Cover illustration by Allan Kass
Lovely young Fran Kelly had accepted a transfer to the American Army base at Coronado, hoping for an easy tour of duty and a much-needed rest. Almost at once Spain began to work its magic. Perhaps it was the presence of handsome Dr. Des Walton which made the country seem so wonderful. Or was it Mario Vallejo, the landed aristocrat and famous matador who showed her the most fascinating places in town? But Des kept brooding over some secret in his past, and Mario was involved in activities Army intelligence frowned upon. Confused by rumors of terror and violence, how could Fran choose between the two men? If her heart betrayed her, Fran would face a danger that could destroy her only chance for happiness ...
“He should remember that he is a guest of Spain, not we of America.”
“They do not matter. They are tourists from the north who come here. German, Scandinavian, Dutch. Their own developers build for profit the concrete warrens they vacation in, and our government allows this because of the deutsche marks, the kroner, the guilders they spend here. Other than money, they bring nothing to Spain except the permissiveness of their own decaying society! They do not even bother to learn enough of our language to ask for their needs.”
Lt. Frances Kelly is a surgical nurse who has just transferred to the US Army base in Coronado because “Spain was full of interesting places and people and things,” and besides, she’d been worked so hard in New Mexico she was about ready to drop. She is fluent in Spanish, and it goes without saying that she is a top-notch nurse. She has an excellent surgeon, Dr. Des Walton, to work with. He’s an emotionally wounded guy, scarred from Vietnam, where he had done an emergency splenectomy and nephrectomy on a good friend—only to find later that the patient had congenital absent kidney and so died in less than a week after his only kidney was removed. As Fran arrives, Des had just walked out of a similar operation, unable to go on, and gotten drunk. Fortunately the base commander, Major Bill Ryan, another surgeon, is forgiving, understanding Walton’s actions as the result of a neurosis, and doesn’t court-martial him; instead he pairs Fran with Des in the OR, thinking, “Des Walton was a man who needed a calm and reassuring girl just like her.”
Eventually, as you know it will, another identical case lands on Walton’s OR table with no other surgeons available. Walton is about to lose it when Fran calmly and reassuringly suggests that Walton make a midline incision and manually palpate for the good kidney before removing the bad one. It’s such a crazy idea, it just might work! Walton follows her suggestion and then, reassured of the second kidney, is able to complete the surgery. “It was you who gave me back my confidence,” Des tells her afterward. Another life saved! Now if only all war-related PTSD was so easily cured …
In the interim, Frances has gone to a bullfight and witnessed the most brilliant performance ever, by matador Mario Vallejo. She’d called, “Good luck!” to him before the match, shockingly—“norteamericanos do not usually do this,” she is told—and he’d sent her his cape to display during the fight. Major Joe Crane, a self-absorbed possessive ass she’s attended the fight with, tells her, ”You don’t know these people like I do. Vallejo wasn’t paying you any compliment when he gave you that thing. When they give any foreign woman a gift like that it’s because they want her. There’s no way they’d marry outside their own kind.” To her credit, Fran replies, “Really? So I’m flattered that he wants to go to bed with me! Thank you for explaining that, Joe.”
You will not be amazed to learn that Frances meets Matador Mario again in town, and he takes her to lunch, and out shopping, and to see flamenco danced for realz, by “a big woman. Even in her dress with its flashing skirt she looked far too heavy for a dancer. And she was no beauty now, though she might have been thirty years ago. Her features had grown too heavy, and the dark shadow of one of the faint moustaches Fran had noticed and disliked on older Spanish women at the corrida showed quite plainly on her upper lip.” But boy, can she dance! She is such an artist that people on the street, hearing the music inside the bar, which has been locked for this private performance, pound on the door, begging to be let in to watch. Matador Mario is a hero in Coronado, and Fran’s day with him is magical. “It was like traveling around with one of the great American film stars at the height of his career. It was a thrill being with someone like that. It was just about the greatest thrill of her young life.” At the end of the day, when they are kissing passionately, “it occurred to Frances that she was in the process of being seduced by an expert. But that didn’t seem to matter …”
She keeps seeing him, much to the great consternation of Major Joe, who warns her to keep away from Matador Mario because “the name of the game is subversion!” Gasp! It seems that our matador muy suave is involved in a plot to overthrow the government and install a new king of Spain. Frances calls Mario to ask him about this and discovers that his home has been seized by the Guardia Civil police force and that they are looking for Mario. Instantly she jumps into her car and speeds into town, warned only casually by the base guard to “watch it in town tonight. There’s rioting in town [with] Guardia Civil everywhere with submachine guns.” But have a good time, honey!
Indeed, arriving in town she finds several friends of Mario’s, including the flamenco dancer, have been shot dead. She avoids arrest by playing the dumb tourist, and finds Mario at the bullring with his pals. They jump into her car and flee the city, Mario curiously telling his chums, “If she should try to betray us, shoot her.” As the men are climbing out of the car to flee into the mountains on foot, Mario chooses this moment to propose: “Come to France with me, Fran. We will be married there in a little chapel we have on Vallejo land. You will be the Countess Frances Vallejo y Carlos. And one day a distant relative of ours will rule all Spain.” Between the gunplay and the idea of being on the lam, she’s not exactly won over and decides, “That’s not for me.” She tells him she doesn’t really love him after all: “Fascination isn’t love. I’d never met anyone like you before. It was like meeting a famous star back home and being flattered and kissed because you admired him. And I did admire you. You were like a storybook lover. But that isn’t really love either, Mario.” So as he dashes into the mountains, Des Walton shows up, and she holds his hand—and tells him a half-truth about her day’s adventure. And that’s where the book ends.
This is actually one of the better Richard Wilkes-Hunter (aka Diana Douglas) books I’ve read. We know it’s him from the usual gratuitous reference to her “firm young body” in the shower, and only male VNRN writers overtly mention sex, as in, “I’m not accusing you of sleeping around with the guy,” or in the discussion of Spanish women as mistresses or whores. But apart from denigrating remarks about Spanish women, which reflects a sexism demonstrated equally toward American woman (as when Frances is told by Mario, “Politics in Spain were not for women”), I really didn’t find anything terribly racist in this book, unlike Flight Nurse, which has a lot of similarities to this book, like the matador who is an accomplished lover working to overthrow the Spanish government. Neither book allows the heroine to pair up with the Spaniard, but at least here Frances takes Mario seriously as a boyfriend, even if in the end he is disqualified. The story moves along well and Frances has no obvious foibles—she hates the domineering Joe Crane and makes it plain to him that she does, she takes risks, she speaks her mind, she’s a great nurse. There’s nothing really special about it, apart from the unusual ending (all of which I have not revealed here), but it is a worthwhile bit of armchair travel.