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Haunted hearts, p.14

Haunted Hearts, page 14

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  She wanted that money so she could leave, so she could be independent and not a burden on anyone.

  Apparently sensing that she wasn’t going to get any input from him, Miranda said, “I don’t know about that. But yes, you should’ve started getting your stipend when you turned eighteen.”

  “So, my father and grandmother pocketed it?” Elena set her hands on her hips, eyes bright with anger.

  “No,” Miranda said hastily. “At least, I don’t think they could have. The way it’s set up in this clan, you have to go to Lorna Torres — she’s a Castillo witch who’s also a CPA — and show her your I.D. and let her know the bank account where you want the funds deposited each month. I don’t see how your father could have done that without you knowing about it.”

  Elena didn’t appear quite so convinced. Her eyes narrowed, and she said, “What if he went to this Lorna person and gave her my identification and bank info, and told her I wasn’t well enough to come to Santa Fe to handle things? What then?”

  “I — I don’t know.” Now the prima was looking worried as well. “I guess we’d have to check on that.”

  Despite his own worry about Elena’s obvious anger with him, Alessandro couldn’t help but experience a certain tightening in his gut. Ever since Elena had told him that she had a state-issued I.D., he’d wondered why on earth she would need such a thing when it was clear her family had never allowed her out of the house. However, if that piece of identification was what had been needed to gain access to her stipend, then it made much more sense that her father would have taken the risk of bringing her to the local motor vehicle department to procure one. Would she have even noticed if her I.D. card was missing from her wallet for a few hours while her father brought it to Santa Fe to get her stipend payments set up?

  Probably not. After all, she had no real need of it.

  “Then let’s go and talk to Lorna Torres now,” Elena said. “Give me a minute so I can go get my things.”

  Before Miranda could reply — and before Alessandro could think of the one thing to say to her that might make her stop, make her understand that he hadn’t hidden anything from her because he wished to hurt her, but only because he hated to reveal any ugly truths about himself — Elena had left the living room. A few seconds later, he heard her quick footsteps moving up the stairs.

  He glanced over at Miranda, mouth twisting. “That could have gone better.”

  “I am so sorry,” she said, and, if her expression was any indication, she truly did look as though she regretted blundering into a situation she couldn’t have anticipated. “I didn’t know she was here — or that there was anything — ”

  She stopped herself before she could say anything further, but he could guess what she’d been thinking.

  I didn’t know there was anything going on between you.

  Well, up until an hour ago, there hadn’t been…and now it looked as though there never would be.

  Just as well, he thought. Letting himself care for someone would only allow him to get hurt. Better to go on as he had.

  Except he knew that was a lie. If he knew anything at all, it was that he needed to stop lying to himself. If he didn’t, then he didn’t deserve Elena. He’d already screwed this up badly enough.

  Only time would tell if he would be able to fix it.

  Tears threatened to blind her, but Elena blinked them back. She would not…would not…go back downstairs with red eyes and a puffy nose. No way would she give Alessandro the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt her. All right, she had a feeling he wouldn’t be happy to know how upset she was. He might be a liar, but he wasn’t a sadist.

  At least, she didn’t think he was. Right then, she didn’t know what to believe.

  She went to the dresser and pulled out bras and underwear and jeans, and stuffed them in her overnight bag. After that, she got down the blouses she had hanging in the closet, folded them as best she could, and put them in the bag with her other clothes. Luckily, she didn’t have much in the way of toiletries, so it didn’t take very long to gather them all from the guest bathroom and bring them back to the bedroom where she’d been sleeping so she could pack them as well. As she zipped up the bag, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, looking pale and tragic…and she also spied the choker Alessandro had given her, still gleaming around her throat.

  With shaking fingers, she reached up and undid the clasp. As much as she wanted to march back downstairs and fling the necklace in his face, she didn’t think indulging in such a display in front of Miranda Castillo was probably a very good idea. She was going to need Miranda as an ally if it turned out her father and grandmother really had been embezzling money from her for the past four years.

  Anger flared in her, and she tamped it down as best she could. Right then, she felt like a big ball of boiling rage, and she honestly couldn’t even say who she was madder at — Alessandro, for not telling her what a dangerous gift he possessed, or her father and grandmother, who very likely had been taking money that should have been hers. Why else would they have insisted on her getting that stupid I.D. card?

  Well, that was one mystery she should be able to clear up pretty quickly. She and Miranda would go see this witch CPA — there was a combination she hadn’t thought of before — and find out whether her stipend had been quietly siphoned off into an account that wasn’t hers, or whether she really was being paranoid and actually owed her family an apology.

  Hand still shaking, Elena set the choker down on top of the antique dresser, then paused. All of her painting supplies were in the office next door, and she knew they would never fit in her overnight bag. Well, she’d leave them for now and get them later. At the moment, she didn’t even know where she was going. Her original thought had been to head back to the La Fonda, which was why she’d asked about the stipend in the first place. But obviously that solution would be a short-term one at best if she didn’t have any funds to back up an extended stay at the four-star hotel.

  However, she knew she needed to get out of this house…at least for now. That was about all she’d permit herself at the moment. In a way, she was glad she had the possible theft of her money to focus on, simply because if she thought about that, she wouldn’t have to think about kissing Alessandro, about how it had all been so wonderful in one moment and then had come crashing down the next. Bare minimum, though, she needed to give herself some time to clear her head and figure out what she wanted to do about him, and she absolutely could not do that while living under his roof.

  All right, his borrowed roof, but still.

  Overnight bag dangling from one hand, she went back downstairs, where Miranda and Alessandro still sat where she’d left them. However, as soon his gaze fell on the bag Elena held, he said, “What’s that?”

  “What does it look like?” she returned. “It’s my stuff. I’m going to a hotel — at least, that’s what I plan to do, but I need to see Lorna first.”

  His brow looked thunderous, but his voice was even enough as he said, “It’s a Sunday. I doubt she works on Sundays.”

  “This is a family emergency,” Miranda pointed out. She got up from the armchair where she’d been sitting, expression resigned, as if she knew there was no point in trying to change Elena’s mind. “She’ll see us.”

  Of course, she would. Who was going to tell the prima that they were busy and to come back some other time? Elena could already tell that Miranda probably wasn’t the type to throw her weight around, but in this case, she hardly needed to. A simple request would do the trick.

  “Elena — ”

  The naked pleading in Alessandro’s voice almost stopped her. She gazed at him, at the strong, sculpted mouth that had kissed her less than a half hour earlier, at the intense dark eyes under their straight, expressive brows. It was horribly obvious that he wanted her to stay, wanted to talk to her, but she feared if she folded now, if she didn’t allow her anger to push her to do the things that needed to be done, she might never have
the strength again.

  Besides, he’d lied to her. Maybe a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless. She couldn’t let him think that was okay.

  Especially if it turned out that the people who were supposed to be watching out for her had been lying and stealing from her for years.

  “I’m ready,” she said, and Miranda nodded.

  “Okay. I’ll call Lorna from the car.”

  Alessandro got up from the couch and took a step, then stopped, as if he’d just realized that moving toward Elena, reaching out to do something…anything…to keep her here was the very worst thing he could do. Voice quiet but urgent, he said, “Don’t do this. Please…stay and talk.”

  “I wanted to talk,” she replied. That hardly sounded like her voice — cold and clear and cutting. “You wouldn’t talk to me. At least, not about something that was really important.”

  And she turned and went to the door, Miranda a pace or two behind. Maybe the prima paused to send him an apologetic look. Elena didn’t know, because she wouldn’t allow herself to look back.

  No matter how much she wanted to.

  11

  Miranda walked her out to a new-looking white Mercedes SUV. Elena got in, thinking that the Castillo prima must be doing okay for herself. But of course she was. The family had been here in Santa Fe for ages, was considered “old money” even by the civilian population. That was the impression Elena had gotten, anyway. She recalled the shiny black Mercedes sedan Genoveva had been driving when she came to the Las Vegas house all those years ago. Maybe it was an unwritten rule that the head of the Castillo clan had to drive something expensive but not too flashy. Probably, zipping around downtown in a Lamborghini would attract way too much attention.

  “Thanks for this,” Elena said as she fastened her seatbelt. “I know we put you in kind of an awkward position back there.”

  “Oh, well,” Miranda replied with a shrug. “Being around awkward situations is kind of part of the job, I guess. I’m just — well, I guess I’m sorry if I got in the middle of something with you and Alessandro. Honestly, I just came over because Ava let me know she was planning to come to Santa Fe with Gabriel later this week, and she wanted to give Alessandro a heads-up. I suppose I could have just called, but I hadn’t actually met him yet, and since I was out running errands anyway….”

  She looked so worried that Elena hastened to say, “It’s all right. I mean, in a way, it isn’t, but none of this is your fault. Alessandro should have been truthful with me, and he wasn’t. Anyway, I’ve got more important things to worry about right now.”

  Did she, though? Was her father and grandmother’s possible perfidy more pressing than the ugly little scene that had just gone down in the living room of the Victorian house? She honestly didn’t know. Something inside her ached, although she couldn’t say exactly what it was. The loss of something that hadn’t yet had a true chance to grow, a flower crushed before it had a chance to bloom, but wasn’t it better to experience this loss now before they’d exchanged anything beyond a kiss?

  She’d never experienced heartache before, so she couldn’t begin to guess. She only knew that this hurt a lot more than it probably should.

  “Okay,” Miranda said, although her tone sounded dubious. To Elena’s relief, however, she didn’t ask any further questions, only pushed the starter button to turn on the engine and pulled away from the curb. Once they were slowly moving down Hillside Drive, she touched the phone icon on the steering wheel and said, “Call Lorna Torres.”

  “Calling,” the car responded in a clipped female British accent.

  A ringing sound emanated from the SUV’s speakers. Elena waited in the passenger seat, hands knotted anxiously in her lap. What if Lorna wasn’t home? It was Sunday afternoon; she might be out shopping or hiking or watching a movie or going to a museum. Those were the sorts of things people did with their spare time, right?

  However, the call picked up on the third ring, and a woman’s voice came through the speakers. “Miranda? Is everything okay?”

  “I hope so,” the prima replied. However, she sounded relaxed and upbeat enough, not like someone calling about a true emergency. “I’ve just had kind of a weird situation come up and was hoping I could drop by with an out-of-town cousin for a few minutes. Is that okay?”

  “Sure,” Lorna responded. “Marco is barbecuing, so I don’t have to make much for dinner. Come on by.”

  “See you in a few,” Miranda told her, then ended the call. She looked over at Elena and gave her an encouraging smile. “See? No big deal.”

  “So far,” Elena said. Yes, she had to be relieved that Lorna Torres was home and available, but that was only the first hurdle she needed to get past. What would happen if they discovered her family actually had been taking her money ever since the day she turned eighteen?

  Deep breaths, she told herself. Whatever happens, it’s better to know the truth.

  They were heading to a part of Santa Fe Elena had never seen before, one that was north of the downtown area that had been her stomping grounds for the past few weeks. This neighborhood was definitely newer than the one that surrounded the big gray Victorian house, with homes in the popular pueblo style, interspersed with a few that looked more Spanish or Mediterranean in inspiration. Miranda pulled up in front of one of these, a sprawling one-story structure shaded by cottonwoods and sycamores, with brightly blooming roses forming a border for the brick path that led to the front door.

  Now that they were here, Elena experienced a flutter of anxiety somewhere in her midsection, but she made herself get out of the car and follow Miranda to the door. After all, the worst that could happen was that she’d discover she really was being ripped off.

  Or was that the worst outcome? Maybe it would simply be that she’d jumped to conclusions, had immediately thought the worst of her father and grandmother because they’d already proven that they weren’t above taking extreme measures if they thought a situation demanded some kind of action.

  A woman who looked to be in her middle or late fifties, with gray-streaked dark hair in a stylish bob, opened the door after Miranda rang the bell. “Hello, Miranda,” she said, her gaze immediately moving past the prima to where Elena stood.

  “Hi, Lorna. This is our cousin Elena, from Las Vegas.”

  Lorna’s dark brows knitted together at this introduction, as if she was trying to place Elena and drawing a blank.

  Good luck with that, Elena thought. No one in the family except my father and grandmother has seen me for the past eleven years….

  But Lorna’s manners apparently asserted themselves, and she smiled and said, “Hi, Elena. Please, come in.”

  The other witch’s home looked very cool and sparse to Elena’s eyes, especially after spending several days in the fussy clutter of the Victorian house. The floors were pale oak, bare of any rugs, and although some of the furniture looked to be antique, it was all heavy and simple, some of it weathered from use but never refinished. A few pieces of art hung from the walls, all abstracts in washes of complementary colors.

  Although the place looked like some kind of modern gallery, the incongruous scent of smoked meat seemed to drift through the open windows. Lorna said, “My husband’s grilling out back, but he likes to take his time. What exactly did you need to talk to me about?”

  Miranda sent a sideways glance at Elena, who responded by lifting her shoulders slightly. Maybe she should have been the one to broach the subject, but she knew she’d feel better if the prima took the lead. After spending so much of her life kept away from other people, she felt unsure of herself whenever she encountered a new social situation.

  Luckily, Miranda seemed to pick up on her unspoken signal, because she said, “Can you look up the records of the Castillo stipend disbursements? Elena hasn’t been getting hers, and we wanted to see where the money was going.”

  At once, Lorna’s brows puckered. “That sort of thing shouldn’t be happening.”

  “I know,” Miranda
said. “But something’s screwy. Can you check?”

  “Of course,” Lorna replied. “Let’s go to my office. This way.”

  She led them out of the entry and down a short hallway that appeared to contain the home’s secondary bedrooms. One of those was obviously her office, with a sleek built-in blond wood desk and file cabinets and bookcases. There was only one visitor’s chair in addition to the rolling office chair in front of the big screen sitting on the desk, and Miranda nodded toward it, as if asking Elena to take a seat there.

  Was it okay to sit down while the prima remained standing? She had absolutely no idea of the etiquette involved in this sort of thing, but since Miranda had all but told her to sit, Elena figured it must be safe. She settled herself in the visitor’s chair while Lorna sat down in front of the computer.

  “Do you have your I.D.?” she asked. “I code everything by people’s driver’s licenses or identification numbers — it makes the process a little more anonymous. I can look it up by your name, of course, but this would be easier because there a lot of duplicate names in the database.”

  “Sure,” Elena replied. “Let me get it.” She reached in her purse and pulled out her wallet, then withdrew the card and handed it to Lorna. Watching the older woman start typing, she realized they were related somehow, were cousins in some distant fashion. And there were so many more cousins out there, so many people who were supposedly her blood but whom she’d never met. It was odd to think that she had this sort of prefab family out there, people who apparently were willing to help her out simply because of the tenuous connection of their blood. Was this what it would be like to truly be a part of the Castillo clan?

  She thought she could get used to that.

  In Miranda’s case, there wasn’t really even a blood connection, only one by marriage. Well, that and Miranda’s obvious sense of duty to the clan she’d adopted as her own. Elena couldn’t help but feel a rush of gratitude that the prima had been willing to help her out, hadn’t rushed her straight back to Las Vegas…hadn’t tried to make her stay and talk things over with Alessandro. Maybe that would have been the adult thing to do, but she knew she hadn’t been emotionally able to handle it at that moment.

 
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