Page 10 of The Black Fox

I help myself to potato omelet as well as slices of ham and cheese. Mama looks up from her fruit and glances at my plate.

“Lolita. Don’t be so greedy.”

I put another slice of potato omelet on my plate.

Zacarias chuckles, buttering a roll. “It’s all right, Valeria. She needs fattening up. You want her to be married, and men don’t like a woman to be all skin and bones.”

His eyes rake my figure, and I see a flash of the same hunger I saw last night. It’s gone the moment he turns back to his food.

Mama starts reading aloud from her tablet. “The Vizconde of Barola. The French ambassador’s son. The French ambassador himself. He was widowed just over a year ago…”

I feel a horrified shiver run down my spine. “Is that the guest list?”

“Si. The men whom you might marry.”

I drop my fork onto my plate with a clatter. “You want me to marry the French ambassador? Mama, he’s ancient.”

“He’s not ancient. He’s sixty-two.”

I glance at Zacarias to see what he makes of all of this. To my surprise, he’s glaring down at his plate and holding his fork so tightly he seems ready to use it as a weapon. Perhaps I only imagined this, though, because a moment later he goes on eating his breakfast as if the conversation is very dull to him and he’s not even listening.

Mama shoots me a look. “That means he’s old enough to keep a disobedient girl like you in check.”

Zacarias suddenly stands up and throws his napkin onto the table. After muttering something about needing to check his emails, he strides from the room. We watch him go, me with suspicion and Mama with thinly veiled irritation. She hasn’t finished her breakfast yet, which means no one should be leaving the table. I wonder if Zacarias knows he’s going to be scolded for that later. I almost smile at the thought, imagining her treating him like her toy poodle.

Bad Zacarias. Naughty Zacarias. No treats for you.

Now that I’m finally alone with Mama I can talk to her about him. In a whisper, I lean forward and ask, “Who is this man you married? What do you really know about him?”

Mama hoists Blanca into her lap and feeds her the bacon from Zacarias’ plate. “I told you in a letter weeks ago. Do you not read my letters?”

I received one page in her elegant scrawl saying she was going to be married to a man she met at the opera. “You said he worked for the policía as a contractor before he retired. That doesn’t sound like a real job to me, and isn’t he a little young to retire?” Zacarias looks about forty, a few years younger than Mama.

“I hope you won’t be asking tedious questions like this at the ball tomorrow night. You should be practicing your conversation skills on me. How lovely the weather is we’ve been having. That sort of thing.” She drops a kiss onto Blanca’s head and makes baby noises at the little dog.

I grit my teeth in annoyance. She’s not listening to me. “Hasn’t it occurred to you that he’s only after your money? How can you trust him when you’ve only known him a few months?”

“We have a pre-nup. Your inheritance is quite safe.”

I wasn’t thinking about me. Not about the money, anyway, though I am worried about living under the same roof as an utter creep. I take a deep breath and get to what I really want to say. “How can you be sure he can be trusted around me?”

Mama’s brow creases with distaste. “I beg your pardon?”

I fumble with my napkin in my lap, wondering how to phrase it. “He might mistreat me.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Aren’t you a little old to be indulging in poor-little-step-daughter fantasies? Cinderella didn’t get to go to the ball. You do, and I expect you to look your best.”

I sit back in my seat and sigh. All she wants to think about is this ridiculous ball. “I don’t want to go. I don’t even have anything to wear.”

“Yes, you do. Take a look in your wardrobe. I bought you several gowns while you were in Switzerland, and you have new shoes and jewelry, as well. No more excuses.”

I sit in silence for the rest of the meal, waiting for Mama to finish so I can be dismissed and go back to my room.

Several hours later I’m wandering disconsolately through the downstairs rooms when I hear the doorbell ring. I hurry to the door, but Zacarias gets there first. His big frame blocks the doorway and I can’t see who it is. When he turns around there’s a package in his hands. He notices me standing in the hall and smiles. It’s not a nice smile.

“Well, well, well. What have we here? A package for Señorita Lolita Hernandez.”

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