Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker






Chapter 28

Sunday, el 20 de julio, dawned bright and clear. Ania had spent the night before at the hacienda of Don Pedro and Doña Carlota, her padrinos de boda, her godparents of marriage. Both had given her much good advice on how a dutiful wife should conduct herself. Don Pedro emphasized the husband's role as the head of the family, while Doña Carlota emphasized the wife's duty to obey and conform to all her husband's wishes. Ania listened carefully, and remembering her past actions, she knew that she'd have to work hard at this. There had been little that she and Diego had disagreed over up until now. She hoped that would always be the case. If not, well, then she was determined to do the best she could.

After Don Pedro retired for the night, Doña Carlota and she had a long talk about other things. After Ania shared her worries about knowing so little about the physical side of marriage, Doña Carlota had surprised her by laughing softly. "Child," she said kindly, "there is not all that much to learn. It has more to do with trust, trust not only of your husband, but also of yourself. Ania, I have watched you two together. I do not believe I have seen two people more in love. You and Diego are very lucky. So many children do not even know each other, much less love each other, by their wedding night. In that case, it can only be hoped that the parents have made good choices for their children. If they have, a strong love will grow. I was the lucky one there. My parents were very wise indeed." The old woman smiled as she looked in the direction her husband had gone. "The best advice I can give you is just that you trust each other and let the love that already shines in your eyes, his as well as yours, my dear, lead your actions. As long as you remember to let love lead the way, then you cannot go wrong, whether in public or behind the doors of your bedchamber." Ania had much to think of as she went to bed and tried to sleep. She had not slept well, but was too excited to really miss the sleep when she woke with the dawn on her wedding day.

Then they had gone with her to her hacienda, so she could dress for the ceremony.  Doña Carlota sat and offered suggestions as Rosita helped her put on the white dress and put her hair up, topping it off with the tall comb and white lace mantilla. Ania's heart was already racing as she looked at herself in the looking glass in her room. There had been times in the last week that she had not even allowed herself to believe she would live to see this day. The image in white looking back at her now seemed like something from a dream.

Soon someone came to her room to say that Diego and his father had arrived. Ania's first impulse was to rush down to where he was, but with a smile, Doña Carlota reminded her that she must wait. Time seemed to both drag and fly at the same time as final preparations were made. Finally, the times came for all of them to climb into carriages, shined and decorated brightly, and make their way to the mission. Diego and Don Alejandro were sent ahead, while Don Pedro and Doña Carlota escorted Ania. The carriage behind her carried Ramón, who despite not being fully recovered, refused to miss the wedding.

On the ride there, Ania had a hard time keeping her mind on the conversation around her. Her thoughts flitting from one thing to another, but always returning to Diego, she looked at the beautiful bouquet of flowers he had sent to her this morning. Intertwined with the blooms was her rosary, a little bit of her mother for her to carry with her. How different this occasion was from the last time she had carried it! At last, she could see the bell tower of the mission ahead. When the wind shifted in their direction, she could already hear the organ. Even from this distance, it had such a lovely tone. The love of music which the two of them shared had been the reason they had chosen to celebrate the wedding here, rather than the church in the pueblo. As they approached the front of the mission, the bells began to peal, ringing with a joy that seemed to flow from Ania's own soul.

Then she looked ahead and her heart sang. Diego's whispered promise at the door of her cell came back to her mind and she rejoiced to see it just as he said. Here she was in her white dress and there he stood at the door of the chapel with Padre Felipe, waiting for her.

When the young women of the pueblo talked of the wedding later, it was the looks exchanged by Diego de la Vega and Ania Valdéz, rather than any of the other lavish accompaniments that stayed in their minds. Ania could not keep from smiling as he reached to help her down from the carriage. Diego kept an almost serious expression unless one looked in his eyes. In their hazel depths shone all the joy and love that anyone could dream. Just as they stepped up to Padre Felipe, Ania said something to Diego too low for anyone else to hear. Whatever it was caused him to flash the most brilliant of smiles down on her. As they waited for the padrinos, they stood with their hands clasped looking at each other. Padre Felipe smiled at them happily, as these two beleaguered lovers had, against all odds, found their joy in standing before him.

When the padrinos, along with Don Alejandro and Ramón, finally formed a loose circle around the couple, everything became very quiet. After a moment, Padre Felipe nodded to Diego. From his coat pocket, Diego withdrew a bag of fine cloth, which contained thirteen golden coins and two golden rings. With great ceremony and seriousness, not withstanding the slight smile on the bride's lips and bright shine in her eyes, Diego gently placed the bag in Ania's hand. For a second, he enclosed her small hand in his and smiled. Ania smiled back and then quickly opened the bag, pouring its contents on a silver tray resting on a small table beside the priest.

As they joined hands again, Padre Felipe blessed the coins and the rings. Concluding his ritual, the padre then took the larger of the gold rings and placed it on the ring finger of Diego's right hand. He then handed Diego the smaller golden ring and watched as the young man placed it on Ania's hand. Taking both her hands in his, Diego then declared in a soft but clear voice, "With this ring and dowry I now endow you, in token of our union."

Ania repeated her own vows in a voice that was not loud, but still rang with the certainty of her heart.

The tray was set aside, the money on it becoming a gift to the church to distribute to the poor. From another table behind him, Padre Felipe picked up a lazo, a large rosary with two loops adorned with pearls and flowers, representing the blessings of the church and of heaven upon their marriage. The padrinos gently lay one of the lazo's loops about Ania's shoulders, while the other was laid about Diego's. The long central section was wrapped around and about their clasped hands.

Once this was done, they were led into the church for the celebration of mass, Diego and Ania kneeling or sitting in a special area just in front of the altar. Later Ania could not remember actually making the correct responses, although Diego assured her that she had. They then received communion for the first time as husband and wife. After receiving a blessing again, the lazo was removed and they walked over to stand before the statue of the Virgin Mary.

Ania stood looking up at the beautiful bejeweled statue, aware of how many blessings she already had to be thankful for. After a moment, she unwound her rosary from the bouquet. Her new husband then put his hand over hers on the flowers and they placed them at the feet of the Virgin, recognizing her as the guardian of their marriage. Solemnly walking back to where their family members and padrinos waited, they each were given the candles they had received at their baptisms. Ramón lit Ania's for her, as Don Alejandro lit Diego's. Turning and shielding their individual flames, the couple walked forward and lit the church's Easter candle. They then blew out the individual candles, leaving one united flame representing both their lives. Ania and Diego stood for a long moment, smiling at each other, before turning, hand in hand to leave the church.

There was a tremendous contrast of atmosphere as they came out of the church and Diego helped Ania into a carriage for the ride back to her hacienda. Guns boomed in salute, people laughed and cheered. In one of the wagons now in the long procession of carriages, a band played lively music. It seemed that the whole area of Los Ángeles was rejoicing with them. They were good-naturedly pelted with rice and a sweetened cornmeal called pinole to call down blessings from heaven. "I feel like I have been caught in a snow storm!" Ania laughed as she tried to brush a bit of pinole out of her hair.

Soon however, their carriage had picked up enough speed that they left the shower of good wishes behind. Ania linked her fingers with Diego's and leaned her head on his shoulder as they rode while Bernardo, dressed in his best and smiling as brightly as his patrón, drove the carriage.

"Happy, mi amor?" Diego asked as he changed hands and put his right arm around her.

"Ah, Diego, I have never been happier in my life!" Ania exclaimed, leaning closer. Taking the hint, Diego kissed her warmly, paying absolutely no attention to the people ahead, behind or riding past them in joyous celebration.

A large breakfast was spread for all comers at the Hacienda Valdéz. Long tables were fixed outside for most visitors, while the newlyweds ate inside with close friends and family. After this, the dancing started. Ania felt as if her feet barely touched the floor when she and Diego led out with a waltz, dancing within a heart shaped circle of friends. Slowly, other couples joined in until there was no circle left. As guests congratulated them and joined the other dancers, they left a token gold piece on a silver tray nearby as yet another wish of good luck for the couple.

There was one tradition that Ania followed that she did not particularly enjoy. From time to time, she would disappear back upstairs to change clothes. Custom demanded that she display all or most of the beautiful dresses Diego had provided her with as his wedding gifts to her. "It is not that I am not pleased with them. They are all beautiful, Diego," she whispered to him on her fifth return of the day. "It is just that I would rather remain here with you."

"Then do not do it again," Diego encouraged her. "Juan told me that you generally did things your own way and I know that to be so. Just because you are now a señora rather than a señorita should not change that about you."

Ania laughed. "You know, you are right! I will stay here! Hmmm," she said more quietly, "I am a señora now, am I not? I have not even had time to think about that."

"Perhaps you have not heard it enough yet, Señora de la Vega," Diego suggested with a laugh. Ania's smile lit up the room. Her eyes filled with love as he brought her hands up and tenderly kissed them.

"I love you, Señor de la Vega!" she whispered.

"I know!" Diego said, his own eyes suddenly lighting with mischief. Ania made a face at him. Both of them laughed. "Come on! You always loved to dance. Let us dance then!" he cried as he swung her gracefully onto the dance floor.

At noon, the party moved to the Hacienda de la Vega. Barbecued beef and deer, along with many other foods, were available to all. A table nearby almost groaned under the weight of numerous kinds of cakes, candies and cookies. more than Ania has seen prepared since she had left West Florida. Afterwards, everyone walked out to choose places from which to watch the first of many competitions, this one the first of several horse races. Horses were entered from almost every rancho in the entire area.

"Excuse me a minute, Diego. I will be right back," Ania said suddenly, as they walked out to watch.

"Ania, wait!" Diego exclaimed, not at all pleased to have her leave his side. "I thought you said you were staying with me for the rest of the day. No more changes of clothes."

"Oh, this has nothing to do with my clothes," Ania said with a secretive smile, "Just wait! I have a surprise."

Diego watched, puzzled, as she walked gracefully through the crowd and then out to where the horses were being lined up. Suddenly, everything was made clear. There, moving up into the line was Ventura, being ridden by Pepe. Diego shook his head. The audacity of that woman, letting a mere boy ride in the race!

 Ears pricked forward and her attention already on the road beyond the starting line, Ventura herself did not look so much nervous as she did excited by the prospect of the race. She pranced and mouthed the bit, anxious to be off for the run she knew was coming. Ania patted her affectionately on the neck as she gave last minute instructions to her rider.

Ania grinned at his expression as she walked back to Diego. "Do not worry.  Pepe can handle her." she said to his unspoken question. "We have been working together with her for several weeks now."

"He is awfully young, Ania," Diego insisted.

"Oh, I was maybe a little older, but no bigger when I rode in that race and won that time," Ania explained. "You will see! I just do not think you want Princesa to be beaten," she teased. "We shall just see about that!"

"Well, I was going to cheer for Ventura, but since you put it like that," Diego laughed back, "the bet is on!"

Minutes later, they found themselves cheering for different horses, trying to pretend to be serious in their comments, only to end up laughing. Their two horses came almost down to the line together. Then Ventura, with her lighter jockey, edged out in front. She managed to win by a more than a length and a half.

"See? I told you she could do it!" Ania laughed.

"Ah, and what will you have as your prize for winning our little wager?" Diego asked, an unusually intense expression in his eyes. "There is no longer any surprise behind the mask," he whispered in her ear. "What would you have me do for you now that nothing need keep us apart, my sweet Lady Emerald Fire?"

Ania looked at him in surprise, realizing by his tone that he was saying more than the surface meaning of the words as he asked his question. Her expression became more serious, yet held an excitement that could not be denied. Losing herself in the depths of his eyes for that instant, she finally whispered back, "I think, dear husband, that I will be able to think of something else before tonight!" He started to kiss her, but realized that many eyes were on them at that moment. Tenderly, she reached up and caressed his cheek. As he, once again, lightly brushed his lips over her wrist, she shivered, not from cold but from a thrill of anticipation that seemed to start at her toes and go all the way through her soul.

Before she could say anything else, another pair of well-wishers came up to congratulate them and the moment was broken. However, it was not forgotten. Every time Diego touched her, innocently or not, it was as if his fingers were throwing sparks, like iron and flint. The afternoon and then the evening celebrations suddenly seemed overly long and tedious, the music too insistent, the rooms too crowded. There seemed no place for them to have a minute alone. At last, they managed to slip away outside the patio walls, walking to the very tree where he had almost kissed her at the fiesta they had given for her more than six months before. This time he did not hesitate to take her lips in a fierce kiss full of passion and desire. "Do you not think that it is time that we went upstairs?" he whispered as his lips moved from Ania's lips to the soft skin of her neck, just over her pulse.

Ania sighed, as she ran her fingers through his hair. She was aware of the warmth of his strong body, even as they stood there under the stars. She was nervous about what lay ahead, but she also longed for the next step to be taken. She longed to be his wife, in fact, as well as in name. She prayed that Doña Carlota was right. Ania knew that she loved Diego with all her being. She prayed that was enough. He deserved so much! "Sí," she whispered.

Diego looked into her eyes and then kissed her deeply again. This time when the kiss ended he took her hand and started to lead her back in. As they approached the gate, another loud dance began and Ania realized just how much was still going on around them. "Wait!" Ania cried. "There is too much noise here, too many people everywhere. I want us to be together, sí! But I want there to be no one else around, no music, no one talking somewhere under our window."

Diego looked back at her, puzzled. "Peace and quiet will be a bit hard to find around here," he admitted.

"Then let us not stay here tonight. Let us go to my hacienda. By tomorrow night, festivities will be going on at both haciendas, but for tonight mine is silent. Even Ramón and most of the servants are here." Ania said. "Let us go out quietly, and have at least this night to ourselves!"

Diego shook his head and laughed. "Mujer, you never cease to surprise me! All right, if it will make you happy," he finally agreed. "I will go get the carriage."

"No," Ania surprised him again by saying, "Let us ride! We can pack what little we need in a saddlebag and... and...Bernardo and Rosita can bring whatever else we need tomorrow morning!"

Diego laughed again. "All right, Aniasita! We will do things your way."

They quickly got the two servants' attention and enlisted their aid in packing for them. Soon they quietly made their way to the stables, getting their horses and riding out before most people knew what was going on.

As they raced northward over the land, Diego knew that he would never forget the way Ania looked tonight. Without a riding skirt, her long dress fanned out over Ventura's back like a colorful blanket. The moonlight was bright enough to show the happiness on her face. She looked like a beautiful vision from the center of his dreams. His heart soared with the knowledge that this precious creature was his for all his life now, their lives irrevocably intertwined whatever the future could bring. There was a joy in that as endless as water from the artesian wells Ania had described in Florida, ever flowing, ever bright and pure.

When they rode up to the Valdéz stables, Ania slid down into his arms again, longing for more of his kisses. He did not disappoint her. After a moment they hurriedly unsaddled Paseo and Ventura, turning them out into the corral, rather than taking the time to put then in box stalls.

A surprised house servant met them as they entered the sala door. The servant was soon hurrying away to light candles in the master bedroom, her arms full of their saddlebags.

As they waited, truly alone together for the first time in what seemed like forever, Ania removed the combs from her hair, leaning her head back to shake the locks free. After a moment, she felt her husband gently running his fingers through its length. It felt unexpectedly sensual to her. Gently, he then pushed it aside. He sent a shiver through her as he began kissing her. He allowed his lips to tease lightly from just under her ear, down the curve of her neck, to finally pause for a moment at just the point where her soft shoulder became covered by the fashionably low neckline of her dress. Ania leaned back against his chest, crossing her arms to lay her hands over his as they slid down her arms. Then she turned and pulled his lips to hers for one of the kisses that she had learned to hunger for.

There was a sound of a door closing somewhere above. Diego looked up and smiled. Taking Ania's hands, he pulled her to her feet and they walked together to the base of the stairs. For a moment, they both stood still, looking to the second story. Then they looked at each other and laughed. He put his arm around her waist and drew her up the steps beside him.

Suddenly feeling much more shy than she had expected to be as the door of the master bedroom closed behind them, Ania paused. Her eyes still shone with excitement and desire, but now she blushed and did not know exactly what to do. She felt like a child, out of her depth, uncertain and just a bit frightened. "I...I will go...change," she said, her voice surprising Diego by shaking.

He watched her pick up her first night set from where the servant had laid it and disappear into the dressing room that opened to the left of the main room. Smiling as he remembered both their shyness when they had stood by the big teaster bed when it had first been set up here, Diego took his jacket off and laid it over the chair at the desk. He removed his vest and tie, opening the buttons of his shirt at the top. The banda was removed next. He was beginning to become a bit concerned. Ania seemed to be taking a long time to change. He walked to the desk and had just poured himself a small glass of Ania's wine when he heard an almost silent footstep behind him. Turning, he drew a sharp breath. Ania stood there, the creamy satin shining in the soft light of the candles burning nearby. Her robe was adorned about the collar and cuffs with lace and pearls, and looked fit for the fairy princess she resembled. Peeping from the hem of the robe, her bare toes seemed to lend a childlike innocence to her appearance. She looked down and blushed deeply as he stood transfixed, enjoying the vision before him.

He quickly placed the glass back on the tray beside the wine and kissed her, gently at first and then more insistently. He suddenly became aware that Ania was trembling. He drew back in alarm. "Ania? What is this? Surely, you cannot be afraid, not of me!"

"Oh, no!" Ania quickly assured him. "That is not it at all!"

"Then what is it, mi preciosa?" He gently caressed her cheek, and cupping her face with his hands, searched deep in her eyes for the reason for her distress.

Ania struggled for a moment to put her feelings into words. Finally, she said quietly, "Oh, Diego, I want so to be the kind of wife you need, one who would make you happy...but....” She stopped for a second, then went on. "I know so little. I am afraid that I will disappoint you. Mamá died when I was born and Luisa and I never talked about it.  I was definitely not going to talk to Le...."

Diego interrupted her as he had come to enjoy doing. He kissed her and stopped her chatter. Ania seemed uncertain for a second and then melted into his embrace, her arms automatically pulling him to her as she returned his kiss with every bit of the fire that he was showing. As their lips parted, he whispered, "Somehow I do not think that will be a problem."

"But I know so little," she started again.

He nuzzled her neck and then laughed quietly. "Ahhh, my precious Ania, do you think I expected you to know a lot? There were those I could have wed who knew more of this than they should, but it is you I love and you I want. Come, Ania. You have said that you trust me.  Do you not realize that I trust you, too? Besides whatever you need to know, I can teach you. If there is something I do not know, we will learn together. That is the way it should be, Ania! I love you! That is the way I want it to be." He smiled at the open wonder in her eyes and kissed her again, calling from her the same response as before.

Then stepping back a bit, he took a lock of her hair that was lying down against the front of her robe. Holding it lightly between his second and third fingers, he slowly let it slide from between them, the knuckles of his hand following the line of her body with a touch that left a streak of fire in its wake. Ania drew her breath in shakily and stood on tiptoe to beg another kiss. The fingers traced lower and grasped the satin ribbon holding her robe shut. A slow pull undid the ribbon and as the robe opened, Ania stepped back and shrugged it from her arms. Diego caught it and tossed it onto the chair beside the bed.

The silk of Ania's gown glowed with the candlelight, the pearls scattered along the low neckline casting back the light with a magic shimmer. The silk itself was soft, soft enough to cling more than the cloth of most dresses. Ania's form was outlined just enough to shorten his breath and stir his senses. Diego drew her into another embrace, his hands caressing the soft, sensitive skin of her bare arms, then sliding to her shoulders and back.

As his hands came to rest for a moment in the curve of her back and then moved again, upward, Ania was more aware of him than she had ever been. The warmth of his body through the fine silk of her gown was like the glow of the sun after the chill of winter, something one sought out and could never seem to get enough of. Ania laid her hands flat on the solid muscles of his chest and slid them upward as she kissed him. As she did one of her fingers caught, quite by accident, on the button of his shirt. Fleetingly, she wished that neither the button, nor the shirt were there between them. For a moment, she had the presence of mind to be surprised at herself, then she remembered Doña Carlota telling her to not only trust him, but to trust herself as well, to let love lead in what she did now. For a moment, she drew back, standing quietly in his arms, looking up at him as she bit thoughtfully on her lip. Then she made up her mind. Sí! That is what I will do! Is it not natural that I should wish to touch him...feel his skin and hard muscles under my fingers? Is not that desire something that I can trust with this man, alone of all the men on earth? Once again, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him, this time pleasing him by imitating the kind of intimate kiss that he was gradually teaching her. As their kiss ended, he laughed in surprise as he felt Ania slowly, and a bit shyly, unbutton first one of the small shirt buttons and then another. He smiled encouragingly as his bold bride seemed to hesitate and blush when he looked down. At his encouragement, Ania began again with renewed determination to undo each button. Then she stopped, unsure what to do now. Should she untuck his shirt herself? She blushed even deeper and looked up at him trying to gage his reaction to her forwardness.

"Ah, Aniasita! I do believe you cannot decide whether to be shy or bold. Let me see if I can help the situation," Diego laughed. With a quick movement that seemed to accentuate the muscles of his arms and chest, he removed his shirt completely and tossed it toward the chair. Neither noticed or cared that it did not quite hit the mark.

For a moment, Ania's breath caught in her throat as she merely enjoyed the sight of her young husband's wide shoulders and strong muscles. Then she rested her hands above his waist as she had before and lightly slid her hands upward. All her life she had loved the way different textures felt under her fingers. Now she was finding this truer than ever. The softness of his skin, the firmness of the discipline hardened muscles, the slight tickle of the hair covering his chest was something she had never experienced before and its effect on her made her tingle with an excitement she had never known. Her fear disappeared and her heart pounded at the thought of becoming one with him. Once again, she kissed him, a kiss that started out tender and shy, but then seemed to burn with the fire Diego had always told her was within her.

Diego felt the change in her as she lost the uncertainty within herself. He stopped for a moment and looked into her eyes, rejoicing that he no longer sensed any uneasiness within his beautiful Lady Emerald Fire. This was what he had been waiting for.  Never would he have taken her to his bed while the fear had remained between them. Now the time was right. After sharing another kiss burning with the passion of their hearts and bodies, he lifted her into his arms, as he had done both as Zorro and as Diego. He searched her eyes once more and saw joy as well as desire there.

Then taking the few steps to the big teaster bed, he lay her gently back upon their pillows. Soon, with tenderness, and love leading them, touch for touch and kiss for kiss, they found to their great delight that not only was Diego an excellent teacher, but Ania was a very adept, and most enthusiastic, learner of the subject of love.



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