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Hidden gifts, p.1

Hidden Gifts, page 1

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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Hidden Gifts


  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.

  HIDDEN GIFTS

  Copyright © 2018 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.

  Sign up for Christine Pope’s newsletter and get an exclusive Witches of Cleopatra Hill prequel short story!

  Contents

  Prologue

  1. Spirit Walk

  2. High Walls

  3. Cats and Casitas

  4. Hauntings

  5. Explorations

  6. Unexpected Encounters

  7. Best-Laid Plans

  8. Secrets

  9. Misunderstandings

  10. Doubts

  11. Preparations

  12. Suspicions

  13. Safe Harbors

  14. Explanations

  15. Confrontations

  16. Betrayals

  17. Recriminations

  18. Revelations

  Also by Christine Pope

  About the Author

  Prologue

  Santa Fe, New Mexico, twenty-one years from now….

  Genoveva Castillo set her phone down on the bulky carved desk that dominated the study, a small smile touching her mouth. “She is on her way.”

  Like the cat that swallowed the canary. In that moment, watching the quiet triumph on Genoveva’s face, Rafael Castillo thought he’d never hated his mother as much as he did right then. However, he knew better than to betray anything of what he felt; Genoveva was the prima, or head witch of their clan, and her magical gifts only enhanced an already powerful gift of observation. The two of them had shared an uneasy détente for more than fifteen years now, ever since he was old enough to truly begun to understand what this horrible bargain entailed for him. No chance to choose the woman of his heart, no opportunity to make his life his own, and all because his grandmother had made a deal with the prima of the McAllister clan in Arizona to provide some desperately needed magical help when they needed it most. Rafe couldn’t even blame Angela McAllister all that much; she’d been caught in what must have felt like a trap she couldn’t escape, fighting a dark warlock whose powers had seemed invincible. This terrible arrangement hadn’t even been her idea, but had sprung from some fancy of his grandmother’s.

  Voice as level as he could make it, he said, “I can’t believe you’re actually going through with this.”

  Genoveva’s smile faded. Perfectly coiffed head held high, she turned away from him and went to the window of her study, twitching the heavy tapestry drapes aside so she could gaze out at the grounds of the property. This late in October, most of the leaves had fallen from the sycamores, but the cottonwoods were gamely hanging on, bright gold against the sullen sky. “Why shouldn’t you believe it? We’ve been planning this for the past twenty-one years. You’ve had plenty of time to get used to the reality of Miranda coming here.”

  That was a load of crap. Rafe knew he would never get used to the idea of an arranged marriage, of having someone he’d never met foisted upon him. And Genoveva actually thought he was supposed to be happy about all this? “Keep telling yourself what you want to believe, Mother.”

  Her lips thinned. Back in happier times, he’d called her “Mom.” But as the distance between them grew, he’d slipped into using the much more formal epithet. Rafe could tell that Genoveva didn’t like it, because she wanted to pretend that everything was fine between them, that they were a model family and an example for the rest of the clan.

  There was a joke. His older sisters Louisa and Malena had managed to make their escape already, had lives and families of their own, and could safely distance themselves from their mother. Cat, his little sister, hadn’t been so lucky, even though more than once Rafe had encouraged her to date on the down-low, to maybe try seeing civilians in her quest for the man of her dreams. But as free-spirited as his younger sister could be in some ways, she didn’t have quite the strength to break away from their domineering mother. He couldn’t really blame her; he knew the only reason he had as much independence as he’d been able to enjoy in his adult life was that his future had already been sewn up neatly — at least, in Genoveva’s eyes.

  “There is no need to sulk,” she said, her voice cold. “You would think we were marrying you to a gargoyle.”

  Miranda McAllister was anything but a gargoyle. Rafe knew that for a fact, because he’d seen the pictures Angela McAllister, her mother, had sent Genoveva. And that wasn’t the point. What difference did it make how beautiful Miranda was if he didn’t get any say in the matter? As his jaw clenched and he tried to think of the best way to reply, his mother continued.

  “It is not as if I had any say, either,” she said. “The prima-in-waiting must go with the consort that God decrees for her.”

  “False equivalencies,” he shot back. “No one arranged that bond. It just happened. And at least you knew Dad.”

  “Not well,” she replied, although her tone wasn’t quite as forthright as it had been a moment earlier, as if she knew she was on shaky ground here. True, Rafe’s father Eduardo had grown up in Belen, south of Albuquerque, and so hadn’t spent a lot of time with the Santa Fe branch of their witch clan, but at least he had met Genoveva a handful of times before they shared the fateful kiss that bound them together forever.

  “But he wasn’t a goddamn stranger.”

  “Language, Rafael.” Genoveva turned her back on the window and faced him, arms crossed. “You have had plenty of time to reconcile yourself to this marriage. Stop acting like a child and accept your responsibility to your clan.”

  “Responsibility” and “clan” were two words Rafe would be happy never to hear again. “And what if I don’t?”

  This time true anger, rather than mere irritation, flashed in his mother’s dark eyes. Her elegant, patrician features hard with displeasure, she said, “You will go against the will of your grandmother, her vision that this was the match fate had decreed for you?”

  “Her words to you,” Rafe shot back. “It would have been nice if she could have specifically mentioned why it was so important that I marry Miranda McAllister. Vague mentions of possible futures don’t really do it for me.”

  “Things happened quickly. I did not have much time to speak to her before she went with the McAllister prima and her Wilcox consort to confront the dark warlock in California.” Genoveva drew herself up; she was not a short woman, but she still had to work to look directly into her son’s eyes. “But your grandmother’s sight was never wrong, Rafael. She might not have had enough time to tell me the particulars, but she knew that Miranda McAllister must come here to Santa Fe, and I would never question her judgment. ”

  “Well, that’s convenient,” Rafe remarked. He was tired of this, tired of the whole thing. The clock on the wall told him he had only a few hours of freedom left. No, the wedding wouldn’t take place the second Miranda McAllister stepped off the train, but as soon as she set foot in Santa Fe, he would be as bound to her as if he’d already put a ring on her finger. He ran a hand through his hair, then said, “Text me when she gets to the house.”

  “Rafael — ”

  He had no desire to stay and have his mother browbeat him a
ny further. Without responding, he turned and left the study, and slammed the door behind him. A childish gesture, he knew, but the only thing he could think of to show how angry he was without actually becoming violent.

  In a few hours, his life would be taken away forever.

  And there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.

  1

  Spirit Walk

  Miranda McAllister

  The cold morning air stung my cheeks. I suppose I should have been used to it — I’d spent half my life in Flagstaff, was all too accustomed to the extremes of weather there. But, standing on a train platform at a little past four-thirty in the morning on a bitter October morning, I thought my surroundings were even colder than they should have been, the chill of the pre-dawn air penetrating even the warm packable down coat I wore.

  Two bags sat on the ground beside me. That was all I’d been allowed — two weekender bags to carry everything I might need in my new life.

  My mother had cried on the drive over here, although she’d done her best to hide her tears from me, had tried to blame her sniffles on her allergies acting up. I’d known better, as I was sure my father had as well, but neither of us called her out on her little white lie.

  I’d cried, too, but not on the drive. No, the last of my tears had come hours earlier, when I’d lain on my bed and stared at the ceiling of my bedroom and realized I’d never see this room again, or this house, or any of my friends or family, whether they were Wilcox witches and warlocks in Flagstaff or McAllisters in Jerome. Even though I might not have been the daughter my parents expected, they’d never shown me anything but continuing love and support, and the thought of being separated from them was terrifying.

  Jessica Rowe, one of my best friends in Flagstaff, had wanted to throw a going-away party for me, but I’d shot down that idea, mostly because I wasn’t sure how well I’d hold it together if I was forced to see all the important people in my life gathered together in one place. Such a gathering would only reinforce the realization that I probably wouldn’t see any of them ever again. Close as I was to Jessica, I didn’t want to confess such weakness to her. Instead, I told her that I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this, and, thank the Goddess, she hadn’t pushed the issue. Really, all I wanted was to slink away in the night.

  Well, four-thirty in the morning was close enough.

  My mother looked past me to the approaching conductor in rather the same way a dying person might gaze at the Grim Reaper as he came to claim their soul. “I can’t — ” she began, then stopped as my father laid a comforting hand on her harm.

  “We can, because we have to.” He glanced over at me, saw that I had my ticket confirmation open on my phone so the conductor could easily scan it. “Genoveva said she would call to let us know you’ve gotten there safely, but remember — ”

  “No calls or texts unless it’s an emergency. Yeah, I know.” I reached down with my free hand and slung the heavier of the two bags over my shoulder, then slipped the other one on my arm so it hung in the crook of my elbow. So many strange commandments from the woman who was going to be my mother-in-law. My parents had done their best to negotiate all of them, but Genoveva Castillo, the prima of the Castillo clan, wouldn’t hear of any objections.

  “I ask that she do these things because it is for the best,” she’d said coldly to my mother during one of those conversations. I’d been eavesdropping, since this was my future they’d been discussing, and luckily the volume on my mother’s phone had been turned up enough that I could catch most of what Genoveva was saying. Although my mother — a prima in her own right — had clearly hated having to cave to any of the Castillo witch’s commands, she’d done so because the last thing any of us wanted was to be at odds with a powerful clan like the Castillos. No, the debt had to be paid.

  And I was the payment.

  The conductor came up to me. He was a stocky man probably in his late forties or early fifties, dark, a thick plaid muffler wrapped around his neck. Part Navajo? Maybe; there were a lot of Native Americans who lived and worked in the Flagstaff area. “Ticket?” he asked.

  I held out my phone, and he scanned the screen.

  “Train leaves in less than five minutes,” he said. His tone was so neutral, he could have merely been providing me with necessary information…or warning me that, like time and tide, trains waited for no man…or woman.

  “I guess I’d better go,” I said. At least my voice hadn’t wavered. I wanted my parents to believe I was strong, even though inside I felt as though I was being torn apart.

  Tears once again glittered in my mother’s eyes, making them look like watery emeralds in the light from the overhead CFC bulbs in the debarkation area. “Oh, Miranda — ” she began, then stopped, as though she knew that if she attempted to say anything else, she’d break down into sobs right then and there. The platform wasn’t all that busy, but there were still enough people around that she would have made something of a scene.

  My father’s expression was stoic. I knew this whole mess was hurting him as well, but he seemed to realize that there was nothing he could do about it, and so losing control would only give me a distorted memory of him.

  My last memory of him.

  He took me in his arms and gave me a fierce hug, bags, phone, and all, and then my mother pulled me to her and pressed a quick kiss against my hair.

  “I don’t care what Genoveva says,” she whispered in my ear. “If you run into any trouble, you call us.”

  I nodded, although I knew the train would have to be raided by a bunch of bandits before I made that phone call. A promise was a promise. And although I didn’t think I had a whole hell of a lot to offer the Castillos, or the man who was supposed to be my husband, I wanted them to know that we McAllisters kept our word…no matter how much it hurt.

  The train whistle sounded, and I said, “I have to go.”

  “Miri — ”

  I didn’t know what my mother had intended to say. Deep down, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. Better to go now and go quickly, the same principle as quickly tearing a bandage off a wound rather than removing it slowly.

  Without meeting either of my parents’ eyes, I turned and hurried up the steps into the train.

  Even as I made my way down the aisle, searching for the perfect seat, I felt the floor beneath my feet jerk slightly, a faint shudder telling me that the train had begun to leave the station. I turned and caught a glimpse of my parents out the window, my mother’s long dark hair gleaming in the lights that illuminated the boarding area, my father’s face set and pale.

  And then they were gone.

  Because the trip to Albuquerque only took about seven hours, I hadn’t booked a spot in a sleeping car. The car where I stood now was almost empty, so I had my pick of the seats. I chose a spot near the window around the middle of the car, then shoved my bags in the overhead compartment before settling in. I hadn’t expected there to be anyone of witch-kind on board the train, and there wasn’t. Only a group of regular nonmagical people making their own journeys…and me. I should have been relieved, I suppose, and yet knowing I was the only witch among civilians only made me feel more alone.

  A gibbous moon hung overhead, bathing the landscape in its cold light. Such a crazy hour to be setting out, but train schedules didn’t care about my life, my petty problems. The train left Los Angeles at a decent time of day, but by the time it chugged into Flagstaff’s historic station, it was around four in the morning.

  Why the train? I still didn’t know for sure. It would have been a lot easier to drive down to Phoenix and have me catch a plane there, but no, Genoveva insisted that I had to take the train. The suggestion to have my Uncle Lucas fly me himself — he owned a small plane, which he kept at Flagstaff’s small airport — had been summarily shot down as well. I got the feeling that Genoveva didn’t want any of my family members crossing over with me into New Mexico. Which, in an abstract way, I could almost understand.

  I
t didn’t stop me from resenting her more than ever, though.

  I probably should have tried to sleep, since I’d gone to bed at almost eleven and then had gotten up at three in order to catch the train. Tired as I was, though, I somehow knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep through this journey. Instead, I sat and watched the dark landscape pass by outside the window, watched with listless interest as we pulled up to the station in Winslow and took on a few more passengers at a little before six, the sun just beginning to peek above the horizon.

  No one took a seat near me, which was fine. I’d read that on the coasts, where high-speed rail connected all the major cities, people often preferred to take the train rather than fly. Here in the center of the country, though, where Amtrak still operated trains that were older than I was, no one traveled this way unless they didn’t have any other choice, despite the alluring offer of free wi-fi in all Amtrak trains. So even as people boarded in Gallup just on the other side of the Arizona/New Mexico border, the car where I sat was never more than a quarter full.

  I wondered what had brought those other travelers to sit here now — the man who looked only a few years older than I, a large backpack much bigger than Amtrak’s specified luggage dimensions sitting on the empty seat next to him; the tired-faced Navajo woman with her worn brown purse sitting on her lap; the older man who kept his head down and focused on his laptop the entire trip. Since I didn’t possess the energy or the will to strike up a conversation with any of them, I’d never know their reasons for making this journey.

  However, as I watched the desert landscape pass by, growing brighter and brighter as the sun rose overhead, I began to get some idea of why Genoveva Castillo might have forced this journey on me. I’d read of how shamans and others seeking enlightenment would head into the deep desert to be cleansed, to leave behind everything from their former lives that had been weighing them down. As the miles between myself and Flagstaff stretched and stretched, I began to experience an odd sensation of lightness, as if the Miranda McAllister I’d been back in Flagstaff and Jerome had been left behind on the station platform with my parents. I didn’t know who this new Miranda would be, but I began to think maybe I could look forward to meeting her with anticipation, rather than doubt and worry.

 
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