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It's a crowded party, a veritable who's who of Palm Beach society ready to close out the social season, but I don't care about any of that. I cut through the crowd with a single purpose:
To find Senator Nicholas Preston.
He's standing on the fringe alone, a drink of something dark and heavy in his hands. I was prepared to finagle some privacy between us, to separate him from his coterie of friends and political mates, but to find him alone like this is a blessed opportunity I can't miss. I walk toward him, and as I do, our gazes connect across the room. His eyes widen, and he takes a step forward, and he freezes, his expression changing, as though he saw an apparition only to realize it wasn't real after all.
It isn't the first time I've been told I resemble my sister Beatriz.
I close the distance between us on slightly shaky legs, filled with the unmistakable sensation that I'm inserting myself in a drama that's already started. I stop right in front of him, offering a silent prayer that we haven't just become an object of fascination for the entire room.
"I'm sorry, I know we've seen each other around, but I realize we've never been formally introduced. My sister Beatriz—"
"—I know who you are." He interjects, none of the legendary Preston charm I've heard about on visible display. He looks a bit terrified, and he clears his throat, his gaze drifting down to the glass in his hand as though he'd like to take a swig for courage.
I've never cared for him. What little I knew of him was that he was engaged to another woman and somehow Beatriz became his mistress. I never liked his position on Cuba much, either—his rumored closeness to the late President Kennedy who seemingly abandoned us after the Bay of Pigs. But looking at him now, it's impossible to miss how he's changed since I last saw him. His tuxedo isn't as impeccably tailored as I remember, his body leaner than it used to be, his skin paler than it was, his eyes devoid of that twinkle that used to appear when he'd cast his gaze on Beatriz.
He looks like a man who's lost a great deal, and being no stranger to loss myself, it's almost enough to make me feel sorry for him.
"Perhaps if we could go somewhere in private," I reply, more out of consideration for his reputation than mine. As a married woman who rarely engages with society these days, I hardly attract the sort of attention others do. But at present, Nicholas Preston is a single, wealthy United States senator with political aspirations for more, and everyone's eyes are perpetually on him.
He nods, and I follow him from the room, down a hallway, and into a small library just off the main wing of the house. He closes the door behind us and walks over to an elegant desk, leaning against the edge of the wood.
"Is Beatriz all right?" he asks without preamble.
"I don't know. She's in Spain. Our sister Elisa used to speak with her nearly daily, but we haven't heard anything from her in weeks."
He says nothing, but there's the barest flinch at the news that Beatriz is gone, and he looks like a man bracing himself for another blow.
"Did you know she was in Spain?" I ask. "Have you heard from her? Did she leave you? Elisa thinks she has, but Beatriz refuses to talk about it. Are you—?"
"Wait." He holds up a hand. "Stop for a moment. Please."
"I'm worried. We're all worried. It's not like Beatriz to just disappear like this."
I've been worried about Beatriz for a long time now, even as she's made it clear that she wants to make her own way in the world, even as she's thrown herself into Cuban politics in exile, her determination to see Fidel Castro removed from power and vengeance won for our brother Alejandro all-consuming.
"Doesn't your family have a cousin in Spain?" he asks. "Has she checked on Beatriz?"
Sometimes it's easy to forget that he and Beatriz shared a life together once, that he was one of the most important people in my sister's world, if not the most important person. As much as I dislike him on principle for the tears my sister shed over him, the fact that Beatriz loved him coupled with the evidence before me that he loved her as well is enough to make me rethink my ire.
"She does, but I think Rosa and her husband are traveling out of the country on diplomatic business. They're unreachable. I hoped you might have heard from Beatriz considering how close the two of you are."
"Are the rumors true—have you really ended things?"
"Yes, they're true. Beatriz left me."
"Did something happen?"
"Isn't that a bit of a personal question?"
"Not when it concerns my sister. All I care about it is Beatriz's safety and well-being."
"And you think I don't? I love Beatriz. I always will. She knows that. I asked her to marry me before she left."
The last part comes out with an air of frustration, the sound of a man who has been turning something around and around in his mind, unable to reconcile himself with the unavoidable conclusion he reaches each time.
Shock fills me.
Our stature in America is nothing like it was in Cuba, and for someone with Nicholas Preston's political ambitions and position in society to throw all of that away on a wife who would never be more than a massive political liability, a wife who had engaged in espionage—
I'd always assumed he viewed Beatriz as a dalliance, worried as only an older sister is wont to do that he was taking advantage of her, but now—
"I would have given up my career, everything to be with her. I told her that."
"And she still left?" I ask.
What of love, Beatriz?
"Beatriz—" I struggle to find the right words to describe my brilliant, passionate, complicated sister.
"Beatriz is unlike anyone else. The qualities that made it hard for us to be together were also the things that made me fall in love with her," he interjects. "I'm not sure what that says about me. Maybe I'm a masochist."
"Or you both found each other in difficult circumstances. What happened in Cuba, the losses our family suffered, the death of our brother, it left a mark on all of us. Beatriz perhaps most of all considering how close she and Alejandro were. But that's why I worry about her so much. She's chasing ghosts and fighting old battles that cannot be won, and I've already lost one sibling to this madness. I can't lose another."
"You think she went to Spain because she's still working with the CIA."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
An oath falls from Nicholas Preston's lips.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know why she went to Spain. I haven't heard from her since I asked her to marry me and she ended our relationship. But given the way we left things, and her determination to keep working with the CIA, the current situation with Franco—" He frowns. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if she's in Spain for political reasons."
I knew it was a long shot coming here, but with Beatriz an ocean away, Nicholas Preston was my best hope for a lead on my sister.
"What will you do now?" he asks me.
"I don't know. We've written to her." Well, Elisa wrote to her. I haven't quite summoned the courage to do so. "I suppose we'll keep writing to her in the hope that she will respond."
"I can place some inquiries if you like, reach out to connections I have at the Agency. I don't know how involved I should be, how involved she would want me to be, but if she's in danger, please let me know. There's nothing I wouldn't do for her, nothing I wouldn't give to make sure she's safe."
"Thank you. I'm just not sure what to do. Beatriz is a grown woman. She's entitled to her life and privacy. I don't think she'd care very much for us inserting ourselves in her affairs. Beatriz doesn't need someone to rescue her; she's always been perfectly capable of rescuing herself. But she's my sister and I love her, and I'm worried about her."
"Just because someone is strong doesn't mean they don't need help, Isabel."
"I know that. But she has made it perfectly clear that she has no room in her life for me—"
"You had a fight. And no one holds a grudge like Beatriz. However, even if Beatriz is still angry with you, she misses you," Nick says, surprising me.
"Beatriz talked about me? About the disagreement we had?"
"She didn't tell me all the details—I imagine there are some secrets that will always be between sisters—but it was clear she was hurting, that she missed you terribly. That maybe she had regrets, too. Beatriz can be proud, and she can be stubborn, but she's loyal, and when she loves, she does so deeply, without reservation." He hesitates. "Trust me, the worst thing is loving someone and having regrets about how you left things between you, the things that were unsaid, the opportunities that were missed."
He says it almost casually, but knowing the keen politician Nicholas Preston is, I can't imagine this wasn't his endgame all along:
"You know, if you're worried, you could always go to Spain to make sure she's safe."
As I sit on the flight from Palm Beach to Barcelona, wondering what possessed me to embark on this misguided adventure, it's the look in Nicholas Preston's eyes from our conversation a few days earlier that I remember most. There was no doubt that this was what he wanted, that he was worried about Beatriz as I was, but given their breakup and his desire to respect the boundaries they'd set, he was reluctant to involve himself, choosing instead to appeal to my romantic and sympathetic nature so I would do his bidding for him.
It's a move Beatriz would make in a heartbeat, and it's crystal clear how two people could be both utterly perfect for each other and impossibly doomed.
It's been my experience that relationships are often about balance: one person tends to be the star, and the other is there to support them, to play those all-important background roles of advice and support. And sometimes, maybe, the roles shift a bit, although in my reality it has been almost entirely the man who is held in such a place of honor and esteem. Knowing my sister as I do, and her inevitable draw to the limelight whether intentional or otherwise, I can't see her playing the role of the-woman-behind-the-man while Nicholas Preston ascends to political greatness. And I can't imagine a man with such political ambitions and connections being happy throwing it all away for a life of relative obscurity.
If Beatriz is in Barcelona nursing a broken heart, the big sister in me wants to be there for her.
The flight is uneventful, the last hours passed staring out the window, questioning the decision to send me rather than Elisa as the family envoy, weighing the odds of Beatriz being happy to see me against the far more likely possibility that she'll be less than enthused.
"I have a four-year-old," Elisa pointed out when I suggested she would be more successful and welcomed by Beatriz. "How am I supposed to leave for Spain? Do you suggest I take Miguel with me?" She laughed at that, and given how energetic my nephew is, I can't quite blame her for not wanting to bring him on an international flight to Europe by herself.
In the end, after much prevarication, and a fair dose of pleading with Thomas, who thought it both unseemly for his wife to travel by herself and has always harbored a strong dislike for Beatriz and her reputation, he reluctantly acquiesced, giving me a week away.
Armed with the return address on Beatriz's letters to Elisa, a bit of money, my suitcase, and little else, I step off the plane when it lands at the airport in Barcelona and hire a taxi to take me to Beatriz's home.
After a few initial minutes of conversation in Spanish, the driver leaves me to my own devices, and I stare out the window of the cab as he makes the twenty-minute journey, my gaze on the city.
I thought of dialing Beatriz's number from the airport, warning her of my arrival before I showed up on her doorstep, but any attempts to call her before this trip have been met with silence, and I must admit I worried a bit that if Beatriz did answer the phone this time, she might tell me to turn back around and return to Palm Beach.
The farther we get from the airport, the more congested the city becomes, and I realize we're near the center of Barcelona now.
Beatriz's return address from her letter is a smart building on Las Ramblas with a beige stone facade and little balconies with red wrought iron railings. The taxi lets me off right before it.
It's the sort of place I can imagine Beatriz living—elegant with a dash of whimsy. I can envision my sister leaning over the balcony railing, her dark hair billowing around her as she calls out good-naturedly to pedestrians, her laughter ringing down Las Ramblas. It is quintessentially Beatriz, both the privilege seeped in living in one of the city's most desirable locales and the slight bohemian bent a city like Barcelona thrives on: art, music, and culture seemingly on every street corner.
It is a far cry from my life and the one our mother wanted for us in Palm Beach; no doubt, much of the allure for Beatriz was escaping to a place where there is anonymity in the crowded streets and bustling pace, where the need to see and be seen does not reign paramount.
But still, it raises the ever-important question that has been on my mind since Elisa first told me Beatriz had left:
And given the environs where she's chosen to live, who is funding this adventure?
A list of names of apartment residents is affixed near the building entry. I scan the directory until I settle on a "B. Perez."
I set my suitcase down on the ground and lift my gloved hand, my heart pounding as I press the buzzer next to Beatriz's name.