Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker






Chapter Nine

As the days passed, Ania became more adjusted to living in her own hacienda. It was a great comfort to her that she had temporarily hired Rosita away from the de la Vegas. Ania was somewhat amused when she realized that Rosita was not only her lady's maid, but also the closest thing to a dueña she'd had since her return from Spain. Perhaps she should have thought of hiring Rosita for that purpose earlier. She was only a couple of years older than Ania, maybe she could have kept up with her as she had been involved in building up this property. But then, Ania decided that it was perhaps best that no one else had been at her side during much of those early turbulent times. If she had hesitated, even a little, worrying about another's safety, odds were great that neither of them would have survived long enough to be rescued by Zorro. Besides, Rosita rode only when she had to, preferring to use a carriage when she traveled. No, Ania thought as she envisioned Rosita trying to keep up with her on Ventura. As much as I have come to value her friendship, that would never have worked. As it was, Rosita was always close at hand at the casa itself, while Bastián, at Diego's insistence, followed her around as she went from place to place on the rancho.

With preparations for the wedding continuing as well as her usual activities with the rancho, days were relatively easy to get through. Fittings with the various seamstresses and time spent with Rosita working on the "first night" set filled what little time she had to spare.

Nights were harder. If Diego did come, things were fine, but if he did not, she usually assumed that Zorro had felt the need to ride. Even when she tried to put the danger he might be facing out of her mind by continuing to sew, visit with Ramón, or do some other constructive thing, it remained in the back of her mind. More than a few nights, she woke up straining to hear some sound in the dark, only to realize what she was listening for and sternly tell herself to go back to sleep.

She had found, to her surprise, that there were some compensations. She now had a stack of letters, neatly tied with a bit of the satin ribbon from one of the new dresses, letters sent from Diego whenever he could not come in person. The latest letter was always in her pocket, ready to be read whenever she found herself missing him the most. She also found it quite charming to actually have him come to court her as most men would have, instead of simply being with her as a matter of course. He still came when he could around siesta time, but surprisingly was also able to come many nights as well. This puzzled her, but also delighted her.

The two found that they were allowed even less time alone under her cousin's watchful companionship than they had before. Ramón seemed to take his responsibility to Ania very serious indeed, much to Ania's disgust.

Ania frowned as she thought of an incident just the previous night.  She had asked Diego to help her learn to play the guitar.  While Ramon read a book in the corner of the room, Diego began to show her what to do.  So engrossed were they that they hardly noticed when Ramon stepped out of the room.  Ania was having trouble with a section of the song she was trying to learn and she and Diego were deep in discussion about chording.  Diego sat close behind her as he helped with the fingering of the notes, while reaching around her to her left hand with his to help with the rhythm.  Honestly, for once, this was all they had been doing, although Ania had to admit that it was an extremely pleasant position in which to find herself.  Ramon had walked back in at that point, clearing his throat rather pointedly.  Almost guiltily, Diego sat back, laughing as he caught Ania's expression as she looked up at her cousin.

"Enjoying yourself, Ramón?" she asked in a deceptively sweet tone, as she glared at him.

"Immensely so, Ania!" her cousin answered with a grin. Then he began to laugh. "Do you remember the summer when I was nearly eighteen and you were twelve?"

Ania narrowed her eyes as she tried to figure out what Ramón had up his sleeve now. "Yes, I think I remember most of it. To what are you referring?"

"I was attempting to pay court to my first sweetheart..." Ramón paused.

"María Isabel," Ania said with a laugh.

"Yes, and do you remember how you always managed to show up to visit with the younger sister in the family right at the same time? What was her name? Anita or something...." he said.

"Antonia," Ania gradually lost her smile as she began to remember the circumstances surrounding the visits. "Really now, Ramón, surely you cannot be intent on paying me back for our mischief.  It was as much Antonia's as mine!"

"Oh, was it always Antonia's idea to come to the sala to practice on their harpsichord each time, or did she have some encouragement?"  With a smug expression, Ramón looked intently at Ania and crossed his arms, waiting for her reaction.

"Now really, Ramón! I am hardly a child now, to have to pay for my tricks. I am quite grown up and do not need your watchful care," Ania propped her right hand on her hip and frowned up at him.

"I do not have to be intent on that, Ania. Society says that I can do what you think I would do in revenge merely out of concern for the female under my care. For who, in our society, is to be more closely watched: the young girl or the young woman?" Ramón asked, knowing he had her there.

"That is not fair, and you know it, Ramón." Ania stopped, suddenly left with no sharp retorts, for argue though she might, she knew he was correct. It was one of the things which had grated on her nerves ever since she had become old enough to realize that boys were encouraged in their adventures, while girls were to be protected from theirs.

Only with Papá had she ever succeeded in wheedling her way out of such coddling, and then only after making a string of governesses and would be dueñas miserable when Papá had hired them anyway. It had been one of the things most often criticized about her father, that he had not insisted on her obedience in this area. Perhaps when she came home, he had understood more than Ania knew of what a repressive nightmare Spain had been for her. He never, after that time, tried to foist a dueña on her. He instinctively knew she would have felt smothered by it when she desperately needed for life to get back to normal. After the triple blows of the loss of two sons, and the reprimand by the powers that were then in the government, he often found there was already a great deal of strength in his daughter, strength to which he himself often turned. Somehow then, a dueña just did not seem so important.

As he realized that Ania was not going to come up with a good argument for Ramón, Diego tried to hide his amusement. He never expected her to be out talked by her cousin, least of all without a great deal of fight.

Ania glanced over her shoulder in irritation. "What is so funny, Diego?"

"Oh, it is not funny," Diego replied innocently. "It is just interesting to see from which side of your family the ability to argue came!"

"Ha, ha!" Ania said sourly.

Diego grinned and turned to Ramón. "Are we to be allowed the freedom of strolling on the patio, Don Ramón?"

"Ah, assuredly so, Don Diego," Ramón informed him. "I do not think that will be a problem at all."

Diego quickly led a relieved Ania toward the patio.

"That seemed too easy, Diego," she whispered. As soon as they were far enough into the patio to see beyond the banister of the portico, the reason became apparent. There, sitting beside the door to Ania's room, with her sewing on her lap, was Rosita. Ramón had known she was there all along. Rosita, innocent of any plot, merely looked up and bobbed her head in greeting, then went back to her sewing.

"Perhaps," Ania grumbled, "we should begin playing to the balcony, Diego!" Ania stepped away from him and struck a dramatic pose. With bold flair, she pretended to open a fan and raise it in front of her face. "Ah, kind sir, and what shall we discuss tonight? The weather, or perhaps, the movement of the stars? What say you of the masterpieces of El Greco or the music of Bach?" Ania drew herself up straight, shoulders back, and chin up as if she just barely tolerated breathing the common air with mere mortals. She started to offer her hand to him, and then stopped with a shocked expression on her face. "Oh, but señor, should we be so bold as to have you take my hand in yours? Surely we would be trampling some line of sensibility here! And please, do not ask me how I feel on any issue. We really must not become too personal!"

Rosita stopped sewing and looked at her as if the young patrona had lost her mind. Now what is going on? she wondered in confusion.

Diego reached and took Ania’s hand anyway. "I shall be so bold," he laughed. "I begin to see what it must have been like to try to control your waywardness when you were younger. Let us hope that our own children do not pay us back for the mischief of our youth. Otherwise, we shall have our hands very full indeed, no matter how few or many there are."

Ania finally laughed with him. "Ah, I fear it is too late for that, mi amor! Luisa has already cursed me a million times with ‘May you have a dozen children and may each of them be just like you!’ so we may as well just prepare ourselves."

"Oh, but perhaps they will have their mother's beauty and the calm nature of their father. What possible trouble could they get into if they were like me?" he asked with a perfectly straight face.

Ania said nothing, but cut her eyes up at him with an incredulous expression as she raised a delicate eyebrow. They both began laughing, finally settling down to talk quietly. Ania longed very much for the next six weeks to be behind them.


The saving grace of much of this period were the times spent riding together...usually with Bernardo in tow. To have the freedom of the outdoors around her, a fast horse under her, and the man she loved beside her always went a long way toward easing the confined feeling that plagued her. They had begun to make it a regular thing not to send servants to pick up the mail, but to make the pleasant ride themselves. One of these rides had some rather unpleasant complications arise, as far as Ania was concerned.

They had ridden into Los Ángeles as usual. On this day, Ramón himself had ridden ahead to meet Don Alejandro for a late breakfast at the tavern, after which Don Alejandro planned to introduce Ramón to several of the other rancheros in the area. As the representative of the king, Ramón had several ideas to discuss with the landowners of the district. Ania, having been deliberately slow in changing to her riding habit, made sure that she and Diego were not riding in with Ramón. Much as she loved her cousin, it was Diego with whom she longed to have some private time, at least as private as it could be with Bernardo along.

The dusty streets of Los Ángeles had never seemed more pleasant than in the last few weeks. After a very enjoyable wait in the tavern, a bundle of letters addressed to various persons on the de la Vega property was handed to Diego and they started back with him glancing curiously through the stack. One, which bore marks indicating that it had begun its travels in Monterey, particularly caught his attention. "Hmmmm, Father seems to have gotten a letter from his friend, Señor Verdugo in Monterey. I suppose I should have looked though this stack before leaving the tavern." He quickly checked the rest of the letters and found a couple more for Alejandro. "Bernardo, take all of these back to the tavern and give them to my father. He can look them over as they are finishing breakfast and before they begin that meeting," he said in sign as well as word. As Bernardo hurried back into the tavern, Ania and Diego paused only long enough to allow a closed carriage, covered in dust, to pass before they started across the square to where a few merchants' booths stood.

"Diego!"  A pleasant sounding female voice startled them from behind. The voice was not unfamiliar to Ania, but judging by how quickly Diego turned toward it, he most definitely recognized the voice.

"Anna María!" he gasped in surprise as Ania turned to look back a bit more slowly.

Grasping her hand, he pulled Ania back in the direction of the coach and the two women standing beside it.

For a moment, Ania felt as if the air had been sucked from her lungs. Anna María! What is she doing HERE? she cried to herself. Why could she not stay in Monterey, where she belongs? She quickly hid her dismay and watched Diego as he greeted the younger of the two women. A cold streak of irritation ran through her as he gallantly kissed Anna María's hand. Holding a cool smile on her face, she struggled to remember to be gracious in this situation. After all, Anna María had done nothing to threaten her yet. And she just better not try anything! Ania thought fiercely.

"What are you doing in Los Ángeles, Anna María? Why did you not let us know you were coming?" Diego asked, obviously pleased to see her.

"Oh, Diego! Father did write,” Anna María said as she glanced curiously past Diego to Ania. “Your father should have gotten a letter from him before now. Oh, dear! This creates a most awkward situation!"

"Well, I am sure everything can be cleared up presently," he said quickly as he realized that he had not yet introduced Ania. Reaching back for her hand, Diego drew her up to his side. "Uh, I must apologize. The surprise has caused me to forget my manners. Anna María Verdugo, I have the honor of introducing you to Ania Cristina Valdéz, my fiancée."

Anna María blinked in surprise. "Fiancée? Why, Diego, you should have written me. You have been a terrible correspondent! Ania Cristina, I am honored to meet you. If you have captured this rascal's heart, then you must be special, indeed. I look forward to getting to know you better." She smiled at Ania, a smile that as far as Ania could tell was genuinely friendly.

It was too bad that friendliness was not the emotion holding sway in Ania’s heart at the moment. Nor did it help Ania's feelings to realize that she had to look up a bit to meet Anna María's eyes as she answered her. Ania squared her shoulders and tried to force warmth into her eyes. "Thank you, Anna María, but please, just call me Ania. I have not routinely used my middle name since I was at court in Spain."

Diego looked at her in surprise as he heard the stress Ania placed on the words, ‘at court’. She had been in California months before letting anyone know she had ever been at court in Spain. Why is she being so open about it now, with Anna María? he wondered uneasily? He could feel Ania's tension, as if she were preparing for something unpleasant. What can possibly be bothering her?

Anna María seemed suitably impressed. "Court? Oh, that must have been wonderful. I have yet to visit Spain. I have heard that it is beautiful."

"To some, I suppose," Ania commented, as if bored by the very idea.

Diego hid his puzzlement. Somehow this did not seem like his Ania here. What was going on? "Ah...Ania is not originally from Spain. She grew up in West Florida and came here about a year ago. Father and I have been assisting her with her rancho whenever she needed a bit of help."

"West Florida?" Anna María asked.

"Yes, my father was adjutant to the governor there until he retired and we came here. I was merely visiting family in Spain," Ania supplied with a proud tilt of her head.

"Oh, do you still have family there?" Anna María asked.

"Sí, the Marqués de Casa Calvo is my first cousin, once removed," Ania replied haughtily.

Diego looked at Ania curiously. What is she up to? It is as if she wanted to seem better than Anna María. Surely not! What possible reason would she have to want Anna María to think that? Diego frowned as he began to understand the situation. Ania is jealous! Well, this is going to be fun! he thought wryly. He caught Ania's eye as Anna María looked back at the older woman and their luggage. She met his frown with a look as steady and unreadable as a stranger's. By the saints! I had better get her alone to talk to her, and soon, he worried.

"I suppose I had better have our things taken into the inn, since our letter has not reached your father," Anna María started uncertainly. "We were suppose to...."

They were interrupted by a voice from behind them. "Anna María! So the letter was correct. You did arrive today!" Don Alejandro hurried up to them. Taking her hands, he, too, kissed them gallantly. “And this is your Tía Alicia? Welcome, both of you," he continued greeting them.

"Thank you, Don Alejandro. I am sorry that we have just shown up like this. Father did send a letter that was supposed to explain everything, but I suppose it was delayed in getting to you somehow," Anna María said.

"I just this minute received the letter." He looked up at Diego. "It was in those you sent to me by Bernardo a minute ago, Diego." He then turned back to Anna María. "I am so sorry that your father is sick now. I would have enjoyed seeing him again. If there is anything we can do...."

"Thank you. The doctor just thinks it will take him time to build up his strength again. He keeps reminding father that he is not a young man anymore." Anna María smiled wanly. "I am sure he will soon be on his feet. I felt that my business here was pressing, or I would have waited for him to come with me."

"What is the business you speak of?" Diego asked.

Before she could answer, Don Alejandro spoke again. "Due to his illness, your father has asked if I would keep an eye on you, so that he can be sure you are safe, my dear. There is no reason for you to take a room in the inn. Please, there is more than enough room at our hacienda for you and your aunt. Surely that will be the most logical thing for you to do."

Diego felt Ania stiffen, although when he looked at her, she seemed as relaxed as before, which was saying little enough. "Well, we will have the pleasure of seeing you back at the hacienda then, Anna María?" He looked questioningly at her.

"Oh, I hate to impose, at this late date, really," the young woman answered uncertainly.

"Anna María," Tía Alicia, apparently a quiet, shy woman, finally spoke up, "you know that is what your father wished for you to do. He said he would trust Don Alejandro to see that you are safe while you stay in Los Angeles."

"Yes, Tía, but..." she objected.

"Nonsense! We will hear no more about it," Don Alejandro stated. "Bernardo will get your luggage loaded on the coach again." He turned and gestured for Bernardo to do just that.

"Then we will see you there," Diego bowed slightly. He squeezed Ania's hand lightly and she responded without looking up at him.

"Yes, I will see you later, Anna María. It is good to meet you," she smiled. She continued to do so as she and Diego walked to their horses. As soon as they were clear of the pueblo, Diego was forced to push Paseo into a faster lope as Ania allowed Ventura to stretch out in a more rapid canter than she usually used when riding with him.

"Ania, wait!" Diego cried as he finally brought Paseo up beside her. "I know you are upset. I cannot for the life of me see why, but I know that it is so. Stop!  Let us talk!" Quickly he leaned over and grabbed Ventura's bridle, finally bringing Ania to a stop. "What is the matter with you? Nothing of an untoward nature has happened, yet you were hardly civil back there. You could have, at least, been friendly."

"Oh, I thought I was polite enough. After all, I have only just met her." For an instant, Ania's control slipped and her voice betrayed more of her feelings than she wished.

"Ania, there is no reason for you to feel this way toward Anna María. You are not even trying to like her.  Why, you don’t even know her!" Diego tried to reason.

"Oh, must I like her?" Ania's voice carried a dangerous edge to it.

"Of course, I want you to like her. She is a very special person, a very sweet, gentle lady, if you just give her a chance," he insisted.

When Ania looked at him, her eyes seemed greener than usual, whether from anger or nearness of tears, Diego had no clue, but the affect was unsettling. "A very sweet, gentle lady, huh? Well, what does your sweet, gentle lady want here?" she asked coldly.

"Well, I am sure we will learn that soon enou..." he began in answer.

"I will tell you why she has come. She has come for Zorro! If you do not know that, you are a fool, something I have never known you to be. However, as a man, you are quite capable of being bewitched by the pretty face of a lady. Why is it so important to you that I like her, Diego? Answer me that!" Ania interrupted, unreasoning anger dripping off each word.

"Now, Ania, I have given you no reason to think that that could happen," he argued.

"No, perhaps not in so many words, but I can tell you, Diego, that she is not entirely out of your heart and mind. You have told me that you love me...that things are better now. However, you never once while we were taking about Monterey told me that you do not love her any more. DO you still love her, Diego?"

"Ania, it is YOU I love. I have told you that many times. Would you doubt my direct word?" Diego was beginning to be angered by Ania's attitude.

"Sí, so you have said, but can you say that you DO NOT love Anna María? After all, the decision in Monterey was not yours exactly, now was it, Diego? You cannot tell me that you yourself decided that you would continue to ride as Zorro and leave her behind, can you?" Ania's eyes glistened with unshed tears as Diego hesitated.

Diego was merely hesitating as he tried to think of a way to convince Ania. That was what he told himself. He knew he loved Ania, but she was right. The decision in Monterey had been more his father's than his own. Yet, he had told Ania how he felt. It was unfair of her to react this way, just because Anna María had shown up here. It is not as if I called her here! he thought indignantly.

Ania started to turn Ventura homeward. Diego again took the reins. "Ania...."

"You know, memories are very special things, Diego.  The past can be very precious indeed, but you cannot have both the past and the future at the same time, no matter how beautiful they are. Which do you want, Diego de la Vega?" Suddenly, reaching down she yanked the reins from his hand and sent Ventura down the road at a run.

Diego started after her for a moment, then pulled Paseo to a halt. He would have had to be on Tornado to have any chance of catching her now. And who was he, to have to chase after her as if HE had done something wrong? No, let her be the one to cool off. I have done nothing! Grumbling, he turned Paseo back toward the pueblo. After a moment, he pulled the horse off the road and onto a parallel path. In the mood he was in, he had no desire to meet Anna María's coach going out to the hacienda. Scowling, he decided that the tavern was the place for him right now. Let Ania have the time to cool off and think of her words. She is the one who needs to think things through, not me.

Ania startled Pepe as she rode up almost full speed and brought Ventura to a sliding stop beside the stable. Some horses would be tired out and ready for their stall now, but not Ventura. She pranced and tossed her head as he took her reins, for all the world as if she were ready for a race. Pepe hoped that Señorita Ania would suggest that he take her for just such a run. However, he was disappointed.

"Take care of her, Pepe," the patrona told him shortly.

"You want me to brush her and feed her now, Señorita Ania? It is a bit early..." he said, hopefully.

"Sí! Sí! Just see to whatever she needs, Pepe," she ordered. For the first time that Pepe could ever remember, she turned and walked away, without stopping to talk with him. Obviously, something was wrong. The stable boy stood for a moment, looking after the young patrona. Finally, shrugging, he turned and led the horse to her stall.

Ania managed to avoid as many of the servants as possible on the way to her room. Her insides felt as though they were in knots. She felt so mixed up right now. She wanted to see no one.

Upon reaching her room, Ania found that, not surprisingly for her, she could not bring herself to sit down. However, pacing did not help either. As her temper cooled, her agitation remained high, but now for different reasons. She knew that she had overreacted. Even if Anna María had come to Los Ángeles in search of Zorro, as Ania still felt sure she had, that had been no reason for her to turn on Diego that way. He had no more control over Anna María's being there than she herself did! She knew she had been very unreasonable.

However, the dread still lay in her stomach like a stone. Unbidden memories of sitting beside a delirious Diego, his life and safety still not a sure thing, and hearing him call Anna Maria’s name rose in Ania’s mind. Pain tore through her heart just as it had then. Anna María HAD been in his mind enough that Diego dreamed of her when he was hurt. It had NOT been his idea, wholly, to refuse amnesty and leave her behind. He had admitted that he had thought of going back for her, at least for a while.

True, Diego had sworn that he loved Ania many times. She had the precious letters to prove it and they were officially betrothed. What more could she ask? But what if he DOES still love Anna María, at least a little? What if my jealousy has pushed him away from me, back to Anna María? Oh, Dios! Finally, Ania sank to the bed, her knees weak and trembling. Why could I not wait before I reacted, for once in my life? she asked herself. Ahhhh, Diego, what can I do now? I cannot, will not lose you! Oh, Dios, help me know what to do!

Finally, the tears she had been holding back came in a flood. Utterly miserable, she could only lay across her bed and weep. It was here that Rosita found her a few minutes later. Alarmed for her, Rosita sat beside her, patting her back as she made comforting sounds and comments. "There, there, Señorita Ania! All lovers have their quarrels. It will all work out."

"I pray so, Rosita. I pray that it will," Ania replied. However, one other detail reared its ugly head to make her even more miserable. Whatever happens, I will still be here, while that woman is there, in his hacienda, with him. It is not fair. It just is not fair! Unfortunately, she knew that this was true and there was not a thing she could do about it.





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