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Hidden gifts, p.2

Hidden Gifts, page 2

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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  If only I thought those who waited for me in Santa Fe might be feeling the same way.

  My mother had explained the situation to me so many times that by now, just as I turned twenty-one, her explanations had no real meaning anymore, were only strings of words describing a fate I couldn’t escape. Before I was even born, a dark warlock had risen, threatening not only the McAllisters and the Wilcoxes, my parents’ clans, but also the de la Paz family, who lived in the southern part of Arizona. The threat had been so great that my parents had turned to the Castillos for help, since they knew the Arizona clans could not defeat the warlock and the clans he was connected with — the Santiagos and the Ludlows in California — without help from outside.

  That help had come…at a price. The prima of the Castillos, Genoveva’s mother, lost her life fighting the dark warlock. And my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, had to make a terrible bargain to secure the Castillos’ help — she had to swear that she would send the child she carried to Santa Fe when the time came, so her daughter could marry the Castillo prima’s grandson.

  I was that daughter. And now I traveled across the desert to marry a man I’d never met, or even seen.

  Oh, yes. I still didn’t know whether it was Genoveva’s capriciousness, or whether she was trying to hide something, but I wasn’t allowed to see a single picture of the man who was going to be my husband. My mother had pled my case on more than one instance, saying that I had a right to see the person I was supposed to marry, but Genoveva had remained firm. I would see Rafael — that was her son’s name — when I arrived in Santa Fe, and not a moment sooner. And whenever I’d tried to search for images of him online, or on social media, I couldn’t find a damn thing. Maybe someone in the Castillo clan had a way of blocking that stuff. The blackout didn’t even have to be supernatural in nature; for all I knew, their clan had a few hackers in their midst.

  All of Genoveva’s strictures seemed positively medieval to me, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about any of it. I told myself there must be something very wrong with this Rafael, and tried to do my best to steel myself for marriage to some kind of a monster. While I was in high school, I had quite a fetish for Beauty and the Beast types of stories — The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, all the million and one incarnations of the original fairy tale — in the hope that I might reconcile myself to my fate, convince myself that it would be all right, that behind even a beastly exterior might beat a kind and loving heart.

  Problem was, those stories were all fiction. This was my life.

  Still, with resignation comes a kind of freedom. I was here now, on the train taking me to Santa Fe. Well, slight correction. The Amtrak only went as far as Albuquerque; from there, I’d get on the area’s local light rail, the Railrunner, to travel the final leg of my journey, to the station in Santa Fe’s Railyard area. I still didn’t know for sure whether Rafael — or Genoveva, or someone else from the Castillo clan — would be there to meet me. It was entirely possible that the Castillo prima would send a self-driving car to pick me up. After all, if Rafael really was so deformed that she didn’t even want him going out in public, then I doubted he’d be there in the Railyard to greet his future bride.

  At least I was traveling light. If I had to complete the last leg of the trip on my own, I didn’t have to worry too much about wrangling my luggage.

  As we pulled out of Gallup and continued east, I wondered what my parents were doing now. Had they gone to console themselves over the loss of their youngest child by visiting their other children? My brother Ian was married and living in Flagstaff with his wife Mia, although I didn’t know whether he would have appreciated having my parents show up on his doorstep at five in the morning. Emily, my sister, had stayed in Jerome, as was proper for the McAllister prima-in-waiting. It would be a slightly more acceptable hour by the time my parents showed up there, but since Emily’s son Jeremy was only four months old, I doubted whether they’d impinge on her hospitality, either.

  Thinking of Emily made me frown. Oh, I loved my sister, but it seemed as if everything had always gone right for her. Whereas I….

  The de la Paz clan — and other Spanish-speaking witch clans — had a word for my condition. Nunca. In Spanish, it simply means “never,” but in the witch world, the phrase was used to refer to someone who was born to witch parents and yet never developed any true magical talents. I hated the word, hated how I couldn’t help overhearing it in people’s conversations from time to time, although no one was callous enough to say it to my face.

  The way it generally worked for us — the way it was supposed to work — was that everyone with witch blood could perform very simple tricks like opening locked doors or bringing flame to a candle or logs laid in a hearth, but a witch or warlock generally manifested their unique talents around ten or eleven, talents that could range from seeing the future to healing the sick. As those talents grew, they would be used to help the clan, depending on the particular gifts of the user and how strong they turned out to be.

  In my case, though, I never developed my “true” talent. I’d never progressed beyond unlocking doors with a touch, or putting a fingertip to a candle wick and calling flame from the air to light it. Quite the failure, when you considered that my parents were both almost unbelievably skilled, the leaders of their clans. Ian and Emily were also blessed with gifts far beyond what most ordinary witches and warlocks possessed, probably because of having such talented parents. However, it seemed the well had run dry when it came to me. I couldn’t do much of anything. To compensate, I’d attempted to be a model daughter in other ways — getting straight As in school, trying to be a helpful member of the both the McAllister and Wilcox clans, whether that meant taking on last-minute babysitting requests or helping with the setup for the big clan Christmas party in Jerome.

  And yet, it had never felt like enough.

  My parents were always supportive. They did their best to let me know they were proud of my other accomplishments, the ones that had nothing to do with magic, but some part of me couldn’t help but think that I’d let them down at a fundamental level. They’d also tried to use my lack of magical gifts as a way of getting out of this terrible arrangement with the Castillos, which should have proved to me how much they wanted me to stay in Arizona. I knew they’d done everything they could to let Genoveva Castillo know that if her mother had been expecting to have a powerful witch marry into their family when she made her bargain with my mother, she would have been extremely disappointed. However, all their arguments were in vain. Genoveva had been adamant, had said she didn’t care about my lack of gifts, and that I would come to them on my twenty-first birthday, as had been agreed upon so many years before.

  Yes, I was spending my birthday on the train, but really, compared to all the other things I had to worry about, the lack of any sort of festivities to celebrate the occasion was fairly far down on my list of priorities. It was also Halloween, but again, not that big a deal. In a few days, they’d be having the Day of the Dead celebration in Tlaquepaque Village in Sedona, an event my family had attended ever since I was old enough to remember. Whether my parents would have the heart to do so now that I was gone, I had no idea. We really hadn’t talked much about what they planned to do after they’d fulfilled their side of this unholy bargain. In a way, I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to think of them going on with their lives without me there.

  Maybe there would be some sort of Day of the Dead event in Santa Fe. I supposed I could have tried to look it up online, tried to find a local a calendar of events so I’d know what was happening in the place that would soon be my new home, but I realized I really didn’t care one way or another. If I couldn’t see the face of the man I was supposed to marry, then I might as well let everything else about my future existence be a mystery as well.

  The train pulled into the station in Albuquerque at a little past one — almost an hour and a half behind schedule, but I’d been warned that
Amtrak would probably be running late. Luckily, the Railrunner train that would take me to Santa Fe wouldn’t be leaving for another half hour, giving me time to use the restroom and then get a latte at the Starbucks in the station. I’d barely eaten anything and found I didn’t have much appetite, but I needed the caffeine to take me through the home stretch.

  The Railrunner was a lot more crowded than the Amtrak. I had to thread my way along the narrow aisle to find an empty seat in one of the rear cars, and had barely stowed my bags in the overhead compartment and sat down in my seat before I heard a male voice say, “Do you mind if I sit here?”

  I looked up from my purse, and the tube of lip gloss I’d just shoved in an inner pocket, to see a Hispanic guy around my age standing in the aisle and pointing at the empty seat next to me. He had thick black hair and angular features, with high cheekbones and eyes as black as his hair. A backpack hung off one shoulder.

  “No, that’s fine,” I replied, trying to sound cool and casual. He was pretty good-looking…which shouldn’t have mattered at all. I was promised to someone else, and so every man in the world except Rafael Castillo was off-limits to me. Still, looking didn’t hurt anyone. I figured I might as well spend the last part of my journey sitting next to someone who was easy on the eyes, considering I had absolutely no idea what my future husband looked like.

  The stranger eased his backpack off, then sat down next to me and shoved it as best he could under the seat. “I’m Simon,” he offered.

  Not giving him my name would be rude. Anyway, a first name shouldn’t get me into too much trouble. “Miranda,” I said.

  He nodded. “Going all the way to Santa Fe?”

  I recalled that the Railrunner stopped a number of times before it reached its final destination, mostly at the pueblo communities that ranged between Albuquerque and the state capital. “Yes. You?”

  “Yeah. Your first time going to Santa Fe?”

  Despite myself, I couldn’t help smiling at the question. “Is it that obvious?”

  His shoulders lifted. He was wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt and faded jeans, a completely unremarkable outfit, but their very simplicity served to enhance the sharp beauty of his features. “I don’t know about ‘obvious,’ but you did have kind of a lost look about you. Are you here to sightsee, or…?” The words trailed off, almost as if he had just realized he might be prying a bit and so didn’t quite know how to end his sentence.

  “Family stuff,” I said, hoping I could leave it at that. There was no way I could tell him the truth.

  “Ah,” he replied. He went silent then, probably realizing that it wasn’t exactly kosher to start prying about family matters with someone you’d just met. After that pause, he asked, “Where are you traveling from?”

  That question was still sort of personal, but I didn’t mind answering, albeit with a half-truth. “Flagstaff.” I decided it was better not to mention Jerome; after all, I had spent almost as much time in Flagstaff as I had in the little mountain town, and since Flag was one of Arizona’s larger cities, it was the sort of place that it seemed logical to be from.

  “Cool. Well, at least you’re used to cold weather. It’s kind of funny how many people come to Santa Fe and expect it to be really warm, just because it’s in New Mexico.”

  I knew better than that because the climate in Santa Fe was one thing I actually had researched. At the time, I’d told myself it was only that I wanted to know what kinds of clothes I should bring with me, but that excuse wasn’t the whole truth. Actually, I’d needed to know how alien my new home would be, how different it was from northern Arizona. As it turned out, Santa Fe could be nearly as cold as Flagstaff, which meant I’d brought sweaters and long-sleeved shirts with me, as well as the down coat I’d worn on the train platform earlier in the day. Already it felt as though my goodbyes to my parents had taken place a hundred years ago.

  “No, I checked on that,” I replied. To tell the truth, I was hoping it would be chilly in Santa Fe when we got there, because Albuquerque had been almost mild when I’d disembarked from the Amtrak car, and I’d wondered whether my cardigan and boots would turn out to be overkill. Then I cocked my head slightly and gave Simon a sideways glance. “Do you live in Santa Fe?”

  “Oh, yeah. My whole life. My parents, too, and my grandparents, and — ” He stopped there and grinned. The expression lit up his dark eyes, and I had to do my best not to stare. He really was kind of gorgeous. “Well, we’ve been there a long time, but that’s not so strange. Lots of families in Santa Fe go back hundreds of years.”

  That was the impression I’d gotten, hearing my parents talk about the Castillos, but of course I couldn’t exactly bring up that particular fact. I nodded. “I’d heard that,” I said vaguely.

  He didn’t seem to notice my lackluster response. “I go to school at UNM,” he said. “But my car died a week ago and I’m still trying to scrape together the money to get it fixed, so it’s mass transit for now.”

  Wow. How far was it from Santa Fe to Albuquerque? Around fifty miles, if memory served, but that probably didn’t take into account whatever distance Simon had to travel to get to the Railrunner station in Santa Fe, or the distance from the station in Albuquerque to the University of New Mexico campus. There was some dedication to higher learning.

  I supposed you could say something similar about me. Not that I had to take the train to go to school or anything — Northern Pines University in Flagstaff was only about ten minutes from the family house there — but because I’d been determined to get my degree before I turned twenty-one and doom descended. That meant some extra summer school classes in addition to the AP credits I’d earned in high school, but I still managed to get a bachelor’s in European history despite my constrained circumstances. If nothing else, I could say that was something I’d accomplished on my own, something that was still mine, even when the rest of my life felt completely out of control.

  “That must be a pain,” I said, my tone sympathetic. Because yes, while my future apparently had been decided for me, I’d had a very nice life up until this point. Both of the houses my parents owned were large and comfortable, I’d gone to good schools, and I’d never had to worry about money in my life. The McAllisters weren’t quite as prosperous as the Wilcoxes, but even so, I didn’t know a single person from either clan who couldn’t afford to repair a car, or pay for groceries, or any of the hundreds of niggling financial problems that could worry at you when you didn’t receive a stipend every month which guaranteed you’d never have to want for any essentials.

  Or nonessentials, I thought with a mental grin, remembering my Uncle Lucas and his plane. All right, it was just a four-seat Cessna, and not some private jet with leather upholstery and walnut cabinets, but still. I didn’t know too many other people with their own planes.

  Simon didn’t appear to notice my abstraction. Pushing up the sleeves of his long-sleeved T-shirt, probably because it was slightly stuffy in the Railrunner car, he said, “It’s not so bad. I can study on the way down in the morning. And I don’t have any Friday classes, so I’m done now until next Monday.”

  How was I supposed to respond to that? Was he sending out a subtle feeler, trying to see if I’d be interested in spending any time with him over the weekend? I honestly didn’t know, since I’d spent most of my life trying to avoid male company unless it was someone I happened to be related to. At college, that sort of contact had been unavoidable, but I’d still done whatever I could to seem detached, casual, not someone you’d want to approach. The tactic had worked fairly well, but it had also left me lacking much in the way of useful skills when it came to deciphering male attitudes and responses.

  “Oh, that’s good,” I said, my tone noncommittal, then turned my head so I could look out the window. There really wasn’t all that much to see; at this time of year, the open land that surrounded us was yellow and dry, so leached and sere that I wondered if it was ever truly green. Off in the distance were some high, jagged
mountains, but I couldn’t remember their name.

  If Simon was put off by my less than enthusiastic response to his comment about being free for the weekend, he didn’t show it. He said, “This probably isn’t the best time of year to come here. There are still some trees in Santa Fe that have some color, but earlier in October is better for that kind of thing.”

  “I suppose I’ll see it next year,” I remarked as I settled back in my seat and turned away from the window, and he lifted an eyebrow.

  “You’re staying that long?”

  Damn. I probably should have paid more attention to what I was saying. Well, too late now to take the words back. “Um, probably,” I hedged. “It’s not all completely settled yet.”

  That comment earned me a sideways glance, but he seemed to realize that maybe he was getting a little more personal than our brief acquaintance should have allowed. He shrugged again and reached into the pocket of his jeans to pull out his phone. “Well, if that’s the case,” he said, retrieving some wireless earbuds as well, “then you’ll get to see all of Santa Fe’s seasons. Winter can be hard sometimes, but if you’re from Flagstaff, you should be used to that.”

  I nodded, then was relieved to see him put in the earbuds, thus saving us from further conversation. It wasn’t that I didn’t like talking to him — it was that I liked it too much. And I knew I shouldn’t be doing that, not when I had Rafael waiting for me at the end of this journey.

 
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