The summer had come with a blast of heat, making siesta long and the adults drowsy.
Diego had escaped his tutor, as the man had overslept, climbing out the window of his room and down the vine that climbed the terrace outside. The ten-year-old was dark and very Spanish looking, with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes.
There were no adults in sight, all caught off guard by the sudden start of summer. They were all still asleep or struggling to get going once again. He darted from cover to cover, sticking to the shade as if hiding from authority. Which he really was if he stopped to think about it. Someone in his father's employ would scoop him up with a laugh and deliver him back to afternoon classes. He wanted to spend the afternoon in the treehouse.
He knew his friend didn't have lessons and there was no school in the village. Ramon would be at the treehouse. Diego hoped his friend hadn't dragged his elder sister into the game or had been forced to. She was alright, and up for anything adventurous, but boys knew the games better. Ramon was younger than he was and easier to command. He'd do anything he asked, or even suggested. An adoring fan, he craved an elder brother's patronage, and his own brother was dismissive. His sister was different and could be difficult.
"Ramon!" He shouted as he approached the ancient tree. The boy let down the rope ladder, and he scaled it in seconds. His eyes fell on the form of Ramon's sister, and he flushed a little. Victoria always made him nervous. She was a year younger than him, and just under a year older than Ramon. He felt she was already braver than he was, which was sometimes awe-inspiring and sometimes downright annoying.
"Hello," Diego said and turned his attention to his friend. Ramon was gathering the wooden swords from their hiding spots and presenting them.
"I don't know. Father might be upset if Ramon gets hurt," Victoria said seriously. Ramon looked disappointed. They all knew that being the youngest of a family came with drawbacks after seeing Ramon's life up to that point.
"We don't hurt each other, Victoria. Not really. They're not sharp."
"Well, I suppose so."
He didn't need her approval anyway, Diego told himself, frowning. Ramon was happy again, and he was happy too. The boys scampered down the ladder, to the ground below.
"En garde," he said dramatically. "Ramon, do the sword thing. We'll have a duel."
The wooden swords clashed with clunk sounds, and after a few minutes, they had thrown them away and were scuffling on the dirt. Victoria climbed down the rope ladder, with some difficulty with the long skirts of her dress.
"Stop it!" She shouted, grabbing her brother out of the fight, narrowly missing a blow from the other boy. "Look at yourselves."
They were covered in dust, and Diego's shirt had been torn at the cuff.
"Ramon could have been hurt," Victoria admonished. "Is anyone bleeding?"
"Oh come on, I am not a baby. I am NOT a baby," Ramon said, with feeling. "You can't treat me like a baby. Don't go easy on me. I'll have you."
"Stop it, Ramon. She is right. Why do you do this every time?" Diego said with exasperation. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings or whatever happened."
Victoria glanced from one boy to the other. "What happened?"
"I don't know. He wanted to punch me," Diego said with a shrug. "I was trying to stop him. I really wish I had hurt him now." Their game had been spoiled.
"People treat me like I am five, I'm not, I am ten now, and I should be allowed to do things. I am almost as old as Diego. Can't we play and not get told off?"
"That wasn't playing, Ramon. That was fighting. Come on, we need to go home. Father will be looking for us by now. He'll need help in the tavern."
She gave Diego a hard look and grabbed her brother. "Goodbye, Diego. Say goodbye, Ramon." Ramon clamped his mouth shut and turned away.
"Goodbye," Diego said grudgingly. He was alone again, and he hated it. He grabbed the wooden swords and clambered up the ladder again. He packed them away, remembering it was important to look after swords, as his father always said. Then he flopped down on his stomach to mope about being lonely.
One day people would notice him, and he'd have so many friends when he was the best swordsman in the whole world. He took out a book on geography and read some, and then tossed it aside. He picked up another on Robin Hood, an English legend, and read enthralled for hours. Getting caught in the story he forgot his loneliness, enthralled by the archer and his friends.
"Diego!" A stern voice came from under the tree. He peeked out the window and noticed the gathering dusk. His father stood underneath.
"Get down here, Senor Roderico has been looking everywhere for you." His father sounded stern, but his eyes twinkled. His son had an audacious streak that would surely come in handy for future years, and he admired it secretly. "Schoolwork is very important. You will go to University one day."
Diego scampered down the ladder obediently. "Sorry, Father. I will try better next time."
"Of course." His father said with a half-smile as they walked back to the hacienda.
They were so much older now. It was a fond memory, Diego thought, rubbing the bark of the old tree gently. They were adults now, not children at play. He wondered how much Victoria remembered.
"We played here as children. Do you remember, Diego?"
"Not much," Diego lied. He remembered a lot of things. How Ramon had given him a black eye the next time he lost his temper, how he had broken an arm falling from the highest part of the tree, how Victoria had seemed so sad when he had to leave for University so far away in Madrid.
"You and Ramon used to play with swords. Always coming home dirty. Mother had died and I had to clean him up."
"I didn't think of that. I'm sorry Victoria."
She laughed and leaned against the tree. "It was over fifteen years ago at least, Diego. It surely doesn't matter now. Boys are boys."
And men are men. Diego took a deep breath. "There is something else I need to apologise for, Victoria."
"What would that be?" She murmured. Diego hadn't realised how close she had moved towards him until her breath caressed his face. He held himself still, resisting the urge to startle back to break the moment.
"I haven't told you something I should have told you a long time ago. Maybe even the last time we were here."
"What could that be?" Victoria moved back slightly. She almost slipped on the soft ground, and he reached out to steady her. His arm held her a little too long for everyday protection. He seemed trapped in her eyes, unable to look away, his arms unable to let go.
"I love you, Victoria. I have loved you forever, and there is nothing else I can think about. I have tricked you into believing I don't…"
"Diego, I have known for about a year that you are not all you seem," she said softly. She melted slightly into his half embrace, and his left arm added to the embrace. She leaned against his chest and breathed. His heart was loud and impossibly fast to his own ears, and who knows what she could hear with her head right there?
"What...what do you mean?"
"I've heard a saying. 'If you cannot clothe yourself in the skin of a lion, put on that of a fox!' Have you heard that before, Diego?"
He had heard that before. He had said that to himself before, many times. What did she mean?
"I know, Diego. I know."
She knew? How much did she know? What had given him away? What did it mean?
"Will you ask me to marry you now or when we are in our dotage?"
Their eyes met. Those eyes that had always challenged him, dared him, worshipped him. They were playing, pleading, and daring him now.
He breathed in the rose-scented perfume that surrounded her. He sighed, grinned, and accepted defeat.
He took a deep breath and knelt in the evening dusk. "I believe you already have the engagement ring," he said with a slight smile. "The one 'he' gave you when 'he' proposed…"
She nodded shocked into silence. She removed the string around her neck and tipped the emerald ring into his outstretched palm.
"Victoria Escalantes, would you give me the honour of your hand in marriage? I will love and protect you until the day I die. I have loved you for most of my life, and I know I have made mistakes, and if you can…"
She was already kissing his mouth, removing the words. His embrace firmed as he returned the passion of a long-delayed kiss.
There was no need for more words. The answer was yes.