Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker




Ania and Diego face their greatest challenge yet from Capitán Rodriguez as they prepare for marriage.   The last installment of the Forge trilogy. 



A composite picture with two of the poses that Kel enjoyed.




Chapter 1


Ania Valdéz hummed to herself as she walked rapidly through the arbors in the vineyard, Pepe Mería at her heels. Several of the workers smiled as they watched her walk past. One had only to take note of the spring in her step and the look in her eyes to know that she was extremely happy right now. Many of them could have gone further and actually put a name to the young patrona's joy. She was quite clearly in love.

Ania stopped from time to time to look closely at the vines that were now in bloom, preparing for another year's crop. Finally, she stopped beside one vine that was covered with blossoms. She stood breathing in the fragrance of the blossoms and lightly running her fingers over the velvety texture of the petals, lost in thought. However, it was not the delicate flowers, which she saw now. Her mind was on the wonderful things which had happened since she had come home from Monterey, the look in Diego's eyes when he had first seen her the day she returned and the warmth of his kiss as she had thrown herself into his arms. The plans they were making together for the future were never far from her thoughts.

She came abruptly back to the present as Pepe began jumping up and down and pointing at the sky. However, when she turned and looked up, she saw nothing. "What, Pepe? What did you see? I do not see anything." Ania looked at the sky in puzzlement.

"Oh, Señorita Ania! You looked too late! I tried to get your attention but you acted like you did not even hear me!" Pepe declared. "I think it was a magic eagle! I wanted you to see it, too."

"A magic eagle? Where did you get an idea like that?" Ania smiled. "Eagles are very beautiful, but magical?"

"That's what José said that his grandfather says.” Pepe shaded his eyes, still trying to see the bird. "He says that God flies in the eagle."

"Oh, well! You must remember that the Great Spirit that José's grandfather talks of is not our Heavenly Father. It is good for you to respect José's grandfather, but do not get mixed up about the truth, Pepe," Ania said, softening her words with a smile.

Pepe shrugged, "I wish you could have seen it, patrona. It was beautiful." He looked at Ania with a slight frown. "You are getting to be just like my tía, María, always off in a dream or something."

"Oh, what is the matter with your aunt?" Ania inquired.

"She used to be nice, for a girl," Pepe made a face, "but since she fell in love she is no use at all."

"Oh, María is in love?" Ania hid a smile at the boy's reaction to the subject.

"Sí, patrona. She is going to marry Miguel Mendoza as soon as the banns are completed." Pepe looked disgusted. "She is so silly. All girls are!"

"Oh, Pepe, all girls cannot be that bad. I was a girl at one time, and your mamá was, too," Ania reminded him and then had to hide a grin as he reacted.

"Uuhhh!” the boy exclaimed as he wrinkled his nose in distaste. “They are silly and never want to do anything exciting. And most old women are even worse because they are always telling us boys what to do.  They just sit around and sew and do stuff that is no fun at all." Pepe paused as if evaluating his patrona. "You are different, patrona!"

"Uh, thank you, I think, Pepe," Ania said, wondering if Pepe was lumping her with the "old women". Twenty-two was not old, but to a child of not quite ten, it might appear so. "Why do you say I am different, Pepe?" she asked.

"You do things the way they should be done," Pepe said with a nod. "You ride really good and you are not afraid to ride a horse that is a little wild. You like to ride fast and to jump things that are in your way. I even heard someone say that you can shoot like a man and you get out here with all of us as we work. You do not sit up in the casa grande and just tell us what to do. You like us and we like you. I hope you do not get all silly like Aunt María. That would spoil everything, Señorita Ania!"

"Oh, why is that, Pepe? I doubt that I will change now," Ania reassured the boy.

Pepe looked at her silently for a moment as he pondered the meaning behind the word 'now" in her statement. "But we have always been friends, Señorita Ania," he finally said, almost plaintively.

Ania leaned down slightly so that she could meet Pepe's eyes on his level, "I promise that I will always be your friend, no matter what, as long as you want me for a friend. How is that?"

"I would like that, Señorita Ania," he finally said solemnly.

Ania looked up as she heard a soft footfall on the path behind her. Her face lit up as she saw the tall caballero striding between the lattices toward them. Smiling broadly, she walked rapidly to meet him. "Diego! I see you have gotten rid of that sling. I was hoping you would feel like riding out here today."

"Nothing was going to keep me from coming, even if the doctor had insisted I keep it on longer," Diego said as he walked up and took her hands in his.

Ania wanted to greet him a bit more warmly than a handclasp. However, she was very conscious of the half dozen or so pairs of eyes pretending not to watch them. She was well aware that, even though no formal announcement of their plans had yet been made, the news had quickly spread from the de la Vega servants to her workers. She smiled as she thought of the fact that she could not have hidden her feelings for Diego any longer, even if she had wanted to. She would, however, have to keep a tight rein on her actions. In the past, she had hardly given two pesos for the opinion of others, but now she wanted others to see in her the type of woman who would be a good wife for Alejandro de la Vega's only son. For this man, she would do anything.

"Did the doctor seem surprised at...uh...how well your shoulder has healed?" Ania asked carefully. She did not think anyone was close enough to overhear them, but she was being careful, nonetheless. She knew that Diego would know that she was asking if Dr. Mendoza had accepted that the now healed wound in his shoulder had been a puncture wound from hitting a small tree stump in a fall down a mountain.

"No, as a matter of fact, he said that I was just lucky that it did not make a large tear in the muscles there," Diego answered. "He said I had been very fortunate to have it heal so well."

Ania suddenly realized that Pepe had followed her and now stood quietly watching them. "Pepe," she suggested, "go tell your mother that I will be by to see her and little Nita later this evening."

"Sí, Señorita Ania," Pepe gave Diego an unreadable sidelong look and then turned without another word to do as she had said.

"What is the matter with Pepe?" Diego asked as he watched the child run down the path.

"I think he is afraid I will turn into an old woman," Ania replied with a smile.

"You mean since he has heard about us? Jealous, is he?" he said with a laugh.

"No, I do not think that is it exactly. I think he is just afraid something will change in the way I treat him," Ania looked in the direction Pepe had gone and shook her head. "As a matter of fact, things might change just a bit, but not in the way he thinks. I am thinking of offering to pay for his schooling at the mission. The boy is very bright. He deserves to have an education. Now that I have more of the money from the estate, I would like to help him. Ah, but I will miss having him follow me around here. Sometimes, when he tries to pull one of his tricks or gets into trouble with the others, he reminds me so much of Juan, and I guess, in some ways, of me at that age." Ania's face took on a wistful look.

Diego gently tucked her hand into the fold of his arm and lay his hand over hers, giving it a light squeeze. He knew that as twins, even though not identical, Ania and Juan had been extremely close. She still missed Juan terribly sometimes.

There were times when he knew that she still felt quite alone. However, she had done remarkably well for a woman who had lost every member of her immediate family during the last five years, two of whom she had seen murdered before her very eyes. Her delicate beauty and youthfulness belied the strength, the fire, within her. The knowledge that she had the kind of strength to share an uncertain future with him sometimes amazed him. Yet, he had seen beyond a doubt that it was a fact. Surely, there were not many people, male or female, who could have played the kind of dangerous games of deception she had for several weeks after he had been shot on that mission as Zorro. "Then sponsor Pepe, if that will please you. We have sponsored several of the children in the area and I do not believe we have ever had one that we were disappointed in," he assured her, even while he thought of these things about her, rather than the child.

Ania smiled as she moved just a bit closer to his side and lay her other hand on his arm. Together they walked back up the path at the end of one section of the vineyard, not saying a lot but merely savoring each other's company.

Soon the casa grande came into view as they stepped out of the closely set arbors onto the wider road between two sections of the vineyard. It looked quite impressive, sitting as it did on a broad, low plateau as the valley opened out toward the coast. Its red roof tiles showed up boldly against the whitewashed adobe walls, its windows reflecting the midday sun like gold. Ania looked at it thoughtfully as they walked. Carefully, she looked around to be sure that no one was close by. "Diego," she said quietly enough that only he could hear, "what are we going to do about my hacienda?"

Diego looked at her in surprise. "What do you mean 'do about your hacienda'?" he asked.

"I mean, we really need to stay where we are now. You need to be near those tunnels," Ania looked at him intently.

"I'm sure everyone will be expecting us to move into yours," he replied.

"Diego, you know it is not going to be an easy place to come and go from without being seen," Ania said, troubled. "They must have chiseled that basement out. You will not find any tunnels dug up on that plateau. And being up, silhouetted against the sky like it is sometimes...."

"Ania, do not worry. I will figure something out," Diego reassured her.

"No, Diego." Ania shook her head. "It will be better if I come up with some reason for us not to move here. I accept that you must take certain chances in doing what you feel is needed. However, I will not add to that the danger of your being seen just coming home to me." She looked back at the casa grande ahead of them. It was beautiful, but it had never been a home to her. Most of the design had been her father's and now it was far more important to her that her home meet Diego's needs as well as hers. Still, it would be expected. The problem would bear much thought. She frowned, "Well, I suppose something will occur to me as time goes on."

"Ania, you do not have to have an immediate answer for everything," Diego said with a smile. "Some things will work themselves out as we go along."

"I suppose you are right," Ania said as they began to climb the steps up the terraced sides of the plateau.

Diego cocked an eyebrow at her and smiled teasingly, "You will find, querida, that I am very often right. You will do well to remember that when you wish to argue a point."

"Oh, is that so?" Ania made a playful face at him. "You know, I might just have a habit of forgetting that. Oh, but I am sure I will be able to depend on you to remind me of that fact, sí?"

"Oh, sí! Of that and other things, too," Diego laughed as he opened the patio gate for her. He looked chagrined as they came face to face with some of Ania's workers putting finishing touches to the walls.

Ania laughed. She had an idea that what Diego wished to remind her of was not about his being right about something, nor was his reminder to have been in words. She cleared her throat and said, "Come see what has been done in the sala area."

Diego followed her inside with a twinkle in his eyes, but without a word.

Once inside, Ania pretended to be totally unaware that he wished her to stand still or better yet, to come back beside him. She flitted from one thing to another, making idle talk. Diego finally stopped and stood with his arms crossed, just looking at her. "What?" Ania said innocently. "Well, you wanted to see the improvements, did you not?" She widened her eyes as if she had no idea why he was displeased.

Diego silently gestured for her to come back across the room.

Ania smiled mischievously, but stood where she was.

"Hmmm," Diego said thoughtfully, "it would seem I must teach you the meaning of the term 'obey'."

"Oh, I'm not sure that word is in my vocabulary, Señor de la Vega!" Ania teased. "Do you think someone as headstrong as I can learn it?"

"Perhaps with the right reward," Diego suggested with a smile.

Ania appeared to consider it for a moment, then stepped toward him.

Diego reached for her, but just as he bent to kiss her, the door opened and Bernardo entered the room. Bernardo shrugged apologetically, but made no move to go back out.

Ania sighed, "It seems my teasing has had its own form of punishment."

Diego merely looked at her and laughed. "Remember that the next time we are alone," he finally said. "Not that it happens too often lately," he continued with a hard look at Bernardo. "One would think that my father had given you instructions to be chaperone as well as my manservant lately."

Bernardo merely shrugged, neither confirming nor denying that Don Alejandro might have suggested that it might be good if Ania and Diego were 'protected from slander' a bit more than they had been.

Ania looked thoughtfully at Bernardo, "Well, that would go along with the fact that Don Alejandro has once again suggested that I might wish to hire a dueña."

Diego looked at her in surprise. "What did you tell him?"

"The same thing I told him when he first suggested it a year ago," Ania replied, "that I knew of no other 'lady' who could keep up with me in all that I must do, thank goodness! That is the last thing that I want under any circumstances. I need no one watching over me like a hawk." Ania looked hard at Bernardo and then mischievously at Diego. She grinned. "And as far as Bernardo embarrassing me into not doing as I wish..." she said as she glanced at the uneasy manservant, "I think not." She then stepped up to Diego, defiantly placed her arms around his neck and kissed him soundly.

Bernardo shook his head and looked at her sternly, yet his eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.

Ania smiled innocently back.

Diego could only laugh at the two as he said, "Bernardo, it appears that we both will have our hands full with this little wild one." Looking at Ania, he felt a deep joy. He could certainly never be bored with this woman. She never ceased to surprise him.

Ania did, however, step back quickly as another servant came in with a message in her hands. For all her teasing, she did wish to be careful of anything that might reflect on Diego's reputation, as well as her own. "Ah, a message, Teresa?" she said as the woman walked up.

"Sí, patrona," Teresa replied. "The messenger said it had been sent from San Pedro Harbor...a Capitán Rojas."

"Gracias, Teresa," Ania said as she took the note.

“Is there anything else you want me to do now, patrona?” the servant asked.

“No, thank you, Teresa.  Not right now,” Ania replied.

 The maid smiled and, with the slightest bow, left, closing the door behind her.

Only then did she break the seal and quickly read the note. "Well, it seems that the furniture and other things that had been in storage in Monterey have begun arriving." She looked up at Diego. "The capitán asked that I come to the dock and sign for the first shipment before he unloads them. I guess this means that I must really try to make a decision about this casa." She frowned.

"I see no reason to hurry," Diego reassured her. "There will be plenty of time for that later. Let us get your things in here first, then we will reach a decision, together." He stressed the last word and Ania looked up with a look of wonder in her eyes. She was still not quite used to the idea that his life was intertwined with hers, not only in the big plans they would make, but also in the little irritations and decisions of life as well. For a moment, she did not speak, but merely looked at him as she took in the newness of the feeling.

"When do you wish to go to San Pedro?" he asked, automatically indicating that he was going to go with her to help her if she needed it, or merely to keep her company if she did not.

Ania walked back and tucked her arm in his. She looked back deeper into the room, visualizing the furniture to be placed there. She sighed as she thought again of the decision she needed to make. "Tomorrow," she stated. "Tomorrow is soon enough to have to worry about that. I will think about it later. I am enjoying today too much to bother now."

"Then tomorrow it is," Diego assured her as he opened the door for them all to go back out into the springtime sunlight. "Today is just to enjoy."



Chapter Two
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