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Higher ground, p.1

Higher Ground, page 1


Higher Ground

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Higher Ground

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  Copyright © 2019 by Christine Pope

  Published by Dark Valentine Press

  Cover design by Lou Harper

  Ebook formatting by Indie Author Services

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.

  Don’t miss out on any of Christine’s new releases — sign up for her newsletter today!


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Also by Christine Pope

  About the Author


  Ava Castillo stared out her kitchen window and sighed. Why exactly she was sighing on such a mild early summer day, with the flowers in the backyard finally showing all their riotous colors and a fresh, warm breeze blowing through the house, she really wasn’t sure.

  You’re just not used to having nothing to do, she told herself, but despite the inner reassurance, she wasn’t entirely certain that was the real problem.

  All right, she supposed it was fairly normal to feel at loose ends less than a month after graduating from college…especially for someone who was a Castillo witch, and therefore didn’t necessarily need to go out and look for a job right away. While most members of the Castillo clan actually did work full-time, if for no other reason than to make it seem as if they were normal, everyday civilians like the nonmagical people around them, it wasn’t absolutely necessary, either. And although Ava had dutifully gotten a degree in English literature with a mind to go on and earn a teaching credential, when the time came to apply for a credential program, she realized she really didn’t want to teach English.

  She wanted…what, exactly?

  A family someday, she supposed, when the time was right. At least, that was what her immediate family and the clan as a whole expected of her…not that she’d met anyone so far who seemed like a real prospect, or even appeared to be all that interested in making her a part of his life. Besides — although she probably wouldn’t have the courage to tell anyone what she was thinking — settling down with the house and the picket fence sounded like such a tame existence, even though it was the one most witches and warlocks lived. Get married young, start a family, contribute to the clan. Who knew that being a witch could be so boring? It seemed very unfair to be blessed with magical talents and not, you know, be able to actually do anything with them.

  Or possibly her restlessness stemmed from the knowledge that her big brother Tony had managed to get out and have an adventure, find true love with a witch from the de la Paz clan over in southern Arizona. Seeing her brother make his escape, get out of Santa Fe and start a new life in a whole new place, made Ava think that maybe there could be a bit more to existence than simply doing the same thing pretty much everyone in the Castillo family had done since time immemorial.

  Of course, she had known better than to utter any of these heretical reflections aloud. Other clans might be a bit more freewheeling, but not the Castillos, who’d been here in Santa Fe for more than three centuries and were all too aware of the weight of history behind them. And although Ava had thought once or twice that it would be fun to use her singular magical gift of reading people’s thoughts in a more public way — like setting herself up as a psychic — she knew that plan would never fly. The one underlying rule that all witches and warlocks followed was to do whatever they could to avoid public notice, to keep their magical talents secret so that no one in the outside world would ever be able to guess at their true natures.

  She supposed that, as a matter of simple self-preservation, such a philosophy had its merits. But it sure made for a dull existence.

  Shaking her head, she turned away from the window and went over to the refrigerator to refill her glass of iced tea. Maybe her current ennui also had something to do with this house. Yes, it had been super-generous of Tony to hand it over to her before he departed for Tucson with his…girlfriend? Fiancée? Ava wasn’t exactly sure how she was supposed to view Cassandra Sandoval, except that obviously things were serious between her and Ava’s older brother, even if the two of them hadn’t set a wedding date or done anything quite so formal. Anyway, a big old Victorian house was probably the last thing Ava had been expecting to get as a graduation present, but here she was. The place was beautiful but stuffy, thanks to Victoria, the home’s resident ghost, refusing to have anything but antiques inside her sanctum. At least the kitchen and bathrooms had been updated — Victoria had allowed that much in the way of improvements — but everything else looked pretty much like it must have back in the late 1880s when she’d still been alive. It was a little frustrating, since Ava would have preferred to make the place more her own, but she also didn’t think it was worth the ruckus any major changes would have caused.

  She resolutely ignored the small bag of sugar inside the pantry and took her unsweetened iced tea with her to what had once been the sitting room and was now her TV room. Apparently, Victoria didn’t have any problems with a television as long as it resided on an antique cabinet. Maybe it was silly to sit in here and watch TV when it was such a beautiful day outside, but what else was there to do? Reading, Ava’s regular leisure time activity, didn’t seem as appealing today as it usually did. She might have gone outside to spend some time working in the garden, except that Tony had also bequeathed his landscape team to her, so there wasn’t much to do in the yard except enjoy the flowers.

  Just get a job, she thought as she picked up the remote for the television. Any job, as long as it gets you out of this big, gloomy house. Someone in the clan will give you something to do. Wasn’t Cousin Eduardo saying the other day that he needed a hostess for one of his restaurants?

  Yes, she was pretty sure Eduardo could find something for her, although Ava knew if she took an entry-level job like that, her mother would probably inquire, in acid tones, why she’d bothered to get a bachelor’s degree in the first place.


  Just as Ava was about to click the power button on the remote, someone knocked at the front door. Frowning, she set down the clicker and wondered if she should ignore the knock — she wasn’t expecting anyone, and so that meant the unwelcome caller was probably a solicitor of some sort. Since it was way too late in the year for Girl Scout cookies, she didn’t see how it could be anyone she really wanted to see…not that she’d actually allow herself to consume a Girl Scout cookie after all the work she’d put in trying to lose weight the past couple of years.

  Then the doorbell rang.

  Obviously, whoever was out there wasn’t one to give up easily. Ava permitted herself an eye roll but got up from the couch and went down the hallway to the front door. It had a beveled glass insert in its upper third, although she couldn’t see much, only the dark silhouette of someone tall enough to blot out the light comi
ng in through the glass.

  Hoping she wasn’t making a huge mistake, she unlocked the door and slowly opened it. The contrast of the bright sun outside against the dark hallway behind her made her blink, so for a moment, she couldn’t exactly see who was standing on the front porch. Then her eyes adjusted, and she realized she was looking up at probably the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen in her life, with chiseled features and sooty black hair and dark eyes surrounded by a ring of fabulous lashes.

  For a second, all she could do was stare at this apparition. But then she managed to say, “Can I help you?”

  His expression was puzzled, as if he hadn’t expected to see her standing there. “I very much hope so,” he said, his English fluent but clearly accented. Mexican? Maybe, but she thought his accent sounded slightly different from that of the Mexican kids she’d gone to school with, even though she couldn’t say exactly how. “This is 322 Hillside Avenue, is it not?”

  “Yes,” Ava replied slowly. For some reason, she felt reluctant to admit to such an obvious fact, despite the number being spelled out clearly in fancy tiles on the green-painted eaves just above them.

  “Tony Castillo’s house?”

  Now she could only stare at the stranger, brows pulling together. “It was his house,” she said. “I live here now.”

  “And you are…?”

  Should she tell him? Ava hesitated for a few seconds, then gave an inner shrug. If the stranger thought Tony lived here, had his address, then they must have been acquainted in some way. With Tony, it was hard to know how they might have known each other, exactly, since her brother could strike up a conversation with almost anyone, anywhere. This godlike person could have met Tony at a party, at a bar downtown, a gallery opening…who knew?

  “I’m his sister Ava,” she said, figuring she might as well tell the unknown man the truth.

  At once, the stranger smiled, and something in his posture seemed to relax, as though he’d feared she would be someone completely unknown to Tony, and therefore someone he had no reason to talk to.

  “Hello, Ava,” said the stranger. “My name is Gabriel Escobar.”

  She’d been caught by surprise, that was certain. The young woman’s dark eyes widened, and he could see the way she took in a quick gulp of a breath. “‘Gabriel Escobar’?” she repeated, as if she couldn’t be quite certain of what she’d just heard him say. “But we thought — I mean, Tony said….” The sentence trailed off there, and she gave a quick shake of her head, obviously impatient with herself, with her current loss for words. “Why don’t you come in?”

  Gabriel could guess at the reason for her discomfiture. When her brother had last seen him, he had been surrounded by other Escobars intent on punishing him for helping Tony Castillo and the de la Paz witch who appeared to be his partner. No doubt, the Castillos had thought him dead all these months.

  Well, he could forgive them for believing such a thing. There were times when he’d wished his brother Vicénte had killed him. That might have made things easier.

  Ava led him down a dark, cool hallway and into a comfortable-looking room furnished with antiques and an improbably large television sitting on an old mahogany cabinet. A glass of untouched-looking iced tea sat on the table in front of the sofa.

  Apparently noticing how he’d glanced at it, she said, “Would you like some iced tea?”

  Since it was a warm day, and he’d walked here from the place where the Railrunner train had dropped him off in the Railyard district several miles from here, he nodded. “That would be very good. Thank you.”

  Her expression was still rather dazed, but she managed to smile. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

  She went and he watched her go, thinking what a beautiful young woman she was. Although Gabriel supposed Tony Castillo had been good-looking enough, his was an angular sort of handsomeness, while Ava was all full lips and big, tip-tilted brown eyes, far lusher than he would have expected the Castillo warlock’s sister to be.

  This could be…interesting.

  A few moments later, she returned with the promised glass of iced tea. After handing it to him, she sat down in the armchair to his left and gazed at him, her expression still perplexed. “I’m glad to see you’re okay,” Ava said, and her words had a ring of truth to them. She truly did seem relieved, although Gabriel wasn’t sure why she felt it had been necessary to feel such concern about a stranger. Certainly not many in his own clan would have reacted the same way, had their roles been reversed. “Actually,” she went on, “I was kind of angry with Tony for just leaving you there in El Salvador like that.”

  “There wasn’t anything he could have done,” Gabriel told her, which was nothing more than the truth. “I only just barely managed to send him and Cassandra away before they were overwhelmed as well.”

  Ava reached for her own glass of iced tea, but held it cradled between her two hands rather than raising it to her lips. “It still kind of boggles me that you were able to do that — send two people thousands of miles without batting an eye.”

  Gabriel supposed such a feat would seem rather fantastical to even a witch or a warlock. But teleportation — whether it involved sending himself or other people over vast distances — was only one of the many gifts that had come to him as the magic within him awakened not long after he entered his tenth year. What a feeling that had been, to begin to realize how powerful he was, that his talents soon far outstripped those of his half-brother, whom their father had made the Escobar clan’s heir.

  The memory of what had once been his made him realize how hollow he felt now.

  “I am glad I was able to do such a thing for Tony and Cassandra,” he said, hoping that the woman seated across from him hadn’t detected any of his inner turmoil. “They were both very brave, to come to the heart of my clan’s territory in order to recover the de la Paz grimoires.”

  “Or crazy,” Ava remarked. “At least, that’s what we all thought. I mean, I love my brother, but he’s not exactly superhero material.”

  No, not really. But Tony Castillo had discovered a core of strength within himself when the crucial moment came, and that, in combination with Cassandra Sandoval’s steely determination, had been enough to see the matter through. Despite everything that had happened afterward, Gabriel was still glad to know that the de la Paz grimoires were truly gone, burnt to ashes and no longer a threat to anyone.

  “Possibly not a superhero, but a hero nonetheless,” Gabriel said.

  Ava didn’t appear completely convinced, but she didn’t protest. “But it all worked out, so I suppose whether he’s a superhero or not doesn’t really matter.” Now she drank from her tumbler of iced tea, only a brief sip before she set the glass back down. When she looked back up at him, her expression was still puzzled. “How in the world did you get away from Pico Negro?”

  “I didn’t.”

  She blinked, obviously nonplussed by his reply. “What?”

  Gabriel allowed himself a bitter smile. It was not so much of an indulgence, not after everything he had lost. “I could not get away. Normally, yes, my power to transport myself in the blink of an eye would have been enough for me to make my escape, but in my clan, there is a null — you know what a null is?”

  “A witch or warlock who can suppress all magic around them,” Ava said. “Or at least, that’s how Tony explained it to me. So…that’s what happened? The null from your clan came, and you were trapped?”

  Succinct, if painful. He wouldn’t allow himself to sigh, only replied, “Yes. My brother — the Escobar primus — was very angry with me. I believe he would have struck me down then and there if one of the elders had not stopped him.”

  “That was kind of them,” Ava said, although her tone sounded a bit uncertain, as though she knew they hadn’t been motivated by mere altruism.

  “I fear kindness had little to do with their actions.” Gabriel reached for his own iced tea and took a swallow. It was good, cold and not sweetened at all, but still mellow
, not bitter. After wetting his dry throat, he went on, “No, it was more that the elders feared my brother would invoke the wrath of the gods if he committed kin-murder.”

  That remark made Ava’s eyes widen again. “Wait, you’re not…?” Her question trailed off, and she tapped her fingers against her jeans-clad knee. “Sorry,” she went on. “I just kind of assumed that if you were from El Salvador, you must be Catholic, like us Castillos.”

  Had she put that bit about “us Castillos” in her comment to make him feel more at ease? Gabriel didn’t know for sure, but he felt himself warming toward her anyway. “We are, at least nominally. But our clan also recognizes the gods who dwelled in that land before the conquistadors came. Anyway, it does not do to make them angry, and to kill someone of your own clan is taboo. Despite such a prohibition, I believe Vicénte would have killed me, except that the elders proposed an even worse punishment.”

  “Worse than death?” Ava said, looking skeptical. “I don’t know…death is pretty final.”

  “True, and yet….” There were many times he had wished himself dead once he reawakened to himself and understood what they had done to him. But he would not say such a thing to Ava Castillo. He did not know her, even though she sat there with concern in her face, gazing at him with those beautiful dark eyes. Kind eyes. Such sympathy, for someone little more than a stranger. She must have a gentle heart, something almost as foreign to him as the land where he now found himself. He pulled in a breath, then continued. “You see, the elders of my clan wield terrible powers. They took me, and pulled the magic from within me, so that I am now no more than what you people call a civilian.”

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