“Did your eyes reveal anything to your liking?” she asked slyly, the dessert wine falling deliciously down her throat, all but burning through her limbs.
The library was colossal, as most of the rooms in this house were prone to be. The dark, coffered ceiling and richly paneled walls brought about a delightful resonance to the Marquesa’s words, her voice sounding splendidly rich to her ears. Joaquim found that he liked this woman’s company even more in his private office, regardless of the dispute about its territorial claims.
Books and papers lay mismatched all around the huge desk near the center of the room, though they appeared to have benefited from some sort of personal order, which Dídac had not yet managed to sufficiently explain to his father.
Joaquim had shown the Marquesa to the sitting area between the desk and the huge marble fireplace, which rose to the ceiling like an Egyptian needle pointing to Ra. Candles were lit in an assortment of heavy iron candelabra scattered about the room in convenient places, and the fire hissed quietly, casting comforting shadows on the walls that competed for her attention with the steady glow of the bright little flames.
“I don’t know what I saw this evening, my lady,” he lied. “I know only that I was fed an interesting idea I wish to explore further and, perhaps, understand. You say the absorbed look upon my son’s face should infer some manner of feeling I should take into greater acknowledgement?”
She laughed outright this time. “But it is always wonderful to hear your voice when you speak of your son as if he were one of the livestock on a neighboring field. It’s too sensational! But no, don’t look to me with that defeated look, I will appreciate you all the more for it. No, Joaquim, please don’t look at me with that frustration. Oh, it’s too rich!” She laughed on, pulling her hand up to her chest to stop herself from being thrown too far into exaltation.
“You mock me?” Joaquim smiled now. Joaquim was made uneasy by her display, though he was not particularly conscious of it. He felt he appreciated her all the more for being so affectionate in her demeanor. He was feeling all the time that he had a great capacity to love this woman. Her perfect, wideset eyes of crystal blue always seemed to bring him home from his daydream, enlivening him again and again.
“No, no dear, I do not. And yes, there is much you should read into that feverish look that your son wears so handsomely on his face. It seems there is much that is good about it; good for your purposes, as well as mine.”
“But how is this so, Marquesa? How is it that you are so sure of the nature of the boy’s gaze when my wife has not even mentioned the slightest change in him?”
“The answer lies in a natural need your son hides in plain sight, not to mention that Francesca cannot understand how such a need would ever come to find its solution so easily. Mind you, she cannot be held at fault for not perceiving her son’s infatuation. After all, he goes about it as a gentleman, revealing nothing of his passions that might offend her. Nevertheless, if she were still not to have become fully aware of his situation by the end of the week, I am sure you would both find the child going out of his way to leave every blunt clue about the woman short of a lurid drawing.”
Joaquim was the one to laugh out loud this time. He sat back in the chair across from her and enjoyed the idea of his son in such a desperate situation. It was hilarious.
“So, there is no question in your mind then, the two are more than fond of each other?”
“Again, Don Joaquim, the sherry is causing me to divulge secrets that I will no doubt suffer the wrath of a fifteen-year-old girl for. In any event, the secrets are most certainly true.”
“And does this intention on the part of my son please you?” he asked seriously.
“Your son’s intentions are the source of a great deal of joy on the part of my niece, señor, and as such, they please me very much.” Marcelina shot him another of her stunning smiles and drew the glass to her mouth to taste the liqueur once more. It was warm and sweet and delicious, and she felt alive with it and with the satisfaction of her victory this evening.
“I must say that this news is not even slightly expected, but certainly it is most pleasing. But excuse me, if you will, what was it that you said of my son’s near call to change, as far as his career is concerned? When may I expect to hear some word of confirmation on this matter?”
“Sooner than you could hope for. He has expressed to my niece that he will announce his focus and ask to be enrolled in a specific course of study at the university by the end of the week. Further, he will also ask for your leave to request her hand in engagement, one that will keep her promised to him until he emerges from school and is situated. All of which, I will assure you, my dear Don de Ferrero, will be met with a most embracing assent from her mother’s house. Veronica’s father passed some time ago and let me also assure you that it is not from simple sentiment that I too think of this child as my daughter. Indeed, you may confidently regard me as her surrogate father, for whichever path she takes in this life, it will invariably benefit from the backing of the House of Amontoní.”
The look she gave him now brought from him the triumphant sense of ease and closure he had longed for far too long. He stood up and walked about the room, trying desperately to keep from outright grinning like a common fool and dancing a private jig of satisfaction. He shouted a small private belly laugh that the Marquesa fancied as the rumbling of an agitated volcano.
It had happened all so quickly, he thought. He had awoken this morning not even looking forward to opening his house to guests, and now he was roaming around this room like a madman, hoping to avoid rising up onto the chairs and attempting flight, propelled only by uncontrollable joy. He let out another triumphant laugh from his chest.
Marcelina enjoyed watching the handsome man pace the room like a lion. She enjoyed it almost as much as she enjoyed having told him the state of affairs in his own house.
“Shall I receive your charming wanderings as happiness, Don?”
He let the composure leave him momentarily. “Yes, my lady, to be certain! But it is the most satisfying news I have heard about my son since his birth, I’m afraid.”
He fell now to being more reserved in his emotion. “You will forgive me again, my lady, but I have not the patience nor the ability for composure any longer. I have spent far too many of my years treading the waters as a dying man not to be overcome by the sight of land. And your words are the white sandy beaches I have been dreaming of for so long. Forgive me, I cannot remember a time when I was not at war with this sea.”
“Then may I have your word that you will support him in his ambitions?” she asked warmly.
“Marquesa, my wife and I would be most pleased with such a union between our houses.”
They talked now for some time, rolling from topic to topic, somehow falling back to the subject of their family’s perspective union. Marcelina found him to be utterly charming in his own way, and he was relentless in his ambitions to do just that.
“So, what brought you to be so enamored with all these law books, all this noise? I see you dote on them with your son as if they were your very life. What brought you to them, to your days in Her Majesty’s court?
He smiled generously. “I like to argue to no end. That is what I tell everyone who asks me what I favor most of my career. I tell them that I love to argue, but I suspect they can all see through to the true reason.”
He arched his eyebrow slyly once more. “The true reason is that I am too fond of hearing my own voice. That I enjoy being paid attention to by so many. It’s a successful vanity, law, standing up in court every week and commanding that observance. It’s all too addictive, like an aphrodisiac. I stand there with everyone of purported importance in our nation at attention, waiting to hear the position I spell out before them. I can’t help but feel a luxurious and addictive infusion of pleasure.”
“Funny, a man who will admit to vanity. So few men have the vaguest concept of what it is or why it’s so compelling in their lives. And how does your vanity suffer upon your son’s usual dismissal of your views on his life?”
He laughed pleasantly. “Dídac is my constant reason for modesty in these last few years. If ever there were a humbling experience for a vain man, it is his teenage son pointing a finger in his face and defying him with tears of anger in his eyes. I don’t know all the factors that made him so impossible to persuade. He was sent to me from God as a reckoning against my vanity. He desires not my approval or deference, but simply my love.” He raised his eyes gently in mock defeat. “I suppose even that explanation is but another flavor of my vanity.”
“Oh, to be sure,” said the Marquesa warmly.
She liked this, how he understood himself in that way, that he comprehended his son to such an extent and didn’t dismiss the boy in his own private thoughts, as he did in action. It would prove to be the one aspect of his character she would admire and honor while allowing herself to believe in the great prospect promised by this union.
“We are ever at each other’s throat over some minor issue or another, but I am confident that, in the end, there is an anchoring sense of love between us.” He closed his eyes briefly at the unusual sound of his private thoughts spoken aloud. “Maybe I am wrong, but I honestly don’t see it any other way.”
“The relationship between a father and son,” she observed, “is usually difficult. You cannot be equals, not even when he becomes a man, really, and that there should be a distinctive sense of love between you two under this premise is a certain formula for conflict and discord. After all, a son must learn to love his father as an adult while he is ever held in command by that father. And any father who must keep his son in place, be it for love or duty, will undoubtedly weather a certain level of disdain from the boy, if not merely contempt.”
Her words struck a chord with him, as if a fissure had broken through his inability to locate his finger upon the composition of it, and he could finally see to the heart of the matter as never before. “Yes,” he said silently, almost to himself, “that’s it exactly. Disdain for the situation because of the love involved, that is the essence of it.”
Veronica held the ring up to the soft flicker of the candle’s light. It was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen. Holding it in her hand, she could feel a sort of supernatural brilliance emanating from it, a heat that warmed her body to the very marrow of her consciousness.
She had taken it off her finger now several times, sliding it on again and again, feeling the smooth precious metal glide over her delicate fingers, the sensation sending wave after wave of sublime pleasure through her hand and wrist.
The ring was a lovely silver set with a breathtaking sapphire, cut exquisitely in a rectangular fashion. It seemed to change the light, casting a deep violet shadow on the wall near the candle.
When he had given it to her, she was convinced she would die. The very idea of it was something Veronica had never ventured far enough in her daydreams to imagine.
It was so unexpected, so moving in its intimacy, and Dídac had said he loved her with such warmth, and the very light from his eyes provided such a surreal moment that she was left only to be amazed. It was the sort of incredible experience that finds one in life, when one doesn’t remember to stop and overthink it, preventing its magic from sweeping them away. Yes, magic: that was the best way for her to remember it. His proposal had been a moment of magic that could never be replicated by or compared to all the forthcoming events in her life.
And after she consented to his request, he had kissed her. It was not the kiss of a man, not the kiss of sexual passion she had received on that night weeks ago when she was submitted to the physical education that clarified her misunderstood desires. No, Dídac’s kiss was nothing but loving honesty. It was slow and gentle, without the slightest bit of vulgar or hurried passion. Dídac had kissed her as a gentleman. He didn’t seem to want for his kiss to be anything other than that, nor for her to understand what else it could become.
Dídac had read unbelievable stories in the past few years, literature he might be excommunicated for were his family to ever come across it. The descriptions inside these books were incomprehensible, vile to the extreme of his imagination. And though, in truth, much of it produced an arousal in him, a frenzied hardening of his sex, he did not really understand that there might be a bridge between those inconceivable acts done by scandalous men to lascivious women and the genteel manner in which he wanted to kiss his young flower.
Nothing of the sort mentioned in those evil books had anything to do with Veronica, he thought. He had never done those things with any woman, would never, indeed. He couldn’t stand the very idea of entering into that sinful world. And though he had now written, in the vaguest terms, of characters who entertained such experiences, he could never bring himself to do such things. Those actions were separate from the life of a gentleman. Things for the wicked and godless people of faraway lands. He wanted nothing to do with them.
And so, when Dídac kissed Veronica, it was out of love. Lust and love had not found a way to coexist in the boy; he doubted they ever could. No, he loved her, and his embrace and kiss were solely the behavior of his love.
And whenever he might feel that urgency rise in him, whenever he glimpsed that mound of breast heave delicately with her breath from under the pretty lace, whenever he would see the curving line from her waist to her breasts, or when his sex would stiffen against his will, he shut down his mind all together and waited for the urgency to pass. Nothing so untamed should ever come in contact with this girl, his flower, this young lady who was as gentle with him as a mother. He did not care how often his sex hardened in her presence, he would not allow himself to dishonor her.
And when he had given her the sapphire ring, the heirloom from his mother’s room, which he prayed she would not notice missing, the ring he had gazed at on his mother’s finger when he was a small boy, delighting in the way it changed the light... he had given it with his full comprehension of love, that selfless joy that was moving him to sacrifice all for. He had laid a blessing on this ring, and when he had seen it on the hand of his love, Dídac had felt a happiness and satisfaction unlike any he had ever known.
Veronica slid the ring off for the last time, she promised herself. She would hide it from everyone now, as Dídac said she must. It must be a secret between them, for if his family were to find out, they might demand the ring be returned.
Dídac had promised he would make this happen for them both, he had said that it was only a matter of time, and that he would marry her secretly now, with only the moon and the stars to bear witness, if only she would promise to wait for him. He needed time to become a man for her, one which her family would accept and his family respect.
The girl had not cried, it did not even occur to her at the time that she might cry at the sound of his love. And as she sat on her bed this evening, the sensation was unexpectedly rushing up and catching itself in her throat. The tears were merely a vehicle, a way for her to gaze safely into her memory.
She did not know if she could keep this from Marcelina. Indeed, she had not said anything before the woman was called away by his father. She did not feel that her aunt would be mad with her after seeing the boy’s ring. It seemed that Marcelina might, in fact, be the greatest supporter of all. Had the woman not made all this possible? And just who else might have done such a thing?
But as Marcelina returned to their rooms, peeking her head into Veronica’s chamber to make sure she was asleep, the thought of revealing their secret engagement seemed impossible to the girl. She would tell Marcelina in time, perhaps even in the morning. Veronica wanted to have his sapphire to herself, at least just this one night.
The light from her aunt’s room went out and the girl drifted off to sleep with the sounds of his laughter echoing through her dreams.