Haunted hearts, p.11
Haunted Hearts, page 11
Alessandro had to admit this drive was a pleasant one — the highway wound away south of Santa Fe, through land that rolled in what seemed like huge waves covered in golden dry grass, with an edging of mountains off to the west to give the landscape some depth. There were homes here on large lots, set off from the road by their own private lanes. And they passed over a river, low in its banks at this time of year, but still edged with the graceful, frilly-leaved trees he’d learned were cottonwoods.
They hadn’t encountered much traffic during the first part of their drive, but once they crossed the river, he noticed that there were more cars on the road, as well as large groups of people on big motorcycles — noisy Harley-Davidsons, from what he could tell, very different from the sleek electric motorcycles he used to see when he visited San Salvador. When they were still about a mile from their destination, he started to see signs welcoming visitors to Madrid’s Blues Fest, along with directions to a remote parking lot.
Since the car was doing the driving, he knew it was safe to shift in his seat and send an accusing glance in Elena’s direction. “Did you know about this?”
“No,” she said at once, her expression a bit startled, which made him think she was telling him the truth. “Nothing came up when I googled ‘Madrid.’ Otherwise, I would have picked a different time to come…obviously.”
Alessandro released an annoyed breath. But they were already there — or almost there — so he didn’t see much point in turning around. However, he realized in the next moment that he was going to have to take manual control of the car, since it seemed obvious to him that they’d be going to a satellite parking lot rather than the restaurant they’d chosen as their destination.
“Disengage nav,” he said grimly, and Elena shot him a worried glance.
“Should you be doing that?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I?”
She stared at the line of cars in front of them, then gave a small shake of her head. “I guess not.”
There were police up ahead, too — or rather, county sheriffs, once the car got close enough for Alessandro to see the patches on their khaki uniforms. To his relief, though, they seemed much more focused on directing traffic than determining whether the people driving those cars might or might not be properly licensed. Even so, he was more than happy to turn off into the dirt parking lot where he was sent and park there — and happier still to shut off the vehicle and get out. The return trip wouldn’t be a problem, since that destination was a preset in the little SUV’s navigation system and he wouldn’t have to drive at all.
Elena climbed out of her seat, frowning a little. She was looking especially beautiful today, in a close-fitting black tank top and flowing skirt over a pair of black cowboy boots. Good thing she’d worn those boots instead of her usual sandals, because the going looked rough enough that, at the very least, she would have gotten her feet dirty.
“I don’t think it’s too far,” he said, hoping to reassure her. He knew that he felt much better now he was no longer behind the wheel. “At least we can just follow everyone.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about the hike,” she replied as she lifted a hand to push a few windblown strands of hair away from her face. “I’m just worried we won’t be able to find a place to sit down and eat.”
A valid concern, considering the number of people streaming into the tiny town. About all they could do now, though, was see how crowded the restaurants were. If it was really bad, well, then they’d just continue down the highway, go into Albuquerque, and get a late lunch there. It might not have been what they’d planned, but better than stubbornly staying in Madrid and going hungry.
They reached the outskirts of the tiny settlement, and he saw that it was much as Elena had described to him — an abandoned mining town now turned into a tourist destination, with buildings that looked like something out of the old western movies he used to watch sometimes on satellite TV. Now those buildings were a variety of shops, bed-and-breakfasts, and eating establishments, but they retained much of their same character. He supposed it all was interesting in a quaint sort of way — at least, the parts you could see that weren’t blocked by masses of tourists.
As they walked, the sound of music got louder and louder, twangy guitars that seemed peculiarly American to his ears. It definitely wasn’t the sort of thing he would have chosen to listen to, but he supposed he could deal with it for Elena’s sake. Not that she probably would have selected this kind of background music, either; he was still a little surprised that her music of choice while she was painting was quiet classical guitar, nothing he would have expected a twenty-two-year-old American girl to gravitate toward. But she’d said it relaxed her, and confessed once that she actually knew nothing about music because her grandmother hated modern stuff and wouldn’t let her play it in the house.
That restriction sounded needlessly cruel to him — what harm was there in letting her amuse herself with music? — but since he already had a very low opinion of Elena’s family, this latest revelation only strengthened his resolve to make sure she wouldn’t have to deal with them ever again.
From what he could tell, it seemed as though most of the people were heading toward a large establishment on one side of the street, a place that proclaimed itself the Mine Shaft Tavern and which had multiple pavilions set up surrounding the restaurant itself. A line snaked its way out toward the highway as people waited to purchase tickets that would allow them into the festival.
“We don’t have to go there,” Elena murmured into his ear. “I don’t really care about the blues fest — I just wanted to see Madrid.”
“You’ll hear the festival anyway,” he replied. “It’s not like you have to be in one of those pavilions.”
“True.” She pointed across the street to what looked like some kind of restaurant, one with a number of tables scattered throughout a good-sized outdoor area. “I think that’s The Hollar. That’s the place where I was thinking about having lunch.”
“Let’s give it a try.” Without thinking about how she would react, he took her by the hand…doing his best to ignore how good her slender fingers felt clasped with his…and hurried across the street. They had to dodge traffic — including some perfectly restored vintage cars, vehicles he would have liked a closer look at — as they went. Luck seemed to be with them, though, because a group of two couples was getting up from one of the tables just as he and Elena approached. They increased their pace and managed to sit down just when another couple appeared on the other side of the patio, obviously scanning the area in the hope that they’d be able to find a place to sit down.
Alessandro had let go of Elena’s hand once they were safely across the street, and yet he still thought he could feel the touch of her slender fingers against his, the smoothness of her skin. As best he could, he banished the sensation, glad that he could lean forward and pluck a paper menu from where it had been sandwiched in between the condiments sitting at the center of the table, and distract himself with perusing its contents.
She took a menu as well, and seemed to be doing her best to avoid looking at him. Had she also been discomfited by the way he’d held her hand? At the time, he’d only thought it would be the safest way to get across the street, but now he was beginning to think he might have done better to let things alone.
“That was lucky,” she remarked, still scanning the menu. “I didn’t think there was a chance in hell we’d find a place to sit.”
“I suppose the universe wanted to make sure you had a good day in Madrid.”
That comment made her look up at last. She wore sunglasses because the day was a bright one, with only a cloud here and there to break up the vast expanse of blue sky, so he couldn’t see much of her expression.
Maybe that was a good thing.
“I’m pretty sure the universe has more important things to do with its time than worry about whether I’m having fun,” she remarked, then set the menu aside.
“Am I what?”
She smiled at that question, and he thought he caught a wicked flash of blue-gray from behind her sunglasses. “I’ll let you know.”
Alessandro supposed he would have to be content with that response. His own fault, anyway, for asking such a leading question. A waitress with blue and purple streaks in her blonde hair and tats covering both arms came up and asked if they were ready to order. He hadn’t had much of a chance to figure out what he wanted, since the food was all unfamiliar to him, but he ordered a bottle of local beer and watched as Elena asked for a glass of white wine.
“I.D.?” the waitress asked in a bored tone.
Oh, hell. This was the first time they’d actually ordered alcohol on one of these outings; they generally drank wine with dinner, but it was liquor he bought at the store and brought back to the house. So far, no one had asked him for his identification. He had identification from El Salvador that showed his birth date, so he supposed that should be good enough, but Elena….
To his relief — and total surprise — she pulled out her wallet and removed an I.D. card, then handed it to the waitress. The woman seemed to take her time studying it, but after a moment, she handed it back, saying, “Thanks. I’ll have your drinks in a couple of minutes.”
She went inside the restaurant proper, which appeared to also offer seating, although everyone obviously preferred to eat outside in the sunshine. Alessandro glanced back at Elena, who was returning her identification to her wallet.
“Why do you have an I.D. if you never left the house?”
A shrug. “It was my father’s idea. He said he thought it would be a good idea for me to have something, even if I wasn’t driving. I didn’t argue — at least going to get it gave me a chance to get out of the house. Not that the MVD office is exactly my idea of a fun field trip.”
He assumed “MVD” stood for motor vehicle department, or something along those lines. “I suppose I should have asked you before we started ordering alcohol.”
“I wouldn’t have ordered it if I didn’t have the I.D., so no worries.” She tilted her head to one side, studying him. “I’m surprised she didn’t ask you for yours. Do you have one?”
“Yes. We’re not completely uncivilized in Pico Negro.”
That comment made her shoot him a sideways glance as she wondered whether she’d offended him with her question. To her relief, he chuckled.
“Even we Escobars don’t like to attract too much attention to ourselves. That includes not getting cited for driving without a license. True, it’s easy enough in El Salvador to make such things go away by offering a discreet bribe, but it’s usually simpler to have a license and avoid the whole problem in the first place.”
Elena nodded. “Makes sense.”
The waitress returned with their drinks. “To getting out,” Alessandro said, and clinked his bottle gently against Elena’s wine glass.
“Amen to that.”
They both drank, then returned to studying their menus, since it had been pretty obvious that their waitress was feeling a little overburdened and didn’t want to waste time by being forced to come back over and over again until they had determined what they wanted to eat. He made up his mind to order something that sounded completely American and not like anything else he’d ever had, so he decided on the pulled pork biscuit sandwiches with a side of cheesy grits.
“Ready?” the waitress asked, and Elena requested a cheeseburger, while Alessandro asked for the sandwiches he’d decided on earlier. That matter handled, the waitress departed, while the two of them settled back against their chairs, glad they could relax now.
“Cheesy grits, huh?” Elena remarked.
“Have you ever had them?”
“No,” she replied. “That’s Southern food…not the kind of thing my grandmother cooked.”
“Well, I wanted something different.”
“I’m sure they’ll be different.”
He only lifted a shoulder and took another pull of his beer, refusing to be baited. Right then, he was just glad to be sitting there, with that impossibly jewel-toned blue sky overhead and a fresh breeze ruffling his hair. Small brown birds jumped around in the branches of the trees that surrounded the patio, their cheerful cheeping somehow managing to override the sound of the twangy music that emanated from the pavilion on the opposite side of the street. It was all so utterly unlike anything he’d experienced in El Salvador, and yet he found himself oddly content in that moment, as if he’d had to escape the familiar in order to realize what actually made him happy.
And part of this feeling had to be due to the woman who sat across the table from him, sipping at her glass of white wine, her lovely features alight with interest as she seemed to study the other occupants of the patio, families with children, couples with their dogs, rough-looking types in leather vests and faded jeans who’d congregated near the open-air bar across the way. It was a diverse group, that was for sure, but everyone appeared to be having a good time, just as he and Elena were.
Seeing her like that made a rush of affection go through him, a sensation as unfamiliar as it was unexpected. He wanted to reach out with his free hand and clasp her fingers again, feel the warmth of her flesh. No, more than that, he wanted to go over to her, pull her up from his chair, and press his lips against hers, taste the sweetness of her mouth.
And that was…insane. He could only imagine her reaction if he tried something like that. She’d pull away, stammer something, probably try to make a joke. They’d been sharing the house in Santa Fe for the greater part of a week by that point, but she hadn’t given him a single hint that she saw him as anything more than a housemate and platonic friend. Maybe one could argue that she had and he merely hadn’t noticed. He knew better than that, though, because he’d been looking. He’d tried to see a flicker in her expression, a certain warmth in her gaze, and it just hadn’t been there.
“What do you want to do after lunch?” Elena asked then, and he had to force his thoughts away from the impossibilities occupying his mind.
“Shop?” he suggested, and she grinned.
“I never thought I’d hear you proposing that we go shopping.”
“Well, what else is there to do here?”
She hesitated for a moment, her gaze straying across the street to where the blues festival was going full blast.
Alessandro thought he could guess exactly what that hesitation meant. “I thought you didn’t want to go.”
“At first, I didn’t. Now….” She let the word trail off before adding, “Maybe it’ll be fun.”
Maybe. He didn’t answer her at first, partly because he wasn’t sure exactly what to say. For one thing, the place was packed with the type of guys who looked like they’d only be too happy to cause trouble with an obviously Hispanic man accompanying a woman who looked white. Yes, Elena was half Castillo, but her coloring, with her brown hair and fair skin and blue eyes, obviously favored her absent mother.
However, Alessandro had a feeling if he attempted to use that argument to dissuade her, she’d either try to brush it off as him being overly paranoid — which he couldn’t really argue with — or she’d do her best to tell him that this was New Mexico and that sort of thing wasn’t even an issue in a place with such a large Hispanic and indigenous population. Maybe she’d even be right. He’d only been here a week and still didn’t know much about the state. Then again, she’d spent her entire adolescence and adulthood locked up in her family home, so it wasn’t as though she exactly had a large experience of the world to draw on.
Better not to get into it now. “Well, let’s eat first,” he said. “Then we’ll see how it goes.”
That tepid answer didn’t seem to bother her too much. She smiled at him. “Sure.”
And he had to wonder if he’d just agreed to something without realizing he was doing so.
The food was great, although Elena sort of wished
No big deal, though. She mostly just wanted to enjoy the burger and the fries that had come with it, to feel herself get comfortably full…but not too full to go over to the Mine Shaft and mingle with the crowd at the blues festival. It would be a chance to actually hang out and have fun, something she’d never been able to do for her entire life. While she supposed there was a very remote chance that some Castillo witches and warlocks might have come down to Madrid to join in the party, she figured the risk was small enough that she was willing to take it. Anyway, in a crowd that size, even if a Castillo managed to sense there was another of their kind somewhere in the vicinity, the chances of them being able to track her down probably weren’t very big.
She and Alessandro didn’t talk about anything too important, just about the food and how it was so very different from anything he’d ever had before. It probably wasn’t a big deal to discuss his being from El Salvador, since that only made it sound as if he was yet another tourist visiting the area. But she could understand what he meant about the food at The Hollar; they had a few New Mexican dishes on the menu, but most of it was down-home American food: cheesy grits, fried green tomatoes, chicken and waffles. No wonder it all seemed so strange to Alessandro. The dishes he’d made for her so far had seemed more like Mexican food than anything else, but he’d explained that Mexican cuisine had mingled with the more traditional Salvadoran food, and so sometimes it could be hard to tell where one left off and the other began.
Once they were done and he’d paid the bill — she’d done her best to reach for the check so she could make this her treat, but he was too fast for her — they got up from their table and headed toward the exit. As they stood at the edge of the dirt parking lot and gazed across the street at the coming and goings of the festival-goers, she said, “So…?”
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes