“Damn, that’s a nice booty,” Oliver whispered in Pudica’s ear.
“Oliver, I heard that.” Aunt Betsy tapped him on the arm with the back of her hand and moved toward the railings, from where she had a view of the first floor. Two men in aprons walked across it, carrying trays of steak.
“What? She’s my wife,” said Oliver while Pudica giggled.
The girl expected her aunt to lecture her husband on his sexual innuendo. Instead, the woman pulled him by the wrists and let his arms fall around her.
“I can see how happy you make each other,” she said, bringing her niece into the hug.
“You do?” asked Pudica.
“You both haven’t stopped smiling. Before you came to stay with us, Oliver was constantly talking about work and clients, and I have yet to see him send one text.” Betsy winked.
“It’s true, but I might cheat a little.” Oliver squeezed the space between his left index and thumb, then raised his phone.
On the device, a live feed of the fitness center was streaming.
“Smart,” said his wife.
Aunt Betsy’s grinning lips switched to a neutral pose as Uncle Robert invaded the conversation. He rolled up his sleeves to match the humid Florida weather.
“Ready?” he addressed Oliver and walked toward the edge of the staircase.
Betsy made a loud sigh and stood behind the couple to avoid her husband.
“Hold on,” said Oliver. “I don’t mean to sound intrusive, but ya’ll need to make up already.”
“Ollie’s right. Uncle Robert, you’ve been ignoring me and Aunt Betsy for far too long.” Pudica moved aside, forcing her aunt and uncle to stare at each other.
Robert furrowed his brows and dusted his hair while glancing behind him. Oh no, he wasn’t escaping from this one. If he blamed his niece for his gunshot wound, they had to talk about it so they could make amends.
“I’m not ignoring you.” Robert swallowed and jogged downstairs. “I have a lot to think about, okay?”
That didn’t go as planned. How would they resolve their differences if he continued avoiding them? During the walk to the dining room, Betsy kept her eyes out of sight. Oliver patted her shoulder and let her know he was there if she needed someone. The woman was not speaking, however.
Mrs. Fanjul led a waitress toward the end of a gigantic table and had her place a serving bowl on a doily. Three men hurried out of the dining room with empty trays as she yelled at them to make the salad.
“Are my daughters here yet?” Mrs. Fanjul addressed Gut.
“They should be on their way. Ninel instructed me to tell you they are all using the same hairdresser since the virus shut down the beauty salons,” said the butler.
“That liar. They were procrastinating,” she said of her daughter, then noticed the newcomers and amplified a grin. “Buenas tardes,” she greeted the Darlings and the Hendricks, squeezing them between her enormous breast implants and smacking a loud kiss on their cheeks.
As the only non-Cubans in the room, Oliver and Robert winced at the stranger’s extreme affection; although Aunt Betsy’s grimace showed the extra touching wasn’t part of the culture.
“We’re here,” Ninel sang, swaying her perm into the dining room. Six tall teenagers tapped their colorful high heels behind her. None had the short stature, blonde hair, and hazel eyes that characterized the Fanjuls. Perhaps their brunette locks were as fake as Ninel’s curls. “Sister.” They cocooned Pudica and dragged her toward the end of the table, separating her from her family.
While Ninel sat across from Oliver, Pudica wondered if she would recognize him as the manager who kicked her out of his gym. Oliver shrugged and simpered at Pudica.
“Poo, you’ve met Ninel,” said Mrs. Fanjul from the opposite side. “She’s my firstborn. Then follows Yolis, Yorelis, Yoleidis, Yolieskis, Yomairelis, and—” Mrs. Fanjul made a tsk sound. “Agnes.”
“I’m fourteen, but I’m the tallest,” Agnes said proudly as she picked up a fork.
The bigger mystery was the Yoyos. Seven daughters and five shared the first syllable.
“Odd one out.” Yoleidis glanced at Agnes and began a chain of laughter amongst the sisters. The youngest sister lowered the fork by her plate and hid her hands under the table.
Noticing the young one’s embarrassment, Pudica diverted their attention.
“Nice to meet you all,” she said. “You’ll have to forgive me. My father’s lawyer only spoke of Ninel. I was unaware I had other sisters.”
Agnes vacuumed some air when Ninel elbowed her side.
“Let’s eat,” said Mrs. Fanjul, dropping a large scoop of rice and beans onto Pudica’s plate.
“And you did not invite me to your wedding,” Ninel addressed her half-sister, aiming five fingers at Oliver. “Is this your husband? Please, you must tell us how you met. Start to finish.”
Foremost in Pudica’s mind—and in the three that tagged along with her to Florida—why wasn’t anyone talking about the violent gang trying to murder them? Ninel and Yolanda might have been guarding the youngest girls from such frightening details. Still, an adults-only dinner was more appropriate.
“And can we see your wedding pictures?” asked Yorelis. This sister wasn’t as slender as the others.
“Ay, si, I want to see your wedding dress,” said Yolis, who pleasantly wore the least make-up.
“Well, um. It-it was a simple dress.” Pudica swallowed. Her relationship with Oliver was real, but she was ashamed to describe their unconventional, loveless wedding ceremony, even less the way they met.
“Simple!” Ninel tittered. “If I were as rich as you, yo tiro la casa por la ventana, am I right?” She turned to Oliver and Robert and translated her lingo. “Oh, it’s the Cuban equivalent to hardcore partying.”
“Claro, claro,” Yolieskis addressed Ninel with an understanding expression which quickly shifted to condescending. “It had to be simple because she married when she was penniless. If I was poor, I wouldn’t invite anyone to my wedding or take pictures. Ugh, it would be too embarrassing.”
Mrs. Fanjul and her daughters nodded at each other.
“Excuse me,” Aunt Betsy burst with the beginnings of a scolding.
“Actually.” Oliver coughed and held down his god-mother’s forearm, smiling at the hosts.
Desperate to defend her niece, Betsy frowned, watching Pudica’s red cheeks.
But Oliver continued. “It had to be, unfortunately, a quick ceremony since most guests had to stay home because of the virus. Despite having to discard a four-feet-tall cake and canceling our European honeymoon, my pudding was still the most beautiful bride in the world. Her dress was the price of a car, but it was worth it.”
The bride stuffed her mouth with steak, hiding her timorous face. She almost couldn’t smile as everyone gaped at her husband’s words.
“That’s adorable.” Ninel brought her hands to her chest. “Now you have to show us the pictures.”
Pudica held her breath. Oliver coughed, choking on his food. His god-father passed him a glass of water as the women stared at him.
“You okay?” asked Robert.
Oliver nodded then grinned at the Fanjul sisters. “Absolutely. I’ll message the wedding photographer. He’s been editing the pictures, so we have yet to receive them.”
Great save. They’ll forget about it by tomorrow.
“Excellent, I can’t wait to see them,” said Mrs. Fanjul, cutting into a cherry tomato. “Betsy, I haven’t heard from you. Does your husband know about your side of the family?”
Betsy wiped her chin with a napkin and sipped from a glass of water. “Uh, yes, he’s aware.”
“Good. It’s not awkward. I didn’t want my guests wondering why there is no alcohol at the table.”
More eyebrows met as Betsy kept her eyes on the plate.
“None of us drink, anyway,” said Robert.
“Boy, it must be hard living with a recovering alcoholic, knowing they could relapse at any moment,” said Ninel.
Pudica had to repeat the conversation in her mind. The day the house burned to the ground, Betsy had been drinking something. She even offered some to her niece. She couldn’t see how someone like Betsy could fall to an alcohol addiction.
Oliver looked just as stupefied.
“Oops, judging by your faces, I assume this is new to you,” Mrs. Fanjul addressed the newlyweds.
“I apologize, Betsy. I overstepped.” But Ninel’s voice sounded unapologetic.
“You think?” Betsy crumpled the tablecloth.
“It’s all right,” said Robert. “They were bound to find out at some point.”
“Yeah, but not like this,” argued Betsy.
Mrs. Fanjul scooped more rice and beans and dumped it on Pudica’s plate. “Very well. Moving on. Here, don’t be shy. With that body, this must be a snack for you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” said an insulted Pudica.
The Fanjuls’ non-stop slander was beginning to appear deliberate.
“I’ve had enough of you, Yolanda.” Betsy slewed her chair away from the table and punched down the air. “You haven’t changed. You’re the same stuck-up bitch from two decades ago. Humiliate me all you want, but Pudica should not pay for what I’ve done.”
The women gasped. Yolanda stood up.
“What a hypocrite!” said Mrs. Fanjul. “You act like a saint now, when you know what you did. All those meetings with my husband to talk about charity were nothing but a way to cover for your sister.”
Pudica scurried toward her aunt to offer comfort and, hopefully, drag her out of the confrontation before Yolanda could do any more damage.
“We didn’t come here for a story,” Oliver addressed Mrs. Fanjul. “So if you’re not willing to put your issues aside, don’t expect us to have a civilized dinner talk. I will not let you hurt my family.”
“You had meetings with him?” Robert spoke to Betsy, shaking his head. “You said you only saw him once.”
Robert hurtled out of the room while Aunt Betsy raced behind him, calling his name. Pudica grunted at Ninel and her mother, but she cared too much for her aunt and uncle to stay. She and Oliver stomped through a door and into the main hall where they found Aunt Betsy pleading with her husband.
“I love you, Rob,” said Betsy as tears inundated her face. “Don’t throw away all these years. I’ve never lied about my feelings for you.”
Robert yanked his arm from her grasp. The couple followed the frantic woman upstairs.
“I can’t live without you, please,” said Aunt Betsy while her husband escaped from her again.
The middle-aged man skipped past their bedroom and went into a balcony.
“You should have thought about the consequences years ago.” Robert’s voice echoed into the palm trees, disturbing the peaceful night sky.
“I did. That’s why I made us move to Texas,” said Betsy.
“You hid the most important thing from me and you continue to lie.”
“Because I’m scared.”
“Please, I don’t understand what’s going on, but I can’t watch you fight like this,” said Pudica.
“You love each other,” added Oliver. “That deserves enough respect for you both to have a normal conversation.”
Robert heaved. Betsy sniffled. The middle-aged couple stared into overflowing pools.
“If you love me, you’ll tell Pudica the truth,” Robert addressed his wife.
Betsy held her stomach and closed her eyes.
“Tell her,” said Robert.
The woman rotated slowly.
“Aunt Betsy?” said Pudica.
Her aunt raised her head slowly with trembling lips. “Pudica, you’re not my sister's daughter.”
The girl scanned the balcony as if there were other Pudicas in the world. Oliver held her upper back as she fell on a bench behind her.
“You're mine." Betsy stuttered. “I’m your mother.”