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Hidden gifts, p.5

Hidden Gifts, page 5

 

Hidden Gifts
 


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  Then again, no one expected me to marry him, either.

  It also didn’t help that there was something physically overwhelming about Rafe. Maybe it was only that I knew I’d be expected to marry him at some point, and so my mind couldn’t quite help imagining what it would be like if he bent down and kissed me, if those strong hands with their long, sensitive fingers cupped my face as he touched his mouth to mine.

  Heat flooded my face, and I turned abruptly away from him, pretending to look toward the walled-off street. “Do you go over to Canyon Road very often?”

  “No,” he said. “Too touristy.”

  I wanted to ask him if there was a part of Santa Fe that wasn’t touristy, but I thought that would sound too rude. “Oh, that’s too bad. Some of the shops and galleries looked interesting.”

  To anyone else, that might have been an opening to offer to take me there so I might look around. Clearly Rafe had no such intention of being a tour guide, unless his mother insisted. And his next words just proved that to be the case.

  “My mother wants me to show you around Santa Fe tomorrow. Down by the Plaza, places like that. Then back up here to Canyon Road.”

  The words left my mouth before I had a chance to stop them. “And what do you want to do?”

  He paused on the path, dark eyes boring down into mine. One corner of his mouth twisted. “Unfortunately, what I want doesn’t count for much.”

  All at once, I was cold, my whole body overtaken by a chill. It wasn’t so much the cool October day as the bitterness I saw in his expression, a bitterness I could tell he hadn’t done much to hide.

  “Sorry to be such a burden,” I said. “Don’t let me waste any more of your time, Rafe. I’ll go inside now.”

  I walked away, my head held high. With all my being, I hoped he’d hurry to catch up with me, apologies on his lips.

  Of course, he didn’t.

  At least the casita was cozy and warm. My eyes had begun to prickle with the beginnings of tears, but I forced them away. Crying wouldn’t fix this. About all I could do was hope that Rafe would begin to realize this was a done deal, and he’d have to make the best of it, just as I was.

  In the meantime, I figured I might as well get settled.

  First order of business was to unpack my bags. I took them with me down the hallway and saw that there were two bedrooms, one a little larger than the other, although they both shared the same bathroom, which turned out to be the door at the end of the hall. That bath was bigger than I’d expected, with a separate shower stall and sunken bathtub, and lots of cabinets painted in the same cheerful blue as the front door. I put my toiletries away, then headed toward the larger of the two bedrooms.

  It had a big iron bedstead, the canopy hung with filmy gauze. The furniture in here was also rustic and hand-painted, in shades of green and rust and blue. There was even a small kiva-style fireplace in one corner, the dark metal basket next to it nicely stocked with logs. I’d have to try that tonight; there was nothing like a crackling fire to make a place feel homey, and right then I needed to feel at home.

  Hanging up my clothes didn’t take much time. Still, I had a sense of accomplishment when I was finished, a feeling that I’d done what I could to get settled here. This might be my home for only a week or so, depending on when Genoveva wanted the wedding to happen, but I might as well be comfortable in it while I could.

  I realized then that I hadn’t yet contacted my parents. They’d known there might be a delay in getting in touch, which had turned out to be the case, but I didn’t have any reason not to message them now. Maybe this didn’t exactly count as an emergency, but it was still important that everyone back home know I was okay…even if I really wasn’t. I didn’t want to think about that, though. I pushed aside that nasty little exchange with Rafe and tried to compose myself. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to hear any pent-up tears in my voice.

  After I retrieved my phone from my purse, I recorded a brief message. “I’m here and I’m fine,” I said. This was going to be a cheerful little note, nothing more than that. No way was I about to tell my parents that my husband-to-be apparently hated my guts. “They’re letting me get settled, so I don’t know for sure yet when the wedding is going to be. Everyone’s been very nice, and Rafael is nice, too, and super handsome. It’s all going great.” Was that laying it on too thick? I couldn’t be sure. I also couldn’t know for sure whether my mother might be able to listen past the words of the message to hear the doubt and worry I was trying so desperately to hide. Well, there wasn’t much I could do about it either way. “I’ll get back to you when I have more to tell. Love you both — and love to everyone else, too.”

  I pushed the button to stop recording, then hit Send before setting the phone down on the table. The chill of my walk seemed to have settled in my bones, so I thought what I should do then was make some tea. I wasn’t even that huge a fan of tea, but wasn’t tea the sort of thing you were supposed to make when you needed some cheering up?

  An inspection of the pantry turned up several varieties, including Darjeeling. I figured I could use the caffeine if nothing else, so I pulled out a bag of that, located a brightly painted mug in the cupboard, then filled the kettle and set it down on the apartment-sized gas stove.

  Just as it was beginning to heat up, I heard a loud and peremptory meow from the front door. Startled, I went over and opened the door, and saw a large long-haired black cat sitting on the doormat, staring up at me. Without so much as a by-your-leave, it walked past me and went into the casita, then stopped by the pantry and meowed again.

  Was it hungry? I hadn’t seen any cat food in there, but then, I hadn’t really been looking for any, either. A search of the pantry didn’t turn up anything specifically cat-related, but there was a can of chicken. I figured a little bit of that would work, and a bowl of water. Or did cats prefer milk? I didn’t know for sure, because my family had always had dogs, starting with Blue, the shepherd/heeler mix my parents had brought home from the shelter when I was barely four. But I didn’t really want to think about dogs, either, since that would only make me miss home that much more, miss the way our dog Wheeler always ended up sleeping on the foot of my bed, even though technically he wasn’t allowed on the furniture.

  There wasn’t any milk in the fridge, only nondairy creamer, which answered that particular question. I got a couple of bowls out of the cupboard and filled one with water, then put a few chunks of chicken in the other and set them down on the floor. Just in time, too, because the kettle began to whistle, and I had to hurry to turn off the gas.

  The cat went to the bowl with the chicken and ate a few pieces, but casually, with the air of doing me a favor rather than because he was actually hungry. While I put the teabag in my mug of hot water, he drank from the water bowl as well, although not for very long. Once he was done, he ambled out of the kitchen and went over to the sofa, where he jumped up on the arm and stared out at the gardens.

  Okay, then. I would be the first to admit I didn’t know all that much about cats, but this one was definitely acting as if he owned the place.

  A knock at the door pulled me away from my bemused study of my feline visitor. Had Rafe come back to apologize? It didn’t seem likely, considering the way he’d acted earlier, but maybe his mother had read him the riot act and had forced him to return and make nice.

  When I opened the door, I saw Cat standing on the low stoop outside. I only allowed disappointment to surge for a second or two before I said, “Hi, Cat. Come on in.”

  “Thanks.”

  I stepped aside so she could enter the casita. Before she could say anything, I asked, “Is that your cat?”

  She looked from me to the lordly feline specimen perched on the arm of the sofa, still acting like the king of all he surveyed. “No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before. We don’t have any animals — my mother says they leave too much hair everywhere.”

  Which I supposed they did, although that wasn’t
the first consideration one usually had in mind when it came to having pets. Then again, it did sound exactly like something Genoveva Castillo would say. “Do you mind that I let him in? He seemed so insistent — ”

  Cat grinned. “It’s fine. Sometimes animals find you, if you know what I mean. And my mother really doesn’t come down here anyway, so I doubt she’d even notice that you had the cat around.”

  That was a relief. For some reason, I didn’t want to be forced to shoo the cat away. Besides, if he was here in the casita with me, then I wouldn’t feel quite so alone.

  “Anyway,” she went on, “I wanted to apologize for the way Rafe was behaving. Seriously, sometimes I want to smack him right upside the head.”

  Those words conjured a mental image that almost made me want to chuckle. Almost. Even so, I couldn’t overlook the fact that it was his sister who’d ventured here to make the apology, and not the person who really needed to do so.

  “It’s okay,” I said. “I understand why he’s not thrilled about this whole thing. To be honest, I’m not that thrilled, either. I’m not saying that Rafe isn’t good-looking or anything, but it’s not exactly my dream to be married off to someone who can’t stand me.”

  Cat surprised me then by taking a step toward me and giving me a quick hug. “I’m so sorry. And I don’t think it’s that he can’t stand you personally…he just hates the idea of being forced into it. He’ll come around.”

  Personally, I had my doubts on that score. Sure, hate turning to love was a popular theme in a lot of books and movies and television shows, but I wasn’t sure that kind of dynamic worked so well in real life.

  But since Cat had come here to apologize, the last thing I wanted to do was throw her apology back in her face. None of this was her fault. She was only trying to make me feel welcome, make me feel not quite so lost in this new world where I’d found myself.

  “We’ll see,” I said, my tone neutral. I remembered that I’d left the teabag steeping in my mug, so I hurried back into the kitchen to pull it out before the tea got so strong that it was undrinkable. “I made some tea,” I went on. “The water’s probably still hot — you want some?”

  “Sure.” She watched as I retrieved a second mug and a teabag, then poured hot water from the kettle over it. As I handed it to her, she said, “I didn’t come here just to apologize, actually.”

  “Oh?” I sipped at my tea and tried not to make a face. It was too strong, but at least it was warm and sort of soothing as it went down my throat.

  “Well, it’s Halloween, and it’s your birthday,” Cat said. “My mother made noises about all of us having dinner at the house, but I know that would probably be a disaster. Rafe needs some space to process, I can tell, and there’s no point inflicting my mother on you any more than we have to. So I said I’d take you to my cousin Tony’s Halloween party.”

  “His what?” Not that I had a problem with Halloween parties — who didn’t like getting to have every one of her birthday parties be a costume party as well? — but I wasn’t sure I was up to that sort of thing after the day I’d had. Back home, the McAllister elders and many of Jerome’s witches and warlocks would be preparing for their Samhain observances. It didn’t sound as though the holiday was observed in the same way here, which made sense. The Castillo clan was very Catholic, from what I’d heard.

  “Halloween party.” She looked at me with her arched brows lifted and her head tilted to one side, as though trying to gauge my level of enthusiasm for such an event. “It’ll be a chance for you to meet more of the Castillos, and since the party is at my cousin’s house here in town, my mother can’t get too freaked about you going out. It’s not like I’m taking you clubbing with a bunch of civilians or something.”

  Hopefully, the rest of the Castillos were a little friendlier than Rafe and his mother. But Cat had been nothing but kind to me, and I could tell she was trying to make a bad situation even just a little bit better. “I don’t have anything to wear,” I said slowly.

  Her eyes danced. “That’s not a problem. We’re about the same size — you can wear my costume from last year.”

  I had to hope last year’s costume wasn’t a sexy nurse or something. Then again, I doubted Genoveva Castillo would allow her daughter to walk out the door wearing something like that, even if Cat was legally an adult and therefore supposedly able to do as she wished.

  And what was my alternative, really? To sit here and drink tea and brood over the way Rafe had behaved, my only company a cat? It was a little too soon for me to turn into the crazy cat lady. If Rafe didn’t want me, then I had to act like it didn’t matter. And right then it seemed as though the best way to accomplish that goal was to go with Cat to this Halloween party.

  “Okay,” I said. “I’ll go.”

  4

  Hauntings

  We made a detour on our way to the party to pick up some cat food and kitty litter and a litter box at the grocery store, after which we grabbed a quick dinner at Blake’s Lotaburger, then swung back toward Canyon Road, although not all the way to where the Castillo prima’s house was located. This neighborhood was distinctly different from the one where Cat and her parents lived, still old, but with brick and wood homes that didn’t look so different from the ones in Flagstaff’s historic district, probably built in the late nineteenth century.

  The driveway was packed with cars, and so was the street in front of the house. Cat had to park her SUV around the block but didn’t seem to mind.

  “If we’d been any later, we would’ve had to park blocks away,” she said as she locked the Mercedes. “Tony’s parties are kind of legendary.”

  I wasn’t sure if that was necessarily a good thing. Smoothing my voluminous ruffled skirts, I said, “So a lot of people come?”

  “Yes, they do. Mostly Castillos, but there are usually some civilians mixed in. Tony has a lot of friends.” She paused and gave me a faint frown. “And you don’t need to keep fussing with that skirt. You look great.”

  Personally, I wasn’t so sure about that. Cat had dressed me up as a Spanish señorita, complete with black lace mantilla and high hair comb, but I wasn’t sure whether I was really pulling off the look. She herself wore the costume of an ancient priestess, in white draped robes and with a golden crescent moon resting on her brow, holding back her long black hair. The effect was pretty stunning, I had to admit, whereas I was just worried that my borrowed mantilla and comb were going to end up falling in my face by the end of the evening.

  I didn’t have time to argue the point, though, because she was already leading me to the corner, where we turned right and headed toward the party house. Even from half a block away, I could hear the music spilling out, and I wondered what the neighbors thought of Tony’s “legendary” parties.

  “His house is totally haunted,” Cat told me. “But don’t let that bother you. Victoria is completely harmless.”

  “Victoria?” I asked, a bit taken aback by her casual tone.

  “The ghost who lives there. She was having an affair with the next-door neighbor because her husband traveled so much. But he found out one time when he came back early from a trip and discovered them together, and he shot her and the neighbor, and then buried them both somewhere in the backyard. Luckily, the bodies were found and moved to the cemetery before the Castillos bought the property.”

  This story might have been more startling if I hadn’t already been used to this sort of thing. Of course I didn’t have the talent to speak to ghosts — I didn’t have a magical talent for anything, apparently — but when you’re raised by a mother who could converse with the departed the way most people might talk to their next-door neighbors, communicating with the dead was no big deal. “How do you know all this?”

  “Because Victoria told me. That’s my talent, just like it is with your mother. And believe me, there are a lot of ghosts to talk to in this town.”

  I could definitely believe that. How many spirits must linger in a place that was more th
an 350 years old? Hundreds, probably.

  “The jealous husband didn’t hang around?” I inquired, wobbling my way around a large crack in the sidewalk. Cat had also lent me some fancy openwork boots, but her feet were a little bigger than mine. That meant I kept feeling as if the only thing holding the boots on was the laces, which I’d fastened as tightly as I could without cutting off my circulation.

  She shook her head. “No, and neither did her lover. Just poor Victoria, alone in the house. Some Castillos bought it around the turn of the last century, and we’ve lived there ever since. Mostly Victoria doesn’t do anything except move things from place to place, although she’s very particular about the setup in the dining room. Tony’s uncle lived there before he took it over, and when he tried to move the dining room furniture out and switch it over to a game room, he came home one night to find all his new furniture thrown in a heap in the backyard. He put all the original stuff back pretty soon after that.”

  “I can imagine,” I remarked with a grin. Ghosts didn’t frighten me. How could they, when my mother had explained to me from a very early age that they were simply people who’d remained in this world because they had certain issues they still hadn’t quite figured out? “And Victoria doesn’t mind the parties?”

  “No. I think it’s because Tony tends to go all out with the decorating, and it amuses her. They’ve kind of worked out an arrangement.”

  It did sound as if they’d managed to attain a sort of peaceful coexistence. That was about the most you could hope for with ghosts. Sometimes they moved on, and sometimes they didn’t — I know my mother was saddened when the ghost called Maisie had finally decided to leave Jerome after hanging around there for well over a hundred years. One day she was there, and one day she wasn’t, and my mother couldn’t really say why, but had only commented that sometimes you just knew when the time was right.

  Cat’s revelations brought another question to my mind. The music from the party was getting louder, and the distance to the house smaller, and I knew I didn’t have much time left before we arrived and wouldn’t have a chance to speak privately. “What’s Rafe’s talent?”

 
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