Author: Neil Davies PM
This is the opening of a novel I'm currently working on, it is a rags to riches story about a country girl who rises above her station. Any thoughts, comments?Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance/Tragedy - Chapters: 3 - Words: 20,348 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 2 - Updated: 06-07-05 - Published: 05-16-05 - id: 1914139
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16SPANISH BRIDE Chapter One
Maria Anna-Fortuna Alvarez was nineteen years old when her life changed forever. It was a slightly cool June day and as usual Maria had walked the two miles or so from her home in the country to the small town of Santa Arista to buy groceries for her mother. She didn't mind this particular chore as it got her away from her dreary life in a small, rural cottage where the only distractions were birdsong, her mother's cooking and a secret diary Maria had been keeping since the age of nine. In recent years the diary had become dominated by one question – when am I going to meet him? By this she meant the man of her dreams, and those dreams were very specific.
The man Maria intended to marry had to have three qualities and these were not optional – he had to be good looking, he had to be rich and he had to live in a large city. Maria's preferences were Madrid and Barcelona, which to her seemed cosmopolitan and exciting because she hadn't been to either. She wanted to be somewhere dynamic and energetic where a lot of things happened on a regular basis. Her days in the country near Santa Arista were dull, quiet and uniformly drab. Unless she went into town she never met anyone, never spoke to anyone and filled her hours with cooking, cleaning and feeding the few pigs and chickens her father kept. Not exactly the sort of lifestyle a young woman dreams of, and Maria lived in her dreams they kept her alive.
As she neared the town she could hear the sounds of the market where every Thursday traders set up stalls and bargained noisily with each other and the people who came to buy their tatty, overpriced wares. Maria liked the market because it was so lively and you could genuinely get a bargain if you looked around and knew how to haggle. She had thought of renting a stall herself but papa had been against it,
"Not the sort of thing a young girl does," he had said. "Young girls are always getting taken advantage of."
There were times when Maria hoped someone would take advantage of her, it would break the monotony. But it had to be a certain type of somebody he had to fit the three rigid criteria listed in her diary. If not then he would get the cold shoulder, and Maria was known amongst the young men of the town as being picky and aloof not something she ever apologized for. She didn't want to end up like the figure approaching her now, a girl her age called Conchita Perez who had been thrown out of the parental home for bringing disgrace on the family name. A petty-minded attitude in Maria's view, but typical of these country backwaters or 'dull ponds' as she referred to them in secret. The world was full of dull ponds in her view, in fact it was divided into dull ponds and vibrant lagoons and she knew where she wanted to end up.
"Hiya," Said Conchita with a sigh of fatigue, she looked like she'd been walking a long way and with two heavy bags as well as her other burden.
"Good morning," Said Maria who had trained herself not to use colloquial speech. "How are you today Conchita?" her gaze rested on the gently swelling mound of the other girl's stomach.
"Weary and bored," Came the admission. How you've changed Maria thought, once you were the life and soul of the party, a lively and vibrant ray of sunshine now you've become as dull and pedestrian as all the other pond-dwellers. "I just want to give birth to little Carlos and have done with it."
Carlos was the name of the baby's father and he was so convinced that the baby would be a boy that he had already christened it. Typical of local men thought Maria, they were such sexist and arrogant creatures, what if the baby where a girl?
"Not long now," she said trying to inject a note of positivism into the conversation.
"One month," came the sigh. "My back aches and my legs are swollen, even having a pee is agony."
Inwardly groaning Maria thought of all the other mothers who complained their days away, listing illnesses like items on a shopping list. Her own mama was just the same if it wasn't her back it was her head and if not that her feet, her knees and so on. Maria had pains to but she kept them to herself, focus on the positive she had read somewhere and be optimistic well she certainly tried.
"Where will you live?" She asked changing track again.
"Carlos has been offered a two room flat over the tavern," Conchita admitted with a defeated look in her eyes, and they both knew it wasn't the ideal first home for a young couple with a baby.
"Only two rooms?" Maria gasped. "You need more than that with a child."
"I know but my parents won't help and Carlos is an orphan, there is his cousin Raphael but you know what wandering hands he has."
Maria did thinking of her former part-time job in Raphael's millinery store, her backside ended up bruised from all the pinches and when he pinned her to a crate and tried to remove her dress well that was the final straw. A knee somewhere tender and the words 'stick your lousy job' had been the end of that.
"You can't live in a two room flat Conchita, you'll go mad especially over the tavern." This was full of drunks day and night, and fights were common.
"What other choice do I have Maria?" Came the wail of a frustrated woman.
"Well what about the hotel De Compostella?"
"I can't live in a hotel," came the cry. "Who could afford that?"
"But Carlos works there, couldn't he come to an agreement with the manager?"
"You know how proud he is Maria, he'd never beg."
Maria wasn't thinking of charity, she had a much better idea and it had just popped into her head. Taking out of piece of paper and a pencil she began to write quickly, "Tell Carlos to go and see the manager and say this."
Handing the page over with a flourish she waited for Conchita to read it, which the other girl did quickly but the response was not as expected.
"Are you insane Maria, Carlos can't say this?"
It was a bit of a blow, "Why not?"
"Because…well because it's outrageous," came the bluster.
"No Conchita it is bold and imaginative, and the manager will be impressed by the initiative displayed."
Not looking convinced the pregnant girl said, "Carlos will get the sack, then where will we be?"
How could this once brave and impetuous girl have turned into such a drudge? "He won't get the sack, not if he's promising to work harder and contribute more to the business. Look Connie you need to get on in life and improve your station, this is how to do it. You have to grasp the bull by the horns." This was one of Maria's favourite sayings, and she slipped it into conversations as often as she could.
"But Carlos would never do this, he has to mind his manners, his boss is a tyrant."
Good grief what was wrong with these people, didn't they have any drive?
"Mr Mendez is in business to make money and improve service, Carlos will be helping him by making this offer it's simple enough in return for extra duties you get a suite at the hotel."
"But what about when the hotel is full during July and August?" Conchita worried.
"Simple you ask Mr Mendez to provide you with an alternative, he owns loads of property and you'd get it at a knock down rate."
"Oh I don't know Maria it all seems a bit harebrained to me," came the plaintive sob.
"What is the alternative?" Maria snapped beginning to lose her temper, here she was dishing out good advice and all Connie could do was moan and throw up objections. "It's this or the tavern, which do you prefer? Connie when life kicks you, you have to kick back or go down for the count."
A rather bitter and pugnacious look came over the other girl's features, "It's all right for you Maria Alvarez you aren't expecting a baby in four weeks. It's easy to be clever when life is simple and free."
Stunned by this sharp rebuke Maria took a step back, was this really her best friend talking?
"My life isn't simple or free, as you very well know." She snapped back feeling a rush of anger in her belly. "I'm just offering some practical advice, and if you'd kept your legs closed a bit more often you wouldn't need it."
Face blushing to a strawberry tint Conchita dropped her heavy bags and flexed her fingers, outraged by these blunt but honest words.
"How dare you speak to me like that, who do you think you are?"
A friend Maria was thinking, probably the best one you'll ever have. Oh Connie why have you thrown your life away like this, you had so much going for you and now it's all wasted?
"I'm sorry," she said. "But you've been a fool and we both know it, there's little point pretending. You could have done a lot better than a hotel porter."
Moving dangerously close Connie thrust out her chin, "You're so smug Maria but one day you'll learn the hard way that life is never fair to a woman, it breaks her heart and burns her dreams."
Was this Connie or her mother speaking? It could easily have been any of the middle-aged harpies in the town. Not believing life was unfair, that it gave you what you asked for Maria straightened her back.
"Our lives are what we make them," that was from one of her favourite books by a brilliant author.
"Oh are they?" Came the sneer. "Well we'll see what you think when your belly is full of a man's child, but your purse is empty." And screwing up the piece of paper Connie threw it in Maria's face. "Keep your advice and your opinions, I need neither." And picking up her shopping with a haughty sniff the girl pushed past her friend and marched away up the hill.
"Connie come back," Maria cried. "Let's not part like this," she held up the page of words. "Tell Carlos to at least try, what have you got to lose?" Connie kept walking with a rigid neck and thrust out arse. "At least think about it," Maria shouted. "I'm still your friend."
Pausing to look back the other girl snapped, "I don't know who you are these days Maria you've changed and not for the better you've become a real big head do you know that? You think you're so much better than the rest of us, well you're going to find out that you aren't." And with that Connie was gone leaving Maria feeling angry and deflated, this was not how she'd wanted the conversation to turn out she'd only been trying to help.
She did think of running after her friend but there seemed little point to this so unhappily she went on her way into the town. You can't help those who won't help themselves, was one of the principles she'd learned in her positive thinking books. If Connie was too closed-minded to even listen to her ideas then there was nothing to be done. What a shame she thought, so young and yet so trapped I must never let this happen to me. As she drew nearer to the main street her gaze was caught by an amazing car outside of the hotel where Carlos worked, this was the biggest and most expensive hotel in the town and the car she could see now was also big and expensive. It wasn't just a car it was a stretch limousine painted jet black with darkly tinted windows that allowed the occupants to see out but nobody else to see in. Maria had never seen a vehicle like it but she knew one thing, whoever owned it had to be very rich for such cars were not cheap.
Drawn by this exciting thought she approached the hotel, forgetting what she'd come to town for that could wait she had to find out who the car owner was and perhaps speak to him.
Always take the initiative and seek new experiences, this was another principle she had read and taken to heart. It marked her out as different from her contemporaries for they always shunned new and strange things, like Connie they were too wrapped up in their tiny little lives. Well not me Maria thought I'm going to enter the hotel and seek out this rich stranger, and I don't care what anyone thinks. If nothing else the acrimonious encounter with Connie had stiffened her resolve, and marching purposefully up to the car she ran her hand over its smooth surface. It was beautiful to touch so polished and clean, she could see her reflection in the metal. Three times bigger than any car she'd seen before it had a personalised number plate that said – J. CASTILLAN.
Could this be the name of the owner, well it was more than likely wasn't it? Next to the name was a symbol that marked the limo out as coming from Madrid, so this man (if it was a man), came from the capital. Moving around to the front Maria touched the hood and found it to be hot, this meant the man from Madrid had only just arrived maybe he hadn't even signed in yet; he may still be in the lobby.
Wasting no more time she approached the front entrance, as she did Carlos appeared holding a brush in one hand and a cleaning rag in the other. She instinctively flinched not liking the tough-faced youth with his small mean eyes and thick lips, he always looked at women with an aspect of contempt especially her.
"What are you doing here Maria?" he demanded as though it was any of his business. Barring her way he assumed a typically macho posture with legs wide and chest puffed out, chin high and gaze challenging. "This is a hotel for important people not peasant girls."
Meeting the gaze and lifting her own chin Maria told herself not to be frightened, it was only Carlos and he was a peasant to for all his harsh words and belligerent attitude.
"Let me pass Carlos, I have every right to visit the hotel." She said not intending to tell him anything.
His sneer widening he pointed the brush at her, "Now what business would a common country girl like you have in a place like this – no pigs, no chickens, no dusty yard?" He laughed.
"I'm sure I don't have to answer questions from a porter," she let her own contempt show. "A boy with a hole in the ass of his pants only last month."
Stiffening Carlos looked on the verge of lashing out he was a little too keen with his fists and was always getting into trouble for fighting. This time though he controlled himself with an obvious effort.
"Get away from here Maria, this place is for rich and important guests."
Now that stung her pride more than a little, and she didn't know how to answer the cruel rebuff. Before she could even try a sharp, arrogant voice called from within the hotel. "Carlos, where are you?"
Losing his cocky strut at once the youth assumed a more cringing and submissive posture, "Here sir." He said in a wheedling voice, he was obviously talking to his boss.
"Get into the restaurant at once there are tables that need clearing."
"Yes sir, at once." Carlos stammered then threw Maria a foul look. She said,
"Well, run along little Carlos your master has cracked his whip."
Faced with little choice he spat at her feet and disappeared, waiting just five seconds she slowly entered the domain of the important and rich. My goodness she thought, how clean it is everything polished and wiped until it shone. The floor was so bright she could have eaten her dinner off it, and the curtains were made of lovely rose coloured silk.
Upon each table was a cream coloured cotton cloth and on this stood a crystal vase contained carnations – pink, red and yellow ones in full bloom. Around the base were silver condiments, a plastic table number and a colourful menu that said 'compliments of the manager'. Picking up the menu Maria was astounded to see the rich variety of foods on offer – chicken, pork, pasta, paella, beef and fish. It made her mouth water just to think about such delicacies.
As there was no one around not even Carlos she swanned in between the tables, imagining herself a guest here and being fawned over by the staff. What would madam like to eat, did madam have a good night's sleep, is there anything I can do to make madam's stay more pleasant?
Oh yes she thought this is the life I want to lead, a life where I am privileged and pampered my every need taken care of instantly. Good food, stylish clothes, a big limo to drive around in and of course the most expensive jewels. There was only one way for a girl of humble birth like her to attain these things, marriage!
Reaching the final table she found a message on it which said – reserved for signor Castillan and guests.
So this was where the owner of the limo would sit, how she wished she was one of his guests, his lover perhaps. Making sure no one was around Maria sat down and crossed her legs, in her mind's eye she was a rich lady from Seville or Madrid who lived in a huge hacienda with dozens of servants and a six-figure bank account, her purse full of gold credit cards and membership to the most exclusive health club in town. Nobody would call her Maria the simple country girl, she would be Senorita Castillan, wife of the great man and treated with the same deference and respect.
I'll have the fish, she thought to herself imagining herself talking to a flunky like Carlos who would less than the dirt under her shoes. No make that the biggest paella you have with lots of prawns and pork balls, Maria chuckled at the thought of pork balls and how red Carlos' face would turn. Yes little Carlos lots of pork balls for me to chew, and be quick about it or I'll have your balls you ignorant little…
"What are you doing girl?"
Jumping to her feet Maria gave a little yelp and stared at a stern-featured, rather mannish looking woman in a dowdy grey business suit with her hair combed rigidly back off her scalp. Wearing small rimless spectacles that did nothing to soften her features, the woman had pinched humourless lips, a small beak of a nose and bloodless pale grey cheeks. Hardly looking human she reminded Maria of some fascist police officer in one of those propaganda films, and Maria wonder if this was the hotel manager's wife, if so she was a terrifying creature with her whiplash of a voice and that unearthly stare of contempt.
"Do you work here girl?" Came the hectoring question, and Maria felt about two inches tall. "No clearly you don't," the fascist woman concluded noting Maria's lack of a uniform. "Perhaps you're a thief then come to steal the cutlery."
This was an outrageous accusation and Maria leapt to her own defence, "no!" She shrieked at the top of her voice.
Cold green eyes regarded her, "Some local floozy then here to try her luck with one of the staff, a common tart."
Cheeks reddening Maria felt her Spanish temper rise, "I am no whore." She shouted, "But I am a woman of passion – unlike you!"
A curiously cold smile played its way over the narrow, uncharitable lips and slowly the fascist police officer walked towards her like a cat playing with a mouse.
"A woman of passion," she repeated mockingly and for the first time Maria felt she was in some physical danger from this bloodless creature. "Well now child that remains to be seen, you don't look all that impressive to me." Coming right up to M the woman pinched her chin between thumb and forefinger, yanking her head first one way then the other.
"Good bone structure, I'll give you that with nice high cheekbones and a strong chin." A sniff then, "Decent eyes to with a clear bright colour, full of pride and lust." A short cough then, "Lustrous hair well looked after and just the right length for your height."
Letting go the fascist let her eyes dip, "A good firm bust always important for a girl and with a trim waist and wide childbearing hips. Yes not a bad package, not exceptional but not bad. You may marry a more intelligent type of peasant and have 3 or 4 children, but you can never aspire to anything better than that."
Enraged and insulted she actually extended a hand and shoved the fascist back on her flat-heeled shoes, nobody told her what she could and couldn't do or what the future held. "You," she said disdainfully. "Don't know anything about me, I'm going to do a lot better than a mere peasant or even someone like you."
Now there was blood in the grey cheeks and Maria knew she'd hit a nerve, that this creature could be ruffled out of her stride, well good because the tongue-lashing had only just started.
"How dare you, you common little trollop."
"Shut your mouth you plain as a pikestaff little office clerk," Maria barked and now she had the upper hand, turning the tables fabulously on her opponent.
"I am not an office clerk," came the response but Maria wasn't listening.
"No you're more like a piece of the furniture, a rather dreary bureau or perhaps an old seat with crushed upholstery."
Fascist now had fire in her green eyes and her thin features were twisted with loathing, she raised a hand to strike but a man's voice broke in laughingly.
"I think you've met your match Benita, why don't you withdraw gracefully before this young tigress gives you an even worse mauling."
Maria turned to look at who had spoken and her heart gave a loud boom, feeling her eyes widen and knees turn to mush she experienced a strange tingling in her stomach and a curious all over warmth. The man was more than just good looking he was debonair, stylish, tall and imposing. He looked like a prince and he spoke with culture and education, his accent soften by university. Well over six-feet in height he could have been a movie star with his thick moussed hair, his laughing cobalt eyes and his perfectly even white teeth. He had a strong chin, a kind but intelligent face and very wide shoulders that spoke of physical strength. He wore a dark Armani evening jacket, a silken shirt, a red and gold Madrid necktie and gold cufflinks. His black Gucci shoes shone in the soft light and made not a sound as he prowled to the foot of the stairs to stare at the two women. This Maria knew just had to be Jose Castillan owner of the limo, and the hotel's most important guest.
She'd never seen anyone like him outside of a film, he could have come from a totally different planet and he just oozed wealth and sophistication. Benita actually bowed to him, well it was a deep nod then and she scuttled away like a toy soldier. Coming over the man actually extended his hand, "Don't let Benita bother you my dear, it's just her way. I am Signor Castillan and who might you be."
Finding she could hardly speak Maria cleared her throat with an effort, "I am Maria Anna-Fortuna Alvarez."
Taking her small hand in his huge one he didn't shake it, he raised it to his lips and kissed it just like a prince in a fairy tale.
"I am honoured to meet you Maria, you have a beautiful name."
Nobody had ever said that to her before and her stomach turned over, threatening to jump up into her mouth. Jose wore an expensive after shave that was more like a woman's perfume, not at all like the coarse alcohol based slop her father or brother used that made then stink like donkeys on heat.Chapter Two
Bade to sit down at a table Maria did so. Normally confident and forthright in her dealings with people, she found herself tongue-tied and quite lost with this strange, enigmatic and obviously wealthy man. The way he looked at her – with captivated interest – was most unsettling yet also seductive.
"It took great courage to stand up to Benita, you must be a most unusual young lady."
Feeling a flush extend down her cheeks and across her neck, she tried to control the colony of butterflies in her stomach. No man had ever called her unusual before, common yes, a country girl certainly but this was like a dream come true, was it really happening or had she caught a dose of sunstroke?
"I'm a simple farm girl," she heard herself say demurely.
"Oh no," Castillan chuckled. "That you are not. Simple farm girls do not barge into expensive hotels to confront the Benita's of this world with such fire and passion. Forgive me for being forward but I would say you are someone who values herself beyond her humble station in life, who seeks more than a modest life can provide and knows how to get what she wants."
So accurate was this assessment that Maria found herself chuckling, he had read her pretty well as though he could read minds. Perhaps, like her, he to had come from humble beginnings and risen above them. He went on in the same tone never taking his eyes from her face,
"A beautiful woman should never be modest, should never accept second-best in her life or apologize for believing that better things are possible."
Beautiful? Yes he had spoken the word inferring quite clearly that she was a beautiful woman. Suddenly her homespun dress and rather matted hair didn't bother her so much, nor did her smudged make-up or perspiration damp cheeks. If this man saw beauty in her as she was now then think how he would view her in her finest Sunday clothes, hair properly styled and make-up perfect.
"You say with your tongue what I feel in my heart signor," she said. "But I wonder if you are having sport with a lowly rural farm girl?"
Clicking his fingers Jose summoned a waiter with practised ease. Everything he did seemed smooth and unhurried, he behaved as though he owned the world and it would supply him with whatever he desired.
There was no scowl on his face from years of hardship and denial, no deep lines about mouth or eyes from constant anguish. His features were as clear and fresh as a boy's yet he had to be about thirty, a young thirty though not a worn out, bitter, dried up thirty like the men of the town, men weighed down by debt and failure old before their time.
Nothing defeated Jose Castillan, he had risen above life and lassoed it, drawing to him so he could mount it swiftly, then he had ridden its bucking, defiant back until he had broken it to his will. Life was his to command, a tame pet to be enjoyed. Maria could only admire such a person for deep down she wanted to be like that, and to be with a man of such polish.
"Champagne," Jose told the waiter. "The finest you have and two glasses, the lady is my guest."
The waiter eyed Maria and she realised with a knot of alarm that she knew him, he was Ramon Escobar who had gone to the same school. It wasn't hard to read the resentment in his dark eyes what are you doing here being feted by this big shot rich man pushy Maria?
"Make them tall stemmed glasses," she declared as Ramon's dislike scorched her. "Like Julia Roberts and Richard Gere had in Pretty Woman."
Jose's laughter was a deep baritone and she noticed the way his eyes sparkled when amused, how perfect his teeth were and the way he held one hand with the other as though clutching the joy to him as a child would a favourite toy.
"Anything else," Ramon had never sounded more sourly, it was obvious how he loathed taking an order from her. Well that was his problem she thought, he should live his life boldly and take his chances as I have taken mine. Life was not for timid mice who scuttled away from the cat of opportunity with shrieks of fear, it had to be faced and embraced.
"You know him don't you," Jose remarked once the waiter had gone?
"We were at school together," she decided not to lie about it why should she?
"I noticed the way he looked at you Maria, one could almost sense his dislike where you enemies?"
It would have been easy to go along with this fiction and invent some petty disagreement, but if she did that it would cheapen this moment and she refused to do or say anything that would spoil the magic.
"All those who accept failure and ordinariness are the enemies of those who seek to better themselves."
Playing with a napkin in his left hand Jose gave what might have been a low chuckle, then his eyes leapt to meet hers and she saw in them an understanding, a kinship almost and an acceptance of this belief. Then his fingers caressed the backs of her hands sending sparks of electricity through her entire body, his touch was so vital, so alive that he made her feel the same way and heat rushed through her in a wave of need and desire.
"You are wise beyond your years," he said softly, sincerely. "And you are absolutely right, as I know only too well."
So she had read him accurately, they were kindred spirits. But what he said next was hammer blow of shocking proportions.
"I am leaving for Madrid this afternoon."
Heart almost stopping Maria experienced a pain so sharp and so deep it tore from her an actual gasp. He was leaving this place in a few hours? No she inwardly cried, no he can't just go out of my life like that, not now I can't bare it. Had I not met him or had I just seen him from afar with no words or smiles being exchanged then maybe, just maybe life could have continued and been endurable.
But after this conversation this contact she knew with every fibre of her being that there was no way she could meekly return to the mundanity, the drabness of her everyday life with anything less than utter despair in her heart.
He added in an even lower voice that she barely even heard. "Come with me."
If he had slapped her she couldn't have been more shocked. Head spinning she felt sure the hotel was blurring and melting around her, that the very town itself was dissolving as nightmares dissolve with the opening of ones eyes. What had he said? No, she can't have heard him properly.
"W-w-what, " she gulped?
Now he took her hands by the wrists and held onto them like precious jewels. "Please, come with me Maria."
It was unbelievable, insane, and impossible. Go with him to Madrid just walk away from her life here? Did he know what he was asking, how crazy it sounded?
"Are you serious?" Her voice was a tiny croak.
"I am totally serious," he purred moving his face closer to hers so that she could see the fine hairs, the whorls of his skin, and the deep rich spectrum of his eyes.
"B-b-but I can't," she said tremulously.
"The woman who faced down Benita can do anything she wants, for her the word can't doesn't even exist."
A shaking had begun in her knees extending up her thighs into her body and soon it was radiating down her arms into her hands, was it terror, doubt, denial or – or something much more wondrous such as excitement, anticipation and acceptance?
"But I have a life here," she said thinking how much she sounded like the peasants of the town with their excuses and clichés for doing nothing.
"What life," he challenged and with that simple question he blew away any possible objection?
Yes he was right – what life?
What did she really have here worth clinging to?
What would she honestly miss?
Was there a single person to stay for, a single thing to clutch hold of?
"You deserve so much more Maria, and I can give it to you. I can give you anything you desire."
Maybe he could but why would he? Nothing in life was for free there was always a catch, some condition attached.
"We're strangers Jose."
"I don't think we are, I think you have more in common with me than you do with anybody in this miserable excuse for a town."
Ramon returned with the champagne, it lay nestled within a bucket of ice and he had brought the tall-stemmed glasses she had asked for, however the glass he offered to her was cracked. How petty she thought, how small and mean like everything else here. She looked at the flaw in the glass then up at Ramon, seeing the flaw in him to. Like the glass he was spoiled, less than he could be, he had a crack in his heart that nothing could repair and if she stayed here then sooner or later she to would become flawed, sullied, less than ideal.
She would lose her dreams and settle for less than she deserved, accepting bitterness and frustration around her shoulders as easily as a tatty old shawl. She would grow old before her time cursing the world for denying her its bounty, when in truth she had denied herself like a cat seeking shade from the glory of the sun.
Caressing her wrist and forearm with silk soft yet assuredly strong fingers Jose asked, "What is your answer Maria?"
"When are you leaving?"
"In two hours."
The news was a bombshell, he wanted her to give up her life her and travel with him to Madrid in just two hours? There was no time to plan, to tell anybody or to think about it.
"Why so quickly?" She blurted as her heart beat so fiercely she was sure he could hear it, probably Ramon to.
"My business here is concluded and I need to get back home. I'm not a man who delays longer than necessary."
Pulling her hand free and clutching her tumultuous stomach she gasped, "You ask too much."
"Shouldn't one always ask too much of life, daring it to exceed our expectations?"
Wishing her head was cease to spin so quickly and that her blood would lose some of its corrosive burn she tried to stand up, but the legs went from under her.
"I can see you're shocked," he chuckled. "I am asking a great sacrifice of you, but I promise you this Maria my darling you would live like a princess in Madrid. There is my huge house on the edge of the capital with acres of ground, servants, horses, the finest food, the latest European fashions. These are things that will only ever be dreams to you here in this dusty, dirty wilderness. Don't you deserve better, don't you deserve to be rich and pampered? Beauty like yours is wasted in this miserable back water."
How often had she said this, or thought it? Yes he was right of course, and what he was offering sounded wondrous beyond belief – no more chores, no more walking everywhere, no more tiny minds with their petty concerns.
"I must speak with my parents – tell them what is going on." She gulped.
"Two hours," he reiterated. "Meet me here at 3pm, if you do not come I will have your answer, although I feel sure I know it already."
And leaning over he kissed her on the lips, pressing his mouth against hers until a crackling voltage of unbelievable power coursed through her body carrying her to a higher plane of existence. My God she thought, how I want him, how I want to be kissed like this every day.
Almost floating back to the farm Maria was obvious to everyone and everything around her, not noticing the grime, flies or heat because these things no longer mattered. Soon nothing would matter because she would be free, a woman in paradise desired by the most handsome man in all Spain. Why he had picked her she didn't know, it had to be fate, kismet. Surely they had always been going to meet and fall in love, wasn't that how love worked? You planned and schemed and dreamt of it but in the end it swept you up off your feet and carried you along. But I know nothing about him – the cautious part of her cried – he could be anyone, anything. The impulsive side answered just as hotly – he's rich, handsome, powerful and he wants you, don't be so stupid you can't waste a chance like this it may never come again.
Soon the contours of the grim small farm came into view and just looking at it made her heart sink a bit, did she really want to grow old in this dump feeding pigs and planting potatoes all her life developing gnarled old claws and a bad back like her momma? Wouldn't momma want better things for her daughter, the chance to spread her wings and live the good life?
But it was papa who greeted her and the look on his face was as stormy as a November sky.
"Where have you been," he barked in his gruff, disapproving voice? Instantly the euphoria left her as harsh reality intruded.
"I met someone," she said suddenly aware of how flimsy this sounded.
"Who," papa scratched his vast midriff and already she could smell the stale odour of ale on his breath. These days he drank more and worked less, and his temperament reflected this.
A rich man who has asked me to go away with him because he loves me.
Even as she thought this, she knew how absurd it would sound to a farmer like Jorge Alvarez who had known nothing but hardship and disappointment all his life, growing to see life as a hateful, poisonous serpent.
"I must go inside papa," she said, not adding that she needed to pack.
"Inside, when there is work to do in the barn and pens?"
He couldn't be serious she had no time for that? She had to wash and change then borrow the cart to ride back into town, not a second could be wasted.
"You forget yourself Maria, you're a country girl and such girls must work from dawn til dusk. Not only have you forgotten the shopping I asked you to get but you have been drinking, I can smell it on you."
"Papa, listen to me." She began but a massive calloused hand closed around her neck and yanked her violently off balance so that she almost bounced off the giant stomach. Hot spittle from the thick lips wetted her cheek and the stench of cheap booze made her feel sick.
"No you listen to me girl, you're one step away from my belt now get to work and shut your stupid mouth. You're going nowhere for the rest of the week, your mother is unwell so you will complete her tasks, the first of these is to make me supper."
Feeling crushed Maria could have cried, but such a sign of weakness would only enrage this man more so she swallowed her despair and tramped towards the tiny farmhouse kitchen, all the time feeling her hopes and dreams sinking into the filthy earth under her feet.
Jose Castillan removed the cigar from his lips and exhaled slowly, there was nothing rushed about the movement and one would never have guessed that this was a man on a schedule keen to be elsewhere. To his right a figure detached itself from the shadows to approach the table, taking the chair vacated by Maria the figure sat down. Features pinched with uncharitable thoughts the woman regarded her employer and said, "She won't be back you know, your little farm girl. I've seen dozens like her and she doesn't have what it takes."
To which Jose responded by tapping ash into a small glass dish, he could have been the most patient man in the world.
"Always so sure of yourself my little Benita, but I think that this time you are in error."
Grim to the point of being sinister the woman placed both hands on the tabletop. "You can do a lot better senor, there are bigger and more impressive lakes from which to fish than this. We should leave now, why wait."
"Because," came the measured reply. "It is my choice." There was steel behind the soft, cultured eyes a harshness Benita had come to recognise and appreciate as being fully the equal of her own.
"Of course senor, I meant no disrespect." She backtracked hurriedly.
"Yes you did, you think me weak and impressionable like most men my head easily turned by a pretty girl. But I tell you Benita that I have found what I am seeking in Maria Alvarez, and I will not be deflected by you or by anything else."
The hawk-like features twitched slightly as though containing some deep emotion then they settled back into their usual mask of indifference.
"You are the master."
"Yes I am, master of all I survey." The cigar was pulled on again. "Do you know where this girl lives? Then find out for me, it may be necessary to adjust our plans a little in the interests of expediency."
Nothing if not an efficient servant and problem-solver, Benita rose from the chair. "What if there is resistance?"
He chuckled, "When is there ever anything else? Make funds available, one usually finds that resistance is a very flexible quality." Jose sat back, "Why don't you like her Benita, tell me the truth now?"
It wasn't difficult for the older woman to find an answer to this, she disliked almost everyone she met especially women.
"Too much spirit senor, you will not break her to your will."
A chuckle followed the servant all the way to the front lobby where a small bribe was offered in return for information.
Maria's hands ached from preparing the meal she had to do everything and wondered what was wrong with momma, as she hadn't been unwell earlier? When the food was finally served papa was already seated at the old, heavily knotted kitchen table his bloated features taking in her every movement.
When she placed the dinner before him, he snatched her by the wrist and held on tightly. "You've been with a man haven't you?"
Such was her horror at the uncanny accuracy of his words that she couldn't stop her face from betraying her.
"I knew it," Jorge spat. "I can smell his cologne, do you think me a fool Maria?"
Yes thought Maria I do think you're a fool, that and many other things a lot worse but she was wise enough not to say this.
"Who is he," papa demanded not lessening his powerful grip?
"A wealthy businessman," she said in a small voice.
"Such men do not come to our town often, why is he here?"
How on earth was she supposed to know that, she and Jose hadn't discussed commerce it was of no interest to her?
"Please let go of me papa."
Instead he shook her arm and she knew this was a prelude to much worse, "No daughter of mine shames me in front of my neighbours and friends by acting like a cheap whore."
She was appalled at the suggestion. "We did nothing but speak."
Now he did let go of her, but only so he could rise out of his chair red cheeked and clutch at his belt buckle.
"Rich traders do not come here to this tiny place and pick up a pretty girl like you just to speak."
"No papa, please." Horror coiled around her heart at the thought of a fierce lashing from that belt. Not only was it made of leather, but the metal part of it could inflict the most grievous injuries as she and her mother knew to their cost.
"Come here and give me your bare back you insolent little tramp."
No she thought I won't be punished for doing no wrong, not this time I've had enough of this fat, brutal bully. Moving away from him with a shaking head, she raised her small hands defensively.
Enraged he snarled, "Don't you dare to defy me Maria, or I will beat you all the more just like your worthless mother this morning."
Poor momma, how many years had she put up with this in silence? How long have I endured it Maria thought, believing it to be normal?
"You are the reason momma is unwell, you evil monster."
"No daughter of mine talks to me in that kind of language, I am the master of my own home." It was a home Jorge Alvarez had ruled with an iron rod for many years, doing what he liked and dispensing punishments as he saw fit. Interestingly he saw nothing wrong with his own drunken idleness and inability to pay debts.
As papa advanced on her with a swaggering gait, Maria did the only thing she could and hit him with the now empty pan. As metal bounced off skull with a loud clang, the farmer gave a savage bellow of pain, clutched his cranium and fell back over the table to moan and curse, his legs thrashing feebly.
Maria fled. There was little point in staying around because she'd really get it this time if she did. The only hope was to run and keep running, and there was only one place to go now.
"Come back here you little…." Recovering quickly Jorge snatched a metal jug and threw it at the receding back, despite the ale his aim was good and he only missed because Maria swerved at the final moment.
Once through the door she dashed into the yard, determined to run all the way to town if she had to but suddenly she stopped - stunned immobile by the sight of the vast black wood carriage pulled by four white steeds that had drawn up. Holding the reigns was the sour-faced hag Benita, and it was she who climbed down with rapid steps to face Maria eyes as haughty and dismissive as before.
"You won't need that," she said in reference to the pan Maria still clutched.
Emerging moments later Mr Alvarez gave a bellow like an angry bull and stormed towards the two women. Whimpering with fear Maria made to run, but her arm was caught and easily held.
"Stay where you are girl," said Benita with typical scorn. "A greater man values your presence." Marching forwards to intercept Jorge, Benita displayed no fear at the size or rage of the man despite being in deadly danger in Maria's view. Papa would sweep her aside with a single blow, she might even taste of his belt.
But calmly reaching into her jacket the servant took out a small, drawstring pouch opened it and let Jorge see the contents.
The farmer juddered to a halt like a lassoed horse and stood there panting for air, his bulging eyes arrested by the pouch or rather what it contained, and at that moment Maria had no idea. Whatever it was the effect on her papa was nothing short of astounding, the rage just bled away from his face as though siphoned off and he stood there, the breath rasping in his chest, big belly moving up and down and thick arms coming to rest by his sides the evil belt dangling harmlessly in one of the meaty fists.
"This," snapped Benita with an unmistakable edge of triumph in her authorative voice. "Can be yours if the girl goes with my master now."
Expecting all kinds of objections Maria was stunned when papa nodded mutely, voicing not a single complaint despite years of telling her she was indispensable.
Closing the pouch Benita tossed it watching with cold glee it seemed as Jorge pawed the air to try and catch his prize like a pig thrown a morsel. Turning back to Maria the servant said, "Get in the carriage."
Aware that she stank of kitchen smells, perspiration and the farmyard not to mention her own fear Maria said.
"I can't go anywhere like this."
The pan was snatched from her grip and thrown aside, "You come now or not at all, decide."
Benita didn't sound as though she cared one way or the other, she'd probably be delighted to see me stay and rot here Maria mused so with a defiant toss of the chin she stepped up to the carriage.
Before getting in she turned and locked eyes with papa telling him, "If you touch momma again I'm going to come back here with a gun and kill you, I swear it on my life. Do you understand?"
Blinking in bewilderment he clutched the pouch to his grubby shirt and the nodded meekly. Satisfied she got into the carriage, and Jose's grinning face greeted her it was the best image in the world.
"It is time to go Maria," he said softly purring the words with deep contentment. "Time to say goodbye to all of this forever."
There was no resistance this time, no hesitation in her heart. She wanted to go with this man and live with him in his home embracing everything that he had to offer. Not for her an existence of squalor and abuse, she deserved better.
Sitting next to Jose she placed her hand on top of his hoping Benita didn't get in with them, but the servant climbed onto the buckboard next to the driver and gave him his instructions; clearly she had been given hers to and Maria was grateful for the privacy.
"What do you want of me Jose," she asked seriously? "Why do you really want me to journey all the way to Madrid with you?"
Taking her chin in his hand he tilted her head a few degrees then kissed her on the lips, it was such a sweet taste, such a divine moment that her stomach began to spin madly and refused to stop. Removing his lips from hers he whispered,
"I want you to come with me to be my wife Maria, I want to marry you."
So shocking was this revelation that she sank back open-mouthed with disbelief, marriage? They hardly knew each other, had only met that day.
"Yes I know it's all very sudden," he said. "But I have no doubts that we are made for each other, I want you to be my wife and to share in all the things that I have."
When this day had begun she had never imagined in her wildest dreams that she was going to receive a marriage proposal, and certainly not from such a handsome and debonair gentleman as this.
"But Jose," she began. Resting a finger on her lips she said.
"Say nothing Maria, at least not yet. Wait until you have seen what I have to offer, the kind of life you would be marrying into before giving me your answer. Marriage is a huge step for any woman even if she knows the man well, and you know me hardly at all. So here's the deal, get to know me find out everything about my life, my past and my home and then only then give me your answer. If what I have to offer is unappealing then so be it, you need not become my wife."
Heart thudding madly and flesh burning hot she tried to summon a response, "You know nothing about me." She gasped.
"I know all I need to Maria, details are less important than spirit and you have a vast ocean of that. Not in all Madrid could I find a woman like you, not in all of Spain itself."
But I'm a mere farm girl she wanted to say, a silly dreaming, ambitious, head in the clouds country bumpkin who has spent all her life doing chores and running errands.
But she didn't say this because it wasn't true, she was more than this a lot more and as Mrs Jose Castellan she would never return to an existence of drudgery again.