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Hidden gifts, p.22

Hidden Gifts, page 22

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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  Even if she had, I couldn’t argue with the effect. I had to step out from behind the screen to get help with the row of satin-covered buttons down the back, and at once she came over to me, fingers deftly working the fastenings. I supposed she must have done much the same thing for her daughters, but once again I held back, not quite sure of the reception I would get if I asked that simple question.

  Instead, I stood quietly until the dress was fastened all the way. A few tugs, and everything was lying where it should be.

  “You look amazing,” Cat said, appearing from nowhere. Or rather, she’d been next door getting dressed, and popped in once she was done. One hand was hidden among the folds of her blush-colored gown, and I guessed she was hiding her phone there, so she could take some pictures once her mother was safely out of the way.

  “Yes, the gown was a lucky find,” Genoveva remarked, carefully adjusting my hair so it fell gracefully over my shoulders. It felt strange to have her standing so close, to catch the faintest trace of Chanel No. 5 coming from her hair or her clothing, but I made myself stay still. I didn’t want to flinch or do anything that might show her how uncomfortable I was with even this impersonal intimacy. To my relief, she stepped away after a moment, saying, “I think we will wait on the veil until we’re a little closer to the ceremony.”

  I nodded.

  Then Cat said, “Mom, can you go take a look at Maria’s dress? She keeps claiming it’s not exactly the same color as everyone else’s, but I think it’s just the funky lighting in these dressing rooms. But I know she’d believe you over me.”

  Genoveva’s mouth twitched in annoyance. “Very well, I’ll go take a look. I’m sure it must be the lighting. It had better be the lighting, because if the dress shop somehow sent us a gown from the wrong dye lot….” Muttering to herself, she left the room and closed the door behind her.

  “Thank God,” Cat said, pulling the phone out from the folds of her skirt. “That was the best story we could come up with.”

  “Maria’s in on it, too?” I asked, smiling despite the nervous butterflies that kept fluttering around in my stomach. Or maybe that was just the remains of my breakfast getting compressed by the heavily boned bustier I had on under my gown.

  “Of course,” Cat replied. “The last thing we wanted was my mother asking questions and the other girls not knowing what she was talking about. They also think it stinks that your parents couldn’t be here, so they wanted to help. Now smile,” she added, lifting her phone to take a picture.

  Forcing a smile was more difficult than I’d thought it would be. But somehow I pasted one on, hoping it would look halfway convincing.

  “Oh, that was terrible.” Cat lowered the phone and gave me a direct look. “You need to look like you’re slightly happy about all this and not like you’re getting dragged to the gallows.”

  “I am happy,” I protested. “But I’m also nervous.”

  “I know,” she said. “Just don’t think about the wedding itself. Think about getting out of here, going to Taos with Rafe. It sounded like you were looking forward to that.”

  Oh, I was. Away from Santa Fe, to a resort where Rafe would make love to me. That all sounded delicious.

  I smiled.

  “Perfect,” Cat said, pressing the button on her phone’s camera several times. “That was much better. I’ll get these sent off to your parents right now.”

  My smile faded as I watched her play with the phone a bit more, making sure my parents would receive those precious bits of data, the ones that would show I was happy and ready to face my future, even if they couldn’t be there to watch. Was I happy? I honestly didn’t know. I thought I might be, very soon…or at least three or four hours from now, after I’d survived the ceremony and the reception, and Rafe and I were on the fabled high road to Taos.

  “I’ve told the bishop over and over that he needs to get the warm LED lights for these rooms,” Genoveva said as she opened the door and let herself back in. Cat quickly tucked the phone away behind her. “This bluish light is terrible for the complexion, and even worse for matching colors. Maria’s dress is fine, as you tried to point out to her. But now that little drama is over, thank God.”

  She went to a large box that was sitting on one of the dressing room’s side tables, lifted the lid, and pulled out my veil and tiara. “Cat, if you would help me.”

  Cat went over and took the tiara from her, and then Genoveva came to me, veil in hands. Since she was taller than I, I didn’t have to bend to allow her to set it on my head. Even though I’d tried it on before, it felt strange to have that gossamer fabric settle over my shoulders, flow down my bare arms. Quietly, Cat came up and placed the tiara on my head, taking care to get it straight and also not disturb all the hard work of the hairstylist.

  “There,” Genoveva said, inspecting her daughter’s handiwork as she moved around me, making sure to get a full 360 degrees so she didn’t miss any possible bad angles. “I think that is going to do very well. It’s four-thirty — I need to go check and make sure the doors are opened, since the guests will be arriving soon.” She began to head toward the door, then paused and sent me a severe look. “Don’t even think about sitting down in that dress.”

  “I won’t,” I promised, glad that I had chosen shoes with relatively low heels.

  “If you need water, there’s a pitcher on the table, and some glasses. Cat, make sure she uses a straw.”

  After delivering that final command, the prima once more sailed out of the room and shut the door behind her.

  At once Cat lifted her phone to take a few pictures of me in all my veiled glory. To my surprise, once she was done, she handed the phone over to me.

  “My mother will be busy for at least ten minutes. Go ahead, call them.”

  A fierce gratitude rushed through me at her words. I wished I could lean over and give her a hug, this soon-to-be sister of mine, but I knew I might crumple something and invoke Genoveva’s wrath. Instead, I gave Cat a tremulous smile and pushed the button to connect the call.

  I was worried that it might ring and ring and go to voicemail, but apparently my parents were on standby after receiving the first batch of photos from Cat. The call was answered after the first ring. “Is this Cat?” my mother’s voice asked.

  Hearing her, I wanted to break down in tears right then and there. Fiercely commanding myself to remember my mascara, I said, “No, Mom. It’s Miranda.”

  I didn’t think I’d ever heard anyone sound so relieved. “Oh, thank the Goddess. Yes, Cat texted me to let me know you were all right, but after what Rafe told us about you disappearing — ”

  “I’m fine,” I cut in quickly. “It was just…well, I don’t know what’s going on, exactly, but we’ll figure it out one way or another. I just wanted to let you know I was okay, and that everything is going well. I’ll be walking down the aisle in about twenty minutes.”

  My voice wavered a little on that last word, but I don’t think my mother noticed…or possibly she wanted to make me think she hadn’t noticed. “I wish we could be there.”

  “I wish it, too, Mom,” I replied. “But you got the pictures?”

  “Yes, we did. They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful. We’re very proud of you.”

  Damn, she was making it very hard for me not to cry. I pulled in a breath and told myself I didn’t dare have raccoon eyes at my own wedding. It was just…after so many years of seeing myself as a failure, as someone who’d let down my clan by being utterly without powers, I didn’t quite know how to respond when my mother said that she and my father were proud of me.

  “I — I’m glad. And I don’t want you to worry about me. Rafe is…Rafe is wonderful. I think we’re going to be very happy together.”

  “I’m glad to hear that, darling.” A pause, and then she said, “Your father would like to talk to you.”

  Unfortunately, I never got to hear what he had to say. The doorknob began to turn, and Cat took the phone from me, said quickly, “Sorr
y, we really need to go,” and ended the call.

  I wanted to be angry with her for interrupting before I had a chance to talk to my father, but I knew she was only trying to protect me. I blinked, and turned toward Genoveva as she entered the room. “Are we ready?”

  “Yes, I think it’s time for everyone to get lined up,” she replied, her gaze moving from me to her daughter as her eyes narrowed slightly, as if she could tell we’d been up to something but couldn’t precisely guess what.

  “I’ll just go and corral everyone,” Cat said, her voice somewhat breathless, and slipped from the room, phone hidden somewhere in her skirt.

  “This way,” Genoveva said, still looking somewhat suspicious.

  I didn’t trust myself to speak as I followed her out of the dressing room and down a long corridor. From behind me, I could hear hushed laughter and whispers as my bridesmaids hurried to catch up with us.

  At the end of the hallway waited Rafe’s groomsmen, his cousin Tony among them. One dark eyebrow lifted as he took in my bridal splendor, and his lips pursed, as though he intended to let loose a whistle. However, the man standing next to him stuck an elbow in his ribs, and Tony subsided.

  The exchange made my mouth curve in a smile. Still smiling, I stood and watched as Cat went to stand next to her cousin, and the rest of the bridesmaids and groomsmen fell in line. Belatedly, I realized I had no one to walk me down the aisle.

  But then Rafe’s father appeared, dashing and handsome in his black tailcoat, and offered me his arm. “I hope you’ll allow me to stand in?” he said.

  “I’d be honored,” I replied, looping my arms through his. Yes, Eduardo wasn’t my father, but at least I’d have a father figure to accompany me to the altar.

  From within the chapel, the organ boomed, playing the first chords of the wedding march. Cat and Tony disappeared into the foyer, followed by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Then it was my turn.

  “Come along, my dear,” Eduardo murmured to me. “Just keep your eyes ahead, and look for Rafe. You’ll do fine.”

  With that he guided me through the foyer, and out into Loretto Chapel, which was quite transformed from the last time I’d been here. Blush-tipped roses and white lilies decorated the altar and the pews, and every single one of those pews was packed with people. Were they all Castillos? They must be. I quailed at the thought of having to meet all of them and get to know their names, but then I told myself I needed to heed Eduardo’s advice and keep my eyes forward, stay in the moment.

  Look for Rafe.

  There he was, standing at the altar, so handsome in his tails, his dark hair carefully slicked back, that my breath caught. Somehow, though, I managed to keep moving, my chin up. These people might all be Castillos, but I was a McAllister and a Wilcox. Where I came from, that counted for a lot.

  We came to the altar, and Eduardo guided me to the lower step where Rafe waited, then let go of my arm so he could go take his seat in the first pew next to his wife. I turned toward Rafe, whose eyes looked odd to me, strangely opaque and glittering, nearly black rather than the warm brown I knew they actually were.

  It must have been a trick of the light which made him appear that way, almost a stranger. We’d reached the blue hour of dusk, which lent an oddly luminous glow to the stained glass windows, blending with the dim illumination from the enormous wrought-iron chandeliers overhead. The vast, shadowy spaces of the chapel looked odd, not quite substantial, although that could also have had something to do with the banks of taper candles that flickered to either side of us, adding to the aura of mystery.

  The priest opened his mouth to speak, but Rafe said, quite loudly, “No.”

  I stared at him, a strange, sick feeling starting somewhere in my stomach. “No…what, Rafe?” I asked in a murmur.

  He barely glanced in my direction. Instead, he turned away from me, away from the startled priest, and called out to the watching ranks of Castillos, “I am not going to marry this woman. I don’t love her. I don’t want her.”

  No. The word reverberated in my brain, an echo of the same negation Rafe had just uttered a few seconds earlier. This couldn’t be happening. How could he be saying these things, when just yesterday he’d kissed me and said everything was going to be okay, that he wanted this?

  Both Genoveva and Eduardo hastily stood as the rest of the audience looked on in horror. “Rafe!” Genoveva’s voice was a sharp whisper. “Stop this at once!”

  “No, I won’t,” he replied, his tone oddly flat, almost dead. Then he turned toward me. “I mean it, Miranda. You were stupid to think I would ever go through with this.”

  I saw his mouth moving, but it was as though the words couldn’t quite penetrate my brain. My heart thudded, heavy as lead in my chest, heavy as the enormous bells far above us that tolled the hour. This wasn’t happening.

  Everyone was staring at me. Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. The air caught in my throat, choking me.

  I had to get out of there.

  The cathedral dissolved around me, and I was gone.

  17

  Recriminations

  Rafe

  The words sounded horribly distant, distorted, as if they were coming from very far away, traveling down transmission lines that had been torn and battered by summer’s fierce monsoon storms.

  “What the hell were you thinking?”

  He blinked, realized he was surrounded by his family, his mother and father and Cat, and his two older sisters as well, both of whom were scowling so fiercely, he wasn’t sure whether the lines in the middle of their brows would ever smooth out again. “What — what happened?”

  “What do you mean, what happened?” Genoveva demanded. Her hands were planted on her hips, and her dark eyes were fairly shooting fire. It was possible that Rafe had seen her this angry before, but he really couldn’t remember when. Her tone sharpened, became sarcastic. “What, are you trying to tell us that you don’t remember how you insulted your fiancée and disgraced all of us in front of the entire clan, upset her so badly that she somehow managed to vanish right in front of everyone?”

  Rafe put a hand to his head. It ached, felt as heavy as if he’d just gone on a drinking spree with Tony and some of his party-animal cousins. He honestly couldn’t remember much of anything since he’d left the house this afternoon. A vague recollection of driving to the cathedral and parking around back in the small lot that was reserved for those who had particular business there, but after that…?

  Looking around, he saw that he was in a smallish room, a plain rectangle that contained some chairs and a few long tables placed up against the thick adobe walls. It felt crowded in there with his entire immediate family glaring at him, although he thought that had more to do with their palpable anger than the actual square footage of the space.

  “No,” he said, “I don’t remember anything.” The vague thought surfaced that he was supposed to be getting married sometime today, and he glanced around again, a strange uneasiness filling him. “Where’s Miranda?”

  His mother’s mouth tightened. Cat, hands on her hips, wrinkling the pale pink satin gown she wore, stared back at him and snapped, “Well, that’s a really good question, isn’t it? After your little performance out there, she disappeared. Poof — right into thin air. No one knows where she went.”

  Rafe put a hand to his head. Cloudy, indistinct images were bubbling up into his brain — the cathedral packed with every Castillo clan member who would fit, staring into a mirror and fiddling with the black silk bow tie he wore as Tony laughed at his first clumsy attempt…Miranda’s wide green eyes staring up at him in horror.

  He could see the despair in every inch of her beautiful face, but he couldn’t remember why she’d looked that way, or what he’d said to her.

  “Wait a minute,” his oldest sister Louisa said. She’d been hanging back behind the others, but now she pushed her way past her parents and came to stand next to Rafe. Putting a gentle hand on his arm, she went very still for a moment. Her talent w
as detecting where magic had been used, and because she was the prima-in-waiting and very strong, quite often she was also able to identify who had used that magic and what its purpose might have been. Still frowning, she said, “I think someone cast a spell on him.”

  “What?” Genoveva stepped forward and lifted a hand in front of Rafe’s face, as though feeling the air currents that moved around him. Her talent wasn’t quite the same as Louisa’s, but because she was prima, she could do almost the same thing, although not with quite as much precision. Her brows drew together as she moved her hand back and forth. “I’m sensing something, too. Something…dark.”

  Well, he was glad they were able to get a sense of what had happened, but Rafe still didn’t know what was going on, didn’t know who could have cast a spell on him, or why. “I don’t feel anything,” he said, his tone rough with frustration.

  “Of course you don’t,” Louisa replied calmly. Her two children were nowhere in evidence; her husband Adam must have kept them with him someplace else in the cathedral complex. “You’re the subject of the spell — it’s necessary that you not be able to feel a thing.”

  Anger coursed through him. Who the hell would have the guts to cast a spell on the prima’s son? And for what purpose?

  Those questions needed to be pushed aside for now, however. The important thing was finding Miranda. Rafe still didn’t know precisely what he’d said to her, but clearly it had been bad. Very bad.

  “We need to go look for Miranda,” he said.

  Cat’s expression shifted from frustrated anger to worry, while both his mother and Louisa didn’t appear terribly concerned about Miranda’s fate. Possibly at the moment they cared more about who had cast a spell on him, and why.

 
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