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Haunted hearts, p.8

Haunted Hearts, page 8

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  “I wouldn’t call it exactly a feast, but I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

  Elena smiled. “It’s a lot better than the takeout I would have had for dinner if you hadn’t shown up.”

  Rather than return her smile, though, he looked serious. He took a bite of bacon as well, expression thoughtful. Was he replaying their exchange in this room the night before, or was he simply thinking about how he’d expected all this to turn out before he realized he had a squatter in the place?

  All he said, though, was, “I’ll do something better tonight, though. I was thinking of chicken molé.”

  Molé was one of Elena’s weaknesses, although even her grandmother hadn’t made it all that often. It required a fiendishly long list of ingredients and a practiced hand when combining them, but she had a feeling the dish wouldn’t be too much for Alessandro’s abilities. “That sounds great.”

  “You like it?”

  “It’s one of my favorites,” she said honestly, and although he didn’t outwardly react that much to her admission, she somehow got the impression he was glad he’d chosen something she liked.

  “First, though,” he said, “I need to contact Miranda and let her know that I’m here and that everything is fine here at the house.” Before Elena could even open her mouth, he went on, “Don’t worry — I’m not going to say anything to her about you. I told you I wouldn’t.”

  She didn’t sigh with relief, but she could feel it coursing through her anyway. Yes, he’d said he would keep her secret, but she also realized that the easiest way for him to manage the situation would be to confess everything to Miranda and let her deal with it. However, that didn’t seem to be his intention…for now, anyway.

  “After that,” he went on, “I want to go out and do some exploring…alone,” he added, even as she could feel her eyes start to light up. “I want to see something of this town, and it would be safer if you weren’t with me.”

  While she understood his caution, she couldn’t help but be disappointed. “I’ve been wandering all over the downtown area for the past week,” she pointed out.

  “Maybe you have,” he said. “But doing it in my company would be pushing your luck, don’t you think? I have no doubt that Miranda has told the members of her clan that an Escobar would be visiting here and staying in this house, if for no other reason than to keep anyone from being alarmed about the presence of a strange warlock in town. If they saw us together, they’d want to know who you were.”

  This reasoning made sense, although she probably wouldn’t have admitted it out loud. And she sure as hell wasn’t about to tell him that she’d started to picture the two of them walking around the Plaza, with her getting to play tour guide and pointing out all the various interesting sites and shops and restaurants she’d discovered during the preceding week. Bad enough that she’d allowed her thoughts to run in that direction.

  “Got it,” she said, and scooped up a forkful of eggs. “Well, there’s plenty to look at. That should keep you busy for a few hours.”

  “And what will you do?” he inquired, although Elena got the feeling he didn’t much care, had only asked the question to be polite.

  “I’ll figure something out,” she told him, then couldn’t resist adding, “After all, I have a lot of experience keeping myself amused.”

  It was a fine day, with temperatures that felt far too cool for early June. Then again, how many miles north of El Salvador was Santa Fe? Two thousand? Enough for there to be an enormous difference in their climates, that was for sure.

  He knew he was distracting himself with thinking about trivialities because he didn’t want to dwell on the uncomfortable realization that he would be enjoying himself much more if he had Elena at his side at that particular moment. Never mind that wandering around downtown with her would have caused its own set of problems; he’d known her for less than a day, and yet he found he missed the mischievous glint in her smoky blue eyes and the wicked lift she’d get at the corner of her mouth when she was doing her best to repress a smile.

  Thinking about her mouth probably wasn’t a very good idea. Her lips were some of the most luscious he’d ever seen.

  Stop being a fool, he told himself as he paused in front of a gallery and pretended to look at the paintings displayed in the large storefront. Elena might have done her best to act friendly toward him — well, except for their brief quarrel the night before — but he doubted she would be quite so friendly if she learned he had the ability to mute her talent completely. She hadn’t offered any embellishments to her sad history, and yet he’d still been able to guess at the details she’d left out. Hers must have been a very lonely existence, and he thought that her demon friends were probably one of the things that had helped keep her sane. Even the mere threat of losing the ability to reach out to them would probably frighten her badly.

  Well, she hadn’t attempted to bring up the subject again, and so Alessandro hoped she’d decided to leave the matter alone for now. At the moment, he couldn’t see any reason to deprive her of her gift, since she seemed to have adequate control of it. At least, he hadn’t seen any demons wandering the halls the night before, or this morning.

  He crossed the street to the Plaza, dodging a sort of bicycle-powered open car filled with tourists. No wonder Elena had felt safe roaming this area — he hadn’t encountered a single witch or warlock in the hour or so he’d been downtown, and he guessed that the Castillos generally stayed away from this section of the city, leaving it for visitors. He’d overheard conversations in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Japanese, and a few more languages he couldn’t readily identify. Obviously, people from all over the world came here to see the architecture and the museums and the truly bewildering variety of shops and restaurants. Santa Fe wasn’t even that big a city — San Salvador could have swallowed it up several times over — but it still felt overwhelming to him in a way that his own country’s capital city never had.

  Possibly it was only that he was in an unfamiliar place, although he guessed his discomfort stemmed from something more than that. The energy here was different, and although he knew his English was very good, he still had to strain a little to understand what people were saying in the scraps of conversation he overheard.

  Well, he’d gotten a taste of the city. He certainly had no need to try to absorb it all in one day, not when he was probably going to be living here for weeks or possibly even months. Better to go back to the house and…

  …and what? Sit and watch television with Elena? That didn’t seem like a very constructive use of his time. Back in Pico Negro, he’d always felt busy, partly because he was often called upon to perform various repairs on his mother’s home, which seemed perpetually in need of some sort of renovation. And even though he’d seen himself as an outcast, he still participated in the duties that all the men of the village were responsible for, whether that was keeping the paths around the settlement cleared or working in the communal fields they shared.

  But he would have no such claims on his time here. He didn’t much like that thought, because physical activity, if nothing else, kept his mind busy, kept him from dwelling too much on the sheer loneliness of his existence.

  Well, he shouldn’t borrow trouble, since he already had plenty of his own. For one thing, he’d promised to make chicken molé for dinner, and that task would take most of the afternoon. Some beans, too, if he could manage it, although he should have started them soaking the night before. Unfortunately, his spat with Elena had so occupied his thoughts that he hadn’t even begun to think about what sort of meal planning he should do for the following day.

  He headed back to the public parking lot where he’d left his borrowed SUV, then instructed it to take him home. Although the idea of a self-driving car had seemed odd to him, he had to admit that he was enjoying its convenience. Getting around would have been much more difficult without it, thanks to his lack of a local driver’s license.

  When he opened the back door and came into t
he kitchen, he heard muffled voices coming from the front of the house. At first, he thought maybe Elena had the television on, but then he realized one of those voices belonged to her. The second one was much deeper, obviously male, and Alessandro frowned. Didn’t she know better than to let a stranger in?

  As soon as he came to the living room, however, he realized Elena’s visitor was no ordinary stranger. No, this could only be Belshegar.

  He sat cross-legged on the Persian carpet, but even so, his eyes were nearly on a level with Alessandro’s as he entered the room. That would make him, what, nearly three meters tall?

  Impressive as it was, though, his height wasn’t the most extraordinary thing about him. His skin gleamed like burnished copper, and his black hair fell straight down his back, heavy and thick and coarse as the mane of a horse. Black, too, were his eyes, eyes without iris or pupil, just slanting almond-shaped openings in the hard planes of a face that was humanoid without being human.

  “Oh, hi, Alessandro,” Elena said in an off-hand way, as if having nine-foot-tall demons sitting on the living room rug was a completely ordinary occurrence. “This is Belshegar.”

  “I gathered that,” Alessandro responded, somewhat relieved that he was able to speak normally. It was one thing to grow up in a clan full of witches and warlocks, and quite another to be confronted by a being so completely other. At least witches and warlocks were human.

  The demon extended a hand. “Alessandro Escobar, I presume?”

  Since Alessandro didn’t know what else to do, he took Belshegar’s hand and shook it briefly, then let go with some relief. His own hand had practically disappeared into the demon’s fingers, which had been uncomfortably warm against his skin, as if the strange being’s inner body temperature was far greater than a human’s. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, since he had no idea how he was supposed to respond in such a situation.

  “Polite,” Belshegar observed, looking pleased. Or at least, that was how Alessandro chose to interpret the demon’s expression, especially since the alternative wasn’t all that appealing.

  “Most of the time,” Elena put in, but since he could clearly see the way her eyes glinted up at him from where she sat on the couch, he guessed that she was having a bit of fun at his expense. She shifted over a bit, as if to give him some room. “Come and sit down. How was the Plaza?”

  It was impossible to tell whether she really wished to know or whether she was just making polite conversation. “Interesting,” he said. “Crowded.”

  “Did you go to any of the museums?”

  “No,” he replied. “I looked at them and made a note of where they were, but today I was just exploring.” He paused and allowed himself the briefest glance over at Belshegar, who had his head cocked to one side, as if truly interested in what Alessandro had been saying. “I didn’t know you were expecting company.”

  The demon chuckled, the sound a deep rumble that seemed to shake the floorboards. “In other words, you’re wondering why I’m here.”

  Of course, that was exactly what had been going through his mind, although Alessandro wasn’t sure he wanted to tell the precise truth. But Belshegar appeared to take pity on him.

  “I invited myself,” he said. “I wanted to check on Elena and make sure she was still doing well. She explained the situation to me, and so I decided to wait here until you returned so I could see you for myself.”

  For all the world like an overprotective big brother…although Alessandro had to admit to himself that he probably would have done much the same thing if Lara had been in a similar situation. But Elena didn’t have a big brother, nor any siblings. Her father and grandmother had done far more to hurt her than to help her. No wonder she’d become friends with this terrifying being.

  Terrifying-looking, he corrected himself. Belshegar, for a demon, appeared to be fairly civilized.

  “I won’t ask if you’re impressed,” he said dryly, and the demon chuckled again.

  “I’ll admit that I don’t find humans particularly impressive. But you also don’t seem to be threatening, which is the important thing.”

  “No, the only thing I’ll be threatening Elena with is over-eating, probably,” he remarked, and she grinned.

  “Yes, Alessandro is a very good cook. I think I got the better part of this deal.”

  “What deal is that?” Victoria asked, shimmering into existence over by the fireplace, a few feet away from where Belshegar sat on the rug. She didn’t appear particularly startled by his presence, which seemed to indicate they’d already met.

  “Just Alessandro and me sharing the house,” Elena told her.

  “And how are you, Victoria?” Belshegar asked politely.

  “Quite well, thank you,” she said, a faint smile touching her lips. It was bizarre to see the two of them exchanging pleasantries as if they were attendees at a tea party instead of a ghost and a demon, neither of which were the type to generally get invited to polite functions. “I’m just not used to having this many people in the house — or at least, lately I’ve become accustomed to it being quieter around here. That Tony Castillo used to throw the most raucous parties. My word!” A lace-edged handkerchief appeared in one hand, and she fluttered it toward her face as if she was in desperate need of the faint breeze it produced.

  Elena’s mouth quirked. “Well, we won’t be having any parties here, will we, Alessandro?”

  “Of course not,” he said shortly. He hated any sort of get-together that required him to pretend to be pleasant. The fiestas in Pico Negro had been excruciating; he knew none of those people liked him or trusted him, so having to act as if he was happy to be socializing with them had made him want to grind his teeth in frustration. Luckily, he doubted there was much likelihood of him having to attend a party here in Santa Fe.

  Although if Elena’s demon friends kept dropping in….

  “Actually,” he added, “I came home because there is a lot I need to do to get dinner ready. But the three of you can carry on.”

  He nodded at Elena, who appeared a little startled but who then nodded, as if she realized he only wanted to make his escape. “Sure, Alessandro. Thanks for dinner.”

  “You can thank me after you taste it,” he said, and didn’t wait for her reply. There was a brief lull, and then the odd little trio began to talk again, while he made it safely to the refuge of the kitchen and began getting out all the ingredients he’d need for the molé.

  In that moment, he thought he understood all too well his mother’s urge to bang the pots and pans whenever she was annoyed….

  7

  Belshegar made his deep voice as much of a murmur as he could manage. “I fear we’ve upset your friend.”

  Elena had been thinking pretty much the same thing, but she only replied, “Oh, I don’t know. I think Alessandro was just startled to see you. And he was right about dinner. I mean, I’ve never made molé, but I do know it’s really complicated. He probably knew he needed to get started soon if we were going to eat at a decent hour.”

  “Shouldn’t you be cooking him dinner?” Victoria inquired, looking scandalized.

  “No,” Elena responded. “It’s the twenty-first century, you know. We don’t have to be bound by old-fashioned gender roles.”

  That remark only made the ghost’s big blue eyes flare open even wider, but, ever helpful, Belshegar stepped in.

  “Elena really isn’t a very good cook,” he told Victoria.

  “Thanks, Belshie,” Elena remarked sourly. She recognized her shortcomings in the kitchen as well as he did, but did he have to be so blunt about pointing it out?

  He lifted his enormous shoulders, and, to Elena’s surprise, Victoria smiled at him. In somewhat conspiratorial tones, the ghost said, “I actually wasn’t that good at it, either. But then, I didn’t need to be — we had servants for that sort of thing.”

  Must have been nice, Elena thought, but she was actually relieved to hear that Victoria hadn’t been quite the paragon she pretended
to be. “Well, we don’t have any servants. I’m just lucky that Alessandro likes to cook.”

  “Especially when he can also use preparing meals as an excuse not to be social,” Belshegar observed.

  Elena couldn’t really give her demon friend too much grief for making such a comment, not when she’d been thinking just about the same thing. Then again, she couldn’t blame Alessandro too much for fleeing at the earliest opportunity. Here he was in a strange country, speaking a language that wasn’t his own, and he’d already had to come to terms with sharing this house with someone he hadn’t even known existed until the day before. Throwing a demon and a ghost into the mix had to make things just a little awkward.

  “It’s Alessandro,” she said, in deprecating tones, hoping that Belshie would get the hint and leave it alone.

  Of course, he didn’t. “You know the man so well after spending only a day with him?”

  “I didn’t say that,” she returned.

  “That is what your comment sounded like.”

  While she loved Belshegar, when he got in one of his literal moods, he could drive her a little crazy. “I can’t say that I know him well, but even twenty-four hours of being around someone can give you a little bit of an idea of what they’re like. So no, he isn’t the most social person in the world. Not everyone’s a party animal like you, Belshie.”

  “I am not — ” he began, looking offended, even as Victoria said,

  “A what?”

  “Never mind,” Elena replied, wishing she’d never made the remark in the first place. “It was a joke.”

  “Oh,” the ghost and the demon said simultaneously. Even half-irritated as she was, Elena had to choke back a giggle at the incongruity of them being so in harmony, since she had a feeling any expression of amusement probably wouldn’t go over too well with her current company.

 
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