But the expression wasn’t the one she’d wanted.
‘We thought it best to save your blushes,’ he said curtly.
His abrasiveness dashed the last of Stella’s hope.
Who was the ‘we’ who’d made this decision? And was it really to save her blushes? Or someone else’s? Someone much more important than her.
Did they want this swept under the carpet and for her to disappear quietly? For this ‘incident’ to go away? For a moment rage blinded her. She wanted to scream this betrayal to the world. This unfairness.
But she couldn’t. Because it was her own fault that her life had been totalled. Her poor choice that afternoon. But this preposterous claim that she was pregnant... It had to be false.
‘I’m not pregnant,’ she reiterated forcefully. She refused to believe it.
The blunt order stopped her cold. He’d made it clear her career was destroyed and he wasn’t interested in her reaction or her defence. He didn’t care. He just wanted her gone, quickly and quietly.
She stared at the greying, ageing man who wielded so much power. He couldn’t know who it was she’d been with, because if he did he’d be angrier than this. He would care more.
Run, her instinct screamed. She needed to run before he did find out. Before anyone found out.
But she had nowhere to go. She had no permanent home of her own. When on furlough she travelled. Often on shorter periods of leave she stayed on the base and volunteered for extra shifts. So where? She couldn’t go to him. And as for her childhood home...
She looked again at the older man who was now studiously ignoring her with that utterly impassive face. She tried to ask him. ‘Sir—’
His emotionless repetition stripped the last veneer of confidence from her. All she had left was a plea.
General Carlos Zambrano, operational leader of the San Felipe Armed Services and Stella’s sole parent, didn’t respond. He merely put the paperwork back into the thin manila file that was all that remained of the military career she’d worked so long for.
She’d done the one thing she’d vowed never to do—had never done until now. She’d broken that barrier between professional and private. The barrier both she and her father had enforced.
Defeat twisted and she didn’t try to speak again. Unbearably hurt, she turned and walked to the door. With every step she hoped her father would call to her. Stop her. That he would want to help her.
But he never had before, and today there was nothing but the inevitable disappointed silence.
Disappointment on both sides.
Glancing back as she closed his door behind her, she saw him still sitting at his desk. Still looking away. Still refusing to acknowledge her.
Once more she’d let him down. And there was no coming back from something this catastrophic. She’d never redeem herself in his eyes. She’d lost everything she’d worked so hard for.
She paused, clutching the door handle for support. She had no idea what to do or where to go.
Slowly she became aware of the surreptitious, speculative glances from the personnel working in the room. It was unusual for someone of her rank to be called into the General’s office. They probably thought it was preferential treatment because she was his daughter.
But perhaps they already knew. That thought horrified her. Did they all know what she’d done and who she’d done it with?
And it was preferential treatment. She should have been dishonourably discharged or, at best, formally warned and demoted. Instead her father had used his rank to ensure her removal from the service was done in secret.
So there was no embarrassment for anyone.
Except she was left with nothing. No job. No home. The reputation she’d worked so long and so hard to build had been burned with the strike of a single match.
Everything was gone because of that one hour in which she’d lost herself. The one hour that no one was ever supposed to know about...
‘I’m ordered to drive you back to the barracks.’ The Sergeant from earlier materialised in front of her.
‘Thank you,’ she said, but the words barely sounded.
She sat in the back seat of the car and wound down the window, trying to get fresh air to clear her head. Her gaze skimmed over the grand homes, with their marble columns and gorgeous gardens, and beyond to the aquamarine waters of the glorious coastline. The beauty of the wealthy island now oppressed her. She willed the Sergeant to drive faster. She had to find a place and space to think. And that was not San Felipe.