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Haunted hearts, p.18

Haunted Hearts, page 18

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  In short, he looked just about as good as he felt.

  “Coffee,” he muttered, and staggered his way over to the door.

  Pinche house and its pinche stairs, though. He clung grimly to the banister and limped his way down the steps, then held on to the wall as he lurched through the hallway and on into the kitchen.

  He’d been skeptical about the little premixed cups of coffee when Elena had first shown them to him, but now he was relieved that he didn’t have to think about the process, only had to shove a recycled plastic cup into the coffeemaker and let it do the rest of the work. Eyes shut, he leaned against the counter and waited for it to make its cheerful little beep when it was ready.

  “You’re looking very chipper this morning.”

  Blearily, he opened one eye and saw Victoria standing over near the stove, hands planted on the hips of her blue silk gown.

  “Silencio,” he told her in Spanish, since English felt like way too much work. “No estoy de humor hoy.”

  “English, please,” she said crisply. Was she smiling, though, actually smiling at his obvious agony?

  He decided she was. Bitch.

  “Caer muerto,” he said, then smiled a little to himself. Maybe telling a ghost to drop dead was overkill — so to speak — but it felt good.

  The coffeemaker beeped, and he shuffled over to remove the carafe so he could pour himself a cup. Ignoring Victoria, even though she continued to stare at him, he took a sip, then another, letting the caffeine flow down to his stomach and begin to enter his bloodstream.

  Yes, that was better. Not all the way better — not even close — but enough that he thought he might be able to handle his ghostly visitor now.

  “What do you want, Victoria?” he asked.

  She smirked a little, as if pleased that she’d forced him to speak English. That wasn’t actually the case — he simply didn’t want to keep hearing her complain about his Spanish — but no use pointing out that particular distinction.

  “Oh, just to see how you were faring this morning,” she replied airily. “It seems as though you’re a little under the weather. Perhaps all that missing tequila and beer has something to do with it.”

  “I don’t need a lecture.” Madré de dìos, she was just as bad as having his mother around.

  Victoria tilted her head to one side. It was a gesture she used often, one he guessed she’d found effective back in the day, as it allowed her heavy chestnut curls to slip over her slender shoulders and hang down over her bosom, appearing to caress the curves of her body. Alessandro, however, was unmoved.

  “I’m not here to lecture you, Alessandro,” she said. “Why would you think you were in need of a lecture?”

  He pushed a hand through his hair and drank some more coffee. “No reason.”

  “Of course not. Although I do have to wonder why you would be in such need of alcoholic support when I heard you say to the Castillo prima yesterday that there was nothing at all happening between you and Elena Salazar.”

  Kill me now, Alessandro thought. He shot Victoria an evil glare and said, “Do you eavesdrop on everything that happens in this house?”

  “‘Eavesdrop’?” the ghost echoed. “I wouldn’t exactly called it eavesdropping. No, it’s more that I’m here all the time. I can fade in and fade out, but I never go away completely. That’s why I often hear more than I would really like to. I don’t have any control over the situation.”

  “Am I expected to feel sorry for you?”

  Her mouth pursed in annoyance. “No, I certainly wouldn’t ask for sympathy from you.”

  Meaning, he supposed, that she didn’t think him capable of such an emotion. That wasn’t true, of course, but he wasn’t sure Victoria merited much sympathy. Yes, she’d probably had an unexpected or even violent death, or she wouldn’t have become a ghost in the first place, and yet he thought she lingered here mostly out of choice. Surely she’d had plenty of time to come to terms with her demise and move on.

  “Anyhow,” she went on, her tone turning brisk, “this conversation was not about me. It was about you and Elena Salazar.”

  “There is no me and Elena Salazar,” he said. As the words left his lips, though, a certain bleak sensation swept over him. He didn’t want to believe such a thing, but here he was.

  “Probably not, considering the way you behaved.”

  He sent Victoria a vicious glance through slitted eyes and took another swallow of coffee.

  “Anyhow,” she said, obviously choosing to ignore the death stare he’d just sent in her direction, “I have to say I find it rather amusing that you keep insisting there is nothing between you and Elena, and yet most of the people I’ve known — alive or dead — didn’t feel the need to drink themselves into a stupor over someone who supposedly was of no real concern to them.”

  If he hadn’t been so hungover, maybe he would have been able to come up with a pithy response to her remark. As it was, though, about all he could do was drink some more coffee and wish his magic allowed him to dispel ghosts. At least then it would have been halfway useful.

  A gleam of triumph shone in Victoria’s blue eyes — bright blue, not Elena’s smoky gray-blue. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “You might be able to fool yourself, Alessandro Escobar…but you can’t fool me.”

  Having delivered this pronouncement, she disappeared. Just as well, because otherwise he probably would have been tempted to throw his coffee mug at her.

  He reached up to rub his throbbing temple. While he certainly had no real desire to analyze his feelings right then — not with the way his head hurt — he realized that his ghostly visitor had a point. If Elena truly meant nothing to him, then he doubted he would have drunk more in an evening than he normally did in a week, doing whatever he could to blot out the aching pain her absence had caused.

  “You’re better off alone,” he said aloud. His voice sounded harsh and raw to him, as beaten up as the rest of his body. It was the sort of thing he’d told himself many times before, whenever he saw someone in his clan become engaged or married, or celebrate the birth of a child. Much easier for him to convince himself that he didn’t need anyone or anything to make his life complete.

  When he was still in Pico Negro, doing such a thing had been easy enough. No one there much cared to get close to him. But Elena hadn’t known anything of his past, the things he had done with his supposed gift, the way the people of the Escobar clan preferred to keep their distance from him. She’d come to care for him only because of the time they’d spent together and nothing more.

  Some might have said that was a good thing, that it meant she accepted him as he was, with no shared history to muddy the waters. Problem was, since she knew nothing about who he’d been before he came to Santa Fe, she’d based her feelings on only a partial truth.

  And was a partial truth any better than a lie?

  He didn’t know. Right then, he wasn’t sure whether he knew anything at all.

  His phone buzzed. Apparently, he’d left it sitting on the countertop here in the kitchen the night before, although he had absolutely no recollection of doing so. Well, things had started to get a little fuzzy after that fourth shot of tequila.

  Or was it the fifth?

  It didn’t matter. For a second, he was tempted to ignore the phone, but then he wondered if possibly the call was from Elena. Maybe she was calling to tell him that she’d been too hasty and that they needed to talk, that she’d had the night to think things over and realized she needed to hear his side of the story.

  Wishful thinking, probably. But….

  He went over and picked up the phone, looked down at its screen. The number displayed there wasn’t one he recognized, but he also knew at once that it wasn’t anything local.

  Someone calling from El Salvador? His mother didn’t even have a cell phone. His sister Lara did, but he knew her phone number, and this wasn’t it.

  Hoping he wasn’t making a mistake, he swiped his finger across th
e screen to accept the call.

  “Hi, Alessandro.”

  Ava’s voice. Why she was calling, he had no idea, but he supposed it could have been worse. He was definitely in no mood to talk to Gabriel — Gabriel, who now had everything he wanted.

  “Hello, Ava.”

  If she noticed the distinct lack of enthusiasm in his voice, she didn’t give any sign of it. “How’s everything going in Santa Fe?”

  “Fine,” he said, while reflecting that, in a way, it was a good thing Elena had departed. With her out of the house, there was no need to tell either Ava or Gabriel anything of what had been going on here. Yes, Ava’s talent was reading minds — a talent that didn’t, thankfully, work across long distances — but even if she had been right here in the room with him, he knew she wouldn’t pry. She considered that kind of behavior worse than rude, a breach of trust. And maybe Miranda would say something, and maybe she wouldn’t. He didn’t know her well enough to form an opinion. She certainly seemed ready to step in to right a wrong, but that wasn’t exactly the same thing as offering information no one else had asked for.

  “Good,” Ava responded, although something in her tone told him that she wasn’t quite sure whether she believed him or not. To his relief, though, she didn’t ask any other questions, only said, “Gabriel and I are coming to Santa Fe tomorrow for a few hours to do some wedding shopping. Is it okay if we drop by the house?”

  So polite, as if this house wasn’t hers at all and she thought she needed permission to come over and check on things. “Yes, it’s fine,” he replied, even as he heaved an inner sigh of relief that they weren’t visiting today. Maybe by this afternoon he’d be fit for company, but he wasn’t sure. And although he and Elena had picked up after themselves, he still probably should clean off the counters in the kitchen and bathroom, maybe run the vacuum cleaner…assuming he could find it in the first place. He hadn’t even thought to look.

  “Great,” Ava said. Even though he had no real reason to dislike her, right then, her overly chirpy tone made him scowl. He guessed that she was calling using Gabriel’s satellite phone, since there was no cell service in Pico Negro, and therefore hadn’t engaged the video function because it used up too much bandwidth. Anyway, she couldn’t see his face…thank God. “My fitting at the bridal boutique is at two, so we’ll probably come over to the house around three.”

  “I’ll be here.” What a stupid comment. Where else would he be? He had no place to go, especially now that Elena was gone and he had no reason to go out on one of the little day trips she so enjoyed.

  Ava said, “We’ll see you tomorrow, then,” and ended the call. Alessandro stared down at the phone in his hand, then tossed it onto the counter, his frown deepening. Yes, he’d been expecting the two to visit, since they’d already hinted they would, but still, he would much rather their visit had been planned for the end of the next week rather than the very next day.

  But, he reflected as he went to the refrigerator to see if there was anything in there that might tempt his admittedly sour stomach, at least he no longer had to worry about sitting around the house today with nothing to do, brooding over Elena’s absence.

  He never thought he’d actually be so eager to clean a house.

  She’d spent as much of her day as possible away from the condo — visiting the Santa Fe Museum of Art, which was only a few blocks away from where she was staying, going to the movies, checking out some of the shops along Guadalupe Road, which she hadn’t explored before then. By the time Elena got back to her temporary home base, it was nearly six o’clock, meaning she wouldn’t have to kill much time before she started thinking about what she wanted to order for dinner.

  In the meantime, though, she put her purchases away, got a glass of water, toyed with the idea of calling for Belshegar before she gave an inner shake of her head. She couldn’t keep calling him every time she felt lonely or didn’t know what to do with herself. Back home, she’d had chores to keep her busy when she wasn’t reading or drawing or watching television, but there wasn’t much to do around the condo, which was spotlessly clean.

  Realizing she’d turned her phone off while she was at the movies, she got it out of her purse, and checked for any missed calls. Just one…and not from the person she’d been hoping to hear from.

  No, the call had been from Miranda.

  “I talked to your grandmother,” the prima said in the voicemail she’d left. “I didn’t give her any specifics, though. I just told her that there was something I needed to discuss with her and your father. She sounded surprised but said they’d be here tomorrow afternoon. Late, though, because your father couldn’t get off work on that short notice.”

  More like he didn’t want to ask. He was a foreman with a local construction company, and often seemed to use his job as an excuse to stay away from the house as much as possible. Since he’d had the same job since she could remember and definitely had seniority, Elena guessed he could have gotten the afternoon off without too much trouble, but that just wasn’t his style.

  “So,” Miranda went on, “I’ll need you to be here around five-thirty tomorrow. Your grandmother made it sound as if the earliest they could get to the house was six, but this way, you’ll be here already just in case they show up early. Give me a call when you get this so I know you got the message.”

  The voicemail ended there. Elena stared down at the phone for a moment, her heart beating irrationally fast in her chest. There was no reason to feel this nervous; the prima was firmly on her side, and even if her grandmother and father had been cheating her all these years, they sure as hell wouldn’t try anything around their clan leader. Even so, the thought of confronting them made her feel vaguely sick. Maybe this would end up being a healing experience, just as Miranda had promised, but she wasn’t feeling so hopeful at the moment.

  But the ball had been set in motion, so there wasn’t much she could do to stop it. Instead, she drank some more water, took a deep breath, and then touched her phone’s screen to have the call automatically returned.

  Miranda picked up on the second ring. “Elena,” she said, sounding breathless, as if she’d hurried to grab the phone while in the middle of something else. “I was starting to worry you wouldn’t get back to me.”

  “Sorry about that,” Elena replied. “I turned my phone off while I was at the theater and forgot to turn it back on. I got your message, though. Tomorrow at five-thirty at your house.”

  “Right. I need to give you the address — it’s 112 Gonzales Avenue.”

  Elena didn’t see anything to write with, but that address was easy enough to remember. She’d enter it in her phone once she was done with this call. “Got it,” she said, trying to sound calm even though her gut had already begun to clench in nervous anticipation. “Is there anything else you need me to do?”

  “No — just be there at five-thirty…and don’t stress. I’ll do most of the talking. And Rafe will be there, too. His sister Louisa is going to babysit Ginny for us so there aren’t any distractions.”

  It sounded as though Miranda had thought of everything. For some reason, Elena was reassured by the idea that Rafe would be providing backup. As the consort of the prima, he didn’t necessarily have any real power in the clan, but it had been partly his mother’s idea to have her locked up once her powers began to manifest. Possibly he was feeling guilty about that, although of course he’d had absolutely nothing to do with the decision. Even so, his presence might help to keep her father and grandmother in line. Elena didn’t think they would do anything to act out against Miranda or her husband, but she didn’t know that for sure. After all, she thought she’d known them, would never have believed them capable of taking her money from her.

  And yet there was fairly incontrovertible proof that that was exactly what they’d done.

  Well, as little as she looked forward to the next day, in a way, Elena had to hope it would bring her closure. Once she got past this mess with her family, she could make s
ome concrete plans for what she should do next.

  The realization that Alessandro wouldn’t factor in any of those plans saddened her, but she told herself she could live without him. All right, maybe more exist rather than live, although she had to hope the wound would heal eventually. He hadn’t cared about her crazy talent, had even seemed slightly amused by Belshegar. How many men — even if they were warlocks — would have reacted to her magical talent so nonchalantly?

  Don’t think about that now, she told herself. Just don’t.

  “Sounds great,” Elena said, since it was obvious that Miranda was waiting for some sort of a reply, and she’d already let her thoughts wander enough as it was. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  “Absolutely…and don’t worry.”

  The prima ended the call there, and Elena put the phone down on the coffee table. For a moment, she remained sitting on the couch, staring at the framed print of a downtown Santa Fe scene, although her eyes didn’t seem to want to focus on it.

  “Don’t worry,” she repeated mentally. Easy for you to say — your life is perfect. You have everything you want.

  Unfortunately, Elena had no reason to believe that things would end nearly as well for her.

  15

  Alessandro was fairly sure the house hadn’t been this clean when he came to stay here. He’d dusted and vacuumed, wiped down countertops and cleaned mirrors, scrubbed the showers upstairs even though Ava had absolutely no reason to check on those. It was unlikely that she planned to do a white-glove inspection of the place, only wanted to make sure he hadn’t destroyed the house with wild parties or something.

  There was a joke. Who would he even invite to such a party?

  During his cleaning spree, Victoria had been conspicuously absent. Maybe she didn’t like the noise, or maybe she felt no need to comment on his activities, since he was finally doing something she approved of. Whatever the reason, he was left alone to work, and so managed to fill up more of his time than he’d thought — especially since he also went out in the garden and pulled the few weeds that had sprung up since the last time the landscapers were here, deadheaded the roses and removed spent blooms from the hollyhocks and pansies and petunias. There was even enough time for him to cut some of the choicer flowers and put them in vases around the house, although, since he really didn’t know what he was doing, the arrangements weren’t quite as graceful as they would have been if an expert had put them together.

 
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