Much worse were Aunt Betsy’s fabricated tears. If Robert hadn’t forced her to confess, she would have taken the secret to the grave.
The revelation from her father’s tailor made sense. Francisco Fanjul had been cheating on his wife with Betsy. And she rejected him to be with Robert. If she wanted to keep her husband, she had to give up every reminder of Francisco, including her own daughter.
“I was eight years old when Pudica was born,” Oliver addressed Aunt Betsy. “I remember coming back to Texas with my parents during the winter, but you weren’t there. Uncle Robert said you went to visit with family. I never heard them talk about a pregnancy or you having a drinking problem.”
“Your parents helped us a lot,” said Betsy. “They kept me and Robert together until my sister drove me to a rehabilitation center here in Florida. Robert came to see me a couple times, but I felt so lonely—”
“Is that when you met my father?” asked Pudica.
The woman nodded. “He was an active donor to the program. Robert introduced us.”
“Why? Why? Why invite me into your house when you never cared for me,” the girl’s tone increased while a stab wound of betrayal burst open.
Betsy shook her head, refuting her daughter’s statement. Her torso leaned forward, then instead retreated to the balcony’s balustrade. Robert held his forehead and dropped beside Pudica.
“If you knew Mr. Fanjul, you must have known about the pregnancy,” Oliver told his god-father.
To discover the identity of Pudica’s dad had to make Robert suspicious, unless both Betsy and Melba—
“Francisco settled for no woman,” said Robert, clenching his jaw. “It wasn’t a secret to anyone, especially me. We were in the same college fraternity and I watched him cheat on all of his girlfriends. It just never crossed my mind years later, he would screw my wife and her sister.”
Betsy gripped the metal rods and wailed.
“Melba told me what she and Betsy did in Francisco’s beach house, in his study, in—” Robert winced, tumbling his shirt. His eyes turned into soft mirrors. “Anyway, telling me was Melba’s revenge on Francisco for choosing Betsy over her. After that, I divorced Betsy and didn’t see her for a year.”
“The year I was born. The year she gave me away.” Pudica shot out of the balcony to break free from everybody who hurt her. Running didn’t get rid of the cruelty of her parents. They didn’t want or love her; to Melba, she was the punishment to the man who used her, and the sins of her sister. By threatening Pudica with the wrath of God, she tamed the demons that once haunted her.
This was a strange room where her feet brought her. Towels, robes, and bottles of European creams laid on shelves. Strong chemical smells evicted her, so she pushed herself through a hatch leading to an indoor pool; a much quieter spot to cry.
A weeping echoed through the water and a deep, but soothing male voice mumbled beside her.
“Pudding, I’m here for you.”
Pudica launched her body over her husband as his arms offered comfort.
“I wish I could transfer your pain onto me, so you don’t have to carry it,” he said. “It kills me to see you cry.”
“They didn’t care about me. I was Betsy’s hindrance; a pebble in her shoe. It’s why Robert was ignoring me. He hates me.” Pudica’s sorrow dampened Oliver’s shirt.
Oliver found her gaze and lifted her wet chin. A hand pressed against her lower back and another traced the outline of her jaw. “No, pudding. Aunt Betsy made a mistake in the past, but she wants a chance at redemption. And Uncle Robert doesn’t hate you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I know them and I know you. No one could ever despise you. You—you’re so beautiful and innocent. You are the epitome of goodness.”
As he pulled her face for a kiss, she jolted him backward.
Innocent, a synonym of stupid. That’s what she had always been. Everyone she had ever trusted lied to her, and Oliver was no different. He hid the fact a divorce was possible, and he has hidden more since.
“You’re defending them.” She suspected him.
“I don’t want your heart to fill with resentment. That’s all. Trust me on this one.”
“You beseech me for trust when you refuse to tell me anything about your life. Why bother staying married to me when I had already covered your bills?”
All of Oliver’s facial muscles stretched except around his mouth. His nostrils widened and his ears raised. “I shared my dreams and my feelings with you. I shot a man for you. I said ‘I love you.’”
“You gave me the present and promised a future, yet I have half of you. I don’t believe you.” She rubbed her face and started walking away when he yanked her arm, making her angry. “Your parents died from Ebola in South Sudan. Sutton, your best friend, told me that. You joined a gang when you were a teen. I overheard a conversation between you and Betsy in the hotel. If I have to get to know my husband through other people, then I don’t wan’a stay married.”
“Pudica, stop!” Oliver didn’t let her flee from his grip. He locked his arms around her waist, freeing her limbs.
At the opportunity, she delivered her knuckles to his cheek, impelling him toward the edge of the pool. As he stumbled, he fluttered until his fingers hooked her cleavage and towed her into the serene water. Their bodies disturbed the liquid, splashing onto the dry floor. Pudica splattered while catching her breath.
“Ollie?” Her legs gave up in fear of her husband drowning.
A second passed and Oliver’s head spit water out of his mouth. He coughed in a disoriented state.
“Oh, my God, Ollie. I thought I killed you.” She swam a few feet and clung to him, kissing every inch of his face. Oliver continued coughing and began to shiver under the water.
She pulled him toward a nearby ladder and helped him climb up and out of the pool. At his failed attempt to stand upright, he balanced himself on his hands and knees while coughing droplets onto the floor. He continued shivering, so she ran toward the towel room and grabbed some supplies from the shelves.
This was the minute she realized, she had lost her heels, but her primary thought was to get Oliver to a warm and dry place. Both of her arms wrapped around his stomach, hauling him toward a lounger. His feet trudging to keep her pace.
“I’m so sorry.” She unbuttoned his shirt and unzipped his pants, removing every item of clothing.
He neither talked nor complained. His arms stretched down as his body shook.
The temperature enhanced Pudica’s disquietude. The water was equally pleasant to the warm room and the breeze was absent. She pulled the sleeves of a robe over Oliver’s arms and threw a towel around his neck.
“Ollie, please, say something,” she said, drying his face, hair, and ears.
His jaw quivered, and his cheek squeezed his eyes. “I—m-mu-murdered my pa-parents.”
She pushed strands of hair away from his forehead to see the truth in his eyes.
“But you were a child,” she said.
He closed his eyes, panting. His skin scalding to the touch. With the back of her hand, she checked his neck and his forehead. His ears turned concerningly red.
“I’ll take you to the bedroom, then I’ll get Uncle Robert.” The girl positioned his arm around her shoulder. The bodybuilder’s huge muscles crushed her, still the petite woman had strength to aid his walking.
“I h-have to t-t-tell you,” he stammered.
“I want you to tell me everything, but we need to get you better, okay?” She heaved him through a hall where they encountered two male workers, securing the windows before going to bed. Both men came to their aid and helped carry Oliver into his bedroom.
Pudica walked out of the bathroom in fresh clothes. She kept her eyes toward the bed, where Robert placed the end of his stethoscope on Oliver’s bare chest. A glimpse of Aunt Betsy caught her eye, but she swiftly turned her head and stood by the foot of the bed frame.
“Is it what I think it is?” she asked.
“Coronavirus is likely. Fever’s not too high though. There’s no reason to take him to the emergency at this time,” said Robert, prising the medical device off his ears.
Betsy sat on the edge of the mattress and held Oliver’s hand. “My baby, you’ll make it through this. You’re strong.”
“Betsy, you shouldn’t be touching him. Oliver’s symptoms are mild, but if you get the virus, it could kill you,” said Robert.
“I don’t care. I’m not leaving his side.”
A streak of jealousy swept through Pudica’s nerves. The woman whom God appointed as her mother had raised another person. What was wrong with Pudica? She wasn’t Robert’s offspring; well, Oliver wasn’t either. He had a contagious virus and Betsy caressed his face without fear of getting sick. She treated him like a son.
The middle-aged woman turned to her daughter. “Pudica.”
“I should tell Mrs. Fanjul about Oliver. They’ll have to cancel the party.” Pudica left the room in a flash. She deafened her ears to any word from Betsy’s mouth.
At the bottom of the stairs, she found Gut, giving instructions to a maid. The lady pushed a cart and nodded while rolling it away.
“Ah, Mrs. Darling, you are still awake,” he said.
“Right back at you. Don’t the employees get to go home at dawn?” Pudica asked out of curiosity.
“Yes, every day at four p.m. but there’s still much to do for tomorrow’s party.”
“A lot to do? For a small gathering? That doesn’t sound appropriate. Do you know where Mrs. Fanjul is? I must speak to her about this very subject.”
“I’m afraid you’ve just missed her, Mrs. Darling. She left for home.”
“I thought she lived here.”
During dinner, the hostess spoke in such a possessive form about the mansion, Pudica inferred she resided there.
“Mrs. Fanjul lives in a different home since her divorce from Mr. Fanjul. Ms. Ninel is here, however. She’s doing a last run in the kitchen,” said Gut.
“Yolanda omitted the divorce,” Pudica thought out loud.
“Oh, yes. She married the father of her youngest daughter, Agnes. He’s a Danish tycoon.”
“Agnes is not a Fanjul?”
“Only Ninel is a Fanjul as I’ve learned.”
Her father’s ex-wife made everyone believe the girls were Francisco’s daughters. Lying about insignificant things seemed like a pattern of Yolanda. It was least expected of a bully. Pudica understood why her father left most of his fortune to her. Even though the mansion belonged to the girl, Yolanda still insisted on calling her a guest and acting as if her name was on the millionaire’s estate.
“Interesting. Thank you, Gut. I’ll go talk to Ninel.”
While walking past him, Oliver’s words tsunamied all of her thoughts. Perhaps he was delirious when speaking of his parents’ death and didn’t mean to say murder. The day couldn’t be more mind-boggling.
At the end of a hallway, Pudica met a small, empty suburban kitchen before hearing a noise behind the double doors to her left. Upon her entrance, it was a whole industrial world; the kitchen every restaurant owner dreamed of having was in front of her eyes. Whoever built the mansion must have expected the proprietor to have many important and wealthy guests.
A row of men rolling sushi smiled at her and returned to work. Ninel’s high heels tapped over the clinging and sizzling sounds of cast-iron pans.
“Are you all done being mad about the past?” said Ninel.
“How did you expect us to react after the horrible treatment provided by your family?” said Pudica.
The half-sister glanced at the cooks and led the blonde back into the smaller kitchen. “Mom has issues, okay? How would you feel if you had to welcome your husband’s illegitimate daughter into your life?”
“Enough with the rhetorical questions,” said Pudica. “I came to tell you Oliver is sick.”
“Oliver? Oliver who?” Ninel crossed her arms and pushed her jaw forward.
Pudica rolled her eyes. “My husband. You met him earlier. Robert thinks he has coronavirus, so you have to cancel this celebration and inform the staff.”
“And you let him eat at the table with us. Irresponsible, pea-brain.” Ninel shook her limbs by her sides.
“He wasn’t having symptoms, then. Now, cancel the party. And stop calling me that.”
Yes, please. It was Pudica’s main wish since her arrival. Besides, they had yet to talk about the group of criminals who wanted her head. It caused them to decamp Texas in the first place.
“I’m not canceling for shit,” said Ninel.
“Ninel, there are empty streets as we speak because people are afraid to go outside. They won’t even show up to your party,” said Pudica. “And what’s the plan to get the Cuban mafia off our asses? Did you forget about that?”
Ninel pulled her sister farther from the double doors and clenched her teeth.
“The guests will come,” she whispered. “I was going to explain this to you tomorrow, but since you’re so annoying, here will do. Tomorrow’s company owes Papi a few favors. Now we don’t want to offend these powerful individuals, so we must make them feel welcomed. When the time is right, we’ll politely ask them to take care of the Cuban mafia for us.”
“That makes me nervous. What kinds of people get offended so easily?” The girl imagined the favors her sister addressed had to be of an illegal nature, and the guests weren’t from a respectable background. In essence, they were asking bad characters to eliminate other evil folk. “I don’t like this,” she added.
“Hence why I didn’t tell you,” replied Ninel.
“What do I do?”
“You let me speak to them. Just make sure you’re there.”
A wave or rising hairs started on Pudica’s legs, culminating with a spinning head. But she didn’t let her sister know. Instead, she agreed to whatever it was she said after and returned to her husband.