Ring of Fire

By

 

Keliana Baker

 

 

 

 

Chapter Eight



Now that she had agreed to stay at her hacienda with Ramón, time passed all too quickly for Ania. As anxious as she was for the wedding date to arrive, she dreaded even the temporary move that would come before then. She had become so attuned to the small click behind her wall that she not only knew many times that Zorro had ridden, but even more comforting, she often awoke to that slight sound deep in the dark hours before dawn with the relieved feeling that he had also returned safely once more. Now she would not have that reassurance.

Ania often pondered the matter, wondering if there was not some other way things could be handled. Ah, if I had only taken the time to discuss it with Diego and Don Alejandro before Ramón brought up the subject of moving into the hacienda, she fretted. I should never have agreed so quickly. Yet, what else can I do? Ramón is adamant that we should not impose further while there is a perfectly good hacienda to be used while he is here. And he is right. I cannot stay here when there is a male member of my own family in my own hacienda. Talk would start. Ania frowned even more deeply. If the criticism was just of me, it would not matter, but it will not be. Diego will be the object of gossip and his father will be criticized for allowing...whatever...to go on under his own roof. Diego has always been so concerned with protecting me from the slander that could have come before now. How can I not take the only step that would at least limit the talk about both of us?

She knew that beyond their personal desire not to be separated at this time was the fact that Diego was worried about her safety. Even with de Irujo securely in custody, there was still the matter of whether Capitán Rodríguez would ever try anything against her again. Hmmm, perhaps that is an argument that would convince him to stay here. I suppose it is worth a try.

After talking it over with Diego, Ania explained as much as she could of the situation to Ramón. She had told him of her suspicions about Rodríguez's involvement with the murders of Juan and Papá. She also refreshed his memory about de Irujo and let him know that de Irujo had, accidentally or not, found her again and tried to kill her. Ramón was relieved when told that de Irujo was in prison, even if it was a work program. He had a great deal of trust in the government prison programs. De Irujo, he took seriously. Rodríguez was another matter.

"Where is your proof, or at least, some solid basis for your suspicion?" he had asked her about Capitán Rodríguez.

What could she say? That Zorro had taken the capitán to task on her behalf? Since it was not common knowledge around the pueblo, how could she explain her knowing it had taken place? The only way that Ramón would have believed that is to have Zorro himself tell it. Of course, as far as she was concerned, THAT was out of the question.

All she was left with, other than that, were incidences which showed Capitán Rodríguez’s, and her antipathy for each other. When she described the confrontation behind Manolito's home where Rodríguez seemed ready and willing to shoot her, Ramón had shrugged and explained her version of the incident as merely her overreaction to the admittedly natural act of his holding her at gun point. Ramón had explained in a logical manner that the capitán would have had to do that until he figured out what role she was playing in the incident and he had Monolito back in custody. She found to her frustration that she could prove nothing beyond a doubt to her cousin.

"You have always based your opinions of people on how you feel about them rather than their actions. I will admit, sometimes your 'woman's intuition' is quite good, but how can this Capitán Rodríguez be as bad as you say? You have never seen him anywhere around when you were attacked, nor have you ever heard any of the bandidos say that he hired them. All you really have is a gut feeling, and that is not nearly as reliable as logical evidence," he argued.

"Diego and Don Alejandro seem to take my suspicions seriously. THEY know he is a snake-in-the-grass!" Ania countered stubbornly.

"Maybe," Ramón countered, "but I see that they do not go around saying it. You would be wise to be a bit more careful about it yourself. Besides, I know you can generally make anyone believe what you wish them to. You spent enough time in the fantasy atmosphere of court to learn that rather well."

"I am hardly making it up!" Ania declared hotly.

"I never said that you were, just that you may be mistaken, with no solid evidence," Ramón soothed. "Also I fail to see how staying here would make you any safer. It is not as if Diego is capable of protecting you himself, at least with a sword or gun." He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "I am very surprised that he is so...so...." He struggled for a word for a moment.

"He is no coward, if that is what you were going to suggest!" Ania whirled toward him, hands on hips, feet spaced as if she herself would fight him over such a suggestion, as indeed she would have had they still been children. "He is gentle, intelligent, kind...."

Ramón threw up his hand to stop her objections. "Ania...Ania! I never said that, nor was I going to. However, you must admit that he is hardly such as I would have expected you to be so taken with. I like the man. I truly do, and I can see that he is as taken with you as you are with him. But I would have expected you to marry a fighter...hopefully not a hot head, but at least someone skillful with weapons. Diego is surprisingly lacking in the skills your brothers and father practiced all their lives."

Ania rubbed her hand over her forehead and frowned. "Ramón, remember one thing. I loved my brothers and my father very much, and all four of them, every last one of them, died violently.  Why should I not be attracted to someone who believes there is a better way to do things than resorting to violence? Perhaps he will not leave me a widow because of a duel or a gunshot." Inwardly, she prayed that such was true, that somehow he would always return to her safely, despite the danger her cousin must never know Diego faced. She hoped that someday in the far future, events would work out so that Ramón could know just how strong and brave Diego was. For him to do what he did, and be even mildly criticized as less that manly was just too much to endure.

"Ania, I can understand that. Perhaps Diego is just the type you need. You two make it plain enough that you love each other. I just hope that you do not find yourself bored with the quiet life you will probably lead with him. You were always such an excitement seeker. Was this an arranged marriage and I the one who had to arrange it, I doubt that I would have even considered him as a match for you. Neither of you need the wealth of the other, although I suppose many people never feel they have enough, so personality likenesses would have been one of the main considerations." Ania glared at him. "However, that is neither here nor there. We have ranged too far from our original topic. The point is that, one, I am the only male relative anywhere near you. Since you are unmarried, even as merely a cousin, I have the responsibility to take care of you for the short period of time that I am here. Ania, I will be more blunt with you than I was before Don Diego and Don Alejandro. Your reluctance to hire a dueña, even though I understand it, after a fashion, probably already has caused talk since word of your relationship with Don Diego has spread. If I live in your hacienda and you remain here, that will only add more fuel to the fire. The two months that you live in your own hacienda with me overseeing you will give the busybodies that many fewer months that they can wonder if you two have gone beyond what society allows. I doubt that the old tías of this pueblo will neglect to watch the fit of your dress and the size of your waist over the next few months. If you gain an ounce, there will be those who will be counting the months and wagging their tongues."

"Ramón!" Ania cried, blushing deeply as she realized what he was suggesting.

"Ania, you know it is true! There will be those who will suspect it, even though no one says it aloud, at least where any of us would hear." He paused a moment, then went on with his arguments. "Two, the worry about your safety is hardly to be thought of. I will have lancers around us most of the time. Not a big force, but enough. Why, you should be even safer there than here because you will not have the long ride, usually alone, from here to there to oversee your rancho. And, finally, three, because you have already given your word on the issue. That is the most definite reason of all. At no point in your life have I ever known you to go back on your word! I do not think you will start now."

Ania looked at him and shook her head sadly. He was right. She had given her word. "All right...all right!" she finally muttered. "Then you stay here."

"No, Ania. That would not help matters," he insisted.

"Oooh, you are so stubborn!" she snapped.

"Stubborn? Sí, I am. That is a family trait that breeds true all the way through my family tree...OUR family tree, cousin!" He grinned at her good-naturedly. Ania merely scowled back.

Ania was still stinging over his misjudging of Diego when she, Diego and Bernardo rode through the pueblo once more on their way to San Pedro to sign for the last load of Miguel Valdéz's furniture. Thankfully, Ramon was needed at a meeting of the rancheros in the area and grudgingly accepted Bernardo as at least some sort of a chaperone, if not the dueña he wished she had. They would have a couple of days for the furniture to be placed and the servants to put things in order. Saturday night, their betrothal would be announced at the fiesta and Monday morning bright and early, Ania's and Ramón's personal luggage would be moved to the Rancho Valdéz. The thought of the nearly eight weeks from then until the wedding was like a cloud hanging over her, inescapable and unwelcome, but survivable, she supposed.

There seemed to be more merchants' booths set up around the square than usual. When Diego suggested that she take the time to see what was offered, Ania eagerly agreed. While Bernardo left on an errand for Diego, the two young people drifted amiably from one display of goods to the next, Ania buying whatever caught her eye. They stopped beside one large booth, which had a sizable assortment of laces and linens just off a ship from Boston, hanging so as to display them to the best advantage.  Ania examined the laces, delighted at the fine quality of them.  Hearing voices, she paused to listen as from the other side of the hanging merchandise two older senoras were having a humorous discussion concerning two young lovers and their suitability for each other.  To her dismay, she realized that it was she and Diego who were the subject of this conversation, the older women having seen the two of them walking along and enjoying each other's company. 

"Now who would have thought that when Diego de la Vega finally decided to wed that it would be to one such as Ania Valdéz?" the older sounding voice said.

"Why, Drina! I thought you liked Señorita Ania. I do, even if she is rather unusual in some ways," the younger voice exclaimed.

"Oh, I do. Do not get me wrong, Eva. It is just that they are so different. She is so decisive and quick in her actions and decisions, and so independent. I would not be surprised if she refuses to allow Diego to oversee her holdings for her when they marry. She seems that obsessed with them," Drina explained.

"Well, as far as that goes," Eva commented, "I doubt that young man would even make the attempt to convince her to do otherwise! If it is not something he has read in a book, or related to art or music, he hardly seems to have energy to care about it." Both women made derogatory clucking sounds and Ania could just imagine them shaking their heads. "If someone had told me six years ago that Diego would have come back from Spain so changed, I would have told them they were loco. He was such a spirited boy! Now he will talk a problem to death before doing anything."

"Yes, I am afraid he is not half the man his father is," Drina agreed. "Maybe Ania Valdéz's temperament will be good for him. Many a lazy man has been motivated by a wife who knows how to light a fire under him."

"Humph! From what I have seen of those two, Diego will be jumping to her tune soon enough, probably quite henpecked," Eva snorted. Both women began giggling together. "Shhhhh!" Eva cautioned, still giggling. "Someone will hear us!"

Ania drew herself up, her fists balled at her sides and eyes flashing pure fire. Someone will hear them indeed! I'll teach those two old biddies a thing or two! she thought angrily. She started to walk around the stand, but was surprised when Diego took her arm firmly. Quickly, he turned and walked back to another stand several yards away, taking Ania with him. Looking at him in concern, Ania hurt in sympathy for him. She realized that, without a doubt, if she could hear the women so clearly, so could he. Once again, he had been unjustly criticized. Why, that must happen all the time! she realized with a shock. She had never really thought about it before. From the time she had met him on the patio that first morning, he had been so kind, so good to her, always the gentleman and so attentive to her feelings and needs. By the time she recognized the fact that she was falling in love with him, the supposed lack of forcefulness was an accepted part of him. Her heart had responded to the true Diego de la Vega whom she came to love without regard to the passiveness of his nature. "Oh, Diego..." she began, not sure how to soothe the hurt she knew he must surely feel. She looked at him closely. The look in his eyes was somewhat veiled as if he was used to not showing how he felt, which of course, he was. He did not look angry, merely resigned to things.

He surprised her again by apparently feeling that SHE was the one who needed to be comforted. "It is all right, Ania," he said with a wink, "but I think we would do better at another booth, do you not?"

"You should have let me find a way to put those two in their places, Diego," she said as they walked toward another booth. "It is so unfair! Those old bats would be afraid to stick their noses outside their own doors, if it were not for some of the things Zorro does! If they only knew...."

Holding his hand up to forestall any further comments and to caution her to keep her voice down, Diego said, "But they can not, can they, mi amor?"  He looked into her eyes. "That is something I...we...can never allow."

Ania stood silent for a moment, then lay her hand over his and sighed. "No, I suppose you are right, but you deserve so much more," she whispered.

"Why?" he asked, surprising her yet again.  Then softly, "I know who I am.  I know what Zorro does is needed and right.  As long as I feel that what I am doing is the right thing to do, that is enough."  He looked down at the ornate silver pitcher he had picked up as if it were the topic of their conversation, and then back up at her.  "From the first, Bernardo has always been there for me.  But in the beginning, I did not have my Father's approval.  He did not know and that was hard on both of us.  His approval came much later.  But now I have the blessing of not only Father's support, but yours as well.  As long as none of you have to pay for who and what I am, I am thankful.  It is truly more than enough."  Indicating the older women who were walking away across the plaza, he said, "The other can be borne.  It is really better this way."

Ania just looked at Diego for a long moment.  Words seemed inadequate to express the admiration she had for the selfless man whom she was going to marry.  Covering his hands with hers, she slowly took the pitcher from him and pretended to examine it.  With a sideways look she said, "Still, I do not like what they say.  I just wish there was something I could do."

"There is," Diego whispered back. Ania looked up inquiringly. "Just continue to love me," he finished, smiling into her eyes.

Ania's eyes softened as she looked up at him. "There is no way that you will ever have to worry about that!" she said fervently.

Diego smiled at her for a moment then looked back down at the goods in front of them. He suddenly began to chuckle.

"What?" Ania asked, puzzled.

"They expect me to be henpecked, do they? Well, why do we not give them what they are expecting?" he suggested.

"You want me to act like a shrew?" Ania asked.

"Well, I really was not thinking of you in those terms. I suppose you would have to ACT that way, even though I do not think you would ever be one. However, I know your temper and your determination to have your own way on some things. Perhaps I have just been lucky that we are usually in agreement," he chuckled again as Ania looked at him uncertainly. "Just give them what they are expecting," he repeated. "Come, let us go look at the saddles. I know you want another one and they have a beautiful one over at Julio's. I will pretend to be against it. You, dearest, will be determined to have it one way or another. Let us see if you are as good an actress as I think you are." Gallantly, he offered her his arm and steered her toward the booth just beyond the one where the two señoras still stood.

Somewhat bemused, Ania threw herself into her part. "Oh, Diego! I have been meaning to return here. Look at this beautiful saddle. Have you ever seen such beautiful silver work before?"

"Well, it is beautiful, but it is probably a bit impractical for the type of riding you need to do," Diego countered with a shake of his head.  “You ride more often to work, not a fiesta. You already have a very beautiful tooled saddle that you bought just last month. Behind them, the two women looked for a moment and then leaned their heads together, whispering.

"Well, I see no reason not to have the very best," Ania insisted. "If you truly cared about me, you would want me to have the best that Los Ángeles has to offer." Ania pursed her lips in a pout. Diego suppressed a smile. Had it been real, he was not sure if he would have wanted to spank her for that pout or kiss her.

"Now Ania..." he began as if distressed by her accusation. He looked back at the saddle in mock uncertainty. "Really, now...."

"After all, it is for my horse I am buying it and my money, " she insisted.

"Yes, you are right there, " he said in a wavering tone.

This type of thing continued for several minutes, ending with a haughty looking Ania telling Diego that she wanted it, therefore she would have it. Diego looked displeased but merely shrugged as she ordered the saddle sent to her rancho. Variations of this scene were repeated at one or two other booths, all near the two women. Ania began to enjoy the role she was playing. From time to time she would look up and see a touch of laughter in Diego's eyes. Finally he leaned over and whispered, "I hope you do not get too attached to this behavior. I do not plan to be the weakling all our lives."

Ania leaned over as if looking at something beside him and nearly caused him to burst out in laughter as she whispered back, "Oh? Afraid you have unleashed a monster upon the world, are you?"

He coughed to cover his reaction, then said nothing, merely meeting her eyes as he raised a dark eyebrow at the comment.

Ania smiled as she led the way back to the horses. She caught a glimpse of the two old women as she walked by. Both had self-righteous I-told-you-so expressions on their faces as one looked at the other. Humph! Old fools! Ania thought.

Bernardo met them by the horses. Sensing their mood, he looked at them curiously. Both merely smiled and shrugged. He too smiled as he mounted his horse to follow them. In some ways, the two seemed quite alike, in their love of mischief, for example. Unlike the two women in the market, Bernardo felt they were well matched indeed.

Things went very smoothly on the rest of the trip to San Pedro and back. This time Ania and Diego actually managed to take the moonlight walk on the beach they had wanted the first time. They left Bernardo dozing by the door, or at least pretending to doze, and were wonderfully alone. Once out of sight of the small hamlet and harbor, Ania had come close to shocking Diego, by having him turn around, and going behind a rock to remove her shoes and stockings.

"I have missed this, Diego. I used to wade in the surf every time we went to meet the ships back home. There is nothing like the ocean! Come on! You wade too!" she laughed.

"Me? I have done nothing like that since I was a child," he objected, tempted in spite of himself.

"Then it has been too long! You cannot wait another hundred years, Diego. Come on! Walk in the surf with me." she begged.

Laughing, he let himself be pulled to a low rock where he sat down and removed his boots, rolling his pants up above his ankles. For the next hour or so, they walked by the water's edge, splashing and laughing, as light-hearted as children. Diego finally grew quiet, watching Ania with the moonlight reflecting around her. She looked like a beautiful water sprite, so full of life and love that the whole world glowed with her presence. Finally, he could resist no more. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, longer and more passionately than he had ever dared to before. As Ania responded to him with the same intensity, he knew that they would have to go back soon. Holding each other was becoming only too natural, too tempting. There were lines that they dare not cross yet. Ahhh, he thought as he kissed her again. How can eight weeks be such a short period of time and yet feel so long?

Finally, sighing, they stepped apart until only their hands touched. Gently, he reached up and pushed a lock of her hair back. "Mujer, do you have any idea just how much I love you?" he asked quietly.

"Oh, I have an idea," Ania teased with a chuckle, "but do not let that keep you from telling me. It is rather pleasant to hear!" She did as she had once in the cave when they had first been honest with each other about their feelings. She put her hand over his and nestled her cheek into his hand. "I love you, too, Diego, more than I ever thought I could love anyone or anything."

Drawing a shaky breath, Diego pulled her close and kissed her again. After a moment, he paused and leaned his head against hers. "We had better go back now. If we are not careful, you will truly need a dueña."

He laughed then as Ania asked, glints of mischief shining in her eyes, "Oh?  And is the dueña to protect me from you, or you from me?"

Chuckling, he lightly grasped her shoulders and turned her back in the direction of the harbor and civilization, giving her a gentle push. "Mujer, that way...go!" He shook his head and followed his laughing water sprite back to the inn, stopping just before they came in sight of the dock to put their shoes back on.

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Over the next two days, Ania tried to convince herself that things were not as bad as they seemed. She threw herself into arranging the "new" furniture. The furniture already placed into the room that had originally been drawn up as her father's study had to be moved to allow the correct items to be placed there. Quickly reaching to pick up a gilded wooden box containing seals, Ania accidentally dropped it. Golden seals rolled in all directions. Hmmmmm, there are suppose to be six seals in this set. I see only five. She made a thorough search and even called Rosita, who had come with her, to help look, all to no avail. Looking to see which one was missing, she saw that it was one with an ornate V inscribed on it with a griffin reared up behind it. Oh, well, I suppose it will show up somewhere. I really do not have time to look any more right now. With that thought, she turned to go get dressed for the fiesta.

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Saturday came and lively music drifted up from below while Ania was getting ready for the fiesta. As she met Rosita's eyes in the mirror, her smile seemed capable of lighting up the whole world. The lady's maid was just putting the finishing touches to Ania's hair and she nodded in approval of the way the young señorita looked tonight. Ania seemed to glow with joy which made her beauty almost breathtaking. She was dressed in a soft silk dress of deep dusky pink that accented her skin tone. About her throat was a heavy necklace of pearls and gold, the pearls reflecting the pink of her dress in their luster. Finally, combs in place, Ania stood and turned toward Rosita. "How do I look?" she asked, twirling around on her toes.

"Like a princess awaiting her prince," Rosita answered just as there was a knock at the door.

"Ania?" they heard Diego's voice call though the door.

Both women giggled. "Speaking of whom..." Rosita said with a laugh.

"Just a minute, Diego," Ania called back as she stepped lightly to the door.

Diego looked her up and down appreciatively as she opened the door. Then with a smile that matched Ania's, he said, "The last time, I waited for you downstairs. This time I have decided that I will escort you down. It is not every man who can make a grand entrance with the most beautiful señorita in the pueblo on his arm!"

Ania merely smiled brightly and nodded. She felt so full of happiness that if she did not hold back a little tonight, she would be positively giddy. It would not do to appear tipsy. She would have to resort to using the "cloak of court", although she was finding it was not nearly as good a way to hide positive emotions as it was controlling negative. But then, perhaps this was due to the fact that her heart did not wish to hide what she felt right now. She wanted to shout it to the world. Of course, that would not do at all, so she simply kept her mouth closed and reached out to take his arm. Just as she started to step out, she remembered something, however. "Oh, wait! My fan..." Reaching back, she took the lace fan from Rosita and turned to go back to Diego. As she turned, she accidentally got the fan hooked under the delicate strands of pearls. She never knew how, but suddenly pearls were showering down from her neck to her feet. "Oh, no!" she and Rosita cried together. For a minute, all three young people scrambled to recapture the pearls, which seemed to be determined to scatter to the far corners of the room and even out the doorway. Momentarily, Ania's eyes dimmed with tears as she looked at the handful of what had been Gabriela Córdoba's pearls, the very ones she had worn when she married Miguel Valdéz. Finally she sighed, "Well, Diego, it looks as though you will have to wait for me just a while longer. It seems now that I need to look through all my and my mother's jewelry and find something else to go with this dress."

"Señorita Ania, perhaps you can just go with only the earrings," Rosita suggested.

Ania frowned worriedly. "No, with this low neckline, I really need something about the length of that strand of pearls. By the Saints, why did this have to happen right now?"

Diego stood silently looking at Ania, as if considering something. "Do not worry about it, Ania," he finally said, a secretive expression in his eyes.

“What, Diego? You have something up your sleeve. I can tell. What are you planning?" Ania laughed.

"That, mi amor, is for me to know and you to wonder about," he replied with a laugh as he turned and left the room.

Ania looked after him with a bemused smile on her face and then turned to Rosita. "Ah, well, bring out the jewelry chest again, Rosita," she sighed. The two women were still sorting through the chest, with Ania rejecting first one piece, then another as not quite right for the pink dress, when Diego returned and knocked lightly at the door. "Come," Ania called.

Diego entered with one hand behind his back and stood looking at Rosita, trying to come up with a good reason to send her elsewhere for a few minutes.

"Diego, what are you doing?" Ania asked as she rose and came to his side, trying to see behind his back. Diego grinned and gracefully sidestepped each time Ania tried to step around him.

Rosita finally cleared her throat. "I...ah...think I will see if any pearls rolled into the dressing room. Con permiso." With a quick bob, she disappeared into the smaller adjoining room. She was far enough away to give them a bit of privacy, yet close enough by that no one could say that anything improper had taken place while Diego was in Ania's bedchamber.

As Ania turned back to Diego when Rosita stepped out, she found him smiling broadly.

"Close your eyes," he ordered.

"Diego, what..." she began.

"Just do it, Aniasita," he insisted.

Laughing, Ania closed her eyes. She felt Diego take her hands, and bringing them together, turn them palm up. His hand still holding hers, he lay a large flat, clamshell box in her hands. Ania's eyes opened wide. She gasped aloud as she saw what lay in the clamshell box. "Oh, Diego! They are beautiful!" she whispered. There, against the dark velvet of the box, lay a necklace and earring set of fiery opals set in purest gold. The golden chains of the necklace itself were brought together in an intricate pattern between a set of five smaller matched opals, with a single larger stone suspended from the center. The pierced earrings echoed the pattern of the settings of the opals in the necklace. Ania was no stranger to fine jewelry. This, however, was something far out of the ordinary. For a moment, all she could do was look from the gift to Diego, an expression of delight on her face. "I love them, Diego! Where did you find them? I have never seen anything so lovely!"

"They were my mother's," Diego finally said with a smile.

"Your mother's? Oh, Diego!" Ania cried.

"Sí," Diego said quietly, "Father and I had already been discussing the fact that he wanted to see me pass some of the things he had kept of my mother's on to you. My mother would have wanted that. He reminded me that some jewelry needs to be worn to keep its full beauty, especially these opals. I have always heard that opals reflect part of their fire from the person who wears them. Who better than you, my sweet Lady Emerald Fire, to wear jewels which seem to burn with your own spirit!"

Ania looked down and laughed quietly. "So, I am Lady Emerald Fire, am I? Well, I suppose that is due to my eyes, the emerald, that is. The fire is my temper?"

Diego laughed, "No, not this time. Ask me that again after we have been married a while. Now it is more for the joy you have brought to my life, joy that I feel like the warmth of a life-giving fire."

"Oh, Diego..." Ania stood on her tiptoes and started to kiss him as he took her in his arms. However, at that moment, Rosita cleared her throat again and stepped back into the room.

Diego chuckled and gently raised her hand to his lips, placing a kiss there. "Now who's timing is off?" he asked dryly. Ania shook her head and laughed.

A few minutes later, Diego led Ania out of the room, with Rosita a step behind them. Then as Rosita stopped at the head of the stairs, the two joined the guests waiting below. Don Alejandro stood with Don Pedro and Doña Carlota before the gate watching his son and future daughter come toward him.

"They make a very handsome couple, Don Alejandro," Doña Carlota commented.

"Indeed, Alejandro. Someday you should have some extremely beautiful grandchildren from the looks of that pair. You are a very lucky man," Don Pedro agreed.

"I am indeed," Don Alejandro replied. He tore his mind away from images of the small dark haired boy who had once filled this hacienda with his lively mischief to look up with shining eyes as his son walked up with the beautiful young woman who would forever be a part of all their lives.

He nodded as he looked at the opals flashing their fire about her neck and ears. "Somehow, I knew they would be perfect for you, Ania. Isabella would be proud to have you wear them, my dear," he said as he took her hand.

"Thank you, Don Alejandro. I shall always wear them in honor of her. She must have been very special indeed to have been so loved by you two," Ania squeezed his hand and then looked back up into Diego's eyes.

The rest of the night was a blur of excitement for Ania. The hacienda was full of friends and neighbors, proposing toasts to their happiness and wishing them many years of joy together. However, later Ania remembered little other than the look in Diego's eyes and the feel of his arms around her as they danced. As long as she was in Diego's arms, all was right with her world. Nothing could hurt them now.

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A week's ride away, in Monterey, four men sat in a back room of an inn. It had taken several days for the black-eyed man sitting impatiently at the center of the group to gain the confidence of these cautious men. The man to his right had been his key into the organization. Somehow, Rodríguez had known this one and eased his way with gold. He had told them of the group he represented, a group surprisingly headed by a woman. Other members of her family who were now dead had supposedly started the group. She had been unwilling to let their ideas die with them. The Monterey group was, at last, receptive to a note from the woman who supposedly helped put the various resistance groups in touch with each other through what was, to all intents and purposes, her own group. De Irujo tensely clenched his cigar between his teeth, as he held a wine glass with his left hand. With his right, he slid a folded document from his pocket and tossed it onto the table before the other men. The light caught on a bright seal made of red wax. The spokesman for the rebel group slowly picked the packet up and examined the seal, which showed a fancy letter V in front of an upright griffin.

"Where did this woman's so-called plan get its start, señor?" one man asked. "Is there perhaps money somewhere that could help our cause?"

"I would not be at all surprised if there was a great deal there. Were you to go to Castilla y León, not far northwest of Madrid, you would see many lands and casas owned by her family, actually by this woman now. You see the V on the seal? That, my friends, stands for Valdéz, a very influential family there and now they, or rather, she wishes to be equally powerful here."

"Valdéz!" one man gasped. "I know that name!" He leaned forward, discussing excitedly what he remembered of Spain and the importance the Valdéz family.

De Irujo smiled as he listened. Revenge! Ahh, it will not be long now, little Ania! Not long at all!

 

 

 

Chapter Nine
Chapter One
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