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Haunted hearts, p.4

Haunted Hearts, page 4

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  Then she realized she was staring, and forced her attention back up to his face. Not that doing so helped very much, since she realized he was good-looking in a taut, intense way, with those heavy brows and high cheekbones, that wide, thin mouth.

  “I’m supposed to be here,” he replied, staring back at her. If he was at all impressed by what he saw, he sure didn’t show it. Since she didn’t respond — mostly because she had no idea what to say — he went on, “Ava and Gabriel sent me to stay here for a while, since the house wasn’t being used. Or at least,” he added, with a narrowing of his dark eyes, “they thought it wasn’t being used. Do you want to tell me what you’re doing here, in a house that was supposed to be empty?”

  Elena really didn’t. Actually, what she most felt like doing right then was bolting out of the house, but she knew running away wouldn’t solve a damn thing. At the same time, she wanted to curse her rotten luck. All right, she’d known that she probably would be discovered sooner or later, but she’d never thought that “sooner” would mean the very same day she’d decided to seek refuge here.

  “It’s kind of a long story,” she said, hedging.

  His stony expression didn’t change. “I have plenty of time.”

  Great. Since there didn’t seem to be any way out of this, she asked, “Can you at least tell me your name?”

  “Alessandro,” he replied. “Alessandro Escobar.”

  Once again, Elena could feel her eyes flare open in shock. Definitely not a Castillo, proving her hunch had been correct. But what in the world was an Escobar warlock doing here in Santa Fe? Did the prima know about this?

  However, since she realized he was waiting for her answer and didn’t look as though he would be very happy to have her ask him any more questions, she said, “Well, I’m Elena. Elena Salazar. Why don’t we go downstairs to the living room?”

  Alessandro hesitated. But then she could almost see him analyze her request and decide it seemed harmless enough. “All right.”

  He left his duffle sitting on the floor of the hallway, seeming to indicate that, no matter what else happened, he wasn’t going to abandon his plan of staying here. And that obviously must have been his intention, or why would he have a duffle bag with him in the first place?

  Thoughts churning, Elena descended the stairs. She was all too conscious of Alessandro’s presence only a step or two behind her, but she forced herself not to look back over her shoulder at him. Doing so would only signal how nervous she currently was — something he’d probably already guessed.

  They went into the living room, and she sat down on the couch. Her unwelcome visitor, on the other hand, didn’t seem inclined to sit, but leaned against the ornate mantel of carved mahogany, arms crossed as he waited to hear her explanation.

  “I’m Ava’s cousin,” she said. All right, extremely distant cousin, but he didn’t need to know exactly how tenuous were the threads that actually connected her to Ava Castillo. “I’m the one who helped Gabriel get his magic back.”

  Was that a flicker of interest she detected in Alessandro’s unfriendly gaze? Maybe…or maybe she was just trying to convince herself that he wasn’t quite as hostile as he seemed. “That’s your talent?” he asked.

  “Well, not exactly,” she responded. How much had Gabriel told Alessandro about the way he’d regained his powers? Probably not a lot. But she figured she’d better tell the truth, since she really didn’t want to trip herself up on any lies. She knew nothing about Alessandro Escobar, but she had a feeling he wasn’t the sort of person she wanted to mess with. “My power is summoning demons. I know a demon who was able to get Gabriel’s powers restored, and so I called to him and he…took care of it.”

  This piece of information was absorbed with barely a nod. “That doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

  “Actually, it sort of does.” The last thing she wanted was to spill her guts to this cold-faced man, but she knew the only way she’d be able to convince him that she needed to stay here was to explain exactly why telling anyone in the Castillo clan about her presence in the house would be a truly horrible idea. “You see, once my father and grandmother found out what my magical talent was — ”

  “What about your mother?” he interrupted.

  A logical question to ask, but Elena really hated that he’d brought up such a painful subject. “She’s a civilian — you know what that is?”

  “Yes.”

  Well, at least she wouldn’t have to explain that much. “I guess she couldn’t handle being married to a warlock. She bailed out when I was only three, so my father and grandmother raised me. Okay?”

  Alessandro didn’t appear particularly moved by this revelation. “I understand.”

  “Anyway, once my father and grandmother realized how dangerous my talent could be, they kept me locked up in the house. I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t see anyone. The woman who was the prima before Miranda took over agreed with this plan, I guess, because she sure didn’t do anything to stop them. That went on for more than ten years, until Ava and Gabriel showed up out of nowhere and asked me to help them.”

  “How did they know to come to your home?” Alessandro asked. His expression hadn’t changed, so Elena couldn’t tell whether he genuinely wanted to know or whether he was just trying to poke holes in her story.

  She shrugged. “I guess Ava saw the truth about my powers in her mother’s mind when she and Gabriel went to talk to her. And so the two of them went to the town where I lived, and I promised I’d help them if they would get me out of that house. So they did, but then they had to go to El Salvador. They left me in a hotel downtown, but so much time went by that I worried they’d forgotten about me. That was when I decided to come here. I figured the house would be empty, so no one should care.”

  A few seconds passed. Alessandro didn’t say anything, which only made the nervous knot in Elena’s stomach pull itself that much tighter.

  When he spoke at last, the flat delivery of his words didn’t make her feel any better. “You came here without permission, just because you needed a place to hide.”

  “Yes, I did!” she flared, then got up from the couch. She didn’t like sitting there where he could stare down at her from his standing position. All right, he would always be six or seven inches taller than she was, but at least now it felt as though they were a little more evenly matched. “Don’t you understand? I had no place else to go!”

  “Aren’t you an adult?” he said, his tone reasonable. “I am new to this country, but you don’t seem like a child to me. I still don’t understand why you couldn’t simply go to the new prima and tell her what was going on, let her know that you needed her help.”

  Since Elena had already asked those same questions of herself, she didn’t much like having them thrown back at her. “I am an adult,” she replied, figuring she’d attack the easiest part of his argument first. “But you know how it is in witch clans — or maybe you don’t. I don’t know how you do things down in El Salvador. Here, though, the prima has the final say, and if she thought it was for the good of the clan to keep me locked up, then there wouldn’t be a hell of a lot I could do about it.”

  “You think your prima would ask this of you?”

  “The former one did. I didn’t want to take that risk.” Elena paused there, wondering whether any of her pleas were getting through to him. “Don’t you see? I’d had my first taste of freedom while I was staying in the hotel. I didn’t want to give that up, and I didn’t see how I could do any harm by coming here to the house while I tried to figure things out.”

  “Except that you didn’t ask for permission,” Alessandro said reasonably. “Since Ava had helped you before, didn’t you think you should contact her before you moved into her house?”

  Elena wanted to point out that she hadn’t exactly “moved in” — she’d brought clothes and toiletries with her for an extended stay, but that was different from moving into a place and making it her own. However, she decided not to
try that particular argument; she got the feeling her current audience wouldn’t be terribly receptive. Instead, she went with the simple truth.

  “And how was I supposed to do that?” she asked.

  He shot her a narrow-eyed look, as if exasperated by her obtuseness. “This is the twenty-first century,” he said. “I expect you would have called her.”

  “I tried. But my calls wouldn’t go through. I guess it had something to do with her being in El Salvador — do you get cell service out wherever you came from?”

  Since his frown deepened and his gaze wouldn’t quite meet hers, Elena guessed that they didn’t. She knew very little about his country, except that it was small and poor and covered in rainforest and volcanoes, but even the meager information she possessed was enough to make it pretty obvious to her that the landscape in El Salvador wasn’t exactly dotted with 5G towers.

  “So, when I didn’t hear anything from her, I had to do something,” she went on. “At some point, yes, I probably would have gone to Miranda. But…I don’t want to do that. Not yet. Not until I know for sure that she’s not going to send me back to Las Vegas.”

  “That’s where you’re from? It’s a big city — surely you could have avoided the Castillos there.”

  Was she imagining things, or was that just the slightest softening of his expression, just the tiniest hint of warmth in his voice? She didn’t want to dare hope, but….

  “I am from Las Vegas,” she said, adding, “Las Vegas, New Mexico. Not to be confused with the infinitely more interesting city with the same name in Nevada. Or at least,” she added, a certain wistfulness entering her tone, “I suppose Las Vegas, Nevada, must be a lot more interesting. I’ve never been there. I’ve never been anywhere.”

  Once again, Alessandro was silent. Elena remained standing where she was, not sure she even dared to breathe. It was painfully obvious to her that this stranger, this Escobar warlock, held her fate in his hands. If he ratted her out to Miranda, she honestly didn’t know what she would do. Go on the run? Maybe, although she didn’t know how far she would get if she had the Castillo prima on her tail. Most likely, she’d get caught before she even made it to Albuquerque and would be dragged back to Las Vegas in disgrace.

  “Okay,” he said at last.

  Elena sucked in the tiniest breath. One word that could mean a whole hell of a lot of things. “Okay…what?”

  “You can stay…for now,” he added, as if he wanted to make sure she didn’t get her hopes up too much. “But show me the upstairs. Hopefully, we won’t fight over the same room.”

  Cautious joy spread in her heart. “Sure. Right this way.”

  Alessandro wondered if the precipitous journey by means of teleportation had somehow scrambled his brains. Otherwise, what reason could he have had for allowing Elena Salazar to stay in this house?

  Oh, she was pretty…very, very pretty. But he didn’t think that was the reason, or at least, he didn’t believe her looks had been the deciding factor. No, he’d seen the desperation in her eyes, the fear that she would be sent back to what sounded like a living hell of an existence. As someone who’d all too often felt trapped in his own life, he found himself sympathizing with her plight.

  And besides, he tried to convince himself, the house seemed big enough. They shouldn’t have too much difficulty avoiding each other.

  This floor had a master bedroom, a guest bedroom, and two other rooms that were being used as an office and a workout area. In addition, there were two bathrooms, one that opened onto the hall and another that was part of the master suite. It seemed like a great deal of space for one person, or even two, but then, Americans had a reputation for being lavish in their homes.

  He noticed how Elena had taken the guest bedroom for herself, as if she’d known she shouldn’t presume by moving into the master suite. Honestly, he didn’t care much one way or another where he stayed, but he could tell she was relieved that there wouldn’t be an argument over who would sleep in the larger and more luxurious master bedroom.

  It was a handsome space, the furniture here antiques just as in the rest of the house, but not quite so ornate. The walls had been painted a soft blue-gray that reminded him of the color of Elena’s eyes, and a thick wool rug covered the floor. Alessandro thought he would be comfortable here…well, as long as he didn’t allow himself to dwell too much on the realization that he wasn’t going to be quite as alone as he’d believed.

  When he was finished with putting away his few belongings, he went back downstairs, thinking he would get himself a glass of water and take a closer look at the kitchen. To his surprise, Elena was already there. She held a glass in one hand, which seemed to indicate she’d come here for much the same purpose.

  “Sorry,” she said, and began to move quickly toward the door. “I just wanted to get something to drink. I’ll get out of your hair.”

  “Out of my…hair?” he echoed, not sure of the idiom. He’d worked hard to perfect his English, but some phrases and slang terms had evaded him.

  “Just a saying,” Elena said. “I just meant that I’d get out of your way.”

  He surprised himself by responding, “It’s all right. We can’t be dodging each other all the time.”

  She paused in the entry to the kitchen, expression startled. “Really? I thought we were going to do our best to pretend the other person wasn’t here.”

  For someone who’d spent much of her life locked away from other people, she didn’t seem all that shy. Possibly that was because she realized she’d already missed out on too much, and so didn’t want to avoid any new experiences, good or bad.

  He found himself hoping she wouldn’t view his presence here as a negative. For the first time, he realized she knew next to nothing about him. She didn’t know about the magical gift — or curse — that had marked him as an outcast from the day it had manifested when he was barely eleven years old. It was refreshing to be around someone who had no reason to judge him as anything except who he was.

  Which, he thought then, hadn’t been exactly the most welcoming or friendly person in the world. Elena might not know he was a null, but she hadn’t seen him at his best, either.

  Whatever that was.

  “That would probably prove to be impractical,” he said. “For one thing, what would we do about meals?”

  “I was going to have groceries delivered,” she said, but her dubious tone told him she hadn’t been too thrilled about the prospect. Her eyes lit up then. “But maybe we could go shopping together!”

  “‘Shopping,’” he repeated, not sure he liked the sound of that. “I thought you were hiding in this house because you didn’t want any of the Castillos to know you were here in Santa Fe.”

  “True,” Elena admitted. “But if we went down to Albuquerque, we’d have a better chance of avoiding any witchy encounters. It’s a lot bigger.”

  Even he knew that much, although his knowledge of the relative differences between Albuquerque and Santa Fe didn’t extend any farther than that. Tone cautious, he asked, “How far is Albuquerque?”

  “I don’t know for sure. About an hour, I think.”

  How odd that she measured the distance in terms of how long it would take to get to a place rather than the actual miles between here and there. However, while he knew there might be some risk in traveling so far, he privately agreed that there would be a much lower chance of bumping into any Castillo witches in a place that was much bigger and more spread out. And although he didn’t have a New Mexico–issued driver’s license, he did have a license from his home country, simply because it was easier to have proper identification rather than have to explain why he was operating a vehicle without one. He then recalled how Ava had said he should be safe enough for him to get behind the wheel here in the U.S. if he allowed the car to do the driving. Self-driving cars were still very much a rarity in his own country, but here they were the rule rather than the exception, and he had to admit they would help him out in this particular situa
tion.

  “All right,” he said, even as he wondered if he was making a mistake. Still, they would need to get some supplies, and the thought of ordering food online didn’t seem very appealing to him. How could you know if the fruits and vegetables you’d asked for would be good quality? How would you know whether the person selecting those items for you would choose the cuts of meat that were most appealing?

  “Let’s go to Albuquerque.”

  4

  Elena had to practically fight to prevent herself from bouncing on the car seat in excitement, like some little kid on her way to the park or something, rather than a grown woman going on what really should have been a pretty prosaic grocery-shopping expedition.

  Okay, there wasn’t anything all that prosaic about her current situation. Even though any witches or warlocks in the vicinity had probably been told about Alessandro coming to stay in Ava’s house — if for no other reason than to keep people from thinking he’d broken in or something — she still felt as though she was doing something illicit as her unlikely companion let the compact silver SUV back itself out of the garage before piloting its way along a tree-lined street that led them down to the interstate. The whole time, she kept looking out the window, wondering if someone was going to flag them down and tell them to stop, or whether a cop was going to pull them over and ask them why they were driving Ava Castillo’s car.

  Of course, neither of those things happened, and they reached I-25 without incident. Before they’d left, they’d had the car do a search for grocery stores in north Albuquerque, and had located a Smith’s on what looked like a fairly major street called Paseo Del Norte. That was what Alessandro had programmed as their destination, although Elena noticed there was also a Target and a Trader Joe’s on that same route, and wondered whether she’d be able to cajole him into going to either — or possibly both — of those stores while they were in the area. Once or twice a year, her father would go to the TJ’s in Santa Fe and bring back all sorts of treats, although she still wasn’t sure whether dark chocolate-coated sea salt caramels were a fair exchange for not being able to leave the house.

 
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