Don Alejandro was indeed pleased to have the beautiful innkeeper stay with them for a few days.  He too had heard the rumors but had dismissed them out of hand.

     He was however worn out from his long day on the trail.  His retirement for the night left the three younger people alone in the library.  Felipe retreated to one corner with one of his legal texts.  Which left Diego and Victoria staring at each other uncomfortably, each perched on opposite ends of the settee.  Victoria smiled nervously.

     "Please, don't let me stop you from doing. . .whatever it is you do, Diego," she remarked.  "You do not have to entertain me."

     "I could recommend several books if you are interested," he replied.

     "Perhaps."  She did not often have the opportunity to read.  Her work at the tavern usually kept her very busy.  Most of her free time was spent with her accounts.

     "I could play the piano," Diego continued.  He was at odds as to what to do.  Then a brilliant (to him) thought popped into his head.

    "I will paint your portrait," he declared, smiling broadly.

     Victoria was speechless but flattered.  Felipe hid behind his book, trying hard not to laugh aloud.  He knew that just on the other side of the fireplace were about a dozen pictures of the lovely señorita that his father had sketched or painted over the years.  There were even a couple he had not been allowed to view, making him wonder at their content.  Diego kept them locked away.

     Diego shot the young man a silencing look then turned his attention back to the woman opposite him.  "Well, Victoria?"

     "All right," she agreed with a smile.  She never had her portrait done before.  Maybe it would be fun.

     Diego rushed to get his paints and brushes from his room.  Victoria rose from her seat and began to wander about the room.  She gazed at the art work gracing the walls then scanned some of the books that lined the shelves.  Felipe shut his eyes when she touched her hand to the fireplace mantel.  He exhaled in relief when he saw she had not caused the back panel to swing open.  Luckily Diego came back into the room and distracted the curious woman.

     "I will start a preliminary sketch tonight," Diego instructed excitedly.  "In the morning we can go out to the courtyard to work."  Noticing her puzzled look, he added, "The light is much better there."

     "Oh," she replied not really understanding but trusting Diego's judgement.  She looked down at the plain white blouse that was part of her riding habit.  "Should I wear something special or. . ."

     "You are beautiful whatever you wear."  Diego let the compliment slipped out unguarded.

     "Gracias, Diego."  She blushed slightly, astonished at the genuine admiration she heard in his voice.

     It took several minutes for him to set up his easel.  He then had her pose on the settee, arranging her face and hands just so.  He sat down himself and began to draw.  They engaged in idle conversation, talking about the weather, the upcoming holidays, anything except what was foremost on both their minds.  After about an hour, Felipe could no longer stand it and took his book to his room.

     Two hours later, Diego noted that Victoria was beginning to tire and called a halt for the evening.  He was about to escort her to her room when there was a loud knock on the front door.

     "Pardon."  Diego left Victoria's side to answer the summons.  Who could it be this time of night? he wondered.

     The de la Vega foreman, Carlos Carrillo, stood on the step, his hat in hand.  "Patron," he began.  "Two of the cows in the north pasture have been mauled."  He looked at his feet before he continued, "El Diablo has also been injured."

     Diego glanced over his shoulder at Victoria, who still stood in the foyer.  He stepped outside before he asked quietly, "Is it bad?"

     "Si, the two heifers are dead," responded Carlos.  "Diablo is still alive but. . .  I think it would be best to put him down, Patron.  I thought perhaps your father would wish. . ."

     "I trust your judgement, Carlos," declared Diego.  "Don Alejandro is asleep.  I will do it."

     "Si, Patron," the foreman gave a little bow. "I will saddle your horse."  He walked toward the stables.

     Diego came back inside the hacienda.  He stepped over to a locked cabinet near the door and opened it with his key.  Victoria came up behind him as he took his grandfather's musket from the closet.  The de la Vegas did not allow their ranch hands to carry guns.  Too many good men had lost their lives due to the careless handling of firearms.

     "What is wrong?" Victoria asked, a worried expression on her face.

     "Another attack," he said tersely.  "Two dead and I have to go put our prize bull out of his misery."  His face softened as he saw the sadness in her eyes.  "You should go to bed, Victoria," he advised gently, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

     "Be careful, Diego," she said in a low voice, touching his hand.  "Buenos noches."

     "Buenos noches," he echoed as she went to her room.  When she was out of earshot, he whispered, ". . .querida."
                                                             Z                                                               Z                                                                   Z

     Don Alejandro was livid the next morning.  He had been awake when Diego arrived home just before dawn.  His son had to break the bad news to him.  The old don accepted Diego and the foreman's decision concerning El Diablo.  He just wasn't very happy that it had to happen at all.

     "I am going to demand the Alcalde send out his troops to hunt down this menace," the elder de la Vega blustered, banging his fist on the dining table.  "We have other duties to attend to.  We cannot be out all day and night searching."

     "De Soto might have a different opinion," said Diego drily.

    "It is his job to protect the citizens of this territory," his father stated angrily.  "Come on, let's go."  He snatched up his gloves from the table as he stood.

     "Father," Diego began, then paused as Victoria entered the room.  Seizing his excuse, he smiled at her.  "I have promised to paint Victoria's portrait this morning. Surely I cannot disappoint a lady."

     "It can wait, Diego," she remarked, sensing the tension between father and son.

     "No, go ahead," Don Alejandro snapped.  "He would not have been much help anyway."  He stalked out of the hacienda.

     Victoria shook her head.  "Diego, why do you do that?  Why do you let your father think you are so weak?  I don't understand."

     "Victoria," he sighed.  "My father and I just don't see eye to eye on certain things."  He twisted his lips wryly.  "You may have noticed my father has a temper and is a bit impulsive.  I prefer a more peaceful existence, that is all."

     "But that still does not explain. . ." Victoria interrupted herself.  "Diego de la Vega, you are one of the most. . ."  She searched for a polite way to say it.  "exasperating men I have ever known."

     He just smiled enigmatically.  "Shall we?" he asked as he pointed in the direction of the courtyard.

     "Si."  Victoria perceived he was distracting her away from their conversation.  But why?  He really was a puzzle.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Don Alejandro rounded up several of his amigos before he went to confront the Alcalde.  They were joined by several other citizens so that de Soto had quite an audience as he spoke.  He stood on the porch of his office, an expression of utter indifference on his face.

     "I'm sorry, but I don't see what my men and I can do," the Alcalde stated after Don Alejandro has issued his demand.  "This is an agricultural problem, not a military one."

     "I beg to differ," contradicted the older man.  "I lost three head of cattle last night.  That's three less animals I have to pay your livestock tax upon.  Which means less money for you. . ."  He paused dramatically, then added, "and your garrison, of course."

     "Still, I cannot provide any assistance," the Alcalde said as he glared at the old don.  The elder de la Vega was such an agitator, he thought.  It was a wonder he had sired a son such as Diego.  "I have been left shorthanded as well by the draft.  The governor has promised more lancers but so far. . ."  He shrugged his epauleted shoulders.  "My men are needed here, not out roaming the territory searching for some phantom. . .  What did you say it was again?"

     "Puma!"  "Coyote!"  Each rancher had a different answer from between the two animals.  Don Alejandro tried to stop the dissension that was breaking out amongst the other men without success.  He turned to the Alcalde.

     "Does it matter?" he growled lowly.  "Something is out there killing our herds and flocks.  It must be stopped."

     De Soto sneered.  "Why don't you have your masked hero, Zorro, rescue you from this menace, hmm?"

     "Alcalde, you know as well as I do that Zorro is very unpredictable.  He has not been seen for days," stated Don Alejandro.

     "With good reason, I hear," replied de Soto maliciously.  "It must be sad to learn he is just a man with feet of clay."  He chuckled for a moment, then became serious.  "Like I said before, this is not a military matter.  Good day, Señor."  He stepped backward through his open office door, shutting it firmly once inside.  The caballeros were still squabbling with each other.

     Don Alejandro threw up his hands in disgust.  He intended to mount his horse and ride home when he saw Monica Lopez out walking with her children.

     "Excuse me, Señora," he called out as he approached.  She paused to see the old don coming her way.  "A word, if you please."

     "Si, Señor," she agreed, shifting the baby to her hip.

     "I am Don Alejandro de la Vega," he introduced himself.  "I wish to know why you are going around telling such outrageous lies about Zorro."

     The young woman looked shaken.  So far, no one had challenged what she had said, just shaking their heads and seeming to accept it.  "They. . .they are not lies, Señor de la Vega, " she replied.  "I have proof."

     "Yes, I know about the baptismal documents," he waved away her words.  "Is there a marriage certificate as well?"

     "No, Señor," she admitted, hanging her head.  She then lifted her chin.  "Zorro told me we could never marry.  I-I understood that."

     "Why hasn't he come for you then?" the elder de la Vega demanded to know.  "You've been here, what, two, three days?  Where is he?"

     "I do not know."  Her eyes were beginning to get misty.  "I had hoped since he wanted us to come here, that he might have change his mind about us.  It is so hard on the children, you see."

     Don Alejandro gazed at the little ones.  The boy was quite handsome, though shy, peeking out from behind his mother.  The little niña was a doll with black curls and such pink cheeks.  The image of another baby girl flashed through his mind.  He struggled to bury it back inside his heart.

     "I think, Señora," he said calmly, "you have been duped by someone posing as Zorro."  Seeing the tears in her eyes, he added gently, "Go back home, Señora.  I think it would be for the best."

     She shook her head stubbornly.  "Zorro has never lied to me before.  I will wait here until he tells me to go."  Monica reached for Juan Diego's hand and pulled him along as she walked across the plaza.

     Don Alejandro slapped his gloves into his hand.  He would hate to be in Zorro's boots right now.
                                                          Z                                                           Z                                                           Z

     Diego painted until nearly lunch time, almost completing the portrait.  Of course he had sketched Victoria many times before but only from memory.  This was different.  He could see the varied emotions as they flickered over her lovely face.  It made the picture seem more alive.

     Victoria was unused to sitting still for such a long period of time.  Diego did let her stretch her legs every hour or so for a few minutes.  She hadn't thought it would be so tiring.

     "There," he finally said.  He stood back and studied the canvas.  "It needs something."  He pondered for a moment.  "Wait here," he instructed as he draped a cloth over the easel.  He then headed inside the house.

     "No peeking," he admonished, poking his head back out the doorway.  Victoria hardly had time to stand before he had returned, holding something in his hand.

     She gasped when she saw the diamond and pearl necklace that dripped from his fingers.  She glanced up at him.

     "It was my mother's," he explained.  "Here."  He moved to place it around her throat.  She had to lift her hair, exposing the nape of her neck.  Diego's hands trembled slightly as he fastened the clasp.

     The necklace was exquisite, a string of lustrous pearls from which suspended a five-carat heart-shaped diamond.  Victoria caressed it apprehensively.  Diego saw the questions in her dark eyes.

     "It has been in her family for ages," he commented.  When she raised an eyebrow, he added, "You recall she descended from Spanish royalty.  She never wore this in public."  He smiled as he remembered his mother trying on her jewelry when he had been a child.  Diego had thought she was a princess.

     It was as regal on Victoria.  He had a hard time taking his eyes off of her.  "Perfect," he finally uttered and went back to his easel.

     Diego had nearly finished adding the necklace to the portrait when Don Alejandro ambled into the courtyard.  He pulled up short to stare at the jewels around Victoria's throat.  "Diego, what. . .?" was all he managed to say before his son interrupted.

     "It's just for the painting, Father," he defended himself.  "Mother did leave her jewelry to me."

     "Yes, for your future bride," the old don grumbled.

     Victoria touched the necklace again.  "Maybe I should take it off," she suggested anxiously.

     "No, it's fine," the elder de la Vega reassured.  He had to admit it suited her.  "It's just that is a valuable piece and Diego is rather careless with Felicidad's things.  Just last month, he couldn't find one of her. . ."

     "Father, isn't it about time for lunch?"  Diego cut in before his father could mention the ring.

     "Oh."  Don Alejandro remembered now the reason he had come out there in the first place.  "Maria said lunch was ready," he took out his pocket watch, "ten minutes ago.  We'd better hurry."

     Victoria attempted to remove the necklace but Diego stayed her hand.  "No, leave it on," he urged.  "I will put it away later."  He then escorted her to the dining room.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Diego never got a chance to finish the portrait that afternoon.  One of the ranch hands had fallen out of a lemon tree while pruning it and had broken his arm.  Diego and Felipe had been recruited to take his place.

     Victoria decided to go into the pueblo and check on the tavern.  "Pilar is a good worker," she told the de la Vegas, "but sometimes little details slip her mind."

     Diego smiled, knowing she liked to keep a tight rein on her business.  She probably was bored as well from all the inactivity that morning.  He and Felipe waved her off before heading out into the orchards.

     Pilar had everything under control when Victoria arrived.  It was siesta time so the tavern was not too busy.  Victoria stood in the center of the room, giving it a close inspection.  It seemed a little drab.  Maybe she needed to redecorate; new paint, new draperies perhaps.  She spun around when the door opened behind her.

     Monica Lopez entered the building as always with both children in tow.  Victoria frowned as she thought coming to the tavern was not such a good idea after all.  That. . .that woman really irritated her nerves.  She wandered all over Los Angeles every day, showing off the children, telling everyone how proud Zorro was of them.

     Victoria scrutinized the other woman.  She was quite average looking with dark brown hair and brown eyes.  Her figure was a little plump, but Victoria allowed that she did have two children, one still an infant.  Still, she thought haughtily, the young mother did not seem like someone to whom Zorro would be attracted.

     She grimaced as Monica sauntered toward her.  "I want to thank you, Señorita Escalante," she began, "for letting us stay here.  Zorro is right, you are a very generous lady."

     "Generous?" Victoria replied a bit sharply.  "I am only permitting you to stay because of the children.  I feel sorry for them, having someone like you as their mother."

     Monica seemed genuinely hurt by the other woman's barb.  "I do not understand, Señorita.  I love my babies and I would do anything for them.  I don't know why you would say such a terrible thing."

     "Because you are a liar, Señora," stated Victoria fiercely.  "I know Zorro.  He is a decent, honorable man."  She took a deep breath.  "What you say he has done is impossible.  Please, from now on, just stay away from me."

     She turned to go into the kitchen but the señora stopped her.  "You seem rather upset, Señorita Escalante.  Don't tell me you are also one of Zorro's women."

     "One of his women?" Victoria squeaked angrily.  "One of his women?  I know Zorro loves only me.  He has promised me we will be married."

     Monica laughed.  "He had fooled you as well.  You don't realize that you are just one of many.  My children are not Zorro's only bast. . ."

     Victoria slapped the other woman across the face before she could utter the ugly word.
                                                          Z                                                               Z                                                               Z