Victoria's mouth dropped opened in shock.  Glancing at his face, she could see that he was quite serious.  It took her a few moments to gather her thoughts.

     "Diego," she finally uttered.  "You cannot possibly mean. . ."

     "I do, Victoria," he declared fervently.  "As my wife, no one would dare disrespect you.  You would be a de la Vega."  He squeezed her small hands before he continued.  "I lo. . .  I do care deeply for you and I know you care for me as well.  Successful marriages have been based on far less than the friendship we share."

     "You are my dearest friend, that is true," she replied.  "But Diego, we both are in love with other people.  It would. . ."

     He interrupted her.  "My affections are no longer otherwise engaged," he lied.  "I found out that she only told me she was in love with another man to dissuade my courtship.  She was never interested in anything other than my friendship."  At least that last sentence was true, he thought morosely.  "And I know you love Zorro, Victoria.  But I think it will be a long time before he will marry you.  Look how long it has been already."

     "But Diego, you don't understand," she asserted.  "He has promised to marry me.  I know he will someday. . ."

     "But can you afford to wait for ‘someday'?" he asked earnestly.  "I will marry you now.  Please, Victoria, consider my offer."  He pressed her hands again, staring at her pleadingly.

     Victoria looked away, deep in thought.  She remembered back to when Zorro had proposed to her.

            "Will you marry me?" he had asked, holding out the ring he said belonged to his mother.

            "Marry you?" Victoria repeated in surprise.

            Zorro nodded, an excited yet nervous smile on his face.  "Uh huh."

            "Now who's proposing, the man or the legend?" she had asked coyly

            "The man," he replied.  "What is your answer?"

            "Yes," Victoria said with a smile.  "Absolutely and definitely yes."

            Zorro put the emerald and diamond ring on her finger and they embraced. *

     * scene from "An Affair To Remember" written by Gary Stephen Rieck

      It had been so long ago.  And so far, he had been unable or unwilling to keep his promise.  It also was strange he had not heard of her dilemma.  It had been over two weeks.  Usually he possessed a special sense whenever she was in trouble and came to her rescue.

     Victoria then gazed at the man before her.  Something, could it possibly be love, flowed through her.  He was a good man; handsome and wealthy too, but those things didn't matter to her.  And it was true, the de la Vegas would protect her honor with their lives if necessary.  She really didn't want to leave Los Angeles, she had lived here all her life.

     She looked at Diego again.  There was something in those green eyes she had been noticing lately.  She thought it was appreciation for her help when Felipe was in jail, but now it seemed like so much more.   Diego was right.  She could wait forever for Zorro to actually marry her.  She was already twenty-six years old.  She wanted children before it was too late.   There were worse things she could do than to marry her best friend.  Hopefully the passion would come later, she thought with a sigh.

     Making up her mind, she wanted to know one more thing.  "What would I do with the tavern?' she asked.  The question had become sort of a test of her would-be suitors.

     "The tavern?"  Diego was genuinely surprised by her query.  "What about it?  It would be up to you whether you want to keep running it or sell out.  Whatever you wish to do would be fine with me."  He tightened his grip on her hands again.  "Please, Victoria, what is your answer?" he inquired gently, feeling she was capitulating.  "Shall we go to the padre and have him post our wedding banns?"

     Victoria took a deep breath and gazed straight into his eyes.  He had answered the question correctly.  "Si, Diego," she agreed.  "I will marry you."
                                                            Z                                                           Z                                                       Z

      They went straight to the church where the astonished Padre Benitez agreed to post the banns immediately.  He had also heard the rumors concerning Victoria and the masked man.  He did not believe them but even if they were true, he could hardly blame them for not waiting until they were wed.  Who knew when that would be?  Of course it would have been better if they had not forestalled their vows.

     And now she was planning to marry Diego de la Vega.  At first the priest thought it was because of the gossip.  Then he looked into their eyes and saw the deep affection that they had for each other.  He felt good about blessing this union.  They could be truly happy if Victoria could only forget about Zorro.

     The Alcalde was taking his time plotting his schemes that he hoped would bring that masked outlaw to justice.  Failure was not an option this time.  No, this needed to be a carefully laid trap, something foolproof; for he was surrounded by fools; something that would land Zorro in his clutches with no avenue of escape. He had several plans he was working on which no one was allowed to see, not even Mendoza.

     He did not realize that the gregarious sergeant had spilled the beans about the governor's edict at the  impromptu engagement party the stunned Don Alejandro threw after he heard the news that Diego and Victoria were to wed.  It was no fake betrothal this time, they were actually going to marry.  The old don had suspected something was going on between the two of them and he had been right.  He beamed happily as he thought:  Grandchildren.

     The celebration was held at the tavern, which was busier than it had been in weeks.  The de la Vegas were sitting with Mendoza and the Ortegas when the soldier revealed his news.

     "So the Alcalde has less that three months to get Zorro behind bars," mused Diego with a smile.  "Just how is he going to accomplish that?"

     "Oh, he has all sorts of ideas," the sergeant revealed between bites of his tamales. "But he is keeping them a big secret."  Mendoza leaned in closer before he confided, "He has become absolutely obsessed with capturing Zorro, if you ask me."

     "Much like his predecessor," declared Don Alejandro, "and look where it got him."

     "Yes," agreed Diego, hiding the remorse he felt whenever he thought of Ramón's death.  It was true the man had brought it upon himself, but that did not stop Diego from thinking he could have done more to prevent it.

     Now that the masked man had been forewarned, he became even more unpredictable.  He still patrolled the countryside, chasing after bandits, rustlers and the like.  Zorro deposited those he caught at the outskirts of the pueblo, tied to their horses and marked with a ‘Z'.  He dared not risk meeting up with either de Soto or Victoria.  Especially the beautiful señorita, now that her wedding day was rapidly approaching.

     Diego, however, spent a lot of time with his bride-to-be.  He was extremely concerned she would have a change of heart and call off their nuptials.  The rumor about town was that theirs was a marriage of convenience, that they were marrying just to salvage the innkeeper's reputation.  Diego did nothing to dispel that notion.

     Victoria had sent letters to both of her brothers, informing them of the upcoming wedding.  "I'm not sure they will receive them in time," she fretted one afternoon at the tavern.  She looked anxiously at Diego, who was leaning against the bar.  "I do so want them to be here."

     "Don't worry, Victoria," he reassured her.  "My father is quite willing to give you away if they can't make it."

     "I know, Diego," she replied.  She glanced at him again, seeing the uneasiness in his eyes for the first time.  She reached over and grasped his hand.  "I'm not going to change my mind, Diego.  It won't be like when I almost married Juan," she told him, trying to allay his fears.  "I know what I am doing this time."

     He saw that she was sincere but there was still a little wistfulness in her voice.  He imagined she was severely troubled by what she had to consider Zorro's abandonment.  He had not yet decided if he was going to disclose his double life to her once they wed.  Would she feel hurt and betrayed beyond forgiveness by his masquerade?  Dios, he hoped not.  But she was going to need to learn of it sometime.

     Would sooner be better than later?  He wished he could be sure of the answer.  Their future happiness together depended on it.
                                                             Z                                                               Z                                                               Z


     The day before the wedding, the San Diego stagecoach pulled into the plaza a little after noon.  Two young men quickly hopped out as soon as the vehicle had shuddered to a stop.  They headed straight for the tavern.  Business there had improved somewhat, but many still stayed away.  The pair found the person they had come to see quite easily.

     "Victoria!" one of them called out.  She pivoted around to see who had greeted her.  Swiftly discarding the tray she held, she ran to the newcomers and threw her arms about both of them.

     "Francisco!  Ramon!" she cried happily as she kissed their cheeks.  "You both made it."

     "Of course," replied Francisco.  "We wouldn't have missed our baby sister's wedding for anything in the world.  And you are marrying Diego de la Vega, no less."

     "Yes, well," she said demurely, then changed the subject.  "So, tell me all about your latest adventures.  It has been so long since I have seen either of you."  She tucked her hands through their arms and led them to an empty table.

     On the other side of the plaza, Ignacio de Soto sat at his desk, going over the details of plot to capture Zorro.  He looked up in annoyance as Mendoza entered the office.  The sergeant saluted smartly after removing his hat.

     "Excuse me, Sir," he began timidly.  "May I have tomorrow afternoon off?"

     "Tomorrow?" echoed a puzzled Alcalde.  "What's going on tomorrow?"

     "Don Diego and Señorita Victoria's wedding," replied Mendoza.  "Señora Ortega has agreed to allow me to escort her and I. . ."

      "Ah, yes," sneered de Soto, cutting into the soldier's explanation.  "An unlikely couple if there ever was one."  He did not specify which pair he meant, Diego and Victoria or the sergeant and the seamstress.  He sat back in his chair, twirling his letter opener with his fingers.  A wicked smile slowly crept over his face as an idea formed in his perverse little mind.

     "Si, Sergeant," he began, "you may attend the ceremony.  But you will be on official duty.  I want that church surrounded, every door, every window, every crack in its walls.  I will bet anything," he drawled smugly, "that Zorro will put a halt to this wedding, just like he did the last time the señorita tried to marry someone else."

     He chuckled evilly, quite pleased with himself.  This was even better than any of the other schemes he had already come up with.  "Capturing Zorro tomorrow will be like taking candy from a baby," de Soto stated.  He then glared as Mendoza, shaking his finger at the stout soldier.  "Not a word to anyone, Sergeant.  This will be our little secret, heh?"

     The dumbfounded Mendoza merely nodded his head before leaving the office.  The Alcalde remained in his chair a long time, dreaming of the accolades he would be receiving in the near future.
                                                            Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     A tall figure slipped into the confessional inside the mission church.  He knelt, crossed himself then began, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  It has been five weeks since my last confession."  He paused to take a deep breath.

     "Go on, my son," urged Padre Benitez.

     "I am not here so much to confess as to ask for your wise counsel, Padre," the man stated.  "I have been deceiving someone, someone I love very much.  I have a chance to end this deception but by doing so her safety might be at risk."

     "My son, it is wrong to deceive anyone, but especially those we love," advised the padre.

     "I know, but there was no other way," the confessor replied.  "It is for her own protection.  And if I tell her the truth now, I'm not sure she will be able to forgive me."

     "You sound as if her forgiveness is more important than God's."

      "Right now it is.  She is the most important thing in my life.  To lose her now. . ." he hesitated again.  "Should I tell her now, possibly risking her life and her love or should I continue to mislead her, keeping her from harm but again taking the chance she won't forgive me when she does find out.   I could lose her either way."

     The priest closed his eyes.  He just realized who was seeking his guidance.  He had heard their separate confessions before, of course.  But now they had merged into the one person he truly was.  And that man was frightened.

     "My son, look into your heart," Padre Benitez instructed.  "This woman you love, she is a strong person."

    "Si, she is one of the bravest people I know."

     "And does she love you?"

     "Yes and no," was the enigmatic response which only confirmed the clergyman's belief of to whom he was speaking.

     "Tell her the truth.  I know she will forgive you," counseled the priest.  "You're right, she might not at first, but if your love for each other is strong, everything will be all right.  You will see."

     "Gracias, Padre," the man said somewhat dubiously.  "I will think about your advice."

     "Vaya con Dios," the priest said as the confessor crossed himself again then left the confessional.  He shook his head.  "Tell her, Diego.  She should know her husband is Zorro," he whispered to the empty booth.
                                                            Z                                                               Z                                                               Z