Ring of Fire
|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.
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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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.
maid smiled and, with the slightest bow, left, closing the door behind
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
"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."
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