STELLA ZAMBRANO FELT as if she was sitting outside the principal’s office, knowing she was in trouble without a clue as to why. All she could do was wait and try not to think the worst.
The military wing of the San Felipe palace was designed to impress and to intimidate. It succeeded in both. The vaulted ceilings were metres high, the floors tiled in a headache-inducing intricate mathematical pattern, and the walls plastered with gold-framed portraits of the De Santis predecessors—princes, military leaders, powerful men.
San Felipe, a famed island principality in the heart of the Mediterranean, was currently ruled by Crown Prince Antonio De Santis. Austere, yet beloved, and devoted to duty, Antonio was aided by his charming, utterly adored younger brother, Eduardo. The public face of San Felipe, risk-taking, suave Prince Eduardo almost single-handedly kept the tourism industry afloat.
The most recent portrait in the vast room depicted the two brothers standing side by side in full military regalia. It hung on the wall directly opposite, dominating Stella’s field of vision. She opted to stare at the floor. The sweat on her back iced. She desperately hoped the Princes were not present in the palace today.
She looked up as her name was called.
‘The General will see you now.’
Stella searched the Captain’s face for clues, but saw that if he were any more expressionless he’d be dead. She was uncomfortable, conscious that she ought be wearing her sharply pressed midnight-blue trousers and a starched white shirt, topped with her gold-trimmed blue jacket. Her brass should be gleaming, her ribbons immaculate, her star straight on her shoulder. Instead she was wearing sweat-stained fatigues and muddied boots.
She’d just finished her morning run when a stony-faced sergeant had appeared and said it was urgent and that she didn’t have time to change. He’d driven her straight from the base to the palace, where the General of San Felipe’s army had his official quarters.
Now she felt conscious of the marks on her clothing, the grime on her face. But perhaps the General would overlook her untidy appearance. Perhaps this summons was to give her the overseas mission orders she’d been waiting so long for.
But the unnatural silence spiralling in the waiting room warned her differently. This call was too soon after her last rejection. Too unexpected. And the carefully blank faces of the civilian staff present... The way they wouldn’t look her in the eye...
Slimy snakes of doubt slid down her spine.
‘Lieutenant?’ the Captain repeated sharply.
She blinked, her brain lurching back to the present. Mortified, she stood. A superior officer had never been required to repeat orders to Stella before. She stiffly followed him to the large carved door that was firmly shut. He opened it and impassively waited for her to pass through.
Stilling her nerves, Stella walked into the room, then stood to attention at a respectful distance from the desk. The heavy door behind her closed with a thud.
The uniformed man seated behind the large desk didn’t look up. He didn’t tell her to stand at ease. Didn’t tell her to sit. Didn’t tell her anything. Instead he stared down at the personnel file open before him. She knew it was hers, but kept her gaze fixed on the wall behind him—yet another portrait of the Princes. Peripherally she was aware of the man’s greying hair and that he was wearing glasses to read the report. The General had been serving in this army for almost fifty years. Other men his age would have retired already. He never would. He was there for life. Because his life was the military.
She respected that. She understood that. Because she felt the same.
‘Lieutenant.’ He finally addressed her.
‘Yes, sir.’ She saluted.
He still didn’t look up. ‘On the afternoon of July the twenty-sixth you were based at the San Felipe barracks, is that correct?’
Her stomach dropped. That date was branded on her brain.
‘I believe so, sir.’ She licked her horribly dried lips.
There was no waiting now. Her instinct had been right: this wasn’t the new mission she’d been hoping for.
‘Did you remain on the base, as required, for all that afternoon and evening?’
She swallowed hard. It had been one hour. One hour in which she’d—
No. Don’t think about it. Don’t remember.
Calling on all her years of discipline, she blocked the memories from her mind, as she’d been doing almost successfully these past few weeks. But betrayal curled around her.