When We Left Cuba Page 1


NOVEMBER 26, 2016


It arrives just after midnight, in the waning hours of night, those magical haunting hours, bundled in an elegant basket adorned with an exuberant red bow, delivered by an officious man in a somber suit who leaves as quickly as he comes, ferried away from the stately Palm Beach address in a silver Rolls owned by one of the island’s most notorious residents.

The woman takes the basket, her evening winding down until she unwraps the contents in the sanctuary of the sitting room decked out in vibrant colors, recognition dawning as familiar French words greet her.

A tear trickles down her cheek.

The foil is crisp against her palm, the glass a cooling balm on her skin as though it’s been chilled and waiting for her all these years. She lifts the bottle from the basket, carrying the champagne to the bar in the living room, her jewel-clad fingers trembling over the seal, fumbling with the top.

The defiant pop of the cork breaks the silence of the night. Despite the late hour, it is too important an occasion to be denied, and soon her peace will be disturbed by other noises: the ringing phone, the chatter of friends and family, a celebration of sorts after an interminable war. But for now, there is this—

The champagne explodes on her tongue. It is the taste of victory and defeat, of love and loss, of nights of revelry and decadence in Havana and days in exile in Palm Beach. She lifts the glass in the air in a silent toast, the sight of her hand—no longer a young woman’s, but something more seasoned—still catching her off guard, the wrinkles no number of trips to the plastic surgeon can erase, a subtle taunt that time is the cruelest thief of them all.

When did she get so old?

There is no note in the basket, but then again, there’s no need. Who else would send her such a gift: extravagant, poignant, perfectly her?

No one but him.

chapter one



The thing about collecting marriage proposals is they’re much like cultivating eccentricities. One is an absolute must for being admired in polite—or slightly less-than-polite—society. Two ensure you’re a sought-after guest at parties, three add a soup?on of mystery, four are a scandal, and five, well, five make you a legend.

I peer down at the man making a spectacle of himself on bended knee in front of me—what is his name?—his body tipping precariously from an overabundance of champagne and folly. He’s a second cousin to the venerable Preston clan, related by marriage to a former vice president, cousin to a sitting U.S. senator. His tuxedo is elegant, his fortune likely modest if not optimistic for the largesse of a bequest from a deceased aunt, his chin weak from one too many Prestons marrying Prestons.

Andrew. Maybe Albert. Adam?

We’ve met a handful of times at parties such as this one in Palm Beach, fetes I once would have ruled over in Havana, to which I now must bow and scrape in order to gain admittance. I likely could do worse than a second cousin to American royalty; after all, beggars can’t be choosers, and exiles even less so. The prudent thing would be to accept his proposal—my auspicious fifth—and to follow my sister Elisa into the sacrament of holy matrimony.

But where’s the fun in that?

Whispers brush my gown, my name—Beatriz Perez—on their lips, the weight of curious gazes on my back, words creeping toward me, clawing their way up my skirts, snatching the faux jewels from my neck and casting them to the ground.

Look at her.

Haughty. The whole family is. Someone should tell them this isn’t Cuba.

Those hips. That dress.

Didn’t they lose everything? Fidel Castro nationalized all those sugar fields her father used to own.

Has she no shame?

My smile brightens, flashier than the fake jewels at my neck and just as sincere. I scan the crowd, sweeping past Alexander on his knees looking like a man who hasn’t quite acquired his sea legs, past the Palm Beach guard shooting daggers my way, resting on my sisters Isabel and Elisa standing in the corner, champagne flutes in hand. The sight of them, the reminder to bow to nothing and no one, emboldens me.

I turn back to Alistair.

“Thank you, but I must decline.”

I keep my tone light, as though the whole thing is a jest, and a drunken one at that, which I hope it is. People don’t go falling in love and proposing in one fell swoop, do they? Surely, that’s . . . inconvenient.

Poor Arthur looks stunned by my answer.

Perhaps this wasn’t a joke after all.

Slowly, he recovers, the same easy smile on his face that lingered moments before he fell to his knees returning with a vengeance, restoring his countenance to what is likely its natural state: perpetually pleased with himself and the world he inhabits. He grasps my outstretched hand, his palm clammy against mine, and pulls himself up with an unsteady sway. A grunt escapes his lips.

His eyes narrow once we’re level—nearly level, at least, given the extra inches my sister Isabel’s borrowed heels provide.

The glint in Alec’s eyes reminds me of a child whose favorite toy has been taken away and who will make you pay for it later by throwing a spectacularly effective tantrum.

“Let me guess, you left someone back in Cuba?”

There’s enough of a bite in his tone to nip at my skin.

My diamond smile reappears, honed at my mother’s knee and so very useful in situations like these, the edges sharp and brittle, warning the recipient of the perils of coming too close.

I bite, too.

“Something like that,” I lie.

Now that one of their own is back on his feet, no longer prostrate in front of the interloper they’ve been forced to tolerate this social season, the crowd turns their attention from us with a sniff, a sigh, and a flurry of bespoke gowns. We possess just enough money and influence—sugar is nearly as lucrative in America as it is in Cuba—that they can’t afford to cut us directly, but not nearly enough to prevent them from devouring us like a sleek pack of wolves scenting red meat. Fidel Castro has made beggars of all of us, and for that alone, I’d thrust a knife through his heart.

And suddenly, the walls are too close together, the lights in the ballroom too bright, my bodice too tight.

It’s been nearly a year since we left Cuba for what was supposed to be a few months away until the world realized what Fidel Castro had done to our island, and America has welcomed us into her loving embrace—almost.

I am surrounded by people who don’t want me here even if their contempt hides behind a polite smile and feigned sympathy. They look down their patrician noses at me because my family hasn’t been in America since the country’s founding, or sailed on a boat from England, or some nonsense like that. My features are a hint too dark, my accent too foreign, my religion too Catholic, my last name too Cuban.

In a flash, an elderly woman who shares Anderson’s coloring and features approaches us, sparing me a cutting look designed to knock me down a peg or two. In a flurry of Givenchy, he’s swept away, and I’m alone once more.

If I had my way, we wouldn’t attend these parties, save this one, wouldn’t attempt to ingratiate ourselves to Palm Beach society. It isn’t about what I want, though. It’s about my mother, and my sisters, and my father’s need to extend his business empire through these social connections so no one ever has the power to destroy us again.

And of course, as always, it’s about Alejandro.

I head for one of the balconies off the ballroom, the hem of my gown gathered in hand, careful to keep from tearing the delicate fabric.

I slip through the open doors, stepping onto the stone terrace, the breeze blowing the skirt of my dress. There’s a slight chill in the air, the sky clear, the stars shining down, the moon full. The ocean is a dull, distant roar. It’s the sound of my childhood, my adulthood, calling to me like a siren song. I close my eyes, a sting there, and pretend I’m standing on another balcony, in another country, in another time. What would happen if I headed for the water now, if I left the party behind, removing the pinching shoes and curling my toes in the sand, the ocean pooling around my ankles?

A tear trickles down my cheek. I never imagined it was possible to miss a place this much.

I rub my damp skin with the back of my hand, my gaze shifting to the balcony’s edge, to the palms swaying in the distance.

A man leans against the balustrade, one side of him shrouded in darkness, the rest illuminated by a shaft of moonlight.

He’s tall. Blond hair—nearly reddish, really. His arms brace against the railing, his shoulders straining his tailored tuxedo.

I step back, and he moves—

I freeze.



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