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Haunted hearts, p.5

Haunted Hearts, page 5

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  She risked a glance over at Alessandro. He sat up straight in the driver’s seat, gaze fixed on the road even though his hands sat in his lap as he allowed the vehicle to drive for him. It was almost as though he didn’t quite trust the little SUV’s AI, was worried that it might steer them right into an accident or something.

  That sort of thing hardly ever happened, though. New Mexico tended to be a little more lax than a lot of other states, and allowed people to drive manually when they wanted to most of the time, but there were still far fewer accidents now than there used to be. Or at least, that was what she’d read. Since she’d never been behind the wheel of a car, she certainly couldn’t comment based on personal experience.

  Anyway, her companion didn’t seem too inclined toward conversation. Maybe he was regretting his decision to come on this trip, or maybe he just didn’t have anything to say.

  No, Elena doubted that was the reason for his silence. She barely knew anything about him except his name, and yet there was something in those hooded dark eyes that seemed to carry a weight of secrets, as if he’d left some kind of personal pain behind him in El Salvador. Whatever it was, she doubted he would open up to her about it any time soon. He didn’t seem like the sort of person who was inclined to share confidences, particularly with someone who was practically a stranger to him.

  And she’d have to be okay with that. She knew she was already on thin ice as far as their current arrangement went, and she’d have to be careful not to do or say anything that would make him change his mind about allowing her to stay in the big Victorian house with him. Honestly, she was just glad that Belshegar hadn’t decided to intervene in that tense little scene in the living room. She still didn’t know for sure when he was or wasn’t looking in on her, but because he’d already dropped in once that day, the odds of him appearing again had probably been fairly low. All the same, she uttered a silent prayer of thanks that at least today she wouldn’t have to explain her extra-dimensional friend to Alessandro Escobar.

  The car pulled off the freeway at Paseo Del Norte and headed east, toward the high, jagged mountain range that seemed to form the border of this part of Albuquerque. However, they didn’t go very far before they turned left at a busy intersection and then almost immediately right into the grocery store parking lot.

  Elena wasn’t sure which of them was more wide-eyed — her, or Alessandro. Her isolation had prevented her from getting out very much, and the little shopping she’d done in Las Vegas couldn’t compare to the crush of retail centers and gas stations and restaurants that crowded every block around her. And Alessandro, well, she doubted they had anything that looked like this back in whatever village he’d come from.

  After a brief pause, they both climbed out of Ava’s Honda CR-V. It felt beyond strange to be walking next to Alessandro like this, to know that no one was going to come along and ask her what the hell she was doing here or why she wasn’t safely back home where she belonged. And, honestly, she also felt a bit weird to have him at her side as they strode across the parking lot and through the store entrance, pausing only to collect a shopping cart from where it had been parked immediately inside. She wasn’t quite as inexperienced at being around men as she’d been even a week ago, thanks to her extended stay at the La Fonda and the guys she’d talked to at the bar there. Nothing had happened with any of them — even though she could tell some of them had wanted something to — but at least she didn’t have to worry about turning into a tongue-tied mess around her current companion.

  “How do you even find anything in a place like this?” he asked, pausing on the outskirts of the produce section.

  Like she was an expert. “Well, it’s divided into sections. You just go through each section and find the things you need.”

  “But there’s so much of it.”

  Well, that was true. This grocery store was much bigger than the shabby little Lowe’s Super Save in Las Vegas. “We’ll figure it out,” she said stoutly. “We just need to be methodical.”

  Alessandro didn’t look convinced, but apparently he decided they needed to make the best of things since they were already here. They pushed the cart along as he loaded up with produce — onions and garlic and tomatoes and cilantro, carrots and potatoes and spinach and a bewildering variety of peppers. Elena had no idea what he was going to do with all of it, but since he seemed like a man on a mission, she went along with the flow. And in the meat section, he bought pork shoulder and chuck roast and several whole chickens, as well as a package of boneless skinless chicken breasts, then loaded up in the bulk aisle with rice and beans.

  “You know how to cook?” she asked, noting how he wasn’t getting anything processed or prepackaged, nothing frozen.

  He nodded, but didn’t pause as he continued to scoop dry pinto beans into a plastic bag. “My mother taught me. Don’t you cook?”

  It probably wasn’t worth reminding him that her mother had taken off way before she could give any cooking lessons to her three-year-old daughter. “Not really,” she said. “My abuela probably should have shown me, but she never bothered. I guess she thought there was no reason for me to know.”

  That comment made Alessandro shoot a sharp glance in her direction, although Elena wasn’t really sure why. Was he wondering if the reason her grandmother had never taught her to cook was because no one had ever thought the girl with the terrible magical power would need to worry about cooking for her husband?

  What an outdated notion, anyway. Or rather, she’d like to think it was outdated, but there were still way too many people in the Castillo clan who liked to act as though they were stuck somewhere in the early part of the last century, rather than being well on their way to the next one.

  “That’s too bad,” Alessandro said. “Maybe I can show you.”

  Was he being serious? Elena slanted a look up at him through her eyelashes, but he was busy fastening a twist tie around his bag of pinto beans, and she couldn’t get a good read on his expression.

  “That sounds like fun.”

  His lips quirked a little. It wasn’t exactly an actual smile, but even so, that was probably the first time she hadn’t seen him being downright dour. Sort of amazing what even a half-smile could do to someone’s face. He was still good-looking, but in a way that was almost approachable, rather than appearing like the sort of person you might cross the street to avoid.

  When they got to the check-out aisle, she had to show him how to use the automated self-checkout system. She wasn’t all that good at it, either, but somehow they managed to bungle their way through without having to get one of the store’s employees to bail them out.

  Once everything had been totaled, Alessandro got out his wallet and Elena said, “Oh, you shouldn’t have to pay for all this — ”

  “It’s fine,” he cut in, stopping her. “I was sent off with plenty of cash.”

  What did he mean by that? Something in the way he’d phrased the statement made it sound as if his stay in Santa Fe hadn’t exactly been voluntary. Questions swirled in Elena’s mind, but she knew the self-checkout at a grocery store probably wasn’t the sort of place to ask them.

  “Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”

  Her gratitude only earned her an off-hand nod. He finished the transaction, then loaded their shopping bags into the cart and began to push it toward the exit. She followed him out to the car and helped him put their haul into the cargo area behind the back seats.

  Once they were done, Elena ventured, “There’s a Trader Joe’s just a few blocks farther east.”

  Alessandro closed the hatch and sent her a quizzical glance. “What is a Trader Joe’s?”

  “It’s a kind of grocery store,” she explained.

  “We just went to a grocery store.”

  “TJ’s has different stuff.”

  Nonplussed, he stared at her. “What more could we possibly need?”

  She had to admit that he had a point. Still, they were already here.

 
Maybe it’s not so much need as want,” she said. “You’ll see.”

  “All right,” he replied. “If it’s so important.”

  “Thanks,” she said with a smile — a smile that didn’t seem to have much impact on its recipient.

  But at least he got in the car, then pushed the button for the nav as she was buckling her seatbelt and said, “Nearest Trader Joe’s.”

  “Calculating,” the car told him.

  A few seconds later, they were making a left out onto Paseo Del Norte and moving east. Their destination was farther away than it had looked on the map, but they still got there in less than five minutes. Once again, the CR-V maneuvered them into an open parking space, and once again, they retrieved a cart on their way into the store.

  This was more about fun odds and ends — tortilla chips and fair trade chocolate, cookies and ice cream and some interesting-looking frozen appetizers for those times when they weren’t in the mood to whip something up from scratch.

  “We’re really going to eat all that?” Alessandro asked. This time, he looked faintly aghast.

  Elena grinned at him. “Well, not all at once.”

  Again, a faint smile touched his lips, but he still shook his head, this time gazing heavenward, as if asking for patience. “Anything else?”

  “Wine,” she replied. Even as the word left her lips, though, she thought that maybe buying alcohol wasn’t the best idea in the world. On the other hand, she had a feeling they’d both be a little more relaxed around each other once they had a drink in them.

  Both his brows went up, but he didn’t argue, only looked resigned as he pushed their cart over to the wine and spirits section. Elena didn’t know much about wine, so she chose bottles with fun labels, ones that weren’t too expensive. Six in all, which maybe seemed a little excessive, but she figured they wouldn’t be drinking it all at once, and who knew when they’d make it back down here. She knew there was probably no way in hell she could go to the Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe without running into a Castillo.

  To her surprise, Alessandro added a bottle of tequila to the cart, and she shot him a sideways glance. “Getting all crazy on me?” she asked.

  “I wanted to see if you had anything decent for sale here in the United States,” he replied, unperturbed.

  “Right.”

  She fought the urge to wink at him, not sure how he’d react to her being irreverent. He did seem like a pretty serious person. But if he was unbending enough to buy tequila, maybe — just maybe — she could ask him to make them some margaritas.

  This might turn out to be more fun than she’d thought.

  Somewhat to Alessandro’s surprise, they survived the trip to Albuquerque unscathed. No run-ins with any Castillo witches or warlocks, no local police pulling them over because they looked suspicious for some reason. He even found that he didn’t much mind having Elena around, although he knew he would never admit such a thing to her. He was barely able to even admit it to himself.

  They pulled into the garage of the big Victorian house at not quite six. The hour was too late to think about making anything elaborate for dinner, especially any of his favorite dishes that required hours of simmering on the back burner of a stove, but he figured he’d marinate some chicken breasts and bake them, then shred them for tacos. His pride wouldn’t allow him to serve canned beans, so they’d have to make do with rice and fresh salsa.

  Elena had been fairly quiet on the drive home, as if she understood that he wasn’t the talkative sort and didn’t like to be bothered unless there was something important to discuss. Instead, she’d watched the landscape pass by outside the car windows, although privately Alessandro thought there really wasn’t much to look at in this part of the world. Tall jagged mountains to the east, and another range, not quite as sharply defined, much farther away to the west. Mile after mile of dry-looking countryside covered in yellow grass. He assumed it must be green here during some part of the year, or the grass wouldn’t be there at all, but he had no idea when that would be.

  Now they were back in the house, though, Elena seemed to become a bit livelier, helping him put away their purchases, asking if he had a preference as to where things went, since it seemed obvious he would be the one doing the bulk of the cooking. With a lot of it, he honestly didn’t care; the kitchen was new to him anyway, and he’d find items as he had need of them.

  But since he could tell she was trying to be helpful, he gave her a few suggestions and then told her to do what she liked with the rest of it. He supposed she wanted to show she could be of some use, and not someone who was here merely on sufferance. Which she was, but he didn’t see the point in making that obvious.

  He’d just finished telling her about his plans to make shredded chicken tacos for dinner when he heard an odd noise, a sort of swish that sounded like the rustle of expensive fabric. Frowning, he turned and looked over toward the entrance of the kitchen, and saw a woman about his own age blocking the doorway, her hands on her hips and a frown of her own creasing the pale, smooth skin of her brow.

  His first thought was that she must be one of the Castillos, but then he realized her clothing — a long blue silk gown with an elaborately draped skirt — wasn’t something anyone from this century would be wearing. Even as he glanced down and realized those silken skirts were floating a scant inch off the floor, Elena spoke.

  “Hi, Victoria. This is Alessandro. He’ll be staying here for a while.”

  The woman’s — ghost’s? she appeared just barely transparent — frown deepened. “Another one?” she demanded. “Is this a normal home, or some kind of boarding house?”

  “Who…?” he began, but Elena cut in.

  “This is Victoria. This is her house.” A pause, and Elena added with an amused glint in her storm-blue eyes, “I get the impression she isn’t too thrilled by all the changes in residents here lately.”

  “No, I am not,” the ghost said, her tone tart. She might have been dead for more than a hundred years, but clearly she wasn’t about to let that small detail prevent her from speaking her mind. Her gaze moved up and down Alessandro, and although he’d spent a good portion of his life training himself not to care what other people might think of him, he found himself a little discomfited by the disapproval in her stare. Was it the tattoos? He saw how she had seemed to dwell on them the longest, her pretty rosebud of a mouth pursed in distaste. Her arms crossed; he noticed the sapphire and pearl ring on one hand, the gold band on the fourth finger of her left. Whoever she was, obviously, she had been married at some point. “I hope you two aren’t living in sin.”

  Bright color flamed in Elena’s cheeks, but she managed to reply, “Um, no. We’re just…friends.”

  It was impossible to ignore the way she’d hesitated before she said “friends,” but Alessandro didn’t find anything particularly strange about that. After all, they’d just met. They weren’t friends at all, but only strangers trying to make the best of an awkward situation. To be honest, he hadn’t had a friend since his powers developed. People who pretended to be friendly, since they wanted to stay on his good side, but no one who wanted to spend any time in his company. Well, no one except his sister and his mother, although he couldn’t really count them. They were family; they were obliged to like him.

  “We both have our reasons for staying here,” he told the ghost. Maybe later he could ponder the strangeness of having to share this house not just with Elena, but with the spirit of the woman who’d lived here more than a century before, but for now he thought it best to clear the air. “Ava invited me to use this house for as long as necessary, and Elena is my guest.”

  As soon as those words left his lips, however, he realized he’d said the wrong thing, because Victoria tilted her head to one side and sent a narrow glance over at Elena.

  “You told me that Ava invited you to stay here.”

  “She invited both of us,” Elena said without missing a beat. “I just don’t think she realized we were both going to
accept her offer at the same time. But Alessandro and I decided to make the best of it — the house is big enough that there’s plenty of room for everyone. He’s staying in the master suite, and I have the guest bedroom.”

  This information didn’t seem to mollify the ghost quite as much as Elena had apparently hoped, because Victoria looked from him to Elena and back again, as if she’d detected something not quite right about their story but wasn’t sure exactly what it was. “It still seems peculiar,” she said at last.

  “Well, it is what it is,” Elena said cheerfully. “We were just about to start making dinner, though, so if you don’t mind….”

  As dismissals went, it wasn’t the most subtle. However, her words had the desired effect, because after sending both of them another disapproving glare, Victoria sniffed and melted away into thin air. Alessandro looked over at Elena, and she gave a helpless lift of her shoulders.

  “Okay,” she said. “Maybe I should have told you the house was haunted.”

  About all he could do was shake his head. She’d already admitted that her magical talent was summoning demons; he supposed he shouldn’t be terribly surprised that a ghost or two might have decided to make an appearance as well. He had to wonder, though, why Ava hadn’t mentioned Victoria. Some kind of a warning would have been helpful. Then again, it had been obvious enough that Ava wanted all this to go smoothly; he guessed she would have been worried that any mention of the ghost might have prompted him to back out of the agreement.

  “Maybe,” he responded, deciding it was probably better to let the matter go. Then he bent to rummage through the cupboard so he could get out a pan for the chicken breasts, along with a glass bowl for making the marinade. After he found what he was looking for, he straightened and sent her a direct look. “Any other supernatural beings I need to know about?”

 
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