It was a lovely evening and a lovely party, and although she knew herself to be reasonably lovely as well, Luisa Villarin was quite certain that she would not be asked to dance. There were two reasons for this.
The first was that there were far too few gentlemen in attendance. The conflict in Africa had driven many young men of the aristocracy to enlist in the army, and their absence was now keenly felt by the too many young ladies who drifted listlessly about the ballroom.
The second reason was Magdalena. Even if there had been gentlemen present in abundance, Luisa suspected that she would have been passed over, forced as she was to stand beside her resplendent sister.
Luisa’s elder by two years, Magdalena Villarin was undeniably impressive. Tall and striking, with features that might have been better suited to the heroine of a tragic opera, she never failed to attract the attention of every male in the room. It didn’t hurt that her movements were choreographed with just such an audience in mind.
Luisa, slight, brunette, and brown-eyed, was by no means unhandsome—but she could never help feeling plain, mousy, and insignificant compared to her dazzling sister. As a result, she was locked in a perpetual battle with her own envy. It was no easy task to feel charitable toward a sister who was not only beautiful, but entirely cognizant of her beauty. Especially on occasions like this one, when Magdalena was arrayed to her best advantage in silk and ribbons and a delicate diamond necklace that drew attention to the low neckline of her gown.
In fact, it seemed as though tonight Magdalena was making a special effort to dazzle gentlemen and ladies alike. Luisa toyed with her fan as she surreptitiously surveyed the Alonsos’ ballroom, wondering what could have triggered her sister’s competitive side.
“Don’t fidget so, Luisa,” snapped Magdalena, her alluring smile not faltering for a moment. Her diamond engagement ring gleamed in the candlelight; she had found some excuse to remove her gloves (the better to show it off, no doubt.)
Maybe that was it, reflected Luisa. Perhaps her sister was on edge because she felt she was being upstaged. If that was the case, she had little reason for it. Magdalena’s own engagement party, held the previous month, had been every bit as grand and well-attended as this one, Ignacio Alonso’s. Of course, their host’s intended, a wealthy banker’s daughter from Barcelona, was nowhere near as impressive as Magdalena’s conde. It would be just like Magdalena to find the scale of the Alonsos’ fiesta presumptuous.
“¿Ocurre algo, hermana?" probed Luisa tentatively.
Magdalena shook her head, sending her diamond earrings swinging. “No,” she replied, “I simply don’t wish to see you regress back to your childish habits.”
Luisa flushed, another habit Magdalena disapproved of. Abandoning caution, she pressed her sister further. “Are you certain, Malena? You seem uneasy.”
Magdalena’s icy tone made a strange contrast with her beatific expression. “If I'm uneasy, it’s because she’s here.”
Luisa followed her sister’s gaze over to where the prospective groom was twirling Alicia Alarcón across the floor. They appeared to be laughing together over some private confidence.
Luisa’s eyebrows drew together in puzzlement. Her sister and Alicia had historically gotten along well enough, if not warmly.
“But why shouldn’t she be? Alicia and Ignacio have been friends since childhood,” Luisa wondered aloud.
Magdalena looked as though she was only just managing not to roll her eyes at her sister’s foolishness. “Really, Luisa, we spoke of this only yesterday. Don’t act as though you haven’t heard.”
Too late, Luisa recalled that Alicia Alarcón was at the center of the latest scandal to hit the ballrooms of Madrid. According to Magdalena’s fiancé’s sister, who had a nose for gossip, Alicia Alarcón had eloped with a penniless camarero before her first husband was cold in his grave. Trust Magdalena to be scandalized that Alicia would dare show her face in society, even to attend her oldest friend’s fiesta de compromiso.
“Oh yes, the camarero. I remember now. Do you think it’s true?”
“Francisca’s sources are unimpeachable,” sniffed Magdalena. “It’s true. I only hope Alicia hasn’t had the gall to bring him.”
Luisa understood “him” to mean Alicia’s new, low-class husband. “Who is he, do you know? I wonder if we met him when we stayed in Cantaloa last November.”
“I don’t know his name, and I don’t care to,” insisted Magdalena.
It was then that Luisa happened to glance round and notice an unfamiliar young man staring openly (and unexpectedly, when Magdalena was mere feet away) right at her. He was dark and handsome, probably somewhere in his mid-twenties, dressed smartly but simply. For an instant, their eyes locked—and the piercing intensity of his gaze was such that Luisa took a step backward, stumbling over the hem of her dress in the process.
A hand caught her elbow and restored her easily to her feet. “Perdóneme, señorita," said a low voice near her ear, “I didn’t mean to alarm you.” The stranger. Luisa could scarcely believe he had moved so fast.
“Luisa!” chided Magdalena, swooping in before her sister could stammer that it was quite alright, “Whatever happened? I apologize for my sister’s clumsiness, señor.”
“The fault was mine,” insisted the young man. “I believe I frightened her.” There was a change in Magdalena’s demeanor as she looked him up and down. By the shift from indifferent politeness to maximum allure, Luisa gathered that her sister found the stranger attractive.
Luisa held in a sigh. She had entertained the vain hope that, having secured at last her coveted count’s hand in marriage, Magdalena might cease fishing for the attention of other men. It seemed, however, that Magdalena could not help casting her net before such a good-looking fish.
For his part, the stranger seemed unimpressed by Magdalena’s charms. He appraised her briefly and coolly, then turned back to Luisa. “I hope we haven't gotten off on the wrong foot,” he said, apparently sincere. “Me llamo Julio Olmedo.”
Up close, the intense way he focused on her was even more unnerving. “L-Luisa Villarin,” she managed in reply as he bent to kiss her hand. It took her a moment to realize that Magdalena was expecting an introduction as well. “And this is my sister, Magdalena,” she added.
“Encantada," purred Magdalena, offering her own elegant hand for Julio to kiss.
He obliged, straightening back up with a smile a few degrees shy of a smirk. “Well, señorita Villarin, señorita Luisa, no need to abandon your conversation on my account. I’m sorry to have interrupted.”
Luisa fought to keep her face from turning pink—she desperately hoped that he hadn’t overheard them gossiping about Alicia. Magdalena, it seemed, had no such scruples.
“Oh, do stop apologizing,” she said, leaning in closer. “We were speaking of Alicia Alarcón’s elopement. I suppose you’ve heard about her?”
“I don’t believe I have. Alicia Alarcón.” The name trickled gracefully off his tongue, one delicate syllable at a time. “Which one is she?”
Was it Luisa’s imagination, or had Julio moved closer to Magdalena? She felt a stab of hypocritical disappointment, both at his willingness to join in the gossip (never mind that Luisa had proven herself just as willing a minute ago) and his sudden susceptibility to Magdalena’s flirtation.
“She’s over there, dancing with Ignacio,” Magdalena gestured with a swivel of her head. The movement managed to look almost balletic, and had the added effect of drawing attention to the pale line of her neck.
Julio looked obediently over at Alicia, his gaze once again intensifying until Luisa half expected the woman to sense it and turn round. After a moment of studying Alicia, he turned back to Magdalena with a noncommittal sound. “She’s eloped, you say? Then what is she doing here?”
Magdalena’s eyes glittered in triumph; he had said the right thing. She rewarded him with the slightest of touches, a feather-light brush of her fingers against his arm. “Precisely,” she murmured, “That’s just what we were saying.”
Luisa’s stomach gave a panicked twist. She had said no such thing! “You mean that’s what you were saying, Malena,” she corrected gently.
“Oh, were you going to defend Alicia, hermanita? Do let’s hear it, this ought to be good,” tittered Magdalena, shooting Julio a conspiratorial, isn’t-my-little-sister-foolish glance. Luisa was too mortified to notice that he did not return it.
“I only said…that is…I meant…Ignacio and Alicia are old friends,” she stammered. “Why shouldn’t she be here? If the Alonsos invited her, then they must not mind that she’s eloped.” She did not quite know why she felt compelled to defend Alicia, only that it seemed wrong that this stranger should form an opinion based entirely on Magdalena’s gleeful censure.
“Tienes razón," said Magdalena. “It was quite indecent of the Alonsos to invite her. The whole Alarcón family is steeped in scandal these days. It’s a wonder they’re admitted anywhere.”
Julio raised an eyebrow. “The whole family? Now that you mention it, the name Alarcón does sound familiar.”
Magdalena beckoned a nearby waiter over and snatched up a glass of champagne. She swirled it vindictively while Luisa muttered a quiet gracias to the man, declining a glass of her own. Julio accepted his glass with a nod of acknowledgement.
“The Alarcón family owns a rather magnificent hotel in Cantabria,” began Magdalena with the air of someone imparting exclusive knowledge. “Indeed, I’ve often said that the Gran Hotel is the only hotel between Barcelona and Paris. Why, they’ve had luz eléctrica for more than a year. They’re frightfully rich,” she added as though this explained everything. Luisa couldn’t stop herself from cringing—Magdalena could denounce the Alarcóns until she was blue in the face, but she herself was no better. It had been in remarkably poor taste to bring up money.
“They must be, if this Alicia can marry a camarero and still be received in houses like this one,” observed Julio.
Magdalena laughed a bit more heartily than was necessary. “Their fortune is the only respectable thing about them. Alicia’s father, don Carlos, fathered a bastard son with their gobernanta. It was mad of doña Teresa to acknowledge the man. No sooner had she accepted her husband’s bastard into the family than he was arrested for murder,” She paused to take a slow sip of champagne, letting the word “murder” echo dramatically. “What a fitting lesson for the Alarcóns. This is what comes of mixing with the lower classes.”
“Andrés Alarcón was cleared of all charges,” said Julio. Luisa could not help noticing that his tone seemed suddenly cooler, his demeanor more stiff.
“So you have heard of them,” purred Magdalena in triumph. She seemed to have decided that Julio had only been feigning ignorance about the Alarcóns in order to flirt with her.
“The case was in all the newspapers, wasn’t it?” said Julio. “That must be where I heard the name Alarcón.”
“Of course,” said Magdalena, not at all convinced. She sipped demurely at her champagne. “It doesn’t surprise me that Alicia of all people has done something so…radical.” Her tone made it clear that, were she not so very well-bred, she would have used a less delicate word than radical. “If you ask me, she always did seem to have a certain…contempt for the ways of decent society.”
Luisa wished she could burst and evaporate like a champagne bubble. “She doesn’t look very contemptuous to me,” said Julio, watching Alicia as she and Ignacio glided past.
“Oh, don’t be deceived,” said Magdalena, eyes alight with ruthless pleasure, “of course she looks innocent, but in truth she’s a shameless adventuress.”
“If that’s the case,” said Julio, “then I’ll wager her husband is far worse.”
Magdalena laughed, setting her glass of champagne aside so that she could open her fan with an exultant snap. “Can you imagine?” she trilled, delighted to have such an agreeable co-conspirator. She opened her mouth to add something else, but Luisa could bear it no longer. “Really, Magdalena!” she burst out, nostrils flaring in vexation. “You’re being terribly unfair! Alicia isn’t a shameless adventuress at all, she’s just…kind. And I’m certain whoever she’s married to is kind as well,” she finished defensively.
“My, hermanita, but you are sensitive this evening. Are you feeling quite well?” asked Magdalena, patronizing and unruffled behind the black lace of her fan. Julio, for his part, had refocused on Luisa and was watching her with sharp interest.
Luisa was furious. Magdalena always did this—whenever Luisa dared to disagree with her, she twisted everything to make it seem as though her little sister was behaving out of childish naiveté, and must therefore be in the wrong. And the angrier and more indignant Luisa became, the more she proved Magdalena right. Well, today Luisa was in no mood to play Magdalena’s games. She was determined not to lose their new acquaintance’s good opinion.
“All I meant,” she explained evenly, “is that if Alicia’s eloped with someone…someone not rich, then it must have been for love. And I think it’s perfectly awful of you to speak ill of someone you’ve never met.”
“You’re right. I beg your pardon,” said Julio smoothly, setting his glass down.
“Oh, that’s not necessary. I didn’t—didn’t mean to offend you,” said Luisa, whose ire had been directed entirely at Magdalena.
“No se preocupe. You didn’t,” replied Julio with a barely-perceptible grin, as if hiding his amusement at some private joke.
“Perhaps you’re right, hermanita,” drawled Magdalena from beside him, evidently having decided that she could afford to be magnanimous, too. “Perhaps Alicia’s camarero is perfectly charming. There’s no need to sound so defensive, Luisa, we were merely speculating about what he might be like.”
“I hope he’s handsome,” blurted Luisa before she could think better of it. “That is—Alicia deserves good things,” she clarified lamely.
“Speak of the devil,” tittered Magdalena from behind her fan. “Don’t look now, but she’s coming this way.” Julio and Luisa both ignored her and looked: Alicia Alarcón was making her way blithely toward them as if summoned by the cruel gossip.
“There you are,” she said as she neared them, stepping delicately around a tipsy gentleman who was stumbling from the dance floor. Julio smiled at her—not one of the sly, flattering smiles he’d been directing at Magdalena, but a genuine smile, spontaneous and warm. Before Luisa could quite comprehend what was happening, Alicia had attached herself to his arm with easy familiarity. “I thought you might have gone outside to smoke,” she continued, still addressing Julio.
“No,” he replied, “just getting acquainted with señorita Villarin and señorita Luisa here.”
For their part, señorita Villarin and señorita Luisa were both speechless. The young man’s manners had been so elegant, and his speech so smooth, that the possibility of his being Alicia’s camarero had not even occurred to them. Luisa blinked rapidly, remembering just in time to close her mouth (she hoped no one heard the audible clack of her teeth.) Beside her, Magdalena gaped like a fish. Accustomed as she was to being the center of attention, her powers of observation were not as keen as Luisa’s. It seemed she was still struggling to process what was happening.
“So you’ve met my husband, then,” said Alicia, clearing things up once and for all. Up close, fair and radiant in the candlelight, cheeks slightly flushed from the exertion of dancing, her loveliness more than rivaled Magdalena’s. Perhaps that was why her sister was so determined to dislike Alicia, Luisa reflected. She could almost understand.
“I saw your father at the hotel in February, but didn’t get a chance to speak with him,” Alicia continued, blue eyes wide and ingenuous as they flickered from Luisa to Magdalena. “Forgive me for failing to send my regards. I hear you’ve since gotten engaged, Magdalena. ¡Enhorabuena! I hope you’ll be as happy as I am.”
“Well, señoritas,” said Julio, eyeing the still-dumbstruck Magdalena without bothering to conceal his amusement, “I’m afraid we must be going. Ha sido un placer." Smirking, he inclined his head to Magdalena. And then, so rapidly she might almost have imagined it, he looked right at Luisa and winked.
“Igualmente," murmured a dazed Luisa to the back of his head as he and Alicia disappeared into the crowd. Had he really just winked at her? She had never been winked at before. How thrilling.
“Well I—I never! He was…he…the whole time! How rude!” spluttered Magdalena. The color had not returned to her face.
Luisa patted her sister on the arm. “You think so? I rather liked him.”
“Terrorizing the Villarin girls?” accused Alicia when she and Julio were out of earshot.
“Only a little,” Julio grinned. “The older one needed to be taken down a peg.” In truth, Magdalena reminded him uncomfortably of his own Cecilia. “But I like Luisa,” he added as they made their way back toward Ignacio and his bride-to-be.
Alicia raised an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”
Julio slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her just a bit closer than was appropriate, so that only she could hear his reply. “No. I’ve sworn off brunettes.”