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Haunted hearts, p.20

Haunted Hearts, page 20

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  If only she could believe that.

  From off in the foyer, she heard voices. Miranda first, thanking her guests for coming all this way, followed by the deeper tones of Elena’s father and grandmother.

  Thomas and Anita. For some reason, thinking of them by their given names rather than as “Dad” and “Grandma” or “abuela” helped Elena put a little mental distance between herself and them. If she could look at them as something other than family, then maybe she’d have the strength to get through this. Because really, what kind of family would do the sorts of things they’d done to her? Maybe a stranger could be treated so callously, but a daughter? A granddaughter? She still didn’t quite know whether she should be furious with them for what they’d done, or broken-hearted they cared so little about a blood relation that they saw no problem in stealing from her to enrich themselves.

  A whole lot of both, probably.

  The two of them entered the living room, Miranda a pace behind. Seeing them like this after being away for two weeks, Elena found she could look at them more objectively — at the deep lines around her father’s dark eyes, the gray in his nearly black hair, although he was still handsome, with fine strong features. She didn’t really see much of herself in him…she’d taken after her mother in appearance…and in a way, that helped as well, helped to look at him as someone not really connected to her. And her grandmother, carrying thirty pounds more than she should, hair now all iron-gray. She had the same hawkish nose as her son, the same high cheekbones, although those features looked better on him than they did on her. Probably she had never been what you could call pretty.

  Or maybe Elena was being uncharitable, just because she was still so angry with them.

  Their eyes fixed on hers, and her grandmother gave an audible gasp. But her father just stared at her as if he’d seen a ghost.

  No, Elena thought with grim humor, the only ghost I know is still back at the house.

  “She is here?” her grandmother demanded, heavy brows drawing together. One hand went to her heart — a calculatedly dramatic gesture. “She has been here this whole time?”

  “Not exactly,” Miranda said. “Please, Anita…Thomas…take a seat.”

  The living room had two sofas facing one another, with an armchair at one end of the little group they formed. Since Rafe was already sitting next to Elena — by design, she was sure — they were forced to sit down on the unoccupied couch, while Miranda lowered herself onto the armchair, perching at the edge of the seat cushion.

  “Are you all right, Elena?” her father asked.

  “I’m fine,” she said. That was about all she could manage, and she took another sip of water.

  “If she wasn’t here, then where was she?” her grandmother demanded.

  Typical, Elena thought with an inner grimace. She’s talking about me as if I’m not even here.

  “Here in Santa Fe, in various places,” Miranda replied. Her tone was light, but Elena thought she could still detect an edge to it. Trying to act pleasant probably wasn’t all that easy for her, not when she knew what the two people sitting there on her couch had done. “That’s not the important thing, though.”

  “It’s not?” Thomas asked. He looked confused, as though he couldn’t think of another reason for being called here, other than to retrieve his runaway daughter.

  The prima tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “No. I didn’t ask you to come here because I’d located Elena. I asked you to come here because of what I found out after I started talking to her.”

  Anita shot Miranda a suspicious glance. “If you’re talking about how she was kept at our house all this time, then I don’t see how there is a problem. The former prima, Rafe’s mother” — she gave him the faintest nod before returning her attention to Miranda — “was actually the one who came up with the idea. Possibly, we should have let you know about the situation, but we thought you had your hands full as it was, and the doings of our little family didn’t need to be any concern of yours.”

  “I disagree,” Miranda said. Her expression was still pleasant enough, but once again, Elena got the impression that she was holding it together through sheer force of will and would much rather have given free rein to her tongue so she could let Anita Castillo know exactly what she thought of her. “I was the new prima of the Castillos, and so everyone in the clan was my concern. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the money you took from her.”

  Elena’s grandmother drew herself up, obviously offended. It was her father’s reaction that struck her, though. She watched as his hands tightened on the knees of his dress slacks — slacks that only made an appearance for one of his infrequent visits to church, or when he had to attend a wedding or a funeral — and his shoulders slumped. Suddenly, there was something very weary in his expression, as if this was a moment he’d been fearing for a long time.

  Four years, probably, Elena thought. Or maybe longer. Who knows how old I was when they first hatched this little plan?

  “‘Stole’?” Anita repeated as she glared at Miranda. To Miranda’s credit, she returned the older woman’s stare without blinking, chin high. Obviously, she’d learned a thing or two about being prima during the past couple of years.

  “Yes, stole,” Miranda said coolly. “Or I suppose we could get technical and say ‘embezzled.’ Either way, you’ve been taking her stipend ever since she became eligible for it. And don’t try to deny it, either,” she added as Elena’s grandmother began to open her mouth, no doubt to utter more protests. “The clan accountant verified that Elena’s payments have been going into an account that you set up. And she herself told me that you took particular care to get her an I.D. card not long after she turned sixteen. Why was that? Why bother to get identification for someone you didn’t plan to let out of the house?”

  “In case she had need of it,” Anita snapped. She turned angry dark eyes on her granddaughter. “Elena, I don’t know what this young woman has been telling you, but — ”

  “‘This young woman,’ as you put it, is your prima,” Rafe cut in. “So you might want to be careful about accusing her of lying.”

  As her grandmother began to splutter, Elena said, “I saw the paperwork, abuela. I saw how you forged my signature on the documents you had to give to Lorna telling her where to send my stipend payments. The only person who’s lying here is you.”

  That remark was met with shocked silence. Looking at the aghast expression her grandmother wore, Elena couldn’t help but experience a gratifying surge of triumph. This woman had ruled her life since before she could remember, and never once had she contradicted her or stood up to her in any way. True, she’d summoned her demon friends in the dead of night when she couldn’t be caught, but that had still been a quiet rebellion. She’d never had the courage to tell her grandmother to her face what she thought of the way she’d been treated.

  Not until this moment, anyway.

  Anita seemed to recover herself, because she turned toward her son and snapped, “Are you going to let her talk that way to me?”

  Elena’s father passed a hand through his hair. Now looking wearier than ever, he said, “Yes, I am. Because she is telling the truth…and we are not.”

  “So, you’re admitting that you took Elena’s money?” Rafe asked. He shifted so he sat on the edge of the sofa, his amber-hued brown eyes seeming to bore into those of the older man who faced him.

  “Yes,” Thomas said heavily. “But not to steal.”

  That disingenuous comment made Miranda lift an eyebrow. “It sure looks like stealing to me.”

  “No!” Elena’s grandmother burst out. “We took that money because we needed it to support her. What else could we do, when we knew she had no prospects, would never leave our house? She could never have a job, could never get married. That stipend went toward taking care of her.”

  Elena’s fingers gripped the heavy corded edge of the couch, the nubby velvet digging into her skin. That was the on
ly way she could think of to keep herself from stalking out of the room. If she had no prospects for a job or a husband, whose fault was that? Not her own, but of the people who’d kept her locked up ever since she was eleven years old.

  As for taking care of her, that was a joke. The house had belonged to Elena’s grandfather, who passed away when she was barely a baby. Elena and her father had moved in after her mother walked out. She doubted that the cost of the house was all that much — if anything — except for upkeep and property taxes. And she’d had to beg for almost every piece of clothing, everything she needed to live from day to day. What the hell had they been doing with five thousand extra dollars every month? They definitely hadn’t been spending it on her.

  “Those were restrictions you put on her,” Miranda said. “They weren’t her choice.”

  “We were doing as Genoveva asked,” Anita said. “It wasn’t our choice, either.”

  Rafe shook his head, his mouth grim. “Don’t you dare put all this on my mother. You could have come to Miranda and explained the situation. Instead, you thought it was better to keep ripping off a member of your own family.”

  It felt strange to have a defender, especially someone she hardly knew. Elena wondered if Alessandro would have defended her so passionately if he’d been here.

  Yes, he would, she realized then. He would tell my father and my grandmother exactly what he thought of them…and he probably would threaten to take away their magic if they didn’t return my money immediately.

  Because that was Alessandro. He had his faults, but maybe it was partly because of those faults that he could see them so clearly in other people. Because he thought his own treatment had been unjust, he had no patience for injustice, no matter where he saw it.

  No wonder she’d fallen in love with him.

  Maybe it was the pain of missing him that gave her the courage to say, her tone fierce, “You could have talked to me. You could have explained why you needed that money. But you didn’t. You took it because you thought you had a right to it. And that’s just wrong.”

  Her grandmother stared at her as if she was looking at a stranger. And maybe she was. Elena knew that the girl who’d fled the house in Las Vegas two weeks earlier would never have had the courage to utter those words aloud.

  A heavy silence descended. Then, at last, her father said, “I’m sorry. We thought we were doing what was best for you.”

  Elena made herself look straight back at him, to stare into his eyes. No, she didn’t have Ava’s ability to read minds, but she thought she saw some truth there. Not all of it, though…not really. A truth he’d told himself to rationalize what he’d done. As for her grandmother….

  In that moment, it seemed as though she was somehow outside her body, was gazing down at the little tableau from a very great distance. And she realized her grandmother had never really loved her, had resented her father for falling in love with a civilian, a gringa from California who would never fit in with the Castillo clan. Elena had no doubt that Anita had done what she could to drive a wedge between her parents, had made damn sure that when her mother couldn’t take it anymore and left, she would leave her child behind. Because as much as her grandmother might have come to dislike her, Elena guessed that she wanted her son stay with her even more. If Thomas had ever learned she was responsible for driving off his wife and only child, he would never have forgiven her.

  Only her grandmother’s little plan had backfired, thanks to the strange magical talent which had blossomed within that mixed-blood child. And she’d been forced to keep the child away from the rest of the clan, had been caught in her own trap. No wonder she’d come up with the plan to start siphoning her granddaughter’s money away. She’d probably spent years trying to decide how best to enact her own form of twisted revenge on the child she most likely wished had never been born.

  Voice cold, Elena said, “You can keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better.”

  Her father winced but didn’t reply, while her grandmother frowned and darted an uneasy glance at Miranda and Rafe, as if finally beginning to realize this was not going to end well at all.

  “Sounds like an admission to me,” Rafe remarked, and the prima nodded.

  “Yes, it does.” She fixed Anita and Thomas with a steady stare and said, “You won’t be getting any further disbursements from Elena’s allowance — Lorna has already arranged for all future payments to go straight into an account Elena set up yesterday. Of course, that doesn’t address the money you took over the past four years — or four-plus, since Elena’s birthday is in September and it’s already the middle of June.” Now smiling a little, she glanced over at Rafe. “Can you do the calculations for me?”

  “Sure,” he said as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. “That would be fifty-eight months at five grand per month for a total of” — a pause as he entered the numbers into his phone’s calculator — “two hundred and ninety thousand dollars. Or maybe we should make it an even three hundred thousand to account for any interest that might have accrued during that time.”

  Elena thought it was almost worth all the pain and suffering she’d gone through to see the aghast expression on her grandmother’s face. “We don’t have that kind of money!”

  “You don’t?” Elena asked. “Then what’ve you been doing with it? The house is paid for, and I haven’t seen either of you driving around in Ferraris lately.”

  Her father let out a breath. “We do have it…or at least, most of it. The money’s been sitting in a savings account all this time. We took some out to pay for repairs on the house or Elena’s clothing, that sort of thing, but we didn’t spend all that much.”

  “Good,” Miranda said. “You can go to your bank and withdraw what’s left — all of it,” she added, in case there was any room for doubt. “Get a cashier’s check, and bring it to Elena.”

  “No,” Elena said, and everyone in the room looked at her in surprise…even her grandmother, although her expression was leavened with a healthy dose of dislike.

  “You don’t want the money?” the prima asked.

  Elena shook her head. “No, I do, but they can bring it to you. I don’t want them to know where I’m staying. I don’t want them to know anything about me.”

  Her father stared at her, expression imploring. “Elena, please. I know you’re angry, but — ”

  “You’re right, I am.” Even though the room was cool and comfortable enough, right then, it felt stifling. She knew she needed to get out of there, needed a chance to clear her head. “And I think we’re done here.”

  She got up from the couch and left the room, head high. Out the front door, and down the steps. A warm wind caught her hair, and she suddenly felt about fifty pounds lighter. It was a perfect day for a walk, actually.

  And she knew exactly where she wanted to go.

  16

  Ava’s words echoed in Alessandro’s mind.

  Only be sure of what you’re leaving behind before you take that step….

  Would he be leaving that much behind, though? Yes, Elena’s absence had left a hole in this house, in his heart, but he had to acknowledge that she was gone. The bond they’d begun to form hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to his avoidance of the truth. And really, why should it have been? They’d shared a single kiss. A good kiss, the only true, perfect, beautiful kiss he’d ever experienced, but it wasn’t enough to erase days of ignoring her questions, of only letting her see what he wanted her to see. No wonder she’d decided he wasn’t worth it, not when she couldn’t trust him.

  He found himself wandering through the house, walking aimlessly from room to room. Why, he wasn’t sure at first, except he realized, once he stood in the doorway of the office and stared at Elena’s unfinished painting of the tree that grew to one side of the front yard, that this was his way of saying goodbye to the place where he’d stayed for such a short time, even though it had begun to feel like home.

  His way of saying goodbye to
Elena.

  Well, that seemed to settle it. She’d been gone for two days, which meant she wasn’t coming back. Even a phone call or a text would have told him there might be something left to save here, but it appeared obvious enough that she thought her continuing silence was all the message he needed.

  He went back to the master suite and silently gathered his belongings, then packed his single bag. The easiest thing to do would be to get in touch with Gabriel and let him know he needed to come back to Santa Fe in order to bring his cousin home to Pico Negro, but Alessandro didn’t like that idea very much. For one thing, Gabriel and Ava had just been here, and the primus probably wouldn’t enjoy being summoned back so soon just because Alessandro couldn’t make up his mind whether to stay or go.

  And also, he wanted to do this on his own terms. Going back to El Salvador meant acknowledging that it was his home, the only home he would ever have. He needed to do this deliberately, and with the understanding that he would have to make his way there, no matter how difficult doing so might be. Perhaps he would never be anything more than an outcast, but he understood that he might have to make some effort as well, that possibly it was time for him to make an attempt to meet people halfway. It wouldn’t be easy, and yet he knew he had to try.

  His plans meant flying back, arriving in Pico Negro just like any normal person might, with no magic involved. In fact, he needed to accept the hard fact that he probably would never use his talents again, except for the small, ordinary magics that any witch or wizard might perform, such as unlocking a door or summoning fire with a snap of his fingers.

  No great loss, he thought as he zipped his duffle bag closed. His power only existed to hurt others. It was not the sort of thing in which he could take any joy.

  He drew out his phone and performed a quick search for flights from Albuquerque to San Salvador. Of course, there were no direct routes he could take; he would have to fly into Phoenix or Dallas first and catch a connecting flight there. Phoenix was marginally cheaper, so he chose that flight. The plane left in a few hours, meaning he didn’t have much time.

 
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