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Hidden gifts, p.4

Hidden Gifts, page 4

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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  Cat disengaged the self-driving mechanism and took the steering wheel in her hands, then circumnavigated almost the entire block before pulling up to an electronic gate at the rear of the property. She pushed a remote clipped to the sun visor overhead and waited as the gate slowly opened.

  “Are we more than a mile outside the Plaza?” I asked. It didn’t seem as if we’d driven that far.

  “Close enough,” she replied. “And there’s some wiggle room when you’re within a hundred feet of your property. I don’t like letting the car park itself, because it always seems to get too close to the wall of the garage, and then I have to squeeze out.”

  It wasn’t a problem I’d had to deal with. My family’s vehicles had the self-driving mechanisms as well, but in Arizona the only real rule was that you couldn’t manually drive on the highways. Around town, you could drive yourself if you wanted to. I almost always did, just because it was one of the few parts of my life where I felt like I had some control.

  The garage was huge and detached from the house, with five bays. Cat maneuvered the big Mercedes SUV into the bay in the center, then turned off the engine. “Well, we’re here.”

  A sour, sick feeling began to form in the pit of my stomach. As we were driving over to the Castillo property, I’d almost been able to pretend that I was just out with a friend, but now my future had come up to slap me in the face. “Great,” I said, trying to summon a smile.

  Cat’s expression was all sympathy. “I know this may sound weird, but I’m sure it’s all going to be fine. You’ll like Rafe. I mean, he and my mother don’t get along — like, at all — but I can’t really blame him for that. Otherwise, he’s pretty mellow.”

  Her comment should have encouraged me. If nothing else, hearing that he and his mother weren’t exactly chummy was something of a relief, because I was already predisposed to dislike her. Still, I hated not even knowing what he looked like.

  The words blurted from my lips before I could stop them. “He’s — he’s not disfigured or anything, is he?”

  Cat had been reaching over to push the button to open the driver-side door, but she stopped then and gave me a shocked look. “What?”

  “I’m — I’m sorry,” I said, regretting that I’d opened my damn mouth. “It’s just…your mother never sent me any photos of him. I know my mother sent your mother images of me, but…I guess I just had to wonder if she was hiding something.” I stopped there. I’d already said too much; no point in making matters worse.

  To my surprise, Cat grinned, even as she shook her head. “No, Miranda, Rafe is not deformed. He’s very good-looking — although don’t you dare tell him I said that. I’m sure my mother didn’t send photos because she wanted it to be a surprise. Or it could have just been to torture you, since she can be loads of fun that way.”

  Damn. I already had a low opinion of Genoveva Castillo, but now it sounded as if I was going to have Cruella de Vil for my mother-in-law. “Well, that’s a relief,” I managed, even though I wondered how I was going to be able to act civilly toward the Castillo prima. She really was a piece of work, if Cat’s words were to be believed, and my stomach knotted at the thought of having to face her in the next few minutes.

  “You’ll be fine. Come on.”

  Cat got out of the SUV then, so I didn’t have any excuse to linger. Jaw clenched, I pushed the button to open the passenger-side door and climbed out as well, then went around to the back to get my things. Once again Cat took one of my bags, and I slipped the one remaining over my left shoulder while I let my purse dangle from my right hand.

  “This way.”

  I followed her out of the garage and down a path that led through the property’s extensive gardens. Although the trees were in the process of shedding their leaves, there were hardly any on the ground, a sign of some highly obsessive-compulsive gardeners. Or maybe it wasn’t the gardeners themselves, but Genoveva cracking the whip.

  Since the lot was so big and surrounded by trees, the sounds from the street were muffled, far away. It was hard to remember that the bustle of the Plaza was only a mile from here, since this place felt like it was part of another world, another time.

  More adobe architecture here, in the high, rounded privacy wall and the looming structure of the main house. I’d always thought the Victorian mansion in Jerome and our sturdy, modern house in Flagstaff were large, but this place was easily twice the size of the Jerome house. I found something foreboding about the heavy dark beams that jutted out from the walls, the shadowy front porch, even though I knew that was probably my own imagination more than anything else.

  Cat went up the porch stairs, and all I could do was follow her. With each step, my heart seemed to pound a little harder, and the hand that held my purse strap got a little more damp. And the cramping in my gut made me very happy that I hadn’t eaten anything, had only drunk some coffee. Although maybe that hadn’t been such a good idea, what with the way all my limbs wanted to shiver and shake. Deep down I knew it was nerves and not caffeine, but it was nice to have something else to blame.

  We moved through the house, which felt cavernous and dark, and colder than the day outside warranted. Yes, Santa Fe had turned out to be quite chilly, the sky overlaid with high, thin clouds that turned the light milky, but it wasn’t so cold that I should be able to feel it in my bones like this, my limbs icy, a shiver slipping down my spine.

  After passing through a living room decorated with furniture as dark and heavy as the house, we came to a hallway. Cat paused at the second door on the left, murmured, “My mother’s study,” and led me inside.

  It wasn’t quite as dark in here, possibly because the room wasn’t built on such a grand scale, or possibly because the heavy draperies had been pulled fully back from the window, granting a view of a rose garden and a fountain beyond. As far as I could tell, the fountain was dry, probably because they’d already shut it down for the winter.

  A woman stood by the window, her elegant profile sent into clear relief by the pale sunlight slanting in past the drapes. She wore a dark, slim skirt and a gray blouse, the open neckline of the shirt revealing an oversized cross of silver and coral. As soon as she heard Cat and me enter, she turned, a smile on her lips that I didn’t believe for one second. I could see an echo of her features in her daughter’s face, the slim nose and large dark eyes, but Cat’s expression had a liveliness I was pretty sure this woman had never possessed.

  “Ah, Miranda,” she said, coming toward us. Before I could react, she had folded me into her arms and given me a brief hug. I stiffened, but then she let go and stepped away again, putting a safe distance between us. “It seems you’ve managed to survive your journey without incident.”

  No thanks to you, I wanted to say, but I held my tongue. It was probably the same capriciousness that had made her put me on the train that had also prevented her from sending me any photos of her son, and what would be the point in calling that out? Somehow, I would have to learn how to live with this woman, no matter how much she rubbed me the wrong way.

  “It all was fine,” I replied. “The train was a great idea — I had a chance to see a lot more of the country than I normally would.”

  The faintest hint of a frown line between her brows told me she was analyzing that remark and trying to see whether it contained a veiled criticism. Which of course it did, but I only stood there, wearing a faint smile and — I hoped — looking completely innocent.

  Cat frowned as well, but for an entirely different reason. “Where’s Rafe? I sent him a text to let him know we would be here in a few minutes.”

  Now Genoveva Castillo’s expression was studiously neutral. “I’m sure he will be here shortly.”

  Clearly, Rafe wasn’t any more eager to meet me than I was to meet him. Or rather, I actually did want to meet him, just to confirm that what Cat had said about his appearance was the truth. Not that I suspected her of outright lying, but she might have been exaggerating just a bit in order to make her brother
look good.

  “So typical.” Cat turned toward me, openly apologetic. “He can be like that. Gets wrapped up in things, forgets about the time.”

  If we’d been alone, I would have asked what sorts of things he got “wrapped up in,” but with Genoveva standing there, I couldn’t do much more than lift my shoulders and try to look appropriately understanding. Still, I wondered what Rafe’s hobbies might be, what his interests were. Most of the time, witches and warlocks didn’t really have to work for a living, and that financial freedom allowed them to pursue avocations they might otherwise not have had time for. Did Rafe paint? Write? Build giant bronze sculptures? Hike? Shoot? Obsessively play virtual reality games?

  I had absolutely no idea. I knew his name was Rafael Castillo, and I knew he was twenty-six years old, and that was about all I knew.

  Except for the part about not getting along with his mother, which I could completely understand.

  Then there was a rustle at the door, and we all turned. Standing there was a man who surveyed all of us with an expression of grim amusement on his face. He had to be at least six foot two, and was broad-shouldered and well built without being overly muscular. His hair and eyes were dark, one brow was lifted at an ironic angle, and he was absolutely the best-looking man I’d ever seen.

  “Hey,” he said. “I’m Rafe.”

  3

  Cats and Casitas

  “Um, hi,” I managed, trying my best not to look as gobsmacked as I felt. No, Cat hadn’t been lying. If anything, she’d downplayed her brother’s good looks. I still couldn’t figure out why in the world Genoveva had felt the need to keep her son’s appearance from me, but right then I thought I might be able to forgive her, considering the gorgeous specimen who stood before me right now.

  Genoveva stepped forward, clearly doing her best to take control of the situation. “Rafael, better late than never, I suppose. Still, it was not very kind to keep Miranda waiting after the long journey she’s had.”

  At once his dark, arched brows pulled together and his eyes glinted with irritation, but I thought it better to say something conciliatory before they could really get into it. “Oh, that’s fine, Genoveva. I don’t mind.”

  “You are too kind.” From her inflection on the word “kind,” I got the impression that kindness wasn’t a virtue the Castillo prima valued all that highly. “But now you are here, Rafael, you and Miranda should take a walk around the grounds, get to know one another a little better.”

  Oh, dear God. Actually, I wasn’t sure what would be more awkward — to have to stand here and try to talk normally in front of Cat and Genoveva, or to go off and wander around the gardens together with someone I barely knew. Then again, we’d have to talk alone at some point. Might as well get it over with.

  Judging by the way Rafe’s jaw set, I got the feeling he was as thrilled by his mother’s suggestion as I was. However, he only nodded and said, “Sure. Miranda?”

  I gave him a smile that was probably as saccharine as it felt and replied, “Sure.” Realizing I still had one of my bags slung over my shoulder, I touched the strap and added, “Should I leave my bag here, or…?”

  “You can show her the casita, Rafael,” Genoveva commanded. “Cat, give your brother Miranda’s other bag.”

  Looking a little dubious, Cat went over to Rafe and handed the bag to him, murmuring something as she did so. I couldn’t quite catch the words, but it almost sounded as if she’d said, Play nice.

  He didn’t respond, except to shrug slightly as he took the bag from her. Then he looked over at me and said, “I can take that one, too.”

  “Oh, it’s all right,” I said hastily, even as I wondered what Genoveva had meant by mentioning the casita. Did she want me to stay in the guest house, rather than here with her and Cat?

  Rafe said, “We can go out through the French doors at the end of the hall. It’s a shorter walk that way.”

  I didn’t have time to reply, because he headed out into the corridor after that comment, and I didn’t have much choice except to follow him. As I exited the study, I thought I saw Cat give me an encouraging smile, but since my back was mostly to her, I couldn’t be absolutely sure.

  Hurrying after Rafael’s retreating form, I caught up with him just as he was opening the French doors. Immediately beyond them was a covered patio, with steps that led down to ground level. A path wound away from those steps, heading toward the little house I’d noticed when I first passed through the garden.

  Neither of us spoke as we headed toward the low, square structure. I didn’t know what in the world I was supposed to say, and it was pretty clear that Rafe wasn’t going to start a conversation without prompting. Had he hated me on sight? Or was he just naturally quiet?

  As we approached the casita, I finally summoned the nerve to say, “I’m kind of surprised I’m not staying in the main house.”

  A lift of his shoulders as he paused at the door, which was painted a cheery cyan blue. “I guess my mother thought you might like to have some space. Or rather, Cat probably convinced her that it would be easier for you to stay here.” After making that clarification, he put his hand on the doorknob and pushed the door inward, leading me inside.

  Although my shoulders had been tense with nervous anxiety, I couldn’t help but relax as I walked into the casita. Here was everything the main house wasn’t — cheerfully hand-painted local furniture, bright pottery, houseplants taking advantage of the half-hearted October sun coming in through the windows. From what I could tell, the casita had one large living area, with an alcove for a round table and two chairs, a small efficiency kitchen, and a short hallway with three doors that opened off it. Plenty of room for just me.

  That is, I assumed I was the only one who’d be staying here. Rafe had his own house somewhere else in Santa Fe, and so far no one had said anything about exactly when we were supposed to get married. I damn well wasn’t going to ask, either. This was all Genoveva’s doing. If she wanted me to marry Rafe to fulfill some decades-old vision or prophecy or whatever, then she could handle the details.

  “It’s really cute,” I said as I set my purse on the table and my weekender bag on the floor next to it.

  Rafe came over and put the bag he was carrying next to the one I’d just set on the red-tiled floor. He didn’t look particularly impressed by the compliment. “Cat did most of the decorating. That was her project over the summer.”

  Getting it ready for me? Maybe, but I didn’t want to ask. However, Rafe’s comment explained why everything in the casita looked so new and shiny, didn’t have that patina of age which seemed to lie over the main house. On closer inspection, I could tell that the Saltillo tile floor beneath my feet wasn’t new, and certainly the structure itself must be fairly old, but the furniture and the appliances in the kitchen might as well have sparkled with their newness. Normally, I liked old houses, liked the sense of history that clung to them, but something about the Castillo home was oppressive, heavy. I was glad I hadn’t been given a room there.

  “It’s very cozy.” I paused then, all too aware of the tension between us, the way Rafe was radiating an “I don’t want to be here” vibe so strongly, he might as well have been shouting in my ear. “So um…we were going to walk in the garden?”

  “Sure.”

  He headed back to the door and outside, and I followed, pausing only to close up the casita behind me. The air was cool and crisp, but really not any colder than it would have been in Flagstaff, and enough for my long-sleeved shirt and suede jacket to handle.

  A gravel path wound away from the casita, heading toward the fountain and the rosebushes that surrounded it. Rafe went in that direction, saying, “My mother is very proud of her roses. It’s too bad you came at this time of year. A month ago, they were pretty spectacular.”

  There was almost a note of accusation in his tone, as if it was my fault that my birthday fell at the end of October rather than at some other more convenient time of year. I could only blame that o
n the universe, since I’d come early, hadn’t really been expected until the beginning of December. Not that having a December birthday was much fun, either, according to friends who’d bemoaned having their birthday presents mixed in with their Christmas ones.

  “It’s still pretty,” I said. “But I suppose with everything in bloom and the fountain going, it would be spectacular.”

  Rafe stopped and looked at the fountain, hands jammed in his pockets, dark eyes opaque. Really, he was about the most closed-off person I’d ever met, but that shouldn’t have surprised me. This had all been forced on him, and I could tell he didn’t intend to give up anything more of himself than he absolutely had to.

  “We shut it down for the winter a week ago. Our first hard freeze came early this year, and that’s always the warning to winterize anything that hasn’t already been protected.”

  I knew about winterizing because we had a water feature at the Flagstaff house, a carefully “natural” small pond with a little waterfall and artfully arranged rocks. My parents had put it in when I was eight, probably figuring that by that point, they didn’t have to worry too much about me drowning myself in it. But I remembered how it always made me sad when they had the spa guy come out in the fall and drain it and cap off the pipes so they wouldn’t burst in cold weather.

  And I also knew we were making small talk about the fountain because neither one of us wanted to confront the real reason why we were here together. I understood why, but I also hated that I couldn’t quite find the courage to talk about something real.

  From nowhere, I thought of Simon on the train, and how we’d been able to talk so easily. I hadn’t felt tongue-tied or awkward around him, even though he was a complete stranger.

 
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