Ten minutes later, Valeria leans over and presses the car horn, the sound reverberating through my skull. A minute passes, and then Lolita appears on the top step. My heart gives one hard pound, and then seems to stop altogether.
Lolita wears a gown that sparkles like champagne and clings to every curve of her body. Her dark hair has been lightly curled and cascades over her shoulders. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her with makeup on, but today her natural beauty has been highlighted with darkened lashes and a brush of pink lipstick on her lush mouth.
She comes slowly down the steps toward me. I find myself drifting toward her, aching to take this angel in my arms. It’s a moment before I realize she’s gazing at me with loathing in her jewel-bright eyes.
Faced with her loveliness, I forgot that she hates me.
If you so much as look in another man’s direction, I will see to it that he dies a slow and bloody death.
I hold out my hand to her to help her into the car, but she swerves around me. Or tries to. I step in front of her on the pretense of reaching for the door handle.
“How lovely you look tonight,” I murmur. She’s so close that I don’t need to raise my voice. Behind me, her mother is shut up in the car, the windows closed. “I hope you haven’t forgotten my request, mi niñita.”
“You mean your threat,” she says through her clenched, pearly teeth.
I raise an eyebrow at her. “Shall I open the door so you can repeat that for your mother?”
Lolita snaps her eyes away, an angry red flush creeping into her cheeks. I chuckle and open the car door, and she gets inside. The skirt of her gown is full and I lean down to scoop some of the tulle into the car.
“I can do that.” She tries to brush my hand away. Our fingers touch, and a bolt of electricity goes through me. Her eyes meet mine, and shock has driven all hatred from her face. We stare at each other for several long moments. Lolita doesn’t move, her lower lip softening and her breasts rising and falling in short, soft breaths. I reach out to her lovely face, wanting to cup her cheek and draw her lips to mine.
A horn sounds, and for a moment I wonder if it’s the clarion of doomsday. Then I realize that Valeria has grown impatient and sounded the horn again. I snatch my hand away and straighten.
“Hurry up with your dress, Lolita, or we’re going to be late,” I snap. I wait with one hand on the door while she scrambles to pull all the tulle safely inside, and then slam it closed. I pretend that my turmoil is irritation as I stalk around to the driver’s side, get in, and start the engine.
My eyes catch Lolita’s in the rearview mirror several times on the drive to Madrid. I don’t know what I’ll do if I see her near another man tonight. There could be blood on the dancefloor before midnight.
The ball is being held at the Carossa Grand Hotel in the center of Madrid. Valeria sweeps down the royal blue carpet to the entrance on my arm like a Hollywood movie star, her smile white and blinding.
The inside of the ballroom is lit by enormous crystal chandeliers, reflected in ornate gold mirrors. Flower arrangements cascade over side tables and potted palms dominate the alcoves and corners of the room. There are so many glittering diamonds and white-toothed smiles that my eyes are dazzled.
My wife introduces me to this dignitary and that aristocrat. I’m hyper-aware of Lolita trailing behind us, unimportant to Valeria until she spots a tuxedoed man who isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Then she drags her daughter forward and is all tender smiles and kind words about Lolita, as I stand off to one side, my whole body rigid with fury as I watch some cur looking at what’s mine.
Coveting what’s mine.
Undressing with their unworthy eyes what’s mine. Mine. Mine.
“Shall we dance, mi amor?”
“Hmm?” It seems Valeria has run out of men for the moment and has turned to me to show her off on the dancefloor. “Fine.”
I draw my wife into the waltzing couples, and immediately lose sight of Lolita in the crowd. Valeria is too busy cataloguing the guest list in a steady monologue to notice that my attention isn’t on her. As she discusses the merits of this dignitary over that for her daughter, I’m scanning the crowd for Lolita herself.
Valeria gasps in pain. “Zacarias! Must you grip my hand so tightly?”
I realize I’m clenching her in anger, and loosen my grip. As soon as the music ends, I deposit Valeria on the edge of the dancefloor with a friend of hers, mutter an excuse she doesn’t hear, and head off in search of my stepdaughter. If she’s dared disobey me…