Vistaria Has Fallen, Chapter Five

VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
(Vistaria Has Fallen: Book One)
A Romantic Military Thriller

VISTARIA HAS FALLEN WILL BE RELEASED ON OCTOBER 19, 2017


EXCERPT FROM VISTARIA HAS FALLEN
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2017
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Chapter Five

“Everything takes longer here,” Uncle Josh explained, pouring Calli another cup of coffee. “You have to go with the flow.”

“My credit card company isn’t here. It’s in Montana, and it’s—” she looked at her new watch and added two hours, “—ten in the morning. They’ve had two coffees and a doughnut by now. They can’t plead they’re asleep.”

Josh smiled. “Is that a comment about my breakfast-making skills?” He picked up the broadsheet newspaper that covered the remains of his plate, piled high with blackened toast crusts. “You could always phone the competition and tell them they can have your business if they will give you a card sooner than your replacement will get here.” He buried himself behind the paper.

“There’s a thought,” Calli said.

“You’re late today, Dad,” Minnie said from the door to her room. She belted closed an apricot satin robe, her hair spiky from sleep and her eyes still half shut. She looked as though she had slept soundly.

“Speak for yourself,” Joshua returned. “I’m meeting people in the city for lunch. Actually, Calli, I meant to mention something and that reminds me. There’s a man on my staff, single, American. From Wisconsin. A lawyer—”

“Well, no one’s perfect,” Minnie said, pouring herself a coffee.

Calli smiled. “Are you setting me up on a blind date, Uncle Josh?”

He lowered his paper, considering it. “I suppose I am,” he admitted. “Although it didn’t play that way when Peter first proposed it.”

“Peter?” Minnie asked. “You’re talking about Peter Kaestner? He’s a creep.”

“He’s perfectly normal,” Joshua said. “That he told you to grow up emphasizes he has the necessary maturity for a man who holds the responsibilities he does.” He brought his gaze back to Calli. “There aren’t many Americans in Vistaria. Most of them are with the company. Single American women are unusual. I think he’s lonely.”

“Or horny,” Minnie added.

Joshua glared at her.

“What?” She spread her hands. “Am I wrong?”

He ignore her. “What about dinner tonight?” he pressed Calli

“Yes, I’d love to,” Calli said, without considering it. If she allowed herself to think, she would find a reason to say no.

“Good.” Joshua folded up the newspaper and plopped it onto the middle of the table, then stretched. “I should get going. There’s stuff to do at the Palace. I’ll talk to Peter at lunch and call you with details, okay?”

“Sure,” Calli said, staring at the front page of the paper, which faced her. The picture was grainy, yet unmistakable. It was a wide shot of the head table at last night’s dinner, with the General in the middle of the frame. Nicolás Escobedo’s features were clear. The headlines screamed in huge type, exclamation marks either side, the first one upside-down.

Uncle Josh picked up his briefcase, jiggling his pocket for keys.

“I’ll walk you to the car,” Calli told him, getting to her feet.

“‘kay,” he said without hesitation.

When they were outside, he raised his eyebrow. “Something in the paper spook you?” he asked.

“A little. What did that headline say?”

“Congratulations to Blanco for his excellent leadership and his birthday.”

“Oh.”

“It’s El Liberalé, which is a conservative newspaper despite the name. What were you hoping for? Disclosure of a conspiracy?”

She shook her head. “It was the man two seats to the right of Blanco.”

“Nicolás Escobedo?” Joshua said sharply. “What of him?”

“He’s the man who helped me at the jail.”

Joshua rested his briefcase on the bonnet of the silver Chevy Cavalier and leaned on it, thinking hard. “You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

Another thoughtful silence. “Jesus Maria…” Joshua breathed. “He really does have feelers out everywhere.”

“The army calls him el leopardo rojo.”

“Yes, I just made the connection.” Joshua frowned. “Although I wouldn’t go around blurting that out to anyone, Calli.” His brow smoothed. “It’s good to know we have friends in high places. It confirms they’re working to support us. With the problems I get handed every day, I sometimes wondered.” He patted her shoulder. “Thanks for telling me.” He got into the car and drove away.

Calli stood on the narrow, cobbled street, watching the Chevy twist around the hairpin bend twenty yards down the hill and disappear.

The conversation had cheered Josh. Perversely, Calli felt more uneasy than ever.

I want to live in your mind, at least. His voice curled through her thoughts.

Had he really believed she could dismiss him when his face was plastered on the front page of the national newspaper? Yet, gut instinct told her his intention had been to linger in her memories at a far more personal level.

The image from her dream, her thigh over his hip, his hand on her skin, hot and demanding, slipped into her thoughts. That was what he had meant.

Why her? Why? When no other man had raised so much as an eyebrow in her direction for five years? More? She was a dusty, ill-used thirty-something woman well on her way to becoming a rusty, disused old spinster set in her ways, entrenched in academia and teaching dry economics until she retired.

Why me? And why him?

It was beyond comprehension.

It was all theory, anyway. He had made that clear last night. Nothing would ever come of it. He was as untouchable as she had suspected.

She went back inside, blinking in the dimness of the apartment after the brilliant sunshine outside and asked Minnie to take her shopping again. She would need something sexy to wear tonight if she wanted get herself laid.

* * * * *

“You know, you really are a knockout,” Peter said. “Joshua said you scrubbed up well. I think he was being conservative.”

Calli smiled mechanically and swallowed another mouthful of the dry, overcooked steak. This was the third time Peter had told her what a knockout she was. It didn’t sound any better with repeating. Although, his need to please her added points in his favor.

She had surreptitiously checked off other criteria throughout the evening. His breath smelled sweet. He had no discernable body odor. Clean hands, a nice white smile and a small bonus—tight buttocks beneath the dark business suit. He stood half an inch shorter than her, which she could overlook for now. In bed, the height difference would be no difference at all.

The absolute lack of any appeal he had for her was a drawback. He had light brown hair, brown eyes, nicely tanned skin to go with the white smile and he clearly worked to maintain his body. There was nothing wrong with him, yet nothing sparked her interest.

He had picked her up at the apartment right on time. She walked out the door knowing she looked as beddable as it was possible for her to get. Minnie had worked all afternoon to ensure Peter got the right impression.

Minnie had somehow intuited Calli’s intentions, for she discarded various options, settling on an appearance she pronounced with her arms crossed as, “totally fuckable, honey.”

Calli’s dress was stretch lace. The halter top had a vee-neck that ended low between her breasts. There was no back to it. The dress dipped to where the indentation of Calli’s spine flattened over the back of her hips. It had no lining. Her skin showed through the lace, except for a nearly invisible flesh-colored panel of elastic that covered her breasts and supported them. The skirt hugged her hips. The elastic fabric gave her flexibility, while the dress clung to her. The hem stopped several inches short of her knees.

Minnie insisted she wear the tallest shoes they could find, a black pair with ankle straps. Her hair was piled on top of her head and held with dozens of pins. Wisps fell around her face. Minnie also directed the application of her makeup. Red lips, red toenails, and gold hoop earrings. Minnie could do nothing about Calli’s work-worn fingernails other than file them and paint them.

Calli looked in the mirror and frowned. “Don’t you think it’s a bit subtle?” she asked Minnie. “I should wear a mini skirt and thigh high leather boots or something. This looks…”

“Sensual,” Minnie declared.

“I want to say ‘sex’ not ‘sensual’.”

“Do you want good sex or ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’?”

Calli pursed her lips. Minnie did know more about this than her, after all. Yet Calli didn’t want to play a slow game of subtle seduction. She wanted to have sex, then she could move on with her life.

“Believe me, sensual will get you good sex,” Minnie added. “If a man understands the difference between the two, then he knows how to please a woman in bed. If Peter doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t deserve you. Besides, if you did walk into Ashcroft’s wearing a mini skirt and leather boots you’d be arrested for prostitution. They’re very conservative here.”

“Not from what I saw the first night of La Fiesta.”

“That’s the festival for you. People let off steam during the fiesta. It’s condoned. That’s the only time, though.”

Calli studied her. “You have been taking notice, haven’t you?”

“Told you I had,” Minnie returned. The phone rang. She almost jumped across the room to pick it up. “Duardo!” she said happily, turning away, leaving Calli to wait for Peter to arrive.

Ashcroft’s, one of the best restaurants in the city, served what they optimistically titled “international cuisine.” Peter had been proud to show her the menu that featured Texas beef and insisted she indulge herself. Calli wanted to try a local dish. Instead, to keep Peter happy, she ordered the steak. It had been a mistake.

She put down her knife and fork and sat back, looking around. The cavernous restaurant had a high ceiling and dark wood paneling on the walls. It was very Victorian, with large potted palms and ferns in collections throughout the room, which provided each table a small measure of privacy.

“It feels like one of those men’s clubs they used to have in London,” Calli said.

“Very observant,” Peter said with a grin. “It used to be exactly that, way back when. The British had a colonial trade outpost here just before the first world war. Where there’s a group of Englishmen, there’s always a club.”

“I see.” She cast about for something else to say, her desperation building. Her dilemma grew stronger with each passing minute. She had finished her meal. Peter had nearly emptied his plate. What then? Coffee and dessert. Then how did she work it? It had been too many years since she’d dated and now she had no idea what to do. Besides, she was no longer certain she wanted to take Peter to bed. Had she ever wanted to?

“Shall we dance?” Peter asked after a moment.

“Yes,” she said thankfully. That would delay the moment of decision.

A pocket-sized dance floor occupied the center of the room, with a three man band on the bandstand, playing western lounge music. A single middle-aged couple moved about the floor. They looked as though they had been plucked off a dance hall floor in the States. Conservative clothing, overweight, polite, proper Americans.

Peter led her onto the floor and took her in his arms for a slow two step. His hand on her back was sweaty. He seemed to be aware of it, for he barely touched her, as if contact with her skin would shock him. He concentrated on the dance and didn’t speak.

It had been a long time since she’d danced, so Calli relaxed and tried to enjoy it.

Halfway about the floor, Peter turned her to face the other way. For the first time she saw the part of the room that had been hidden by a giant palm next to their table. A group of businessmen had their heads together, over by the massive fireplace. Cigar smoke hung thick around them as they laughed loudly over a joke, settling back in their chairs.

One of them was Nicolás Escobedo.

Calli tripped and clutched at Peter’s shoulder to save herself. His hand clamped against her back, drawing her against him to hold her up.

“Whoa!” he said. “You alright?”

“Yes,” she said, shaking. Her heart hammered.

“Do you want to sit down?”

“Yes…no, it’s okay. I’m enjoying this.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” She smiled at him.

He shrugged. “Okay, then.”

They danced again. When Peter turned her next, she glanced back at the table of businessmen.

Nicolás Escobedo lounged in his chair, one arm draped over the padded arm. He watched her while his three companions talked. Calli covertly studied him before Peter swung her around again. A dark suit, not black. Perhaps charcoal gray, or a gray-green. The shirt was dark. The tie matched it. He wouldn’t look out of place on Wall Street.

With the next turn she looked again. He watched, still. One long finger rested against his lips. He’d narrowed his eyes.

She felt a resurgence of the same anger that had gripped her last night when Nicolás revealed his attraction to her and instantly pulled it out of her reach just because he wanted to. There had been no consideration for her in his decision, just some perverse desire to play with her, like dangling yarn in front of a kitten.

Why was he here? To toy with her again?

Then her view vanished, for Peter had turned her again. The music stopped, and the musicians stood and nodded to them.

Break time.

Peter led her back to the table. Their meals had been cleared. As Calli no longer dithered about how the evening would finish, the acceleration of the end of the meal was of no consequence. She would let Peter know that if he pressed his luck, he’d find a willing mate. She would cooperate with full enthusiasm. If she let herself sink into the experience, she could wipe out any lingering needs Nicolás Escobedo had stirred in her. Then the slate would be clean.

After that, she would stay in bed with Peter and thank him the only appropriate way possible. All that remained now was to get to the end of the evening.

Peter looked around for a waiter. “Would you like another drink?” he asked. “They have excellent tea here.”

Tea. Calli shook her head. “I’d prefer coffee if I must, but—”

“Coffee. No problem.” He waved his hand.

“No, really, I could live without it.”

“It’s no problem,” he assured her.

She sighed and sat back.

“It’s Kaestner, isn’t it?” said a new voice from behind her.

Calli didn’t have to look to know Nicolás stood there. The voice could belong to no one else. The American accent with the deliberate pronunciation, as if he concentrated on every word, which he might well be. Even without the accent, no man she knew had that gravelly, low timbre that caressed her spine and made her gut turn with a slow roll that left every nerve in her body awake and tingling.

Peter stood up again, grasping the napkin in his lap and trying to shake hands at the same time. He did it awkwardly, caught by surprise. “Yes, Peter Kaestner, Señor Escobedo. I didn’t realize you dined here—I wouldn’t have ignored you.”

“No, it’s all right,” Nicolás said, waving him down. “I am here on private family business—Ashcroft’s is good for not being noticed, I’ve found. You too, I see.”

“Yeah, you can really get away from people here,” Peter agreed. “Please…sit down.”

Nicolás sat in the chair to Calli’s left and looked at her. “Miss Munro, yes? You were at the General’s birthday party last night.”

“That’s right.” Calli’s voice emerged husky.

Peter looked shocked. “You got an invite to that?”

“Callida has made an impression on Vistarians in her short time here,” Nicolás said.

“I guess,” Peter said with a half laugh, half exhalation.

“We met at Las Piedras Grandes, didn’t we?” Nicolás asked him. “At the opening ceremony for the mine?”

Peter nodded enthusiastically. Nicolás drew him out, getting Peter to talk about his work, his worries. Calli tuned out the conversation. Instead, she watched them. While Peter spoke, Nicolás played with the stem of the empty water glass in front of him, absently sliding his fingers up and down the length of it. Calli watched the motion, almost hypnotized by it. His fingers slid around the bottom of the glass itself, to cup the curve there.

She released the breath she’d been holding. Was he doing it deliberately? Yet he did not glance at her even once.

Abruptly, she stood. “Will you excuse me?” she murmured before either of them could react and hurried to the door into the wide hallway that led to the main entrance. A waitress with a starched apron spoke to her. Calli heard ‘help’ amidst the blur of Spanish.

Sí,” she said. “Washrooms? Um…” She frowned, recalling the phrases she had been studying, groping for an appropriate word. “La conveniencia?”

“Sí.” The woman pointed toward the wide carpeted stairs running along the opposite wall of the hallway. The heavy paneling repeated there, and a thick railing of carved wood glowed with age and care.

“Up?” Calli questioned, also pointing.

, up.” The waitress agreed with a wide smile.

The stairway broke into a square landing close to the bottom of the case. The wall there featured a large picture window, framed with lavish green velvet swags and curtains. At ninety degrees to the rest of the stairs, three more steps reached down to the hallway floor. Calli climbed the steps and saw why the window had been placed there. The lights of la colina spread out before her, undulating down the hillside and off to the north and south for miles.

She didn’t admire the view, for she wanted to reach a place where no one could find her, yet she moved slowly. The longer she stayed away from the table, the higher the probability that Nicolás would be gone when she returned.

Why had he come over? There had been no reason she could see. His talk with Peter had been mindless, yet someone like Nicolás Escobedo did not engage in superficial conversation without reason.

She found the washrooms with the universal symbol for women and stood at the basin, staring blindly into the mirror while she tasted her roiling anger and frustration. Last night and again tonight. He was toying with her.

Only, that wasn’t accurate. Her mind, trained for critical thinking, nagged her into acknowledging the inconsistencies.

Calli spread her hands and leaned on the counter, letting her head hang as she pushed aside all the hurt feelings and her bruised ego and separated out the facts. He had said…what?

“I saw the light leave your eyes when you heard my name. That is why I stand here. I did not like watching your spirit die as you put it together.”

The caress of his voice in her mind: “I dreamed of you, Calli.”

She shivered.

He hadn’t been playing with her at all. He had revealed himself to make her feel better, then explained why he could not give in to the desire.

Calli rubbed her temple. God and she had been at the point of dragging Peter to bed to get even with him. How stupid! How could she not have seen this before? “I’m out of practice,” she whispered to the mirror.

That left one remaining question. Why had he come over to the table tonight?

If she hurried back, would he still be there? Afraid, she raced from the room. He would have sensed her dismissal. He would not need it repeated. He would leave as quickly as politeness would allow. She had to get back there.

Halfway down, she saw him. He stood next to the green swags, looking out at the view. She knew he waited for her. Her heart hammering and her body on high alert, she descended the rest of the stairs. Calli grew aware of her dress, the sheer black stockings and was proud of her appearance. She was glad he had seen her like this.

She stepped onto the landing and stood beside him, as if they shared the view. The skin on her shoulder prickled at the nearness of his arm, even though they did not touch.

“Why did you come over to our table?”

“Did you think I could stay away? With you looking like that? I am a man, Calli, not a machine. Your appearance tonight… A man has only to look at you to know he should shower you with every sensual pleasure he can produce, that the rewards for such efforts would be ecstasy beyond his wildest dreams.”

A shiver wracked her. Peter had not managed to be even remotely poetic, while Nicolás had responded. She remembered Minnie’s advice and realized that Nicolás understood the difference.

“He’s not worthy, Calli,” he whispered.

“He will do.” She would not tell him she had changed her mind about seducing Peter. There was no point.

“I assumed you would have better taste. He’s a boy and he cannot dance.”

“And you can?”

“Better than he.”

“Yet he took me out on the dance floor, while you will not dare. Who is more the man?”

He reached out to grip the velvet curtain beside him and crushed it in his fist. “It is not lack of courage that prevents me.”

“You made it clear last night that my life is none of your business.”

In the reflection on the window, she saw his head drop, as if he didn’t like the fact any more than she. “So I did,” he agreed, his voice low.

“Are you recanting?” Her voice was barely above a whisper. Her heart hurt as it pounded against her chest.

His grip on the velvet tightened. “I can’t,” he growled.

The exquisite tension in her subsided, like air from a tire. “I know,” she agreed. All the pride, the excitement, fled. “I have to get back to Peter. He’ll be wondering—”

Nick’s arm wrapped around her waist as she turned to go. She inhaled sharply as he pulled her up against him and held her with her back to him, his arm an iron band around her.

Not yet,” he said, his voice strained.

Heat. Solid, immoveable strength. The hard length of his body registered along hers. His hand cupped her hip.

Calli closed her eyes against the ferocious rush of undiluted desire. She trembled. “Don’t,” she whispered.

He drew breath. She could hear it and felt his chest expand against her shoulders. He did not speak.

She opened her eyes. In the reflection on the window she saw his other hand come up to her bare shoulder and hover there, as if he fought himself.

She held her breath, the skin over her shoulder tingling, all nerves stretched to their limits, anticipating his touch. Her thoughts paused, her whole body stilled. Waiting.

It was not a caress she received. His hand curled over her shoulder and she realized that he trembled, too. The warm fingers settled, as if by anchoring them so firmly he could resist moving it further. He let out his breath, stirring the curls by her ear and grew still. His eyes closed.

Yes, he battled himself.

“There is a difference in you tonight,” he said. “More than just the dress.”

“I haven’t changed.”

“You have…let go. What has happened, to make that difference?”

She thought of the stolen moment she had seen between Duardo and Minnie. “I have realized that some men will take what they want. You will not. I must find someone who will.”

He remained quiet for a long moment. “If it is simply sex you seek,” he said at last, “then you will not have far to look. Do you think Peter will appreciate what he has got? Do you think he will be able to satisfy you beyond crude, coarse coupling?”

He had spoken her fears aloud. She sighed. “I don’t know.”

“I do know. Why must you do this? You did not, in Montana. I know that as surely as I know my own hand. The woman I see tonight, she does not normally show her face.”

“I, too, am not a machine. You cannot stir these feelings in me, stoke them and then expect me to remain untouched. I dream of you, Nick. Everywhere here I see sensuality and lust and know I will never have those moments with you that I dreamed of. I will take what I can.”

“Not with him, Calli.” His voice held a note of pleading.

“You will not. He will.”

She felt him shake his head, even as his reflection made the same movement in the glass. “I could fill your mind so you cannot think of another man. So idea of taking another would be as remote and alien to you as the surface of Mars.”

“Arrogance,” she breathed.

Knowledge,” he corrected. “I can feel you trembling and I know how you have drugged me so I cannot sleep. All I must do is stamp myself upon you a little more and I know you will not think of another, for you are not like that.”

“Nick…” She spoke his name in warning…and in pleading. They walked upon treacherous ground now.

His hand on her shoulder slid, with a whisper of a caress, down to cup her breast. She gasped. The material of the dress was so fine and light it felt as if he held her naked breast. His hand was hot. Large against her skin and delicious. She could feel the details of his fingers, the swell of flesh, the joints, the tips, searing her skin.

“God, Nick, please….” she moaned, her head falling against his shoulder. Her shoulders pulled back, thrusting her breast into his hand.

“You plead for me to stop, or for more?” His voice was hoarse with pent-up emotion.

Calli clenched her jaw, determined not to speak aloud the rabid need she had for him. She cared not at all about their public place, that Peter might come looking for her at any moment, that anyone glancing in the window would see them and see his hand at her breast. She wanted more, much more. She felt a ravening need to coax him by words and movements to take her right now.

He kissed her neck, by the corner of her jaw. His lips were hot. “I see your jaw ripple. Ah, you are strong, Calli. Do you know how much your strength is a goad, driving me to breach that strength, to have you whimper in my arms?” His voice by her ear sent another shiver through her. His heady, spicy and masculine scent enveloped her. She moaned, the soft noise slipping from her.

“Tell me what is in your mind to make you utter that sound,” he whispered.

“Your hand. I dreamed of your hand on my breast.” Her voice was throaty, distorted by raw animal wanting. “I couldn’t feel it in the dream, Now you touch me as you did then, and it feels so good.”

She heard him swallow, the little ragged sound of his breath. “God help me, you are driving me out of my mind. The look on your face, your voice… Do you know how easy it would be for me to tear this dress from you, lower you to the floor and take you right now? Here?”

“I would not stop you,” she whispered.

His hand on her hip moved down to stroke her thigh beneath the dress, the little finger slipping between her legs. He didn’t slide it higher. It fluttered against the sensitive skin of her inner thighs, stroking with delicate caresses. When his fingers discovered the lacy tops of her stockings, he made a noise that was half groan, half growl.

“Tell me you can still think of taking another man to bed,” he rasped in her ear.

The truth spilled from her. “Not in a million years.”

His arms came around her waist. “Then we are even.”

She took a deep breath so she could speak properly again. “I am to be tortured by what I cannot have, while you slake your need with whoever you please. You are being unfair, Nick.”

His lips came down upon her neck. “You misinterpret me. I have simply brought you to the point where I have been for two long nights.”

She grew still. “You mean…?”

“Yes, Calli. I have not been able to touch another woman since I met you.” His tone became dry. “Although I have tried.”

She closed her eyes. “Why me?” she asked. “Why, of all the women you have met? I know what I am. I’m a discarded economics tutor. I even have two cats at home.”

His voice came right by her ear again and she could feel his breath against her shoulder. “There was a moment, in the holding cell, when I first stepped in. You had not seen me, yet I saw you. You looked out the window, with your hands on the bars. I had just spent an hour sorting out the true story from the men in the hospital and the arresting officers and the liaison your uncle called. When I saw you, I had already looked into the matter. I knew you rushed to Vistaria when your uncle phoned asking for your help for the summer, with little warning or preparation. Because he asked, you came. Within an hour of landing in a country where you didn’t speak the language, you were put in a situation that would tax the nerves of most men. I did not see a petrified, cowed woman standing at that window, though. When you turned to face me, you did not plead or beg or whine. I saw your spirit and knew it could not be crushed. That strength is so very rare.”

She absorbed his words with difficulty. “Oh, Nick, you’re so wrong. I have been crushed. Ask Minnie. She will tell you I haven’t yet dragged myself back to anything like normal.”

“No.” He shook his head. “You guard yourself now, that is all. The woman last night that looked me in the eye and planted that last barb, just to even the score…she was not defeated.”

“Must I now guard myself against you?”

“I would never hurt you.” Total conviction rang in his voice.

“Just standing here places me, both of us, in danger.”

Again, she felt him draw a large breath. Bracing himself. As abruptly as she had been drawn to him, she was freed. She shivered as cool air touched the skin at her back and turned to face him.

He stared out the window again. “You should go,” he said, without looking at her.

“Calli?” Peter’s voice.

She turned to see Peter emerging from the dining room. “Sorry, I got caught up,” she told him.

“Have you seen the view from here?” Nicolás added.

Peter climbed up to the landing and looked. He gave a low whistle. “No, I’ve never been up here before,” he confessed. “Quite a view, huh?”

“Yes, it is,” Nicolás agreed. He pushed his sleeve back and glanced at his watch, the gold band glittering in the light from the chandelier overhead. “You must excuse me, both of you.”

“Of course,” Peter agreed. “It was good of you to stop and say hello.”

“My pleasure,” Nicolás murmured. He turned to Calli and bent his head. “Miss Munro.”

“Goodbye,” she said politely.

He moved to the front door, said something to the waitress that made her giggle with her tray covering her mouth and shut the heavy door behind him. He didn’t look back.

As it should be, Calli told herself.

Yet she could still feel the imprint of his hand on her breast, the feel of his heart beating against her back. Her sleep would be as broken tonight as it had been for the last two nights.

“Could you please take me home, Peter?” she asked.

* * * * *

Peter dropped her outside the apartment. She did not invite him in. Her silence on the way home conveyed her mood, for he did not attempt to kiss her. He simply braked and put the car in neutral, the engine running, his hand on the gear stick.

“Thank you for dinner,” Calli said, as the enormous weariness wrapped about her once more.

“No problem. Thanks for your company,” he said. “Calli, did Escobedo say something to you? Something that upset you?”

“Why?” she asked.

“You’ve been silent ever since. What happened?”

“He was polite.”

“He invariably is polite,” he agreed. “That doesn’t mean what he’s saying doesn’t mean anything.”

“He said nothing of significance. The view, the fiesta, Vistaria’s wonderful future with the discovery of silver.”

“All politically correct.” It sounded like Peter sneered. It was too dark to check.

One of the black taxis common around Vistaria pulled up in front of them. The back door opened. Minnie nearly fell out of the back seat, laughing. With her hand on the door she righted herself and stood up, pushing her clingy jersey dress down from around her hips to hang properly. It didn’t seem to bother her that she was spot-lit by Peter’s headlights. A long trouser-encased leg pushed out of the taxi beside her, then Duardo uncurled himself from the back seat. He kept his head bent down, talking to the driver, waving his hand for emphasis.

“That’s Minnie, isn’t it?” Peter said.

“Yes.”

Minnie turned to face Duardo, both of them standing in the angle between the open door and the side of the taxi. Duardo caught her face in his hands and kissed her hard and passionately as her arms curled around his neck. He grasped her thigh, drawing her leg up against his hip. The dress rode up her leg, revealing most of her thigh and the start of her bare buttock. At the same time his lips moved down her throat to the top of her breasts, revealed by the scoop neck of the dress. The hand on her leg slid around the curve of thigh to cup her buttock, his sunburned, olive fingers a sharp contrast to her pale white flesh.

Peter made a hissing sound between his teeth. “Jesus, Minnie,” he murmured. “Who is that guy, anyway?” he demanded.

“He’s okay,” Calli said. “He’s a nice guy.”

“I bet.”

The pair kissed again, lingering. Calli didn’t want to get out of Peter’s car and alert them to witnesses. She cleared her throat, unsure what to do except wait out their passionate goodbye.

The taxi driver was not so patient. He tooted his horn.

Minnie pulled her mouth from Duardo’s and appeared to chuckle. Duardo spoke, gave her another quick kiss and let her go. She stepped back as he climbed back into the taxi. She waved as it pulled away.

Calli got out of the car and shut the door. Minnie turned to smile at her as Peter drove past. Calli didn’t wave.

“You look like you’ve been eating lemons,” Minnie said.

“I’m very tired,” Calli confessed.

“You’re also damn early and you don’t look like you had a good time.”

“I didn’t,” she confessed. “It was wretched.”

“Ah. Then Peter’s the jerk I always thought him to be.” Minnie shrugged and turned toward the apartment.

“You had a good time, though, I can tell.”

“Mmm.”

“Where did you go?”

Minnie laughed. “We planned to go to a night club with the others, only we never got there. We found a little bistro and then afterwards, well…” She gave a gusty sigh and ran her hand through her hair.

“I assume the goodbye kiss we saw was a mild rendition of the rest of the evening,” Calli said.

“Oh, yeah.” Minnie laughed as she unlocked the front door and pushed it aside. “I gotta get some sleep. I’m exhausted.”

* * * * *

Calli’s prediction about her own sleep proved correct. It was restless, shot through with dreams either erotic or downright disturbing—charged with a sense of impending doom. In the lucid moments of wakefulness between nightmares, she told herself her subconscious understood the danger of entertaining even in her imagination any relationship with Nicolás Escobedo.

Close to dawn, exhausted, she dropped into a dreamless, heavy sleep. When she woke only slightly refreshed, her exhaustion cemented her intention to avoid any more contact with the man.

Then she saw the white lily lying on the untouched pillow beside hers and her blood turned to ice water.

It hadn’t been there when she had gone to bed.


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