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Hidden gifts, p.11

Hidden Gifts, page 11

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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  “The bathroom’s down that hall, if you want to tidy up first.”

  Which was probably Simon’s polite way of letting me know that my hair needed brushing and my lip gloss some reapplication. I murmured a thank-you, then grabbed my purse and went to the door he’d indicated. Inside was apparently the apartment’s sole bathroom, since the tile counter had some of his toiletries ranged across it, and a razor was plugged into the electrical outlet on one wall.

  But everything was neat and clean enough, especially for guy in his twenties living on his own. I set my purse down on the counter, then hunted through it for my brush. My hair was definitely smashed on one side from lying on the couch, but a few vigorous strokes from the brush livened it up a bit, and the loose curls I’d put in that morning seemed to be holding. Thank God I’d inherited some wave from my mother and didn’t have stick-straight hair that wouldn’t cooperate with a curling iron.

  Some gloss on my lips, and careful blotting under my eyes to get rid of any mascara smudges. After I was done, the Miranda who looked out at me from the mirror did seem to be immeasurably improved, if a little wan and tired-looking. Some food should help with that, though.

  And afterward?

  I honestly had no idea. By this point, more than six hours had elapsed since the time I’d walked out of the La Plazuela restaurant. I didn’t try to fool myself that Rafe would be sick with worry, but I knew Cat probably was, and I hated to have her suffer for no reason. At some point I’d have to go back and face the music, but for now, it seemed the best thing to do was at least let her know I was alive and okay.

  After pulling my phone out of my purse, I found Cat’s number in my nearly empty contacts list and sent her a quick message. I’m okay, I typed. I’ll be in touch later. After the text had been safely sent, I put the phone on “do not disturb” mode so I wouldn’t have to worry about her interrupting dinner. We could sort out everything after Simon and I were done eating.

  When I returned to the living room, I found him also on his phone, although he seemed to be surfing the web, not checking his email. He closed the browser window and stood as I approached.

  “Ready?”

  “Yes,” I said. Was I? I didn’t actually know for sure. I felt steadier now, and a little more composed now that I’d let Cat know I wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere, but my hands and legs were still shaky. Some food should fix that problem, though.

  He paused at the door. “Are you going to be warm enough? It’ll be pretty cold now that the sun’s down.”

  “It’s all right if we’re just going across the street.”

  My reply didn’t seem to reassure him all that much, but he didn’t argue, only shrugged slightly before he grabbed his own jacket from the coat rack by the door. We went downstairs and out through the door in the little foyer in the rear of the building, and so we had to jog down to the alley in order to cut back over to San Francisco Street. All the maneuvering meant we had to walk a bit further than that “just across the street” Simon had mentioned, and I was starting to shiver as we hurried over to the side of San Francisco where the restaurant was located.

  But soon enough we were inside, partly because our destination occupied the lower floor of the mercantile building, and we had to take a set of stairs down from street level to get there. The sound of Spanish classical guitar came to my ears. I glanced over at Simon.

  “I forgot — they have live music Thursday through Saturday,” Simon said. “If you don’t like it, we can go someplace else.”

  “No, this is fine,” I said quickly. “I love classical guitar.”

  He smiled then, and took me over to the hostess station. The girl working there seemed to know him, because she smiled and called him by his name, and guided the two of us over to a secluded table in one corner. The guitarist, a man in his thirties with his black hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, was sitting in the opposite corner, but because the restaurant wasn’t very big, the music was still loud enough, just on the verge of being too loud for Simon and me to have a decent conversation but not all the way there.

  I looked around before I picked up the menu, liking the lively color scheme of the place, from the bright lime green paint on the walls to the canvases of local art that had been hung everywhere, Technicolor pieces depicting pueblos and churches and deep green valleys with rocky red walls on either side. There were three tables and six booths in all, about half of them occupied.

  No one was paying any particular attention to Simon and me, and I liked it that way. Also, I could tell that no one else in the restaurant was of witch-kind, something I found reassuring. I didn’t have any real talents, but at least I had the same inborn ability as all other magical folk to be able to tell when there were others of my kind in the immediate vicinity. Since I didn’t sense anything, I didn’t have to worry about whether some of the other diners were members of the Castillo clan, and therefore possibly people who would report my whereabouts to Genoveva.

  I didn’t dare order a glass of wine, and Simon took his cue from me, also asking for just water. Some of the menu items weren’t familiar to me, since the restaurant seemed to have a South American slant to its food, but luckily, everything had a description. We ordered pupusas as an appetizer, and I opted for a cheese enchilada, hoping that something so bland wouldn’t do too much damage to my stomach. Simon ordered carne asada and I was glad, because it was one of the more expensive menu items and therefore well-suited for me to show him just how much I appreciated the way he’d let me crash at his place for the afternoon by paying for dinner.

  “You want to talk about it?” he asked after the waitress had brought us our water and then disappeared into the kitchen to place our orders. “If you don’t, that’s fine, but it’s pretty obvious that you’ve got a lot weighing on your mind.”

  There was an understatement. He’d done so much to help me — surely it couldn’t hurt if I gave him just a bit of information. Obviously, not anything about my being from a witch clan, or revealing that another, larger clan lived in Santa Fe and had for generations, but I didn’t have to mention any of that to let him know I’d been sent here to marry someone I’d never met before.

  “It’s — it’s going to sound kind of crazy.”

  He smiled, his fingers touching his water glass, although he didn’t lift it to his mouth to take a drink. “I’m from Santa Fe. Crazy is kind of in the air around here.”

  You have no idea, I thought, remembering the ghost I’d met at Tony’s Halloween party. I wasn’t even supposed to be able to see ghosts, let alone talk to them.

  So why had I encountered Victoria?

  “I came to Santa Fe to get married,” I said in a rush, and at once Simon’s face fell. Although I hated to be the source of any kind of disappointment for him, in a way I was also flattered. If he hadn’t felt some form of attraction toward me, then he wouldn’t have cared whether or not I was supposed to be married to someone else.

  “Oh,” he said, his tone flat. This time he did pick up his glass of water and took a big swallow. “When’s the happy day?”

  “I don’t know,” I replied honestly.

  His eyebrows lifted. “Huh?”

  “It — it was arranged,” I told him. “I’d never even met the guy before yesterday. Supposedly we’re going to get married after we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little better, but since about all we’ve done since we met is fight, I’m not sure how well that’s going to work out.”

  “Arranged?” Simon pronounced the word as if he’d never heard it before, his thin but somehow elegant mouth flattening in disapproval. “Isn’t that kind of, I don’t know, old-fashioned?”

  “Very. But it was something his mother worked out with my mother before I was even born. I didn’t have any say in the matter.”

  “Well, you must have had some, because you’re here now. It’s not like they locked you in a basement or something.”

  Wait until tomorrow, I thought, but I didn’t
say the words aloud. Right then, it seemed entirely possible that Genoveva would lock me up somewhere until I was safely married to her son. Oh, come on — she really wouldn’t do that…would she?

  Unfortunately, I got the feeling that there wasn’t much Genoveva Castillo wouldn’t do, if sufficiently provoked. Oh, I didn’t think she was evil or anything, didn’t think she practiced dark magic like the warlock who’d caused so much trouble for my parents before I was even born, but I could tell Genoveva was used to getting her own way, using her role as prima to move the people around her like pawns on a chessboard. It wasn’t that hard to imagine her keeping me in the casita until Rafe’s and my wedding day rolled around…and I thought she’d probably move that day up as soon as she found out about my disappearance this afternoon. Allowing the two of us time to get to know one another was one thing, but if she learned I’d used that time to get to know someone who wasn’t her son, she probably would throw those noble sentiments right out the window.

  “They’re trying to be nice,” I said, then sipped some of my water. “Give me my space, you know? But I don’t think that’s going to go on for too much longer.”

  Simon gave me a sympathetic nod. “What are you going to do? Go home?”

  “No,” I replied. The strange thing was, as terrible as this day had been, I hadn’t once thought of calling my parents, hadn’t once considered contacting them to ask if they could take me home. I supposed I could have, but this was my problem, and I needed to work it out. The first two decades of my life I’d had Mommy and Daddy making sure I was okay, looking out for me. It wasn’t their fault; I knew they still carried the guilt of agreeing to hand me over to the Castillos in the first place, and so they overcompensated by doing their best to make sure my life was smooth and serene, and as free as possible from any uncomfortable bumps. My childhood had been a happy one, but I would be the first to admit that it hadn’t done much to prepare me for living in the real world…not that coming here to Santa Fe to be a member of the Castillo witch clan was exactly living in the real world, either.

  A frown touched Simon’s brow. He fiddled with his fork and couldn’t seem to look at me directly. “You’re going to marry this guy?”

  “I…I don’t know.”

  This time Simon did look up, his dark eyes boring into mine. We might have only known each other for a day and a half, but I was fooling myself if I thought he wasn’t interested…and also hurt and angry that I might be considering marriage to someone I didn’t love. “Well, if you don’t want to go home, and you don’t know if you’re going to get married, then what are you planning to do?”

  “I don’t know,” I said again, hating that I must sound like a complete idiot, even though I had no other response to give. “I guess I need to see if we can make this work. If not…well, then I guess I will go home. I don’t have a lot of options.”

  Simon traced a forefinger along the edge of his plate. Again he wasn’t looking at me, and I couldn’t blame him. He must have been feeling even more confused than I was. “I’d like to be one of your options.”

  Gratitude — and more than a little shame — washed over me. “Simon, I can’t ask you to look out for me. We barely know each other.”

  “So what?” he said. “I like you, Miranda. You’re — I’ve never met a girl like you before. I don’t want to see you go back to Arizona. And I also don’t want to see you hooking up with this guy you’re supposed to marry, because he sounds like an asshole. But…I also get it. Your parents made a promise, and you don’t want to be the one to break it.”

  He still wasn’t quite looking at me, but I could hear the sincerity in his voice. And oh, right then I wished we didn’t have the table separating us, because I would have reached over to give him a hug. Then again, maybe hugging him wasn’t the best idea. I could tell I was attracted to Simon, but we’d had basically zero physical contact. It was probably better to keep it that way, for fear of starting something I knew I couldn’t finish.

  “Yes, that’s exactly it,” I said, glad that my voice sounded so steady. I knew I needed to try again with Rafe, no matter what kind of tenuous attraction existed between Simon and me, if only because I didn’t want to admit to failure so soon after coming here. Very likely, I was only reaching out to him because I’d been so careful not to allow any real connection to any of the guys I’d known back home. Now that I was off leash, so to speak, I’d glommed on to the first man my age I’d met. I didn’t know if any of this was real, or merely a reaction to circumstance. “I — I really appreciate what you’ve done for me, Simon. I could have been wandering the streets like a drunk if you hadn’t taken me in.”

  “Yeah, and you wouldn’t have been drunk if I hadn’t been pouring those glasses of wine for you,” he returned, his expression troubled. “I’m not sure I did you any huge favors. But I’m glad I could give you a place to crash.”

  A place where I’d crashed for hours and hours, while Cat and Rafe and, for all I knew, the entire Castillo clan was looking for me. I’d only extended my disappearance by going out to dinner with Simon, but I told myself my body needed the food. I would have been a wreck if I’d tried to meet with Rafe on an empty stomach, all that alcohol still churning around in my guts with nothing to soak it up.

  As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I realized that was what I needed to do. I needed to see Rafe, try to get this worked out, and the sooner, the better. I supposed I could have gone back to the casita and gotten a good night’s sleep first, but that seemed the coward’s way out. No, I needed to confront the situation head on.

  “And I appreciate it,” I said. “I really do. But now….”

  “Now you need to go to him.”

  Thank the Goddess that Simon was so perceptive. I didn’t have to explain myself to him; he seemed to instinctually understand what I had to do. “Yes, I need to have a long talk. But can I have your number? I’d still like to be friends, if that’s okay.”

  A hesitation that was impossible to ignore, but then his shoulders lifted slightly, and he got his phone out of his pocket. “Sure.”

  I got out my phone, too, and we touched them briefly so our information would be transferred to each other. As much as I would have liked to linger in the restaurant and put off the evil hour of the coming confrontation for as long as possible, I knew that wasn’t a good idea. I needed to get this over with, if for no other reason than the desire to know exactly where I stood. It was hard to plan for the future when you didn’t have any idea what your next step was supposed to be.

  “I guess this is it,” Simon said. He had a few bites of carne asada left on his plate, but from the way he pushed them around without lifting any of them to his mouth, I figured he was done.

  “Unless you want dessert,” I replied, trying to lighten the mood and failing miserably.

  He shook his head. “No, I think we’re finished.”

  The waitress seemed to realize we’d reached a stopping point, because she came over and asked if we wanted anything else. I told her no and asked for the bill. She pulled her tablet out of a pocket of the apron she wore, and I quickly handed over my phone so she could scan it.

  This all happened so fast that Simon really didn’t have a chance to intervene. Once the waitress was gone, he said, “I would have paid for dinner.”

  “I’m sure you would, but this is the least I could do to say thanks for taking care of me this afternoon.”

  His mouth drooped. “Am I ever going to see you again?”

  “I don’t know,” I said honestly. “I hope so. Like you told me, Santa Fe isn’t that big a town.”

  I got up from my seat then, and paused next to him for a moment so I could lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder. After that, I made my way to the entrance and climbed the stairs to street level, at the same time using the app on my phone to summon a Ryde vehicle. They must have cruised the downtown area in decent numbers, because I got confirmation that one would be in my location in less than two minutes.
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  So I stood at the curb, phone in hand, and waited. I honestly didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing.

  I only knew that I was doing what needed to be done.

  9

  Misunderstandings

  As soon as I climbed in the back seat of the Ryde — a late-model Toyota — I spoke, telling the AI that controlled it what I wanted. “Can you just circle the Plaza for a few minutes? I’ll have my actual destination after that.”

  “Certainly,” said the mechanical voice, and the car headed east on San Francisco Street at a leisurely pace. “You understand that certain portions of the streets immediately adjacent to the Plaza are blocked to vehicle traffic and are not accessible.”

  “Yes, I know,” I replied as I went to my contacts list to find Cat’s information. I would have to contact her manually, without using voice commands, or I risked confusing the AI that controlled the vehicle where I now sat. “Just stay in the general area.”

  “Of course.”

  Texting seemed safer than making a phone call. It turned out that she had replied to the hasty text I’d sent from Simon’s apartment — replied a total of five times, all of the messages variations on “where the hell are you?” I ignored all that and wrote, I need to talk to Rafe in person, but I don’t know where he lives. Can you give me his address?

  The answer came back almost at once. We’ve been worried sick. Where are you?

  I’m down near the Plaza. I’m fine. But I need to see Rafe.

  This time she didn’t reply as quickly. But after a gap of about thirty seconds, the answer came back. All right. He lives at 318 Magdalena Rd.

  Thanks, I responded. I appreciate it.

  Another pause. Then, I hope you can work it out.

 
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