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
“You’re not paying attention, are you?” Minnie said, looking over the top of the shimmering dress she held for Calli’s inspection.
Calli blinked away the sense memory of last night’s persistent dream images one more time and forced herself back to reality. She looked at the bright patterns, the predominance of red in the abstract swirls of the dress. “Not my color at all.”
“Not you. Me.” Minnie held it against herself.
“You, certainly,” Calli agreed.
“For tonight, do you think?”
“Tonight? What’s on tonight?”
Minnie rolled her eyes. “I told you. Twenty minutes ago. You agreed, don’t you remember?”
“I did? To what?”
“Tonight. The party. Duardo and his friends.”
“Duardo?” Calli’s scattered thoughts congealed into a cold whole. “You mean the soldier Duardo? From last night?” Horror filled her. “Minnie, did you give him your phone number or…or…?”
“God, relax Calli. Sometimes you treat me like I’m still eighteen and giggling about dates. He invited me last night—actually, me and a friend, because I said I wouldn’t meet him somewhere alone.”
“That sounds saner. Only, I keep hearing how little Vistarians like Americans. Do you know how close Vistaria is to outright revolution? What if this Duardo is part of some rebel faction?”
Minnie gave a low peel of laughter, shoved the dress back on the rack and flipped through more hangers. “Not Duardo,” she said with complete certainty. Her voice held the same firm confidence as it had when she had explained the local use of el colinas.
“Yes, you understand how things work, here. Only, what makes you certain he’s not into something dire and nasty? You have no idea who he is.”
“I know he’s an admirer of the Red Leopard, so of course he’s not a rebel.”
Calli shoved the dress she had been inspecting back onto the rack. “Who the hell is the Red Leopard?”
“Why are you getting angry?”
Calli cast about for a reasonable answer to Minnie’s reasonable question. She had to dig hard. “I don’t like not knowing what’s going on,” she muttered.
Minnie smiled. “You’ve been buried too long on your campus. You’re out of your comfort zone. It’ll do you good.”
“I like my comfort zone.”
“Dull, boring. Deadly.”
“Shut up.” Calli’s demand was a token one. She couldn’t think of a better answer.
Minnie laughed again. She moved around the dress rack and tucked her hand under Calli’s elbow. “You need a long, cool margarita under a shady patio with a view of the ocean.”
“I need sleep,” Calli countered.
“Siesta. I can arrange that, too. First, the drink.” Minnie tugged on her arm. “Come on.”
* * * * *
The patio was shady and faced the deep, blue Pacific Ocean. A cool breeze, laden with salt, flapped the spice-colored tablecloth. Calli turned her face into it, enjoying the moist wind. They had climbed a dozen stairs to reach the patio. The patio was higher than the buildings across the road. The ocean was visible. The ground sloped towards the sea.
“The ocean looks wonderful,” Calli confessed. “I wish we were going down there afterwards. It feels as though we’ve done nothing but climb, today.”
“The city is right next to mountains. What else did you expect?”
“To go down at least fifty percent of the time.”
Minnie grinned. “They say here that if you get tired climbing the hills, you can always lean against them.”
Two huge margaritas arrived, along with a platter of rolled tortillas surrounded by tomato slices, sour cream and green salsa.
“We didn’t order this,” Calli said.
“What’s this?” Minnie asked the waiter. She pointed at the tortillas. “Qué?”
“Sí.” The waiter pointed to a table at the far end of the patio where three men sat with a bottle of tequila between them. A woman was with them, wearing a modern business skirt and silky blouse. One man—young, with bright, happy eyes—lifted his shot glass toward them.
Minnie smiled and shook her head, a hand over her heart. “Please take them back,” she told the waiter. “We just want to have a quiet drink.”
The waiter looked at the man at the other table, shrugged and picked up the platter.
The man called out something. He motioned that the waiter should put the platter down, then got to his feet and bowed from the waist. With deliberate, exaggerated motions, he turned his chair to face the table of men, his back to them. He would leave them alone, despite his gift.
“Oh, the darling,” Minnie breathed.
“How do you do that?” Calli asked, rubbing her temple. She took a sip of the margarita. Delicious and with just the right degree of kick—featherweight—for this heat.
“Get them to leave you alone after you’ve hooked them and drawn them in?”
“No idea,” Minnie admitted. “They just seem to understand.”
Minnie waved towards the table where they talked with their heads together, not taking the slightest notice of them now. “Apparently.”
“I wish I’d had you with me last night,” Calli muttered.
“It didn’t occur to you that the men just wanted fun?”
“Groping is fun?”
“Groping is a compliment. The men here, they see, they like, they do something about it. It’s refreshing. You know where you stand.”
The images from her dream zinged back into Calli’s mind. They were faded now and losing their edge, yet still had the power to catch her breath and make her pause. She remembered to breathe again and picked up one of the tortilla wraps. “I bet you do,” she replied to Minnie and took a bite.
Minnie tilted her head. “When are you going to forgive the race of men for what that bastard did to you? They’re not all tarred with the same brush.”
Calli choked on the mouthful of tortilla as the spice hit the back of her mouth, her tongue and her lips. Afraid to take a breath lest her mouth burst into flames, she sat with the morsel on her tongue, not sure if she could swallow it. What would it do to her stomach? Tears blurred her vision.
“Swallow, then suck on the tomato,” Minnie advised, pushing a napkin into her hand.
Calli swallowed, then reached for the margarita.
“No, the tomato. Trust me.” Minnie took the glass from her. “That will make it worse.”
Calli grabbed a slice of the tomato and stuffed it into her mouth. She was astonished by the instant relief. “Oh my God!” she said, when at last she could draw breath. “Do Vistarians have cast iron stomachs? Metal linings in their mouths? I think my lips have gone numb.” She prodded them experimentally.
Minnie smiled and took the rest of the tortilla from Calli. “Excuse fingers,” she said as she unrolled it. Along the row of spicy meat and vegetables inside she dabbed big dollops of sour cream and a line of the green salsa. Then she rolled up the tortilla and handed it back. “Try that.”
“Is it safe?”
Minnie merely sipped her drink with a smile.
Calli took a bite. The cream and salsa, which had a fruity flavor, dulled the fire of the meat and vegetables. She could enjoy the flavor and chew before swallowing. She still reached for the tomato, though.
“Why are you doing this, Calli?” Minnie asked, as she unrolled a tortilla of her own and added the fillings. “Robert wasted the first half of your life. Why let him destroy the rest of it by holding a grudge that stops you from enjoying yourself?”
Calli avoided answering. She took another bite of her tortilla. This time, she enjoyed the sharp flavor of the spices. She’d had Mexican food before. These spices were different. Fresh or green, or something. After mulling over the differences, she took another sip of her drink, then said to Minnie, “Tell me about the Red Leopard.”
Minnie pursed her lips, then sighed. “Okay. Serves me right.” She ran her hands through her short hair, ruffling it and patting it into order again. “I don’t know who he is.”
“You said—” Calli began.
“I said,” Minnie overrode her, “that I don’t know who he is. I don’t. I do know all about him, though.”
“Give. Why does Duardo admire him? Why does that mean Duardo can’t be a rebel?” She shook her head. “The Red Leopard,” she quoted. “Isn’t it a bit ridiculous? The name? Who outside the movies goes around with a name like that?”
“He doesn’t call himself that. The soldiers that like him do because that’s what he is. A leopard.”
“He’s in the army?”
“Don’t think so. I think that’s part of why they like him. He’s no man’s servant and master of none. He has no official position yet he has influence. Power. He gets things done. He is everywhere at once. Watching them, keeping them on their toes. He’s sharp, doesn’t miss anything.”
“It still sounds like a fairytale.”
“Yeah, it does a bit, only Duardo didn’t say he was a myth. He’s seen him a few times and wanted to see him again. That’s why he hurried to the police station. By the time he got there, el leopardo had gone—poof! He’d prowled in and slinked out.”
Calli almost knocked her drink over as Minnie spoke. She gripped Minnie’s arm. “He was there last night?” She rubbed her temple, trying to recall the muttered Spanish she’d heard just before she’d whirled to confront the man with the red hair. “What did you call him?”
“Yes. That’s ‘the leopard’. Red, though…” She dived for her newly purchased dictionary.
“Rojo,” Minnie supplied. “El leopardo rojo.”
Calli laughed. “Rojo…Roger. That’s what they said last night. I thought they were calling him Roger.”
Minnie’s eyes shone. “You met him? The Red Leopard?”
Another bubble of mirth welled up inside her. “No wonder the soldier at the desk retrieved my bag. He didn’t want Uncle Josh to bring the Red Leopard down on him again. I knew the guy had power. I just didn’t suspect…”
“So who is he?” Minnie begged. “Duardo wouldn’t tell me. They say it’s a mark of respect to not speak of his real identity, even though they all know. He wouldn’t tell me no matter how much I asked. You will, though. Tell me who he is.”
Calli shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me either. He refused.”
Minnie banged the table with her tiny fist. “Damn! This thing is driving me crazy. I’ve been trying to find out who he is for days. All the soldiers are the same. El zippo on his real name.”
“How many soldiers have you been talking to about this?” Calli asked, alarmed.
“A few. Any of them that would talk to me.”
“You can’t go around bugging them about this. If this Red Leopard man wants his identity kept quiet, then they won’t appreciate you, an American, trying to dig it up. Promise me you won’t do it anymore.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s just casual chat.”
“To you. Not to them. Promise me,” Calli insisted.
Minnie studied her, trying to judge how serious she was. She sighed and dropped her napkin on the table. “Oh, all right. No more questions.” She planted her chin on her fist and pouted for a moment. Calli knew the pout was more for effect than a genuine sulkiness. Minnie was too even-tempered to ever truly sulk. Pouting was how she teased Calli for being, in Minnie’s opinion, a stick-in-the-mud. True to form, Minnie brightened and sat up. “We’ll be surrounded by the military tonight,” she said. “Maybe we won’t have to ask. Maybe we can just keep our ears pinned back and we’ll hear something.”
“In that mashed Spanish they use?” Calli pointed out.
“Okay, see something then,” Minnie amended. “Come on, let’s go get that dress we saw. It’s just the thing for tonight.” She pulled the big Vistarian bills out of her bag, counted off enough to cover the drinks and dropped them on the table.
Calli followed Minnie down the steps to the road and the walk back to the shopping area, as mental weight dropped from her shoulders. She was learning, making connections, figuring out the lay of the land. She must stay in Vistaria. Josh’s stress and everything she had learned since arriving told her she was needed. If she must stay, learning everything she could about this strange place would reduce the fish-out-of-water sensation that bothered her.
Perhaps Minnie was right. Perhaps being pushed out of her comfort zone for a while would be good for her.
With her new knowledge came a reassurance that she would never see him again. No one who worked to keep his identity a secret would move freely around the city, out in the public.
“Can we find me a dress, too?” she complained to Minnie as she strode to catch up with her cousin.
* * * * *
Callie realized five hours later that allowing Minnie to help with clothes shopping meant buying something she wouldn’t have considered if she had been on her own.
Her lack of wardrobe forced her to wear the aquamarine gown.
She had been happy with the dress in the store. Minnie had pounced on it where it hung and insisted it would be perfect for Calli. As usual, Minnie had been right. It had fit well, the color intensified the green of her eyes and the layers of chiffon gave the whole outfit a delicate appearance that offset her height. She had liked the effect in the store mirror.
That had been before they had reached el Hotel Imperial.
Duardo waited in the cavernous foyer with its white stone walls, gorgeous Persian carpets and heavy mahogany furniture. He wore what Calli assumed was the formal dress uniform of the Vistarian army—dark green pants, a white dress shirt and waist-length jacket. The cut reminded her of the black costumes the men had been wearing last evening. She had seen hundreds more of them on their way to the hotel. At the neck Duardo wore a green and red ribbon in a flat, formalized knot, with a gold pin through the middle. The breast of his jacket held a row of medals and ribbons. Black stripes on the sleeves of the jacket replicated the red ones he had been wearing when Calli met him.
He walked towards them and Minnie sighed, coming to a halt. “Now isn’t that the sexiest man alive?” she murmured to Calli.
Duardo smiled at them both. “My pleasure it is to see you again this evening.” He came to formal attention in front of them and bowed from the waist in greeting to Calli. He did the same to Minnie, then reached into his jacket and withdrew a single blood-red carnation and presented it to her.
“Oh, how lovely!” she declared.
He lifted a finger towards her hair. “For your hair.”
She laughed and ran her fingers through her hair. “It’s not long enough to hold a flower.”
He laughed, too. “I forgot. I only remember your eyes and that red is your color.”
“Never mind,” she said. “I know just where to put it.” She broke off all but an inch of stem and pushed the flower into her cleavage, so it nestled between her breasts and the low vee of her gown. The flower matched the color of the swirls on her dress.
“Perfection,” Duardo declared, studying the effect with close attention.
Calli hid her smile and surveyed the hotel. It was an older building. It was well-maintained and reeked of money. The few women in the foyer glittered with jewels and costly dresses. Every man there, except for hotel staff, wore military dress. There was not a single civilian male in sight.
“What is the party for?” Calli asked Duardo.
“Tonight is the birthday party for our beloved General Maxim Blanco Alonso,” Duardo answered with pride.
“Nothing to do with the fiesta then?”
“Most certainly not. General Blanco is very…correct. Very…” He tugged on the bottom of his jacket. “Un perfecto caballero.”
Calli got the sense of his meaning from the tug of his jacket and the squaring of his shoulders. Upright, dignified. Proper. A gentleman. “Best bibs and tuckers and all that?” she asked with a mock English accent.
“Qué?” Duardo asked.
“Nothing,” she assured him. “Forget it. I’m teasing.” Calli was glad, now, Minnie had insisted on buying the gown she wore. Minnie had assured her Vistarians were formal in the evenings. Calli hadn’t understood what she meant. Now she did.
“Shall we?” Duardo asked, holding out his arms to them.
Calli let her fingers rest inside his elbow. They walked around the islands of low, heavy furniture in the center of the foyer toward a grand archway framing a stone staircase. Many more people ascended the stairs ahead of them. Most of them wore uniforms and seemed to know each other.
They climbed the staircase a step at a time, for progress at the top was slow. Duardo and Minnie chatted in low voices, laughing and taking no notice of their surroundings. Duardo had his hand on Minnie’s waist. Calli looked behind her when they paused for a longer moment, halfway up the flight. The stairs were thick with dark-haired, olive-skinned men and a few Vistarian women. Calli glanced at Minnie. Despite her dark hair and petite stature, Minnie was a sharp contrast to everyone else. Her skin was pale and her pixie-like features and huge eyes with their pale brown coloring marked her as foreign. A stranger. The only non-Vistarian standing on the staircase except for Calli herself.
Calli considered the effect of her own gown and coloring. Straw-blonde hair, white skin, green eyes and a gown that added to the effect of insubstantial lightness. She pressed her lips together, her heart fluttering. She must stand out like sore thumb amongst these people.
Uncomfortable, Calli worried it over as they ascended the last few stairs and arrived before the big doors that were their destination. In her heels, Calli was as tall as many of the men. She could see between heads and through the doors. A formal greeting line was causing the delay.
Beyond the line was a large ballroom, decorated in red and green bunting, plus the blue Wisteria color that must be Vistaria’s national color. More people waited inside. More soldiers. More dark-eyed, sultry Vistarian women.
Calli leaned over and caught Minnie’s eye. “What have you got us into?” she whispered.
“Only the party of the year,” Minnie assured her.
“Screw that. Do you realize we’re the only Americans here?”
Minnie looked puzzled. “So?”
Duardo patted Calli’s fingers where they rested on the inside of his arm. “It will be alright,” he assured her. “You are with me.”
“Duardo, no offense, but I got chucked in jail last night because your fellow Vistarians took exception to me being in their country. Now we’re stepping inside a room full of patriotic Vistarians.”
“These are good Vistarians.” He was frowning, now, too. “They know Americans help us. They would not be rude.”
Only slightly mollified, Calli allowed him to draw her forward, through the double doors and into the line of guests being received. Duardo, perhaps sensing her distress, did not chat with Minnie and leave Calli to her thoughts. Instead, he spoke to them both.
“General Blanco is a great man. He has been leading the army under President Escobedo’s direction for twelve years. Every year he has a big birthday party. Officers who have been honored throughout the year come and celebrate with him. It is a very important evening. Soldiers work hard to be chosen, so they will be invited here.”
“That’s you, right, Duardo?” Minnie asked. “You were honored?”
“Yes. I am chosen.”
“What did you do?” Calli asked.
For the first time she saw his upbeat mood slip. His smile faded. “It was small. Nothing.”
She didn’t need a neon sign to know Duardo did not want to talk about it. “Okay,” she murmured.
“What’s nothing?” Minnie persisted. “What did you do?”
“I helped defend Vistaria. A little thing. You would be bored with the talk of it,” he assured her, with his smile turned to full incandescence.
The smile dazzled her as he had intended it to do, for Minnie smiled back. “You’re a hero, then.”
They reached the front of the formal greeting line. Duardo stood ramrod straight and held out his hand to shake it with the first officer in the line. “Captain Eduardo Peña y Santos, señor.”
The officer shook his hand and spoke—formal Spanish, Calli realized, pleased her ear could already distinguish between the day-to-day mongrel they used and proper Spanish.
Duardo pulled Calli forward. “Major, may I present Miss Callida Munro, and Miss Minerva Benning. Miss Benning’s father, Miss Munro’s uncle, Joshua Benning, is the project manager of the Garrido Silver Mine on Las Piedras Grandes. Calli, Minnie, this is Major Alvarez, my commanding officer.”
“Miss Munro, Miss Benning,” the major murmured, dipping his head forward in a short little bow. He did not smile and Calli guessed he didn’t like his junior officer with two American women on his arms. Nor did he offer his hand. Men did not shake hands with women, in Vistaria.
Calli tried to smile. She and murmured hello. Duardo stepped to the next person in line, a stout man in his fifties with a chest full of ribbons and gold braid everywhere. Undoubtedly, this was the beloved General Blanco.
Calli looked ahead to the next person in the line. Her thoughts scattered and her heart seized in her chest.
Dark red hair, indigo eyes. He spoke to the person whose hand he shook, a small polite smile on his face. Him.
Her hearing faded, the noise in the room blanketed to a dull far-off roar. Her heart beat, hard and heavy, while her breathing was loud. Excitement gripped her, even as dismay settled into her bones. This was the man she had beggared herself in front. Despite her mortification, she studied him hungrily. He wore a normal black tuxedo and a white shirt. Was it silk? her treacherous mind whispered and her hand itched to investigate. One step and she could touch him. Only five feet separated them.
Had he seen her yet?
“…Miss Callida Munro, General,” Duardo finished and Calli dragged, ripped, pummeled her attention back the man standing before her. The general favored her with a beaming smile, took her hand and bowed over it. “You are most welcome in my country, Miss Munro.”
“Thank you.” Her concern about being a hated American was scattered by her exhilaration. Breathlessly, she anticipated the next few seconds when he would turn to greet her and see it was she. What would he do?
Duardo moved forward. They were done with the General. His turn next.
Remember this is not the man from your dreams. They’re not the same. It was a useless reminder. He had prompted the dreams that haunted her all day. She was helpless to prevent her response now.
Even Duardo squared his shoulders and lifted his chest. His head remained turned while he spoke to the officer in front of them in the line. In a moment he would turn to them.
He turned and smiled at Duardo. His glance did not even flicker toward her.
“Captain Peña, you made it. All the way from Pascuallita and during fiesta, too. I am sure General Blanco appreciates your efforts.”
Her heart leapt. He spoke English! He would only do that if he had noticed her. Had he seen her before she had seen him?
“Señor, I would not miss this night for Chinese tea,” Duardo answered. He indicated Minnie on his left. “May I present to you Miss Minerva Benning, a friend of mine.”
Calli watched his hand encase Minnie’s tiny one, the long fingers curling right around it.
“Minnie, this is Señor Nicolás Escobedo.”
Escobedo. The name throbbed in Calli’s mind. She recalled Uncle Josh’s words. Escobedo’s country.
“Hi there, señor,” Minnie offered in response as he shook her hand.
He smiled, humor lighting his face. “Hi there yourself, Miss Benning. I see you have made an effective assault upon Vistaria’s military.” His gravelly voice was low and pleasant. “Are you enjoying your stay here?”
Minnie glanced up at Duardo. “I am now.”
Duardo glowed with pride and excitement, his gaze never leaving the man standing before him. Calli caught her breath, remembering now what Minnie had said: “He wanted to see him again. That’s why he had hurried to the police station, only by the time he’d got there, el leopardo had gone.”
The Red Leopard. Nicolás Escobedo.
Calli’s analytical mind had always driven Robert mad, while delighting professors with its clarity and precision. She daily grappled with slippery economic equations. Now she analyzed the facts with dispassionate ease. His significant name. That he stood in a receiving line with the top military personnel of the country. Nicolás Escobedo had to be a member of the presidential family. That would make him untouchable.
Her delight cooled and dispersed, swept away by the chill of reality. She remembered the miniscule shake of his head, his rejection. He had known then what she realized only now.
Duardo presented her. He was looking at her now. He gave not a single hint they had met previously. He took her hand and gave the same bow over it as the general. His warm fingers smoothed their way over the back of her hand, sliding across the flesh there. Despite the cold lead weight in her stomach, pleasure rippled from that tiny, unconscious caress. She took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.
“Miss Munro. When I studied in your country, people called me Nick. It would please me if you would also call me Nick. Vistarians do not say it the way Americans do.”
“What did you study?” Minnie asked.
“Philosophy,” he supplied. He glanced at Calli. She thought she saw a flicker of humor in his eyes. “I minored in Economics,” he added.
Then they had to move along.
“Enjoy yourselves,” he said, in parting.
* * * * *
Duardo escorted them to a large, round table where six fellow officers and three women sat. He introduced Calli and Minnie to them. Calli saw no sign of hesitation or discomfort in their welcomes. Everyone at the table ensured both she and Minnie had glasses of champagne within minutes of being seated.
The women spoke no English, except for the one called Elvira, whose English was disjointed, hesitant, and her accent thick. The other soldiers had varying degrees of broken English. Their smiles were friendly.
Soon a band began to play. It wasn’t the visceral, compelling music the small band had been playing last night, for this was a big ensemble. The noise level spiraled upwards. Couples danced as soon as the music started. There was no modest three or four tunes before someone shyly stepped onto the dance floor. Everyone scrambled to the floor as the first bars of music sounded.
It was a long time before Calli got the opportunity she waited for—Duardo on his own at the table, with only Minnie as witness.
“Duardo, you know Nicolás Escobedo?” Calli asked.
He shrugged. “Everyone does.”
“I don’t. He is related to the President?”
“He is el Presidente’s half-brother.”
“Half-brother?” Calli repeated. She thought it through. “That explains the red hair, those eyes.”
Duardo’s expression was wary. He knew where she took the conversation, then.
“He has no formal role in the government?” she asked.
“I see.” She glanced across the room where the general and his party sat at the long head table. Nicolás Escobedo was there. He bent his head, listening to the general with deep concentration. As far as Calli could tell, he had not glanced her way at all.
She looked at Duardo, who still watched her. “I know who he is.”
He shook his head. “Do not speak it.”
“Speak what?” Minnie asked.
Duardo’s preoccupation with the subject let him pick up Minnie’s hand and kiss it, like a man soothing a fretful child. “It is nothing.”
“You keep telling me that,” Minnie complained.
He stirred and shook off his mood. He glanced at Minnie. “We dance, yes?”
“Mmm, yes,” she agreed with a smile.
He glanced at her. “Excuse me, Miss Calli.” He stood to lead Minnie to the dance floor.
Calli sighed as they left her alone at the table and stole one more glance at Nicolás Escobedo. He was also standing, talking to an officer behind the general’s chair, one hand in his pocket.
She reached for the champagne and sipped, trying to quell the schoolgirl leap of joy because she knew his secret. He had warned her at the police station that the country was three steps away from violent revolution and Americans were unwelcome. Good reasons existed for secrecy, for quiet manipulations behind the scenes, for maintaining appearances. None of them quenched the rush of pleasure she experienced when he looked at her.
To even hope he might share those feelings was a fantasy more foolhardy than Minnie’s infatuation with an honorable soldier in the Vistarian army. Had Uncle Josh really thought Calli capable of watching out for his daughter?
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