The Infamous Miss Rodriguez: A Ciudad Real Novella

The Infamous Miss Rodriguez
A Ciudad Real Novella
Lydia San Andres

C
opyright
© 2016 by Lydia San Andres

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

A
miga

E
s
que me quedo sin palabras. Te extrañaré siempre, y me quedaré con todas las ganas de poder compartir esto contigo.

Foreword

C
iudad Real
, the city in which this story takes place, is located in a fictional island in the Spanish Caribbean, neighbor to Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It shares those islands’ hispanic heritage as well as some of their customs and is populated, as they are, with a multicultural and multiracial amalgamation of people descended from Africans, from the Spanish, and from other various european and middle eastern people.

Chapter 1

C
iudad Real
, 1911

Graciela Rodriguez had been doing her damnedest to become infamous. But as it turned out, notoriety was not as easy to achieve as she’d expected.

So far, she had modeled underthings at a department store (no one had seen her save for three middle-aged ladies), tried to persuade a magazine reporter she was the author of a particularly scandalous serial (he hadn’t believed her), tried to write a shocking novel of her own (but found she was not literarily inclined). She’d even spent a week dancing in one of those theaters where the content of her bodice had been more important than whatever dancing skill she may have possessed, but her aunt had managed to hush
that
up very quickly. Short of stripping naked in the middle of
Paseo de los Flamboyanes
and performing a ballet among the prim matrons who strolled up and down the boulevard, Graciela had no idea of what she had to do to get her name in the gossip papers.

In these modern times, it was devilishly hard for a girl to ruin herself.

Aunt Elba stepped out of the upstairs sitting room as Graciela flounced back upstairs after closing the door behind the magazine reporter. It was July and scorching hot, and while Graciela was clothed in white cotton, Aunt Elba had donned one of the sober tailored suits she had taken to wearing since she’d taken the helm at the perfume factory that had been left to Graciela by her maternal grandfather. The suits were so gentlemanly Graciela often suspected they were made by an actual tailor instead of a
modiste—
but for all she knew, arrow collars and four-button cuffs might be all the rage among professional women.

“Who was that man who just left?” Aunt Elba asked, peering over the armful of ledgers she held in order to give Graciela one of her characteristically sharp looks.

“My lover, come to take my virtue,” Graciela said flippantly, and was not surprised when her aunt responded with an exasperated noise.

“As long as he keeps the particulars to himself…” Aunt Elba muttered and continued down the stairs to her study. From the bottom of the staircase, she called, “Don’t forget Alvaro will be dining here tonight. I imagine you’ll want to be on your worst behavior.”

Graciela tilted up her chin. “How kind of you to remind me. I’ve just enough time to slip into my dancing costume.”

Despite her unconcerned tone, Graciela’s heart began to pound uncomfortably inside her chest. The feeling only intensified as the afternoon wore on, and by the time he arrived, at seven on the dot, Graciela was ready to pick up her skirts and
run
.

Graciela had read enough novels to know that wanting to run as fast and far away as possible was not what a girl was supposed to feel when informed that her fiancee was paying a call. Novels had also taught her that a fiancee was supposed to inspire giddiness and excitement and all sorts of warm feelings, unless he was elderly, riddled with warts, or endowed with the sort of qualities generally found in fairytale villains.

Alvaro Medina was none of those things, but all he inspired in Graciela was the desire to bolt.

To her credit, she didn’t. She’d never been the sort to run away from the fight, no matter how hopeless. Instead, she sat at her secretary, plotting her next move, until it was time to sit across from him at the dining table.

As head of the household, Aunt Elba sat between them at one end of the table, Alvaro at her right. Graciela kept her back straight and her eyes down, pushing shrimp around the coconut and tomato sauce coating the bottom of her plate as she listened to them carry on an entire conversation without once acknowledging her presence.

Alvaro was telling her aunt about a new business opportunity that had presented itself— something about exporting the cotton fabric manufactured in his family’s factories to Germany. Graciela didn’t care a fig about any of it. She didn’t care a fig about
him
, either, but that meant nothing to her mercenary aunt. He could have been a fairytale villain and Aunt Elba would still shove Graciela into his arms.

She separated a shrimp from its tail with such force that pink sauce splattered on the embroidered tablecloth and Alvaro turned to her, raising an eyebrow.

“We’ve rather neglected you, haven’t we? Poor Graciela,” he said, and it took a moment for Graciela to realize that Alvaro thought she was angry because she had been excluded from the conversation and not because he and her aunt had contrived to entangle her in an engagement she wanted no part of. “Don’t worry. There shall be no more boring business talk at the dinner table tonight. Here’s some exciting news instead—my mother is planning to host a dinner party in order to formally introduce you to the members of the Board.”

Hardly a day went by where Graciela didn’t hear something about the board that ruled Medina Enterprises with an iron fist. Alvaro hated the way they controlled his personal life as well as the business, and his greatest ambition was to buy back the shares his father had sold almost a decade before, and so regain control of the company. Until he managed it, he had to give every appearance of being as respectable as the Board required its chairman to be, or risk being driven out like his father had been—only seven years before, the elder Mr. Medina had been asked to step down as chairman after a scandal with a pretty Catalan actress, and Alvaro had sworn he would never make the same mistake. The architect of his father’s downfall had been Mrs. Ferrer, one of the Board members and an unflagging champion of sober respectability.

His father’s downfall was what had given Graciela the idea to become the most notorious woman in Ciudad Real. Her family’s name would mean nothing to Alvaro if it was tainted with scandal.

“How about that, Graciela?” Aunt Elba asked, her eyes sparkling behind her spectacles.

The look Graciela gave her in response might have withered a lesser woman’s soul. Aunt Elba, whose heart must have been fashioned out of iron or an even sturdier material, if one existed, did not quail.

Skewering a piece of shrimp with her fork, Graciela popped it into her mouth and made a great pretense of chewing to keep from answering. It was just as well, as no response seemed to be necessary— as usual, Alvaro misinterpreted her reaction.

“You will be a Medina soon and as my wife, many important tasks will fall to you. Charming the Board—as you have charmed me,” he added with a wink at her aunt, “will be the first of many.” He noticed Graciela’s scowl and replied to it with a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, my dear. I’m certain you won’t disappoint me.”

“Are you?” Graciela said, reaching for her wineglass and trying very hard to keep from flicking its contents in the direction of his very handsome face.

Aunt Elba’s eyes narrowed but Alvaro, thinking she was in need of more reassurance, reached across the table to cover her free hand with his own. His skin, white but ruddy from the sun, looked very light against her darker tone. Graciela didn’t shake it off, and neither did she drive the tines of her fork into it, even though she wanted to very badly.

Someday, Alvaro would find himself a suitably proper wife. If it was the last thing she did, Graciela would make damn sure it wasn’t her.

* * *

G
raciela was working
on her list the next day when her friend Beatriz stopped by for their mid-afternoon coffee. The shutters of the upstairs sitting room had been thrown wide open to let in the breeze and Graciela, sitting at her small burled wood secretary, watched the bustle in the street below as Beatriz settled into an armchair and pulled her embroidery out of her handbag.

“I wonder where I could find a gambling den,” Graciela said pensively, tapping the tip of her pen against the inkwell to shake off the excess ink.

“Come now, Graciela, don’t you think it’s time you abandoned this ridiculous mission of yours?” Beatriz said as she watched her jot down another idea. Beatriz may have had a penchant for embroidering gruesome battle scenes instead of respectable flowers and animals but she was the most sensible soul Graciela had ever met and she had made it clear she did not approve of her friend’s quest for ruination.

“Never,” Graciela answered swiftly. “Not until my reputation is in tatters and
everyone
knows it.”

“You’re being immature, Graciela.”

“I’m being intelligent. Do you think anyone would believe I’m a bastard?”

“Not a chance, seeing as your parents were married for three years before they had you and you’ve your maternal grandmother’s eyes and paternal grandfather’s nose, as my mother likes to point out.”

“Hopefully not his exact nose,” Graciela murmured, having seen a daguerrotype of the gentleman in question.

It hung in the hallway just outside her aunt’s study, by the staircase, scaring anyone who passed by. Aunt Elba, who had not inherited her father’s nose, was inordinately fond of it, but Graciela had often thought about asking her to move it into the study and replace it with something marginally less grim— a watercolor, perhaps, or a photograph of Graciela’s parents or even a portrait of Graciela herself. She’d sat for one just the year before and it had turned out rather nicely…

As she doodled a curling vine on the edge of the paper, an idea began to dawn on Graciela.

Beatriz, threading a needle with lurid green thread, was unaware of Graciela’s flash of inspiration. “Are you’re going to Camila’s sewing social tomorrow?”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to make it. I’m going to have my photograph taken.”

Beatriz looked up. She knew Graciela well enough to recognize the expression in her face and said, with some resignation, “What’s scandalous about
that
?”

Graciela smiled. “I won’t be wearing any clothes when I do it.”

* * *

I
f Elba Rodriguez
was the most intimidating woman Vicente Aguirre had ever known, her niece had to be the stubbornest. No sooner had he paid off the manager of the sleazy theater where she’d managed to get onstage and had her kicked off and her name forgotten, than she found another way to ruin her own reputation.

He had to admire her tenacity, if not her methods.

When he’d persuaded her aunt that he was just the man to keep her out of trouble, Vicente had assumed he’d have nothing more to do than stifle a few rumors or drag her home after an ill-advised outing. But Miss Rodriguez was proving to be far more trouble than he’d bargained for.

Standing outside the greengrocer’s by a cart full of pineapples and holding an open newspaper, he watched her come out of a photography studio, looking terribly pleased with herself, and waited until she had turned a corner before going inside.

There were a number of innocent reasons why a girl might wish to have her photograph taken. But there was nothing innocent about Miss Rodriguez’s campaign to ruin her reputation and the studio looked disreputable enough that Vicente could easily guess the motive for her visit.

His suspicions were only confirmed by the dreamy look on the photographer’s face as he busily labeled two film canisters. It was the look of a man who has just seen a naked woman, and it didn’t bode well for him at all.

“All right,” Vicente said as the door banged shut behind him. “How much for the photographs of the girl who just came in?”

The photographer looked at Vicente from behind the counter, visibly calculating whether to double or triple the amount he’d told Miss Rodriguez. Vicente swept a practiced eye over him. He was well into middle age. A paunch drooped over his belt and his shoulders were stooped from hunching over a developing tray. The shop around him looked shabby, the equipment old. He wouldn’t be a problem.

Vicente extracted a wad of folded bills from his pocket. “Let me dispense with the niceties. This is what you think is going to happen: you’re going to charge me an exorbitant sum, then ask the girl for twice that amount to give her the details on who bought her film. Then you might blackmail either her or me for more money, and set up a nice little income for yourself. Is that right?” He ignored the photographer’s vehement denial. “I’m going to make you an offer instead. How about instead of trying my patience, you accept the fifty pesos I’m going to give you, hand over the film—
all of it
—and I promise that no one will sneak here at night and set the premises on fire.” Vicente looked casually at the ceiling. “You live upstairs, don’t you? A fire would burn straight through the plaster. What a shame it would be, to lose both your shop and your home because of one little roll of film.”

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