His height arrested my attention first, of course. Tall and slim as a willow sapling, I was accustomed to standing eyeball-to-eyeball with most of the men I knew. In the Chilean Patagonia, I looked down on nearly everybody. But this young man towered at least six or seven inches above me, though he slouched at the ferry railing with the slinky grace of a mountain cat.
It was the last place in the world I wanted to be. At the tail end of the Easter break, I’d bid ciao to civilization—again—and caught the catamaran back home to Puerto Cignos in the provincial outpost of Aysén. The very word ‘Aysén’ is a Spanish transliteration of ‘ice end,’ the bleak and boring end of the earth, as far as I was concerned. With no further getaways foreseeable until winter vacation in July, I did not look forward to the dreary twelve-hour return trip to Patagonia.
That is, I wasn’t looking forward to it until I saw him.
The ferry from Quellón, Chiloé, to Chacabuco-Aysén was the last place in the world I expected to find an interesting guy either. You just couldn’t miss him, so of course I noticed.
I’d curled up in a corner of the tacky passenger salon and slept away the initial leg of the journey. When I ranged outside at midday for a change of air and scenery, the waters of the Gulf of Corcovado were as dull as they’d been in the early morning. The leaden sky pressed down. The ferry engine still whined relentlessly. The deck still stank of brine and diesel. But…a bronze sculpture soared against the lackluster horizon, like the figurehead of some Greek god.
Gulp. I’d found my breath of fresh air. My outlook on the rest of the voyage experienced a dramatic change.
He lounged at the port bulkhead watching the creaming wake of the ship as if he were content to be there. His clothes were hardly flamboyant—faded jeans and a tweedy pullover of coarse wool. That Chilote sweater identified him as a native Chiloé Islander. Probably headed to work at a sawmill somewhere in the dense forests of the Region of Aysén or on through Pass 33 toward a sheep ranch in Argentina. Or so I figured. As far as I knew, we weren’t expecting any additional employees for our own family enterprises in the area right now. Pucha, too bad. He was that handsome.
He had the light hair and eyes not uncommon to the islanders of Chiloé descended from pure Spanish stock. His peaches-and-cream complexion glowed with robust health, and something about both the smooth regular features and the easy bearing seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe I’d seen him before, although I couldn’t imagine not remembering.
Only one way to find out. The language of flirting was my mother tongue, so I struck a pose and sashayed up to the good-looking Chilote. “Caballero, have I met you somewhere before?” I asked frankly.
He squinted down at me from the heights with eyes as clear and cool as winter rain. “I don’t know, señorita. It’s possible. Where do you think we might have met?” Evidently, he knew the lingo too. His voice was a soft baritone drawl rich enough to melt my spinal cord and definitely not a typical Chilote accent.
And his sweater, although hand-knit of raw wool, looked new and of top-quality workmanship. Not the ordinary laborer’s stained-and-pilled garb, either. Who was he? Riveted, I gave him a sultry sweep of my long lashes. “I’m not sure. You look so familiar, yet I can’t imagine forgetting you.”
“Nor I you, dama.” He inclined his head toward me and I caught a glimpse of a plush cap of caramel corn silk and a waft of something tantalizing… Sandalwood? On this backwoods ferry?
“Then tell me about yourself. Where do you come from and where are you going?” I was nothing if not direct.
“Today I’ve come from the island of Chauquelín, in outer Chiloé. My home…at least, more than any other single place. What about you?”
Ah-hah, I knew it. He was a Chilote. “Oh, the opposite of you, more’s the pity. I’m returning home to Patagonia—Puerto Cignos. I’ve been visiting friends in Zapallar over the Easter break.”
A peculiar expression, a sort of quirky lift of the eyebrows, flashed across the face which had been an imperturbable mask up until now. Was he awed by the mention of my holiday in Zapallar, resort town of Chile’s crème de la crème? But he recovered quickly. “Zapallar, eh? I’ve been there some, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Patagonia. What’s to pity, señorita?”
Apparently not impressed in the least. I shrugged. “I’m a city girl at heart, I guess, though I’ll admit this area is beautiful enough. So you know the Patagonia? You’ve visited here before?”
“Only once. When I was a teenager, I worked at Cucao for a couple of summers and they brought me down to Swan Island as part of a National Park gig. I’m thrilled to be going back now.”
So he was on his way to our region. I projected a coquettish glance through my lashes up at Mr. Gorgeous as a rain-laden gust of wind unfurled the dark-brown waves of my hair in long streamers. “Have you been everywhere too? Zapallar, Swan Island… Surely our paths must have crossed somewhere along the way. What exactly do you do, wandering Chilote?”
He studied me a moment before answering, his sculpted lips pursed a little. “I’m headed to work out of Puerto Cignos…where among other things I’m going to be an evangelical missionary.”
I blinked blankly. “Come again?”
That perfectly adorable mouth of his broke into a broad grin, his first of our conversation. The mist-gray eyes danced. “A missionary. You know, preach the gospel to the heathen, pass out tracts…”
I laughed, certain by his nonchalant good humor that he was teasing. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, feigning a groan. “Then I guess that puts me in the opposition camp.”
“Why?” He smirked. “You don’t look much like a nun.”
I laughed again, heartily this time, and extended my hand. “Oh, no. But my grandmother, mayoress of Puerto Cignos since the dawn of time, is an absolute bastion of Catholic orthodoxy though. I’m Constanza Belmar Fiorucci.”
His expressive eyebrows rose and stayed up this time, but he took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Ah, Doña Constanza,” he murmured. A most un-Chilote-like gesture, though his words proceeded straight from traditional aristocratic address, tantamount to calling me ‘my lady’ in Chiloé. “Then you must be the…um, granddaughter?… of Señora Lucía Piroli de Fiorucci.”
“Indeed I am.”
“She’s a venerable lady, I understand. Puts me in mind of my own Chilote abuela, God rest her soul.”
Enchanting as he was, he had a lot of nerve comparing my grandmother, the daughter of an Italian count, with a toothless Chauquelín fishwife. Before I could object, however, a young man in the olive-drab uniform of a carabinero hustled toward us along the deck, gesticulating energetically. A rooster tail reared up from his close-cropped hair. My new Chilote acquaintance swiveled in his direction.
“Lieutenant Serrano,” —Cowlick panted, saluting— “the captain will see you now, señor.”
“Good. I’ll be right along, corporal.” He nodded to me with at least a semblance of regret. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, señorita. I have an appointment with the ship’s captain. But I’m sure we’ll run into one another again in Puerto Cignos.”
I gawped at him with my mouth half-open. “Lieu-lieutenant?” I stammered. “You’re a carabinero?”
“Marcos Serrano De la Cruz, at your service.” He bowed his wind-ruffled velvet head and kissed my hand again while another smile played across that maddeningly handsome face. “New commandant for Carabineros de Chile in Cignos-Puyuhuapi.”
“Why, you’re…and you’re not—” I stuttered, flooded with a dozen conclusions at once and unable to express any of them coherently. “And you’re the—”
“Síp, that’s right.” He sauntered off with the corporal, then stopped mid-stride and withdrew a small pamphlet from the back pocket of his jeans. He handed it to me with a wink. “Just spreading the Word, okay? Oh, and please give my regards to Doña Lucía. I’ll probably call on her before the week is out.”
I stared after him, my mind reeling. Marcos Serrano De la Cruz! “Field Marshal” Serrano, as the sports pundits called him. Of course his face and athletic build shouted familiarity—his name had been a household word all over the country two or three years ago when he starred on the legendary fútbol team that won the Junior World Cup for Chile. I’d lost track of his career when he left professional soccer to join the national police force, but I did know he’d been something of a hero during the brief separatist rebellion in Chiloé recently. He and his brother in the Navy—what was his name? Ah, Nicolás.
But I hadn’t recognized Marcos out of a soccer jersey and in that Chilote get-up, I swear I didn’t. If he’d even been in his police uniform, it might have offered me a clue. But I had none, none at all. Missionary, indeed. He’d had fun stringing me along…