Tiptoeing as he backed out of the room, Diego then quietly closed the door.  Madre de Dios!  Of all the scenarios he had conjured up to explain his father's absence. . .  Well, what he had just witnessed certainly never even crossed his mind.

    He leaned against the wall outside the bedroom, trying to reason with himself.  His father was a grown man.  A widower whose wife had died over fifteen years earlier.  He was betraying no one, he was breaking no vows.  The Bible and the Church would say that such behavior was wrong.   But Diego had long believed that it was rather idealistic to expect men and women to only engage in sexual activity within the holy bonds of matrimony.

    But it still hurt.  Tears came unbidden to his eyes as he recalled his mother.  She had been so beautiful and so loving.  It had torn his heart out when she had died when he was twelve.  And Diego remembered his father's grief at her passing, so unlike his own demeanor since Zafira's death.

     Diego struggled to push aside his selfish thoughts and tried to be happy for his father.  It wasn't as though Mercedes was some stray woman the elder de la Vega had taken to his bed.  She had been his first love and probably the woman he had lost his virginity to, giving hers in return.  By rights, they should have been married long ago.

    But then, he, Diego de la Vega, in his current reincarnation, wouldn't have existed, he mused philosophically.  But then, maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing as he contemplated his wretched existence.

     Shaking his head and sighing, Diego walked away from the bedroom door.  He would just have to talk to his father tomorrow when he returned home from Santa Paula.
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     Diego was on his way back home to Los Angeles, thinking not of the successful time he had had at the auction, buying several head of prime cattle.   Behind him, two of the de la Vegas's vaqueros were herding the new acquisitions home.

      Instead he was contemplating what to say to his father about his revived relationship with his lost love.  He had agonized for at least the past five miles whether to mention what he had inadvertently stumbled upon the previous morning.

     He was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't notice a rider coming toward him on the road, pushing his mount as if the hounds of hell were after him until the other man was almost upon him.

    "Felipe?" he queried, instantly recognizing the youth as they both reined their horses to a halt.  The lad began gesturing wildly.

     "Calm down," Diego said patiently.  "What's happened?"

     He knew that it wasn't good news.  Something very bad must have occurred for Felipe to have ridden out in search of him.

     The young man began telling his story, via hand signals, of how he had been eavesdropping outside the cuartel jail, where the Alcalde was holding a man named Antonio Villero who had come to the pueblo the day before and who had fought with Sergeant Mendoza and several lancers at the tavern.

     "Wait," Diego cut in, "Villero?"

     Felipe nodded, going on to explain that this Villero was claiming to be Mercedes' husband.  And that de Soto was deliberately provoking the man, stirring him up against Don Alejandro and the señora.  The youth finished with the threats of murder Villero swore against the elder de la Vega and the woman he said was his wife.

     "We'd better hurry," urged Diego grimly.  After barking hurried instructions to the vaqueros, he nudged his mare's sides and took off at a gallop.  Felipe spun his horse around and followed.

     Diego knew as the scenery went flying past, that de Soto would let this Villero escape in the hope that the man would carry out his vow to kill his father and Mercedes.  It sounded so Machiavellian; to get someone else to take care of one's enemy and do it so that the blame would be placed on the hapless bastard instead of oneself.

     As soon as they reached the back entrance to the cave, Diego jumped off his mount, hopped onto the trigger that opened the hidden opening.  Once inside, he quickly stripped of his dusty clothing and donned his black costume.

    He had just finished tying his mask and was placing his hat upon his silk covered head when he heard a gunshot from inside the hacienda then a woman's scream.

    Oh, Dios mio!  He prayed as he ran up of the short flight of steps and into the passageway that led to the library fireplace.  Figuring that no one would notice him emerging from the swinging panel, he tugged on the wall sconce then duck down then out into the library.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

[parts of the following scene taken from "A Love Remembered" written by Gary Stephen Rieck & Joe Gunn]

     Padre Benitez followed a procession of altar boys down a hillside where a wagon and driver waited.  A few of the townspeople trailed behind the priest.

     Another funeral, Diego thought bitterly.  There had been entirely too many of them in the passing months.  Guiltily, he had to admit, he felt more sorrow attending this one than any of the others, including his wife's.
     He glanced down at the freshly turned dirt mounded at his feet.  Mercedes Sanchez Villero laid buried underneath, along, Diego feared, with a piece of his father's heart.  The elder de la Vega had insisted that she be laid to rest on her family's land, in the midst of the flower-filled meadow.  It was the last place she had been happy, he had said.

     Diego had unsuccessfully tried to blot out the horrifying images of the señora's death.  His father cradling the dying Mercedes in his arms, the front of her pale yellow dress marred by a growing crimson stain.  A man, her estranged husband, standing over them with a smoking pistol in his hand.

     It had been eerily reminiscent of the night Zafira had been shot.  The only difference was that it was the unloved husband who had been the killer while the old lover had been the one holding the unfaithful wife as she died in his arms.  Mercedes had stepped out in front of his father; as Zafira had stepped out in front of Diego; as the trigger had been pulled.  The fact that Villero's murderous presence had been set up by de Soto, and all because of a horse, made Diego's stomach churn.

    He watched as the old don crouched down and set the bouquet of spring flowers he had been holding against the white wooden cross at the head of the grave.  "Mercedita, I'm giving your property away," he stated solemnly.  "To the people of Los Angeles, so that everyone can enjoy it and share in your dream."

     Victoria placed the blossoms she was clutching down next to Don Alejandro's.  He stood back up and took the innkeeper's hand.

    "Thank you for coming, Victoria," he said.  "I appreciate it."

     She nodded.  "I didn't know the señora," she explained.  "But I just wanted to be here for you."

     "Gracias, my dear."  The elder de la Vega started to lead Victoria down the gentle slope to where their mounts and her cart and horse waited.  Diego turned and rested his hand on the shoulder of the young man standing next to him.  Thank God for Felipe, he reflected, for if it hadn't been for him, there would have been not only Mercedes' but his father's funeral to attend as well.

     Diego and Felipe made their way down the gentle slope behind the others.  His father had placed a parental hand on Victoria's back as the two of them walked on ahead. It's like we're a family, Diego realized suddenly.  A very close-knit family who laughed together and cried together, as they were doing that day.

      Victoria's black skirt swished from side to side as she went, giving Diego glimpses of her trim ankles.  With an inward groan, he vainly tried to tamp down his growing and wholly inappropriate desire.  She still had two months, three weeks, and six. . .no, five days left of her mourning.  Not that he was counting or anything.  Not that it mattered as he had nearly nine months of it left himself.

     But, he thought as he watched the elder de la Vega assist the lovely innkeeper into the seat of her cart, that didn't mean he couldn't begin to ingratiate himself into her life.  To let her know he was interested in her.  And to be truthful, he couldn't bear to idly sit back and painfully observe other men as they attempted to court her.  And he might as well start now.

     "Victoria, wait," Diego called out as she prepared to drive away.  She stopped the reins in mid-flick and turned her curious eyes to him.  He ran the last couple of steps as he came up beside her.

    "Yes, Diego?"

    "I was wondering if you could come back to the hacienda with us?" he asked as casually as he could.

    Victoria looked down at her hands and Diego noticed that her grip on the reins tightened.  "Why?" she glanced up at him, a bit of a challenge in her voice.

     "I think my father could use your company," he replied.  He smiled wryly.  "You're a good influence on him."  He moved closer and put his hand on the seat next to her dark skirt.  "This has hit him hard and I'm worried," he confided.

     "Me, too," the lovely innkeeper agreed.  "It's so tragic, especially coming so soon after Doña Zafira."

     "Indeed."  She had no idea that he was more affected by Mercedes's passing, that he felt more grief for a woman he'd really only known for a week than for the woman he had been married to for five years.  A woman who everyone thought had given him a daughter.

     "And, um, Isabella was asking about you just the other day," he said, not totally untruthfully as he noticed the indecision yet in Victoria's eyes.  The toddler had been talking about ‘the lady at the circus' in recent weeks.  Diego could only assume she meant Victoria.

    A wistful expression flickered on the woman in question's face for a brief moment.  "I'll come," she said with a nod.

     "Good," Diego said.  He gazed up at her, his heart filling with a longing so intense it pained him. He realized that she was staring back at him, a quizzical expression on her face. "I'll see you at the hacienda then," he reminded her as he averted his eyes, hoping she hadn't been able to see what he had been thinking.

     He stepped back, allowing her to drive away, feeling a bit ashamed for using his daughter as a lure to entice the beautiful innkeeper into considering him as a suitor.  But, he mused, all's fair in love and war.  Diego, unable to quite hide a mischievous grin, ambled over to where Don Alejandro and Felipe waited astride their mounts.
                                                   Z                                                   Z                                                   Z

     The next six months flew by in a flurry of activity.  Zorro had been kept very busy, for which Diego was grateful as he had less time to dwell on the tragedies that had befallen the de la Vegas.

     There had been the usual banditos, of course; along with a crooked election, bad-tempered bigoted government officials, and one very determined female bounty hunter who had been determined to claim the reward on the masked man's head.

     Then there had been the death of Pablo Saragosa.  He had been the leader of a band of cutthroats who had tried to lay siege to the pueblo de Los Angeles.  Everyone said that it wasn't Zorro's fault that the man had fallen on his own knife, but Diego knew better.  If the man in black hadn't been so arrogant, maybe the man would still be alive, although realistically, Saragosa had been destined for the gallows anyway.

     And through it all, he had managed to surreptitiously court Victoria as himself while his masked alter ego had deliberately avoided her.   It would have too suspicious, too incriminating, for Zorro to suddenly resume his flirtations with the beautiful widowed innkeeper.  To abruptly become free to pursue her again after all of his protestations to the contrary at the same time that Diego himself had been released from his wedding vows. . .

    Shaking his head, he packed some dried beef and a few apples into his saddlebags.  It was early morning, the sun barely peeking over the eastern horizon.  He was going to Santa Paula to speak with a emissary of King Ferdinand who was staying there.  His father had learned that the man had no intentions of traveling to Los Angeles so had decided to take the bull by the horns.

     Unfortunately, Don Alejandro had fallen off his horse and had cracked two ribs two days previous.  Diego wasn't sure why the old don had tried to jump a fence unless it was to prove that he was as strong as ever.  He had worried about the elder de la Vega since Mercedes had been killed.  His behavior had become more reckless and his impulsive nature had only increased.

    Diego had volunteered to go speak with the magistrate, even though he was concerned for his father's well being.  Yawning, he slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and walked down the hallway to the nursery.

     "Papa!"  Isabella sat on her bed, looking at a picture book.  "Look!"  She hopped down and rushed over to him, pointing a chubby finger at one of the pages.  "A fox."

     Grinning, Diego glanced at the drawing of a red, bushy-tailed animal.  "Si, un zorro," he responded.  He crouched down and put his arms around the nightgown-clad little girl.  "Bella," he said, using the name she had dubbed herself, "I have to go to Santa Paula today.  But I'll be back tonight before you go to bed."

    "Promise?" asked his daughter, gazing up at him with her trusting violet eyes.

   "Promise," Diego vowed.  "You be a good girl for Nana," he added, using the name Isabella had dubbed  her niñera.  The two and a half year old child was a dominant force in the de la Vega hacienda and there were many times Diego knew she should be punished for her antics.  But he just didn't have the heart to do it.

     She had surprisingly few effects from witnessing her mother's violent death.  Loud noises, especially sharp banging ones, still startled her to tears.  For a month or two, she had had a few restless nights.  And she had an aversion to curly-haired men.  Men who also reminded Diego of Joaquin Correna.

    "I will, Papa."  She squirmed in his embrace as he kissed her cheek.

     "Te quiero," he said as he released her and stood back up.

     Isabella looked up at him with adoring eyes.  "Te quiero, Papa."

[parts of the following scene taken from "One Special Night" written by Gary Stephen Rieck]

     Diego left the nursery after saying goodbye and strode toward the front door, his saddlebags slung over his left shoulder.  He took a deep breath as he stepped out into the cool morning air where Felipe stood waiting at the gate, holding the reins of a golden brown mare.

     "I feel better about leaving knowing the Alcalde's away," he said to the youth.

     The young man drew a ‘Z' in the air with his index finger then grinned.  Diego chuckled.  "He feels better about it too."  He came up to the gate and took Esperanza's reins.  "I should be back tonight," he declared.  "Keep an eye on Father for me.  Make sure he stays in bed.  His ribs need time to heal."

    Felipe nodded readily.  Diego patted him on the arm then turned to his horse.  While in Santa Paula, he hoped to pay a visit to the de la Vegas' lawyer, to set into motion the process of adopting Felipe.  He had no idea how long or what it would take to make the orphaned youth his legal son.  He hadn't mentioned it either Felipe or his father.  No sense in raising their expectations until he knew if it was even possible.

     He started to lift his left foot in the stirrup but paused as he heard the jingling of tack and the low rumble of wagon wheels.  Spinning around, he watched as Victoria brought her horse and cart to a halt a few meters away.

    "Señora, good morning," he greeted her pleasantly, his tone belying the trepidation her unexpected appearance stirred up inside him.  He was wondering what had brought her out so early when it suddenly dawned on him why she was there.

     His suspicions were confirmed as Victoria climbed down from the cart and raised her eyes at him defiantly. She intended to make the trip to Santa Paula with him.

     Diego didn't know which was worse, the fact that she thought he needed her help in speaking with the emissary; or that he would spend most of the day essentially alone with her.

     He didn't know if he was up to such a perilous task.  But, he surmised fatalistically, he was about to find out.
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