“A surprise party?!” Diego cast a guarded look at Felipe, but the boy looked pleased at the prospect. Diego’s feelings at the moment tended more towards alarm. “It’s very thoughtful of you, Victoria, but do you think it wise for Zorro to attend a public function of any sort?”
“Nonsense, it’s a splendid idea!” contradicted his father. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner.” He nodded encouragingly at the beautiful tavern keeper.
Reaching to refill his wineglass, she appeared to consider Diego’s words.
Diego knew she was debating whether they held genuine merit or were merely the product of the younger de la Vega’s cautious nature. His customary meek pose had its frustrations at times like this.
He could not very well tell Victoria Escalante the real reason for his opposition to a simple little party. She had presented her proposal to the friends whom she knew to be favorably disposed towards the hero some viewed as an outlaw. Everyone else was enthusiastic; Diego alone had found fault with the notion.
“With the alcalde out of town, I see nothing unwise in Zorro’s paying us a visit,” she said at last, setting down the filled glass. She turned to the man in the red and blue uniform of a lancer. “Do you foresee any danger, Sergeant?”
“Danger to Zorro?” Sgt. Mendoza laughed. “No, Señorita, I’m sure Zorro will be perfectly safe.”
“But your duty, Sergeant…”
“Si, Don Diego, ordinarily it would be my duty to arrest him, but Señor Zorro and I understand one another. On such a special occasion I can call a truce for a man who has acted in friendship towards me so many times. I can go back to trying to capture him again after the party.” Sgt. Mendoza’s amused expression turned somewhat dreamy. “Have you planned the menu yet, Señorita? I hope you will be making tamales. I am very fond of your tamales.”
Victoria smiled indulgently. “Yes, Sergeant, I will be sure to make you some tamales. And enchiladas. And a cake. We must have a big cake for Zorro.”
They were talking as though everything were settled. Diego was not ready to give up just yet. “It’s not just a question of danger to Zorro. The alcalde is apt to take reprisals against the townspeople when he returns to Los Angeles and learns what went on in his absence.”
“Then we will simply not tell him.” Victoria firmly dismissed Diego’s worries.
“Of course. Diego, all these objections! You are becoming far too serious.” Don Alejandro regarded his son in exasperation. “You must take some time to relax and enjoy life.”
“Father, I enjoy life very much. It is just that I fear…”
“Oh, have no fear, Don Diego. As the official representative of the government while the alcalde is away, I will make sure that everyone has a good time.” Straightening his jacket with an air of importance, Mendoza beamed at him.
“After all, you cannot speak for Zorro, my son. You might prefer the company of your books and your experiments, but Zorro is quite a different fellow.” The others all nodded in agreement with the don’s words.
“He has done so much for the people of Los Angeles,” Victoria said earnestly, “it is only right that we do something in return.”
“Yes, but a party’s hardly necessary. I’m sure he wouldn’t expect one,” Diego added weakly, realizing he was waging a losing battle.
“That’s why it’s called a surprise party, Diego. We don’t want him to expect it.” Victoria patted his shoulder condescendingly.
Diego looked around at the circle of determined faces. Obviously nothing he could say would sway them from their idea. He encountered the eyes of the one person who had not voiced an opinion.
Smiling gently at him and lifting his shoulders in a slight shrug, Felipe made a small Z with his forefinger, careful to let no one else see. That made it unanimous then.
Diego sighed and surrendered to the inevitable. If his friends were set on giving Zorro a party, then Zorro would have to find a way to attend. He just hoped he could manage a way for Diego de la Vega to be present at the same time.
“A little to the left, Sergeant, if you please. More, that’s it, right there.” Victoria nodded in satisfaction as Mendoza and Diego deposited the table bearing the cake in the center of the tavern.
“It is a beautiful cake, Señorita.” Smacking his lips in anticipation, Mendoza admired the elaborate confection.
“Yes, indeed, a veritable work of art. You must have worked on it for hours, Victoria,” Diego speculated.
“Oh, it did not seem like work. I enjoyed it. I hope Zorro will like it.”
“He could not possibly show such poor taste as not to.” Diego smiled at her. She looked enchanting in her yellow party dress, like a ray of sunshine caught for the evening to warm the tavern. “However, I still don’t see how you can be sure Zorro will come. Unless you have discovered his address, you cannot have sent him an invitation.”
“Do not be foolish, Don Diego,” Victoria scolded. “We spread word throughout the pueblo and the surrounding countryside that we needed his help tonight. He has never yet failed to appear when we needed him. He will come.”
“Señorita Escalante is right,” Don Alejandro affirmed. He looked elegant himself this evening in a stylish suit of the palest gray. “Zorro seems to keep himself well informed as to the state of affairs in Los Angeles. And even if he does not come,” he laughed, “we are here, the party will go on, and so the preparations will not be for nothing.” He clapped his son and Felipe jovially on their backs.
Diego grinned. “You’re right, as usual, Father.”
Felipe smiled and ducked his head, then followed Victoria to the kitchen to help bring out more food. Sgt. Mendoza trailed after them.
Everything was soon ready and the tavern filled with happy, celebrating people. In the crowd, no one noticed Don Diego quietly slip away.
“That’s odd—you do not look like people in trouble and in need of help,” a puzzled voice cut through the merrymaking.
The crowd faced the door from the kitchen where stood a masked man, dressed head to toe in his trademark black, curiously surveying the room.
Victoria was the first to recover. “Surprise!” she shouted, echoed immediately by the rest of the partygoers—though it appeared that it was rather they who had been taken by surprise by Zorro.
“Why, what is this?” he asked.
Victoria stepped forward. “It is a surprise party. For you, Zorro—to thank you for everything you have done for us and to show you how we feel about you.” A blush spread becomingly across her cheeks as she finished her welcoming speech.
“Why, Señorita, what a lovely thought. I am honored that you all wished to do this for me.” Zorro bowed courteously to the gathered crowd.
Suddenly the front door slammed open and the alcalde rushed into the room. “Aha!” he exulted. “I knew it. You thought you kept your secret so cleverly, but Luis Ramon is not so easily fooled. Zorro, you are under arrest!” He drew his sword.
“Must you be so tiresome, alcalde, as to ruin a perfectly good party?” With a sigh, Zorro drew his sword and assumed the en garde stance.
The alcalde charged at Zorro, who sidestepped and almost negligently parried the thrust of Ramon’s blade. “Really, Luis, you must overcome this tendency you show towards melodrama. A little less emotion and a little more technique would serve you far better.”
“I’ll show you technique!” Ramon bellowed. Turning, he charged once again.
The crowd backed off, clearing a space in the center of the floor for the combatants.
Zorro maintained a defensive posture, backing away as he skillfully blocked the alcalde’s every move. Steel rang against steel as the two swords met, slid, dodged, and met again. Under, over, to this side, to that—like an intricate dance, patterns laced through the air.
With each step, the alcalde became visibly more enraged. He ground his teeth as he followed Zorro around in a circle, trying unsuccessfully to penetrate that formidable guard. A sheen of sweat layered his brow.
Seeming to spy an opening at last, he lunged, only to find himself somehow pressed back and off balance. Zorro had lured him into a trap, switching effortlessly to the offensive. As Zorro’s sword swept dangerously close to Ramon’s ribs, he reeled back and knocked against the center table. The exquisite cake slid to the floor and the alcalde found himself sitting splat in a pile of sugary frosting.
Swish, swish, swish. The blade snicked out and slashed a Z in the alcalde’s expensive jacket.
Zorro stepped back and contemplated his handiwork. “You really should learn better party manners, alcalde. No wonder you’re not invited anywhere.” Sheathing his sword, he turned and bowed to Victoria. “My regrets, Señorita, that I must leave so soon, and my thanks for your gracious hospitality. Adios, amigos.” With a swirl of his cape, he was gone.
Struggling in the gooey pastry, the alcalde finally managed to haul himself upright. Before he could start after the outlaw, however, a foot was extended across his path, causing him to fall back into the goo. Smiling to himself, Felipe slipped unnoticed back into the crowd.
The alcalde spit cake from his mouth in fury. “Mendoza!!”
“Si, mi alcalde, I am coming. Here, let me help you.” Taking hold of Ramon’s arm, the Sergeant tried to lift him to his feet, but the slick surface made it difficult for him to keep his balance.
“Be careful, Sergeant!” Don Alejandro grabbed for Mendoza, but was too late to counterbalance the weight pulling at him. Both men were dragged down into the mess with the alcalde.
“Oh! Don Alejandro, are you all right?” Concerned, Victoria rushed to aid the older man, slipped, and landed in the heap with the others.
Thrashing about to disentangle themselves from each other resulted in covering them more thoroughly with the remains of the cake. With a howl of rage, the alcalde hefted a squishy glop and hurled it across the room. Finally Don Alejandro ceased struggling and sat, laughing at the ridiculous situation.
Victoria stared from one to the other and wailed in dismay. “My cake! My dress! My party! All ruined!”
Mendoza tried to comfort her. “Do not feel bad, Señorita,” he said, licking a glob of frosting off his moustache. “It is a very good cake.”
Victoria escaped to the kitchen, where she tried to wipe some of the frosting out of her hair. She stamped her foot in frustration at the way her beautiful party had turned out.
“I came to apologize, Señorita, for ruining your magnificent cake,” a voice murmured behind her.
She whirled to see the guest of honor standing behind her. “Zorro,” she breathed.
Stifling a smile, he scrutinized her sticky state. “What happened?”
She looked down at her bright party dress, now smeared with sugary streaks. “Mendoza tried to help the alcalde, and then Don Alejandro tried to help Mendoza, and then I tried to help him, and somehow, well… we all ended up in the cake.” Recounting the silly picture to him somehow restored her good humor and she giggled.
Abandoning all attempts to hide his smile, Zorro grinned openly at her. Victoria grinned back, then they began to laugh heartily together.
When the laughter died down to smiles, Victoria looked up at the man all the fuss had been over. “I am sorry your party was ruined, and before you could even taste the cake. It really was a very good cake.”
“It was a feast for the eyes, Señorita.” Placing a gloved finger beneath her chin, he gazed into the velvety depths of her dark eyes. “I prefer a taste far sweeter than your cake.” He bent down, word becoming deed as his lips sought hers.
Past the sugary residue still upon them, he savored the sweetness of the woman he loved. His arms enfolded her, pressing her body to his, heedless of the sticky mess soiling his impeccable black attire. He felt her heartbeat quicken against his, felt her return his ardor, adding immeasurably to the aching sweetness of his own. His yearning to stay with her yielded grudgingly to his judgment that it was time to leave. Someday… He pulled reluctantly away.
“I was right, Señorita. Intoxicatingly sweet.” He slowly raised her right hand and placed a soft kiss upon her palm. “Hasta luego.” He disappeared into the night.
She pressed her right hand to her heart. “Until later,” she repeated his farewell to the empty room.
“Victoria, everything’s pretty much cleaned up out here, so I’m going to take my father home now. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t need anything else before we left.”
Emerging from her distraction, she blinked at the man who had just entered the kitchen. “Oh no, thank you, Don Diego. I’m fine.” She looked him up and down.
He glanced down to see what could have caught her attention. His fine blue suit was immaculate as always.
“Don Diego, how is it you always manage to stay out of any trouble that comes around? You must be the only one of us to leave here tonight without a speck of cake on you anywhere.”
He shrugged. “Just lucky I guess. I’ll say good night then. Thank you for a lovely party.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, the party! The party was a disaster. You were right all along. I never should have attempted it. It was a foolish idea.”
“No. No, I was wrong.” He spoke fervently. “It’s never foolish to display gratitude and friendship. Even if there were a few more surprises than you planned, I’m sure Zorro appreciated the gesture.”
She smiled gently. “You know, I believe you are right. Thank you, Diego.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek as she left the room. “Good night.”
Lifting his hand to his cheek, he watched her walk away. “Good night,” he repeated softly to the empty room. “Sweet dreams.”