CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE - "A HEAVEN IN HELL'S DESPAIR"
Victoria did make it through that first night. But by noon the next day, Diego realized that she had fallen into a coma. Doctor Hernandez confirmed his diagnosis when he visited that afternoon.
"It's not necessarily a bad thing," the physician said to Diego. "Her body has suffered a major trauma. She needs time to rest. This is nature's way of insuring that she does. Just make sure she gets enough liquids."
"Thank you, Doctor," he said with more gratitude than he felt. As soon as the other man left, Diego moved the chair he had been sitting in closer to the bed and picked up Victoria's left hand. He brought it to his lips and kissed it reverently. Then he lowered his forehead onto the bed's comforter as guilt racked through his entire being.
"I'm so sorry, Victoria," he murmured, lifting his head up and gazing upon her angelic face. "I never meant for you to get hurt. I never wanted you to sacrifice yourself for me." He kissed her hand again. "I love. . ."
Diego paused as he remembered the confessions he had made to his comatose father when he had been shot and had been at death's door. A wry smile came to his face as he recalled how Victoria had said that Don Alejandro couldn't hear him. But she had been wrong. His father had heard Diego tell him that he was Zorro, only the elder de la Vega had thought it had been a dream. And the coward that he was, Diego didn't correct his mistaken notion.
He looked again at the woman on the bed. What if she, too, could hear him? He didn't dare declare his love for her. How would he ever be able to explain away a dream of Diego de la Vega telling her of his undying devotion?
The sound of the hacienda's front door being slammed shut reverberated throughout the whole house. "Diego!" His father's voice also echoed throughout the entire building. "Diego!"
Diego dropped Victoria's hand and pushed his chair back so it was a respectable distance from the bed. Don Alejandro burst into the room, angrier than Diego had ever seen him before. But then he watched as the elder de la Vega's features softened as he glanced down at Victoria.
"How is she?" he asked quietly.
The elder de la Vega motioned for his son to follow him out of the room. After he had closed the door behind them, the old don swirled around to face Diego.
"You won't believe it," he began, fury creeping back into his voice. "The Alcalde, he refuses to arrest this Bishop. He says that Victoria was aiding and abetting Zorro and she only got what she deserved."
Diego saw red for a brief moment, then a black curtain of remorse fell upon him. This was all his fault. He regretted, for the first time, that he had started this masquerade. He would have changed places with Victoria in a heartbeat. He should have been the one Bishop shot.
His father's irate voice interrupted Diego's mental torture. "And he told me that Don Carlos is dueling with Bishop at dawn. And the bastard was actually excited by the thought of my friend's death. Why Zorro hasn't just killed Ramón, I'll never know. Edmund was right. Zorro isn't helping us, he's only hindering us."
"You don't truly believe that, do you?" asked Diego in dismay. "Zorro had done so much. . ."
Don Alejandro held up his right hand. "The people are no better off than they were before this masked fox appeared," he declared dismissively. "I'm going over to Carlos's to see if I can talk some sense into him." The old don shook his head wearily. "Although I'm probably wasting my time. He never listened when I told him that gambling would ruin him."
He glanced over at his son. "You look terrible, Diego," he commented. "You've been awake since yesterday, haven't you?"
Diego tried to wave away his father's concern. "I'm fine," he fibbed. In fact, he felt horrible. Not only physically, but mentally as well. He indicated the bedroom door. "I'd better get back in there."
"Very well," said Don Alejandro. "Adios." With that, he turned and walked out of the hallway. After he was out of sight, Diego sagged against the wall.
Dios, he hadn't helped Don Carlos at all by intervening. This Bishop was going to kill his father's amigo and try to claim the caballero's lands as his own. Diego had seen the IOU that the gambler had collected from Don Carlos. The only way he could raise that kind of money was if he sold his estate.
He opened the door of the guest room and went back inside. Resuming his bedside vigil, he recognized the fact that his father and Sir Edmund were right. Zorro hadn't done that much good for the people of Los Angeles. The Alcalde hadn't changed his greedy ways one iota. In fact, he was even worse because of Zorro's interference, using the pueblo's citizens as bait for the evil traps he set for the man in black.
And innocents had been hurt in the process, especially the woman lying unconscious in the bed before him. She had been arrested too many times to count, nearly hung once for a crime she didn't commit, and now was clinging to life because of a gunshot wound. And all because of Zorro. All because he had included her in his charade, selfishly pretending to court her in order to protect his true identity.
It had been inevitable that she would fall in love with him as he had fallen in love with her. There was something between them; chemistry, fate, destiny. . . Whatever it was, they would have been drawn together no matter the circumstances.
[parts of the following scene taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]
Diego scooted his chair next to the bed again and placed his hand upon Victoria's small one. He watched as her chest rose and fell, feeling her heartbeat as it pulsed in her wrist. She was alive. But for how much longer? He stroked her hand with his then placed a kiss on its palm.
"I'm so sorry, Victoria," he murmured. "I should have waited for you. You're the woman I love, the one I've always loved. And the woman I love lies here dying." He reached out and touched her forehead, pushing back a piece of hair from her placid face. "If you die, Victoria," he vowed solemnly, "Zorro will die with you."
He kissed her hand again. Then he realized the skin he felt under his hand felt like it was on fire. Madre de Dios, she was burning with fever. The dreaded infection that the doctor had warned might come, had.
Diego stood and began to lift the bedcovers, intent on checking the site of Victoria's wound when he suddenly dropped the blankets. In order to get to the injury, he would have to pull up the white cotton nightgown she was wearing. He had always left the room before as Maria had changed the bandages.
Sighing, he turned and walked out of the
room, going in search of the de la Vega housekeeper.
Z Z Z
The next several days were like a nightmare. Don Carlos had been shot and killed by Bishop. Then the Alcalde had handed over half of the dead caballero's estate to the gambler, keeping the other half for himself. Understandable, Don Alejandro had been beside himself with grief and rage.
"Carlos hasn't even been buried yet!" the old don yelled as he, Diego, and Zafira sat at the dining room table, ostensibly eating lunch. None of them, however, seemed to have much of an appetite.
"And that. . . that bas. . . That blackguard Ramón took half of his lands in taxes," stated Don Alejandro, casting an apologetic eye toward his daughter-in-law. "I should have stepped in," he bemoaned, finally pushing away his barely touched plate. "I should have taken on Bishop myself."
"Father, it wasn't your fight," Diego said in alarm, knowing how impetuous his father could be, especially when he was in a temper. "Don Carlos was a grown man. He knew what he was doing when he sat down to play cards with that gambler."
The elder de la Vega shot his son a look of contempt then threw his napkin down onto the table. "How is Victoria?" he asked as he stood up.
"Her fever's getting worse," Diego replied morosely. "The doctor says her wound is getting septic." He closed his eyes as the rest of the physician's prognosis refused to leave his lips. He had told Diego and Maria that unless Victoria's fever broke, she wouldn't live for much longer.
"Excuse me," said Zafira, rising from her chair. "I'm going for a ride." She walked over and kissed Don Alejandro on the cheek, then tossed Diego an baleful look. "I'll be back for dinner. If anyone cares."
She spun around then went down the hallway to her room. "I hope Maria forgives us," Diego said, eyeing the uneaten food on the table. Then he glanced up at the elder de la Vega. "Father, promise me that you won't confront Bishop," he said earnestly.
The old don shook his head. "I don't know if I can do that, son," he replied. "His mere presence in the pueblo is an affront to my friend's memory.
"But this Bishop has already shot Victoria and killed Don Carlos," Diego pointed out uneasily. "I don't want you to be his next victim."
"I can handle myself just fine, thank you," declared the old don arrogantly. "Your confidence in me is overwhelming, Diego," he added sarcastically.
He walked out of the room, passing Felipe on his way in. The youth look questioningly at Diego then made the gesture they used for Victoria.
"She's getting worse, Felipe," said Diego. He pounded his fists on the table, rattling the silverware and glasses. "I feel so hopeless. . .and guilty. It might as well have been Zorro who pulled the trigger. It's my fault that she's dying."
He jumped to his feet. "I can't do it anymore, Felipe," he declared. "I can't let anymore innocent people suffer because of Zorro." He glanced away from the lad's apprehensive face. "I've already thrown my mask into the fire. I'm putting an end to this reckless masquerade I never should have started in the first place."
Felipe grabbed at Diego's arm before he could leave the room. The expression on the young man's face was pleading for Diego to change his mind. He shook his head. "I can't do it anymore," he reiterated. "Excuse me, I have to go check on Victoria."
Diego walked away from the stunned youth,
making his way back to the guest room where the love of his life lay dying.
Z Z Z
Diego had meant to keep the promise he had made that Zorro was history. But two things changed his mind. The first incident was Victoria waking from her coma. Her fever was gone and her bullet wound had started to heal nicely. And she had convinced him that the people needed Zorro. That the weak and the poor had no other defender but the masked man.
Don Alejandro rashly challenging Bishop to a duel, however, had been the pièce de résistance. Diego had to intervene and the only way he could was by donning his black silk mask once more.
He smiled satisfactorily as he waited in the shadows of the hacienda's courtyard as he recalled his fight with Bishop. He had soundly beaten the other man, forcing him to leave the pueblo by threatening to kill the gambler if he ever set foot inside it again. A vow he knew he would have no trouble carrying out.
[almost all of the following scene was taken from "Broken Heart, Broken Mask" written by Eugene Pressman]
His reminiscing was interrupted by the squeaking hinges of a door being opened nearby. He had known she would come out here. And he had been right. She strolled out into the dark courtyard, unaware that her every movement was being observed.
She put her hand on one of the poles supporting the awning and twirled around it, a joyful smile on her lovely face. The hoot of an owl paused her spinning as she looked skyward. Still smiling, she walked over to another post and leaned her back against it. Snapping open her fan, she began to wave it, stirring the warm night air.
He breathed deeply as her scent came wafting in his direction. She didn't smell of spices and peppers tonight, but of roses. She must have bathed in perfumed water earlier that evening, he surmised. Then he groaned inwardly as he thought of her sitting in a steaming tub of water, her bare skin glistening in the candlelight.
Suddenly she spun around and their eyes met. "Señor Zorro?" she asked, her expression one of great happiness.
He glanced over at the open door leading into the courtyard before taking several steps toward her. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, possibly the most dangerous thing he had ever done. But he owed her this visit from her masked hero. She had saved his life and it had nearly cost her own.
"You look lovelier than ever," he whispered huskily. He placed his bare hand against her soft cheek, unable to restrain himself from touching her.
She smiled up at him, her eyes radiant. "Thank you," she replied, "I am feeling much better."
Feeling her smooth skin under his fingertips, he nearly lost his resolve. No, he told himself sternly, you can't have her. She can never be yours.
"I've been thinking," he said quietly. "You should have a husband."
It was like a knife twisting in his gut as she raised her face to his, the obvious expectation that he was about to propose to her shining in her dark eyes. This was going to hurt him just as much as it would her. But this charade had to end. She had almost died because of it.
"Someone who will be good to you," he suggested. "Someone who will appreciate you. Someone who will give. . ." His voice trailed off as he noticed her crestfallen expression as she realized he wasn't talking about himself.
"I thought. . ." she began, the disappointment and pain unmistakable in her voice and in her eyes as she stared up at him. "I thought we shared certain feelings."
"We do," he murmured, unable to lie to her anymore. "More than you'll ever know."
They stared intently at each other for several moments before she opened her mouth, intending to say something. But then with a little shake of her head, she reached up and kissed his lips instead.
A current of desire shot through his entire body. Without any thought of resisting, he greedily kissed her in return. His manhood began to swell as he placed his hands on her back and drew her closer, pressing her soft body to his. He could feel the hardened buds of her breasts rubbing up against his chest. She offered no opposition as he darted his tongue between her lips but met it with her own, causing his erection to grow even firmer.
The sound of his father's voice shattered the spell that ensnared her deeper and deeper into his soul and they broke apart. For a split second, he forgot where he was, who he was with, and who he was pretending to be; and the words, ‘Yes, Father' almost slipped from his lips.
He looked into her eyes and saw that she had been as deeply affected by the kiss as he had been. He had known it would be like this between them, this passion, this sense of completeness. And for once, he hated being right. Stroking her hair and face, he tried to reassure her, tried to put into actions what he could never put into words.
"I must go," he pleaded, almost more to himself than to her. "I must go."
He left her then, before he was drawn into the temptation of kissing her again. As he dashed away, he took off his hat and pulled off his mask with one hand while attempting to unbuckle his belt with the other. The mask flew out of his hand and fluttered over to the courtyard wall where it came to rest on some flowering vines.
He would just have to come back and retrieve it later, he told himself as he ran around the corner of the hacienda and to the waiting open window of his bedroom. He unbuttoned his shirt as he cautiously peered over the sill, his green eyes sweeping the chamber.
He climbed through the portal and hurried over to his bed. Shoving his hat and sword belt under the mattress, he quickly divested himself of the rest of his clothing, which joined the other parts of his costume in their hiding place.
Lifting the blankets, he slid under them.
And up against the naked body of his wife.
Z Z Z
"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX