When Felipe Bello asked me to marry him, what else could I do but say yes? Love, they say in Spain, sweeps in like the scorching solano wind across the Andalusian plain in springtime. Dizzying, suffocating, it steals into cracks in the façades and drives the señoritas, mad with thirst, into the churning sea. Completely irresistible. So, of course, a hot guy like Felipe blew me over.
Still, how does any girl ever know for absolute certain if he’s the one?
Sure, I’d had a crush on him since I was fifteen. He’d winked at me behind my brother Marcos’s back as their team loped around the soccer stadium to the tune of ‘We are the Champions’—and I was instantly love-struck. Maybe it was meant when we chanced to connect again here in Spain.
Sure, it was a blazing afternoon on the final day of Seville’s Fair. My chest heaved like the bull we’d just seen stampede to his death around the Real Maestranza ring. My heart raced to catch up. Maybe my dry mouth answered before my brain kicked into gear.
“Um, okay.” I gulped.
“Just okay?” Felipe grazed my cheek with a tender knuckle.
Sure, I’d accepted a sip from every one of his half-dozen glasses of chilled sherry as we wound down clogged Serpent Avenue. I may have felt a little buzzy, but I’m positive I wasn’t drunk.
What if he was, though? Not that he’d admit it, of course. He looked normal enough—as normal as Prince Felipe the Fair could look—with his clipped brush of espresso hair, Sun Coast tan, and devastating grin. He was only the handsomest soccer forward in the world and maybe one of the highest-paid too.
I dragged sticky fingers through the limp wisps of hair plastered to my forehead. Even in southern Spain, it was way too hot for April. Especially for a girl from the cool latitudes of Chile. “Felipe, are you sure?”
“Ay, linda, I did this all wrong.” He drew me off the baking street, away from the stream of festival revelers, into the shadow of a nearby horseshoe arch. “This was never how I planned to propose. It just popped out.”
“So how did you plan to do it? On bended knee below my balcony?” I giggled and tilted my head up at him. The ballerina bun I wore bobbled at the nape of my neck.
His smile formed a dollop of cream in smooth caramel skin. “Something like that.”
The zesty perfume of oranges wafted down the covered passage from an interior courtyard. Mingled with ripe mold, the scent almost nauseated me, but at least the breeze cooled my face. I relaxed against the pink and indigo azulejo tiles, lustrous as ice. Felipe braced his palms against the archway wall at my shoulders and leaned in until we touched foreheads.
“Valeria Serrano,” he murmured, “I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”
“Then me too. I may not be sure of much else in my life, but I think you’re the one.”
How could he not be? He fit all the requirements. Good-looking, confident, generous to a fault. Check.
Acquainted with my family back home. Even though he played in the European fútbol league at present, his loyalties remained in Chile. Check.
And a Christian—check—if not much of a church-goer. A successful soccer career did tend to punch holes in a perfect attendance record.
Best of all, we really clicked. In the couple of months we’d been dating, Felipe made me feel smart enough, strong enough, to handle life on my own. For a big change.
“You think? I know.” He teased my lips with a light kiss and then twirled me down the passageway into the garden courtyard of whatever archaic building we’d ducked into. Moorish palaces, mosques-turned-cathedrals, and musty convents-turned-museums dominated every plaza in Seville, I’d learned during a winter’s art internship in the city.
Scattering snowy spume like an island tide, rows of flowering citrus trees hid most of the public thronging the cobbled patio. Near an alcove in the crumbling plaster wall, Felipe pulled me against him and kissed me as the occasion deserved. Exhilaration pulsed inside my rib cage. I could barely snatch my breath between the string of kisses.
“Love you, Vali.” His voice was a searing whisper in my ear as his hand trailed across my back. “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“Today, I feel like it.” I laughed. “But it’s the dress.” I extended one edge of the silk skirt out the length of my arm and curtsied. The periwinkle flamenco gown I’d bought to celebrate Seville’s past two weeks of fiesta brightened the plain gray of my eyes. The tiers of silver-threaded ruffles on the long skirt and the wide lace sleeves swished with my every step. I felt like a gypsy princess.
“It’s more the girl who makes the dress,” Felipe said.
“Then I’m the luckiest girl in the world too, to have you.” During our Easter tour of the Palace of Countess Lebrija, he’d gifted me the accessories to match the outfit—necklace, combs, and castanets studded with agates and mother-of-pearl. A rich boyfriend wasn’t a bad thing.
A rich fiancé, now.
In black stretch jeans, a loose white tunic-style shirt, and knee-high boots, Felipe looked like an Andalusian native himself. He only lacked the felt sombrero and guitar. Slipping a sinewy arm around my waist, he waltzed me slowly through the grove into the open area of the court.
“I could dance with you all night.” I sighed. “So much better this, than the bullfight.”
“I know, babe. But everybody here has to visit the Maestranza at least once in their life. Just to say they did, if nothing else.”
I made a face. “I’d rather watch you play fútbol like yesterday.”
A salacious grin tugged his lips sideways. “I’d rather you watched me, too.”
“No doubt. But come on, linda, you want to dance? Let’s party the evening away, all the way to the Macarena. Stop and get some tapas along the route, celebrate us, want to?” He clasped my hand in his and plowed a path across the patio toward to an open wrought-iron gate leading back into the raucous street.
“Wait a minute, what is this place? I want to know where we got engaged.” I craned my neck around to inspect the building that soared in the background.
“Sweet idea. It’s a church or something, isn’t it? Or a defunct monastery. We came in one of the side entrances.” He dashed outside into the crush of pedestrian traffic.
I examined the baroque façade before me, its dusty-rose stucco embellished with sundials. Looked like another Leonardo de Figueroa religious extravaganza, all right—I’d studied plenty of them in the city. Except for the flamboyant polychrome dome, this one seemed more subdued than most.
Felipe appeared at my side again. “I was right, it’s a church. La Magdalena. Now we’ll have to claim her as ‘our’ Virgin.”
“Uh, I don’t think so.” I enjoyed Seville’s cultural heritage as much as the next person, but I felt uncomfortably heavy—short of breath—at his leap to participate in the city’s whole Virgin-competition thing. As a child, I’d drowned in religious festivals, like a victim bagged and weighted by stones. My family had escaped that cult of gilded god-dolls in garish robes and glass tears a long time ago. And for once, I agreed without an edict from one of my bossy older brothers.
“Never mind that idea,” he said. “I think I have my own virgin, anyway.”
“Is that a question?”
“More of a statement. You’ve led a pretty sheltered life, Virgin of Chiloé.” He tucked my hand into his arm. “Want to see this place? What? I’m not poking fun, Vali. You’re probably the last virgin left in Spain, besides the gaudy ladies in gold crowns.”
“Okay.” I stared up at the church, still not certain why he pursued this topic, but glad that he appreciated me for who I was. Only…sheltered? Is that what he assumed? If my values branded me as naïve, so be it. I didn’t make a big deal over it, just took for granted that our relationship would be pure—despite Felipe’s variegated past. Sí, I knew about some of his exploits—Marcos had been frank enough.
But if Felipe equated my shotgun-wielding male relatives with adolescent and over-protected, maybe it was time to change that image.
He pointed to the circle of G-stringed natives who appeared to support the cathedral dome with straining biceps. “Looks like some of our South American cohorts. The strapping Caupolicán and company.”
“What’s that hanging above the door?” I said, scuttling closer. A metal plate of some kind, but the embossed symbols struck me, hauntingly nefarious. “Felipe! It’s the shield of the Inquisition.”