Ring of Fire



Keliana Baker






Ania Cristina Valdéz y de la Vega had no idea what time it was.  However, there was enough light coming into the west-facing window for her to watch her husband sleeping. She lay as still as possible, not wishing to wake him. It seemed to her from all she had heard about Zorro during the last eighteen months, there had been few long periods of time when he had not ridden. Diego was strong and seemed to have boundless stamina, but he would no doubt need rest when he could get it. She knew and accepted the fact that there would be many times when she would have to stand aside, ignoring her fears, and see him risk himself for the good of the people of California. His unselfish nature was one thing that had endeared him to her from the start. She had seen it in Diego even before she met Zorro, whose very existence had sprung from that unselfishness. He cared deeply about his people and she knew his desire to help and defend them would always be a part of him. She could never ask him to give that up. Many times she would only be able to offer prayers for his safety to help him, but what small things she could do, she would, even if it was only reminding herself not to kiss him awake when he needed rest.

She smiled as he stirred in his sleep for a second and then lay still again, his breathing a soft comfort to her in the silence of the room. He looked a little different to her right now. She was not yet used to seeing him with a shadow of beard and with his hair curling forward onto his forehead as it was now. She decided that she rather liked it. Yet she had to admit that there was very little indeed that she did not love about him. Just watching him called up a whole legion of emotions within her. She felt her love for him so strongly at this moment that she could almost reach out and touch it, a solid, tangible bond between them. As she thought about this, a scene with her father suddenly drifted through her mind.

She had not long returned from her nightmare stay in Spain, and while she had never discussed all the details with him for fear of hurting him, Don Miguel had been told enough by others to know that he had made a serious mistake in sending Ania to Spain with Leya. As soon as he could, he had arranged for someone to take his place with the governor long enough for him to sail to Spain and return with her to his own land. He also made it clear that he would remain at home with her for an unspecified length of time. Without pressuring her to speak of it, he had been determined to stay close to her upon her return. Don Miguel felt that this was the surest way he could let her know she was loved and treasured here, that she had not been sent away with such an untrustworthy caregiver as a punishment or because of a lack of love for his high-spirited tomboy of a daughter.

He had ridden with her along the bank of the bayou one day and they began talking about the nature of love. While it had never been stated in words, she realized that he had not married Leya out of love, but out of a desire that she herself be taken care of. She could plainly see that there was an abundance of love still in his eyes and voice as the conversation switched to her mother. "But, Papá," she had asked, "I am now seventeen. Mamá has been gone all this time. How can you still love her so much?"

Miguel Valdéz had stopped his horse, leaning on the pommel of his saddle for a time and looking over the water in thought. "Ania," he had explained then, "love, if it is real, is not something that is easily destroyed, especially one between two people who have shared the types of experiences Gabriela and I had. Our land is quiet now compared to what it was when I brought her here. There were several periods of unrest around that time. There was one in particular where we were not sure if either of us would survive, a sudden recurrence of trouble stirred up by the French and local Indians. It happened so quickly that I had no chance to retreat with her into Pensacola, as all government representatives were ordered to do. During our worst times, she never criticized or complained. She believed in me and in our ability to build up this plantation and survive. Gabriela trusted me and I found that a great deal of my strength came from that. Ania,
life under difficult circumstances is like a forge. Our lives are the raw materials, the danger and hardship are the anvil and the fire that turn love into something so powerful and strong that not even Toledo steel can compare. Nothing, not even death, can destroy it."

Perhaps, Ania mused, that is why this feeling of mine is so strong. We have truly had more than our share of danger and trouble ever since I came here. She liked the comparison to the forging of steel. Our love is as strong as...as...Zorro's sword! That is it!  She laughed silently, amused at her own silliness. Or perhaps it is like Zorro's fiery heart of justice, always there, sure and unquenchable! she thought a little more seriously. Whichever way she described it to herself, the very thought of that love made her feel safe and blessed, as if this was the time, the place, and the one man for which all the other events in her life had prepared her. That fact, in and of itself, made all the tragedies and hardships worthwhile.

Diego stirred again and Ania's attention strayed to his hands, lying relaxed beside him. Those hands, so much larger than hers, so strong and swift in his fights against wrong, yet, so wonderfully gentle and patient in making love, Ah, yes! He had taught her very well, indeed!  

Her mind went back to last night, sometime after the candles had burned themselves out. Ania, still dealing with the tension of their close call, had awakened from a terrifying nightmare to find herself in the safe haven of Diego's arms as he soothed her fears. She had surprised him by returning his kisses with so much fire that the night was once again lit up by their passion, their love a defiant cry against all the forces of the world that might try to come between them, to destroy them. It had been a celebration of life, of their love and their future together. Their passion rose higher until it washed over them both with the force of the Pacific waves that could be heard in the distance through the open window, leaving them trembling and breathless in each other's arms.

In the quiet, hazy peace of the minutes afterwards as they lay drowsily talking, Ania rested her head upon his chest. She realized as they ceased speaking and began drifting to sleep, she could hear his heart beating strong and steady not just beneath her ear. She also became aware of her own heart's rhythm. It almost seemed that the two were beating as one. It was an odd thought. She wondered if it was so. Yet she did not wish to examine it too closely.  She wanted to hold onto the belief that it was possible for two people who loved each other to be just that close.

She smiled again with amusement at the thought and almost reached to caress Diego. No, no! she told herself as she realized the effect just laying here thinking of him was having on her. Better not wake him up now. If I do, it shall certainly not be to discuss our plans for the day and he will definitely need more rest than ever. Chuckling quietly to herself, she began easing off the bed, trying not to move it more than she could help. She stood and quietly closed the curtains around the bed before taking her robe from the chair, tying it securely against the coolness of the early morning air against her skin. Walking toward the double doors to the balcony, she brought her long hair over her left shoulder, and running her fingers though it, began to coax it into some semblance of order.


Her feet making little sound on the polished wood floor, she slowly opened the doors. It was still early enough that the normal activities of the rancho were just beginning. Somewhere a woman's voice sang as she worked. Vaqueros laughed as they rode out to do the necessary chores before joining the merry-making again.

Ania shook her head and fought the urge to laugh. That Pepe! she thought as she watched the boy ride out across the fields between the house and the distant ocean. I never really said that we would enter Ventura in another race, but just look at him, training her as if she must win every race that comes her way! And perhaps she could. Perhaps I SHOULD let him ride for me in all the races! As much as he loves doing it, it would be at least a small reward for his actions this week.

Unobserved, Ania stood on the balcony, looking toward the sea. Far out on the edge of her vision, she could just make out the sail of a ship. The sight took her back eighteen months to when she herself had been at the rail of such a vessel. The thought of her father and Juan was the only sad blot on her world now. There would always be a part of her that longed for them, as well as for Felipe and Eduardo. Not even vengeance obtained could undo what had happened that morning all those months ago.

Yet, she was beginning to see their presence in the things she had accomplished here. When she walked through the vines, she could sense Papá's smile at the productive vineyard standing according to the plans he left behind. How he would have enjoyed seeing it! Perhaps he could even now.

When she rode among the herds, she could hear Juan appraising each yearling and cow. 'Could this colt be expected to be a winner in races?' (Bets laid nicely on the side, of course!) 'Could that steer thrive under the conditions here?' Every time she found the vaqueros playing cards after they came in at dusk, she saw again the cocky way he shuffled his personal deck and leaned back with a gleam in his eye, not just for the winnings, but for the thrill of the contest itself.

Every time she played chess with Diego, she felt Eduardo's presence as she forced herself to stop, to plan a counterattack, rather than just react to what Diego had done, as the quietest of her three brothers had taught her.

And Felipe...it had almost been as if he had physically been beside her as she had taken up that saber to defend herself the other night. His instruction on that particular defense had been as vivid as if he were actually standing there. She wished he had had time to teach her more. Hmmm, I wonder if Diego would perhaps teach me now, she

Perhaps she would never be without some sense of their loss as long as she lived. Yet as much as she had lost, she had gained a great deal in coming here as well. Without the tragedy of the attack that took Papá and Juan, would she have ever gotten to know Diego well enough to figure out his secret? Would she have ever let him close enough to her emotionally to let herself love? Padre Lucas, back in Florida, had always been fond of saying that God could use hardships and tragedies to pour blessings on those He loved, if one just waited for the Lord's own time to do it.

Perhaps that was just what had happened, for now she had an exciting young husband, the very thought of whom filled her with happiness. She had a benevolent father-in-law who already treated her as a daughter. She remembered saying very formally in Rodríguez's office when Don Alejandro helped her keep the grant on the land, "As a father you shall be to me." She never dreamed at the time just how true that would prove.

She leaned on the railing, looking toward the far horizon where a shower seemed to be falling into the ocean. Thinking of herself and Diego, she tried to picture their life in the coming years. She smiled to think of the part she would play in his frivolous act before the people of the pueblo. As stubborn as she knew herself to be, she would have to watch herself or she could fall into the habit of being the spoiled demanding person she had pretended to be in the market place. It was still hard for her to forgive the way so many people thought of him. However, she would watch Diego and learn from him just how to take secret delight in the good he did and to encourage the public view of his being bookish and passive. She would "give them what they expected" as he had said and continue to run Rancho Valdéz, even letting both its name and the vineyard's remain the same. She would need to do all of this to keep busy, at least for now. She smiled as she heard a baby cry somewhere downstairs where the servants would be preparing for the unexpected task of providing a festive breakfast for the newlyweds. Perhaps other things would demand her attention at some future time.

"You have left our bed far too early, Aniasita!" Diego's voice suddenly said behind her.

She turned quickly to find him smiling sleepily down on her. Her heart quickened at the mere sight of him. She laughed happily as he walked up behind her to slip his arms around her waist and pull her to him.

Ania leaned back against his chest and kissed him good morning. "Perhaps my body will take some time to adjust to sleeping when you sleep and waking when you do. I did not mean to disturb you."

"Just what is so important out here that it absolutely could not wait?" Diego asked as he glanced at the early morning scene before them.

"Oh, nothing really, I suppose. I was just thinking of the changes the last eighteen months have brought," Ania admitted.

"Sí, there have been a lot of changes," Diego agreed. "At least in my life they have all been for the better. I had no idea that morning, when I just happened to be nearby, how lucky your misfortune would be for me, Ania. I have thanked God many times since then that Zorro was on that hill overlooking the road." Diego tightened his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. Ania intertwined the fingers of her right hand with his and felt their rings click lightly together.

Contentment and joy filled her at the reminder of their love. Just as she started to speak again, the rain from the faraway cloud stopped and the sun broke though to paint the water with gold. Above the sea, a rainbow suddenly appeared, curving across from one side completely to the other side. There were echoes of the colors faintly to be seen just on the outside of each arch. Ania gasped in awe at the beauty of the sight. Diego looked up to see what had affected her so.

"A double rainbow!" Diego exclaimed quietly.

"Sí! It is beautiful, is it not?" Ania finally commented. "Diego, do you remember the old sailor we met on the dock when we went to San Pedro for that last shipment of furniture?"

Diego thought for a moment, his eyes still on the rainbow. "Sí, I do. He was quite a character. I am not likely to forget him."

"Remember what he said about the rainbow we saw that day?" Ania asked, glancing up at her husband.

Diego was quiet for another second. "He said something about the single rainbow that we saw then being nice, but nothing to compare to the magic of a double rainbow. Hmmm, let me see if I can remember what he said exactly. Something like, 'Fortunate are you who a double rainbow see, a double blessing of peace and happiness it will shower on thee' or something like that." The two were silent for a moment as the colors brightened a bit more.

"Well," he commented then, "I cannot say that it will prove true about the peace. It would be wonderful if peace did come here. Without Rodríguez, I suppose it is possible that even Zorro can rest for a time." He looked wistfully at the horizon. "However, time and again, peace has proven to be only a temporary condition. We must simply enjoy the peace while it lasts. Zorro will most surely be needed again in the future." He looked down into Ania's eyes, reading the emotions in their green depths. He smiled at what he saw. There was no fear at that prospect of the future, only love and acceptance there. He could see that this beautiful woman whom he loved so much could be counted on to support him no matter what the future brought. "As for bringing a double blessing of happiness... Well, I can say for a fact that the old sailor spoke the truth. No man could
ever be happier than I am now."

Ania's eyes shone with the joy she felt to hear him say that. Reaching back, she ran her fingers down his cheek. "I love you, Diego de la Vega!" she said fervently as he brought his lips to hers.  

Ahhh, I could stand just like this forever, Ania thought with a sigh as their lips parted and she looked back at the rainbow. However, the thought of staying where she was in the doorway was called into question as Diego once again nuzzled the curve of her neck. She pressed her head back against his shoulder and moaned as his lips found a sensitive spot that he had discovered last night.

Her husband laughed softly, his breath tickling her ear, as he said, "I told you I was going to remember the magic that lies right there. Now, much as I hate repeating myself, I will say again, 'You left our bed too early'."

"Oh, if you did not wish to repeat yourself, why did you decide to marry a headstrong woman?" Ania teased.

"A headstrong woman? Ahhh, so that is the trap I have fallen into," Diego rolled his eyes and pretended alarm. "Truly a fate worse than death! Why, I will just bet this headstrong woman has a sharp tongue and sharper wit, like a bear trap!" he gasped melodramatically as Ania laughed at his antics. "Is there no hope for me, caught in such a horrible situation? Is there truly no escape for the Fox this time?"

Ania turned in his embrace to wrap her arms tightly around his waist, her fingers securely linked against his side. "I am afraid not, Seńor de la Vega! This time you are well and truly caught, bound with bonds of gold stronger than Toledo steel. From me, you will never escape, my magnificent Fox!"

"Oh, what a fate!" Diego sighed in mock seriousness. "I suppose I can do only one thing." He paused and looked solemnly into his wife's shining eyes. "I shall have to trust to the mercies of she who holds the key," he said quietly as he slowly brought his mouth to hers again and kissed her passionately.

Ania swayed against him, clearly wanting the kiss to continue. However, he once again whispered in her ear. "As I said, you left much too early. Come!"  

Ania could already feel her breathing quicken. With a sparkle in her eye, she reached to close the door beside her. Just before she could swing it shut, Diego surprised her by chuckling. "I just might be able to teach you to obey me yet!" Ania paused, her hand half way to the door and looked back at him, her eyes full of mischief and a teasing smile on her lips. Diego laughed aloud. "But then...maybe not!" he laughed.

Joy filled her heart at the sound of that wonderful laugh and the sight of the love in this amazing man's eyes as he looked at her. In a moment, she joined in his laughter as they both reached for the door on their respective side of the balcony's double door. Smiling at each other, they realized that no matter what the future brought, they would always be there for each other. This time was theirs to enjoy. Together they closed the doors and once again shut out the world and all its injustices...at least...for...now.



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