Maria picked up her fork, then set it down again, positioned one inch closer to her plate. The waiter had set it too far away. It ruined the aesthetics of the table setting. “You were saying?”
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Earnesto leaned toward her, his brown eyes soulful in the candlelight.
But Maria let no hint of her scorn play on her own features. She let her lashes, heavy with six coats of mascara, drop and her lips quiver. She’d bite the lower one, but her scarlet lipstick was freshly applied and she didn’t want to chance getting it on her teeth, so instead she let her lips part softly and a flutter of air, not quite a sigh, escape from between them. “I thought things were going so well,” she said, her voice soft. “I thought you enjoyed our picnic in the park.”
“I did, I did.” Earnesto picked up his glass of water and gulped at it.
Disgusting. Even the way he swallowed repulsed her. The way his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, the way he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand instead of using a napkin. He was like an orangutang, no manners at all.
“Did you not like my cooking?” she asked.
“It wasn’t that! Everything you made was fantastic. The… the sandwiches were delicious. The cucumbers, so thin. The bread, so…so fine and delicate.” His hand fumbled at his glass, the thick fingers shaking.
And well they should. Maria hadn’t decided what she was going to do to him yet. It would come to her.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” he said.
Ugh. And now he was using cliches on her. Oh, the travesty.
“Of course.” She couldn’t quite keep the acid out of her voice. “That is the way of it with men.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s always about you.” She shook her head, letting her luxuriant dark hair fall across her cheekbones, then lifted a delicate hand to stroke the hair out of her face. “You’re all the same.”
Earnesto shrugged. “We’re simple creatures at heart, I think. And you…” He opened his hands to her. “You deserve so much more.”
Maria didn’t snort, although she wanted to. Where did he think flattery was going to get him? A lesser punishment? No one dumped her without paying a price. Of course, no one dated her without paying a price either. Payment was always made: the question was simply when and how.
Could Earnesto have realized that somehow?
“So much more? And yet all I wanted was you.” Her purse was hanging on the back of her chair. She twisted to get it, drawing in a breath to lift her assets and leaning slightly forward at the same time. Let Earnesto get a good long look at what he was rejecting.
When she turned back to the table, purse in hand, he’d stiffened. But it looked like fear in his eyes, not lust.
Aha, so Earnesto did know something. More fool him for revealing as much. Maria pushed open the gold clasp on the black bag, careful to use the flats of her fingertips. She didn’t want to break a nail and the clasp sometimes jammed.
She pulled out a tissue.
Earnesto’s breath of relief, the fall of his chest and shoulders, was impossible to miss. “I’m sorry, Maria. I wish I could be a better man for you.”
Tissue halfway to her face, Maria froze. She’d been planning to gently dab at her eyes. She wouldn’t actually cry, of course. Her mascara was waterproof and could stand up to any number of tears, but she wouldn’t want to risk the rest of her make-up or take the chance that her eyes might turn pink. She would have mustered a gentle welling, a bit of moisture to make her eyes more luminous in the candlelight, but no tears would have fallen.
But what he’d just said…
She jabbed the tissue back into her purse and snapped the clasp closed. “Which of my sisters have you been talking to?”
He drew back at the tone in her voice. The softness was gone and her lips were pursed. “I…I don’t know what you mean. Sisters? I didn’t know you had any siblings. I thought you were alone in the world.”
“Don’t lie to me, Ernesto.”
“I’m not lying!”
She picked up her fork again. Her fingers clenched around the handle. The tines were poking straight up into the air, as if the fork were a weapon, a trident. “I know that you have spoken to one of my sisters.” She smiled at him, not worrying about whether she had lipstick on her teeth. “The question is which one. Was she older or younger? Blonde? Grey hair?”
“I…I…” He was trying not to react, not to let the truth appear in his eyes.
“Isabel is more likely to have told you that.” Maria tapped the base of the fork against the table, pursing her lips. “But Cherie, she’s far more likely to be trying to save you.”
“Told me what? Save me from what?” Earnesto’s confusion might have been genuine, but his tongue shot out to slide along the sweat beading his upper lip. His fear was real.
Maria’s smile held all the malice that she felt. “That you might survive this encounter with flattery, of course. Once, just once, I let a man walk away from me. He spoke so sweetly, so kindly, of wanting to be better for me. Of wanting to deserve me when he came back for me. And I believed him. More fool me.”
“What happened?” Earnesto swallowed as he asked the question.
“He walked straight into my sister’s arms, of course. We haven’t spoken since. But which one got to you?”
“I… I didn’t speak to… no one got to me.”
“I know that’s not true.” Maria regarded him through narrowed eyes, considering her options. Then she shook her head. It barely mattered in the end. Whichever sister it was would pay for interfering in Maria’s business. But first, Earnesto would do the same.
She aimed the fork in his direction and began to chant.