Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker





Chapter Eleven

The next day, Ania seemed to be everywhere at once in the hacienda. Everything had to be perfect, from the sala and dining room, which naturally had to be ready for the company, to the cellar and upper rooms, which made no sense to the servants since the company would have no reason for being in these rooms. However, necessary or not, Ania saw that it was done. As understanding as the young patrona usually was, they were all seeing that there were times that you just did not test her patience. By mid-afternoon, the hacienda gleamed like a castle, with flowers in all the lower rooms and all the candles trimmed and ready.

Ramón had watched all her preparations with great interest. He seemed to find Ania's attitude, about which he was not fooled for an instant, rather amusing. Why she should be in such a state over Anna María was a puzzle to him. After all, even if Diego had paid her court two years ago, the young woman still seemed set on seeing this outlaw, Zorro, did she not? Finally, Ramón had shrugged and given up trying to make sense of it. He supposed he would never understand everything about women. He had not before his wife had died, and he certainly could not claim to now. He soon found that it was simply easier to stay out of Ania's way during all the hustle and bustle. It was definitely a great deal more peaceful.

When she retired to her room to rest during siesta, Ania spent considerably more time deciding on what to wear than she did resting. She finally chose a dress of green silk. At her cuffs and the slightly low neckline, were touches of soft white lace. The effect, along with a tall comb of mother of pearl, was anything but simple. There! she thought. I will not be outshone in my own hacienda.

Ania fretted when Diego did not come as he so often did at siesta time. She hoped this did not mean that Zorro had been needed. It would be hard enough playing her part with Diego here. Without him, the temptation to speak her mind would be almost too great. She tried to remind herself that Anna María would be very disappointed in this trip to Los Ángeles and was to be pitied, but she was having trouble feeling truly charitable toward her. The fact that Anna María had told some of the servants that she wished to see Zorro and asked that they tell anyone who might be able to get the word to him, had not improved Ania's mood in the least.

However, when Ania and Ramón met their guests at the head of the steps leading up to the front of the hacienda, Ania's gracious manner was irreproachable. Her attitude and actions would have been welcome in any court on earth. Indeed, as he watched her, Diego decided that court was exactly where she had learned it all. He wondered just how deeply hidden under the illusion her true feelings ran. Hopefully, far enough that nothing unexpected would occur. The fact that even he did not sense any animosity in Ania's words or actions was not truly comforting. He knew Ania well enough to know that even with him, she could completely disguise her true feelings, and his senses told him that he should stay close to her side.

His staying close to her was just what Ania wished. She tried to push her jealousy out of her mind, and succeeded as long as he was with her. She was actually beginning to enjoy the role of hostess.

As they sat at the long oak table being served, Ania said, making conversation, "Monterey seemed to be a very pleasant place to live, Anna María. I was there only a couple of months ago myself."

"Oh, really? You did not mention that before," Anna María replied. "Yes, I am very fond it, although Monterey is not as lively as what you must have experienced in Spain."

"I quite prefer Monterey, or anywhere in Alta California, to Spain," Ania said dryly. "As for being lively…well, I have heard that the capital has had its times. I am sure it would have enough excitement for me."

"Sí, I suppose that to one raised in West Florida, Monterey might seem very lively indeed," Anna María commented as she met Ania's eyes with a level stare. "I understand many of the pueblos there are quite small, are they not?"

Ahhh, Ania thought in surprise, so she DID catch my defensiveness the other day when we met and I dropped the fact of being at court so casually. She felt a sense of challenge as she returned Anna Maria’s gaze. So she wishes to play word games, does she? Ania smiled slightly as she began to plan how to subtly lead the conversation where she wanted it to go. However, looking up, she caught Diego watching her closely. He appeared tense, ready to leap in with a comment to distract Anna Maria if things went too far. His expression was not a happy one. Ania’s intentions immediately shifted away from confrontation. Ah, well! I did promise Diego I would be good. That is a pity. It might have been fun. Looking back at Anna Maria, she said, "Well, I must admit that mine was, at any rate. I’m afraid I was often known to create my own excitement."

"To that I can attest!" Ramón commented, entering into the conversation. "Ania was the queen of ninety day wonders when we were growing up. The people who lived in our area were always talking about one thing or another she had done. Her form of excitement usually got her into hot water, and as often as not, dragged her brothers and me along for the ride." Laughing, he launched into a tale of Ania’s two younger brothers and him climbing to the roof of a barn on a dare. Of course, the dare had come from the then nearly thirteen-year-old tomboy, who was already at the peak of the roof herself.

It pleased Ania to have Ramón take an interest in Anna María. His banter kept Anna María’s attention away from Diego.  Her cousin had been very attentive to Anna María all evening. That certainly helped Ania keep her promise of self-control.  Ania had to admit to herself that Anna María did not seem to think very seriously of Diego as a possible lover. As Diego had explained, it appeared she merely viewed him as a friend at most, a friend as close as a brother, as he phrased it. That was another reason she was attempting to behave as she had promised. As long as the topic of Zorro did not come up between them, that is how things would remain.

"Ania, you were allowed to get away with such things?” Anna Maria asked. “Why, it sounds as if you had as much freedom as your brothers.  Is not West Florida still somewhat dangerous? That is certainly so here," Anna María looked at her a touch speculatively, or so Ania translated the look.

"Oh, yes," Ania answered. "I was given a great deal of freedom, but not without being taught something of how to take care of myself."

"Actually, Ania," Ramón corrected, "you were not so much GIVEN the freedom as you took it. I imagine you gave Luisa the majority of the gray hairs on her head."

"From what you both have told me, that is probably so, Ramón," Diego commented with a smile. Ania smiled back at him.

"I have to admit that I did take a lot of privileges, Anna María. I was very competitive with my brothers. I was usually determined to do whatever they did," she said.

"What things did they do that a lady would be allowed to do?" Anna María asked.

Ah! The word 'lady'.... Ania started to comment but did not as a servant walked up to whisper something to her.

"Please excuse me, señorita, but there is a man who begs that you will come and speak to him." the servant said.

"What does this man want with me? Can he not wait?" Ania questioned.

"Who is this man?" Ramón leaned toward her to ask.

Ania knew exactly what he was going to say next.  She sighed. Even if she was irritated at the interruption as well, she did not wish him to be concerned.  "Now, Ramón, it is all right, really.  I am sure I do not need you to escort me just to see what this man wants here in my own patio. You do have a guard just outside the gate. It is probably just one of the people living near here. I do still help them as a curandera, you know," she soothed. Across from her, she noticed Diego looking curiously toward the door. She smiled at him reassuringly as well. Men! she thought in exasperation. It is a wonder they do not suffocate women with their concern.

"Sí, Señorita Ania, it is Jesús Rivas,” the servant went on.  “He says his youngest child is sick and having trouble breathing. He asked if there is something you might do."

Ania noticed that Anna María was looking at her oddly, as one might a freak of nature. She remembered the more common attitude toward many curanderas here. So she thinks she is too good to mix with the people, even when they need help, does she? Ania mentally dared her to say one thing about it.

"YOU...a curandera?" Anna María gasped in surprise, unconsciously taking Ania up on the dare. "But surely they can turn to the doctor, or go to one of their own," Anna María continued, with a frown. "After all, being a curandera might put one in rather questionable situations, might it not?"

"Oh, should a lady stop to think of things like that when another human being needs help?" Ania looked at Anna María coldly as she rose from the table. I have no time for this now. "I will see what I can do for him. Please make yourselves at home while I am gone. Con permiso," she said with a look around the table.

She paused as her gaze fell upon Diego, who looked decidedly uneasy after her last response. For an instant, she felt irritated with him as well. I said no more than I should and a great deal less than I could, she thought defiantly. Then she shrugged, letting the feeling slide away as she smiled slightly at him. It was not his fault. "Alma," she said as she passed a middle-aged servant coming in with a dish, "please see that everyone's glass remains full and their food is to their liking until I return." With that, she quickly went out to the patio area to speak with the peon.

Anna María looked after her curiously as she left. "She is a rather unusual woman. I do not think I have ever met anyone quite like her, Diego."

Diego looked thoughtfully after Ania as well. "I think the word would be 'unique', Anna María, and I very much doubt that you could have met anyone else like her. If you all will excuse me, I will make sure everything is all right. Con permiso?" He rose and left the dining room.

As she turned back to Ramón, Anna María asked. "You must have grown up under somewhat exceptional circumstances, Don Ramón. Is West Florida so different from here?"

Ramón responded by not only telling her a bit about West Florida, but also about the years he had spent growing up in Castilla y León. He admitted that his father had sent him to stay with his Tío Miguel so that he might learn just how good he had had it in his father's house. Instead of feeling punished, however, he had enjoyed the less refined life of growing up in the "wild colonial area". After going back to Spain and completing school, he had eagerly accepted His Majesty's request that he return here as his representative. "I find the life in the colonies fresher, more exciting in its own way. I also," he said with a meaningful look at Anna María, "find the people here much more fascinating."

"Why, gracias, Don Ramón!" Anna María said with a smile as she looked down and then back up at him, immediately understanding his compliment. "That is certainly very nice to hear." She was finding this man with the clear blue eyes rather interesting herself. If it were not for other pledges kept in her heart, she might find him even more so. However, that was neither here nor there. She could, at least, enjoy the conversation now.

Outside Diego found Ania still talking to a tired looking man. "Jesús, you mean that she has been sick since yesterday? What have you been doing since then?" She listened closely as the child's father told her what had already been done and then quickly went upstairs. Soon she returned with a few herb packs and told the father how to use them to help the little girl. "I shall say a prayer for her tonight, as well," Ania assured him.

Diego stood by quietly as the man thanked Ania and left. He had gotten so used to the freedom with which she interacted with the common people of the area that he had forgotten how unusual her actions were. He had no doubt that she would find some reason tomorrow to be on her land near the man's home and would 'just happen to stop by' to check on the child. He smiled. Yes, unique describes her well!

"What are you smiling about?" Ania asked with a smile of her own.

"Oh, nothing. Can I not smile at you when I wish?" Diego asked as he leaned back against the patio wall.

Ania laughed. "I shall remind you of that the next time I am smiling and you ask me what is in my devious mind."

"I have never called it devious, Ania, but you must admit, with you some smiles definitely lead to mischief," he grinned. He looked casually over his shoulder at the door leading back into the house. A merry spark of mischief shone in his own eyes as he turned back to her. "We seem to have done something rare indeed, at least, for the moment. We have given Ramón the slip."

Ania needed no further invitation. She stepped up to him, gently resting her hands against his chest as he pulled her into his arms to kiss her. "You know, Diego," she said quietly as she leaned her head against his shoulder for a moment, "I think there just might be some good to having Anna María here after all."

"Oh?" he said. "Knowing how much of the 'green eyed monster' has resided behind your own green eyes these last few days, I am very surprised to hear you say that."

"Yes, she makes a very good distraction for Ramón. For that, she is almost worth keeping around," Ania said, cutting her eyes up at him to see his reaction. "Almost," she stressed.

Diego laughed. "Well, that is at least an improvement on your part. However, we probably should go back in. Otherwise, Ramón may have the whole group out here on some pretense or other." Feeling much more relaxed, the two did just that.

It was too bad the peace did not last. Inside, everyone had moved back into the sala and the conversation had turned to El Zorro and his exploits. Ramón, as the one person in the room who had heard of Zorro, but had never seen him, could not imagine what the attraction could be between a high born lady and an outlaw. Diego and Ania returned just in time to hear him comment, "I have heard you say that you wish to meet this outlaw, Zorro. Surely you do not propose to do this alone, señorita. How do you know that this outlaw is to be trusted with a lady of your beauty?"

"Señor," Anna María replied, casting him a sharp look, "only the fact that you are a stranger to California excuses you for that comment. Zorro can be trusted under any circumstance!"

"You make him sound like a saint, señorita!" Ramón scoffed.

"Perhaps he is not a saint, but I know he is a very good man, a true caballero. I will be in no more danger from Zorro than I am from you!" Anna María insisted.

Ramón looked down into his glass and laughed ruefully. “Well, I am not sure whether that is a compliment or not, Señorita Verdugo. I suppose it is something of value that you see me at least as honorable as this outlaw.”

Anna María shook her head and smiled.  “If you knew him, you would be honored at the comparison,” she assured him.

"Anna María, I do wish you would listen to him,” Tía Alicia interjected fretfully. That is the very thing I have been worried about ever since we left Monterey."

"You are worrying for nothing. Someday you will understand," Anna María said flatly. Her tone made clear that this was definitely not the first time she had argued the point. "I must see him and I am going alone!"

Ania quietly accepted a cup of tea from Alma. This would, no doubt, have been a point where she might have been expected to come in on Anna María's side of the argument. However, why should she be in favor of Anna María going alone to meet Zorro? She personally trusted Zorro a great deal further than she did Anna María. Hmmm, this might be a good way to tease Diego without Ramón, Anna María, or her aunt knowing what I am doing? Ania hid a smile behind her teacup. I wonder what Don Alejandro would think of it, though. Ania glanced thoughtfully to the far side of the room where Ramón and Don Alejandro were talking. Perhaps she could try a mild tease here and watch to see if it bothered Don Alejandro.

"You know, Anna María, there might be something in what your aunt says here. There are many women who throw themselves at him,” she said as if considering something she had heard. “Perhaps he has become... used...to that sort of thing. I mean, Zorro is quite a rascal. I am certain he is more of a rogue than you know. After all, he is a man and men can be...unpredictable...at times. One can never be too sure,"

"Oh, that would never be the case with El Zorro!" Anna María argued.

Ania felt Diego's knee silently nudge the back of her chair. Don Alejandro was leaning his chin against his hand, with fingers slightly concealing his mouth. She was willing to bet that he was watching his son and was trying to hide his amusement. Bueno! As long as I do not get dangerously close to revealing anything, he does not seem to be worried about my teasing. She wished she were in a position to see Diego's reaction. He would hide it well from others, but she was willing to bet that she could see a reaction. This is almost too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Ramón looked at her in sincere surprise for a moment. "You," he finally laughed, "are urging caution here? You who have never been known to be overly cautious in your life?"

"Well, perhaps I have learned caution as I have gotten older," she shrugged. "After all, people do change."

"Not Zorro! He would not change!" Anna María declared.

Hmmmm, perhaps I had better change the direction of the conversation now, Ania thought. This will not help Diego's feelings. I do not wish him to feel too sorry for her before he has to speak with her as Zorro.

Ania shrugged. "Maybe you are right, Anna María, but it has been my experience that most people do change. By the way, Diego was telling me the other day of a friend you both know who sounds like he would have been interesting to meet. Do you still hear from Don Ricardo?  She turned to her cousin, with a smile, “This man sounds a great deal like Fernando Larosa. Remember him, Ramón?"

"Oh, indeed, Ania," Ramón said, "although if this man were like Fernando, I would not actually call him 'interesting'. Exasperating is more the word.  It is a wonder your brothers did not kill Fernando for some of the things he did in the name of humor! I nearly succumbed to that temptation myself a time or two."

"That is why I was interested, Ramón. I wanted to know if Diego’s friend had changed. I hear from Antonia that our own practical joker has. She says that Fernando has become quite serious," Ania commented. “If anyone other than she had told me, I would have said it was a lie.”

"Ha! Were I to find myself wed to Anica whatever-her-name-was, as he has, I would probably become quite serious, too," Ramón said with a shake of his head. Ania ignored his comment as she looked back at Anna María.

"Ricardo?” Anna María said with a teasing glance Diego's way. “Yes, I still hear from him frequently, unlike some people I could name."

Ania tensed as she saw the glance, but managed to hide it from all except Diego. "Why, Diego, you should be ashamed!" she said with a laugh. "One should never get so wrapped up in the trivial things of life that they could not find the time for important things like writing close friends. What ever could have been that important?" She smiled lightheartedly, but when Ania glanced back at him, she could see that this line of conversation was making him uneasy.

"Ricardo also has visited in Monterey several times since that summer that Diego was there,” Anna María continued. “I do not think that he has changed much. He still seems to enjoy his jokes. However, I think he is a bit more careful that he does not play his jokes on the wrong person now,"

"It is about time Ricardo grew up a bit," Diego commented.

"Well, I seem to remember you playing a few tricks, too, Diego," Anna María said. She cocked her head to the side and smiled coyly as she took a sip of her wine, then looked back up at him. "If you two had not been trying to impress me so much, you both may have had a more peaceful time that summer."

"Perhaps a more peaceful time, but hardly a more enjoyable time," Diego admitted.

Enjoyable, huh? Ania echoed to herself. Humph! "Amazing what grown men will do with a little encouragement, is it not?" she commented just loud enough for Diego and Anna María to hear. As she looked up, she saw irritation in the other young woman's eyes. 

Diego, almost too casually, walked around to the mantel and turned, leaning against it slightly, so that he was now facing Ania. He raised an eyebrow at her as she smiled innocently at him.

Ania was careful to turn her most guileless smile on Anna María. "Sometimes men seem not to have a brain in their heads!" she continued brightly. Yes, their thinking had all moved south for the breeding season! she thought sarcastically to herself, unconsciously using a phrase she had overheard Luisa use in scolding her brothers when they had gone too far in trying to impress the young señoritas of their pueblo. Diego glanced quickly at Anna María and then back at her.

"I suppose you learned that from the caballeros at court," Anna María stressed the last word just slightly.

"Oh, of course there were those who tried to impress me at court, but actually I learned more by watching three older brothers and, oh, one or two male cousins try to impress the ladies," Ania replied casually with a glance at Ramón.

"And I suppose you were totally innocent of any encouragement on your part, sí?" Anna María asked as if that was what she would expect, but the look in her eyes said differently.

Ania looked down and brushed a non-existent wrinkle from the green silk of her skirt. "As a newborn babe! Although I did observe at other times that the amount of silliness others experienced was usually in direct proportion to the encouragement from other sources." She looked up with eyes wide, as if this was somewhat shocking to her. Across from her, she was aware for just an instant, of Diego's fingers starting to tap the edge of the mantel. Then he forced himself to stop fidgeting. With his back to the other men, he stared hard at her for an instant and Ania could almost hear his thoughts. Inwardly, she sighed. Ah, well! I had better not go any further. I did promise Diego.

Anna María toyed with the glass in her hand for a moment, then set it on the edge of the table next to her. "Well, I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. One generally finds what one looks for." She gave Ania a level stare, which Ania met calmly before looking back down at her teacup and sipping.

Ania saw Diego glance down for an instant at Anna María, then roll his eyes heavenward. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Don Alejandro, still watching his son, as he himself carried on a conversation with Ramón. She did not think either of the two could have heard their comments, but she saw that Don Alejandro's dark eyes carried a bit of humor as he glanced from her to Anna María to Diego's broad back. No doubt he had guessed the direction their conversation had taken. Ania got the distinct impression that he was more than a little amused at his son's expense.

"Well, gentlemen," Ramón interrupted her thoughts by saying, "I think I would enjoy a cigar after that good meal my cousin's staff prepared for us. I picked up these cigars when we stopped in Havana on our way here. I can assure you two that they are of exceptional quality. Shall we go out onto the patio and enjoy them? Ania has already told me what she thinks of them. For some reason, she does not appreciate their robust aroma. Con permiso." He grinned at Ania as he rose from his chair.

When Ramón turned a questioning look on Don Alejandro, Ania glanced at Diego to see what he would do. Surprisingly, she caught a brief look of indecision. Going with them would be the natural thing for him to do. However, Ania could see that he was extremely uneasy about leaving her and Anna María here together. Seeing this, Ania's heart softened. She really should not have teased him even as mildly as she had. She realized that all of this had put him in a very uncomfortable position. Ania caught his eye and smiled as reassuringly as she could. 'I will remember my promise,' she tried to say with her expression. He raised an eyebrow and gave her an uncertain smile.

"Diego, surely you will be joining us on the patio,” Don Alejandro said as he stopped patted Diego’s shoulder. “I am sure the señoritas and the señora will do just fine in our absence,"

With a final look at Ania, Diego agreed, "I am sure you are correct, Father." He stepped away from the mantel and more nearly faced the entire room. "Con permiso," he said with a slight bow.

"Señora y señoritas," Don Alejandro said with a bow of his own. As they walked out the door Ania heard him softly chuckle as he continued speaking to Diego. "Ay! There are some situations that Zorro himself might have trouble handling, are there not, son?" Ania could tell that Diego had replied to his father. Although she was quite unable to tell what he said, it had a strained, not-quite-happy sound to it. Perhaps it is I who needs to grow up, she thought guiltily. She resolved to show him she could be trusted.

No one spoke for a few minutes as the three women sat with their own thoughts. Finally the silence was broken as Tía Alicia began asking questions about the rancho and West Florida, as well as general questions about how Ania came to meet Diego and Don Alejandro.

Anna María watched Ania as she told of the first year she had been in Los Ángeles and how grateful she was to the de la Vegas for all they had done for her. "I lost almost all of the family I loved when we came here, but still I have been lucky. I seem to have found another family who is coming to mean a great deal to me. Don Alejandro has already become almost a father to me, and Diego...  Well, what can I say of him?" Ania glanced toward the door to the patio, her expression speaking volumes of what was in her heart. "The longer I know him, the more special he becomes to me.“

"I am glad to see that Diego has found someone who loves him as much as you seem to,” Anna Maria said. “You have been blessed, Ania, to have been given time to get to know Diego. He has always been a very wonderful friend. He deserves to have all the happiness that can possibly come his way. I can only hope to have more time to get to know the man I love better. Hopefully, after tomorrow night, that can begin happening," Anna María said wishfully.

"You are determined to see Zorro then?" Ania asked.

"Sí. Surely, he will have heard that I am here and wish to see him by now," Anna María declared.

"And what if he does not come, Anna María? I understand from Diego that you met Zorro the same summer he was last in Monterey. Has he seen you in the two years and more, since then? Have you even heard from him?" Ania asked seriously.

"Well, no, but there could be many good, honorable reasons for that," Anna María insisted. "I know he will come."

"Two and a half years might have changed a lot, Anna María. It is crazy to think that it would not," Ania began.

"And baseless jealousy is not crazy?" Anna María looked up at Ania with anger flashing in her eyes.

"Anna María!" Tía Alicia gasped.

A quick retort came to Ania's mind, but she pushed it away. I will keep my promise to Diego, she told herself forcefully. Solemnly, she met Anna María's eyes and then looked down into her cup before she spoke. Only when she knew her words would be under control did she look back up and speak. She tried to look and behave contrite. Oh, Diego, you are the only person for whom I would ever swallow my pride like this! Ania took a deep breath and said aloud, "I am sorry, but I suppose my situation is a bit unusual. I have heard many things of the summer Diego spent in Monterey. Surely, you know how much you figured into that time. It was quite a shock to have you suddenly appear here. I know that you and Diego were once very close. I apologize if I have offended you."

"All right, I suppose I cannot blame you, but I doubt that Diego was ever as serious about me as all that,” Anna Maria replied. “He knew as soon as I did that I loved Zorro. Diego is a very good friend. That is all.  He knows that he can never be more than that. I mean, he is very sweet, but I want more than that. Zorro is all I have even wanted in a love. He is brave and fearless. When something happens, he takes action.  He does not merely discuss it and give advise like..." Anna María began, before stopping as she realized how her comment was going to sound.

"Like Diego, you are saying?" Ania frowned and finished for her.

"Oh, please do not misunderstand me on this. As I said, Diego is very sweet. He is a good friend, who has always tried his best to help me.  However, he and I could never have been satisfied together, not after I met Zorro," Anna María stated.

"What sort of man do you truly think Zorro is?  How can you possibly know? You saw him a few times more than two years ago.  I find that a very flimsy basis for a marriage," Ania commented.

"Well, obviously he is a caballero,” Anna María responded. “He would be someone well respected in the community. Someone everyone will know has strong beliefs and who can be counted on to side with what is right. He, no doubt, gets things done wherever he lives and would surely be respected for his forcefulness. I am sure he is a man of action."

Sí, he would be if it would not get him caught! Ania agreed to herself as she watched Anna María thoughtfully.

"But what if he is not like that?” Ania asked. “I mean, perhaps he is quiet and dignified with things but not at all what one would expect of a man of action. He could not run about doing things all the time, now could he?"

"You mean, more like Diego?" Anna María chuckled, but not unkindly. "He is trustworthy and kind, but I think even you will admit that he is not exactly a man of action. If anything, he always erred on the side of caution when he gave me advice before, not that I would not have been better off listening to him." She looked down and frowned slightly at some memory.

Ania was too busy breathing a sigh of relief to wonder about what that memory was. She had been far too careless in describing what Zorro might have been like in his other guise. Only Diego's carefully tailored manner kept Anna María from seeing that society’s usual view was totally wrong. Ania suddenly realized that she must accept that view and resist the urge to defend him from the misconceptions of others. Those misconceptions protected him much as his skills did and she must learn to value them as she did his abilities. Quit thinking with your emotions and use the sense God gave you! she scolded herself. Ania quickly took a sip of her now cool tea to cover the chagrin over her slip of the tongue.

After a moment, Ania asked, "But how will you be able to know him better while he rides as Zorro? Would not anyone who knows you and your story, also know to look closely at any man you marry?"

"Perhaps, IF Zorro was still riding when that happened. But, I imagine you have found that people often have short memories. If Zorro no longer appears, then with time, they will quit seeing him in any man I take an interest in, will they not?" Anna María answered.

"I don't understand," Ania said in a shocked tone. "You are expecting him to stop riding as Zorro? But how could he, Anna María? There are many problems in the world. What would the people do without their Dark Angel?"

"I do not know and I do not care!" Anna María suddenly cried out passionately. "Surely you heard two months ago what was being said...that he had been killed by one of this fool of a comandante's men. You have no idea how I felt when I heard that. For days, I could not bear to see or talk to anyone. Joy and relief filled me when I heard he was alive. How can you understand such a thing with quiet, dependable Diego? You two can look forward to a peaceful old age together. But Zorro, he should no longer do these things or someday the rumors will be true. I must try to stop him, especially now. How can any peon's life be worth risking his? Let someone else have the fame and glory!"

The room grew quiet again as each woman sat dealing with her own thoughts. Ania had to look away from Anna María and fight with her own emotions to keep from screaming her thoughts at the blind, selfish woman across from her. You foolish woman! You claim to love him and yet you have not a clue as to why Zorro does what he does, do you? And as far as how I could not possibly understand how you felt to HEAR that, how would you have handled struggling to give him a chance to survive? To sit with his blood on your hands as you prayed to God and all the saints that he not die? And then to know beyond any doubt that he must, because of the strength of his caring, risk everything again for these people, these peons. He would not be satisfied or happy with himself if he turned his back on them.  Ania desperately held her temper. Yet she had to say something. She could not hold all of her feelings inside.

"I do not believe he will ever willingly give it up, as long as he is young and strong,” Ania said, finally breaking the silence.  “Before you say I do not know him, I do! I am one of the people, whom you labeled as only peons, that he risked his life saving AFTER you would have had him accept amnesty in Monterey.” Anna María looked up at her in surprise. Ania had left that part out of her tale. “He was not there soon enough to save my father and brother, but he saved my life, that time and twice more.  If he stops doing what he does, how many people will die without aid, and how would HE feel when he heard about it?" Ania paused and drew a breath. She would have said more had not something alarming occurred at that moment.

As Ania finished her last word, the sound of horses and other animals on the grounds around the hacienda began to be heard from every direction. They all sounded near panic and wild, as if the devil himself were on their backs. "What in heaven's name?" Ania asked as she looked toward the windows in bewilderment.

"I am not sure..."Anna María started as her aunt rose in alarm.

Gradually a new sound was added to the animal noises shattering the quiet of the evening, a low rumble that started almost as a feeling rather than a sound. The rumble rose in intensity and became a vibration that seemed to go right through Ania to her very bones. She watched in horrified fascination as her teacup and the wine glasses on the tables began a mad dance and finally crashed to the floor.

"Earthquake!" Anna María exclaimed. She and Tía Alicia quickly rose to leave the building.

Ania could only stare wide-eyed. Never had she had such an unsettling feeling. To have the very earth under her feet, which had no business moving, shimmy and moan, was like something out of a nightmare. Ania felt the blood drain from her face as her fingers clutched desperately at the armrest of her chair. She, of course, had heard that California had earthquakes frequently. There had been several to the north of Santa Barbara in the last eighteen months, but never near enough for her to feel them. For a moment, she was unable to move. She looked up, dazed; suddenly realizing that Diego had come back for her.

"It is all right, Ania," he said calmly. "I am here. Let us get you out of here!" He pulled her to her feet, gently tucking her head close to his shoulder, and led her toward the door. At that moment the earth gave a final rumble and fell quiet. Everyone stopped and looked up at the ceiling and walls around them. The animals quieted as they lost their fear and settled down.

Don Alejandro came in and went immediately to Anna María and her aunt, seeing to their safety. Ramón stood watching from the door, nearly as white-faced as Ania. By now, the other two women were laughing the whole thing off.

Ania however still clung to Diego. "I think," she finally said softly in a shaky voice, "there are some things in California that will take some getting used to." She drew comfort from Diego's calm presence and hoped that someday she too could take such things in stride as the others had. She shuddered again. That acceptance was not going to be easy.

Alejandro soon decided that it would be best if he and Diego went home and made sure there was no damage to the Hacienda de la Vega. As Ramón and Don Alejandro helped Anna María and Tía Alicia into the buggy for the ride back, Diego managed to get a moment alone with Ania. Having nearly recovered from her fright, she had other things on her mind. "Diego, will Zorro be meeting Anna María tomorrow night?" She looked closely at him, green eyes showing her unease.

Diego met her eyes solemnly, his expression almost begging her to understand. "Sí, do you not see that that is how it must be?"

Ania nodded and prayed for peace with his decision as she kissed him. Although her jealousy told her otherwise, she knew that it was only right that Zorro set things straight between himself and Anna Maria, and Zorro would always do what was right. He must free both himself and Anna Maria to go on with their lives. That was what he was going to do, was it not? Si! That is what he has said he will do, and I must trust him.  I will trust him. I must, Ania insisted to herself.  However, she also knew that tomorrow night would be long for her, very long indeed.



Chapter Twelve
Chapter One
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