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Haunted hearts, p.2

Haunted Hearts, page 2

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  Because of all this, he wasn’t terribly surprised when Gabriel summoned him to a private meeting at the large, gracious house that had once belonged to Vicénte and was now the property of the new primus and his fiancée, Ava Castillo of the Castillo clan in New Mexico. There were already signs that the home’s new occupants were doing their best to make it their own — brightly painted pots filled with equally bright flowers occupied places of honor on either side of the front door, and more flowers graced the surface of the dining table in the airy room that served as both a living and eating space on the ground floor.

  The clan’s new primus did not appear particularly ill at ease, but Alessandro noted the way his companion’s smile of greeting seemed a little forced, as if she actually was not all that happy to have the null in her home. She was a beautiful young woman, with luxuriant, wavy dark hair and the kind of full mouth that might make a man’s thoughts tread dangerous ground…especially when that mouth belonged to a woman claimed by the clan leader.

  “Please, Alessandro, sit down,” Ava said, gesturing him toward a leather sofa that faced two chairs, all of the seating grouped around a large carved coffee table of dark wood. More flowers graced that table, but the furniture itself was still the same. Most likely, they hadn’t yet had the time to replace it. After all, Gabriel had only taken control of the clan four days earlier, and although some things had changed — the apparently brain-dead Vicénte, felled by a dark spell that had backfired on him, was now in a private room in a clinic in San Salvador, maintained by machines but with no semblance of a mind left, and the clan elders who had been his lackeys were gone for good, chased off into the jungle — many more elements of the village and the people in it still seemed more or less unaltered. “Some tamarind tea?”

  He accepted the drink because he knew it would be churlish to turn it down, although his shoulders tensed even as Ava handed the heavy glass to him. The usually refreshing tang of the tea now tasted downright sour to him, and he made himself take a second swallow despite his desire to set the beverage down on the table and ignore it.

  “I suppose you’re wondering what this is about,” Gabriel said. Unlike his fiancée, he appeared relaxed enough, sitting there with his hands casually draped over his jeans-clad knees.

  But then, why wouldn’t Gabriel be relaxed? He now had everything he’d ever wanted — his controlling older brother out of the way, rule of the Escobar clan, and a beautiful woman at his side.

  Whereas he, Alessandro —

  “I think I can guess,” he said, then forced himself to drink some more of his tea. Custom satisfied, he finally allowed himself to put it down on a coaster of tightly woven reeds.

  This reply seemed to surprise the primus; now he leaned forward slightly, and his brows drew together. “You can?”

  “I am not blind, Gabriel,” Alessandro said. He would not allow himself to be overly formal. They had known each other all their lives, had been friends back before their powers began to develop. His terrible null talent had put an end to their friendship, but still, he could not forget their shared past. “I have seen how the others in this village have been acting toward me these past few days.”

  Everyone except his mother and his sister, of course, but they were used to him, did not fear his ability to take away the powers that defined them.

  Ava spoke then, saying, “It’s nothing you’ve done, Alessandro — ”

  “But I don’t have to do anything,” he cut in, his tone bitter. “I only have to be what I am, right?”

  Gabriel and Ava exchanged a glance. From the way her full mouth tightened and her gaze shifted away from him, Alessandro had a feeling she would much prefer to be elsewhere.

  Well, he could sympathize.

  “There have been…concerns,” Gabriel said after a weighty pause. “There are fears that, since you seemed to have no problem using your powers against the people here when my brother ruled this village, you may do the same thing going forward. Trust is a very delicate thing.”

  Did Gabriel think he didn’t know that? Alessandro had despised himself for going along with Vicénte’s cruel edicts, but although the null power he commanded was a fearful thing, even it had its limits. He could have taken Vicénte’s powers away…possibly could have even overcome the two elders who followed their primus’s commands in all things…but he could not have prevailed in the end if enough rose up against him. And there had also been his mother and his sister to consider. No, there had never been any outright threats, and there hadn’t needed to be. He’d known what Vicénte might do if Alessandro crossed him.

  “I would only use my powers if my primus asked me to…and I don’t think you would do that, would you, Gabriel?”

  “Not without a very good reason,” he answered. “But that is not enough reassurance for some people.”

  “Everyone is on edge right now,” Ava said. “Which is totally understandable, considering what’s happened recently. But we — Gabriel and I, that is — we were thinking that maybe it would be a good idea if you were to…take a break for a while.”

  “‘A break’?” Alessandro repeated. “What do you mean?”

  Another pause as once again the pair traded glances. This time, it was Gabriel who spoke. “We thought you could go away for a while, just until things are more settled here.”

  He made it sound so easy, as if it was no great matter for a warlock to uproot himself from his clan and go someplace else. “Oh, well, I have been thinking I needed a vacation,” Alessandro remarked, not bothering to hide the sarcasm in his voice.

  However, Ava seemed to take his comment at face value. “Great — you’ll love Santa Fe.”

  Was she being serious? “What?” he demanded as he stared at her in disbelief.

  “I talked to Miranda, the prima of the Castillo clan,” Gabriel said. “And she’s fine with you coming to stay there for a while.”

  “My house is empty right now,” Ava added, obviously wanting to jump in before Alessandro could reply. “You can stay there. It’s close to downtown and the Plaza, so there’s lots to see and do. I — ”

  “You obviously have this all settled,” he broke in. “I have no say in any of it?”

  Gabriel’s jaw tightened, but his tone was even enough as he said, “I think it would be a good idea. The Castillos are fine with having you there, and, as Ava said, you’ll have a house at your disposal. And she assures me the weather in Santa Fe is very pleasant in the summer, not nearly as hot and humid as it is here. You could do far worse.”

  The intimation being, of course, that if he were to remain here, matters might come to a head with the other residents of Pico Negro. Gabriel would probably step in before things got entirely out of hand, but Alessandro had his mother and sister to consider. Yes, his mother was now one of the clan’s elders and possessed a status she previously hadn’t enjoyed, and yet…his sister Lara was of an age where she might be thinking about getting married. Did he really want to cause the kind of trouble that might prevent her from making the true match of her heart?

  Even so, he felt he should protest the cavalier way in which his primus intended to remove him from his life. “If people have problems with my presence here, then they should have the courage to say these things to my face. Let me face my accusers, and I will assure them directly that I pose no threat to any of them.”

  Gabriel’s jaw tightened — never a good sign. However, his tone was calm, measured when he spoke. “I’m afraid that isn’t possible. Surely you must understand why certain people in this clan would wish to avoid such a confrontation. You will just have to take my word on this.”

  Damn it. Alessandro knew then that it didn’t matter what sorts of arguments he put forth, what kind of protests he made. It was clear enough Gabriel had already determined for himself that the best thing to do was to get rid of him. This little interview was a formality and nothing more.

  “How long?” he asked, even as a feeling of inevitability settled over him.


  “I honestly can’t say for sure,” Gabriel replied. “Probably the summer at least. Then…we’ll see.”

  Which seemed to be the primus’s way of saying that he didn’t know for sure and wouldn’t make promises he couldn’t keep. That sensation of inevitability grew, became a solid lump of dread somewhere in Alessandro’s gut.

  It was all decided…had been decided before he even came here. Clearly, there was no reason to stay, not when there was nothing else to say.

  “Fine,” Alessandro said, and rose from the couch. “I’ll pack my things.”

  And before either of them could say anything, he stalked from the house. As he went, he felt his hands curl into fists.

  Somehow, he knew he would not fit in with the Santa Fe witches any better than he had here in the place where he was born.

  2

  Luckily, after Victoria the ghost shot another disapproving stare in Elena’s direction, she disappeared, melting away like mist in morning sunlight. However, even though the spirit was no longer visible, Elena couldn’t quite shake the impression that she lingered still, as if she had haunted this house for so long that she was as much a part of the structure as the beams that held it up.

  Being watched wasn’t exactly the most comfortable sensation in the world, but since Elena had spent most of her life being watched like a hawk by her grandmother, at least she was used to the feeling of having unfriendly eyes on her at all times. Trying to act nonchalant, she opened cupboard doors and peered into the pantry, familiarizing herself with the layout of the kitchen. After she was done with her inspection, she got out a glass and filled it with water from the refrigerator door, then wandered into the TV room. Being forced to stay inside pretty much all the time had given her a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all the various cable and streaming shows available, but she’d spent the last ten years watching television — and reading, yes, and drawing and painting…anything to keep herself occupied beyond the few hours that her chores around the house required.

  She was free now, and so the thought of doing any of the same things she’d spent the last eleven years wasting her time on didn’t appeal very much. But then, what else could she do with herself? For the past five days, she’d amused herself by wandering around downtown and shopping and looking at the artwork in the various galleries there, although she’d taken Ava’s words of warning to heart and hadn’t ventured beyond downtown and out toward Canyon Road, which apparently was the heart of Santa Fe’s art scene. Since Elena had already spent so much time in the touristy area around the Plaza, she had no real desire to retrace her steps there. Going anywhere else was problematic, though, since she ran a far greater risk of running into some of her Castillo cousins if she tried to go someplace more prosaic, like the grocery store or the mall. Those constraints had made her feel trapped in the oddest way; it wasn’t as if she’d been confined to her hotel room, but neither had she been allowed the freedom to go wherever she wished.

  Well, first things first. It was obvious enough that Ava had left all her utilities on, and that had to include the cable. However, unless Elena was able to figure out the password for the network, the laptop she’d stowed in the overnight bag with the rest of her belongings would be good for playing in Photoshop and not much else.

  The most logical place to check for something like that had to be the office she’d spotted upstairs. She might as well go up there and poke around a little and see what she could find. Maybe Ava wouldn’t be terribly happy to discover that her cousin had been snooping through her things, but she didn’t have much of a choice. Yes, she could tether the little prepaid phone she’d been using to her laptop, except that doing so would eat up her data allotment much faster than she’d like. Still, she supposed she could use it as a stopgap if necessary.

  Glass of water in hand, she mounted the stairs and went past the guest bedroom where she’d stowed her belongings, then entered the office. As in the rest of the house, the furniture here was all antique, from the glass-fronted bookcases that took up most of one wall to the huge oak roll-top desk that faced them. The walls had been painted dark green, and the overall effect was of a clubby, cozy space — or at least, it would have been, if it weren’t for the enormous copper-skinned being who stood in the middle of the Persian rug, his arms crossed and a forbidding frown digging into the flesh of his brow.

  “Belshegar,” Elena said, knowing how resigned she sounded. Somehow, she’d had the feeling he would show up sooner rather than later. Most of the time, he wouldn’t come without her summoning him…but not always. There had been a few occasions when he’d appeared without warning, mostly when she’d been at her most despondent and had needed a friend’s comfort.

  However, she guessed by the way his night-black eyes narrowed that he hadn’t come here to offer her any solace. More like read her the riot act.

  “What do you think you’re doing, Elena?” he asked, the deep bass of his voice causing the crystal pendants on the ruby-shaded lamp in the corner to shiver a bit. The tinkling sound made a strange counterpoint to his comment.

  “Looking for Ava’s wi-fi password,” she replied innocently. “I don’t suppose you know what it is.”

  “No,” Belshegar said. “And if I knew it, I wouldn’t tell you.”

  “I could make you.”

  His brow furrowed even more deeply, but he didn’t contradict her. They both knew that her peculiar talent allowed her to command his obedience — although she would never actually do such a thing. It wouldn’t be polite.

  “Sorry,” she said at once. And she was; Belshegar didn’t deserve even the threat of coercion, let alone the real thing. “As for the rest….” She let the words trail off, then gave a helpless shrug. “I needed somewhere to go.”

  “Ava told you to seek out the prima.”

  “I know, but I’m not sure I can trust her. I don’t know her. She could be as bad as Genoveva.” Which would take a lot of doing, considering what a hard-ass the previous prima had been. Maybe it made her a terrible person, but Elena hadn’t shed too many bitter tears a year or so back when she found out Genoveva had been killed by the dark warlock Simon Escobar. After all, it had been mostly Genoveva’s idea to keep her locked up in Las Vegas all those years, kept away from the rest of the Castillo clan…away from the world. Ava had said Miranda was different, was a nice person, but since Elena hadn’t met her, she couldn’t know for sure. Better to be safe, because she absolutely could not face being sent back to her home in Las Vegas, not after she’d had even this very small taste of freedom.

  Something about Belshegar’s expression softened. He came over and laid a heavy, oversized hand on her shoulder, then said, “I understand your concerns. Still, I am not sure your fears are sufficient justification for moving into Ava’s house when she didn’t invite you to do such a thing.”

  The same doubts had assailed her more than once, but since she’d already committed to this course of action, Elena didn’t think she had much choice but to plow ahead and hope for the best. “I think she’ll understand. She’s…kind.”

  “True, she does seem to have a gentle heart.” He took his hand from Elena’s shoulder, although she fancied she could still feel the weight of it, the strange comfort of his otherworldly heat.

  “What is that?”

  Victoria again, this time standing in the hallway just outside the entrance to the office. Her hand was pressed against her throat in a melodramatic gesture, and she looked a few shades paler than she’d been when she first materialized in the kitchen downstairs.

  “This is Belshegar,” Elena said. “He’s a friend.”

  This information didn’t seem to sit too well with the ghost. Hand still touching the high neck of her blue silk gown, she said faintly, “He isn’t…he isn’t staying here, too, is he?”

  “No,” Belshegar told her in his deep voice. “I am only paying Elena a visit.” He studied Victoria for a moment, expression curious. “You are an earthbound discorporeal en
tity, correct?”

  “A…what?”

  “A ghost,” Elena said, finding herself unexpectedly driven to come to the spirit’s aid. “He’s just curious. You’ve never met a ghost before, Belshegar?”

  “No.” He returned to his survey of Victoria, clearly fascinated by her appearance. “Have you been here ever since you died?”

  She blinked at him. “What an extraordinarily forward question.”

  As he stared back at her, obviously nonplussed, Elena hastened to say, “I think he’s just curious, Victoria. He certainly didn’t mean to be rude. He’s just…not from here.”

  This unbelievably obvious statement made Victoria blink again. “Yes, that much is clear enough.”

  “I am from another dimension, another universe,” Belshegar said, clearly trying to be helpful.

  “But what are you doing here?”

  “Watching out for me,” Elena said. “I told you he was a friend. We’ve known each other for years.”

  “I see.”

  Elena wasn’t sure whether Victoria really could see or not, but at least she no longer looked as though she was about to pass out. Could a ghost even faint? Probably not, since she wasn’t technically alive and therefore couldn’t suffer a sudden drop in blood pressure or whatever it was that made people lose consciousness, but probably better not to find out.

  “I am very sorry if I caused you any alarm,” Belshegar said, and now the faintest of smiles touched Victoria’s lips, which had begun to look a little rosier instead of the dead white they’d been a few minutes before. Maybe the demon’s courtly manner of speaking had begun to win her over. Belshie could be a real charmer when he wanted to.

  And all right, he wasn’t really a demon, not in the way most people thought of when they defined a demon in their minds, but the word was simple shorthand for “extra-dimensional entity,” which was kind of a mouthful.

 
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