They all had supper that night at the tavern, the Escalantes, the de la Vegas, Ana Maria and her mother, and Mendoza.  The sergeant was torn between duty and friendship.  As a soldier, he had to obey his commanding officer, even if he felt the Alcalde was wrong.  And this order to disrupt Don Diego and Victoria's wedding was very wrong.  They were his friends.  He wanted so badly to tell them what de Soto had up his sleeve.  But he did not dare.  So he spent the entire evening shoveling food into his mouth in an effort to keep silent.

     Diego noticed Victoria speaking with Leonora Ortega.   From what little Felipe had told him about Ana Maria's mother, the woman had not had a successful marriage.  Her husband had been killed when Ana Maria was only three and she had not shown any interest in men until she met the good sergeant.  He sincerely hoped she was not filling his bride-to-be's head with horror stories about wedding nights.

     He himself had been having a very interesting conversation with Francisco and Ramon.  "Si, Diego," Francisco said, "fights for independence are springing up all over; Venezuela, Peru, Colombia.  Even right here in Mexico, General Santa Ana is gathering more and more men to his liberation army.  The Viceroy is getting very nervous."

     "General?" queried Diego.  The last he had heard the man was a colonel.  Evidentially he was quickly moving up the ranks.  Diego imagined this Santa Ana was a force to be reckoned with.

     "Si," confirmed Ramon, who glanced sharply at his brother, then over at their sister.  "And he just might add two more recruits to his ranks.  Shh. . ." he admonished as Victoria started to come their way.  "Don't tell Victoria.  We don't want her to worry about us.  You know how she is."

     "I do indeed," Diego replied with a smile that abruptly disappeared when he saw his novia's face.

      She put a hand on his arm.  "Diego, can I talk to you?" she asked beseechingly.  She ignored the teasing grins of her brothers and didn't give Diego a chance to answer as she dragged him toward the kitchen.

     Pilar and Alicia were there cleaning up the remains of the dinner so Victoria led him out the back door.  It was a beautiful night out, the stars sparkling in the midnight blue sky.   The moon was nearly full, shining enough light on the innkeeper's lovely face for Diego to see she was deeply troubled.

     "Diego, something just occurred to me," she began.  More likely a seed planted in her head by Señora  Ortega, he thought unkindly.  She gazed up at him.  "You have never kissed me."

     He closed his eyes.  Oh yes, querida, I have kissed you, he groaned inwardly.  You just didn't know it was me.  He saw that she was waiting expectantly.  For a reply or a kiss, he wondered.

     Diego was very reluctant to comply.  What if she guessed his secret?  He still had not decided whether to reveal it to her or not.  He needed to make up his mind very soon.

     "Please, Diego," she said, sensing his indecision.  She moved closer to him, sliding her hands up the front of his shirt.  "Please, this is important to me."

     "We are going to be married tomorrow," he stated, tensing at her touch while suppressing a wry smile.  She was trying to seduce him.  Dios, he loved this woman.  Clearing his head, he added, "Aren't you afraid it might be bad luck. . ."

     "To kiss the groom before the wedding?" she finished with a laugh.  "No, I'm not.  Please, Diego."  She became serious again.  "I need to know."

     He understood her meaning perfectly.   "Very well, Victoria."  He leaned down, placing a chaste and swift kiss on her beautiful lips.

     Her hand immediately flew up to her mouth.  Dios mio, she thought as she stared at him.  Just that little bit of contact had her tingling.  She smiled invitingly at him to do it again.

     "No," he said quietly.  "You might not think it is bad luck but I do."   The hurt in her eyes made him flinch inside.  There was nothing he would like to do more than take her into his arms and kiss her from head to toe.  But they were going to be married in just over twelve hours.  He would wait until then to let her learn everything.

     Victoria misunderstood his refusal.  Had it not affected him as it had her?  He was a man who kept his feelings and secrets tightly wrapped.  Would he ever be able to share them with her?  She looked into his eyes and again saw worry in them.

     "I'm not going to change my mind, Diego," she reiterated.  Winding her arms around him, she embraced him tightly.

     He was going to tell her, he resolved, hugging her to his chest, but not tonight.  There was only one way she would accept it and that was the way he would have to tell her.
                                                           Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

     Later that evening, after everyone had left, Victoria sat alone in her bedroom.  She had wanted to spend more time with her brothers, but they had shooed her off to bed.  She needed her rest for her big day tomorrow, they said.  She was finding it impossible to sleep though.

     She rose from her bed and went over to her vanity where a beautifully painted and carved chest sat.  It had been a wedding gift from her father to her mother.  Ever since then, it held the Escalante family's few precious heirlooms

     Victoria sat down in her chair and open its lid.  She removed the Bible it contained, then leafed through it until she found the pages where she and her brothers' names had been added to those of their ancestors.  She read her own name, Victoria Maria Elena Escalante.  There was a space beside it in which to record her husband's name and wedding date.  She thought to get a quill to write in Diego's name and the next day's date, but something stilled her hand.  Sighing sadly, she closed the book and set it aside.

      She then took out a small box from the chest.  It opened to reveal a beautiful silver cross necklace, one that had belonged to her grandmother, then her mother.  Now it was hers to pass on to her daughter.

      Nervous butterflies danced in her stomach as she thought of her wedding night.  She wasn't afraid, she knew what would happen.  Gracias, Mama, she thought as she looked upward.  She wanted children.  But still. . .  Diego was not the man she had envisioned in her dreams all these years.

      Firmly pushing those images from her mind, Victoria placed the necklace on her vanity table as she planned to wear it the next day.  She was about to close the chest when another item caught her attention.  She picked up the emerald ring, its green stone surrounded by glittering diamonds.

     It was the ring Zorro had given her when he had proposed.  She stared at it angrily.  Why had he given it to her if he never meant to keep his promise?  It had been five weeks since they had last been together.  She had thought then they were still in love.  Obviously she was wrong.

     She slipped the ring onto her finger as tears filled her eyes.  Why hadn't he come to her aid this time?  Why was he staying away from her?  An idea popped in her head then.  Maybe Zorro wanted her to married Diego.  He had suggested she should a long time ago, after she had been shot by that gambler, Bishop.

     Dios, she was so confused.  Ridiculous as the notion was, why couldn't Zorro and Diego just be the same person so she wouldn't have to go through all this torment?  She flung herself onto her bed, breaking into heart-rendering sobs.

     Victoria did not hear the quiet knock on her bedroom door.  It sounded a little louder, then her brother Francisco appeared in the doorway.

     "Sister, why are you crying?" he inquired gently.  "You should not be sad.  Tomorrow is your wedding day.  It should be the happiest day of your life."

     "It would be if I were going to marry the man I love," she replied, sitting up and wiping the dampness from her beautiful face.  "Diego is a dear friend but. . ."

     "You have to forget about Zorro, Victoria," advised her brother.  "Diego is a good man.  You should be proud to become his wife."  He sat down next to her and took her hand.  "It was what Mama and Papa wished for you, you know.  To be a doña and live in a big hacienda, being waited on by servants.  They didn't want you to work so hard all their lives like they did."

       He gave her hand a squeeze.  "I don't think they would be happy to find out you have been pining your life away over a man with a price on his head, no matter how noble his cause."

     "I know, Francisco," she agreed.  "It's just that. . .  This is more difficult than I thought it would be."  She slid the ring off her finger and placed it back into the chest, then shut its ornate lid.  She rose as did her brother and they hugged each other.

     "I'm so glad you and Ramon are here," she declared, a single tear falling down her cheek.
                                                           Z                                                           Z                                                               Z

     Diego sat in the library of the de la Vega hacienda, watching as a fire burned in the fireplace.  Sometimes he wished a fire would burn what was behind that fireplace.  He finished off the glass of wine he held in one swallow.  Unsteadily, as it had been his fifth glassful, he walked over to the decanter and poured another one.

     He had just plopped back down onto the settee when Felipe came into the room.  His eyes widened in shock as he saw the alcohol in his father's hand.  Diego never drank.  But then again it wasn't everyday he was going to marry the woman he loved, knowing she was in love with another man.  Who, ironically, was himself.  Felipe shook his head.  He'd get drunk too.

     "D-Diego?" he asked, the concern plain in his voice.  The voice he had regained about a week after he nearly had been executed.  He had been scared he had lost it forever before it finally returned.

     The older man looked up, seeing his son's empathetic expression.  "Oh, I'm all right, Felipe," he said, slurring his words.  "Just celebrating my last night as a single man."  He lifted the glass into air, nearly spilling its contents onto the Persian carpet that graced the library floor.

     "Y-You're dr-drunk," the young man said without reproach.  "G-Give me th-that."  He snatched the glass out of Diego's hand.  His father made a grab for it, but Felipe kept it out of his reach.  He drank it down, then set the empty glass next to the decanter.  "It w-will just g-give you a b-bad headache in the m-morning."

     It was Diego's turn to be stunned.  "Felipe?" he asked rhetorically, sobering up a little.

     "I've sm-smoked too," admitted the younger de la Vega, smiling a little.  "One of th-the Alcalde's c-cigars."  He didn't think Diego needed to know about the ones he had bought for himself.  He hadn't had a chance to smoke them yet.

     Diego leaned forward and buried his head in his hands.  "You're right.  This isn't going to help anything," he stated penitently.

     "Sh-She l-loves you," said Felipe perceptively.  "Sh-She just d-doesn't kn-know it y-yet."  He patted his father on the shoulder.  "Y-You're g-going to t-tell her, r-right?"

     "Yes," the older man replied.  He looked up and saw his adult son but remembered the scared little boy.  "When did you grow up and get so wise anyway?"

     Felipe just shrugged, a broad smile on his handsome face.  He put his hand on his father's shoulder again.  "C-Come on.  Y-You have a b-big day t-tomorrow.  G-Go to b-bed."

       Diego shook his head as he stood up with the young man's support.  "I have some things I need you to do tomorrow," he said, his speech still as wobbly as his legs.  Felipe nodded as he helped the inebriated groom-to-be to his bedroom.
                                                       Z                                                               Z                                                               Z

      The next morning was a gorgeous sunny day.  Ana Maria and Leonora Ortega were up early, putting the finishing touches on Victoria's wedding dress.  Pilar and Alicia helped to decorate the church.  Felipe made a brief visit to the pueblo about midmorning, bringing roses from the de la Vega garden for Victoria's bouquet.

     The young man only had time for a kiss or two from his sweetheart before he had to hurry back to the hacienda to help Diego.  His adopted father had awoke that morning with a slight hangover.  He was very grateful that Felipe stopped him when he did.  Between the nagging headache and a bad case of nerves, he was in sorry shape.  His father wasn't helping matters, slapping him on the back every few minutes and offering advice.

     "It is amazing, considering all the danger and evil I have faced," he commented wryly to Felipe when they were alone.  "That marriage to one small, beautiful woman has me quaking in my boots."  He was retying his cravat for about the fifth time and mangling it badly.  Felipe pushed his hands away and expertly knotted it for him.

     The Ortegas assisted Victoria with her wedding preparations.  The seamstress had spent every spare moment for the past three weeks working on the beautiful gown the innkeeper was to wear.  When Victoria had protested that she could wear her mother's dress like she did when she was going to marry Juan Ortiz, Leonora told her no, Don Diego had commissioned a new gown for her as a wedding gift.

     Victoria stared at herself in her vanity mirror.  The dress was perfect.  Its skirt was tier upon tier of lace flounces.  A deep lace ruffle edged the gown's neckline, which showed off her smooth, slim shoulders.  Diego designed this?  He must have given it a lot of thought for it to be so flattering to her.  She was pondering over those implications as Señora Ortega adjusted the white lace mantilla upon her raven curls, fastening it with an ivory comb.

     Victoria picked up the silver cross pendant she intended to wear, but Ana Maria stayed her hand.  The young woman pulled a velvet box from her skirt pocket.

     "Here, Felipe gave me this to give to you," she stated.  Seeing the older woman's surprised look, she added, "It's from Don Diego."

     The bride-to-be nervously opened the box to discover the diamond and pearl necklace inside, the same one Diego had her put on when he painted her portrait several months earlier.   The one that had belonged to his mother.  Also inside was a note; ‘My father and I would be greatly honored if you wore this today.  Yours, Diego'.

     Both Ana Maria and her mother gasped at the opulent piece of jewelry.  Victoria realized it would now be hers, recalling how Don Alejandro said it was to go to Diego's bride. She was going to be Diego's wife.  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

     "I'll wear both," she declared.  Her grandmother's cross might not be as expensive but its sentimental value was as priceless to her as the other necklace's was to the de la Vegas.

     Leonora helped her fasten both pendants around her slim neck.  She noticed a loose thread on the back of the dress and tried to pull it off.  When it didn't budge, she said, "I need to get my scissors.  Don't move, Victoria.  I'll be right back."

     As soon as her mother had left, Ana Maria knelt down beside Victoria's chair and took her hands.  "I know Don Diego is Felipe's adopted father," she began, "and I know Felipe and I aren't married. . .yet.  But I hoped you and I could be sisters, Victoria.  I've always wanted a sister."

     Victoria smiled.  "Me, too," she replied.  "I think I would like to be your sister, Ana Maria."   The two women embraced.

     Ana Maria whispered in Victoria's ear, "Don't be nervous about tonight, Victoria.  Your mother was right.  It does only hurt the first time and only a little.  The rest is so wonderful."

     Victoria stared at the young woman as they drew apart.  How would she know. . .?  Oh, she thought. Oh!  Her eyes widened in amazement.  Any other questions she had had to remain unasked as Señora Ortega came back into the room with her sewing shears.

     The interior of the mission church had been decorated with beautiful flowers and garlands.  Only a small handful of people were in attendance though to admire it.  Sergeant Mendoza escorted Leonora Ortega to one of the wooden pews.  He kept glancing around uncomfortably, but all he could see were family members, the de la Vegas' servants and ranch hands, and Victoria's employees.  Leonora nudged him with her elbow to get him to stop fidgeting.  He turned to her and smiled, but his eyes were still troubled.

     At one o'clock precisely, Diego stood next to Padre Benitez in front of the altar.  He tugged at his collar, earning a disapproving glance from his father sitting in the front pew next to Felipe and Ana Maria.  The small assembly rose as Francisco and Victoria appeared at the back of the church.  The organist started playing as they slowly made their way up the aisle, Victoria grateful for her brother's support as she walked on unsteady legs.

     When the siblings reached the front of the church, Francisco placed his sister's small hand into Diego's much larger one.  He then went to sit next to Ramon as everyone waited for the ceremony to begin.

     Victoria glanced up at Diego, her nervousness evident in her lovely brown eyes.  He bent down to whisper in her ear, "You look so beautiful, Victoria."   He gave her hand a squeeze and smiled to reassure her, but to tell the truth, he was more anxious than she was.

     "Dearly beloved," the padre began the ceremony then, "we are gathered here today to unite this man and this woman in the bonds of holy matrimony."  Pausing for a second, he continued on, "If there is anyone here that objects to this union, let them speak now or forever hold their peace."
                                                           Z                                                               Z                                                               Z