Monday, September 28, 2020

Don Juan and the Runaway Knight by Phyllis Houseman

Linda, feeling abandoned by her husband and children, flees for a holiday in Ecuador, where she has an unexpected encounter; by Phyllis Houseman.

Well, Linda, you've gone four thousand miles south, and sixteen years into the past - pretty good for a novice fugitive.


The tall, slender woman smiled at the wry thought as she stepped off the plane's ramp onto tropically hot concrete. Breathing deeply in the thin air, Linda instantly identified pine, a mix of exotic flowers, and dust. Even if she had been blindfolded, her nose would have told her she had landed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the symbol of her carefree youth.

As she looked toward the city, Linda felt a stab of dismay. Quito had changed. There were high-rise buildings everywhere, almost obliterating the umber-tiled roofs and white-capped volcanoes she had captured on slides so long ago.

Dampening down her sense of disappointment, Linda walked into the terminal. When her turn came in the Aduana, the Customs officer inspected her papers.

Amazingly, the Ecuadorian consulate in San Francisco had re-approved her visa in less than a day. She had explained that now she would be going alone on this long-awaited South American vacation - the trip John had backed out of last week.

Linda was even able to get a low-priced, no-wait plane ticket - thanks to the current industry price war. Since the money had originally come from her teaching salary, she felt absolutely no guilt about raiding the account yesterday.

She needed this vacation. She had weathered months of upheaval. There was only so much a person could take. Linda had tried to be understanding about John's position as a newly transferred employee, however, it hurt that instead of spending a wonderful week in Ecuador with her, he had taken off on yet another open-ended business trip.

A little feminine sympathy from one of her friends might have helped, but everyone she knew lived on the East Coast, three-thousand miles away from her new home near San Francisco.

It was a potentially beautiful house, but three weeks after moving into it, confusion still reigned. The dust raised by an overzealous landscaping bulldozer covered every surface. Linda's camp-bound twelve-year-old twins had pulled out most of the clothing and games they owned, trying to decide what to include in their duffel bags.

Camp had seemed the perfect solution for the homesick boys. Linda hadn't been prepared for the numbing loneliness their departure brought. It was then that she had decided to fly to Ecuador.

"Is this your first visit to our country, Señora Knight?" The Customs man's polite question cut into Linda's thoughts.

"Uh - no, I worked here as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years," she murmured.

"Espero que su estancia en nuestro país sea tan buena que no quiera irse."

"Ah - er - that is, gracias." She gave trying to translate the rapid flow of words. Something about enjoying her stay so much, she would never want to leave. Obviously, all the Spanish-language soap operas she had watched on television recently hadn't been enough to regain her old fluency.

Linda gathered her belongings, then went in search of a taxi.



The small, third-floor room of the Pension Suiza was freezing when Linda awoke the next morning. She automatically reached for John's warm, solid body, finding only the cold, squishy comfort of a goose down pillow. Punching that inadequate substitute into submission, Linda leaned back, savoring the architecture of the gabled bedroom. The gingerbread on the window might be ersatz Swiss Chalet, but the magnificent view it framed was genuine Ecuadorian.

The sun had just begun its run down the eastern flanks of patchworked Pichincha. Like a spotlight, it revealed the civilized earthen squares thrifty Ecuadorian farmers had tilled into the steep sides of the dormant volcano

Yawning widely to get more of the thin air into her lungs, Linda pulled the plump feather bed quilt up to the tip of her cold nose. She watched the golden line that separated dawn and day inch down the mountainside, until the raucous cry of a morning bird jarred her from a semi-trance.

Forty-five minutes later, she had showered, dressed, and was on her way to the reception desk to turn in her key. She also wanted to find out when a bus to the equatorial monument would be leaving.

Manager Señor Velasquez was busy processing an early arrival. A huge potted weeping fig tree hid most of the newcomer from Linda's view. All she could see of him was a broad shoulder in a suede jacket as the bent over the registry book.

Then hearing the man's soft, gravelly burr suddenly made her wish she had picked some other place to spend the night - some other country to visit.

She must have made some sort of sound for the manager turned toward her.

"Ah, good morning, Señora Knight. I'll be with you in just a moment."

Linda was about to back away from the edge of the desk. Her intention, to slide around a nearby corner into the hallway leading outside. With nightmarish predictability, before she could take a step, the tall man leaned around the fig tree, fixing dark eyes upon her face.

With all her senses shouting "DANGER," Linda wanted to run. Yet, she couldn't move; she couldn't take her eyes off his compelling face. Constructed of sharp angles, his features had a manly beauty that had nothing to do with handsomeness, everything to do with masculine strength.

As Linda stood there, staring, his gaze intensified. In an encompassing sweep, dark eyes caressed the shoulder-length fall of her ash-blond hair, then traveled down her slender body.

Linda shook off her paralysis, stalking toward him, ready to protest the embarrassing visual evaluation. Her rage was abruptly neutralized when a wide smile revealed strong, white teeth. Before she could recover from that powerful grin, its owner turned to the entranced clerk, demanding, "Señor Velasquez, I would be honored if you could present me to your lovely guest."

The opened-mouthed employee stood for long seconds before he nodded, beamed a gold-accented smile, and made the introduction.

"Señora Knight, it is my pleasure to present to you Don Juan Caballero del Rey, a valued executive with, ah -" He looked at the register. "- with International Computers." His bald head bobbed between Linda and Don Juan. "Señor, allow me to acquaint you with the Señora Linda Knight."

Forgetting the angry words she had planned, Linda played back the introduction, her mind bemused. Mulling over the surname, she tried to translate it. Something like 'Gentleman of the King'?

Playing along, she inclined her head, murmuring, "Encantada, Señor Caballero del Rey."

"El placer es mío, Señora." The sudden rumbling of Don Juan's stomach completely ruined his aura of suave sophistication. "I've been flying all night. I guess my stomach just caught up with the rest of me. Come, Señora Knight, please join me for breakfast." He held out his hand to her.

Linda stared at those beckoning fingers, torn between preserving her matronly dignity in front of the avid manager, and wanting to know just what was going on here. She found her eyes focusing on the wink of gold on Don Juan's left hand.

"What would Mrs. Caballero del Rey say about you having breakfast with me?"

"Well, after fifteen years of marriage, she must know how much I love her - too much to let anything ruin our relationship." He indicated the wide band on her own marriage finger. "Señora, you must feel the same way about your husband."

Linda forced herself to look into that dark gaze. "Of course. Having breakfast with you can't possibly do any harm to my marriage - such as it is."

"Such as it is?" Don Juan echoed softly.

Before Linda could respond, Señor Velasquez appeared at her side.

"Señora, Senor, the dining room is open. Let me have the honor of escorting you to our best table. It has a magnificent view of Vulcán Pichincha. You must see it up close, and El Panecillo -"

He listed several tourist attractions as he shepherded the pair into the adjoining room.

"We'll have Naranjilla juice with croissants and Café con leche," Don Juan informed the waiter who instantly appeared as they sat down.

"Señor Caballero del Rey," Linda chided, almost choking on that surname. "You're supposed to let me order for myself, or at least ask me what I want."

"Ah, Señora Knight, I'm so sorry. It's just that my wife used to live in South America. She's raved about Naranjilla juice and the Ecuadorian style of coffee. They boil the beans down into a thick essence, then add hot milk," he explained. "I'll call the waiter back."

"Ah - now that you mention it, what you ordered is fine," Linda recanted. She had suddenly remembered the piquant, frothy green drink and the rich Ecuadorian brew.

When the juice arrived, Linda took a tentative sip. A sigh of bliss escaped her lips. Her breakfast companion chuckled.

"Well, it is wonderful," she challenged.

"Of course, it is. I can always rely on my wife's taste in food, drink, music -"

He looked around, focusing on the empty platform at the end of the dining room. "Shoot! That's just what we needed with our breakfast - romantic Latin music. Too bad it's so early; the band probably plays only at dinner."

"That's right," the eavesdropping waiter agreed, as he turned from serving the next table. "A magnificent three-piece band plays the latest American hits from eight to eleven."

"Never in the morning?" Don Juan asked. The waiter shook his head.

"What about CDs - a radio?" The employee looked more and more downcast as he denied each suggestion. Don Juan shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sorry, it would have been -"

"There is Miguel," the waiter interrupted.

"Miguel?"

"Yes, he's only a dishwasher, but he plays the guitar. He's been begging the manager to let him try out for the evening show. Maybe - no, I might get in trouble -"

"Just tell them I insisted," Don Juan coaxed. A thousand sucre bill appeared on the table. The waiter looked at it longingly, weighing rewards and consequences. He abruptly took the money, making for the kitchen.

Before the swinging doors stopped flapping, a short, slender teenager appeared. He clutched the neck of a battered guitar under his arm, wiping his hands on a damp apron. The grin of delight on his face was so endearing, Linda felt her eyes sting.

Bowing to his unexpected audience, the dishwasher put one leg on the seat of a chair, tested the tuning of his instrument, then broke into a boastful song Linda remembered from her Peace Corps days.

"Yo soy el chullito Quiteño. La vida lo paso encantado. Para mi ella es un sueño. ¡No hay mujeres en el mundo como las de mi canción!"

"I am a proud man of Quito. Life passes enchantedly. For me, it's a dream. There are no women in the world, like those in my song!" Linda found herself murmuring the translation.

Without waiting for applause the novice entertainer changed moods, beginning a sad, sensual melody that pledged passion and undying love. The music generated sympathetic vibrations in Linda's body. Although she tried not to look at Don Juan, she felt her eyes being pulled toward the man.

He watched her, not the singer. His gaze was assessing, serious. Linda couldn't move, her sea-blue eyes were entrapped by his deep brown irises. Long, soul-searching seconds passed. Applause from the other diners broke the hypnotic power of those eyes.

Don Juan seemed equally startled by the clapping. Shaking his head, he turned away from Linda, beckoning to the young troubadour. The dishwasher shyly accepted the verbal and financial praise they both gave him for his impromptu performance.

The dining room settled back to the business of eating breakfast. Don Juan didn't touch the rest of his meal. He just sat there, looking at Linda. Several opening gambits ran through her head. She finally blurted, "That was a marvelous gesture, Señor Caballero del Rey, thank you for an unforgettable treat."

"It was my pleasure - with an ulterior motive." His penetrating gaze speared Linda's complete attention. "In return for the musical interlude, I expect you to end this - this formality. Let me call you Linda," he demanded. He pronounced "Linda" with just a hint of Latin caress. A broad grin stretched his generous mouth. "You must call me -"

"Don Juan?" Linda interposed.

"- Well, OK, I'll accept Juan, for the time being, cara mia."

"Now, don't push your luck," Linda warned, her body stiffening at the endearment.

"I wouldn't want to do that." Then, as if striving to reestablish the genial atmosphere, he changed the subject. "So, Linda, what brings you to Ecuador?"

It was a casual question. It would require such a complex answer. Linda looked at him, trying to decide if she wanted to open up to this man. If she did, what was most important? The move? The twins' reaction to it? The canceled trip?

"I guess I came to Ecuador to get a breather," she said. "We just moved into a new state. John, my husband, was transferred. His promotion involves constant traveling, so I've been left alone to deal with two unhappy children, a house that's a mess, a thousand minor decisions -" Linda stopped, aghast at the bitterness of her tone.

"Sounds like he dumped a lot on your head," Don Juan ventured.

"Yes - no, oh, I don't know. He was supposed to be here on this trip - a second honeymoon. Then, he had to cope with some customer emergency," she admitted. "I can't blame him for that. But when the kids went off to camp, well, I just decided I needed to get away. You must think that was wrong of me, Don Juan." Linda's voice had a waver in it she tried to control.

"No, Linda, I don't. I'm sure your husband understands how angry you must have felt."

Long-fingered hands reached across the table, ready to provide comfort. Not able to accept it, Linda jerked her hands away.

"Just why are you here, Don Juan?"

"Business - very important business."

"Of course, what else? Well, I won't keep you. I'm sure your clients are waiting. I've got a lot of sightseeing to do this morning."

She rose, unconsciously extending her hand as a polite South American would.

He took the offered hand. Instead of a pro forma squeeze, Juan brushed the tips of her fingers with his lips before letting it go.

"Linda." Soft, husky seduction. "Linda, let me join you. My - my wife has told me so much about this beautiful country. Where are you going today?"

A myriad of conflicting emotions battled in Linda's mind. Oh, she was very tempted to go sightseeing with this beguiling stranger, who reminded her so much of Johnny.

Johnny, the carefree young man she had married. Johnny, who had climbed the corporate ladder, transforming into serious, preoccupied John. Distant, elusive John.

This man was warm, funny, gorgeous - so tempting. Perhaps going on an innocuous sightseeing trip with Don Juan was just what she needed.

"I'm taking a bus to the monument on the equator, and - you're welcome to come along."

"Terrific! We don't have to take a bus, I've a rental. It comes with a complete set of maps, so you can be the navigator."

Linda couldn't help laughing. "Don Juan, I have to warn you. My family and friends all know I get lost going to the supermarket."

Linda wasn't trying to get out of the trip. She couldn't back out now, not when the devil sparked glints of humor out of those compelling eyes. Not when his lean face was so relaxed, so attractive.



It took a half hour for them to get out of the city. Once they got on the Pan American Highway, there was little navigating for Linda to do. It was the only road that followed the high basin dividing the two cordilleras of the Andes. After a while, guardrails disappeared. There were just buffering earthen banks that often fell away, leaving their little car clinging to bare mountainside, thousands of feet above meandering river ribbons.

When Linda slid next to Juan's sturdy body, he asked through clenched teeth, "How much further to the monument?"

For the first time, Linda could see he was as nervous as she was. His knuckles gleamed white on the steering wheel.

"About six miles, according to the map," she said, trying not to look over the edge as they rounded a sharp curve. "My God, I don't understand how people can drive on this highway every day!"

"I know how you feel," her companion admitted. "For the last half hour, I've been sending up prayers for every denomination I could think of."

He laughed. The rich sound curved around the low ceiling of the car, wrapping Linda in a sudden cloak of security.

"Juan." She laid a light hand on his arm. "I have a feeling Someone up there already heard you, you're doing just fine."

Her faith in his driving appeared to relax him. Broad shoulders settled back against the seat. Smiling at Linda, Juan fiddled with the radio until the lyric chords of a pasillo filled the small car.

They found the equatorial monument twenty minutes later. At the stone obelisk, Juan took Linda's camera, asking an obliging Japanese tourist to snap a picture of them straddling the line dividing the hemispheres. Juan slid his arm around Linda's shoulders at the last instant. She looked up at him, not knowing that what she was feeling escaped her eyes, being captured for posterity on the film.

Linda was startled when she felt a shudder run through Juan's body. "So, cara, where do we go from here?" The hoarse question held multiple layers of meaning.

Gazing up at him, Linda felt lightheaded, until she realized she had been holding her breath too long in the rarefied air. Taking a deep, ragged gulp, she said, "There's supposed to be a small village near here, known for its woodcarvers. We - my husband and I - tried to find a piece of art when we used to go on vacation."

"That's a wonderful tradition. Let's see if we can locate the place."

There were choices this time. Linda made some wrong ones. Paving, then cobblestones disappeared. The road turned into a rutted trail, which terminated at the top of a high plateau.

They were lost amid such compelling beauty both left the car, drawn to the edge of a precipice that could have marked the end of the known world.

In the distance, a pale blue sky melded with the jutting, indigo escarpment of the eastern cordillera. From old geography lessons, Linda knew that just on the other side of the seemingly impassable barrier rivulets merged, eventually forming the headwaters of the Amazon. In her mind's eye, Auca and Jivero Indians - headhunters only a generation ago - glided through steaming jungle just fifty miles east, and ten thousand feet below.

The danger - the splendor - coalesced, tugging at the couple. They turned. Linda found herself taking a hesitant step toward the man who was more dangerous, more wonderful to her than anyone else she had ever known.

Her step was all he needed. Closing the distance between them, he captured her in his arms, raining hot kisses over her face, not caring where they landed. Their kisses grew desperate, hands moved to mold, to caress. Their melding bodies sank onto minty ground cover.

Linda couldn't get enough of his firm, tender mouth, or get close enough to the warmth of his body. Her head was spinning, tinkling bells began to play an exotic tune in her ears. Running counterpoint to the jingling melody, were the haunting scales of Andean pan pipes playing somewhere in the misty distance. The music grew louder and nearer until reality jolted Linda out of the fantasy she had been playing along with since early morning.

"Juan. John! Stop kissing my neck. JOHN KNIGHT, I said let go of me this instant. We're going to have company," she yelled into her dazed husband's ear.

John finally heard the panic in her voice. He stumbled to his feet, pulling Linda up with him. He was still clasping her, leaning against the support of a wind-bent eucalyptus tree, when a small boy of ten or so rounded a rocky outcrop.

The child's eyes widened at the sight of two disheveled gringos clutching each other. With inbred good manners, he doffed his colorful knitted cap to them, grinning a white smile of hello and goodbye. The dignified string of llamas following him paid no attention to the bewildered couple.

"I just don't believe this." John shook his head. He looked out at the seemingly empty vistas surrounding them. "I would have sworn nobody else has been here for the last million years."

"John. Oh - Johnny," Linda managed to gasp through the laughter shaking her body. "It's my fault. I should have remembered that old Ecuadorian saying - 'No matter how high the mountain, an Indian will be there before you.'"

John joined in on her compulsive laughter. When he sobered, he looked into his wife's eyes. "Linda, I was never so frightened as when I walked into that empty house yesterday," he said, dropping a soft kiss on her hair. "I'd forgotten about the twins going to camp. I imagined a kidnapping, or that you had left me."

He put a restraining finger on Linda's mouth when she tried to protest. "Just let me finish, honey. I should have realized how unhappy you were. You never reproached me, but I heard the sadness in your voice the last time I called. So, I rushed through those Mexican contracts and got home a week early." He placed tender hands against each side of her face.

"Linda, I swear that was my last business trip for a long time. I don't care if they fire me. I've refused any more travel for the next six months."

John looked at his wife, his face whitening when he saw tears sliding down her cheeks. "Linda, you've got to let me have another chance!" he pleaded. "I know I've given you a rough time, but I won't let you leave me. When I found the notations you made about your travel arrangements, next to the phone, I even followed you to Ecuador!"

That explained most of the questions Linda had about his arrival at the Pension Suiza. "Oh, John," she sighed, hugging his strong body. "I know it was dumb to bolt. And as anti-woman's liberation as it sounds, I needed you to lean on at times, and you just weren't there. In fact, you, the 'Johnny' I fell in love with, hasn't been there for a long, long time."

"Sweetheart, I know. I got too involved with my new responsibilities. That won't ever happen again. My God, don't you understand how much I need you, too? Your strength, your laughter, your love?"

Nodding, Linda wiped away the last of her tears and smiled up at her husband. "I think I realized it this morning when I saw you leering at me around that potted fig tree. 'Don Juan Caballero del Rey,' indeed!" She repeated his alias once more, a sweet hint of laughter lingering in the lilting Spanish flow of the name.

"Well, what does 'Caballero del Rey' mean? A king's man - his knight," he translated.

"Yes, I sort of figured that out. My reputation must be ruined with Señor Velasquez and everyone else at the Pension."

"Don't worry, honey. Velasquez was in on the game. I had to show him my passport and explain my mission. That guy's a romantic at heart and put on a first-class act for your benefit."

Grinning, John pulled Linda down to sit with him against the rough-barked wood of the storm-canted eucalyptus. Safe in each other's arms, they leaned on the wind-tested tree.

They had mended their marriage; a marriage, like the tree, that would endure.

4 comments:

  1. ay caramba ...let Mr. Rourke and Tattoo take you to fantasy island....

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  2. Romance isn't my thing but it was well written with good descriptions of Ecuador and a satisfactory ending.

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  3. Funny, I suspected John at the very beginning (despite completely whiffing on the obvious clue in Don Juan's surname) but they kept up the ruse long enough that I doubted myself. Very well crafted.

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  4. Entertaining, romantic interlude with great descriptions.

    Thinking travel-romance may be an interesting sub-genre.

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