He was the handsomest man I’d ever seen.
Tall and slender, he wore his pale-as-snow hair to his collar, a perfect widow’s peak accentuating his aesthetic, almost lupine features. His eyes were the color of amber and sparkled strangely in the candlelight. Sometimes it was almost as if his eyes were on fire. I tried not to look him in the eyes too often. I didn’t know what he would read in mine.
He was always fashionable. Perfect clothing, tasteful and not ostentatious, perfect manners, perfect style. He followed the rules as if he walked on a knife’s edge, knowing just how long it was proper to touch, to stare, careful to never be alone with a woman longer than was proper. Managing to make one feel as if they, too, walked on the knife’s edge with him without doing anything that could be remarked upon as unseemly. He was wealthy, and while he did not have the highest of titles, he had all the things that allowed him entrance into the finest circles. Better yet, some would say, he had all these things and he was as yet unmarried.
But the ladies, from the maidens looking for good marriages to the widows desperate for a man’s protection, all avoided him. They flirted, yes, but only as far as safety allowed. No one would consent to marry him, it was said, no matter how fine the offer, no matter how beautiful the dowry gifts.
That’s not to say he hadn’t been married once already. And that was why, thanks to rumor and to superstition, it was said he would never marry again.
“What was she like, this Dona Meriania?” I asked my hostess, Dona Welicide. She was a second cousin who had graciously agreed to take me in after my guardian lost everything we had to gambling debts. He was in debtor’s prison in the capital, and there he could remain, really, for all I cared. He had tried to sell me once to avoid imprisonment and I figured better him than me.
Welicide brightened. I knew nothing of the local gossip, stories which, to her circle, were so overtold as to be threadbare. Now she could relate them to a new audience; in fact, I think it was half the reason she invited me, to have someone else to tell her stories to. “She was beautiful. As dark as he is pale, very much the lady of the moment. Everyone wanted her. She had a taste for rubies, I remember.”
I found myself smiling. “That’s all you can remember of her?”
“Oh, Tessa, I can remember much more than that, but I fear I did not care for the girl. She was my greatest rival, ever since we were little.”
“Did you fight over Don Joaquin?”
“Shhh,” she breathed. “I was already engaged at the time, so of course not.”
Don Joaquin had dipped his fair head to take a sip from the glass he was holding. He was across the room, a room filled with music and laughing people, but still he stopped when I whispered his name, and looked up at me, slowly, first from the corner of his eye, then straight on, meeting my gaze. I smiled slightly, taken aback by his intensity. I could feel the weight of his stare like a touch, over my cheeks and nose and mouth. He returned the smile just as slightly, then turned to address a man who had come off the dance floor.
“Oh, but that man frightens me,” my cousin said. I would have been inclined to agree, but the chills running down my spine felt too good to be wrong.
I lost sight of him for a time, until I went outside to get a breath of air. I chose one of the smaller balconies that stood open on the far side of the room. I saw him almost immediately; the light of the moon shone on his hair like a beacon. I paused at the threshold of the doorway, then continued onto the balcony. I leaned against the rail opposite from where he stood, but still, there was only a foot between us.
I imagined I could feel the heat of his presence radiating off of him.
“You are not afraid?” His voice was deep, like the forest at night. He seemed surprised, perhaps even amused.
“I am not afraid.” I realized it was true.
“You have not been in our fair country long enough, perhaps.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps I do not listen to rumors.”
“Or perhaps you simply do not listen.”
The coolness of his tone took me aback. What did he know? “I think that you rather like your notoriety, Don Joaquin. Maybe you enjoy being dark and mysterious and dangerous.”
He straightened up, cold dark eyes meeting mine. “No,” he said. “I do not.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I spoke to the air, for he had already pushed past the doors and back into the ballroom.
That was not the last time I saw him, though perhaps it should have been.