Home again after rehearsals, Marie dressed for her date with Hector. She scrutinized her image, turning this way and that to be sure that the turquoise sequined dress fit perfectly. Her thick hair was swept up in a flattering twist held in place by a satin headpiece that matched her dress.
Removing Hector’s present from its box, she clasped the pearl strand around her neck. The lustrous stones drew attention to her slender throat and bare shoulders. Hector should be pleased, but the thought of his appreciative leer turned her stomach into a queasy mess.
Better to prepare for it now. She stood before the mirror and practiced her reaction to his imagined, proprietary greeting. Squaring her shoulders, her spine straight, she willed her stomach to relax. This was only another role to play. The stakes might be higher but she didn’t need to think about that.
Hector’s chauffeur arrived promptly at seven-thirty with a gift of hothouse gardenias from el Señor. When Marie arrived at the embassy, a teenaged boy wearing tight black pants and a scarlet bolero jacket escorted her through the crowded banquet hall to an elegantly set table.
“I will inform Señor de la Rivera of your arrival,” the youth intoned in heavily accented English. He picked up a bottle of champagne from a nearby ice bucket and held it toward Marie. “May I?”
She nodded her consent, and he expertly poured the translucent golden liquid into the crystal goblet in front of her.
After the boy left, she surveyed the opulent room. A variety of tables covered in scarlet and ivory linens surrounded a central dance floor. Intimate squares, barely large enough to accommodate a couple, were interspersed with rectangles designed for larger parties. Her own table, partially hidden behind a silken screen and large floral bouquets, held ornate place settings for six.
Throughout the ballroom, dazzling women adorned in sparkling gowns and precious jewels flirted with their escorts, self-important men in black tuxedos or the traditional dress of Spanish nobility. She recognized a few of the guests from her previous dates with Hector, but most were strangers.
A commotion at the room’s entrance drew her attention. The ambassador strutted through the open doors followed by a sizeable entourage. Hector, his own important status evident by his proximity to the ambassador, caught her eye and winked, then returned to greeting those who flocked around him and his boss.
Not for the first time, Marie couldn’t help but be impressed by the Spaniard’s innate political instincts. He was unfailingly polite to all those who greeted him. But Marie could see the subtle distinctions in his mannerisms toward those whom he wished to ingratiate and those on whom he bestowed the favor of his attention.
Once the ambassador joined his guests of honor at the head table, Hector strolled toward Marie, stopping once or twice to greet someone along the way. His broad smile showed large white teeth reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood’s big, bad wolf. An uncontrollable shiver swept down her spine, and she sipped the champagne to calm her nerves.
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