CHAPTER EIGHT - "EYE OF THE STORM"
Over the next several days, they managed to stroll around the charming pueblo of Santa Paula. Twice they even went on a picnic. But most of their time was spent in their room, in each other's arms, making up for the eight years of suppressed passions.
Diego and Victoria also knew this freedom would not last. They had lain together in their bed and discussed their future upon returning to Los Angeles. They decided it would be best to continue the charade that theirs was a marriage of convenience.
"Everyone thinks I love Zorro," stated Victoria. She thought bitterly of how she had been treated by the pueblo's women. "They think I only married you to salvage my reputation. It would seem odd if I suddenly became your devoted and. . ." She kissed his ear, sending shivers down his spine, ". . .your very loving wife."
"I agree," Diego said when he could speak again. "Zorro's identity must be concealed at least until the governor's visit. I have no wish to rot in the Alcalde's jail until then."
"Nor I to see you there," declared Victoria with a shudder. The thought of this wonderful man being taken away from her frightened her more than anything else in the world. She kissed him with all the passion her slender body could hold.
The newlyweds left Santa Paula after spending only four days there. Cutting their honeymoon short would help the illusion that theirs was not a love match. Diego also did not trust de Soto to be away for too long. The Alcalde was taking this edict much too calmly. One wondered what the insane commandante had concocted to comply with it.
They stopped, however, on their way home at the old abandoned windmill where they had sought refuge once before. This time though, there was no bench between them, no ‘your side', ‘my side'. And neither held back from kissing the other. They laid intertwined in front of the fire, talking and loving far into the night, savoring each precious moment of their time together.
Diego gazed down at his lovely wife as he held her tightly in his arms. She was slowly drifting off to sleep. He closed his eyes as well and prayed he would be able to keep her safe.
Don Alejandro and Felipe, along with the servants and vaqueros, came out to greet the returning couple as they drove up to the front of the hacienda.
"Victoria, Diego, welcome home." The elder de la Vega hugged them both after they climbed down from the wagon. "How was your trip?" He was quite concerned that they had come back so soon. The honeymoon was supposed to have lasted two weeks and here they were, back in less than a week.
"Just fine, Father," replied Diego, feigning disinterest.
"It was very nice," answered Victoria, seemly as bored.
"Fine? Nice?" repeated the old don incredulously. He shook his head as he led everyone into the hacienda.
They gathered in the library where Maria had glasses of cool juice waiting. Felipe shot his adopted father a troubled look, fooled by the newly married couple's apparent lack of interest in each other. Diego winked at him reassuredly, causing the young man to smile and relax.
"I think I'll take a nap," Diego commented casually. "I feel the most terrible headache coming on. Must be from all this tiresome traveling."
"I think I might go check on the tavern," Victoria stated, not quite hiding an amused smile. She never realized before what an actor her husband was. But then she hadn't known he had a reason to act. "I don't know if I'll be back until late. Or I might just spend the night there." She flashed Diego a coy look only he could see.
He quickly drained his juice. "If you will excuse me," he said, sensing his father was getting annoyed. He left to go to his bedroom.
Don Alejandro stared after him in disbelief. He turned to his new daughter-in-law. "I don't understand," declared the old don. "I thought you two. . ." The look on Victoria's face told him the gossip was true, that this was no love match between her and his son. "Are you happy, Victoria?" he asked gently.
She truly felt bad then, deceiving this man whom she considered a surrogate father. "Don't worry," she replied with a sad smile. "Everything has worked out for the best. You'll see." She stood on tiptoe and gave him a peck on his leathery cheek.
He shook his head, still confused as he and Felipe left the room. So much for more grandchildren, Don Alejandro thought gloomily.
Instead of leaving the hacienda, Victoria waited impatiently. Her husband soon reappeared, a mischievous smile on his handsome face. He took her hand and led his wife over to the fireplace.
"Through this fireplace is the secret passageway," Diego explained quietly. "It was used in my grandfather's time to hide from the Indians. If my father ever knew of its existence, he has long since forgotten about it." He touched the spot on the mantle that caused the back panel to swing open. "After you, mi querida."
They both ducked through the opening. Victoria's face was full of wonderment as they emerged in the main room of the cave. The sounds of bubbling liquids greeted them as did Toronado, who snorted loudly. Diego walked over to pat the stallion's neck.
"It just amazes me that all of this is right under everyone's noses," Victoria stated as she glanced around. "Your father has no idea, does he?" She touched the dark clothing hanging on its rack.
"No," Diego answered in a pained voice. "No, he doesn't." He gathered his lovely wife into his arms and held her close. "And I don't know how to tell him."
She could tell it was a problem that weighed heavily on his heart. Thoughts of anything else were driven from her mind though as he kissed her, making her tremble from head to toe. She smiled up at him teasingly. "I've always had this little dream," she said, "ever since that time you brought me here."
He didn't have to ask what that dream would be as her eyes told him exactly what she meant. But before he could grant his bride her fantasy, the sound of someone clearing their throat was heard at the top of the stairs, drawing the newlyweds' attention. Felipe stepped down into the cave.
"I'm afraid I have one more secret to share with you, querida," he said to her apologetically. "Or should I say we do." He looked at Felipe, who was smiling self-consciously. "Do you want me to tell her or do. . .?"
The young man pointed at his adopted father. Victoria glanced from one to the other in confusion. "Tell me what?"
"Felipe is neither deaf nor mute anymore, Victoria," revealed Diego. "He can hear and speak now."
"Oh, Felipe, this is wonderful," she cried as she gave him a big hug. A puzzled expression came over her face as she pulled away to look at the two men again. "But why keep it a secret? I mean. . ."
"The pretense had proven quite useful over the years," explained her husband. "People tend to say things around him they ordinarily wouldn't if they thought he was listening."
"Does Ana Maria know?"
"Only that he can hear," stated Diego.
"V-Victoria," Felipe stammered out her name. "I c-can't, I d-don't..." He lowered his eyes. His stutter didn't seem to improve as time went by. Sometimes he almost wished he had not regained his power of speech if he was to go through the rest of his life faltering and fumbling over his words.
"It is just so wonderful," Victoria repeated happily, embracing the young man again as tears filled her eyes. She had always kept a special place in her heart for him, the lost little orphaned boy who despite his handicaps and tragic past, still managed to grow up to be a fine young man. One she was proud to now call her son. "Hijo," she said then kissed his cheek.
Felipe tried to hide his embarrassment but
he still turned a little red. But Diego could also see the happiness
in his son's eyes.
Z Z Z
EARLY SEPTEMBER 1825
The next six weeks passed by quickly, with the hot summer temperatures lingering into the month of September. Diego had fulfilled Victoria's cave fantasy several times as she had done with his concerning her quarters at the tavern. A disbelieving Don Alejandro couldn't understand why she spent so many nights there, ostensibly without his son. She worked as hard as she had before her marriage, much to the old don's dismay. And his ineffectual son did nothing to dissuade her.
Dios, they didn't even share a room here at the hacienda, he lamented. Diego had explained that they were both too set in their ways to do so. Don Alejandro wondered sometimes if the marriage had even been consummated.
Victoria realized the relationship between her husband and his father was deteriorating a little bit more every day. She saw the pain and anguish on both their faces after each argument, which were occurring more often. Sometimes the lovely innkeeper wondered if Felipe noticed it as well. He seemed to spend less and less time at the hacienda. He was either off somewhere working on the ranch or with Ana Maria, only coming home to eat and sleep.
When she had confronted the young man about it, he told her it was to give her and Diego some privacy. They didn't need a grown son hanging around, intruding on their wedded bliss, he had said. But she saw in his eyes the same distress she had seen in her own.
She tried to persuade Diego to reveal his secret identity to the elder de la Vega. But he wouldn't even consider it. "Why, so he can laugh in my face?" he had snapped at her angrily the last time she had broached the subject. "Oh, querida, I'm sorry." He was instantly contrite when he saw her hurt and tearful expression. Gathering her into his arms, he kissed her. "I know, I need to tell him but. . ." He sighed heavily.
How could he explain to her that he wanted his father's respect not just because he was Zorro but because he was his son? So many of the things he did as Don Diego were worthy of approval but apparently not in the old don's eyes.
Diego had other worries as well. The day of the governor's visit was drawing ever closer and still de Soto had not implemented some grand scheme to capture Zorro. The masked man continued to ride out, remaining on the fringes of the pueblo, protecting its citizens from bandits, swindlers and the like. But even these sightings became more and more infrequent. It was as if Zorro had found something else with which to occupy his time.
And Diego was right to be concerned about the Alcalde. The man was getting extremely frustrated. The plots he had devised to trap the caped criminal were unfeasible, he realized now. The fact that his arch enemy rarely showed his masked face made them worthless. Governor Aguila was due to arrive in two days. He had to do something, anything, to keep his own neck out of the noose.
Yes, Ignacio de Soto was a desperate man, prepared to go to any lengths to save his own skin. He scowled as he watched from his office window as the pueblo de Los Angeles was being readied for its important visitor.
Diego and Felipe were spending the morning at the tavern, having been recruited to help Victoria with its decorations. She was not at all pleased that her best rooms were to be reserved for the governor and his entourage, especially in light of the reason for his visit.
The younger de la Vega held up a colorful paper garland and looked over at Diego at its other end. Felipe was getting bored and it showed on his handsome face. He was also anxious to keep his promise to Ana Maria that he would help her and her mother with their shop.
"Just a little while longer," said Diego with a smile. To tell the truth, he was as bored as his son. "I think she might let us break for lunch soon."
They proceeded to hand the garland along the top of the partition that separated the kitchen from the main dining area. Victoria walked through its curtained doorway just as they tacked it into place.
"No, no," she admonished, placing her hand to her damp forehead. "It is supposed to go over there." She pointed to the area behind the bar. "Diego, I thought I told you that," she spoke somewhat sharply. She went to put down the pitcher she held onto a nearby table. But before she could reach it, she crumpled toward the floor, the ceramic ewer falling out of her hand.
Diego rushed over and caught his wife just before she hit the ground. He crouched down, gently supporting her head with his hands and legs. "Felipe, get a glass of water," he ordered the hovering young man who quickly did as he was bid.
Victoria slowly began to regain consciousness, fluttering her eyelashes and moaning slightly. "What. . . What happened?" she asked as she struggled to sit up.
"You fainted," her anxious husband informed her, looking at her worriedly. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she lied. Her head and stomach were both rebelling as she got to her feet with Diego's assistance. "It must be the heat." A concerned Felipe returned with the water which he handed to a grateful Victoria who took a small sip. "Gracias."
Diego led her to a chair and made her sit down. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?" he inquired fretfully. "You seem a bit tired lately." Not to mention a little short tempered, but there was no way he was going to bring up that fact. He was no fool.
"I have just been working too hard, that's all, Diego." She took another drink of the cool water. "And it has been so warm lately. I'll be fine."
"I know you have been upset about the governor's arrival."
Victoria's face visibly paled as she suddenly grasped her husband's hand. "I want you to promise right now, Diego de la Vega, on your honor; that you will not do anything foolish or noble while he is here," she asserted, tightening her grip on his large hand.
"I just wish I knew what sort of trick the Alcalde has up his sleeve," said Diego, trying to avoid making a promise he might not be able to keep. One glance at his wife's expression told him he was not going to get out of vowing some sort of oath.
"I swear not to do anything foolish," he pledged. He gave her hand a squeeze then released it. He wished he could kiss and comfort her, but they were not alone. There were several customers seated nearby with more beginning to arrive as it neared noon. Perhaps later they could take a little ‘siesta', he thought with a smile.
Victoria closed her eyes and sighed softly. "Well, let's get back to work," she stated as she got to her feet. Diego glanced at Felipe and shrugged. They took down the offending decoration and hung it in the place she had indicated earlier as she walked unsteadily to the kitchen.
Across the plaza, de Soto sat at his desk, his head in his hands. Two days, he thought to himself, only two more days. Not even that long really, as a messenger had appeared that morning informing the garrison Aguila would be arriving around ten o'clock the day after tomorrow.
His schemes were garbage, tripe, imbecilic. None of them would have resulted in Zorro's arrest. He picked up the papers that contained his plans and started tearing them in half. He continued shredding them until they were nothing more than confetti, which he threw up into the air.
A shocked yet nervous Sergeant Mendoza entered the office as the Alcalde was tossing the pieces of parchment upward, a slightly maniacal look on his bearded face. Whatever he had been about to say stuck in his throat as de Soto jumped up and pointed an accusing finger at his subordinate.
"Three months, Mendoza!" he shouted. "Three whole months and we are no closer to capturing Zorro than the day that damn edict arrived." He banged his fist on his desk, causing the sergeant to cringe.
"You know who is going to hang in that masked outlaw's place, don't you?" de Soto asked. "Me, that's who!" He thumped himself on the chest.
"Alcalde," Mendoza finally regained his nerve, "Sir, it has been impossible to apprehend Zorro. He has not stepped foot in Los Angeles since. . .since. . . Well that day he brought Señorita Victoria back to the pueblo. How can we catch him if he is not here?" Secretly the soldier was very pleased that his masked amigo so far had escaped the commandante's clutches.
"There must be something, the one thing I have overlooked, the only thing that would lure him out into the open," de Soto muttered to himself, not really hearing the sergeant. He turned to stare blindly out his small office window, racking his weary brain.
"Perhaps if you explained to the governor," Mendoza began, "that Zorro has not. . ."
"Be quiet, you idiot," the Alcalde lashed out bitterly. He did not see the injured expression on the soldier's round face. "There has to be something. . ." He looked out the portal again, this time focusing on the activity outside.
Diego and Victoria caught his eye as they emerged from the tavern. He watched as his old schoolmate mounted his horse and rode off while the innkeeper waved. An idea formed in his mind and an evil grin crept slowly over his face. He did not notice as Victoria did not return to her business but instead walked determinedly in the opposite direction.
"Sergeant, tell me," de Soto suddenly became gracious as he sat back down at his desk. "Diego and Señorita Escalante, I mean Doña Victoria," he corrected himself. "Would you say they are a happily married couple?"
"They had always been good friends, mi Alcalde," the soldier replied.
"That is not what I asked you, you dolt," snapped de Soto impatiently. "Are they in ‘love'?" He couldn't help sneering as he spat out the last word.
Mendoza pondered over the question for a few moments. He wasn't sure what his superior officer intended to do with the information he received. But he imagined it wouldn't be good. "I don't know, Sir," he finally answered. "As I said before, they are good friends."
"Excellent, Sergeant." The devilish grin returned to the commandante's face. "Have the men start preparing the gallows at once."
"But sir. . ." sputtered Mendoza in bewilderment.
"That was an order," stated de Soto in a tone that quelled any argument. "Dismissed."
The stout sergeant saluted then made a hasty
retreat. The Alcalde chuckled evilly as he found an intact piece
of paper, dipped his quill and began to write.
Z Z Z
"THE LEGEND UNMASKED" CHAPTER NINE - "THE SCYLLA & THE CHARYBDIS