewhat surprised himself; but on the other hand, Zorro had faced death more than once, and Diego knew that that an experience such as the Alcalde had just endured could change a man's life irrevocably. A close brush with death tended to change one's priorities, and the fact that the Alcalde was seeking spiritual guidance said a lot about how he was handling the events of the last week.
It was this unexpected gesture of the Alcalde's, as much as anything, that made Diego finally resolve to tell his father everything. The decision made, his secret became like a rock rolling inevitably down a mountain side to the valley below. With every second, it gathered momentum until Diego felt he could no longer contain it.
He turned to his father, searching for a way to begin, when Victoria approached. "I heard what happened," she said gently. "I'm so sorry." The compassion in her eyes was like a healing balm, and Diego let it flood over him. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to hold her close and to feel the comfort of her arms around him. But of course he couldn't, and years of hiding of his true thoughts and feelings allowed him, though not without difficulty, to put his own needs aside. There would be another time.
Don Alejandro sighed. "It's hard to gain a son and then lose him all in the same hour."
"Gilberto was suckled on vengeance," Diego interjected. He paused, as if seeing how different things could have been. "I wish I'd known him as a brother, not as an enemy."
Victoria looked at him sadly. "Perhaps if he had had a different life, you could have been proud of him instead, Diego."
Diego nodded, and then there was a pause. This is it, he thought. He took a deep breath, then began: "There is something I've been meaning to tell you all for quite some time. Now would seem an appropriate moment. Felipe, with your permission—"
Felipe's expression said he hadn't expected things to move quite this quickly, but his support for Diego was clear in his eyes. Diego continued. "I ..." There was a long pause. Victoria looked at him expectantly. "I ... am ..." Another long pause. His father half-nodded, as if willing him to speak. But in the final moment, Diego couldn't go through with it. Quickly, he finished the sentence: "... going to adopt Felipe. He's to be a member of our family."
The delighted reaction from Victoria and his father warmed his heart and complemented the relief he felt at evading, for the moment, his disclosure. Alejandro exclaimed, "This is wonderful news!" Embracing Felipe, he repeated, "Wonderful news! I now have two sons. The de la Vegas will never be divided. Never!"
Diego smiled as Felipe blew out a breath in relief. Diego did the same. Somehow, the rock had hit a momentary plateau; unmasking Zorro was clearly going to be harder than he had imagined.
Alejandro's look grew serious, and Diego braced himself. "Diego, there is something that's been gnawing inside of me."
There was no question in Diego's mind what that something was. Let's try this again, he thought to himself. "Father, there is something I've been meaning to tell you for quite some time." Suddenly he knew that the first person to tell must be his father. And if he told Victoria, it would be between them alone—a special place and time. So he said, "Felipe, Victoria, if you'll excuse us for a moment." Feeling more than seeing Victoria's puzzled look, he put his good arm around his father's shoulders and they walked a short distance away.
His father began, "Do you remember when Gilberto was just about to shoot you, he said that he was not only going to kill you, he was going to kill ... and he never finished. What do you suppose he was going to say, Diego?"
Diego looked at his father for a long moment. Where to begin ... "Father, I think it would be best if we returned to the hacienda."
His father regarded him, puzzled, then acquiesed. "Very well."
"We'll talk then," added Diego. The pair turned and walked back to Felipe and Victoria.
"Shall we stop and have dinner at the tavern before we go back?" asked Don Alejandro. Diego realized he was rather hungry, but the thought of another hour or two's delay before talking to his father was too much.
"As much as I enjoy the Señorita's cooking," Diego smiled at Victoria, "I am feeling rather ... worn out. Would it be all right if we returned home and ate at the tavern another time?"
In the half-smile his father gave him in return, Diego saw what he had seen so often before—a sense of resignation, of disappointment. The fact that he had grown used to it did not make it easier. Diego knew his father loved him, but he also knew his father had hoped for a son with more strength of character, more hardiness under adversity. He disliked intensely the feeling of appearing weak or lazy, of making excuses, of letting his father down. He had accepted it over the years as the price of Zorro's mission, of doing what had to be done. But today, it only made him more anxious to return home and dispel the misconception once and for all.
Victoria seemed to sense Diego's discomfort, and she spoke up. "You have all been through a lot today. Why don't I bring you some dinner later on?" she suggested.
"Gracias, Victoria." Don Alejandro smiled warmly at her. "That would be most appreciated."
"Yes," added Diego. "Thank you, Victoria."
Diego closed the ornate wooden door behind them as the three men walked into spacious entry way of the de la Vega hacienda. Felipe touched Diego's arm lightly and Diego stopped while Don Alejandro, unaware, continued toward the salon. Felipe signed, "I will be in my room if you need anything."
Diego smiled gratefully, glad Felipe sensed that that he needed this time alone with his father. He responded quietly, "Victoria should be here in a couple of hours. When she arrives, will you let us know?"
"Good luck," Felipe signed, smiling, and he walked toward his room.
Don Alejandro became aware of the quiet conversation behind him just as it ended, and he turned to face Diego. "So are you ready to tell me what's going on? You've been acting rather mysterious, you know." Don Alejandro's face showed fatigue, and his usual good humor was strained.
Diego took a deep breath. "I suppose I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Come with me, Father." Diego led the way into the salon to stand in front of the fireplace. "Do you remember hearing about a secret cave that was made part of the house to serve as an escape in case of Indian attacks?"
Alejandro frowned. "Come to think of it, I do remember hearing something, but I assumed it was just a story. Why?"
Diego's hand found the secret panel, and slowly he pushed on it. His father's mouth opened slightly as part of the wall at the back of the fireplace gave way. "I suppose you could say it's a little more than a story, Father." Diego motioned to his father to follow him through the opening.
Alone in the kitchen of her tavern, Victoria pulled the beautiful ruby and diamond ring which Zorro had given her from the special pouch she had sewn into her sash. Because of her promise to Zorro to keep the ring—and their enagement—a secret, she never wore it in public. But alone, she loved to look at it and think about the future. Somehow it made her feel closer to the enigmatic, unpredictable, and completely wonderful man she loved. She put it on her finger, admiring it.
Glancing up at the mirror in front of her, she caught a glimpse of her face, almost surprised by the joy reflected in her eyes. She would have to be careful—she didn't want to raise anyone's suspicions by looking too happy. Right after she and Zorro had become engaged, she had been so happy she could hardly contain it—and both Don Alejandro and Diego had noticed, and Diego had asked a few too many questions. Carefully, she masked her emotions and looked into the mirror again. This time, her face looked back at her, pleasant, but under control.
She considered her reflection for a moment. As Victoria had grown to womanhood, she had come to realize that most men considered her beautiful. But this realization had not made her proud; instead, it had awakened in her a healthy skepticism. Men frequently vied for her attention based solely on her looks, without a thought to her heart and soul. She found it frustrating, even troubling, when a passing stranger or a new lancer would profess to be in love with her. Besides, she had had enough experience to know that not a few potential suitors were intimidated once they sensed her fiery independence and willingness to speak her mind. She was not the type to back down; in fact, being crossed only made her more determined if she felt the cause were just.
Appearance ... reality ... so little connection. Or is it just that often we don't truly understand the things we see? she wondered. Perhaps this was one reason she had been so drawn to Zorro; here was a man who knew appearance to be deceptive, who obviously knew that what counted was what was inside. And Zorro, she knew, loved her for who she truly was.
"Señorita?" It was Sylvia, one of the young women Victoria had hired to help in the tavern. Quickly, she slipped the ring off her finger, returned it to its secret place, and turned to face Sylvia.
"Sí, Sylvia? What is it?" Victoria inquired, smiling.
"We are almost out of cumin, and we need it for the evening cooking. Señor Jimenez will be taking his wares down soon—would you like me to go and get some from him?"
"Oh, I hadn't realized it was that late." I'd better get started on dinner for the de la Vegas, she thought. "Yes, thank you, Sylvia. While you're there, could you also get another large clay jug? One of them broke this morning." Sylvia nodded, and Victoria handed her several pesos. "Gracias, Sylvia."
Sylvia walked through the kitchen toward the back door, and Victoria turned her attention to cooking dinner for the de la Vegas. After everything they had been through, she wanted this dinner to be an especially good one. Humming to herself, she pulled down the collection of recipes her grandmother had given her and started to leaf through them. She smiled, with a tinge of regret, as she thought of Diego. As a teenager, she had had a decided crush on the tall, well-bred caballero's son, drawn to him by his good humor and easy-going nature. Diego treated everyone with respect, from the poorest servants to the wealthiest landowners, and she found that very appealing.
Then he had gone away to Madrid University, and she hadn't seen him for nearly four years. When he returned, her earlier crush had resurfaced and quickly turned to something more—Diego seemed full of courage and intelligence, committed to justice and the good of the community. He had gallantly defended her against an indignant would-be suitor, and even stood up to their former Alcalde, Luis Ramon, over one of his many plans to raise taxes. Diego had seemed to be the kind of man she could consider spending her life with.
But something had happened to him the longer he was home. He shied away from the public leadership his father had hoped he would assume, and spent more and more time buried in books. If any activity even remotely involved a challenge, Diego would excuse himself from it. He had, in fact, turned out to be a bit impractical and even—she winced mentally—a little slow, at least in some things. She felt guilty at the thought, but after all, he could barely find his way from his hacienda to the pueblo without getting lost.
But why am I even thinking about this? she asked herself. I have Zorro, and we are so well-suited to each other. I am truly blessed. She smiled softly, wondering when she would see him next.
"Diego, I don't understand ..." Diego watched as Don Alejandro looked around the cave, trying to take everything in—the experiments on the table, the drawings, the stable housing the well-known black stallion, the coat stand from which hung black clothing and the unmistakable saber Zorro always used.
"Father ..." somehow, words seemed terribly inadequate. "Father," he began again, "Do you remember when I first returned to the pueblo from the university in Madrid?"
His father nodded, dazed.
"You sent me to Spain to become a man, to prepare for a place of leadership among the caballeros and the community. And you called me home because of the corruption and tyranny of the Alcalde. After the Alcalde threatened all of us for daring to oppose him, and after he imprisoned you and Victoria unjustly, I realized that the only way to fight his tyranny was to assume a disguise of some sort. It was a matter of conscience, Father; the need was so great. I was determined to make a difference—but I also knew I couldn't risk endangering others.
"Father, I never wanted to keep this from you. But do you understand why I did?"
"Son, are you saying that you are ... " Alejandro couldn't finish.
"Yes, Father," answered Diego, his voice sounding hollow and strange to himself, "I am also ... Zorro."
Don Alejandro shook his head in disbelief and almost fell as he collapsed into the high-backed chair next to the cave wall.
"Father, are you all right?"
Don Alejandro looked up at his son. "Yes, son, I'm all right—I suppose. It's just that my entire life has changed incomprehensibly in the space of a few short hours. I gained a son, then lost him; then gained another son in Felipe; and now I find that you, my son, are"—he shook his head in disbelief—"are Zorro. It's all taking its toll on this old man."
"Old man," Diego said, smiling. "Not so, Father." He turned serious again. "Father, can you ever forgive me for keeping this from you? It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do."
"Diego—" There was a long pause, and Diego looked up to see his father's eyes moist with emotion. "I'm the one who must ask your forgiveness. I have misjudged you all these years. I berated you for what I supposed was your lack of courage, for burying yourself in your books, for wasting time on all those 'pointless' experiments ... and all the while, you were courageous beyond anything I realized, not only in standing up to the Alcalde and defending the poor, but in enduring the misjudgment of those around you"— Alejandro spoke with difficulty—"including your own father. Son, I'm so sorry."
Diego swallowed hard. "It means more than you know to hear you say that." He looked at his father and said simply, "I wanted you to have a son you could be proud of."
Don Alejandro started to say something, but instead got up, walked to Diego, and embraced him fiercely. "I am proud of you, son—my son."
When no one answered, Victoria balanced the soup tureen on her hip and opened the door with her other hand. "Hola! Diego? Don Alejandro?" No one responded, so she stepped inside—just as Felipe came around the corner.
"Ah, Felipe—buenos noches. I have the dinner that I promised to bring. Where would you like me to put this soup?"
Felipe smiled and beckoned for her to follow him. Walking into the dining room, he indicated the table. Victoria set the tureen down, noticing in the back of her mind that the table was set for four. Whom were they expecting? Fortunately, there would be plenty of food, she thought, glad she had prepared generous amounts.
"I need to get a few more things from the wagon—I will be right back." Victoria walked out of the dining room toward the front door. Felipe waited until she opened the door, then ran to the salon. Quickly, he pressed the secret panel and stepped into the cave.
Diego and Don Alejandro were sitting close by each other, talking; the father-son bond in the room was palpable. As Felipe entered, Don Alejandro rose, walked toward him, and embraced him again. Felipe's expression said it all: he hadn't wanted to keep the secret from Don Alejandro, but he had done what needed to be done and was fiercely loyal to Diego. "I know," Don Alejandro said quietly. "I know."
"What is it, Felipe?" Diego knew Felipe would have had a good reason for interrupting them, and he suspected Victoria had arrived.
"Victoria is here with dinner," Felipe signed. "She's outside and will be back soon." The three of them quickly exited the cave just in time to hear Victoria coming in through the front door. As they met her in the front entry way, Don Alejandro looked at her with new eyes. This was no longer simply the woman Zorro loved, but more than likely his future daughter-in-law. The thought flooded him with happiness.
"Ah, Victoria—you are an angel. Let me carry that." Don Alejandro took the basket of fresh flour tortillas and another covered dish that smelled heavenly, and started to walk toward the dining room. "Do you need help with anything else?"
"Actually, yes, there is a basket of fresh fruit still in the wagon." Before anyone else could respond, Felipe was already running back to retrieve it.
As the others entered the dining room, Don Alejandro noticed the table had been set for four—it must have been Felipe's doing, and he heartily agreed with the gesture. So he said, "Victoria, my dear, it would be an honor if you would join us for dinner." He glanced at Diego, whose face was as impassive as ever.
"Why thank you, Don Alejandro," answered Victoria. "It would be my pleasure." Just then, Felipe returned with the basket of fruit. The four of them took their places at the table, and Don Alejandro bowed his head to offer grace. "Dear Lord, we thank You for the food you have provided and we thank You that we may partake of it together." He paused, and then continued with noticeably more emotion in his voice, thanking God for protecting them and preserving their lives. In his mind's eye, Diego saw momentarily the angel Don Fernando who had visited him several Christmases ago; he suspected angels had been guarding them that day. At the end of the prayer, the others echoed the amen, crossed themselves, and began their meal. A sweet feeling of peace filled the room. Despite the tragedy they had just suffered, Diego saw that life still held abundant joy and associations of love and friendship to be treasured. He hoped he would never lose that feeling.
Don Alejandro finished off his third helping of chiles rellenos and said with satisfaction, "Ah, Victoria, what a wonderful meal. You are a magnificent cook!"
Victoria smiled warmly. "I'm so glad you liked it."
"You know, it is wonderful to have the company of a woman at our hacienda." Don Alejandro glanced at Diego and saw the warning look in his eyes, but he continued: "Of course, since my wife died, we have lacked in that particular area."
"I wish I could have known Doña Elena," Victoria said sincerely.
"I have never known another woman like her," Don Alejandro answered, the adoration evident in his voice. "Have I ever shown you our portrait? We had it done just after Diego was born, by one of the finest portrait painters in Madrid. Now I'm glad I did ..." his voice grew soft. "Come."
"I would love to see it," Victoria responded. The two of them arose and walked together toward Don Alejandro's room, leaving Diego and Felipe at the table.
The painting hung on the wall to the left of the bed, opposite the large picture window. Victoria studied it carefully. Don Alejandro, looking every bit the caballero with his dark blue suit, ruffled shirt and sword, was seated on a high-backed chair. Doña Elena, in a white gown of satin and lace, stood behind him, her hand on his shoulder. Compassion and intelligence shone in Elena's face, as well as obvious affection for her husband.
"What a beautiful couple," remarked Victoria quietly.
Alejandro rejoined, "I loved her with all my heart. Victoria—" he hesitated. "Victoria, I hope I am not being too forward by saying this, but I hope some day that you will be as happy as my Elena and I were."
She smiled at Alejandro. "That is my hope as well."
Don Alejandro looked as though he wanted to say more, but instead turned to walk out of the room. Victoria was about to follow him, when something made her look back. On Doña Elena's hand was a beautiful ring. For half a second, she couldn't place why it looked familiar. Then she looked at it more closely and drew her breath in sharply as she saw that it was a large ruby set in the midst of a circle of diamonds—identical to the ring Zorro had given her. Her head began to swim. How can this be? she thought. Willing her heart to stop pounding, she admonished herself, Don't jump to conclusions. She couldn't take her eyes off the ring.
Don Alejandro paused in the doorway when he saw Victoria was not following him. "What is it, my dear?"
Victoria hoped she sounded nonchalant as she responded, "Oh, nothing—I was just admiring the ring Doña Elena is wearing. It's ... it's ... lovely." She could feel her face flushing and fought to stay calm.
Don Alejandro looked into the distance, seeing another time and place. "It was my gift to Elena on our first wedding anniversary. I had it made specially by a friend of mine, a jeweler. There is not another one like it in the world. In fact, I believe I still have it." Victoria watched, unmoving, as Don Alejandro walked to the dresser, opened the second drawer down, and removed a false panel toward the back of the drawer. She knew with some inner certainty that he wouldn't find it. As he lifted out a small box and begin to sift through the contents, she heard in her mind Zorro's words to her as he had given her the ring: "This was my mother's."
"Not another one like it in the world."
"This was my mother's."
"Not another one like it in the world."
"This was my mother's."
The twin thoughts reverberated in her mind. Diego was Zorro? It couldn't be! How could reserved, incompetent Diego possibly be the same person as Zorro—Zorro, who seemed to know the unknowable, who stood up to men that others feared, who risked his life for a just cause? And that implausible thought gave birth to an equally implausible corrolary: Could she actually be in love with Diego?
"Odd." Don Alejandro's voice interrupted her inner turmoil. "I could have sworn I put it in here. I wonder if Diego knows where it is." Victoria's knees turned to water; it was all she could do to follow Don Alejandro back to the dining room. "Diego," Don Alejandro was saying, "Do you have any idea what happened to ..."
Victoria cut him off quickly. If Diego had in fact taken the ring—if? what other possibility was there?—this was hardly the time or place for him to be backed into an admission. "Don Alejandro, I'm so sorry. I promised Sylvia I would be back to the tavern in half an hour. Could I trouble you to help me load these things into my wagon?"
"By all means, Victoria. Diego, Felipe—" Both of them stood at the implied request, and they began to gather Victoria's things.
"It's getting dark, Father. Why don't I ride back to the tavern with Victoria?"
"Yes, son, that would be good of you." Don Alejandro tried not to sound too pleased.
Ordinarily, Victoria would have appreciated the gesture, but right now she wanted nothing more than to be alone, to think, to absorb the impossible revelation that had just distilled, unbidden, upon her. But knowing there was no way to decline Diego's offer gracefully, she nodded and gave him what she hoped was a perfectly natural smile.
Although the western sky was still brushed with pale gold, the stars overhead were bright. The evening air was cool, and a refreshing breeze floated in from the coast. As they rode along, Victoria thought how she loved this magical time, halfway between day and night. Especially tonight, it helped soothe the chaos she was feeling inside.
She was glad now that she had not declined Diego's offer to accompany her. Night was falling quickly and before they reached the pueblo, it would be completely dark. Despite her self-reliant nature, she knew it would be foolish to travel the deserted road back to the pueblo alone at night.
In fact, daytime wasn't always safe. Her mind drifted back to the time she journeyed to Santa Paula to settle the mortgage on the tavern. In broad daylight, she had been attacked by a group of bandidos who had somehow found out the purpose of her trip, and had also discovered the thousand pesos in the secret compartment of her wagon. Although she hadn't actually made it to Santa Paula until several weeks later, that first trip turned out to be one of the most memorable of her life—for it was then that Zorro had been forced, for her safety, to bring her to his cave. And it was there he had proposed to her and given her the beautiful ring ...
That thought brought her back to the present with a jolt. " ... appreciated the delicious dinner," Diego was saying. Victoria had not even been aware that he was talking.
"What? Oh, you're welcome. It was the least I could do." She looked over at Diego, seated beside her. He had insisted on driving the wagon back to town, but he had loosely reined his own horse to the back of the wagon, and she followed obediently along.
"Victoria, are you all right? You seemed like you were a thousand miles away."
"No, I am fine, thank you, Diego. I was just thinking about ..." she hesitated—should she say it? Throwing caution to the winds, she plunged ahead—"... about Zorro." In the half-light, she couldn't tell if Diego looked disappointed or pleased. "I miss him—I haven't seen him since he brought Don Alejandro's money to help pay the war tax to save the church. Even then, we didn't have the chance to talk." Suddenly it hit her: no wonder Zorro had been able to release the de la Vega funds from the bank! At the time, his behavior had shocked her a little; she knew he wasn't a bandit, as the Alcalde accused him of being, but taking the de la Vega's money didn't quite seem right, even though Don Alejandro had not objected. But now, it all made sense.
"Well," offered Diego, "perhaps his services have not been needed."
"I still wouldn't mind seeing him," Victoria answered, feeling almost manipulative, knowing the position she would surely put Diego in.
"Well, then, perhaps you will." A pause. "So—how is business at the tavern?" Victoria sensed a studied casualness in Diego's change of the subject. How often she had heard that same tone before, but had attributed it to what she (and most of the pueblo) perceived as Diego's bookish, even boring personality. But it was a mask, a mask just as real as the mask Zorro wore.
"Things have never been better," Victoria responded. "In fact, I think I may soon need to hire someone else."
"That's wonderful, Victoria." They passed the rest of the ride talking of safe subjects—the tavern, the pueblo, the Masias's new baby. Gradually, Victoria felt herself relax, the shock of her inadvertent discovery slowly receding.
The pueblo was quiet as they entered. Welcoming lamplight shone from the nearby adobe buildings. The horses, out of habit, walked to the stables at the side of the tavern. Diego jumped down easily from the wagon. Then he extended his hand to Victoria—a hand that felt startlingly familiar, she realized, as she took it—and helped her step down. As she looked up at him, the shadow from the roof of the nearby stables fell across the upper part of his face, obscuring it much as Zorro's mask would have done, and it was very clearly Zorro's face she saw. If she had had any doubts about his identity before, they vanished now. A warm glow started to permeate her whole being.
"Well, Diego," she said lightly, "thank you for escorting me back into town. Would you care for some spiced apple cider before you go?" Almost as the words left her mouth, she regretted them; the longer she kept Diego here, the longer it would be before she saw Zorro. Then she caught herself. It is truly a danger that I should love the legend instead of the man. Now that I know, I can learn to love them as one and the same.
Diego sounded genuinely pleased. "Thank you, Victoria. I would like that."
Suddenly she was very, very glad Diego had decided to stay. It would give
her the chance to know better the man behind the mask, and to see him in
a whole new light. Besides, she thought, grinning mischievously to herself,
perhaps it was her turn to keep a secret from Zorro for a change!
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