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…
I finally run her to ground by the refreshments table. She’s reaching for some punch, and another man is making a bee-line for her, his arm outstretched to put a cup into her hand. I get there first and step in front of him.
“Dance with me.” I hold out my hand to Lolita. It’s not a request.
She glances around for a friend. Her mother. But there’s only me, and I’m going to get what I want.
Reluctantly, she places her hand in mine. We’re on the edge of the dancefloor, and I step back and draw her into my arms. My arm slides around her waist as if it has done so every night for a hundred years. Lolita’s scent blooms in my nostrils, and I close my eyes briefly as she settles one slim hand on my shoulder. Euphoria fills me, and it’s all I can do not to bend down and nuzzle her neck through her hair and nip her throat with my teeth.
Lolita gaze up at me through her lashes. “You’re very strange, Zacarias. I don’t like you at all.”
I take a deep breath and remind myself of my intentions. I’m only doing this so I won’t have to see her with other men. In a few hours’ time, she’ll be locked in a bedroom upstairs, and come morning I’ll drive her back to the castillo where there are no other male eyes but my own.
Where no man can look upon what’s mine. Mine. Mine.
“Yet you’re dancing with me,” I point out.
“We’re in public. There are a hundred people in this room. Do I have to fear you even now?”
Especially now. I’m learning your scent, Lolita. I’m imprinting the curves of your body on my mind. I lean close to her lips and murmur, “Tell me, did you really try to seduce two of your professors?”
Her cheeks turn pink. What a little minx she is. I let my gaze slide down her body, wondering how far those papery old fools got with my Lolita. If I find out they touched her before they reported her, their lives won’t be worth liv
Lolita gazes past my shoulder, craning her neck this way and that as I sweep her around the dancefloor. “Are you looking for someone?”
“I thought perhaps…” She trails off.
“You thought perhaps the Black Fox might make an appearance?”
She starts, and her cheeks turn an even deeper shade of crimson. For a moment she’s flustered, but then becomes defiant. “Everyone thinks he’s disappeared, but he hasn’t. Criminals in Spain should watch themselves.”
Her eyes flick disdainfully over my face, and I find myself smiling broadly. I lean down to whisper in her ear, “But I have you to watch me, mi niñita. I’d much rather have you than a ridiculous masked man.”