"REPENT AT LEISURE"
He had only meant to damage the cannon beyond repair so that de Soto would never ever be able to use it against the citizens of Los Angeles. He never thought his tinkering would have resulted in anyone's death. In fact, Zorro had been positive that it wouldn't.
Obviously something must have gone wrong. He stared down helplessly from his perch in the church's campana as Victoria clutched at his father's arms.
Dear Lord, he had made her a widow on her wedding day. A day that was supposed to be the happiest of her life. He had turned it into what would have been anyone's worst nightmare. He couldn't even blame this tragedy on the Alcalde. Zorro had known that de Soto wouldn't have let something as trivial a wedding stop him from trying to kill his archenemy.
Zorro tipped his head into his gloved hands as guilt wracked his entire being. He already couldn't face Victoria after the incident in his bedroom. How on earth was he going to pretend to be Don Diego de la Vega, her good old family friend, now that he was responsible for her husband's death?
He remained atop the church until he heard the commotion in the plaza quiet down to a low rumble. Then he remembered the wagon filled with the rest of the diabolical cannonballs he planned to destroy.
It was several minutes later when a second blast echoed through the plaza. But this time, the debris landed a safe distance away from any innocent bystanders.
Zorro leapt onto Toronado's back and galloped away from the pueblo. He was glad he had instructed Felipe to tell everyone that Diego had gone to Santa Paula for the day. He didn't think he could face anyone just yet.
But that hope was quickly dashed as he and the Andalusian emerged from the tunnel into the main body of the secret cave. Felipe was there, tense with anxiety.
"What?" the masked man demanded more harshly than he would have under normal circumstances. "What's the matter now?"
The young man launched into a fast paced series of gestures, the gist of which informed Zorro that Victoria was getting married that day.
"I know," he replied, his heart filled with sorrow and regret. "I got to the church in time to see it for myself."
He turned his back on the youth and began to strip out of his sweaty and dirty black clothing. He groaned in anguish at the thought of what he had done. Reaching out and grabbing the clothes rack, he bent over and exhaled deeply, trying not to retch.
The light touch of a hand on his shoulder caused him to spin around. He noted absently that Felipe flinched backward a couple of steps before signing the question Diego could already see on his face.
"What happened?" he interpreted bitingly. "Oh, nothing really. Victoria married Lieutenant Ortiz." He clenched his fists by his sides. "And then I killed him."
Felipe stared at him, his expressive brown eyes wide with horror and disbelief. Then he shook his head and gestured another question.
"How?" Diego felt the bile rising in his throat again. "By tinkering with the Alcalde's cannon," he snapped. "Ortiz was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and got hit by pieces of it when it blew apart."
He had to look away as the young man used his hands to explain that it wasn't his fault. He knew without reservation that he was the one to blame. Sensing that Felipe wasn't going to leave him alone, he swiftly changed his clothing and headed toward the exit that led to the library fireplace.
Sighing with relief that the hacienda was devoid of any signs of his father and Zafira's return, Diego made his way toward his room. He knew he was being a coward but he just couldn't face anyone else at the moment.
Grimacing with impatience, Diego turned around. The sight of Señora Batido, Isabella's niñera, immediately suspended his annoyance at being intercepted.
"Isabella? Is she all right?" he inquired of the plump little woman.
"Come, por favor, Patrón," she said earnestly. "There is something you must see."
Diego's heart was in his throat as he followed the nanny to the nursery. All sorts of horrible and disturbing images jumbled through his mind.
A quick glance around the sunny little room put his fears to rest as he saw his daughter in her crib, smiling happily. Her first birthday had been two weeks earlier. Diego couldn't help grinning as he recalled how excited she had been with her presents, showing more interest in the wrappings than the gifts inside.
He watched as the niñera lifted Isabella out of the barred-sided bed and placed her on the floor. The little girl had just learned to stand by herself a few days before. Diego looked at the señora, confused by why she would be so insistent he observe the new skill once again.
Then Isabella took a step toward him, then another before plopping down on her padded bottom. She stood herself back up and stepped again, raising her arms.
"Papa, up," she demanded imperiously. "Pick up."
Diego scooped her up into his arms and hugged her tight. "So, Princesa," he said, "you've learned to walk."
"Wat," she replied, looking up at him with a smile that dimpled both of her cheeks. Her light brown hair was a riot of curls and her innocent eyes, which had been blue at birth but were now violet, stared at him proudly. She looked so much like her mother, except for her curly hair and her eyes.
"Si, walk," he agreed before tightening his embrace. He prayed that he would always be able to keep her safe. To keep her away from the evil ways of the world. He imagined that Victoria's father had once made a similar vow, one that he had been unable to fulfill. His stomach churned at the reminder of what he had done to her that day.
Diego heard a commotion coming from the front of the hacienda. He handed Isabella back to her nurse, then walked out of the nursery and down the hallway to see what was going on.
He emerged into the foyer at the same time his father, Zafira, and. . . Dios mio, Victoria, walked through the front door. He could only stare at her, taking in her torn and blood-stained wedding dress and the look. . . Dios, the look in her eyes. He had never before seen such an expression of devastation on her face. And knowing he was the cause of it had a surge of self-loathing sweeping over him.
"Diego, what are you doing here?" asked Don Alejandro, his voice cutting through the haze of misery that surrounded him. "Felipe said you went to Santa Paula."
Gulping nervously, Diego panicked for a moment before turning his regard to the elder de la Vega and regaining what was left of his wits. "I was going to," he began slowly, trying to quickly come up with an appropriate falsehood, "but. . .but the bridge was washed out."
"The bridge was washed out?" echoed the old don incredulously as Diego grimaced. He knew what the other man was thinking, that it hadn't rained for over a month.
"Yes, uh, there was a freak thunderstorm," he explained. "Caused a flash flood. Wiped the bridge right out." He waved his hands as if the gesture would give credence to the lie he was telling.
Don Alejandro looked at him skeptically. Diego realized that neither his father nor his wife were going to explain Victoria's bedraggled presence. They were waiting for his supposed ignorance of the afternoon's events to question the innkeeper's appearance.
Sighing heavily, he turned to Victoria. "Señorita," he said in an astonished tone, "what happened? Are you all right?" He indicated her crimson-stained white dress.
"Oh, Diego," said the elder de la Vega at the same time Zafira replied, "She's fine, Diego."
He shot a glance at his wife. Zafira was standing next to Victoria with an unreadable look on her face. "I can hardly believe that she's. . ." he began to scold his spouse.
"Don Alejandro," said Victoria in a quiet voice, "I-I would like to lie down, por favor."
The old don was instantly solicitous. "Of course, of course, my dear," he said. He extended his hand and place it on her elbow. "This way."
He started to lead her down the hallway, Diego, putting on a mask of bewilderment, turned to face his wife.
Before Zafira even had a chance to open her mouth, his father walked up beside them and sighed wearily before relating the events of the afternoon. The tale of woe, told from the old don's point of view, seemed unreal to Diego. It lacked the accusations and the anger against Zorro that he had expected. There was only the usual fury directed toward de Soto and his evil weapon.
"She's going to stay with us until she's recovered from the shock," his father pronounced as he finished the unpleasant story.
"Of course," murmured Diego distractedly
"Poor thing, she's a widow now," Zafira said. Diego thought he heard a touch of wistfulness in her voice. A voice that also belied the sympathetic nature of her words. "Well, if no one objects, I'm going for a ride." Not waiting for a response, she walked to her bedroom and went inside.
Diego and Don Alejandro were left staring at each other in the hallway. "This is just terrible," said the old don, slumping his shoulders wearily. "At least Zorro put that cannon out of commission."
"But if he hadn't touched it in the first place," Diego began, "Lieutenant Ortiz would still be alive."
"Son, Zorro saved us all from utter destruction," stated the elder de la Vega firmly. "Ortiz chose his own fate when he decided to side with de Soto."
Diego was stunned to hear the contempt in his father's voice toward Victoria's erstwhile husband. "But surely no one deserves to die, especially so horribly, and on their wedding day," he commented, the last few words nearly sticking in his throat.
"No, of course not," Don Alejandro quickly agreed. "It still doesn't change the facts. He shouldn't have got involved. He should have taken Victoria and left on their honeymoon instead of trying to arrest Zorro."
Shaking his head in a vain attempt to quell the waves of nausea from his body, Diego then glanced down the hall toward the room where Victoria was no doubt sobbing her heart out. "Do you think she'll ever get over it?" he asked.
The old don shrugged. "Perhaps," he answered thoughtfully. "I don't think she was in love with him. I think she is still in love with Zorro. I think what she's feeling right now isn't grief but guilt." He nodded his head at her door. "I think that's even going to be harder to live with."
He turned and walked away, leaving Diego standing in the hall, very taken aback. His father's words, though harsh, still had a ring of truth to them.
Diego sighed then started back toward the
nursery. It was a sorry statement, he thought as he walked, that
his small daughter was the only lifeline he had to keep from drowning in
the miserable mire that had become his life.
Z Z Z
Diego was up early the next morning, hoping to escape the hacienda before anyone else awoke. But as soon as he stepped out of his bedroom, a door opened down the hallway and Victoria walked out of the guest room. He was surprised to see that she was dressed in a clean skirt and blouse, then guessed that someone had bought her a change of clothing since she had arrived at the hacienda.
"Victoria. . ." he began, not really knowing what he wanted to say. He could hardly apologize for killing her husband but still, he wanted her to know how truly remorseful he was. "I'm so sorry. I. . ."
"Thank you, Don Diego," she cut in as he hesitated. She glanced up at him then looked downward. "If you will excuse me."
With a swirl of her dark green skirt, she turned away from him. Diego impulsively reached out and put his hand on her arm. "Where are you going?" he asked, trying futilely to ignore the frisson of desire that occurred when he touched her.
Victoria stared up at him with troubled brown eyes. "Back to the tavern," she replied in a voice he could tell was full of false confidence. "Please thank your father for his kindness for letting me to stay here last night," she requested, lowering her gaze to the floor.
"But. . . But. . ." Diego could only sputter stupidly.
"Por favor," she whispered sadly. "Don't make this harder than it already is, Diego." She pulled her forearm out from under his grasp and turned her back to him.
"I just need to know that you'll be all right," he stated sincerely. "Victoria, I. . ."
"Don't," she interrupted. "I'll be fine." With that, she fled.
Diego listened miserably as the front door opened then clicked back shut. His father had been right. He had not seen sorrow nor heartache in Victoria's eyes. He had seen guilt. A guilt that matched his own.
"Is she gone?"
Zafira's discordant voice stirred him from his wretched thoughts. He turned to stare at his wife, who was dressed in her burgundy riding habit.
"Where are you going so early?" he asked, surprised by his harsh tone.
"Out riding," replied Zafira defiantly. "Like I do every morning."
Diego stepped aside so she could pass by him. He noted then how pale she looked. The habit hung loosely on her thin frame and under her eyes were dark smudges.
"Zafira," he said, walking up behind her. She paused and spun around to face him. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Never better," she said brightly as she smiled up at him. "Adios, Diego." She turned and continued on her way out of the hacienda.
Diego had the distinct impression that he
had just been lied to by not one, but by both women.
Z Z Z
"CADENAS DE AMOR" - CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE