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Haunted hearts, p.3

Haunted Hearts, page 3

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  “It’s quite all right,” Victoria replied. From nowhere, a lace-edged handkerchief appeared in one hand, and she dabbed it against her brow before making the small square of white linen disappear again. “I suppose I was just startled. Carry on.”

  And, just as she had before, she melted away, leaving Belshegar and Elena alone in the office. He reached up to run his hand through the heavy black mane of his hair.

  “Did you know this house came with a ghost?”

  “Of course not,” Elena replied. Not that knowing such a thing probably would have stopped her, but she didn’t see any reason to tell Belshegar that. “I guess it slipped Ava’s mind. Then again, we were kind of busy when we were all here that last time.”

  He made a rumbling sound of assent. “True, you did have rather more important things occupying your thoughts.”

  “And now you’ve seen that Victoria doesn’t have a problem with me staying here.”

  That assertion only made him cross his massively muscled arms and stare back at her, expression impassive. Clearly, he wasn’t inclined to believe her.

  Elena shot a glance up at him. “It’s not like she told me to get out.”

  “Probably not,” he allowed. “Victoria is obviously from a far more genteel age than this one.”

  Better to let that go. She went over to Belshegar and laid a hand on his arm, then gave him what she hoped what was a winning smile. “But she isn’t trying to stop me. And also, doesn’t it make you feel a little better to know I have someone here watching over me?”

  “Someone who can’t provide any true assistance if you get into trouble.”

  “Well, I have you for that, don’t I?”

  Although his jaw was set, Elena thought she detected a small lift at one corner of his wide, black-lipped mouth. His face had long ago stopped being inhuman to her, and now she could read him just like she could her father or her grandmother. That tiny twitch had been all she needed to see to know he wouldn’t keep giving her grief about crashing here at Ava’s house, and she felt herself relax slightly.

  “I suppose you do,” he said, and reached over to pat her on the shoulder. “Just…be careful.”

  And then he, too, was gone.

  Of course, I’ll be careful, Elena thought as she went over to the desk and carefully lifted the roll-top.

  Not that I think I’ll have too much I need to be careful about….

  “You can’t really be thinking about going,” his sister Lara protested, her big brown eyes wide with worry.

  Alessandro shrugged and tossed the last of his T-shirts into the duffle bag that lay on his bed. They stood in the room that had been his ever since he could remember; he supposed he could have gotten his own house if he’d wanted to, although the people of his clan in general didn’t leave the homes where they were born until they were ready to set up a separate residence with their new spouses.

  Since no woman of the clan had ever wanted to cast her lot in with him, a null, he’d always thought he would live under his mother’s roof until he died.

  “I am,” he said shortly, “or I wouldn’t be packing these things, would I?”

  Lara fidgeted with the silver bangles she wore on her right wrist, then glanced past the doorway to his room, out to where their mother was doing something noisy in the kitchen. Alessandro knew she was upset as well — hence the banging of the pots and pans — although she hadn’t tried to argue with him, had only said if this was what Gabriel and he had agreed upon, then she must let her son do as he wished.

  It wasn’t what he wished, though, but what everyone else in the clan wanted. At the moment, he was weary enough that he thought it might be a good thing to not have to look at any of those too-familiar faces for the next several months…or possibly even longer than that.

  “But what will I do without you here?” his sister asked. Her tone was soft, not pleading, and yet he could still hear the plaintive note in her voice.

  “I suppose you will live a happy life,” he said roughly. “Do you think I don’t know you would have been approached before this if you didn’t have a null for a brother?”

  Now her eyes flashed, and she planted her hands on her hips, bracelets jangling. “I think it was far more that Vicénte had directed his attention toward me. No offense, Alessandro, but he was much more frightening than you could ever be.”

  A reluctant chuckle escaped his lips, and he zipped the duffle bag shut. He’d bought the bag on one of his infrequent trips to San Salvador, thinking that it might come in handy at some point, although for what, he wasn’t sure. He definitely could never have guessed at the time that he’d be using it to pack for a journey to Santa Fe.

  Not that it would be much of a journey, thanks to Gabriel’s gift of being able to magically send living beings across great distances. No weary hours spent on an airplane, or days on a train or bus. Just a thought inside the primus’s mind, a vision of where he should send the person being transported, and it would all happen in the blink of an eye. Alessandro had requested that he be sent to the home’s back door, simply so he could see something of his surroundings instead of being dropped immediately inside the kitchen or his bedroom, but still, he assumed the transition would be jarring enough.

  “Yes, Vicénte knew how to inspire fear, if nothing else,” he said, then lifted the duffle bag and slung it over one shoulder. “And I suppose I would rather have your would-be suitors frightened off by him than me, since such cowardice wouldn’t say much for their suitability as your future husband.”

  Lara shrugged. “I am not so impressed by any of them. It’s too bad that Ava has no other brothers, since I think it’s time this village had some new blood.”

  Alessandro had thought much the same thing, but he guessed his sister would have to look someplace other than the Castillos for salvation. “Maybe a civilian?”

  Her eyes danced. “There’s an idea. I’ll have to think about that.”

  Things were changing in the Escobar clan, but he had to wonder if they were changing quite as quickly as they should. Otherwise, he probably would not have been forced into a compulsory “vacation” in Santa Fe. But he trusted his sister’s judgment; if she chose a civilian, he would have to be a very worthy man, despite any lack of magical abilities. She had seen Vicénte for what he was, had been fearful of his growing attentions to her, hadn’t allowed herself to be taken in by his handsome face or the power she would have had as the consort of the primus.

  Alessandro was glad she could watch out for herself, since very soon he would no longer be around to look after her.

  As he and Lara came out into the large room that served as a combination living/dining area, his mother looked over from the spot where she stood in the kitchen and said in sour tones, “I don’t see why Gabriel couldn’t allow you to stay for one last dinner.”

  “I suppose he thought it better if I arrived in Santa Fe in daylight,” Alessandro replied, and decided to leave it at that. Although he wasn’t altogether happy with how quickly the primus was shuffling him out of Pico Negro, he supposed he could see why Gabriel hadn’t wanted to wait. The sooner he took action, the sooner the people of the village could settle down to a quiet, peaceful existence, one without any troublesome null around to remind them that their powers weren’t quite as infallible as they liked to think.

  Teresa dragged a wooden spoon through the large pot of soup in front of her and frowned. “I suppose that makes sense,” she said, although she did not look or sound particularly convinced. “But I don’t understand why neither of you will tell me when you are coming back.”

  “Because we don’t know for sure.” Alessandro went over to the kitchen, and bent down and kissed her on the top of her head. It had to be his imagination that made it seem as if she were somehow an inch or so shorter than she’d been only a short time before, as though the news that he would be leaving Pico Negro had weighed her down, made her smaller and more fragile-seeming…despite his belief that Teresa Escobar h
ad to be one of the toughest women he’d ever known.

  “Well, I’m sure you will get tired of Santa Fe soon enough,” she said briskly, seeming to take no note of the brief display of affection he’d just shown her. “Then you can say you have done your due diligence, and come back here where you belong. People will get over this nonsense soon enough.”

  He had his doubts about that, but he didn’t bother to argue. If she wanted to carry false hope in her heart, there was no way for him to prevent her. He could only hope she wouldn’t grow too sad as the days turned into weeks and then into months…and possibly more than that.

  “I hope so, mama,” he said. Turning, he saw Lara still standing in the middle of the living room, her lovely features full of sorrow. He supposed he should be somewhat heartened that at least here were two people who would miss him, but he found himself thinking that probably their lives would be better once he was gone. What could he say to his sister? Nothing that would ease her mind. Only time could do that.

  Speaking of which….

  “I need to go,” he told them. “Gabriel is waiting for me.”

  Lara crossed the room and gave him a quick but fierce hug. “You come back right away if they’re not kind to you,” she said. “I don’t care what Gabriel — or anyone else — wants. You understand?”

  Because he didn’t want to argue with her, Alessandro nodded. “I understand. You take care of mama.”

  His sister glanced toward the kitchen. Their mother hadn’t moved from her place in front of the stove, probably because she didn’t want to cry and the best way to accomplish that goal was to remain where she was, stirring the soup as if that particular task was the most important thing in the world.

  “I will,” Lara said. She spoke only those two words, but it was enough for Alessandro to see that she understood their mother’s current silence.

  “Goodbye,” he said.

  And that was all. He raised a hand, saying farewell not just to the two women who stood there, but also the house itself, the place that had been the center of his world for all of his twenty-seven years. Then he turned and went out the door, and paused only long enough to close it behind him.

  The heat and the damp of the rainforest surrounded him as soon as he set foot outside, but he welcomed it, embraced it, knowing that the place where he was about to travel would feel very different. Then he strode down the path that led into the heart of Pico Negro, head high, making sure he didn’t look from side to side. That way, he wouldn’t have to worry about meeting the gaze of anyone who might see him pass by. He wouldn’t have to look at the familiar houses and artisans’ shops, the cantina that served as the gathering place of the village, wouldn’t have to see the flowers blooming everywhere and the brightly colored birds that rivaled the flowers in their showy splendor.

  It was not so long a walk — not much more than five minutes — and yet it seemed a very great distance this afternoon. At last, though, he came to the large house that Gabriel and Ava now called their own. He didn’t even have to knock, for the door opened as he approached, and the primus looked out at him with grave dark eyes.

  “Come in,” he said, and Alessandro followed him.

  Ava stood inside the living room, clearly awaiting his arrival. Why she was there, he didn’t know for sure, since she would have nothing to do with his actual travel to Santa Fe. She came up to him, though, and pressed a piece of paper into his hand, along with a small plastic object he realized was the key fob to some kind of vehicle. On the same chain that held the fob was a set of brass keys. He looked down at these items, mystified, and she said, “The paper has things you’ll need to know — the passwords for the wi-fi and for the desktop computer in the office. Miranda’s phone number…you should call her once you get settled in. Stuff like that. And the keys to the house and the fob for my car. You don’t have a license, but honestly, if you let it do the driving, you shouldn’t have a problem. Cops tend to ignore people who have the self-driving function operating.”

  “Thank you,” he said, touched by her concern. Alessandro found he was surprised to realize he truly was grateful to her. There was no real need for her to have done any of that. She could have allowed him to find his own way, could have told him he needed to work out his own transportation…and of course, no warlock required a key to gain entry to a locked house. But she’d given him the key to her car and the password to her computer, both of which indicated a level of trust he wasn’t sure he deserved. Possibly she didn’t have anything especially private on her desktop computer, since he knew she’d brought her laptop with her to El Salvador, but still.

  She smiled at him but stepped back, as if she knew she shouldn’t delay matters for too long. Gabriel came up to him then.

  “It won’t feel like much of anything,” the primus said. “This place will fall away, and you’ll appear in Santa Fe in the next instant. Some people can get a little disoriented, but it shouldn’t be too bad since you’ll know what to expect.”

  “I understand,” Alessandro replied. “I’m ready.”

  That was perhaps a lie, but an innocent enough one. Besides, he just wanted to get this over with.

  “All right,” Gabriel said. “Safe travels.”

  The world disappeared around him, blurred into darkness for less time than a single beat of his heart required, and then resolved itself into brightness and a gentle, warm wind that ruffled his hair. Alessandro blinked, seeing that he stood on the back stoop of a house unlike any other he had ever seen, painted a pale gray with green trim, two stories high but seeming far taller than the two-story house Gabriel occupied back in Pico Negro. Behind him was a yard with a lush green lawn and carefully groomed beds full of roses and other flowers he couldn’t identify. The sky above was a deep, cool blue with a few large white clouds drifting lazily by.

  Alessandro stood there for a moment, breathing in the air, which was much dryer than any air he’d ever experienced before, but somehow gentle and almost caressing on his skin. He found he enjoyed the sensation, something he hadn’t expected. The scent of flowers drifted on that air, flowers he didn’t know, not as heavy as the tropical perfumes of Pico Negro, and yet still quite pleasant.

  Now feeling a bit more grounded — although he could still sense some lingering tension in his neck — he took the keys Ava had given him and tried one in the back door lock. It didn’t work, but the next one did. For some reason, he didn’t want to use his warlock powers to get into the house, but to enter it like someone who was supposed to be there.

  The room he stepped into was a kitchen, clean and bright, with pale granite counters and whitewashed cupboards and gleaming stainless-steel appliances. He was a bit surprised at the contrast with the house itself, since he guessed it was quite old, but he approved of his surroundings. It would be easy to cook in this kitchen; his mother had taught him some of her secrets, telling him that she thought every man should know how to prepare his own dinner — if for no other reason than knowing such a thing would make him appreciate his wife’s efforts that much more. What Alessandro had privately thought was that she also had been preparing him to manage for himself if no wife ever presented herself, although of course Teresa would never have actually said such a thing out loud.

  Further inspection of the kitchen would have to wait, though. He moved through the room and emerged into a wide hallway that opened on what appeared to be a television room of some sort on one side, with the dining room on the opposite side of the hall and the living area at the front of the house. All of the furniture seemed to be antique, ornate and made from dark wood, and there was dark paint on the walls and an assortment of heavy bronze light fixtures — some of them adorned with sparkling crystal drops — hanging from the high ceilings. It seemed an odd sort of place for someone as young as Ava to have lived, but possibly these were all family heirlooms and she hadn’t wanted to change anything.

  Well, he wasn’t here to make any changes, only to try to get along in the Castillo
clan as best he could.

  With a mental shrug, he repositioned the duffle bag on his shoulder and made his way up the staircase with its balustrade of dark carved wood and the Persian runner padding the steps — a runner carefully held in place by horizontal bars of dark aged brass. The stairway emerged in an upstairs hall, one with a number of doors that opened off it. Since he had no idea of the layout of the house, he decided to try the first room on the right, since its door stood open and he thought he could see a bed inside.

  Even as he began to take a step in that direction, however, someone moved in the room and then came to an abrupt halt in the doorway as she realized she wasn’t alone in the house.

  Alessandro stared at the stranger, a woman probably around his sister’s age or a few years older. Her long brown hair fell like silk to her waist, and the eyes that stared at him in shock were a smoky-hued blue-gray, striking against the warm tan of her skin.

  “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

  3

  A complete stranger was standing in the hallway, glaring at her. His voice practically vibrated with startled anger as he went on, “What are you doing in this house?”

  “I — ” Elena began, then faltered. The man who’d just confronted her was obviously a warlock — she’d felt the same little jolt she always experienced whenever she encountered another witch or warlock as soon as she stepped in the doorway — but she had a sudden flash of intuition that he wasn’t a Castillo. He’d spoken to her in English, but it was heavily accented, not the sort of pronunciation you’d hear from someone who’d spent their entire life in Santa Fe. Armed with that lucky guess, she found herself retorting, “I might ask the same thing of you.”

  He slung the duffle bag he was carrying off his shoulder and set it down on the floor. As he did so, she saw that the arms bared by the T-shirt he wore were heavily covered in tribal tattoos — and that those brown-skinned, inked-up arms were heavy with muscle.

 
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