Anvil of Iron
Ania looked around the room in frustration. Señor Marcos was turning into a most irritating man to deal with. It was understandable that, coming from as far away as he had, he would try to have more than one client's business to attend to while he was in Monterey. However, the man was a stickler when it came to schedules. When he and Ania were unable to complete their business during the first meeting, he stated that it was impossible for him to see her again for the next two days. Other people were scheduled for his attention until then, and that was that.
On top of this, Señor Marcos had an exasperating habit of talking down to her as if she was a flighty child with only fluff for brains. The fact that she had established and ran the Rancho Valdéz alone made not the slightest impression on him. There were times when Ania felt like breaking one of the crutches he kept nearby over his head. However, she remained on her best behavior, merely restating her wishes firmly and politely when he tried to influence her decisions in a different direction. There were some issues he refused to even accept her word on, such as the selling of all the family lands still held in Spain.
"My child," he said, as he patted her hand in a fatherly way. "You can not possibly realize what all is involved in selling such an estate and remember, much of this property goes with the titles inherited down the family line. It cannot be sold to just anyone. Why, if you were to marry and bare sons...."
"If I were to marry and have sons, Señor Marcos, they would be Californianos and would have neither the need nor the desire to return to Spain to live in one of the old casas grandes. My land is here and my life is here now. I have absolutely no intention of ever returning to Spain, either, so it is logical to sell it. Surely, someone else of my mother's or father's families would like to have them," Ania stated as clearly as she could.
"Oh, but my dear, I firmly believe you should discuss this with, perhaps, one of your father's uncles, or maybe, at least your cousin, Ramón Córdoba. He told me before I left St. Augustine that he was being sent to California to discuss trade and security issues of mutual interest to Florida and California. Don Ramón was made a representative of the king when he was in Spain last year. Had you heard that?" Señor Marcos turned a patient look on her.
"No, I had not. The last I heard from Ramón, he was finishing his schooling and returning to Florida to take a government position there. That has been some time ago. It is good news," Ania said with a smile. Ramón had been one of the few cousins she had spent much time with as they grew up. He had been almost like another brother to her.
"Well, he intended to take a ship here perhaps a month or six weeks after mine, so within the next couple of months, he should arrive. I will draw up the papers and leave them with him. If you are still determined to sell the estate after you talk with him, you may sign them and he can see that they are carried out." Marcos' manner clearly showed that he felt that Ramón would talk some sense into his cousin's head.
"I really do not feel that it is necessary," Ania began.
"Now, you must not be hasty in this. Surely, you will need advice on this and time to think it over," Marcos interrupted.
"Señor Marcos," Ania started angrily, only to stop and make an effort to control her temper. She was well aware that she was the only member of her family left. A display of ill temper would reflect on her father in this case. For the sake of the family honor, she would refrain from telling this pompous fool what was in her mind now.
"Oh, my!" Señor Marcos exclaimed as he looked at his watch. "I really must continue this at another time. I always rest at this time of day, and after that I have a conference with the governor. Shall we meet again, say the day after tomorrow?"
"What? Now see here, Señor Marcos, I do have a rancho to run." Ania, again, had to struggle to keep her temper.
"Oh, very well then," Marcos allowed with a sigh. "I will fit you in tomorrow at 2:00 o'clock. We should be able to finish up then. Buenos dias, Señorita Valdéz." With that, he rose and awkwardly bowed as Ania took her leave.
To pass the time, Ania checked on the furniture and other things that had been shipped here from the plantation in Florida. As she was making arrangements to have it shipped on to Los Ángeles, she noticed a large crate with the word 'Tela' painted on the side. Cloth? she wondered. Why would father have a crate of cloth shipped here? Curious, she had the crate opened. Inside were a fair number of bolts of fine fabrics--silks, satins, brocades, and laces. I am sure Papá was not interested in becoming a merchant. Why so much cloth? Then the answer occurred to her, bringing a slight smile of memory, as well as the sting of tears to her eyes.
Ania remembered standing at the rail of a ship looking up at the stars and making wishes with Juan the night before they had gotten to San Pedro harbor. Juan had laughingly told her that Papá was encouraging him to find someone to marry and settle down with. It seemed that Papá had truly been set on it. This cloth, more than likely, was to have been his gift to Juan for his prospective bride. If a woman was determined to have a whole set of fancy dresses and gowns for her wedding and the fiesta days that followed, she often had to wait for shipments of the material to be shipped from Spain and her allies. It sometimes took as long as a year for her to have everything she wanted and for the wedding to take place. In his own way, Miguel Valdéz has been just as impatient as any of his children. This cloth had been his way of assuring that when Juan chose the young señorita, it would not take a year before Don Miguel had a young daughter-in-law. Oh, Papá, Ania thought with a pang. It will not quite be as you planned, but these still may shorten a wait if things go as I pray they do. She quickly made sure the crate was on the list for the first shipment to Los Ángeles. Now if I can get Señor "Leadbritches" Marcos to hurry things up a bit. I have had enough of Monterey.
Ania arrived at Señor Marcos' office several minutes before the appointed hour and tried to compose herself to wait. Restlessly, she rose and walked to a window some distance from the door. Finally, at about a minute until two, the door opened. Ania turned to speak to Señor Marcos, when she suddenly realized that he was escorting another woman and a man from his office, and that none of them had seen her from where she stood far to the side.
"Thank you for coming, Señor Verdugo. I am sure Don Esteban will be very pleased for us to have come to this agreement. The Miro lands produce a great deal of cane. I imagine he will be able to ship fairly large shipments of sugar to California each year, or at least, the syrup that can be rendered into sugar here. This trade shall be very advantageous for Florida and California both, I am sure. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, and Anna María, it has definitely been a pleasure meeting you. If you are an example of what Monterey has to offer, I can only say that I wish I were a younger man." Señor Marcos said with a bow over the young woman's hand.
Ania lost whatever the two replied in her shock at hearing the young woman's name. Verdugo...Anna María! she gasped to herself. On the long ride to Monterey, she had thought about the fact that the woman that Diego had once loved was here, but since arriving, she had truly not thought about it. Now to be in the same room with her left her speechless. Ania even forgot to speak or clear her throat to draw attention to herself as the two made their way out the door. She could only stare.
Ania had to admit that Anna María was beautiful. Perhaps a little taller than Ania and a bit older, with flashing dark eyes, and a grace of movement that made Ania wonder if she herself might be just a touch awkward in comparison. She felt a little flame of jealousy flare up in her heart. Then she remembered how Diego had said that it had been for the best and that the future had held better for him as it was. The words in Diego's note that she even now carried with her comforted her as she thought of them. It was she he loved now and that was what mattered. Instead of fearing and being jealous of Anna María, perhaps she should be feeling sorry for her. After all, she had her chance. All she had had to do was reach out and take what had been offered and happiness would have been hers, Ania thought. In her blindness, she threw that chance away. How could she have listen to Zorro's voice and professed to love him, yet not thrilled to the sound of Diego's voice? How could she dream of Zorro and not have seen his smile in Diego's? Others, thankfully, have no reason to see that, but if she had truly loved him, her heart would have made that connection. No, I shall not feel sorry for her either. Her loss is my gain and I am very glad that she was so blind. Ania told herself finally. Still, had she admitted it to herself, she was very glad that Anna María was here, and she and Diego were in Los Ángeles. With a proud lift of her head, Ania finally shook herself from her shock. Thinking of these things had merely made her realize once again how much she missed Diego, with or without Zorro. It was time she was going home. Resolutely, she marched to Señor Marcos' once again closed door and knocked. It was time to get things finished here and get on with her life.
Finally, the next morning they were able to load the carriage and head back. Scattered throughout the carriage were various false-bottomed pieces of luggage that were considerably heavier than they looked. Each hid a large amount of money shipped from Florida with Señor Marcos.
The slow pace of the carriage strained at Ania's patience. Even after having given in to the urge to ride Ventura rather than sit in the carriage, as was proper, the pace was still slow if she was to remain with the carriage. It had been nearly a month since she had seen Diego. With every mile covered back southward, her heart told her that she was getting closer to where he was. At last, she could stand the snail's pace of the carriage no longer. On the morning of the last day they were to be on the road, she rose and had Bastián join her as she rode on ahead, as fast as Ventura wanted to carry her. By mid morning, some hours before the coach would arrive, they reined up to the gate of the Hacienda de la Vega. Carefully, she held her impatience in as she saw that Ventura was being cared for and while the servants greeted her. She thought she was doing a fair job of appearing calm and not overly anxious, yet, almost as soon as Crescencia and Rosita greeted her, Ania asked where Diego was. The coincidence that Diego had done almost the same thing when he had arrived and asked about Ania was not lost on the two servants.
"I have not seen Don Diego this morning, Señorita Ania," Rosita told her. "I think that he is still resting. He is still not totally himself after his accident. He will probably be down soon."
"Oh, sí, I suppose that would be so, would it not?" was all that Ania said. She did not see the pleased smiles exchanged by the two servants.
I will bet that his room is just where he is not right now, Ania told herself. The sala was too busy for her to get to the secret door, but after a few minutes, Ania managed to get to the cabinet in the library with no one seeing her. She hurried as quickly and quietly as she could through the passage to the cave, pausing at the end of the tunnel.
Diego and Bernardo were still discussing the confrontation Zorro had had with Vásquez and Rodríguez, having only recently gotten back home. Diego had his back to the tunnel, but Bernardo saw Ania almost immediately, and smiling broadly, reached to tap his patrón on the shoulder to direct his attention to her. Ania shook her head, indicating that she wished to surprise him. Bernardo, still smiling, quietly walked back up the tunnel, leaving them alone.
Diego stood for a moment lost in thought. He was still concerned that he had not eliminated Rodríguez's threat. Yet, what else could he do? He refused to make a murderer out of Zorro. Slowly, he became aware of the fragrance of sweet herbs, the same ones that had perfumed Ania's note. With a delighted smile and a cry of joy, he turned toward her. "Ania!." he began.
However, he got no further as Ania closed the distance between them and he caught her in his arms. She knew that this was not what people would say that she should have done. It was no ladylike response. Yet as she turned her lips up to his, she knew that she did not care what other people thought, only what Diego thought of her. The strength of his embrace and the feel of his lips on hers told her all she needed to know of what he thought.
Ania was more than a bit breathless as their kiss ended, her heart beating out its own cadence of excitement. Neither spoke for a moment, merely standing with their arms around each other. It thrilled and amazed her to think that she might have the same effect on him that he did on her, for as he held her tightly to him she could feel that his heart was beating no less rapidly than her own. As she felt the security of his strong arms around her, she thought, Ah, let all the rest of the family fight over the lands and estates in Spain. I am right where I should be. All of the gold and land in Europa and Norteamerica combined are not worth as much as this man. Nothing is!
At the same instant, they each started to say how much the other had been missed. Then they stopped, laughing at their timing. Finally, Diego put it in words for both of them. "It has been a terribly long month, Ania. I never dreamed how quiet this house could be without you in it. I am so glad you are back, querida."
For a second, Ania stood silently, wanting only to enjoy the sound of his voice. It seemed so long since she had heard it. The emotion in his words and the love reflected in the green-gold depths of his eyes filled her senses, like the laughing water of a fountain filled a patio with the joy of its sound. “Diego, I have missed you so very much, as if a part of my very soul were separated from me. I have thought about you almost constantly since we have been apart,” she finally cried.
"Have you also thought about our situation, Ania? Really thought about everything involved?" he asked, suddenly serious. As Ania nodded, he continued. "I've given a lot of thought to the danger you would be in, Ania. I must do everything I can to see that you are safe."
Dios mío! Is he really going to say that we must stay apart? Ania thought in panic. I cannot let this happen! "Wait, Diego! Wait!" she cried. "Do not say anything else. Just listen to me!"
"Ania, just hear me out," Diego tried to continue, but Ania refused to be stopped. Finally, he smiled, somewhat bemused at her. "All right, Aniasita, I will listen to you first." Calmly, he led her to the table and sat down, looking up at her.
Ania stood for a moment looking at him, and almost forgot all the things she had practiced for the past month. However, there were, at least, two things she had thought of that were such a part of her that she could just open her mouth and the words would come. "I have thought of very little else since you left than the answer to why we should take this gamble," she finally began.
"You made me promise to truly consider what could happen if the worse came. I have done that. I forced myself to actually imagine what it would be like to feel a hangman's noose placed around my neck and the platform drop away under me. I imagined what that would be like for you to have to witness that. More horrible for me, I also thought about if the situation were reversed. However it happened, it would be our own hell here on earth, with nothing between the heaven of loving each other and the hell of disaster. I accept that it could truly happen and that our very lives are the stakes in this gamble. But, Diego, I still accept that gamble rather than turn my back on it."
Diego started to speak, but Ania rushed on. "There are several reasons I can give you. One is that I really do not feel that I will be more in danger here than in my own hacienda. I should have listened to you about Rodríguez long before I did. I think now, he will keep watching me, looking for a way to get revenge on me no matter where I am. The only difference would be the awful loneliness I would face, even though the distance between us physically would not be great. It would feel to me like a thousand miles." Again Diego started to speak. Ania gently lay her finger against his lips, “Hush, mi amor, por favor. You did promise to listen to me first and…and...well, my heart is so full that I must speak my piece or it shall explode within my very chest!” When he turned her hand and lightly kissed it, she swallowed and seemed to almost have trouble speaking again. Finally, to recover her thoughts, she looked down. She missed the smile that Diego quickly hid as he listened.
"Also, you called this a gamble and it is. But what you do not seem to take into account is that ALL of life is a gamble for a woman. Think about it, Diego. Most women more or less marry a man chosen for them by their parents. Regardless of their good intentions, there is always the chance that the man will not grow to love and cherish her. If he does not, she is just as truly married to him for life as if he did. If she is so lucky as to be loved and to love in return, she still gambles her life each and every time she gives her husband a child. My own mother gambled that way...two times she won the gamble, the third, with Juan and me, she lost. The only way a woman can win is to love the man she is with so much that any time they have is worth the risk."
Ania was quiet for just a moment, then went on. "Luisa told me that shortly before my mother died, she realized that she was dying. My father was almost in a panic and guilt ridden, as well. He thought, maybe, if he had not brought my mother to West Florida, with it's lack of doctors, fevers, and unrest, that she might have been stronger, safer. Even as she grew weaker, Mamá tried to comfort him, to reassure him that she would not have changed anything. Her last words to him were that she had no regrets. My parents' love went with my father until the day he died, regardless of the intrusion of one stepmother whose being I myself probably brought about. They had actually had less than ten years as husband and wife, yet it lasted my father's lifetime." Ania looked intently into Diego's eyes as he stood and took hold of her arms. "I guess what I want to say is that I do not care how great the danger is, or how short the time we have, if things go wrong. If it is a lifetime, a year, a day, if we are together, I will have no regrets. Just do not send me away!" Words began to tumble out as she came to the end of her logic and was left with only her feelings.
"Ania, marry me," Diego said softly.
For a minute, Ania did not hear him, so intent was she on her arguments. "All I know is that this is where I belong."
Laughing, Diego pulled her to him, and once again, kissed her to make her hush. "Mujer, I think you are beginning to plan it so that I have to do that," he said after a moment with a smile.
"What? What did you say?" Ania asked.
"I said that you have convinced me. Well, actually if you had let me speak, I would have said that once you discovered Zorro’s secrets and involved yourself by helping him, by putting yourself between me and Rodríguez when I was unable to defend myself, just as Bernardo did, the danger became a part of your life, too. I would have shielded you from that danger if I could, but now it is something we must face together. I have come to realize the same thing about you being as safe here as there now. Bernardo was smart enough to point that out to me. And you are right, too. It is a gamble we must take. We are already too much a part of each other's life not to." He laughed again. "Even Paseo had sense enough to take me to you without being told that day when I just showed up at your hacienda after we argued, the day that you discovered Manolito hiding at your hacienda."
"You mean you let me go on like that and you were going to tell me...." Ania hit him lightly on the chest as he nodded yes. "Why did you not stop me before now?"
Diego grinned, "Well, beside having you insist that I wait, maybe I was hoping I would get a chance to stop you just as I did."
Ania looked at him in amused surprise.
"Well?" he asked after a moment.
"Well, what?" Ania asked confused.
"I also asked you to marry me, and you have yet to answer," he said as he gave her a mock frown. "Has the weaver of words been struck speechless?" he finally asked as Ania stood looking at him. "Or, does this require a more traditional approach?"
To her astonishment, he started to go down on one knee.
"Oh, Diego! Get up! That will not be necessary. Oh, sí, sí, sí!" she laughed as she pulled him back to his feet. A thrill went through her as she saw the look in his eyes and knew that he was as happy as she was right then.
Kissing her again, he suggested, "Then let us go and make my father a happy man." He shook his head as he looked down at himself. He still had to change from the black outfit. "I will meet you up there in the sala. Father should be back from the pueblo by now." He smiled at her happily as she paused at the entrance to the tunnel and looked back. "Well, go on. I will come as quickly as I can!"
Ania went back out through the library and went to her room long enough to change clothes and clean up before coming back down to the sala. As she entered, Don Alejandro stood and greeted her warmly. While they talked, Ania gave him only the barest of descriptions of her trip.
"Ania, is anything wrong?" he asked. "You seem nervous." He frowned. She was certainly acting unlike herself. However, as he watched her, he began to realize that Ania frequently looked toward the cabinet that hid the secret entrance.
"Wrong? Oh, no, Don Alejandro, I am fine," Ania insisted. Ania tried to appear calm as she continued talking. She casually picked up her needlepoint and began working to keep her hands occupied as she waited. "Ai!" she cried, dropping the needlepoint back into her lap, having immediately stuck her finger with the needle. Perhaps this was not the time for this sort of craft.
In all the time I have known her, I have never seen her like this. Hmmm, I wonder, Don Alejandro thought to himself as he watched her once again look toward the cabinet. A moment later, his question was answered by the look he saw pass between Ania and Diego as his son stepped into the room from the passageway.
Diego never took his eyes from Ania's as he walked across to her side. Taking her hand, he turned to his father, at last. "Father, Ania and I have something to speak to you about," he began.
"Well, it is about time!!" Alejandro startled them by saying. "I was about ready to decide I would have to drug you both and stand you before the priest myself."
Ania had to laugh with Diego as he looked at her and said, "Sounds like Father has had this on his mind for a long time. Do you suppose he knew something before we did, Ania?" Then he broke into that marvelous grin that she so loved.
As she saw the pride and joy in Don Alejandro's
eyes as he looked at them, and looked up to see the love and happiness in
the hazel eyes of the man to whom she had given her heart, Ania realized
that she had never been happier in her life. After all she had come
through, she was where she had been destined to be. She was truly home, at