It was another six months almost to the day before Rafael finally revealed to Eva everything he knew about Helen’s disappearance.
After that first ride, Eva took to riding with Rafael every day the weather permitted as soon as the Blanco’s’ limousine left and the children were with the tutor. They would ride for several hours, always returning by lunchtime. Rafael did most of the talking and Eva listened. She liked him. He was handsome, earnest, charming, and it was obvious to Eva that he was smitten with her. He looked at her constantly and took every opportunity to help her on or off the horse, to touch her hand, her shoulder, her arm. Whenever he had the opportunity, he would stare deeply into Eva’s eyes until she would break the gaze between them by glancing away.
One morning, about a month or so after their riding ritual had begun, Rafael led General Villa out of the barn without Molly.
“Where’s my horse?” said Eva. She was amused without knowing why.
“Oh,” he said, shaking his head regrettably, “Molly has a sore leg. I don’t think you should ride her today. We can both ride on General Villa. He’s very strong. He can carry both of us. Come on, it will be fun.” He smiled, stretched his arm forward to take her hand, and the glint in his eye expanded as she moved forward and accepted his invitation.
Mounting behind him, Eva put her arms around his waist and felt the muscles in his abdomen tighten. She had never been this close to Rafael before. His shoulders were broader than she had previously realized, his hair even darker and thicker, and he smelled as clean and fresh as if he had just stepped out of a shower.
The horse began at a slow trot, but as Rafael gradually urged the stallion to sprint Eva tightened her grip around his waist. The faster the horse ran the tighter she squeezed and the more exhilarated she felt. The speed of the stallion tossed her hair as if she was racing inside a wind tunnel; the thrill of the ride soared for her with every mile they traveled. The hoof beats pounded the dirt road relentlessly and with her arms around Rafael Eva was as carefree as if she were once again the little girl riding a painted merry-go-round pony with her parents adoringly standing either side of her. Eva rested her head firmly on Rafael’s strong back, closed her eyes, and hugged him warmly.
They rested the horse after the first thirty minutes. While General Villa grazed peacefully on small patches of grass, they sat with their backs against a large oak tree. Eva watched a squirrel feverishly running back and forth in and out of an abandoned well, which sat twenty or so yards away from them. The squirrel would stand on its hind legs perfectly still each time he came from inside the well to insure that Eva and Rafael had not moved; once satisfied, he would return to his mission.
“How did you come here?” Rafael asked her, snatching a twig off the ground and placing it in his mouth.
Eva briefly explained that she had not liked her boss at the restaurant in Las Vegas and accepted the Blanco’s’ offer of a job as an au pair. “How about you?” she asked. “How did you get here?”
“We were here first,” he stated. Yanking the twig from his mouth, he cracked it in half and tossed it aside. “My father used to own a small hacienda on the same spot where we now live in that barn,” he said. Bitterness and contempt were noticeable in his voice.
“What happened?” she asked, watching his face grow indignant.
“I was eight years old when lawyers and police came to our house and told us we could no longer live there. The property was being ‘condemned’ they said. My father argued with them as best he could and they went away. My father thought we were safe, but we were not. Next time my father and I drove the truck to town to sell some of our cabbages men drove up next to us and forced my father’s truck off the road and into the ditch. We had to walk home, which took hours, and when we got there, my mother and sister were gone.”
“Si. Stolen, kidnapped. The lawyer was at the house, and he told us they were in Mexico and they would be beheaded unless my father agreed to surrender his land. A few days later, men showed up and began building the big house and the grounds, and they knocked down our house and put up the barn in its place. Then Carmella’s old man and his wife and Carmella moved into the big house and took it over. After a few years the old man died and Carmella’s mother returned to Colombia to live. Carmella stayed here and took over everything. Then she married Juan.”
A sickening knot grew in Eva’s stomach. “Didn’t you ever go to the police?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “My father was too afraid they would kill my mother and sister. Besides, police would not have listened to us. They would not have helped us.”
“How do you know? How can you be so sure?” Eva argued.
“At first I wasn’t, but I am now,” Rafael said, holding her gaze.
“When my English got better and I could understand the newspaper, I saw a picture of the man who had come to our house. The words under his picture said he was the state attorney general.”
“But, that was years ago?” Eva protested. “Maybe he’s gone now.”
Rafael smiled mockingly. “He’s not gone. Now he’s the governor.”
Eva saw the hatred in Rafael’s face. “Are you sure they’re even still . . .” she swallowed, “living?”
He nodded. “We get letters from them every three or four months. They come with the shipments. The letters never say where they are or what they are doing. We just know they are still alive. My mother’s letters talk about praying every day that we will all be together again. My sister’s letters are much meaner; you can tell she writes with hate in her heart, but she is careful not to threaten. They must read the letters before we get them.”
Eva blinked away tears. “I’m so sorry, Rafael,” she said.
His expression softened into the suggestion of a delicate smile. “I know you are,” he said, reaching out his hand toward her. “My mother would like you,” he said. “You are nice,” he said after a moment, adding, “and beautiful.”
Eva accepted his hand as they both leaned forward to kiss. The kiss lingered and they embraced with tender passion until gradually, regretfully, parting. Eva stared into Rafael’s large, brown eyes and saw in them the longing and honesty waiting for her. Eva felt invigorated and more alive than she had since before her parents’ death. Is this what love feels like? She wondered. Does he love me? Do I love him?
As he began to take her in his arms again, Eva placed her hand softly on his chest and stopped him. “You do know what happened to Helen don’t you, Rafael?” she asked directly.
“Did she get away?” Eva tingled at the prospect of breaking her solid gold chains and living free from Carmella’s lust and tyranny, and Juan’s cruelty and callousness. “She escaped, didn’t she?” She squeezed his arm gently. “How did she do it?”
He dissolved into melancholy and shook his head. “She did not escape,” he said faintly. “She’s still here.”