Sebastian must have walked past them, but he'd been so intent on Paulina that he hadn't even noticed them. He laid a hand on José's curly head. "I'm afraid I can't today—I've some business with your mother. Is she home?"
"She's inside," David piped in. "Trying not to melt from the heat because these damn people think everyone should dress like they're in Europe instead of on a damn tropical island."
That sounded like Dilia, all right.
"I see." Sebastian managed to say it gravely, though it took plenty of effort to hide his smile. "Will you go and ask if I can come in? I wouldn't want to intrude if she's, ah, not dressed as a European."
David scampered up the steps. Sebastian leaned against the slim white columns that supported the arched porch and watched the other boys as they played with their new marbles.
A peal of laughter from inside the house let him know that David had delivered his message. "Come in, compadre," Dilia called, poking her head out of an upstairs window.
It was cooler inside the house, though not by much. Dilia was sitting so close to the window, it was debatable whether she was inside the house or out. She was indeed fully and very properly dressed, in a black skirt and a high-necked shirtwaist. The painted fan in her hand was her only concession to the heat, though her gray-streaked curls were plastered to her temples.
"Hot, isn't it?" he said as he dropped a kiss on her cheek and the box of candied pineapple on her lap before taking the seat opposite hers. The mahogany armchair with its embroidered cushion had once graced the parlor of her Havana house, and the familiar sight never failed to make Sebastian feel a little wistful for old times. "Feels like it'll storm today."
"I don't doubt it," Dilia said, setting her needlework on the round table next to her. "I sent for some ice water. Will you stay for a cup of coffee?"
"Don't go to any trouble on my account." Sebastian set his Panama hat on his knee. "I've got to get back to the mill. I only came into town to make a deposit into your account. There should be enough in there to carry you through the next couple of months."
"That's right." Dilia's grin might have made her eyes sparkle, but it filled Sebastian with apprehension. "Why waste your time having coffee with old widow women when you could be strolling with pretty girls? I saw you walking with the Despradel girl earlier."
He gave a brief nod. "She invited me to a party she's having tonight."
"And you accepted? Well, well..." Dilia's right eyebrow arched.
Sebastian shrugged. "It would have been rude to decline the invitation."
"That's never stopped you before," Dilia observed. "Oh, don't get me wrong—I think it's perfectly delightful that you're finally getting acquainted with your neighbors. I'm just surprised that you consented to a party. You act as if you took a blood oath to spend all your time at the mill, you know."
Antonio Despradel had driven the mill to ruin through mismanagement. It had only been with great effort that Sebastian and Carlos had been able to turn a profit in the first year—and there was still so much to be done. He lay awake at night thinking of it more often than not. It wasn't only that Carlos had invested his entire fortune in modernizing the mill to Sebastian's exacting specifications—a fortune that would have been at Dilia's disposal if it weren't for the labor-saving but ruinously expensive cane-processing machinery Sebastian had been convinced he needed to turn the mill around. No, it was the people who weighed on Sebastian's shoulders. The workers at the mill, most of whom had mouths to feed. Carlos's family. All the people who depended on Sebastian's ability to eke out enough of a profit from a crowded market.
"I have an obligation to you and the children" was all that Sebastian said.
"Yes, and where will we be if you work yourself to death?" Dilia snapped her fan shut and struck Sebastian lightly on the arm with it. "You are barely twenty-five years old, Sebastian, with no family of your own. Talk to pretty girls. Go to parties. Heaven knows you deserve to enjoy your life."
"What I deserve is to enjoy this delightful ice water without having to fend off an arranged marriage," Sebastian said, smiling at Dilia's enthusiasm. "Save the matchmaking for someone else, my friend. The last thing I need is a wife."