When We Left Cuba

When We Left Cuba

by Chanel Cleeton
When We Left Cuba

When We Left Cuba

by Chanel Cleeton


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Instant New York Times bestseller!

In 1960s Florida, a young Cuban exile will risk her life—and heart—to take back her country in this exhilarating historical novel from the author of The Last Train to Key West and Next Year in Havana, a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick.

Beautiful. Daring. Deadly.

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez—her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro's inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future—but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything—not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451490865
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/09/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 81,085
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Chanel Cleeton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Last Train to Key WestWhen We Left Cuba, and the Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana. Originally from Florida, she grew up on stories of her family's exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor's degree in international relations from Richmond, the American International University in London, and a master's degree in global politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Read an Excerpt

chapter one


january 1960

palm beach


The thing about collecting marriage proposals is they're much like cultivating eccentricities. One is an absolute must for being admired in polite-or slightly less-than-polite-society. Two ensure you're a sought-after guest at parties, three add a soupon of mystery, four are a scandal, and five, well, five make you a legend.


I peer down at the man making a spectacle of himself on bended knee in front of me-what is his name?-his body tipping precariously from an overabundance of champagne and folly. He's a second cousin to the venerable Preston clan, related by marriage to a former vice president, cousin to a sitting U.S. senator. His tuxedo is elegant, his fortune likely modest if not optimistic for the largesse of a bequest from a deceased aunt, his chin weak from one too many Prestons marrying Prestons.


Andrew. Maybe Albert. Adam?


We've met a handful of times at parties such as this one in Palm Beach, fetes I once would have ruled over in Havana, to which I now must bow and scrape in order to gain admittance. I likely could do worse than a second cousin to American royalty; after all, beggars can't be choosers, and exiles even less so. The prudent thing would be to accept his proposal-my auspicious fifth-and to follow my sister Elisa into the sacrament of holy matrimony.


But where's the fun in that?


Whispers brush my gown, my name-Beatriz Perez-on their lips, the weight of curious gazes on my back, words creeping toward me, clawing their way up my skirts, snatching the faux jewels from my neck and casting them to the ground.


Look at her.


Haughty. The whole family is. Someone should tell them this isn't Cuba.


Those hips. That dress.


Didn't they lose everything? Fidel Castro nationalized all those sugar fields her father used to own.


Has she no shame?


My smile brightens, flashier than the fake jewels at my neck and just as sincere. I scan the crowd, sweeping past Alexander on his knees looking like a man who hasn't quite acquired his sea legs, past the Palm Beach guard shooting daggers my way, resting on my sisters Isabel and Elisa standing in the corner, champagne flutes in hand. The sight of them, the reminder to bow to nothing and no one, emboldens me.


I turn back to Alistair.


"Thank you, but I must decline."


I keep my tone light, as though the whole thing is a jest, and a drunken one at that, which I hope it is. People don't go falling in love and proposing in one fell swoop, do they? Surely, that's . . . inconvenient.


Poor Arthur looks stunned by my answer.


Perhaps this wasn't a joke after all.


Slowly, he recovers, the same easy smile on his face that lingered moments before he fell to his knees returning with a vengeance, restoring his countenance to what is likely its natural state: perpetually pleased with himself and the world he inhabits. He grasps my outstretched hand, his palm clammy against mine, and pulls himself up with an unsteady sway. A grunt escapes his lips.


His eyes narrow once we're level-nearly level, at least, given the extra inches my sister Isabel's borrowed heels provide.


The glint in Alec's eyes reminds me of a child whose favorite toy has been taken away and who will make you pay for it later by throwing a spectacularly effective tantrum.


"Let me guess, you left someone back in Cuba?"


There's enough of a bite in his tone to nip at my skin.


My diamond smile reappears, honed at my mother's knee and so very useful in situations like these, the edges sharp and brittle, warning the recipient of the perils of coming too close.


I bite, too.


"Something like that," I lie.


Now that one of their own is back on his feet, no longer prostrate in front of the interloper they've been forced to tolerate this social season, the crowd turns their attention from us with a sniff, a sigh, and a flurry of bespoke gowns. We possess just enough money and influence-sugar is nearly as lucrative in America as it is in Cuba-that they can't afford to cut us directly, and not nearly enough to prevent them from devouring us like a sleek pack of wolves scenting red meat. Fidel Castro has made beggars of all of us, and for that alone, I'd thrust a knife through his heart.


And suddenly, the walls are too close together, the lights in the ballroom too bright, my bodice too tight.


It's been nearly a year since we left Cuba for what was supposed to be a few months away until the world realized what Fidel Castro had done to our island, and America has welcomed us into her loving embrace-almost.


I am surrounded by people who don't want me here even if their contempt hides behind a polite smile and feigned sympathy. They look down their patrician noses at me because my family hasn't been in America since the country's founding, or sailed on a boat from England, or some nonsense like that. My features are a hint too dark, my accent too foreign, my religion too Catholic, my last name too Cuban.


In a flash, an elderly woman who shares Anderson's coloring and features approaches us, sparing me a cutting look designed to knock me down a peg or two. In a flurry of Givenchy, he's swept away, and I'm alone once more.


If I had my way, we wouldn't attend these parties, save this one, wouldn't attempt to ingratiate ourselves to Palm Beach society. It isn't about what I want, though. It's about my mother, and my sisters, and my father's need to extend his business empire through these social connections so no one ever has the power to destroy us again.


And of course, as always, it's about Alejandro.


I head for one of the balconies off the ballroom, the hem of my gown gathered in hand, careful to keep from tearing the delicate fabric.


I slip through the open doors, stepping onto the stone terrace, the breeze blowing the skirt of my dress. There's a slight chill in the air, the sky clear, the stars shining down, the moon full. The ocean is a dull, distant roar. It's the sound of my childhood, my adulthood, calling to me like a siren song. I close my eyes, a sting there, and pretend I'm standing on another balcony, in another country, in another time. What would happen if I headed for the water now, if I left the party behind, removing the pinching shoes and curling my toes in the sand, the ocean pooling around my ankles?


A tear trickles down my cheek. I never imagined it was possible to miss a place this much.


I rub my damp skin with the back of my hand, my gaze shifting to the balcony's edge, to the palms swaying in the distance.


A man leans against the balustrade, one side of him shrouded in darkness, the rest illuminated by a shaft of moonlight.


He's tall. Blond hair-nearly reddish, really. His arms brace against the railing, his shoulders straining his tailored tuxedo.


I step back, and he moves-


I freeze.






The thing about people telling you you're beautiful your whole life is that the more you hear it, the more meaningless it becomes. What does "beautiful" even mean anyway? That your features are arranged in a shape someone, somewhere, arbitrarily decided is pleasing? "Beautiful" never quite matches up to the other things you could be: smart, interesting, brave. And yet-


He's beautiful. Shockingly so.


He appears as though he's been painted in broad strokes, his visage immortalized by exuberant sweeps and swirls of the artist's brush, a god come down to meddle in the affairs of mere mortals.


Irritatingly beautiful.


He looks like the sort of man who has never had to wonder if he'll have a roof over his head, or fear his father dying in a cage with eight other men, or flee the only life he has ever known. No, he looks like the sort of man who is told he is perfection from the moment he wakes in the morning to the moment his head hits the pillow at night.


He's noticed me, too.


Golden Boy leans against the railing, his broad arms crossed in front of his chest. His gaze begins at the top of my head where Isabel and I fussed with my coiffure for an hour, cursing the absence of a maid to help us. From my dark hair, he traverses the length of my face, down to the décolletage exposed by the gown's low bodice, the gaudy fake jewels that suddenly make me feel unmistakably cheap-as though he can see I am an impostor-to my waist, hips.


I take another step back.


"Am I to call you cousin?"


His words stop my movement, holding me in place as surely as a hand coming to rest on my waist, as though he is the sort of man accustomed to bending others to his will with little to no effort at all.


I loathe such men.


His voice sounds like what I have learned passes for money in this country: smooth, crisp, devoid of even a hint of foreignness-the wrong kind, at least. A tone of voice secure in the knowledge that every word will be savored.


I arch my brow. "Excuse me?"


He pushes off from the railing, his long legs closing the distance between us. He stops once he's close enough that I have to tip my head up to meet his gaze.


His eyes are blue, the color of the deep parts of the water off the Malec—n.


Without breaking eye contact, he reaches between us, his thumb ghosting across my bare ring finger. His touch is a shock, waking me from the slumber of a party I tired of hours ago. He quirks his mouth in a smile, little lines crinkling around his eyes. How nice to see even gods have flaws.


"Andrew is my cousin," he offers by way of explanation, his tone faintly amused.


I find that most rich people who are still in fact rich manage to pull this off as though a dollop more amusement would be atrociously gauche.


Andrew. The fifth marriage proposal has a name. And the man before me likely has a prestigious one. Is he a Preston or merely related to one like Andrew?


"We were all waiting with breathless anticipation to see what you would say," he comments.


There's that faint amusement again, a weapon of sorts when honed appropriately. He possesses the same edge to him that everyone here seems to have, except I get the sense he is laughing with me, not at me, which is a welcome change.


I grace him with a smile, the edges sanded down a bit. "Your cousin has an impeccable sense of timing and an obvious appreciation for drawing a crowd."


"Not to mention excellent taste," Golden Boy counters smoothly-too smoothly-returning my smile with another one of his own, this one even more dazzling than the first.


He was handsome before, but this is simply ridiculous.


"True," I agree.


I have little use for false modesty these days; if you're not going to fight for yourself, who will?


He leans into me a bit more, as though we share a secret. "No wonder you've whipped everyone into a frenzy."


"Who? Me?"


He chuckles, the sound low, seductive, like the first sip of rum curling in your belly.


"You know the effect you have. I saw you in the ballroom."


How did I miss him? He doesn't exactly blend in with the crowd.


"And what did you see?" I ask, emboldened by the fact that his gaze has yet to drift away.




My heartbeat quickens.


"Just you." His voice is barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the ocean and the wind.


"I didn't see you." My own voice sounds husky, like it belongs to someone else, someone who is rattled by this.


My gaze has yet to drift from him, either.


His eyes widen slightly, a dimple denting his cheek, another imperfection to hoard even if it adds more character than flaw.


"You sure know how to make a guy feel special."


I curl my fingers into a ball to keep from giving in to temptation, to resist reaching out and laying my palm against his cheek.


"I suspect plenty of people make you feel special."


There's that smile again. "That they do," he acknowledges.


I shift until we stand shoulder to shoulder, gazing out at the moonlit sky.


He shoots me a sidelong look. "I imagine it's true, then?"


"What's true?"


"They say you ruled like a queen in Havana."


"There are no queens in Havana. Only a tyrant who aims to be king."


"I take it you aren't a fan of the revolutionaries?"


"It depends on the revolutionaries to whom you refer. Some had their uses. Fidel and his ilk are little more than vultures feasting on the carrion that has become Cuba." I walk forward, sidestepping him so the full skirt of my dress swishes against his elegant tuxedo pants. I feel him behind me, his breath on my nape, but I don't look back. "President Batista needed to be eliminated. In that, they succeeded. Now if only we could rid ourselves of the victors."


I turn, facing him.


His gaze has sharpened from an indolent gleam to something far more interesting. "And replace them with who, exactly?"


"A leader who cares about Cubans, about their future. Who is willing to remove the island from the Americans' yoke." I care little for the fact that he is an American; I am not one of them and have no desire to pretend to be. "A leader who will reduce sugar's influence," I add, my words a break from my family's position. Despite the fortune it has brought us, it's impossible to deny the destructive influence the industry has had on our island no matter how much our father attempts to do so. "One who will bring us true democracy and freedom."


He's silent, his gaze appraising once again, and I'm not sure if it's a result of the wind, or his breath against my neck, but goose bumps rise over my skin.


"You're a dangerous woman, Beatriz Perez."


My lips curve. I tilt my head to the side, studying him, trying desperately to fight the faint prick of pleasure at the phrase "dangerous woman" and the fact that he knows my name.


"Dangerous for who?" I tease.


He doesn't answer, but then again, he doesn't have to.


Another smile. Another dent in his cheeks. "I'll bet you left a trail of broken hearts behind you."

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide for WHEN WE LEFT CUBA
Questions for Discussion

1.In the first chapter, Beatriz says that she is somewhere between the girl she was and the woman she wants to be. How do you see her character grow and change throughout the novel?

2.When Beatriz arrives in Palm Beach, she feels out of place in society and cut off from the familiar people and things she loves. Can you relate to her experience of being a fish out of water? Have you ever experienced something similar, and how did it affect you?

3.Beatriz is motivated by her desire to avenge her brother’s death as well as her love of her country. Which of these motivations is stronger for her, or do you believe they are intertwined? Do you agree with her actions or not?

4.When Beatriz becomes involved with the CIA, she acknowledges that war makes for strange bedfellows as she is now aligned with an organization she once decried. Do you agree with her decision? Do you believe in the axiom, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” or do you disagree?

5.Beatriz and Eduardo have a close relationship, and the possibility of a romance between them simmers in the background of the novel. If things had worked out differently, do you think they could have had a future together? Do you think the bond between them is bolstered by their common interests, or is it mainly a product of nostalgia for the life they lived in Cuba? What similarities do you see between their personalities? What differences?

6.Throughout the book, Beatriz struggles to understand Eduardo’s motives. Do you think he acts out of self-interest or patriotism? Do you think he has Beatriz’s best interests at heart, or do you think he uses her for his own ends?

7.Which Perez sister do you identify with: Beatriz, Elisa, Isabel, or Maria? What traits do the sisters share, and in what ways are they different?

8.Each member of Beatriz’s family takes a somewhat distinct approach to exile. Elisa builds a new life for herself in the United States; Isabel leaves her fiancé behind in Cuba; Maria adjusts to life in the United States with ease; parents become obsessed with shoring up their financial and social influence to protect themselves from future ruin. How do you think Beatriz’s feelings about exile differ from those of her family? How is the theme of exile explored in the book?

9.Beatriz chafes at the constraints placed on her by her family and their desire that she find a suitable husband. Can you relate with her desire to please her family while still following her heart? How much of the limitations placed on her are a product of the times and her background?

10.Beatriz and Nick are defined by their loyalties to their respective countries. How do you think this affects their relationship? Do you think timing plays the biggest role in their relationship, or are there other factors that keep them apart? What if they had met in Havana? Or before he was engaged?

11.Both Beatriz and Nick are shaped by war. He’s influenced by his experiences serving in World War II, Beatriz by the Cuban Revolution. How has war shaped them? Has it influenced them in different or similar ways?

12.Mr. Dwyer plays a formative role in Beatriz’s life and almost represents a paternal figure for her. How does their relationship change as the book progresses? Do you think he truly cares for Beatriz or only cares for her utility to the CIA? Is he motivated by self-interest or a sense of patriotic duty?

13.The CIA’s role in Latin America and their efforts in Cuba heavily influenced the events of the early 1960s. What do you think about their motives and policies? Do you agree with their involvement in Cuba’s affairs?

14.Beatriz’s life is defined by the time period she grows up in and the events she experiences: the Cuban Revolution, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy Assassination, to name a few. What world events have played defining roles in your life? What memories do you have of them? How have they influenced you?

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