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Haunted hearts, p.6

Haunted Hearts, page 6

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  Elena looked as though she was about to reply in the negative, but then she said, “Not unless you count my demons.”

  Possibly he should have been expecting her to say something like that, but her answer still took him aback. “Your demons?” he demanded.

  “Well, they aren’t really mine, of course. I just mean the ones I summon.”

  “Do you do that regularly?”

  That question made her let out a little huff of a laugh. “No. And most of them only come when I call them, so it’s not really a problem.”

  “‘Most of them’?” Alessandro wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that. Allowing Elena to stay here was one thing; having to be on guard against wandering monsters was something else entirely. Despite his concern, he went over to the refrigerator and got out a lime, a lemon, and an orange, then brought them over to the clear spot on the counter where he’d set down the bowl.

  She hesitated for a second or two as he cut open the fruit and began squeezing their juices into the bowl, then said, “All right, it’s really only Belshie who drops in unannounced. But even he doesn’t do that very often.”

  “Who is Belshie?” That didn’t sound like a very demonic name to him. He wrung the last of the juice out of the orange, then went in search of cayenne and cumin and salt. Once he located those ingredients, he started stirring them into the fresh-squeezed juice, thickening them into a runny paste.

  “Belshegar. He was the first demon I ever summoned…the one who got me in so much trouble. Do you want me to get you the chicken breasts?” Alessandro nodded, and Elena went over to the refrigerator and got out the package of chicken they’d bought at the grocery store. “He was very apologetic about it afterward, though.”

  He took the chicken breasts from her and remarked, “A demon who said he was sorry.”

  “He’s not really a demon, actually. He’s just…from someplace else. Someplace not here.”

  Not sure how to respond to that statement, Alessandro cut open the package of chicken breasts, rinsed them off, and then dropped them in the bowl with the juice and spice mixture. After making sure they were well coated, he went back to the cupboards in search of a saucepan he could use for making the rice. He clattered around a bit, not finding what he wanted.

  Apparently, the racket prompted Elena to say, “What’re you looking for?”

  “Something to cook rice in.”

  She started opening cupboards as well, then paused after a moment and lifted out a small aluminum device with a cord and a glass lid. After setting it down on the counter, she said, “Here you go.”

  Alessandro straightened and gave the unfamiliar object a suspicious glance. “What is that?”

  “A rice cooker,” she replied, looking innocent.

  “What’s wrong with a pot?”

  “Nothing, I suppose. But this is easier and faster. Or at least, that’s what my grandmother told me. She always used one.”

  “Do you know how to use it?”

  Elena nodded. “I don’t really know how to cook, but I can manage that much. It takes about a half hour, a little more.”

  “Then go ahead and get it started.”

  If she’d taken offense at the brusque tone in which he made the request, she showed no sign of it. In silence, she got out the rice they’d bought, measured a cup, and poured it into the cooker, then added several cups of water and pressed down the lever to get it started. The procedure certainly looked simple enough. He would be able to replicate it without too much trouble.

  She watched as he turned on the oven to begin heating it before asking, “Do you need me for anything else?”

  “No,” he replied shortly, then wondered if that had sounded as rude to her as it did to him. Well, she would probably put up with far worse in order to stay here, so he supposed his tone didn’t matter very much.

  “Good. I’ll go and set the table, then.”

  Her voice and expression were neutral enough, but he got the impression that she wanted to get out of the kitchen. Which was just as well. It was a good-sized space, certainly much larger than the cramped kitchen in the home where he’d grown up. However, it was always easier to cook when he wasn’t tripping over someone.

  Still, it seemed as though he needed to say something. “You were telling me about demons?”

  She didn’t exactly smile, but something about her posture appeared to relax. “Oh, that’s probably something that would go better with a glass of wine over dinner. You pick something.”

  And before he could reply, she’d gotten a pair of plates and some wine glasses from the cupboard, then sailed out of the kitchen and down the hallway. Alessandro could only stare after her, wondering if he had any idea what he’d just gotten himself into.

  5

  The food was amazing. Elena hadn’t returned to the kitchen after she finished setting the table — she’d gotten the feeling that Alessandro didn’t like having people around when he was cooking — so she had no idea what he’d done to transform a couple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts into savory shreds of meat you wrapped with small, street taco–sized tortillas and garnished with the best salsa fresca she’d ever eaten, but clearly it had to have been some kind of magic. The same thing with the dish of diced zucchini and sweet red peppers; she knew he had to have done something special to season them, but she had no idea what.

  “Did you have a restaurant down in El Salvador or something?” she asked, once she’d slowed down a bit. Up until the moment when the amazing aromas from the kitchen began to drift through the house, she would have said she actually wasn’t that hungry, but after that, she thought she might be able to eat her weight in tacos.

  Alessandro looked almost amused. “No. As I told you before, my mother taught me. It’s something to do, I suppose.”

  Well, she guessed she could see it that way, although Elena herself had never felt a burning need to sharpen her culinary skills. Possibly that was because her grandmother had made it clear that she didn’t want any interlopers in the kitchen, but she thought she could have experimented if she’d really wanted to. But, she reflected, maybe it was better this way. At least she and Alessandro wouldn’t have to worry about fighting over whose turn it was to monopolize the stove.

  “Right,” she said. “Still, thanks for cooking. This is wonderful.”

  He only nodded and spooned some more of the zucchini dish onto his plate. Not much of one for compliments, that was for sure, even though her praise had been genuine and not something she was just saying to get on his better side.

  If he had one, which she was beginning to doubt. Sure, he’d been civil enough on their trip down to Albuquerque, but he hadn’t volunteered anything about himself. Their conversation had mostly consisted of him replying to her comments or questions, with no embellishment, nothing to really latch on to. That seemed to tell her he wasn’t too thrilled about the arrangement they’d made, although — thank God — he hadn’t done or said anything to make her think he was going to change his mind and toss her out on the street.

  Remembering where they’d broken off their conversation in the kitchen, Elena reached for her glass of rosé and took a fortifying sip, then said, “So…about demons.”

  He didn’t look surprised by the change of topic, only said, “I was wondering when you were going to get back to that.”

  At least he hadn’t forgotten. She sipped a little more wine — it still felt daring to drink alcohol, although she’d been indulging herself ever since Ava had installed her at the La Fonda — before replying, “Well, I figured it was probably better to leave it until we were sitting down at dinner. Anyway, I call them demons because it’s easier, but they’re really just beings from other dimensions — or universes, or whatever you want to call them — who have special powers in this universe. I don’t really know how it works, but I suppose my talent is basically having the ability to reach between worlds and sense those intelligences, then call them here.”

  Alessandro appe
ared almost impressed by this explanation. Or at least, Elena thought that was what the faint lift of his eyebrows might have meant. Maybe she was flattering herself. “And this Belshegar was the first one who appeared to you?”

  “Yes. I was eleven.” Eleven years old, and scared out of her mind at the sight of the enormous copper-skinned entity who appeared in her room, crouching down because his head scraped the ten-foot ceiling. He’d spoken to her in reassuring tones, however, had told her he was only there because she’d called him to her. She hadn’t intended to, but she had just broken a bottle of fingernail polish, the pink glittery stuff smearing all over the wooden floor of her room, and was worried about what her father and grandmother would do to punish her for her clumsiness. That seemed to be one of her grandmother’s favorite pastimes — thinking of new ways to discipline her granddaughter for even the smallest transgressions.

  Anyway, that was when Belshegar had told her, in that same deep but strangely gentle voice, that his own power was restoring things. And he’d passed an enormous hand over the mess on the floor, and the fingernail polish was gone. No, not gone — it had been put back in a miraculously repaired bottle. The demon had pressed it into her hand and told her everything would be fine.

  Maybe it would have been…if her grandmother hadn’t heard his voice and come in, ready to do battle with whatever creep had sneaked into her eleven-year-old granddaughter’s room. Problem was, the intruder wasn’t some pedophile, but a being from another dimension that Elena had accidentally summoned to her. All hell broke loose after that…figuratively speaking. Her grandmother had started screaming, and Belshegar disappeared, and Elena confessed what had happened.

  Her father came home after that, and Elena sat in her room and worried whether she was going to be grounded for life, because he and her grandmother spent what seemed like hours talking downstairs. A big fancy car pulled up to the house sometime in the middle of their convo, and Genoveva Castillo, the clan’s prima, came striding down the front walk, looking like a movie star in her slim dark skirt and silk blouse and high heels. Elena couldn’t hear anything of what was being said, but the prima stayed for around a half hour before she departed in her gleaming black Mercedes.

  And afterward, Elena’s father had come up the stairs, looking at least ten years older than he had when he left the house for work that morning. She’d always thought him handsome but sad, as if he’d never gotten over her mother’s abandonment so many years earlier. In that moment, he looked more worried than ever.

  He told her that she must never use her power again. Never mind that she hadn’t even known she was using anything until Belshegar appeared. Her power was dangerous, her father said. They’d all decided that she needed to stay here, in this house, because they couldn’t take the risk of her being out at school or playing with friends and then having one of those demons appear. Such a thing would be frightening enough to any of her Castillo cousins, but if such a thing happened when she was surrounded by nonmagical folk…well, of course she could see how they had to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

  Her eleven-year-old mind had grasped some of this but not all. Still, she’d only nodded and said she understood, and that she hadn’t meant to be bad. Her father hugged her, then fled the room. And that had been the beginning of her long imprisonment. Sure, they’d let her out every once in a great while, like the time they’d gone to get her a state-issued I.D. when she was sixteen. Not a driver’s license, because they didn’t want her to have the ability to get out and get away. But the I.D. had been necessary in case something happened to her father and grandmother and Elena needed to take ownership of the house, and so they’d taken the risk. Nothing had happened, of course, because by that point, she had full control of her gift…curse…whatever you wanted to call it.

  Oh, she still called demons to her, but only because she was bored and lonely and desperately wanted someone to talk to. Most of them hadn’t been too keen about being summoned to a different universe simply to entertain a friendless teenage girl, but Belshegar had become a fast friend. In fact, Elena had often thought that Belshegar was the one person who’d kept her from going completely crazy.

  She didn’t tell Alessandro any of that, though. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was looking for sympathy…not that she thought he would be terribly sympathetic even if she did tell him the truth. He didn’t seem like the type.

  “Anyway,” she said, “Belshegar does like to drop in from time to time, just to make sure I’m okay. He was here this morning, though, so I doubt he’ll be coming back any time soon.”

  Most people would have looked relieved by such a reassurance. Alessandro, however, only absorbed her statement without any kind of a reaction at all, then proceeded to make himself another street taco. Elena didn’t pretend to know much about men — or hardly anything at all, really — but the guys she’d met at the La Fonda or while she was out wandering around downtown had at least given some indication of what was going through their heads. Talking to Alessandro Escobar felt like talking to a brick wall.

  “So,” she said, after another bite of the zucchini side dish, “what’s your talent? Is it cooking?”

  His eyes narrowed, and he looked down at his plate, gaze deliberately not meeting hers. “It’s not important.”

  Okay, she understood that reaction. It had seemed a harmless enough question, but clearly, he had no intention of telling her even that small detail about himself. “Of course, it is. Come on — I’ve been over here blabbing about myself, and you haven’t said anything about your talent or your family or…anything.”

  “Because I don’t want to,” he said, his tone flat, dark eyes slightly narrowed. “I’m letting you stay here. That doesn’t mean we need to be friends.”

  Seriously? Elena stared at him for a few seconds, wondering if she’d heard him correctly. All right, her experience wasn’t all that large, but she couldn’t remember anyone ever being that rude to her face. So much for thinking they were beginning to get along.

  She balled up her napkin and set it down on the table, then stood up. “I’m done. Thanks for dinner.”

  Part of her had been expecting him to protest, to tell her he was sorry. She should have known better.

  His shoulders lifted, and he said, “Okay,” before he reached for his glass of rosé and took a sip.

  Asshole. She stalked away from the dinner table and went upstairs, moving slowly and deliberately, mostly because she didn’t want to pound on the steps and thereby reveal exactly how angry she was with him. When she got to her room, she had to resist the urge to slam the door, but what would be the point in that? He obviously couldn’t care less what she was feeling, or how upset she was.

  Of course, once she was inside the guest bedroom, she realized that making a grand exit was fine in its way…except she had nothing in here to amuse herself, no TV, no computer, no nothing. Yes, she had her phone, but since it was one of those prepaid deals, it didn’t have a lot of data available, and she hadn’t yet tracked down the wi-fi password because her day had been sort of interrupted. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d had the idea that she and Alessandro would settle down for a cozy evening of TV watching after dinner, but that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen. No, right then about the most she could hope for was that he wouldn’t be so irritated with her that he ended up ratting her out to Miranda after all.

  Well, there was always her sketchpad, the one thing that had helped to while away so many lonely afternoons. She went in the closet and fetched it from where she’d set it on the shelf, then went over and sat down on the bed. A pencil was still tucked into the spiral binding, and she pulled it out and flipped over to a blank page.

  What to draw, though? Not Alessandro, that was for sure, even if the angular planes of his face made him an excellent subject for a sketch. No, she thought she’d try drawing Victoria. Maybe the ghost had never had anyone do a drawing of her, although she was certainly pretty enou
gh that maybe some artist on the make had tried to cozy up to her that way.

  At the very least, doing so would pass the time. Elena knew she’d have to wait until she heard Alessandro’s footsteps on the stairs and his bedroom door shut before she felt it was safe to venture out. It would be way too embarrassing to bump into him in the upstairs hall while she was coming back from the bathroom.

  So much for fun, she thought, and bent down to get to work.

  Alessandro knew Elena was angry. He also knew such a thing shouldn’t concern him…but for some reason, it did.

  Then again, she should have known better than to ask such a question. In general, it was thought rude to ask a witch or warlock about their gift if that information hadn’t been freely volunteered. He reflected that this had never been much of a concern in Pico Negro, since everyone in his village had been around everyone else for all their lives, and keeping secrets in such a place was difficult at best. Still….

  For all he knew, she’d manufactured her outrage so she’d have an excuse to flounce off and not have to help with after-dinner cleanup. As soon as that thought crossed his mind, however, he dismissed it as uncharitable. He wouldn’t pretend to know Elena very well, but she didn’t seem like the sort of person to do something so petty.

  All was quiet upstairs; it seemed obvious enough to him that she’d gone straight to her room and closed the door behind her. What she planned to do in there by herself, he had no idea. Maybe she’d brought a laptop or a tablet with her; maybe she was playing games on her phone. It really shouldn’t be his concern.

  And yet….

  Scowling, he cleared the dishes from the table and spent more time than he would have liked hunting down storage containers for the leftover food. The kitchen seemed well-stocked on the surface, but it wasn’t very organized. He wondered if that was because the house had originally belonged to Ava’s brother and had come to her much more recently, and she’d never had a chance to set it up the way she preferred. She’d never get that chance, not when she’d now moved permanently to Pico Negro to be with Gabriel.

 
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