A dance of leaves composed a peaceful melody on the palm tree outside the window—the only sound in the bedroom. Oliver awoke to learn Pudica was not sleeping beside him. She might have gone to the bathroom or to get breakfast. By the wrinkless pillowcase, he knew she hadn’t slept there at all.
Into his mind, came running flashes of the previous days. He climbed off the mattress and stepped outside the room in his boxers. He frowned at the quietness and opened the door to his god-parents’ bedroom.
They were both sleeping in their pajamas. Strangely, they stayed in bed. The latest he had ever seen them wake up was at seven in the morning. The Florida sun announced noon.
He tapped Aunt Betsy’s shoulder and called her name.
“Eh?” Betsy hid her face under her forearm, protecting her eyes from the light.
Robert jumped out of the covers. He grabbed his stethoscope from the nightstand and patted himself with it.
“You okay?” Oliver frowned.
“Uh, Oliver, you’re out of bed. Any headaches, muscle pain?” Betsy acted as if she were the one having symptoms. She massaged her own arms.
“Somewhat hoarse. Other than that, I feel fine. Y'all look sick though,” said Oliver.
“The party.” Robert cringed. “Where’s Pudica?”
“I heard her last night, but she wasn’t with me this morning.” Oliver continued to dig into his memory.
“I asked the bartender for whiskey. He made me a cocktail. I started feeling a pressure in my head.”
“I guess you got too drunk and Pudica brought you here,” Betsy addressed Robert. “I don’t recall seeing you, though. I was getting more tea for myself, then I talked to Gut and anything after that is a blur.”
In all the years they lived together, Oliver had yet to witness his god-parents tipsy or drunk. Their slight memory loss contradicted their usual behavior. A pit formed in his stomach. He ran out of the bedroom looking for his wife.
“Oliver?” Betsy threw a silk robe around her shoulders and went after him.
Before he reached the hall that led to the staircase, the butler blocked passage and held his hands behind his back.
“Mr. Darling, you’ve recovered,” said Gut, bobbing his Adam’s apple.
“Where’s my wife?” Oliver had no interest in etiquette.
The butler fixed his collar. “I wanted to talk to you—”
If Gut hadn’t stepped aside, Oliver would have tornadoed over him.
“Sir, Mrs. Fanjul would like to meet you and your parents in her husband’s study. It’s regarding Mrs. Darling.”
Oliver spun back toward Gut. Betsy and Robert stood in the hall with deep trenches in their foreheads.
They had changed into casual clothing to not delay the meeting further. Was Pudica in her father’s study with Mrs. Fanjul? Why didn’t she wake her family herself?
Out of all the rooms in the mansion, Francisco Fanjul’s study was the only one decorated in a Victorian style. The sofa where Mrs. Fanjul drank her coffee was adorned with polished carvings of spiraling flowers. The caramel upholstery in front of purple drapes made the furniture look like pretentious thrones.
Ninel added a teaspoon of sugar to her cup and sat beside her mother.
Gut poured coffee in three teacups and served them to the guests. Hunger demanded they took a sip, so they didn’t decline.
Oliver shrugged at his god-parents, concerned about the unusually quiet hosts.
“Can you tell us what’s going on already?” he said, grinding his teeth.
Ninel touched her chest and rocked her chin. “I’m sorry. It’s so hard for me to start.”
“Agh, Cuban coffee.” Oliver twitched at the ultra-bitterness. In a reflex, he added more sugar to it, but left it on the table.
“I’m glad you like it. We got it from Havana.” Mrs. Fanjul tittered.
“We’re not here for the roast, Yolanda,” said Betsy, then she chugged the black liquid.
“Yes, we invited you here because—” Mrs. Fanjul swallowed.
“Oh, whatever. Pudica refuses to talk to any of you,” Ninel blurted and pulled a file from behind her. “She told me to give you this.”
Oliver read the sentence in bold as the woman dropped stapled sheets on his lap.
“What the hell? Those are divorce papers,” said Robert.
Betsy snooped over Oliver’s shoulder as he flipped the pages. All of them had Pudica’s signature on the bottom.
“I tried to convince her to tell you in person, I did,” said Ninel. “So tragic when you’ve just gotten married.”
“Did she give a reason?” asked Oliver in a neutral tone.
“Yes. After we introduced her to our friends at the party, we realized how well she fit in. She told me marrying you in such a rush was a mistake. And Betsy not telling her about her problem with alcohol was the catalyst. You were all bringing her down. She said that, not me.” Ninel never looked straight into Oliver’s eyes.
Oliver nodded slightly. He examined Mrs. Fanjul’s constant movement of her neck muscles, Ninel’s teacup covering her mouth as her lips moved, and the butler’s pulling of his sleeves. The documents showed no indications of a forged signature, but unless the Fanjuls facilitated the process, Pudica couldn’t have found a lawyer to craft her divorce so quickly.
He bent the paperwork and held it under his armpit. “Let’s go home.”
“No, we can’t leave without talking to Pudica,” said Betsy.
“She would be here if she wanted to see us.” Oliver stormed toward the door.
“So we’re just going to trust them?” The god-mother pointed at the Fanjul women.
Robert massaged Betsy’s shoulders and pushed her out of the room. “I think Pudica made up her mind.”
Betsy juddered. “No.”
“Stop it!” Oliver brandished his arm at her. “She doesn’t want me. It’s over.”
Betsy gasped. Her godson had never yelled at her; not even in his defiant teens. She glared at both men and bolted outside.
Oliver hurried after an angry Betsy. He couldn’t see her face, but her sniffles told him she was crying.
“Aunt Betsy,” he scream-whispered.
The woman wiped her cheeks, speeding down the hall. Her long legs made her swiftness look easy. But Robert was faster. He grabbed her arm and Oliver’s shoulder and shoved them into the bedroom where Pudica and Oliver had been staying.
“Lock the door.” The uncle whispered. Oliver did as he said.
Betsy frowned at their muttering and brisk steps. “Why are you both acting this way? Pudica leaving is mostly my fault, but we have to make sure she’s unharmed.”
“She’s not safe.” Oliver peeked through the curtains on the window. “That’s why we had to leave.”
“Does that mean you saw it, too?” said Robert.
“What?” Oliver began dragging his nightstand to the center of the room.
“The carpet in front of the desk. Three brown specks of something I’m certain is blood.”
Oliver’s movements slowed down. Betsy brought her hands to her face, saying vague words. The bedroom got smaller and the world was too large and empty. Again, he was the little boy who lost his parents. His heart ceased to work.
None of this could be real. He swallowed any tears and converted them to anger. Then he remembered the night before.
The distraught husband jumped on the nightstand and popped the air-conditioning vent off the ceiling, leaving a hole in the sheetrock. He inserted his arm though the opening and brought out his handgun. The magazine dropped on his hand to examine the bullets.
To kill wouldn’t be as harrowing as to inflict pain. He would torture everyone in that household until one of them told him where to find his wife. Pudica was hurt, but she wasn’t dead. Oliver had been too sick to protect her. How could he forget his inner fight with motionless limbs as his woman whispered beautiful words into his ear?
“Ollie.” Her voice was like honey, then someone mumbled outside, causing her fingers to tremble on her husband’s chest.
“You know that novel I told you about? The one about the werewolf who gets sick every time his mate leaves.” Her jaw quivered. “It’s just a story, but part of me wants to believe it could be real. If it’s true you’re a werewolf, I’m sure I’m your mate. The moment you got out of the pool, you looked sick, and that’s because I tried leaving you. I’m sorry, Ollie. It was so foolish of me.”
Her warm torso pressed against Oliver’s body and he moaned, endeavoring to let her know he was listening. A blaring thump made her screech although she continued speaking.
“We might not see each other again,” she sobbed while tucking a minuscule, flat item under his back. “So I’m hoping you can hear me. I love you, Ollie. No matter where my body’s buried, I’ll always be Mrs. Darling. I only regret that we never got to make love. It’s okay. In another life, maybe—you were kind, and you showed me a new side of me, and that was enough. I love you.”
Her arms gripped to his side, but a force pulled her away from him. His blood pressure rose as only his fingers brushed against her dress. Eyelids heaved sufficiently to see the Fanjuls in the bedroom and Pudica imploring.
“Please, don’t hurt my husband. He’s sick.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” said Ninel.
“I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll give you the inheritance,” Pudica sobbed.
The men holding Pudica pushed her farther down to the floor and began ripping off her dress.
“No!” Oliver screamed in his brain, commanding his body to get up. A tear rolled under his eyes and into his ear. These cowards were about to take his wife’s virginity in front of him. The memory of her abuse would mark her forever. Lord knew what they would do to her afterwards. Gastric juices fought to travel into Oliver’s throat as Pudica squealed.
Then, Ninel appeared with a set of casual clothes and slipped a pair of jeans on her sister’s bare legs. “Fine. We won’t hurt your family, but you must sign any documents I put in front of you. Is that clear?”
Oliver figured Pudica agreed because Ninel said, “It’s done,” in an animated speech.
Yet the sick man’s pulse sped up with fear. As he replayed the key moments of the previous night, he shoved the pistol in his pants and leaped toward the bed. Under the covers, he found the folded sheet of paper Pudica left him.
“I thought you lost the gun in the fire,” said Robert.
“Fuck these people.” Oliver unfolded the message. “I saw them take her and I couldn’t protect her.”
“What if they’re armed, too?” asked Betsy.
Oliver fixed his gaze on the paper. His eyes grew with every sentence. “Aunt Betsy, Pudica left this to you and—and Uncle Robert.”
Robert and Betsy huddled together while they lifted the page into the light.
“It’s Francisco’s handwriting,” said the bewildered mother. She gasped as she continued to read until Robert had moved the letter toward his chest. Veins formed on his head. The white of his eyes turned red. His nostrils widened and his feet were farther apart.
“The week we last saw each other at the rehab center, two months before you asked for a divorce—” Betsy addressed Robert. “I guess it makes sense. That’s why the doctors said Pudica was underweight. They thought my alcoholism caused that, but now I get it; she was a premature baby. She was yours and I abandoned her.”
Tears rained, and the woman did nothing to stop them.
“We have to call the police.” She patted her pants for her phone.
“I got no time for that.” Oliver unholstered his firearm and approached the door.
Robert shoved the letter into his pockets and gathered his wife’s hands. “Betsy, let’s get our daughter back.”