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Haunted hearts, p.19

Haunted Hearts, page 19

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  He hadn’t drunk anything the night before and had slept much better as a result. After finishing the last of the gardening chores, he took a long, hot shower, got dressed and shaved, and decided he didn’t look quite so much like the walking dead as he had the morning after his bender. Maybe a little tired, but that was to be expected after all his physical labors. At any rate, he had to hope that neither Gabriel nor Ava would detect anything wrong.

  The whole time he’d been slaving away on the house, he’d hoped that the work would help him forget about Elena, would make him focus on what he was doing rather than worrying about how she was faring…wherever she was. Miranda hadn’t contacted him again, instead seemed to be intent on maintaining radio silence, and so he was as much in the dark as he’d ever been.

  Instead, though, it seemed as if every time he walked into a room, he recalled a conversation he and Elena had had there, or simply the way she’d looked as she sat on the living room couch or carried a bottle of wine over to the dining room table. Seeing her abandoned oil paints and the half-finished painting on its easel in the office had felt like a physical blow. Did she really hate him so much that she wouldn’t even come back here to get the supplies she’d wanted so badly?

  He didn’t want to believe such a thing, but the evidence seemed to tell a different story. Steeling himself, he’d tidied up the paints and put the easel in the closet, since he knew if Ava or Gabriel spied any of those items, they’d ask questions he didn’t want to answer.

  That task had been painful enough. The worst hurt, however, occurred when he went into the guest bedroom and spied a silvery glint on top of the dresser. Going closer, he saw that the gleam was from the turquoise choker he’d bought her in Madrid. She’d left it lying there in a pile, as if she’d held it clenched in her hand before she laid it down and walked away. Clearly, she didn’t want even that much of a reminder of the time they’d spent together.

  Looking at the abandoned necklace felt like a blow to his gut. He’d stared at it for the longest moment, and then his mouth thinned and he scooped it up and shoved it in his pocket. Later, when he was in his own room, he dropped the thing in the top drawer of his nightstand. He had the receipt folded up in his wallet, and he supposed he could just take the necklace back and see if the store would issue a refund. Somehow, though, he didn’t want to do that. Returning the necklace would be too much of an admission of defeat, even though he knew deep down that he had lost Elena, that she wasn’t coming back.

  The doorbell rang, and he shoved aside those bitter reflections. He couldn’t exactly smile, but he hoped he didn’t appear too stormy as he opened the door and looked out at Ava and Gabriel. It had only been a week since he’d last seen them, and yet they looked almost too glowing and healthy and happy, Ava a little more sun-browned than he remembered her, tanned shoulders contrasting with the warm coral color of the dress she wore.

  “The house looks amazing!” she exclaimed after they’d exchanged the necessary greetings, and she and Gabriel had stepped inside. “Did you hire a cleaning crew or something?”

  “No,” Alessandro said, allowing himself to be slightly pleased by her praise. “I wanted to make sure I took good care of the house for you, since you were kind enough to let me stay here.”

  Ava bent to breathe in the scent of roses from a vase he’d placed on a side table, then asked, “And Victoria hasn’t been causing any trouble? I really meant to warn you about my resident ghost, but it slipped my mind.”

  He repressed a frown and quelled the urge to reprimand her for the oversight. Doing so would only put her and Gabriel on the defensive, and Alessandro didn’t see the point in causing a scene. Not now, when he only wanted them to leave as quickly as possible. “No, she hasn’t been any trouble. She comes and goes, but I suppose I’ve become used to having her around.”

  Gabriel was watching him closely, as though doing his best to detect whether there was anything in his cousin’s voice or manner that might make it seem as if things weren’t quite as picture-perfect as they appeared. Alessandro did what he could to return his cousin’s gaze without seeming to confront the other man, although he wasn’t sure how well he succeeded. The primus’s eyes narrowed slightly as he said, “You haven’t had any trouble with the Castillos?”

  There was a question he felt he could answer confidently enough. “None at all. I actually haven’t seen any of them except Miranda.”

  That reply seemed to surprise Ava. Her big brown eyes widened slightly, and she said, “Really? I would have thought she’d do something to introduce you to everyone. All right, maybe not everyone, but at least to Rafe and Rafe’s sisters and a few other people.”

  “I suppose she would have, but I did my best to let her know I wanted a quiet stay here and didn’t want to cause any trouble for the Castillos.”

  “I don’t think it would have been any trouble — ” Ava began, but Gabriel sent her an indulgent smile.

  “Alessandro isn’t the social type. We all know that.”

  Well, Gabriel knew that, of course. Then again, it wasn’t as if Alessandro had been given many opportunities to be social. The people of Pico Negro had made it clear enough what they thought of him. That experience had led him to believe that social interactions were highly overrated. Better to go along on his own and not worry about what other people were doing.

  He didn’t want to admit to himself how much energy he’d expended worrying about what Elena was doing.

  “Your shopping went well?” he asked politely.

  “Oh, yes,” Ava replied, clearly relieved that he’d asked about something so innocuous. “My wedding gown is on order, and we picked out this as well.” She lifted her hand, showing a glittering diamond in a finely engraved setting accented by smaller stones.

  “It’s beautiful,” Alessandro said, which was nothing more than the truth. Apparently, the jewelry stores in San Salvador hadn’t been good enough for the primus to choose an engagement ring for his bride. Or possibly Ava had convinced him they would get a better deal here, since any jewelers in Santa Fe probably had a longstanding relationship with the Castillo clan.

  “The wedding will be at the beginning of July,” Gabriel said. “Of course, we would like you to be there.”

  The intimation being, of course, that they intended him to stay here until the chosen date. Well, he had expected as much. The length of his stay had been left very open-ended, and obviously Gabriel wanted it to remain that way.

  “If you like,” Alessandro responded, his tone careless. “If you don’t think it will cause a problem.”

  The two of them exchanged a glance, and Ava said immediately, “Of course, it won’t cause a problem. Your mother and sister miss you and will want to see you.”

  But will anyone else? he thought, although he knew better than to ask such a self-pitying question out loud.

  “And I would like to see them,” he said. “It sounds as though they are doing well, though.”

  “Your mother has been very busy, that is true,” Gabriel remarked. “There is a lot to be done, especially since I have no intention of leading the clan in any way similar to how my brother managed it, and so we have had to change quite a few things. But we are forging ahead.”

  Alessandro listened to this and nodded, although he felt strangely detached from the primus’s comments, as if this week away from Pico Negro had been enough to permanently disengage him from any real concern about the village or how it fared. Yes, he wanted it to prosper and be safe, since it was where his mother and sister lived, but otherwise, he truly didn’t care one way or another.

  Ava was staring at him with a strange expression on her face. Alarmed, Alessandro wondered whether she was probing his thoughts. Would he be able to feel it if she did? There was a great deal he didn’t know about her talent.

  But then she smiled and said, “Hey, Alessandro, do you mind showing me the garden? I want to make sure the landscapers are keeping up with everything.”

  T
here was no way to refuse without sounding suspicious, so he said, “Of course.”

  She glanced up at Gabriel. “And could you get my brown suede jacket from the hall closet? I left it behind and really want it.”

  Why she’d want a jacket in Pico Negro when it wouldn’t even begin to cool down for at least five months or more, Alessandro couldn’t guess. Or actually, he guessed that she wanted to speak to him privately, and this was the best way to keep Gabriel busy.

  The primus had obviously been thinking almost the same thing; a frown pulled at his brow, but he didn’t refuse, only said, “Sure, I’ll go look for it.”

  Ava shot him a brief, incandescent smile, and then headed toward the back of the house and the door that opened from the kitchen onto the back stoop. Once she and Alessandro were outside, she descended the three steps into the garden proper and walked along the path for a short ways before pausing next to a rosebush aflame with crimson blooms.

  “What’s really going on, Alessandro?” she asked as soon as he drew closer.

  He didn’t pretend to misunderstand the question. “Were you reading my thoughts?”

  “No,” she said at once, giving him a very direct look. Then she seemed to relent, and added, “I didn’t have to. You were broadcasting all over the place. I can pick up that sort of thing, too, if the person I’m around is thinking noisily enough.”

  Oh, so he was a noisy thinker now? He scowled and crossed his arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Yes, you do. And we can’t stay out here too long without Gabriel wondering what we’re up to, so spill it.”

  “Spill?”

  Ava raised an eyebrow. “I know your English is really good, Alessandro, so don’t bother to play dumb. You’re really upset about something, but I couldn’t tell exactly what. Do you not like it here?”

  “Does it matter?”

  “Of course it does,” she retorted. “You think we want you to be unhappy? We just thought it might be better if everyone had a little breathing room for a bit. That’s all. You don’t need to act like we sent you into permanent exile or something.”

  Despite the casual way in which she made the statement, he couldn’t help but be relieved by what she’d just said. Even though he’d been imagining the worst, clearly neither Gabriel nor Ava had ever considered his stay here in Santa Fe to be a lifelong one.

  Still, even though it seemed she was on his side, Alessandro wasn’t sure how much he wanted to confess to Ava. The more he thought of his interactions with Elena, the more of a fool he felt. At the time, it had seemed so important to conceal the truth of his magic from her, but now he realized he had drawn a line in the sand to mark off something that honestly didn’t matter all that much. She’d had to deal with a difficult talent of her own, one that in its own way, had caused more trouble for her than his magical gift had ever created for him.

  “I can look, if you don’t want to tell me,” Ava said then, her voice soft, her dark eyes sympathetic. “For some people, it’s easier that way.”

  “You’ll look in my mind?” he asked, and tried to hold back a flare of alarm. He didn’t like that idea at all.

  “Only to see what’s bothering you right now. I won’t pry into anything else. But usually when there’s one concern that’s overriding all the others in your mind, it’s the one that’s sitting on top, so to speak. I don’t have to look very hard for it.”

  This explanation made her proposal seem a little less troubling. Even so, Alessandro hesitated for a long moment. He’d spent so much of his life closing himself off from other people that the thought of opening himself in such a way frightened him, to put it bluntly.

  On the other hand, better to let Ava see for herself than have to explain all this to her. And if the situation began to feel strange to him, well, he could always reach out with his own ability and shut hers down, effectively ending her probe of his mind.

  Thus reassured, he nodded. She sent him an encouraging smile.

  “This will only take a moment.”

  He wasn’t really sure what he thought he might sense during this procedure, but the truth was, he couldn’t feel anything at all. And, as she’d said, it was very quick; probably only thirty seconds or so passed before she blinked up at him, expression troubled.

  “I’m so sorry,” she said. “This is all my fault.”

  “‘Your fault’?” he repeated, not sure he’d heard her correctly.

  She nodded, then shook her head immediately afterward, as if scolding herself. “I got so wrapped up in what was happening down in El Salvador that I just sort of blew off Elena. I guess I figured she’d go to Miranda, like I’d told her to. If I hadn’t ignored her, then she wouldn’t have felt desperate enough to come to the house, and then none of this would have happened.”

  “Maybe,” he allowed, then went on before she could reply, “or maybe not. Elena is a very strong-willed person. I could see her deciding to come to this house even if you’d called her and told her to go to Miranda for help. She told me herself that she feared the prima would send her back to her family in Las Vegas, so it’s very possible she would have ignored your advice.”

  “I don’t know — ”

  “Neither of us knows,” he said, a little surprised by how gentle he sounded. Usually, he wasn’t quite so patient. “The only person who can know for sure is Elena, and since she isn’t here to tell us, all we can do is guess.”

  For a long moment, Ava was silent, appearing to consider his words. Then she managed a lopsided smile. “Maybe. I still feel terrible.”

  “You shouldn’t.”

  A shrug, and she said, “Well, that’s for me to deal with. What I do want you to know is that you shouldn’t feel like you’re stuck here. You can come back to Pico Negro any time you want.”

  She looked so earnest, Alessandro wasn’t sure whether he wanted to argue that assertion with her. But there were unpleasant truths they both needed to face. “Are you sure Gabriel agrees with you?”

  To his surprise, she answered his question without hesitation. “Yes. We’ve actually already talked about it more than once. I’m not saying that people didn’t need a little cooling-off period, so to speak, but your mother has done a lot to make things go more smoothly, so there’s already some goodwill going toward your family that wasn’t there before. No one’s forcing you to stay here. Only….”

  “Only what?”

  Ava smiled again, except this time her expression was tinged with sadness. “Only be sure of what you’re leaving behind before you take that step. Because I don’t think you’ll be able to take it back.”

  Elena sat on the couch in Miranda’s living room, trying her best to look cool and composed even though her limbs felt like jelly. It was an imposing space, large and with heavy Spanish Colonial–style furnishings softened a bit by the sheer linen drapes at the window and the vase of exuberant sunflowers that sat on the mantel. Probably those were the current prima’s touches; even though Elena had never actually met Genoveva Castillo, had only seen her at a distance, she hadn’t looked like the sort of person who would go in for filmy curtains or flower arrangements that hadn’t been carefully constructed by an actual florist.

  A tray laden with light snacks — a bowl of mixed nuts, grapes, small cubes of cheese — rested on the oversized coffee table, along with a green blown-glass pitcher of water. Miranda had poured water for Elena and for her husband, and they both held those tumblers now, taking sips from time to time. Rafe looked just about as uncomfortable as Elena felt, but she was still grateful to him for being here when he really didn’t need to be a part of this conversation.

  “I am so sorry,” he said as soon as they’d both sat down on one of the sofas. “Miranda told me what my mother did to you. None of us knew anything about it.”

  “That’s okay,” Elena replied after gulping down some of her water. Her throat seemed unnaturally dry. Or maybe there really wasn’t anything that unnatural about her reaction t
o being here. Although she understood why this meeting had to happen, she couldn’t help wishing it was already over and done with. But that was the problem with unpleasant situations — they seemed to loom over you forever, while the enjoyable experiences came and went in a flash. “It wasn’t anything you could have known. It sounds like your mother kept a lot of things to herself.”

  A bitter light flared in Rafe’s dark eyes, one that came and went so quickly, she wasn’t sure whether she’d imagined it. “That’s for sure. But we’ll fix this, one way or another.”

  “Yes, we will,” Miranda put in. She’d gone into the kitchen to put together a plate of crackers, which she now set down on the tray next to the rest of the tracks, rearranging things a bit so everything would fit. “No matter what.”

  Those words had barely left her lips when the doorbell rang. Every muscle in Elena’s body stiffened, but Miranda only straightened and smoothed the dark purple blouse she was wearing.

  “Looks like they’re here. I’ll go answer that.”

  About all Elena could do was nod. She made herself take a breath and focused on the cool glass of the tumbler she held. Something about it seemed to reassure her, to remind her that something solid existed in this world. Rafe didn’t exactly smile, but he gave the faintest of nods, as if to say that he was there for her and that she had nothing to worry about.

 
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