They don’t pay me enough for this, thought Belén for what felt like the thousandth time. She pushed her way out of the laundry room, basket balanced on her hip with a perfunctory grace developed as a result of endless repetition.
In the deserted staff dining room, she paused, setting the basket down on the table. She had no need to catch her breath. She was in perfect health. It was just that, at times, she simply became too angry to carry on. At moments like this, the only thing to do was to find an out-of-the-way place and stand there, allowing the flood of venomous, paralyzing hatred to course through her veins until it consumed her completely, until she reveled in it, at which point she would find herself able to move again.
It had been inconvenient, at first, to have to hide, to pause in carrying out her latest orders from doña Ángela. Now the hatred was the only thing that kept her going. It had become the reason she got out of bed at the crack of dawn on mornings like this one, the thing that kept her from downing a bottle of laudanum and ending her misery. It had crept up and replaced Alejandro as the most important thing in her life; an epiphany that didn’t make her feel as terrible as it should have. After all, she would never be the most important thing in his life. It didn’t mean that she loved her remaining son any less; just that she hated everyone else more.
And oh, how she hated them. Every single one of them. There was Ángela, of course, who in a million petty ways and a few decidedly non-petty ways had made Belén’s life a living hell from the day she’d arrived in Cantaloa. There were the Alarcóns: that double-crossing bitch Teresa and her pathetic, self-important brats. The knowledge that that stupid cow Sofía and her spineless fop of a husband had taken Belén’s baby away was enough to freeze her with hatred on the sunniest, happiest day.
And then there was Diego. Her hatred for him was in a whole separate league; its scope was such that it could not be quantified or described in words.
But it wasn’t just them. These days she hated everyone, from the lowliest kitchen drab to the richest hotel guest. Sometimes she utterly loathed Natalia, her best friend, for no other reason than that the woman existed, and was happy. Frequently, she couldn’t even look at sweet, pathetic Andrés, her doting husband, without feeling the hate-induced paralysis come rushing in.
Now she watched the room come into gradual focus as faint, pre-dawn light filtered in. When it was bright enough that she could read the schedule on the wall, she felt the virulent hatred begin to ebb away. Sighing, she picked up the laundry basket.
As she rounded the corner into the servants’ stairwell, Belén thought she heard a peculiar noise. She froze, held her breath, and listened, knowing all too well the value of overheard information at the Gran Hotel. True, her blackmailing attempts had led to trouble in the past, but old habits died hard, and Belén had always been naturally curious anyway.
Silence. Dismissing the noise as imagined, Belén had started up the stairs, when, all of a sudden, she heard it again: a rustling, and another sound—a sharp intake of breath? Belén remained perfectly still, listening. Yes, someone was definitely on the second floor landing. But what were they doing there this early in the morning? The servants were not due to arise for another quarter hour, and Belén could not fathom why a hotel guest would be awake and in the servants’ stairwell.
Setting down her basket and lifting her skirts, Belén resumed climbing the stairs, avoiding the ones that creaked. Whoever was on the landing wouldn’t see her as long as she kept close to the railing; the dingy stairwell was dim and shadowy even at midday (a consequence of doña Teresa’s refusal to spend a single unnecessary peseta on the comfort of her staff, thought Belén bitterly.) Her train of thought ground to an abrupt halt as the second floor landing came into view.
There were two other people in the stairwell, a man and a woman. Belén couldn’t see either of their faces due to the compromising position they were in: the man, facing away from Belén, had the woman pushed up against the wall. It was difficult to tell due to the poor illumination, but it appeared as though the woman had her face buried in the man’s shoulder; Belén could make out a pair of pale hands clutching his dark jacket. The man’s hands were nowhere to be seen, but based on the sounds his companion was making, Belén had some promising theories as to where they were.
She smirked. Really, she might have known. But who were these people? Belén ran down the mental list of servants who might choose to avail themselves of this shadowy corner at this ungodly hour. It couldn’t be Natalia, her roommate, because she’d been sound asleep as Belén got dressed. It certainly wasn’t doña Ángela. Virginia was between beaus, Irene was sick, and Carmina was much taller than the woman currently pressed against the wall. Did any of the waiters have a sweetheart in Cantaloa? Belén couldn’t remember. She continued down the list anyway. It couldn’t possibly be steadfast Andrés, and the man was too broad-shouldered to be Mateo. Jésus had always fancied Natalia, Eduardo would have to grow a pair before he was capable of interacting with women, and Belén was reasonably certain that Antonio’s carnal exploits involved other men. Which left only…
“Julio,” gasped the woman, and as she tilted her head back, eyes closed in ecstasy while Julio Espinosa trailed kisses down her throat, Belén got a glimpse of her face and had to stifle a gasp of her own.
It was Alicia Alarcón.
Belén drew back against the railing. Was this possible? Was she actually witnessing a tryst between Diego’s sainted wife and Andrés’ disreputable roommate?
The more she thought about it, the more it made perfect sense. Really, it was too excellent. Of course Diego’s wife was secretly screwing a waiter (and Belén couldn’t fault doña Alicia’s taste, at least in the looks department.) Of course. Of course they were having an affair.
Still, cliché as this tryst was, she would never have predicted it. Belén had always known that her husband’s best friend was as shady as Andrés was wholesome, but she hadn’t realized just how shady until now. She felt a wild surge of vindictive glee, and a sudden rush of affection for Julio. Diego was a cuckold! For a moment, Belén wanted very much to tell the miserable bastard, or better yet, to show him—to watch the look on his face when he realized his precious Alicia was not the angelic, dutiful wife he imagined she was. But then again, there was nothing in particular to be gained from telling Diego, and the knowledge that this was happening behind his back was extremely satisfying in itself.
Viciously delighted, Belén mentally reviewed all the haughty things Diego had ever said about his marriage and engagement. If I have a child, it will be an Alarcón, he’d insisted. Belén chuckled silently to herself as she backed away from the landing and down the stairs. She was fairly certain that if Diego had a child, it would be an Espinosa.
The sun was halfway over the horizon as Belén set her basket back down on the staff dining room table. Any minute now, the other servants would begin stirring. Soon the dining room, kitchen, and service stairs would be swarming with activity, but for now, Belén savored the solitude. She sank into a chair, grateful that there was no doña Ángela present to tell her to get back on her feet. She let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding and leaned back in her chair, feeling vaguely uneasy. Something felt different, felt off. There had been a subtle shift in—what, exactly? Not the room; as far as Belén could tell, everything was still in its place. No, the peculiar sensation was coming from within her. It took her a moment to realize what had changed: it was the hatred. The loathing that had become her constant companion felt suddenly remote and insignificant, like the distant buzzing of a small, trapped insect. Belén brought her hands up to her face and realized that she was smiling for the first time in weeks.
Huh. How about that. This was shaping up to be an interesting morning.