Diego had awoken earlier than usual that same
morning, bathed, and shaved carefully. The next step of his plan
would be put into action that very afternoon. He combed his wet hair
into a becoming style to dry and then brushed his slacks and jacket free
from dust. After polishing his boots to a high gloss, he was ready
for his interview with Victoria.
The tavern was not crowded when he arrived shortly after noon and ordered lunch. Joining some friends, he ate while surreptitiously watching the señorita move around the room. Her situation was deteriorating, and it was evident in her motions and expression. If only he could persuade her! He must--he would, for he held a trump card. If absolutely necessary, he intended to play it.
Customers drifted out the door to find a quiet, shady spot for siesta, but he lingered until he was the last man left. He followed Victoria into the kitchen and found her scraping plates to be washed. She looked up briefly when he entered through the serape curtain.
"Yes, Diego? Was there something else?"
"Indeed there is. The matter of your future, which concerns me deeply." He sat down at the small kitchen table and interlaced his fingers on the surface. His relaxed, non-threatening stance was designed to put Victoria at ease. "What have you decided?"
She slowly set down a plate and wiped her hands on her apron. "Ramón still might come."
"That's looking less and less likely now that the last stage from San Diego has arrived, and he wasn't on it." He hesitated to tell her the choice that Josefina had made, for he was sure Victoria would wish to do the same. "There is another option, and I would be wrong to conceal it from you. Josefina Ruiz chose to deed her property to young Santillano, and in the contract I drew up for them she has the right to live on the ranch the rest of her life and keep all the profits. She also pays the property tax each year."
Agitated, Victoria took a turn around the room. "So she sold?"
"Yes, though the sum involved in the transfer was nominal. Santillano is just getting his own place started, and couldn't afford more. But it was a gesture of good faith; there is trust and integrity on both sides." He paused as she absorbed this information. "Josefina realizes she will never marry or have children. By this contract she has named Nicolas her heir and set her affairs in order."
The last insights were calculated to leave a negative impression on Victoria, and they succeeded. By deeding away the tavern in the manner Diego described, she would also be admitting that she did not expect to marry or have children. And if she would in the future receive an offer of marriage, what dowry could she bring to the union? What inheritance could she give her sons? She, having traded away the tavern, might only have a small amount of cash to call her own. And the new owner? Could she trust him to keep his end of the bargain? As the legal owner, couldn't he force some changes that she might not like?
She would have given up the tavern gladly to marry Zorro, but if she surrendered it now, would Zorro return? His good-bye had seemed so final, so resolute. Perhaps he had been looking for a way to end the relationship anyway, and the king's edict had provided him with a ready excuse. A "pleasant idyll"! That's all she had been to him! The surface of his heart had only been scratched, not the whole invaded. Could she dare gamble the one thing she owned on the sentimental hope that he would return to her? The spectral image of dwindling into a frail old maid--gray, wrinkled, and alone--while becoming the object of the pueblo's pity rose before her horrified mind's eye. She barely suppressed a cold shiver.
Diego's gentle tone intruded on her thoughts. "Can you think of someone in the pueblo whom you would trust with such a business arrangement?"
"If I trust anyone, I trust your father. But I don't need a will!" she snapped. He ventured no more questions as she fell into frowning silence once more, examining one by one her most cherished objects. The tavern was first; it was her inheritance, her past, her life's work, her dowry. Zorro had to be considered next. But according to him, their love was over. At least his love was; hers was in fragmented confusion and pain. Love--how could she go on without it? Without even the hope of having a family of her own? Lastly, she considered her independence, something else she would have surrendered willingly had Zorro been her bridegroom. What would independence be worth without love, without hope, without even the tavern to call her own? It would, she could see, take on the more sinister aspects of loneliness and abandonment. To be single with money and property was one thing, but quite another to be single without them! The worn faces of Ana Alvarado and her sisters as they left the pueblo flashed across the screen of her mind, and this time she shuddered.
"Have you heard from Zorro?" he prompted.
The innkeeper turned away. "Yes."
"And what did he say?"
For a long minute she did not answer. Then she spoke with difficulty. "He said-- He said that he couldn't help me." Her face ducked into a handkerchief.
No more information was forthcoming, so Diego said, "I'm so sorry. Did he give you any advice?"
That her friend's queries were pointedly addressed to the contents of Zorro's note did not occur to her in her distraught state. "He advised me to marry someone else before the deadline."
He waited to see if she would name Zorro's prospective groom. She did not.
"And are you going to do so?"
Victoria shrugged helplessly. "What else can I do? But I don't think I can bring myself to do it!" she cried in anguish.
He was not unsympathetic, but he wanted to press his advantage. "You will be destitute in two days if you don't do something."
"I know! I know! I just hate this whole thing! It's so unfair! No matter what I do, I lose: my business, my home, my life's work, my independence, the man I love." Her voice broke pathetically.
"There's one and only one option available to you where you will gain instead of lose. Marry me."
Even in her high-strung state, something about his confident assertion appealed to her sense of humor, and she gave a watery giggle. "Oh, Diego! And just how is that possible?"
"You keep the tavern and your control of it. You gain a husband and family who care for you. And later on, I hope that we may have children to love as well."
Children! When married, she could at last have babies of her own.
"Would you like to be a father?" she asked curiously.
"Yes, I think so. Of course, growing up as an only child I haven't been around children as much as I'd like."
"You are good with the orphans," she mused aloud. "And with Felipe. I can't imagine what would have become of him without you."
"Then marry me, Victoria. I'll give you everything your heart desires."
"Except love," she said sadly.
"That too--in time."
Her restless fingers twisted the corner of her handkerchief. "What if I can't forget Zorro?"
"I don't want you to forget your first love. Just be willing to love again. I'm offering you a new life, full of possibilities--dreams that can come true."
A smile started to form. "Almost you convince me."
He rose at that and stepped behind her. His arms clasped her against his chest. "Feel how firmly I hold you. You are safe and protected here with me. And at the same time," he released her from his grip, "you have the freedom to be the woman God has called you to be. I don't want to change you, Victoria. I want to see you grow and live and love."
The words were what she had longed to hear, though from another man. They touched her grieving heart as nothing had been able to do since Zorro's abandonment. She blinked away the excess moisture in her eyes and turned to him, clasping his waist. His arms encircled her again and held her close. There was a feeling of refuge here with Diego that she had never sensed before, and for the first time the impossible idea seemed feasible.
"Do you really think a marriage between us would work? Could we be happy together?"
"I know we'll be happy," he declared simply.
"What do you get out of this?" she wondered. "I have no dowry but the tavern, and you don't need or want that. Why would you sacrifice your own freedom to help me?"
"You underestimate your charms."
Her lovely smile trembled. "Have you been brushing up on gallantry? I've never seen this side of you."
He smiled too. "There's more about me that you don't know, and I want to share who I am with you. Shall I speak with Padre Benitez about a time for the wedding?"
Her face grew solemn again. "Yes. No. I don't know!" she cried in frustration. "Oh, I guess so. Make it late in the day. Maybe Ramón will still come."
"Then on that note I'll leave--before you turn my head with more flattery!" he teased.
She laughed and apologized as he left, and in her solitude reflected that her relationship with Zorro had never included laughter.
Diego was able to arrange a six o'clock wedding
mass for the following evening, and told his father over supper that Victoria
had accepted his proposal of marriage.
"I can't believe it," said Alejandro, stunned. "I never thought that she'd take you."
"I believe it's in desperation," replied his son calmly. "Ramón hasn't showed, and Zorro told her to marry someone else."
"Zorro dropped her?" Words failed the older man.
"So it would seem. At any rate, she still may back out."
"Remember what happened when she almost married Juan Ortiz? That poor young man! Diego, that could be you left standing at the altar tomorrow!"
Only a few months before, Victoria had nearly married a naval officer when she was convinced that Zorro would never be free to marry her. Diego, dressed in his black disguise, had been present at the church when his señorita had tried to say, "I do." She could not.
"Yes, I know." Unconcerned, he finished a tamale. "If that happens, we'll still be friends. She needs to make the decision about her future that she thinks is best, and she still has the right to change her mind."
"Well, we'd better plan for a reception tomorrow night here at the house. Maria!" he shouted to the housekeeper. "And we need to invite the neighbors!"
"Wait until tomorrow to invite people," advised his son with a rueful face. "I'll check with Victoria in the morning to see if she's changed her mind." He left the table as the housekeeper entered to hear the news of Don Diego's marriage plans and the enormous quantity of food her patrón wanted prepared for the nuptial party.
Don Alejandro rose early the next morning to
ride with his son into town. A welcoming visit to his prospective
daughter-in-law was in order, but he felt Diego was destined to be disappointed
by Victoria's change of mind after a night's sleep. The disappointment
would be mild, though, he concluded with an appraising glance at his son.
Diego did not have the demeanor of a man whose future happiness rested
on a decision he would hear in the next few minutes.
"Diego, I'll say everything that's proper to Victoria of course, but if she turns you down it will be for the best."
"She doesn't love you, and you don't love her. It sounds as though she's extremely reluctant to marry, and you--you haven't given enough thought to this whole business! You don't care one way or the other if she turns you down! I tell you it's all wrong! You should be nervous or happy or scared, but you act like this is just another morning to you."
"I appreciate your concern, Father," replied his son mildly. "If I don't seem like your notion of a groom on his wedding day, it's because my focus is entirely on Victoria. This has been a horrible month for her."
"Poor girl, yes! Who would have thought that her romance with Zorro would end like this--by order of the king?"
"My thoughts on the king's order I'll save for another time," Diego gritted. "Even to you they would sound treasonous."
"King Ferdinand needs some older, wiser counselors," concurred Alejandro. "Some of his father's men."
"He's going to lose the colonies," his son predicted. "He has no notion of how to handle them wisely, and neither do the courts."
"The question is if New Spain can govern herself any better."
On that sobering thought the conversation ended until the horsemen arrived in town. A few people were in the plaza--those who rose early to work. Rubén the blacksmith was stoking the fire for the day, and more than one woman was sweeping her front stoop. From within the cuartel came a few cheerful voices. The two men tethered their mounts at the rail in front of the tavern.
"I'll go and see her alone," said Alejandro. "It's bad luck to see the bride before the ceremony."
"I didn't know you were superstitious." Diego stepped under the portico to wait in the shade.
"I'm not, but why take chances? Besides, sometimes these little rituals mean a lot to women," he confided conspiratorially.
His son waved him on with a smile that vanished as the de la Vega master passed through the threshold. Having come so close to the fulfillment of a dream, he was not as relaxed as he pretended. Ever the fox, ever deceiving. I can't deceive myself, though. Victoria, hear me calling you! Say yes, yes!
Alejandro found the young woman in the kitchen. She looked up at his respectful knock on the door jamb.
"Buenos dias, Victoria," he greeted. "I'm here to inquire if you are still of the mind to marry my son today."
She bit her lip; her eyes met his for a fleeting instant and then dropped. Her hands clutched the soft folds of her skirt.
"Yes," she whispered.
He approached her then and held out his hand. Victoria laid one clammy palm in his.
"Welcome to our family, dear," he said graciously. "Is there any message that you would like me to give Diego?"
She shook her head. "I will try be a worthy addition to your house, Don Alejandro." Her knees bent into a stiff curtsey.
"You will be," he assured kindly. "I'll be happy to serve as your surrogate father again and walk with you up the aisle."
"Thank you, but no. I wouldn't ask you to do that again. I've decided to ask the alcalde."
"The alcalde!" Alejandro exclaimed in revulsion. "Why? I thought you didn't like him."
"I don't particularly, but he's the king's representative here. Who better to witness that the law has been fulfilled?"
"He can read the church registry tomorrow," muttered de la Vega. "I wasn't even going to invite him. Now I guess I'll have to."
"Of course he must come. No practical purpose would be served by snubbing him. Please invite Mendoza too, but none of the other soldiers."
"Sergeant Mendoza was the only one from the garrison I planned to invite, but since you wish it I'll extend an invitation to the alcalde as well. Invite your other friends; I'm taking care of the church arrangements and the reception. Just bring your sweet self to the church at six."
A ghost of a smile trembled on her lips an instant. "Remind Diego that he needs to bring a ring."
"Hm! I will; he probably hasn't even thought of that yet. I'm off to see the alcalde now."
He left her and rejoined his son. "She's still willing. She's going to ask the alcalde to give her away, though. Isn't that peculiar?"
"Not what I'd have anticipated," agreed Diego, hiding his relief. "But it makes some sense; he'll serve as a witness." And will fit in well with my plans. Thank you, Victoria!
"That's what she thought, but I don't see the need. DeSoto is likely to offend the other guests."
"He'll be fine; he is an officer and a gentleman, after all," reminded Diego as they crossed the plaza to the garrison headquarters.
"I'll concede the first point but not the latter," retorted the older man. "By the way, you may have your mother's wedding ring to give to Victoria."
"Thank you, but I have a ring already."
Alcalde DeSoto had not yet roused, and a sentry was dispatched to inform him that he had visitors. Nearly an hour had passed before the military man arrived in his office.
"You de la Vegas make rather early social calls," he grumbled, seating himself behind the pine desk. "What is your business?"
Alejandro put on what he hoped was a pleasant smile. "We have come to invite you to the wedding of Diego and Victoria this evening at six. The reception will be afterwards at our home."
The alcalde blinked in amazement, then gave a shout of derisive laughter. "She must be down to her last straw! I never thought she'd choose you, Diego. No offense, but--" He laughed again. "I'm glad you didn't take my bet, Don Alejandro. Of course, there's still time for her to back out. Or Zorro may come to the rescue," he snorted.
"Apparently Zorro has told her to choose someone else," murmured Diego.
Twice in one minute his visitors had astounded the officer. "He dumped her? Are you sure? Is there any proof?"
The younger man shrugged. "I'm just telling you what she told me."
"He might come again to watch as he did when the señorita almost married Lieutenant Ortiz." The alcalde thought quickly. "I'll have my men surround the church and lie in wait. And if that menace shows--"
"Hold it," commanded Alejandro. "This is my son's wedding, and there will be no soldiers. None."
The alcalde stood, glaring. "You don't order me, de la Vega! I'll station my men as I see fit to protect this pueblo!"
"Your men are not invited! Do you understand?" gritted Alejandro to the alcalde. "If they show up on my property, I'll throw them off! And you keep them out of sight during the service!"
"Father," soothed Diego, "I don't care where the soldiers are as long as they don't interfere with the wedding or the guests."
DeSoto's eyes narrowed. "Good day, gentlemen."
Diego guided his irate father to the door. Outside again, they inquired of the sentry at the cuartel gates for Sergeant Mendoza. The genial sergeant greeted them a few moments later, expressed the same degree of astonishment that his commander had shown, but with genuinely warm congratulations.
"I can't believe it!" exclaimed Mendoza, pumping Diego's hand, then Alejandro's. "But really, that's wonderful! I hope you'll be very happy. Lucky son-of-a-gun! You'll put on some weight with Señorita Escalante cooking for you," he laughed. "Or I mean Señora de la Vega! Well, another good man ending his lonely bachelor days! Your father and I will carry on without you!"
"There are three other women! Go and propose to one of them!"
His bluff called, the sergeant hedged. "Señorita Ruiz wouldn't marry a soldier, and Señorita Heceta is a lady. Señorita Alvarado and her sisters have already gone."
"Gone where?" questioned the young caballero.
"She sold the farm and is going to live with her uncle in Santa Barbara."
"Oh, that's too bad."
"It's probably for the best, Diego," said his father. "You can't help them all; you tried and so did the padre. This way those girls will be under the protection of a man."
"Colonel Estrada said that single women are rare there; Ana will probably have a husband soon, especially with a dowry from her sale of the farm."
"Not much of a dowry," confided the soldier. "She sold the land for only sixty pesos."
"Sixty! Who had the gall to offer so little?"
Mendoza shrugged. "I don't know, but she took it."
"That's sad," frowned Alejandro. "Somebody should have married that girl."
"At least that's not happening to Victoria. Sergeant, the wedding mass is at six o'clock, and the reception will be afterwards at our home. We hope to see you there."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world! Maria is probably the only woman in the territory who can cook as well as Señorita Escalante!"
Before the lunch customers arrived, Victoria
found a few minutes to cross the plaza and see the alcalde. He looked
up when he saw her standing on the threshold.
"I understand there's to be a wedding this evening. Shall I congratulate you or offer condolences?" he asked ironically.
"I'm not much in the mood for either, Alcalde. I came to ask if you would give me away."
Astonished yet again that morning, DeSoto stared. "I?"
"You are the king's representative, and I have no family here. Would you, please?"
"Well, I suppose so. In fact, I'd be honored." He stood and bowed. Questions about Zorro hovered on his lips, but did not get the chance to be asked.
"Then come to the tavern at six, and we'll walk to the church together." She sketched the briefest of curtseys and swept out the door.
Victoria closed the tavern at one o'clock. She was able to take a short siesta in the afternoon heat before the pressing burden of the rest of the day woke her. As each hour ticked by and Ramón did not come, the tavern owner felt more trapped. Time and events were pushing her toward the momentous decision to marry, and the point of no return was almost upon her. In the back of her mind was the hope that Zorro would change his mind and think of something. He couldn't be indifferent to her marrying another man! Surely he truly loved her despite his rebuff, and his love would demand that he take action. She had seen him do the unexpected before.
Nevertheless, the young woman opened a brass-bound trunk at the foot of her bed and removed from its folds of tissue paper an old lace mantilla. It had belonged to her grandmother, then her mother, and came originally from Madrid. Now it would be her bridal veil. Victoria regretted that she had no time to make a proper bridal dress, but one of her mother's old gowns would have to do. She lifted out a dark blue dress of silk; the style was outmoded but becoming. After pressing out the creases carefully, she took in the waist with a needle and thread. After all these years alone, at this crucial time in her life she wanted to feel her mother's presence. Wearing the heirlooms would give her strength.
After a bath, she dressed in the chosen outfit and styled her clean dark curls into a proper bun. A large tortoiseshell comb held the mantilla in place, and she surveyed her reflection in the mirror. Not a beautiful bride at all, she acknowledged sadly. Her face was too pale, and her eyes had circles under them. The lack of a smile was the most destructive to her appearance. This was not the happy day of which all little girls dream.
In lieu of flowers, Victoria opted to carry her mother's missal. She was sitting alone in the tavern reading from the book and trying to compose herself when the alcalde entered.
"Señorita," he said. "Are you ready?"
She folded the book and stood. "I see no other choice; therefore I am ready."
"Come now," he chided jovially. "It's not that bad; if you can't marry for love, marry for money. It's much more satisfying."
"I can see why you're still a bachelor," she noted. "Shall we go?"
He consulted his pocket watch, then glanced out the window. "It's five minutes to six. People are still arriving; there's another carriage. De la Vega must have invited just about everyone in the pueblo."
Victoria too had heard the carriages and voices outside for the last half hour, and each arrival had forged another link in the chain, making escape more difficult. How could she back out now and hurt Don Alejandro? Impossible to embarrass him or Diego as she had Juan Ortiz. Enough thinking and worrying! The thing had to be done, so best to steel oneself and go through the motions of the wedding with no more conscious thought. Only Zorro could save her now, and he had told her to marry Diego.
"Is Zorro going to make another surprise appearance?" sneered DeSoto, startling the woman who wondered if the officer had read her thoughts.
"I have know way of knowing what Zorro will do," she replied coldly. "If he confides in anyone it is not I."
"Is it true, then? You have broken with him?"
"He has broken with me."
The confirmation disappointed the officer; perhaps the outlaw would take no interest in the ceremony. "You saw him? He came to the pueblo?"
"I did not see him. He wrote a note."
"Dastardly conduct! And after leading you on for years! I never did understand what a smart, beautiful woman would want with a renegade. You're better off without him. In fact, marrying Diego is the best thing you can do. He may be a little dull, but your social position will be unassailable."
"I suppose so. Is it time yet?" She was anxious to end the conversation.
DeSoto checked his watch again. "Yes. Señorita?"
He offered his arm, which Victoria took, and opened the door. Felipe was waiting on the porch with an armful of red roses, and handed her the flowers.
"Thank you, Felipe. How thoughtful."
He shook his head and pointed to the church.
"They're from the padre? No? Don Alejandro? Diego?"
Smiling, the boy nodded and skipped to the church.
"Amazing," commented the alcalde, impressed in spite of himself. "Diego actually did something with class."
"He even took the thorns off the stems," she added, pleased that her vague fiancé would think of such a detail.
The sun was sinking toward the horizon in the west, and the spring air was cooling rapidly. People who saw the señorita leave the tavern with her escort scurried into the warm interior of the sanctuary.
Diego awaited his bride's arrival from the front of the altar. Beside him stood Felipe, whom he had asked to serve as best man, and Padre Benitez. His father occupied the front row of the groom's traditional side of the church. The invited guests filled the pews. The front row on the bride's side was empty until the padre encouraged the late-arriving guests to fill the front sections also to avoid standing. The uninvited guests--and there were always some--stood around the periphery of the sanctuary. The groom reflected that many friends and neighbors had changed their day's plans to attend his wedding, but a wedding was a happily celebrated community event. The noisy buzz of the guests died down when the bride appeared at the door of the church on the arm of the alcalde, resplendent in formal military dress.
Victoria was not wearing white for her bridal gown, Diego noted, but a dark blue dress with long sleeves. The fabric shimmered as she walked slowly up the aisle, but the bride's face was almost as pale as the fine lace mantilla she was wearing. She was not smiling; her eyes looked neither at him nor at the guests but focused on nothing in particular. In her arm were the roses he had chosen for her bouquet, a bright splash of red against a colorless background. She and DeSoto reached Diego's side; still she did not look at him.
The padre recited a formal prayer in Latin; the congregation echoed his amen and crossed themselves. "Who gives this woman in marriage to this man?" he asked.
"This woman is an orphan," announced the alcalde, "and her brothers are absent. Therefore she has asked me as a representative of the Spanish Crown to give her away, and I do so." DeSoto placed her bloodless hand into her groom's.
The padre then addressed Diego. "Do you take this woman to be your wife, to live together in the holy state of matrimony after God's ordinance?"
"I do," the groom's voice responded firmly.
To Victoria he asked, "Do you take this man to be your husband, to live together in the holy state of matrimony after God's ordinance?"
Five long seconds crawled by. She knew Diego had turned his head to watch her say the words; she felt the eyes of the entire congregation boring into her back. Zorro was not coming. Victoria forced herself to whisper the words, "I do."
Padre Benitez eyed her compassionately for a moment, giving the young woman a final opportunity to back out of the ceremony. This union was not what she would have chosen had she truly a choice. Yet he knew Diego was a kind, gentle man; he would be a good husband to her, and perhaps in time she would come to care for him.
"Kneel, my children," he instructed.
The couple knelt before the priest. The padre began another litany in Latin; Diego understood the prayer; Victoria did not. When he concluded, Padre Benitez had them stand again for the formal vows.
"Do you, Diego, take Victoria to be your lawful wedded wife for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do you part? Do you solemnly vow to love and cherish her before God and this company?"
"And do you, Victoria, take Diego to be your lawful wedded husband for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do you part? Do you solemnly vow to love and obey him before God and this company?"
Don't think! Just respond to the cue! "I do," she answered quietly.
"What pledge of your vow do you give this woman?" the priest asked the groom.
Diego turned to receive a ring from Felipe. "This ring," he replied and put it onto the padre's Bible.
Benitez blessed the ring and instructed Diego to place it on the fourth finger of Victoria's left hand. "Repeat after me: 'With this ring I thee wed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.'"
Diego echoed the declaration and slid the ring onto Victoria's finger. It fit perfectly, and she wondered how he had known her size. The ring was a cunningly wrought design of pearls and diamonds set in gold. It must have belonged to his mother, she reasoned, for nowhere in the area could such craftsmanship be found.
The bridal couple knelt again, and the padre served communion to both. He spoke some words concerning the holiness of the marriage sacrament and the duties of both husband and wife. After a final benediction over the couple, he pronounced them man and wife. Diego helped Victoria rise from the kneeler.
"You may kiss the bride," Padre Benitez granted.
Diego clasped his wife's waist lightly and bent from his superior height to place a small, chaste kiss on her cold lips. He had done it! Victoria had actually married him--the dream of the past eight years come true at last, but his bride was as remote as a stranger.
He smiled at her and firmly tucked her arm in his own to walk down the aisle. Some murmurs of approval sounded from the congregation. With his father and Felipe following behind, the caballero led his bride to within a few steps of the open church door.
The ceremony was over, and Victoria felt as if she were walking in a nightmare. Zorro had not come; he said he would not help her. Now she was married to Diego. She was a wife. The church interior dimmed; the voices seemed further away and detached.
Out of the corner of his eye Diego saw her slump before he felt her hand go limp. Acting quickly, he scooped his unconscious bride into his arms and strode to the plaza fountain, aware of the sudden buzz of consternation behind him. Victoria's faint would be interpreted by many as her extreme reluctance to marry; well, even that could be useful.
The sharp crack of a musket firing in the twilight startled him, and instinctively he ducked. On the rooftop of the bank was one of the soldiers lowering his weapon, and for one terrifying instant Diego feared the alcalde had discovered his ruse. But no, the soldier called to his fellows that Zorro must be nearby, judged from the way the groom had run from the church with many others following in agitated curiosity.
The alcalde heard the shot and pushed his way through the crowd. "Where is he?" he shouted to the corporal on the church's roof.
"An accident, Alcalde! He hasn't been seen!"
"Trigger-happy soldiers firing at a wedding crowd!" snapped Don Alejandro. "A fine display of military command, Alcalde!"
"Don't push me, de la Vega! My men are waiting for Zorro!"
Diego, weak with relief, sat on the edge of the fountain and propped Victoria on his lap. He dipped his handkerchief into the cool water and pressed the cloth to her white brow. "Zorro is not here as you can plainly see, Alcalde."
Victoria's eyes fluttered open, mirroring the panic he had felt a moment before. "Zorro? Where?"
Alejandro ran up to his son, followed by the curious who had seen Victoria collapse in the church. "Is she all right?" he queried.
"Just overcome by the heat," his son replied.
"Yes," the rancher replied, taking his cue, "it was stifling in there. What a crush! The church wasn't designed for that many people."
A corner of Diego's mouth lifted. "Next time we'll take that into consideration. Feeling better?" he addressed his bride.
"Yes, I'm fine now," she asserted in a thready voice. "So stupid of me."
He helped her to her feet, watching her closely. "The carriage is just over there. Can you walk?"
She nodded though her skin prickled oddly from lack of blood. Felipe gave her the missal she had dropped, and a young girl from the pueblo shyly handed her a few of the trampled red roses. The bridal couple was surrounded by a sea of well-wishers as they made their way to the de la Vega open carriage. Diego smiled and accepted the congratulations heaped upon him. Under her mantilla his arm bolstered Victoria's back, and his fingers pinched her waist. No, he would not want her to faint again. She glanced at his face; behind his smile she glimpsed a different Diego, one hard and solemn and inscrutable. Any notion she had of bending the soft-spoken man to her will died at that moment. Her husband, whom she had thought of as a comfortable, well-known friend, was a stranger.
He helped her into the carriage and sat down beside her. Alejandro and Felipe mounted into the other seat, and Juan clucked to the horses to get them to move forward. The crowd parted to let them pass, and Don Alejandro continued to call out greetings and invitations to his neighbors to follow him to his home for the reception. The horses trotted sedately out the pueblo gates.
"Do you still feel light-headed?" Diego asked his wife.
She had braced herself the cushioned seat and was concentrating on the floorboards. "A little. I'm sorry I embarrassed you."
He did not refute her assessment which would have comforted her somewhat; he merely said, "Put your head down between your knees, and the sensation will go away. We have a long evening ahead of us."
"Don't be so heartless," chided his father. "Victoria must lie down if she's not feeling well."
"When we get to the house, people will expect to see the bride. We'll have enough curious tongues wagging without her disappearance."
"They will wag about your marriage regardless," observed his father. "You can't avoid that."
"No, we can't," Victoria murmured, "but we must minimize it, and soon people will find something else to talk about. I won't faint again," she asserted more strongly than she felt.
Her husband's blue eyes appraised her, and in that moment she knew she had disappointed him.