Haunted hearts, p.12
Haunted Hearts, page 12
“You know what I mean. Do you want to go? Or did you eat too much?”
The glance he sent down at her was positively mystified. “Did I eat too much for what?”
“To go to the festival.”
“I didn’t know that eating too much could stop you from listening to music.”
She grinned up at him. “Maybe not listening, but it could stop you from dancing.”
“‘Dancing’?” he repeated, looking so horrified, she wanted to laugh out loud. “Who said anything about dancing?”
“I just did now.” She put her hands on her hips. “Don’t you know how to dance?”
“No.” Tone challenging, he added, “Do you?”
Well, he had her there. “Not really,” she admitted. “I haven’t exactly had a lot of opportunity, if you know what I mean.”
“Then I don’t see what the point is in asking me if I know how to dance if you don’t, either.”
Elena couldn’t help it. A chuckle escaped her lips, even as Alessandro continued to stare down at her with narrowed eyes. “We are a couple of sad sacks, aren’t we?” she said.
“It’s an expression,” she told him. “Basically, losers.”
“You are not a loser,” he replied at once, his tone fierce.
Would he have been so emphatic if he hadn’t cared just a little bit? She couldn’t begin to guess. Once again, she might be reaching for possibilities, trying to make something exist that simply wasn’t there. She supposed she’d been thinking about dancing with him because she imagined such an activity might be a good prelude to other shared intimacies, but if neither of them even knew how to dance, she had a feeling they’d probably end up making fools of themselves.
“Well, I don’t think you’re a loser, either,” she said, figuring she should probably allow him the point. “But we’re not exactly the world’s most socially graceful people.”
He was quiet for a moment, as if considering what she’d just said and whether he should take offense at the remark. To her relief, he sounded unruffled enough as he replied, “Maybe. We both have valid excuses, though.”
“You weren’t given the chance to interact with anyone outside your own household,” he said. “And I — well, we kept to ourselves in Pico Negro.”
Elena guessed that was nothing more than the simple truth. All witch clans by necessity had to be careful around civilians, but she’d gotten the impression that the Escobars had taken such caution a step further by making sure their village remained isolated from the rest of the world. They certainly didn’t live cheek by jowl with nonmagical people the way the Castillos did. “Maybe you did,” she responded. “But you didn’t have any celebrations in your village? No music, no dancing?”
A muscle twitched in his cheek, and he looked away from her, southward along the narrow highway that cut through Madrid. Someone watching him might have thought he was simply checking to make sure there wasn’t any oncoming traffic before they crossed the street, but she somehow knew he’d done so because he hadn’t wanted her to look in his eyes and realize he was keeping something from her.
Of course, she knew that already. During the past few days, she’d learned that he had a younger sister named Lara and their mother was named Teresa. Their father had died of a sudden heart attack when Alessandro was only eleven. Other than that, he’d volunteered barely any information. Elena still had no idea what his magical talent was, or even why he’d come to Santa Fe for a stay of indeterminate length. She’d known better than to ask, since doing so would be a complete waste of breath. He would have shut her down before the words barely left her mouth.
“There were some celebrations,” he said briefly. “On saints’ feast days, or when Vicénte, the former primus, had a birthday. People danced. I didn’t.”
The question slipped out despite herself. “Why not?”
Still staring southward along the highway, he replied, “I didn’t want to.”
His mouth shut like a trap after that. Elena didn’t bother to ask why he didn’t want to dance. What would be the point?
“Fair enough,” she said easily. “So, we won’t dance. We can still go across the street and listen to the music.”
“We can hear it well enough from here.”
Which was true. In fact, the band playing right then was so loud, she had a feeling they’d be able to hear it no matter how far they ranged up and down the street while looking at the various shops and galleries spread along its length.
“Shopping?” she asked then, hearing all too clearly the desperation in her voice.
Well, at least he hadn’t shot down that idea. And luckily, there was a store that sold jewelry and minerals just on the other side of The Hollar’s parking lot, so they wouldn’t even have to cross the street yet. Elena headed toward the shop’s entrance without looking to see whether Alessandro was following.
But of course he did follow her, and was close on her heels as she went inside. The shop smelled faintly of incense, sweet and smoky, and had an impressive array of silver jewelry, most of it from local Native American artisans. She looked at the pieces with some wistfulness and performed a rough calculation as to how much money was still left on the prepaid Visa card Ava had given her. There was still a decent amount, but not enough to justify spending hundreds of dollars on a necklace…especially not after her shopping spree at the art supply store a few days earlier. Yes, Ava had said Elena had all sorts of money waiting for her, the funds from a stipend she should have been receiving since she turned eighteen. Unfortunately, the only way to get that money would be to go to Miranda and announce her presence here in Santa Fe, and she wasn’t ready to do that. Not even for six figures.
“Which one is your favorite?” Alessandro asked, startling her a little. He’d been silent as she lingered over the display cases, slowly moving from one to the other while she inspected their contents. The stores in Santa Fe had contained beautiful merchandise as well, although she was surprised at how good the collection here had turned out to be. She had a feeling the prices were better, too, although, in the tradition of jewelry stores everywhere, it seemed, the tags were skillfully hidden under the items in question so the only way to find out was to have the clerk lift them out and tell her how much each one actually was.
“They’re all beautiful,” she replied, which was the truth. However, there was one piece that had caught her eye for some reason, a rectangle of pure sky-blue turquoise set in sterling, held in place by a pair of heavy silver chains. As far as she could tell, it was choker-length, meant to be worn tight against the throat. It was beautiful and simple, not too overdone. “But I do like that one,” she added, pointing at the choker.
Obviously not wanting to miss an opportunity for a sale, the clerk hurried over and opened the case, then drew out the necklace. “You have a good eye. That one was made by Frank Diné, a Navajo craftsman based in Albuquerque. It’s two seventy-five.”
He said it so casually that at first, the price didn’t quite register. Then Elena blinked, realizing the piece was almost three hundred dollars. “Thanks,” she said. “I think that’s a little more than I wanted to spend today.”
“I’ll take it,” Alessandro said, and she blinked again, not sure she’d heard him correctly.
“You don’t have to — ” she began, but he only sent her a thin smile.
“I know I don’t have to,” he said. “But I want to.”
Before she could stammer a protest, he handed his credit card to the clerk, who took it with some alacrity and hurried over to the cash register. As she watched, he rang up the sale and then gave Alessandro back his card. “Should I put this in a box, or would you like to wear it?” the clerk asked.
“Um…wear it, I suppose,” Elena replied. She hadn’t brought much jewelry with her to Santa Fe for the simple reason that she didn’t have much to bring. The silver
Anyway, she didn’t have to worry about taking off a necklace to put on the one Alessandro had just bought her because she hadn’t been wearing one in the first place. For just the barest second, she paused, wondering if he was going to offer to put it on for her. She should have known better, of course. While he was watching her with some interest, clearly wanting to see how it would look on her, he made no move to take the choker from her.
After an awkward pause that felt as if it went on forever but probably lasted a second or two at the most, Elena reached up and fastened the necklace around her throat, feeling the unfamiliar heaviness of the piece against her skin. “It fits perfectly,” she said. “Thank you.” It had been in her mind to at least say that he shouldn’t have made such an extravagant gesture, but she knew any protests along those lines wouldn’t find a very receptive audience.
“It looks good on you,” he said briefly. “Should we keep shopping?”
“Sure,” she replied, even as she vowed inwardly not to show any particular interest in any other items she might spot as they moved from store to store. The choker was more than enough; she absolutely did not want Alessandro to feel as if he should spend any more money on her.
Which of course made her wonder why he’d been compelled to do so in the first place. Did men usually buy expensive jewelry for women they only viewed as friends? Elena had no basis of comparison, so she really couldn’t say for sure, and although she’d watched a lot of television over the years, even she knew that what you saw on TV wasn’t necessarily an accurate depiction of reality. Not for the first time, she wished she had a female friend she could talk to and ask about these sorts of things. Belshegar had been a stalwart companion during the past lonely eleven years, but he wasn’t exactly the sort of person who could offer dating advice.
Not that she and Alessandro were dating. Not even close. She didn’t know exactly what they were doing. Spending time together. Living together…but only as housemates, nothing more.
Then why had he bought her the necklace?
Her fingers strayed to it more than once as they meandered along Madrid’s one and only main street. The choker still felt heavy and strange around her neck, although she supposed she’d get used to it sooner or later.
As they paused in front of a gallery window, Alessandro said, “Your stuff is as good as anything in here.”
If it had been anyone else, she might have thought he was paying her false compliments to get on her better side, but she knew he didn’t operate that way. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” she replied. “I’m still just learning.”
“Well, I know. That painting you just did of the garden? It’s really good. I’m sure someone would want to buy it.”
His tone was casual, as if the quality of her work was such a given that there was no need to discuss whether she was ready to have her pieces displayed. She’d been proud of the painting in question, one that captured all the exuberant beauty of the garden, complete with rows of brightly colored hollyhocks standing proud against the back wall of the garage, but it was a big step to go from being proud of something to thinking it was gallery quality.
Rather than argue with him about the merits of that particular piece, she said, “I’d have to put it out there under a pseudonym. If Miranda really does have all the Castillos on alert to track me down, the last thing I’d want is something out there with my real name on it.”
“True. I hadn’t really thought about that.” He shrugged. “I suppose it wouldn’t be that hard to use a fake name.”
Except for the part where she’d signed her name at the bottom of the painting the way she always did, with the tail of the “a” at the end swooping back under it with an exuberant flourish. She supposed she could go back and paint over that section, although she’d prefer not to. “Probably not,” she agreed, deciding not to argue about it right now. Getting any of her work in a gallery was a long shot anyway, no matter what Alessandro might think. “We’ll see.”
He seemed to pick up on something of what she was thinking, because he didn’t push her, only said, “All right,” before scanning the street for a safe time to cross. The traffic had thinned out a little from its peak when they’d arrived, but it was still thick enough that they’d have to be careful.
Only…did she even want to go and inspect the stores on the other side of the highway? They’d been leisurely in their progress and had probably spent at least an hour poking around already, and Elena realized she was getting tired. Or rather, not physically tired, but a little weary of having to contain her enthusiasm for fear Alessandro might misinterpret it and try to buy her something else.
“Maybe we should go home,” she suggested, and he looked down at her, obviously surprised.
“There’s still a lot left to look at.”
“I know. But we can always come back another time — hopefully when there isn’t a blues festival going on and it isn’t so crowded.”
For a long moment, he hesitated, and she wondered if she was going to have to plead a headache or something else to get him to take her home. However, he appeared to relent, saying, “Sure. Whatever you want to do.”
They made their way along the street, dodging the throngs of people who were headed in the opposite direction, probably late arrivals who wanted to catch as much of the festival as they could. Eventually, though, she and Alessandro made it back to the car and buckled themselves in. “Home,” he told the nav, and the CR-V backed out of the parking space and waited for an opening in traffic before pulling out on the highway.
“Sorry about that,” she said once they were clear of Madrid and its accompanying crowds.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” he replied. “I’d had enough, too, but I didn’t want to cut your day short.”
“A couple of sad sacks,” she remarked, and this time he chuckled rather than taking offense.
“I suppose so. But, as you said, it never hurts to leave a little bit for next time.”
His words comforted her, letting her know that she hadn’t unwittingly taken him from something he was enjoying. “On a weekday, though,” she said, and he smiled.
“That’s probably a good idea.”
Her fingers touched the smooth rectangle of turquoise at the center of the necklace he’d bought her. Once again, she thought about thanking him, but decided against it; she’d already shown her gratitude, and anything else would probably call more attention to the matter than either of them wanted. The best thing to do, she decided, was to show her thanks by wearing the piece as often as she could.
The drive home seemed shorter than the drive down to Madrid had, maybe because this time she had a better idea of the route they would take. Soon enough, they were traversing narrow, tree-lined Old Santa Fe Trail, headed toward the neighborhood just north of downtown where the big Victorian house was located. And only a few minutes later, the CR-V had pulled into the garage, and Alessandro turned off the motor.
In silence, they got out of the car and went inside; their only purchase had been the necklace she now wore, so it wasn’t as if they had to retrieve any packages from the cargo area of the SUV. All was quiet in the house as well, although Elena wasn’t sure what she’d expected to hear. Belshegar hadn’t made a peep since she’d told him to butt out a few days earlier — a hasty remark she was already regretting — and their resident ghost had been quiet the last day or so as well. Maybe Victoria was also annoyed with her for telling the demon to stay out of her business.
The world seemed to spin around her. It was a good thing that his arms now encircled her, holding her up, because otherwise, she didn’t know for sure whether or not they would have given way completely. His mouth was warm, and he tasted of something savory and tangy — the barbecue sauce from his lunch? — but it was hard to focus on any one thing at a time, what with the heat washing through her body, making her head swim and her fingers and toes suddenly tingly.
They stood in the entryway like that for a long moment, arms entangled, mouth pressing against mouth. One corner of her mind couldn’t quite stop itself from puzzling over the kiss, wondering if there was some signal she’d missed, something Alessandro had said or done that would have told her he planned something like this. But maybe he hadn’t planned it — maybe he just couldn’t hold out any longer.
She hoped that was it. She hoped that he’d been secretly pining for her just as she’d been pining for him, that he’d held back because he didn’t want to take advantage of someone he thought was in a vulnerable position. Whatever the reason, she could only be glad that he’d finally succumbed to the connection she’d felt growing between them. It hadn’t been only her thinking she was attracted to him, dreaming about him like some silly high school girl languishing over a popular boy. He’d felt something, too, or he would never have done this.
The world was still spinning, and yet it felt utterly changed. At last, Alessandro lifted his mouth from hers and stared down into her face, dark eyes intent and yet also somewhat troubled.
“I didn’t plan to do that,” he said.
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes