Don Alejandro was the richest man in Santa Cecilia. He was an old money ranchero with a large hacienda atop a hill. His hacienda had 10 bedrooms, no less than three fountains in its courtyard, and a spacious cellar replete with century-old wine. The cellar's curved ceilings were decorated with shiny Moorish tile, and its thick walls were made of creamy brick, interrupted only by a massive, wooden door.
The reason Imelda could describe Don Alejandro's cellar in such detail?
She had been locked in it for the past half hour.
A twang echoed through the cellar and she turned to face her three companions. It was obvious which of them was responsible for the noise, since only one had a guitar at the moment: Héctor. He clamped his left hand over his guitar's neck, damping the note…
Imelda turned back to the door and raised her fist to pound on it—but her fist had barely made contact with the thick wood when an E-minor chord rang throughout the cellar.
She swiveled around. Héctor was sitting there nonchalantly, his left hand again clamped across his guitar neck, his right hand's fingers resting lazily by the sound hole, as if he hadn't just used them to strum the offending chord. He didn't meet her eyes, instead pretending to be absorbed by the ship painted on a nearby barrel.
Imelda tightened the fullness from her lips and regarded him sourly. "You could help me get out of here instead of making that ruido! We are missing the party!"
He let out a harsh laugh and leaned his head back against the wall, and his fingers languidly danced into an andante. "I cannot agree with you there, señorita," he responded, his fingers speeding up, transforming the andante into an allegretto. "The party is to celebrate an engagement. We are here with one half of the happy couple," he nodded his head to Imelda's cousin Dolores, who was sorrowfully studying the flagstone floor. "Por tanto, we are right now at the party, and I was hired to play guitar at the party, so you see," he leapt to his feet, and sped up his allegretto to a vivace, "I am doing exactly what I should be doing." He did a couple of silly kicks and Imelda let out a grunt of disgust. She stalked to the other end of the cellar where it forked into two wings, and walked to the left bend just far enough to conceal herself from her companions.
She could still hear his music, though, his dizzying arpeggios zipping through her ears.
"Enough of that, Héctor," she heard their other companion, Ernesto, say to his friend. "You are annoying us all."
But Héctor didn't stop playing, and judging from the footfalls still echoing through the cellar, he hadn't stopped dancing, either. "I will not stop," he announced, sing-songing his speech with his melody. "Señorita Dolores is supposed to be entertaining her guests, Señorita Imelda is supposed to be bringing Señorita Dolores to the patio, and we are supposed to be making music. Unlike you vagos, I am on task."
"Tell him to stop playing!" Ernesto was now saying to Prima Dolores. "He will listen to you!"
So good were the cellar's acoustics that Imelda could hear even Dolores's soft voice. "Let him play. It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me!" Ernesto grumbled. "This echo is giving me a headache!"
Héctor let out a laugh, whose echo probably didn't help Ernesto's headache. "Then the next time you have a cita with a woman on the night of her engagement party, chose a lower ceilinged room!" He strummed a harsh A-minor chord with the flats of his fingernails. "All week long you have been going on about what a great opportunity this job was for us—ah," he shifted into an exaggerated impression of his friend's voice, "the doors Don Alejandro can open for us, amigo!" He returned to his normal voice. "And then the day of our big job, I catch you embracing Don Alejandro's fiancée!"
"It was a kiss, nothing more," Ernesto sighed. "You all make too much of it!"
"We'll have to see if Don Alejandro also makes too much of it!" Héctor snapped. "Ay! The man is going to chase us out of town!"
"You worry too much, mi amigo," Ernesto replied. "Who will tell him? I won't. You won't. Señorita Dolores, she won't."
"I won't have to," Dolores sighed. "You heard my cousin Imelda. She will."
Yes, Imelda had already announced as much. An hour ago, she'd been tasked by her aunt to find where Dolores had got to. She'd been eager for the job, since it gave her the opportunity to inspect Don Alejandro's entire hacienda, and laugh to herself about his extravagances. But Dolores hadn't been in the bedrooms, hadn't been in the kitchen, hadn't been in the dining room…she'd been searching for her in the library when she'd run into Héctor, that gangly musician she'd seen about town, who had asked her if she'd come across his partner Ernesto. The dancing was supposed to start in ten minutes, he explained, and he couldn't find him anywhere.
The two of them had combined their searches, walking through the trophy room and a gallery. And then they stepped into the cellar to find the objects of their searches locked in a heated embrace. Imelda had gasped, Héctor had jumped, and the door had slammed shut behind them, locked.
As the four of them had searched unsuccessfully for another exit, Imelda had told her cousin in no uncertain terms what she thought of her stupid behavior. "Just wait until Don Alejandro finds out!" she'd shouted. "You'll be ruined—you've hurt our entire family with your foolishness!"
Héctor had stepped in at this point, plastering a nervous smile on his face, asking her to have some compassion for her cousin, to take mercy on someone who didn't share her excellent sense and moral integrity. Her cousin was young and foolish, but if Señorita Imelda told Don Alejandro what she had seen, the price her cousin would pay would be steep, indeed.
Imelda had fixed a glare on Héctor. "I do not lie," she'd said simply.
Héctor had thrown up his hands. "The universe has a cruel sense of humor," he'd shouted to the ceiling, "to send me an honest woman at such a time!"
The next twenty minutes had passed with Imelda scolding her cousin and sniping with Héctor. To Ernesto, she refused to speak entirely.
Ay! What had she done to deserve this? She had been looking forward to today—looking forward to the opportunity to goggle at the richest house in Santa Cecilia up close, looking forward to dancing in her new dress, looking forward to seeing her Prima Dolores shown off as the future doña of the hacienda.
She shut her eyes and pressed her fingers on her temples. Now she had to lie to the most powerful man in town or hurt her entire family's reputation. She was catching Ernesto's headache.
"Imelda, Imelda, please…"
Imelda opened her eyes to see Dolores standing in front of her: her eyes wide, her lips quivering, her fingers woven together in supplication.
Dolores had always been the prettiest girl in town: wavy hair, long-lashed eyes, and rosy cheeks. She made friends quickly, laughed easily, and danced gracefully. Even though their family was not wealthy, it had surprised no one when Don Alejandro had started to call upon her. Their engagement had been announced three days ago, on Dolores's sixteenth birthday. Dolores's mother had cried in delight, Dolores's sisters had twirled around the kitchen, and Imelda's mother had commented that this would improve the marriage prospects of the whole family.
"It would even help your chances, Imelda," one of her brothers had commented, "if you would ever stop scowling long enough to say a kind word to one of the boys in town."
Imelda had smacked Oscar, who had said it, and Felipe, who had probably thought it.
"Tell your prometido rico to throw a party," Imelda had suggested to Dolores, "so we all can get jealous admiring the hacienda you'll be living in."
"Anything for you, Imelda," Dolores had laughed. "I'll demand food and music and dancing or the wedding will be off!"
And now it was the same Dolores standing before her, tears leaking from her eyes. What a difference a few days could make.
"You can't tell him!" she begged, sinking to her knees to clutch the blue dress Imelda had stayed up late last night to finish. "It didn't mean anything—it was just a moment of foolishness!"
"Foolishness is right," Imelda spat, jutting her chin up so her heart wouldn't be softened by the sight of her cousin's tear-streaked cheeks. "For the last year our family has been obsessed with Don Alejandro! Every time we thought he might visit we cooked and cleaned—I know Don Alejandro's favorite foods better than he does! Even that dress you're wearing—" She gestured to the intricate flowers embroidered on Dolores's pink dress, "I spent hours sewing it—the smallest stitches I could manage all so my cousin Dolores could impress the great Don Alejandro! And after all that work, I catch you kissing someone else!"
"It was nothing!" Dolores insisted. "Just a kiss—that was it!"
But that argument didn't appease Imelda. "So it was worth jeopardizing all our hard work just to kiss that músico?" She flapped her arm in Ernesto's direction, little caring that the cellar's acoustics were no doubt echoing her words loud and clear to Ernesto and Héctor. "What were you thinking?"
"I thought I would have years of attending dances as a señorita," Dolores tried to explain. "And now my season's over before it began! I just," she hung her head, "just wanted to have a fun flirtation before I became a señora." When she looked up, her eyes had a spark of reproach. "Ah, it is useless explaining it to you. You wouldn't understand."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Imelda demanded, the pity that had been gathering in her breast evaporating.
"You know…" Dolores waved her arm vaguely. "You don't have flirtations."
From another person, Imelda might have accepted that statement as a compliment. But she knew that from Dolores, that was no compliment. Still, with Héctor and Ernesto within earshot, she didn't want to argue about her love life or lack thereof. "You don't get to criticize me," she said simply. "Go back to your novio and leave me in peace!"
Dolores headed back to Héctor and Ernesto, and Imelda could soon hear some frantic whispering from the three of them. Then footfalls grew louder and louder.
She'd been expecting Dolores again, but it was instead Ernesto who approached her, his features in that flirtatious grin they so often seemed stuck in.
"Señorita Imelda," he began, "por favor—"
"Vete!" Imelda shouted, pointing him back in the direction from which he'd come. "I have no words for you! I'd hit you with my shoe, but you're not worth the leather! Vete!"
Ernesto wisely retreated.
The whispering started again, and then the footsteps approached her. This time it was Héctor's grinning face that popped from behind the corner.
"Señorita—" he began, but the rest of his speech was cut off when Imelda whacked him with her shoe. "Ay!" he shouted, his hands flying to his protect himself. "Basta! You're going to scar my beautiful face!" He succeeded in grabbing the shoe from her and hurled it farther down the cellar, where it fell behind a tall shelf of barrels.
"These are my best shoes!" Imelda snarled, moving to untie her left shoe.
"Then may I suggest not hitting people with them?" Héctor cried.
The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds, both of their jaws tight, both of their faces flushed. Then Héctor sighed, dropped his shoulders, set down his guitar, which had been slung behind his back, and began to awkwardly climb the stack of barrels behind which the shoe had disappeared.
Imelda frowned at him, and couldn't help herself from asking what he was doing.
"Retrieving your favorite shoe, of course," he grunted, clumsily pulling himself to the second tier of barrels. "You see," he panted, "even though you hit me with your shoe, you and I seem to be the only people in this cellar with any good sense," he spoke the last two words quite loudly, no doubt amplifying them for Ernesto's benefit, "so I am sure that between the two of us," he was now at the top of the stack of barrels, and then crawled to the other side, disappearing completely from Imelda's view, "we can hit on a solution." A small crash was audible, and then a groan from Héctor.
Once more, Imelda did something in spite of herself: she hurried to the barrels and cried out, "Héctor? Are you okay? What happened?"
The man could be annoying, Imelda told herself, but he hadn't actually done anything wrong, and she didn't want his cracked skull on her conscience. She could imagine the tombstone now: Here lies Héctor Rivera, died looking for a shoe.
"I'm fine," Héctor wheezed. "Just had a fall, probably ripped my best suit, bit my tongue, no es nada…" He let out a shallow laugh. "Since Don Alejandro will choke me with my own guitar string before the night is through, it is nothing in the scheme of things…"
"Well," Imelda sniffed and folded her arms across her chest, "it is good you are philosophical about these things."
She could hear Héctor's footsteps behind the barrels. "Jolin! It is pitch black behind here!"
Don Alejandro had probably been intending to show off his cellar later in the evening, which explained why there were a few lit lanterns, but none whose light Héctor could utilize.
"You expected lighting behind the barrels?" Imelda demanded. Even though she was on the other side of the barrels, she followed the sound of Héctor's footsteps so she was as close to him as possible.
"From Don Alejandro?" Héctor responded. "A chandelier at least." He snorted. "The way that man spends money—" He laughed this time, the first sincere laugh Imelda heard from him. "I know you saw the jewel encrusted statue in the gallery!"
Imelda took a few steps so she was closer to the scuffling noises, and, once again in spite of herself, smiled. Her family acted as if Don Alejandro with the sun and the moon, and Imelda had never dared voice how ridiculous the man could be. "Or the scrolls in the library…"
Héctor laughed once again. "I am sure he enjoys reading faded ancient Greek on winter nights."
"Did you see the gold guitar in the music room?" Imelda asked. She'd searched the music room before running into Héctor.
"Si!" Héctor responded. "The thing must sound horrible—but who would ever know, because no one could lift it! Ah!" There was another scuffling noise. "I believe I have found your shoe, señorita."
"Unless there is another shoe behind there," Imelda pointed out drily.
"Who knows with these rich people! Now…" Héctor paused, "time to climb back up…" He paused again. Judging by the lengths of these pauses, Imelda would guess that he hadn't considered until now that he would have to get out from behind the barrels.
"Do you need help?" Imelda called. Then she internally slapped herself for asking such a stupid question, because what help could she lend, anyway?
Héctor didn't point this out. "No, I'll manage," he sighed. "And if you hear me yelping or crying, do not be alarmed," he instructed her. "It is only because I am weak and in pain."
Imelda wasn't quite successful at choking back her laughter.
Soon Héctor emerged at the top of the barrels. As he shimmied down the shelves, Imelda noticed that his jacket had indeed ripped in the back. His pants, at least, appeared unharmed. She watched as he leaped nimbly to the floor beside her.
"Muy impresionante, no?" he boasted, shooting her a goofy grin, made all the goofier by the dust that blanched his messy hair. He dropped to his knees and held out Imelda's shoe dramatically. "Su zapato, mi Cenicienta."
"Gracias, mi príncipe," Imelda commented, attempting to sound as dry as possible, and not succeeding as much as she'd hoped. She took the shoe and turned around, walking to a table and chairs some distance away. She sat with her back to Héctor as she tied her shoe.
Héctor jogged over to her and took a seat next to her, pulling his chair close to hers. "Now I have to ask," he spoke softly, probably so Ernesto and Dolores couldn't overhear, "do you really intend to tell Don Alejandro what you saw?"
Imelda sighed. "No, of course not," she finally admitted. "I'm not going to subject my family to that kind of gossip."
Relief flooded Héctor's face, and his shoulders loosened. "Muchas gracias, señorita," he said. He leaned back in his chair and smiled at her. Then slowly his features sharpened into a frown. "You never intended to tell, did you?"
Imelda shook her head and bit back a smile. "Not for a second."
He looked at her curiously. "You wanted them to suffer?"
She shrugged. "I wanted Dolores to suffer. What your friend feels," she waved her hand, "Como quieras—I don't care about him. But Dolores has to worry now so she doesn't do it again."
"So all this—all this fighting and hitting me with your shoe," he mimed being hit in the face, "has been for nothing?"
"Not nothing…" Imelda corrected. "You deserved to be hit with the shoe. You are very annoying."
He nodded as if he accepted her explanation, but there was a shrewd look in his eyes that made her uneasy. "I see," he said, and Imelda, feeling heat rush to her cheeks, reflected that he probably did see.
She stood up quickly. "Come," she said airily, pulling out the sewing kit she always kept in her pocket, "we will join the others where the light is stronger and I will fix your jacket." She held out her hands for his jacket and tapped her shoe against the floor impatiently. "Hurry up—it's already late, so Don Alejandro will want you to perform as soon as someone finds us, and you can't perform looking like a vagabundo."
Héctor stood up, murmured some thanks in a low voice, and removed his jacket, placing it in her hands. The jacket was still warm from having been worn—or maybe his hands were warm—or maybe she was just warm. In any case, she hurried to join Dolores and Ernesto. Héctor followed her, pausing only to pick up his guitar.
Dolores and Ernesto were watching them when they returned to the cellar entrance. They had no doubt been straining to follow their conversation.
Imelda, still ignoring Ernesto, addressed Dolores: "I have decided I won't say anything…for now." She cut off her cousin's delighted thanks by informing her that she would not be so lucky next time—and there had better not be a next time.
Ernesto gaped at her, and then his gaze slid to Héctor. "What did you say to her?" he demanded.
Héctor didn't respond, and just began playing his guitar. Imelda sat close to one of the lanterns and busied herself with stitching Héctor's jacket, ignoring the scrutiny she was under. The tear on the back of the jacket wasn't so bad, she decided. She had it stitched in a couple of minutes, and then set about disguising the stitches by embroidering a white eighth note on the blue fabric. By the time she was done with it, the jacket would look better than ever. She knew it wouldn't be long before someone finally thought to check the cellar, which was a shame, because sitting here sewing Héctor's jacket and listening to Héctor's music wasn't such a bad way to pass an evening.