Authors: Sarah Collins
Cassie and Taylor pushed their way through the throngs of reporters at the entrance to Rancho Del Sol.
There were cars and flash bulbs everywhere, making it difficult to pass. “So this is what it feels like to be famous,” Taylor joked. “It sucks.”
“It’s not us they’re after, it’s him.
Mexico’s most eligible billionaire. Ridiculous,” said Cassie, her fists clenching. “Hope he’s close enough so I can pop him one.”
“That’ll be a great solution, Cass.
‘Girl beats up billionaire, film at 11.’ I can see it now.” Taylor grabbed Cassie’s hand and pulled her through the throng at the door, shoving people aside as she went. “If you want a bouncer, let me do it. I don’t have as much at stake.”
“The extinction of an entire species is a big responsibility,” Cassie agreed, nodding.
“Those aren’t the stakes I was talking about,” said Taylor, giving a giant tug on Cassie’s hand, releasing them into the meeting room.
They took a seat in the back of the room, Cassie hoping to remain unnoticed for as long as possible.
The 100 or so people who did get invitations to the ribbon-cutting ceremony were already inside, sipping champagne and milling about, watching video presentations and checking out the maps and artists’ renderings in full color. “It really is a nice resort, and a good thing for the people down here,” Taylor said. “I can’t wait to play tennis here, as long as they stay far away from Playa Luna.”
“You are such a traitor,” Cassie hissed, poking her elbow into Taylor’s ribs.
Wincing, Taylor elbowed back. “I’m a realist, my friend. I work at an airport, and my carbon footprint alone could probably wipe out entire species. I do what I can, but I also know when the train is on the tracks. I hope the best for you, and I’ll do everything I can to help, but I think this train is unstoppable.”
The event got underway, and Cassie and Taylor listened to long presentations, in Spanish, about how wonderful the resort would be, and how it would help the economy.
“See, I told you,” said Taylor. The minister of tourism for Baja California spoke, all smiles, and there was a lot of gleeful handshaking.
The people on the dais were all dressed in expensive suits, and the lone woman wore a Chanel suit with diamonds everywhere.
To Cassie, she looked like Audrey Hepburn, with a little Latin flavor. She was beautiful, but Cassie wondered how the woman had navigated the sand in those expensive heels.
As Cassie waited through the speeches, she noticed the woman staring at her intently.
She studied her notes, sure it was her nerves acting up again. She willed the butterflies to be still, as the time for her to speak came closer.
She looked up from her notes and caught the woman’s eye once more, and her natural instinct was to smile.
The woman’s brows furrowed, and she quickly looked away.
“What was that about?” Taylor said.
“What did you do to her?”
“I have no idea who she is.
How would I know?”
Cassie heard her introduction and rose to her feet.
Making sure she was steady, she walked to the podium, hundreds of eyes on her, wondering who she was. She realized this opportunity to speak was really just a pity move to make the Institute feel like they had some hope, but she really felt there was none.
As Cassie described the plight of the
vaquita in the northern Sea of Cortez, she swept the audience away to her dream of a vaquita breeding sanctuary. She shared that in the early 1990’s, there had been almost 1,000 in this small area of the world where they live. Now, there were fewer than 250, and more than 30 per year were lost to the gill nets of the fishermen, both legally and illegally fishing in these waters.
She explained they were the smallest species of porpoise and lived in the more shallow tidelands, feeding off of smaller fish and squid.
She let them know the vaquita lived to be about 21 years old and had a calf about once every two years, caring for and feeding those calves until they were about 5 months old. And she shared her experience of the day before, creating with her words a vivid scene of the dead calf and the mourning dance of the parents.
She felt her heart breaking as she spoke, creating as best she could the world of the
vaquita as she saw them. She looked up from her notes and was surprised the room was completely quiet, and several of the ladies held tissues to their eyes. The men were somber, and the reporters in the back were scribbling furiously in their notepads. She spotted Taylor in the back, holding two thumbs up and wearing a silly grin.
smiled, hopeful she had made her case. She turned to the CEO of the company and looked directly at him. “These tidal waters were given to the Institute to form a breeding ground to ensure the continuation of this majestic species. On behalf of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and for the preservation of the endangered vaquita, we ask once again that you allow us to continue with this project.”
The room erupted with applause, photographers’ cameras flashing by the hundreds. Cassie backed away from the podium as Alejandro approached, his pained expression tugging at her heart, against her will.
“Thank you, Miss Lewis, for your description of the
vaquita and the risk of extinction. While I am the CEO of Costa Azul International, we are a family-owned company and governed by the board of directors. This issue will be taken to a vote this afternoon, and the board of directors will decide how to proceed. Thank you for your time. Now, we can move on to the ribbon-cutting ceremony—“
“Hang on a minute,” Cassie said, moving one step back toward the podium.
“That’s it? You’re going to think about it? I don’t want to get a letter in the mail. I think you need to decide now, before it’s too late.”
Behind Alejandro, Cassie saw the woman in Chanel rise slowly from her chair and move beside him.
“Young lady, do you know who I am?”
“No, I don’t” Cassie said, watching Alejandro cast his eyes downward, his shoulders suddenly smaller.
“I am Senora Nina Vasquez, chairman of the board. I’m also Alejandro’s mother.” The tall, slender woman stood erect, her eyes boring into Cassie’s. Not blinking, she said, “We have our ways of dealing with family business, Miss Lewis. We will decide, and make you aware of our decision.”
Cassie stepped backwards as all the blood rushed out of her face.
She felt her hands grow cold, the woman’s words hitting her like ice.
Cassie sat outside under the stars, the flames of the bonfire shooting up into the night.
Devastated, she’d spent the afternoon walking along the beach, her mind replaying the events of the day in a loop. She’d been shocked at Alejandro’s cold response to her plea, and his mother…what a piece of work. She’d never met anyone so cold. How they could not understand how important the sanctuary was boggled her mind.
Now, in the quiet of the night, she just felt exhausted.
Taylor had come home with her, and, making sure Cassie would be all right, had gone back to Rancho Del Sol to see Raul. Cassie hadn’t wanted to ruin Taylor’s time.
At least one of us should be having fun
, she thought, poking a stick at the glowing logs in front of her. As the embers floated higher from the fire pit, she noticed movement on the other side, near the house.
Alejandro strode slowly toward her, his broad shoulders casting a shadow on the sand in the moonlight.
Sitting beside her, he reached for her hand. She jumped from her chair, circling to the other side of the fire.
“I don’t understand, Alejandro.
Why didn’t you tell me who you were? I thought we had a connection, and you understood what I stand for.” She rammed the stick she was holding into the ground and sat in the sand, waiting for his response.
glowed in the firelight. He stared at the flames as his hands worked over the piece of wood in his hands. “I have made a huge mistake, Cassie. I came here to apologize.” Dropping the stick, his head sunk heavily into his hands.
felt her fury quicken, heated by the flames of the fire and the sight of him, so forlorn. “You should have told me from the beginning. Why did you let me go on about the vaquita, let me show them to you? You don’t deserve it.” She grabbed the stick back out of the ground and rearranged the logs in the fire pit, again sending embers toward the sky.
“If you could just calm down for a moment, I will tell you everything.”
He stood to his full height, squaring his shoulders, his jaw stronger. Circling the fire pit, he stood close enough to her to reach slowly for the stick she was holding. “I’d prefer if you were unarmed when I do,” he said, a slow smile growing. “Will you give me that chance?”
Cassie dropped her eyes to the fire, her hand releasing the stick into his.
She felt the warmth of his touch as he took it, her heart softening. “I want to hear everything, Alejandro. Why did you lie to me?”
Taking a deep breath, Alejandro sat back down in his chair by the fire.
He leaned back, stretching out his legs toward its warmth. “I have spent my life being groomed for the position I hold now as CEO for Costa Azul International. My family has been in construction for generations, and I am the only son of my parents, and the only grandson of my grandfather.” His hands seemed to have nowhere to rest as he folded his arms across his chest.
“I was sent to the best schools in the United States, and spent summers apprenticing under my father.
This project here in Rancho Del Sol was to be my debut as CEO of the hotel division of the larger family company, Costa Azul International.”
grew wide as she made the connection. “Costa Azul International owns half of Mexico,” she said, her hands flying to her mouth. “That’s your family’s company? I thought you just worked for them.”
“Yes, and it’s not just Mexico we own half of,” he said, with a wry smile.
“My grandfather started with oil and mineral rights and moved on to telephone rights when the time came. He bought all the available property he could decades ago, waiting for the right time to develop it.”
“I had no idea,” Cassie said, her chin rested on her folded knees.
She stared at the fire as she ran back through her memory of this company. It was one of the biggest family-run businesses on the planet. The crushing knowledge of the size of her opponent brought heated tears once again.
“My grandfather is
fundamentally a kind man, Cassie, but a product of his generation. He wants what’s best for his country, for the people of Mexico. This particular piece of property, though, is special. It’s the only reason emotion is so high surrounding it. I am forbidden to deviate from the plan. It is sacred.”
“If he owns half of Mexico, what’s so special about this property?”
Cassie asked, her brows furrowed now. Her tears had slowed, and her curiosity was getting the best of her.
“Many years ago, when I was small, the family suffered a major rift.
My mother was not an only child. She had a beloved brother, Pablo, and they were running the business together, with my father and grandfather. It was a group effort, and plans began to develop the property here, in the Baja. It’s a beautiful spot, and my grandfather wanted to help the local economy as well as provide access to its beauty for all people.”
Cassie leaned forward, as Alejandro’s voice had grown soft and low.
She waited, as he stared at the flames dancing, the piece of sulphur she had placed in it dripping purple and green.
“Surveying began here, and my Uncle Pablo was in charge of the initial process.
He moved to Rancho Del Sol to begin the resort.”
“I had no idea anything had been started before.
What happened? Why isn’t there a 5-star resort there now?” she asked. She began to pace as questions flooded her mind. She had never heard this before, and she thought she knew everything about her local area.
Alejandro stood also, shoving his hands in his pockets as his voice grew stronger.
“My uncle met a woman here. My grandfather is a kind man, as I said, but very traditional in the ways of our culture. The woman was not an educated one, and their union was forbidden.”
“What difference does it make?
They were in love,” Cassie said softly.
Shaking his head, Alejandro said, “It means everything here in Mexico, Cassie.
People from the United States don’t understand the depth of our traditions. Things are changing slowly, now, but at that time, my grandfather would not allow his son to do what he perceived would be throwing his life away.”
Her heart fluttered at the pain in Alejandro’s eyes.
“Did he ever marry?”
His hands clenching, Alejandro said, “Pablo defied my grandfather, marrying his love anyway, there on the beach in Rancho Del Sol, before there was a resort of any kind.
My grandfather cut him off from the family, both contact and money, and we have never heard from him again.” He stood taller now, his amber eyes glowing in the light of the flame.
“Alejandro, I’m so sorry,” Cassie said as she grabbed Alejandro’s hand.
“You’ve heard nothing about him at all, in all these years?”
“We’ve heard some stories, but not many.
My Uncle Pablo was a master craftsman as well as an expert businessman. I had heard he built churches, and later houses, of the ladrillo brick as in this house,” he said, gesturing toward Taylor’s house behind them. The beautiful arches, with their whale-tail artistry, danced by the light of the fire. “I would be proud of whatever he did.”
“He never came back?
You never found him at all?” she said, heartache cracking her voice as she spoke.
“My mother was bereft.
He was her little brother, and they were very close. She tried to find him once, but my grandfather found out, threatening to banish her and her family from the business as well. From that time forward, we were not allowed to speak of him in my grandfather’s presence, and my mother’s heart was frozen.” He lifted Cassie’s hand to his cheek, his touch warming her to her core.
“My heart has been frozen as well since then, Cassie.
It wasn’t until I saw you on the beach and had the pleasure of meeting you that I had ever felt drawn to anyone in that way. When I was honored by you sharing your passion for the vaquita, something bigger than any company, that my heart began to beat again.”
Alejandro held Cassie’s hand to his lips, gently brushing her palm with his kiss.
“By the time I realized the company had denied you the water rights for the sanctuary, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. I hoped you felt the same way about me, and I didn’t want to risk losing you.”
She pulled back her hand as if it had touched a flame.
“I don’t understand. If you’re the CEO, why can’t you decide about the sanctuary?”
Alejandro turned and walked toward the cliff.
He gazed intently at the beach below, and then turned his sights up toward the stars. “My mother knows Pablo was married on that beach, and that’s the last place she’s ever heard from him. She is intent on leaving it untouched, as a memorial to him. She is immovable on this issue, and refuses to speak about it. She was the one who sent the denial before I’d even seen it.”
gasped, the vision of the cold woman on the dais in front of her. “Your mother?”
She believes she is doing the honorable thing on behalf of her beloved, lost brother. I have not been able to deter her, and I have tried. I’ve been trying for three days now, and she will not discuss it any further.” Turning toward Cassie, he brushed away a wisp of hair blowing in the warm night breeze. “She controls the board, and this afternoon they voted against the sanctuary. I’m so sorry.”
Cassie had been standing too long, and her leg buckled once more and the flames came closer as she fell toward them.
Alejandro grabbed her waist as she fell, bringing her toward him with one swift pull. She threw her arms around his neck, grabbing tightly for balance. Her pulse raced after her near miss with the fire and as her breath returned to normal, she rested her head on his shoulder.
“I don’t know what to do, Alejandro,” she whispered, her warm tears wetting his shirt.
Alejandro enveloped her in his embrace, rocking her softly. She felt his chin resting on the top of her head as he reached under hers, tilting her face toward the moonlight, toward him. He stood still, his eyes searching hers. Slowly, she stood on her tiptoes, pulling his head toward hers.
His eyes flashed as he leaned into her, his warm lips soft on hers.
His arms tightened around her waist as the kiss deepened, his scent make her wonder if her knee would give out again. Her head spun as she gave her heart to him in a way she never thought she could, to anyone.
He pulled away from her abruptly, his hands still on her waist, making sure she was steady.
Taking a step back, he took her hand. With a slight bow, he said, “I promise I will make it right, Miss Lewis. For you, for the vaquita…and for me.”
He brought her hand to his lips once more, lingering for a moment.
“Buenas noches, Senorita. I will see you tomorrow at the press conference?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Alejandro.”
She watched him walk to his car in the moonlight, the flames of the bonfire now turning to ash. She looked out over the ocean, wondering what he could possibly be able to do now.