Chapter 2

They had been riding for less than an hour when Diego pointed to a small lake off to the right of the road, and suggested they stop and water their horses. As she swung out of her saddle, Victoria glanced over at the young don and bit her lip to hold back a giggle. Diego had winced slightly as he carefully dismounted, and surreptitiously rubbed his behind when he thought no one was looking. Unfortunately for Diego, his father had also noticed his actions.

Don Alejandro snorted in irritation. "Diego, what is it with you? The horses aren't thirsty yet. You just wanted an excuse to stop and stretch your legs! You act like someone who's been stuck on horseback all night long instead of just for a single hour. Even Victoria isn't stiff yet, and she doesn't ride nearly as often as you do."

Diego's back was still turned toward Victoria, but she felt a sudden pang of sympathy for her friend as she saw his back stiffen for just a second, and then watched his shoulders sag. Don Alejandro had never made a secret of the fact that he was disappointed by the changes in Diego since he returned from Spain, but it was unusual for Diego to show any visible sign that his father's frequently sarcastic, disparaging comments actually bothered him.

"Well, uh…." Diego seemed to be searching for the right thing to say for a few seconds, but then he took a deep breath and turned toward his father. His face was red. "I wasn't going to mention it, but yesterday on the way home from the pueblo, Esperanza was startled when a rabbit hopped across the road. She jumped, and I…uh…."

"Don't tell me! You fell off. Again. Diego, you were riding a horse almost before you could walk! How is it that now you can't even keep your seat on a twenty-year-old mare?! Let me guess. You had your nose stuck in a book while you were riding along, and you weren't paying the least bit of attention to anything around you, were you?"

"Actually, Father, I was jotting down the first draft of an article for The Guardian." Victoria heard the enthusiasm in Diego's voice as he mentioned the weekly newspaper he'd been publishing since shortly after his return from Spain. "You'll be able to read it in the next issue. It's…."

"I don't want to hear about it! Diego, you have to pay attention to your surroundings when you're on a horse. Didn't you learn anything from that fall you took a couple of years ago? You were in bed for over a week from the concussion you got.1"

"I was just trying to get my ideas down on paper for this article while they were fresh in my mind, Father. And I wasn't really hurt this time. I just landed a little hard on my….uh, well, I do have a nice bruise on my…." Diego was looking at the ground, at the lake, anywhere except toward his father or Victoria. Victoria knew Alejandro couldn't see Diego's hands from where he was, and Diego probably didn't realize that she could. They were clenched around Esperanza's reins so tightly his knuckles were white. And she would swear that his hands were shaking.

"Never mind! There is a lady present, Diego. Now, if you're finished stretching your legs, and if you think the horses have quenched their so desperate thirsts, will you please get back on that mare so we have a chance of getting to San Pedro before lunch time?" Alejandro threw an apologetic glance at Victoria, shaking his head in disgust at Diego's pathetic excuses for his ineptness on horseback, and turned his own mount back toward the road. He urged Dulcinea into a canter and took off without looking back.

"I…I'm sorry about that, Victoria." Diego's voice was barely audible, and he wasn't looking at Victoria as he remounted Esperanza. "I'm sorry you had to…."

Victoria found herself blinking back tears as she heard the not quite hidden despair in Diego's voice. Obviously, Don Alejandro's criticisms hurt Diego much more than she'd ever realized before. Just as obviously, Diego would prefer that no one realized that.

"Oh, Diego! Don't you see? Yes, he was irritated with you. But a lot of that bluster was to hide his concern when he found out you'd fallen off Esperanza again, and then tried to hide it from him.

"You didn't see his face that time when he came back from Monterey and found out you'd been injured so badly. Your housekeeper told me he turned as white as a sheet when he got home, and the first person he saw was the doctor coming out of the hacienda. He grilled Dr. Hernandez for almost five minutes to make sure you were really going to be ok, before you even knew he was home. Then he literally ran into the house. He stopped just outside the door of your room and plastered that amused grin onto his face just before he stepped in, so you wouldn't see how scared he'd been.

"He loves you, Diego. He just worries about you. You changed so much while you were in Spain. He just doesn't understand."

By this time, she and Diego were back on the road, and gradually catching up to Alejandro. Diego was quiet for a moment, then gave Victoria quick sideways glance. She watched the corner of his mouth turn up into the hint of his normal, gentle smile.

"Thank you, Victoria. You know, you always know how to cheer me up. What would I do without you?"

"Why, Diego, I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me. And believe me, I'll never let you forget it, either!" Victoria laughed, hiding her relief at Diego's mood change. She kicked her horse into a canter and took off to catch up with Don Alejandro, looking back mischievously at her friend and daring him to speed up, too.

By the time they caught up with Don Alejandro, the old don had calmed down. Although he didn't apologize to Diego for his comments, he did make an obvious effort to turn their conversation to more pleasant topics, and during the next half hour of their ride, they kept their discussion confined to vineyards, wines, and the scenery.

Perhaps because they were making such an effort to relax and enjoy each others' company, they were all taken completely by surprise when disaster struck.

1 See the New World/Family Channel Zorro episode: Zorro, The Legend Begins