Hidden gifts, p.6
Hidden Gifts, page 6
She paused on the sidewalk and gave me an odd look. Or at least, it seemed odd to me; it was full dark by that point, and so the only illumination was the uncertain light of the widely spaced street lamps. Still, she didn’t hesitate as she replied, “He’s a shapeshifter. His favorite is a wolf.”
My eyes widened. “He’s a werewolf?” I’d almost said “skinwalker,” but I knew from my Navajo relatives that skinwalkers generally were connected with very dark magic, and I guessed Cat wouldn’t have appreciated the insinuation.
Luckily, she gave a small laugh, apparently not offended at all. “No, a shapeshifter. He prefers changing into a wolf, says it’s the easiest, but I’ve seen him become a coyote, a mountain lion, even an eagle and a raven. Something about the mass involved — he can’t change into anything that’s too much bigger or too much smaller than he is, so it’s not as if he can change into a mouse or an elephant. Don’t you have any shapeshifters in your clans?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” I said. Inwardly, I was relieved that Rafe’s shapeshifting talents weren’t boundless, that he had his own constraints. It wasn’t as if he could turn himself into a cat, for instance, and mysteriously turn up on my doorstep. Then again, why would he do that, even if he could? He’d made it plenty obvious that he wanted to spend as little time in my company as possible. I tried to tell myself I didn’t care — if it turned out that he truly hated me, then maybe Genoveva would relent and I could go home — and yet, deep down I knew that I did care. My whole life already felt like one big failure. I didn’t want to fail at this, too.
By that point we’d reached the front gate to the house, which stood wide open. The entire front yard had been turned into a graveyard, with fake headstones everywhere. Tony must have concealed a fog machine someplace nearby, because a pale mist wrapped around the faux tombstones, the chemical smell of the fog unmistakable.
Even though I knew it was all part of the decorations for the party, I couldn’t help shivering a bit. The night was spooky enough on its own, with the high clouds overhead lit by a gibbous moon and looking like the scales of some enormous serpent wrapped around the sky. Deep down, I knew I really didn’t need to worry about things that went bump in the night, because ghosts didn’t scare me, demons had been permanently banished from this plane, and zombies were something for movies and TV, not anything I’d be likely to encounter here in Santa Fe.
As I followed Cat down the front walk, I reflected that I was probably feeling hinky because of the prospect of meeting a bunch of her Castillo relatives. That was scary enough without having to worry about made-up monsters.
People dressed as ghosts and vampires, mummies and Victorian ladies hailed her as we passed by. She cheerily responded to the greetings and called out, “This is Miranda!”, which forced me to summon a smile and wave, even though of course I had no idea who any of these people were.
Then we were inside, and she was guiding me over to the punch bowl, where a guy doing a pretty decent Gomez Addams impression was ladling some sort of acid green, steaming concoction into those pressed-glass cups that are supposed to look like cut crystal. Pretty classy for a Halloween party, but I’d already figured out that the Castillos didn’t do anything by halves.
“Tony, this is Miranda,” Cat said, and he put the ladle back in the bowl, then reached out and took my hand. Before I could even react, he’d planted an extravagant kiss on my wrist.
“Cara mia!” he cried, then placed both his hands on his heart. “If only I’d known — I would have sent my Morticia costume over to you. You would have been perfect.”
I was somewhat dubious as to my suitability to portray Morticia Addams, but maybe with the right wig and makeup…. Anyway, I just sort of gave him a lopsided smile, not sure how I should react.
Cat said, “I thought Noël was dressing up as Morticia.”
“She is,” Tony said with a grimace, his drawn-on pencil mustache crinkling as he did so. Despite the Gomez getup, he was very good-looking, tall and dark like Rafe, but with sparkling hazel eyes. I reflected that my afternoon walk probably would have gone much better if I’d been promised to Tony rather than the brooding Rafael. Tony seemed like the sort of person who could roll with anything, who might have looked on having an arranged marriage as just another adventure. “But since she’s been stress-eating since she broke up with that civilian she was dating, she’s about to rip the seams out on that dress.”
Cat shook her head. “Don’t be a jerk, Tony.”
“I’m not,” he protested, hazel eyes widening in a decent imitation of innocent surprise. “I’m just stating the facts.” He reached for the ladle again, then picked up a cup and filled it with some of the neon-green punch. I thought I saw a couple of fake eyeballs floating in amongst the dry ice–generated fog, but it was hard to tell for sure. “Here you go, Miranda. This should make meeting the relatives a bit easier.”
Despite my worry over that very thing, I couldn’t help but smile at him as I took the cup. “Is it that obvious?”
“You do have a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look going on, but I doubt anyone could blame you for that.” He paused, then bent toward me and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t worry. We don’t bite…unless you want us to, of course.”
Cat looked on in some amusement. Obviously, she was all too used to her cousin’s flirtatious behavior. “You’d better chill it, Tony, or I’m going to tell Rafe that you’re after his girl.”
“‘His girl’?” Tony repeated, looking around the crowded living room. It was packed to the gills with people, although it seemed as if their drinks were stocked for now, since no one had yet come over to interrupt us. “If he’s that concerned, then where is he?”
“He…had something to do,” Cat replied, her gaze not quite meeting Tony’s.
Yeah, right, I thought, taking a sip of the punch and trying not to wince. It actually didn’t taste that bad — sharp and citrusy, with a bit of effervescence — but I could tell it was strong. I sipped again, noting how the second swallow went down a bit easier. I’ll bet Rafe’s at his house right now, sulking over how much his life sucks and reading Kierkegaard or something.
It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how angry I was with the man who was supposed to be engaged to me. He hadn’t even tried, for God’s sake. Spent ten minutes with me in the garden, then insulted me and let me go my merry way. Cat had done a pretty good job of distracting me — which was why she had dragged me to this party in the first place, I was certain — but sooner or later I had to come back around to the sorry fact that he didn’t care one bit.
“Yeah, and I’m running for president,” Tony scoffed, then took a sip of his own glass of punch, which he had set off to the side while he played bartender.
I decided to play innocent, just to see what happened. “What, Rafe isn’t into parties?”
Both Tony and Cat laughed. “Um, no,” she said. “He’s more the brooding Lord Byron type. It does get old after a while. But,” she added quickly, maybe realizing that criticizing her brother might not be the best tactic when he’d already done his best to turn me against him, “he really is a decent guy. He’s just not super social. You just need to give him some time.”
About all I could do was lift my shoulders. I hadn’t even been here in Santa Fe for an entire day, so I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea to be making any set-in-stone judgments about my future. Even so, even a blind man could see that things between Rafe and me had gotten off to a rocky start.
Tony sipped at his punch again. It was pretty obvious that this wasn’t his first cup of the evening, but he also didn’t seem noticeably drunk. Just…relaxed. Then again, maybe he was like that all the time. I didn’t want to think it was the alcohol that made him relaxed enough to tell Cat, “Well, he’s acting like an idiot.” Shifting his attention to me, he went on, “Maybe you should kick him to the curb. I’m sure there are plenty of other Castillos who’d be willing to step
“That’s not how it works,” Cat said. She had a cup of punch in her hands now, too, and drank some, even as she sent her cousin a reproving glance. “It has to be Rafe. But thanks for volunteering.”
“No problem.” Tony put his free hand on his heart and leaned toward me. “I mean it, Miranda. I’d be more than happy to take over for my clueless cousin.”
What could I do in response to such an offer besides laugh, or play it off as a joke? “I’ll take it under advisement,” I said soberly.
Cat looped her arm in mine. “That’s enough, Tony. I’m going to take Miranda around, introduce her to everybody. You might want to cut back on that punch.”
Her cousin’s expression was wounded. “Are you insinuating that I’m intoxicated?”
“Something like that.”
She didn’t stay to hear his response, though, but led me away from the living room and into the dining room, where a long table was currently pushed up against the wall so it could serve as a buffet. I wondered what Victoria the ghost would have to say about that arrangement, then figured maybe she wouldn’t mind so much, since the setup was clearly temporary.
It was just as crowded in here, with most of the group — well, those whose faces weren’t concealed by masks or heavy Halloween makeup — sharing a strong resemblance to one another. Of course there were individual differences, but many of them had the same proud, high cheekbones, the same sculpted nose and strong chin. The Castillo blood clearly bred true, even after so many generations and what I assumed had to be some mingling with outsiders, so the clan wouldn’t become inbred.
I met Tony’s sister Noël, who was fairly curvy but who didn’t seem inclined to burst out of the seams of her tight-fitting beaded dress anytime soon. And there was Tony’s other sister Lisa, in an old-fashioned harlequin costume, and so many more who were only names, names that maybe one day I’d be able to put to faces — well, if I could recognize them without the Halloween makeup and the half-masks, of course.
The weird thing was, besides Tony, no one seemed all that surprised by Rafe’s absence, that I was here with Cat as my “date.” No one asked where he was, or thought it strange that he’d abandon me on my first day here, on my birthday, of all days. It was as if they’d known he’d behave this way.
And that surprises you why? I asked myself as I squeezed myself into an inconspicuous corner while Cat went to use the bathroom. These people have known him all his life. I’d be shocked if he hadn’t bitched about his arranged marriage to all of them, probably multiple times.
That would explain the pitying looks some of the women had given me, and the speculative glances from some of the men. They all knew Rafe didn’t want me, that I was only here because Genoveva insisted on following through on the ridiculous bargain her mother had made. And those speculative looks? Maybe they were thinking, like Tony had joked, that if their cousin decided not to go through with the wedding, then maybe they would have a shot at me.
Fat chance. I certainly wasn’t going to trade one perfect stranger for another. If this whole thing fell apart, I’d be on the first flight back to Arizona. What I’d do with myself then, I had no idea, since I’d spent basically my whole life keeping people at a distance, thinking that I was going to disappear into Castillo territory and never be seen again, but I’d figure something out. Possibly I’d find a civilian who shared some of my interests and hook up with him. It seemed better to do that than be constantly reminded of my own lack of powers by being married to a warlock.
“That’s an awfully long face to be wearing at a party,” Tony said, approaching me with a plate full of hors d’oeuvres. Real ones, like you’d get from a restaurant, not bite-size quiches from Costco. For all I knew, he’d had the party catered.
Figuring I’d drunk enough steaming green punch on an almost empty stomach, I selected a puff of phyllo pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach, and put it in my mouth. Chewing gave me a little time to think of a reply. “Was it long? I guess I was just thinking.”
“About nothing pleasant, looked like.” He leaned against the wall next to me and popped a bacon-wrapped date in his mouth. I supposed I should be relieved that he hadn’t brought any punch with him, had apparently decided it was time to soak up some of the alcohol with food. “I meant what I said, you know.”
Oh, dear Goddess. Not that I wasn’t flattered by his attention, especially after being rejected by Rafe, but still, I knew better than to encourage him. All things being equal, if I’d just met him at a massive convention for witches and warlocks — which wasn’t even a thing, but maybe should be — then I might have wanted to get to know him better. As matters stood, however, I felt like we were treading on some very dangerous ground. Rafe might not want me, but somehow I guessed he’d be irritated to find out someone else did.
I cleared my throat. “Tony, I’m not sure — ”
Luckily, I was saved from having to proceed any further by Cat reappearing, her pretty features twisted in annoyance. “Damn, Tony, can’t you take a hint?”
“I didn’t hear any hints.”
“Then clean out your ears.” Cat’s gaze shifted from him to me, and she said, “The bathroom’s free now.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I meant it. Not that I really had to go, but I was certainly grateful for the opportunity to escape.
However, the bathroom on the ground floor was occupied when I got to it. I looked away and caught sight of the stairs, which were decorated with garlands made of sparkly black tinsel and glow-in-the-dark skulls. Surely there had to be another bathroom upstairs. This house seemed to be of around the same vintage as my family’s home in Jerome, and we’d had three bathrooms, one downstairs and two up.
I climbed the stairs, moving slowly because of my voluminous skirts and wobbly lace-up boots. At least it seemed as if most of the party was going on downstairs; no one passed me as I ascended to the second floor, and I was grateful for that. I needed some time alone to get my head together.
Sure enough, there was a bathroom just past the first bedroom on the left. I went inside and shut the door, then walked over to an antique cupboard that now served as a vanity and washed my hands, then touched my damp palms to my cheeks. I couldn’t do much more than that or risk ruining my makeup, but even that cool, moist sensation helped to settle me a bit. In the mirror, my eyes looked huge and tragic. No wonder Tony had zeroed in on me, like a predator going after the one gazelle in the herd with a wounded leg.
No, that wasn’t fair. He didn’t seem like a predator. He’d just seen someone he found attractive and expressed his interest. Not all that appropriate, considering my status in his clan, but still —
A second pair of eyes stared at me from the mirror. I gasped and spun around, but I was alone in the bathroom. And yet, as I turned slowly back toward the mirror, my heart pounding, I could see her clearly.
She was probably about five years older than I, with a smooth oval face and big blue eyes. Her light brown hair was pulled up into a complicated arrangement of braids and curls, and drops of gold and seed pearls hung from her ears. In the quiet, cramped little chamber, I could hear the swish of her silk bustle gown against the tile floor as she took a step toward me.
“They’re all the same, you know,” she said sadly. “Full of compliments, praising you to the skies. But don’t you ever expect them to follow through on their promises.”
“Vic — Victoria?” I asked, somehow managing to get the syllables out, although right then my mouth felt like sandpaper.
“Yes,” she said. “This is my house. I let the Castillos use it because I don’t have much of a choice, really, but I still make sure that they keep it the way I like it.”
How was this happening? I’d grown up in one of the most haunted places in the world, but I’d never seen a single ghost, nor spoken to one. Even when I’d had a chance to observe my mother talking to one of Jerome’s numerous spectral residents, it had seemed like a very one-
“It’s a very nice house,” I said, feeling like an idiot. Then again, what on earth was I supposed to say to her?
“Thank you,” she replied, but her tone was absent, as if she was focused on something else. Possibly she was worried about the damage the party-goers might be doing to the place, although if Tony had these sorts of get-togethers on a regular basis, you’d think the ghost would be used to it by now.
She moved again, and I had to prevent myself from shrinking up against the vanity to get out of her way. This time she went over to the window and looked out into the garden, where orange Japanese lanterns bobbed in the wind and a few brave souls stood outside in the cold, drinking and talking. It was the oddest sensation, because although I heard the rustle of her dress, I couldn’t feel it as she went past, even though it looked as if her full, trained skirts had brushed against mine.
“Do you talk to a lot of people?” I asked. After all, just because I’d never participated in any of my mother’s ghostly conversations, it didn’t necessarily mean I was incapable of doing such a thing. There were hundreds of accounts of ordinary people — nonmagical people — having encounters with ghosts and spirits.
“Oh, no,” Victoria responded immediately. She turned her back on the window and gave me a quizzical look, as though trying to determine why it was that she could talk to me. “Only Catalina, and there’s another one who comes by every once in a while. Louisa, I think. She doesn’t live here, though.”
“‘Catalina’?” I repeated, wondering who that was.
“The young woman who brought you to the party,” Victoria said.
Oh, of course. Cat hadn’t told me the full version of her name, but it made sense that it had been shortened from something else. Catalina. It was pretty, and unusual, although I thought that “Cat” suited her better. “Right. Well, I’m not sure why I’m able to talk to you, Victoria. My mother has that ability, but I’ve never shown any sign of it.”
by Christine Pope / Romance / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes