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Haunted hearts, p.9

Haunted Hearts, page 9

 

Haunted Hearts
 


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  “But,” she went on, “now that you’ve met Alessandro and have seen he isn’t a serial killer or anything, it’s probably better if you leave. I think he’s having a hard enough time with me being here, so there’s no point in totally overwhelming the guy.”

  Belshegar frowned. “That was not my intention.”

  “I know it wasn’t.” Elena mustered a smile, one she bestowed on both of her companions, since Victoria was looking somewhat put out as well. “I just think it’s a good idea to give us a little space.”

  “If you wish,” the demon said. He got to his feet, surprisingly graceful despite his bulk. “In the future, I won’t come unless you call.”

  And then he disappeared with a faint crack. Usually, his comings and goings were silent, so Elena guessed he’d made the noise as a way to register his disapproval without verbally continuing their discussion. Now that he was gone, she found herself wishing she hadn’t asked him to leave. He was her only ally in the world, after all; the last thing she wanted was for him to be upset with her.

  Victoria played with the lace frill at the end of her long silk sleeve. “I suppose this means you want me to go as well.”

  “Can you?” Elena asked frankly. “I thought you were sort of, well, stuck in this house.”

  “I am bound to this property,” the ghost said, her rosebud of a mouth pursing slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I have to manifest all the time. However,” she added, tone even more severe, “I come and go as I choose. Remember that I have lived in this house far longer than you, Elena Castillo.”

  “That’s Elena Salazar,” she retorted, but it was too late. Victoria had already disappeared.

  Handy way to always get in the last word, Elena thought, although she couldn’t help but be relieved that her otherworldly company had disappeared for now at least. After rising from the sofa, she went into the kitchen, where Alessandro had an impressive array of spices and other ingredients spread across the pale granite countertop. He was grinding something with a marble mortar and pestle and frowning as she came into the room. Upon seeing her, his frown only deepened.

  Nice welcome, she thought, but decided to let it go. “They’re gone,” she said.

  “Good,” Alessandro replied, continuing to smash whatever was in the mortar with probably more force than such a task required. “Is this going to happen all the time?”

  “No,” Elena said. “Or at least, I can’t speak for Victoria, since she seems to do what she wants, but Belshegar said he wouldn’t come back unless I invited him. And I won’t,” she added after Alessandro shot her a dubious glance from under his straight black brows. “Not unless there’s a really good reason.”

  “Which would be…?”

  She shrugged and went over to the cupboard to get a glass. “I don’t know. Like if the house catches fire or something and I need him to rescue us from upstairs. That kind of thing.”

  “Ah.”

  Alessandro didn’t say anything else, but she got the impression he wasn’t impressed by even such an extreme contingency. Maybe he was worried she’d start thinking up all sorts of reasons to have her demon friend drop by, reasons that didn’t have anything to do with the house catching on fire.

  “Can I help with something?” she asked then, figuring she should do what she could to steer the conversation to other, safer topics.

  However, it seemed that right then, there weren’t any safe topics with Alessandro. “No,” he said shortly. “I work better by myself.”

  Of course you do, she thought with an inner scowl. However, since she refused to let him see how much he was getting to her, she said, in as light a tone as possible, “Okay. Guess I’ll go watch TV or something, since you do everything so much better by yourself.”

  And then she left the kitchen before he had a chance to reply.

  Maybe Victoria was teaching her a thing or two about getting in the last word.

  Alessandro ignored Elena’s parting shot. Or at least, he tried to focus on what he was doing, rather than the sharp edge to her voice as she all but flounced from the room, but he didn’t know whether he was entirely successful. No, she hadn’t distracted him from his work, and yet he couldn’t seem to forget the flash in her storm-hued eyes before she turned away with a swing of her long brown hair.

  Did she really care all that much whether she spent any time with him? They didn’t even know each other.

  You won’t get any better acquainted if you keep doing your best to stay at opposite ends of the house, he told himself. Maybe that was true, but what was the point in getting to know each other at all? She’d already shown that she liked to ask too many questions, many of which he definitely did not want to answer. If he maintained a safe distance between the two of them, then she wouldn’t have the opportunity to try wheedling more information out of him.

  With what felt like a physical effort, he banished her from his mind and went back to stirring the molé sauce. A bit longer, and he’d be able to leave it quietly simmering on the back burner while he worked on something else. At least the beans were already soaking, and he’d solved the conundrum of making sure they would be ready in time — while digging around in the cupboards, he found what appeared to be a high-tech pressure cooker of some kind, a device that clearly neither Tony nor Ava had ever used, since the instruction booklet was still tucked inside. It sat on the counter now, waiting for him to add the beans and the rest of the ingredients to make frijoles negros.

  If someone had asked Alessandro why he was going to all this effort, he probably would have replied simply that they needed to eat, and he might as well make something worthwhile if he was going to invest the effort anyway. However, he knew deep down his motivations involved more than merely assuaging his hunger. Even though logically he understood there was no real reason for him to do so, he wanted to show Elena there was more to him than the magical gift — curse — that he dared not use.

  As to why he felt the need to impress her, well, he didn’t think he wanted to analyze that impulse quite yet.

  Twenty minutes or so passed, and he deemed the sauce ready to be left simmering for a while. He washed his hands and dried them on a towel that hung from the refrigerator door, then stepped out of the kitchen. The TV room was just down the hall, and so he should have heard it as soon as he left the kitchen, but the house was silent except for some cheerful birdsong that drifted in through the open windows.

  Frowning, he took a few more steps and paused at the foot of the stairs, wondering whether Elena had gone back up to her room to sulk just as she had the night before. But then he caught just the faintest hint of soft music of some kind. It seemed to come from the front of the house.

  He went to the living room and saw her sitting in one of the armchairs, her back to the window that overlooked the quiet street where the house was located. She had her legs curled up under her and was working in what looked to be a large sketchbook with a spiral binding. The music — some kind of soft classical guitar piece — was emanating from a compact stereo unit that rested on top of the antique marble-topped table set up against one wall.

  As soon as he paused at the entrance to the room, Elena looked up from her sketchbook, her arched brows drawing together. “What?”

  Not exactly the most welcoming question, but Alessandro supposed he deserved it. He took a step toward her and said, “What are you working on?”

  “Nothing.”

  It hadn’t looked that way to him. “Can I see it?”

  “Why?”

  “Because I’m interested,” he told her, realizing the response was nothing more than the truth.

  She hesitated. Then she released a huff of a breath and gave the faintest hitch of her shoulders. “Okay. But you have to come over here — I don’t feel like getting up.”

  Knowing better than to argue, he walked across the room and circled partway around the armchair so he could look over her shoulder. The sketch she’d been working on was a surprisingly well-draw
n portrait of Victoria the ghost. Her face and hair appeared to be complete, and Elena had been working on the formal high-necked gown she wore.

  Alessandro would never have claimed to be an expert on art, but even he could tell that the work was very good, the detail fine but not fussy, surely and lovingly rendered. Victoria’s porcelain-doll prettiness was clear even in black and white, the drawing somehow managing to give an impression of the delicate sky blue of her eyes, although he wasn’t sure how Elena had managed such a thing.

  “You’re very good,” he said, and didn’t bother to hide the surprise in his tone. “Where did you learn to draw like this?”

  Since he was standing partly behind her, he couldn’t see much of her expression, could only see her shrug ever so slightly. “I watched a lot of online videos. I had a lot of time on my hands.”

  Yes, he supposed she would have. Drawing would have been something to do to fill all those empty hours when she should have been able to go to school or be with friends or even, once she was older, have some kind of a job. At least, he assumed those were the sorts of activities that would have consumed her time, based on what he’d seen of American-made television shows and movies.

  “Well, it’s very good.” He moved back so he faced her chair, although he didn’t know whether that position was just as awkward in its own way. Now he noticed a flush along her cheekbones, as if his compliment had embarrassed her. He hadn’t meant that to happen, but if she wasn’t used to having other people praise her work, he could see why she might not know how to react. “Do you paint, too?”

  “Some.” Elena closed the sketchbook and bent down so she could lean it up against the armchair’s leg. “Just watercolors and acrylics, though. My grandmother said oil paint was smelly and too expensive.”

  Alessandro had never been around anyone using oil paints, so he couldn’t comment on those complaints. Still, it seemed to him that Elena’s grandmother had spent a great deal of time making sure her granddaughter had as little fun as possible in her life. The thought angered him, even as he tried to tell himself that it really wasn’t any of his business. Still, he couldn’t help asking, “Didn’t your father have anything to say about that?”

  “He usually went along with whatever my grandmother said.”

  How spineless of him. Alessandro could feel his lip curl in contempt, although he tried to tell himself he was only hearing Elena’s side of the story now, and possibly there had been other factors in play, concerns he didn’t know anything about. Still, what he’d heard so far didn’t make him very sympathetic to the man. No wonder her mother had walked out…although one would have thought she’d have had the strength to take her young daughter with her. He knew his own mother would have moved heaven and earth before ever abandoning her children.

  “Would you like to try painting with oils?” he asked then, surprising himself. He wasn’t sure where that question had come from, except as a way to banish the unhappiness he saw lurking far back in Elena’s eyes.

  “I don’t — ” She paused then, her gaze sharpening. “Are you saying you want to take me shopping for oil paints?”

  “I guess I am. There have to be stores like that in Santa Fe, don’t there?”

  Now she was smiling, the shadow of old pain gone from her expression as if he’d imagined it. He knew he hadn’t, though; she bore her own wounds, although she generally did a better job of hiding them than he did.

  “I know there must be,” she said. “Santa Fe is a big artists’ town — that’s why there are galleries everywhere. Let me do a little research.” She stopped there and shot him a concerned glance. “Is it okay to go out, though? I thought you were in the middle of cooking dinner.”

  “The molé is simmering. It needs to do that for another couple of hours, so we have time. And the stove is turned down low enough that I’m sure it’s safe to leave it for a little while. As long as we’re not gone for more than an hour, it should be fine.” Alessandro paused, realizing he had absolutely no idea how involved a process shopping for oil paints might be. “You don’t think it will take longer than that, do you?”

  Elena looked uncertain. Clearly, she didn’t know much more about the subject than he did. “I don’t think so. But let me check where the stores are.”

  She got up from the armchair and fetched her phone from where she’d left it sitting on the mantel. For a few moments, she was engrossed in whatever she found in her search, and then she glanced up at him, expression relieved. “There are a lot of art supply stores here in Santa Fe, but the one with the highest rating is down on Cerrillos, a couple of miles from here. Still, it shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes round trip, which means I should have plenty of time to shop.”

  “Well, then. Let’s get going.”

  “I’ll run up and get my purse.”

  She hurried up the stairs, phone clutched in one hand. Alessandro waited where he stood…but then his gaze fell on the sketchbook, which still leaned against the chair where she’d set it down a few minutes earlier. Did he dare look? No, that would be intruding on her privacy. And yet….

  After sending a quick glance toward the stairs to make sure Elena wasn’t already coming back down the steps, he bent down and picked up the sketchbook, then hastily leafed through it. Most of the sketches were done in pencil, but there were a couple where charcoal had been used, most notably several portraits of Belshegar, his harsh, alien features given a strange beauty by the strong strokes employed to create his likeness. Several drawings of a round-faced older woman Alessandro guessed must be her grandmother, and several more of a man who appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, with dark hair and eyes and strongly marked brows that somehow reminded him of Elena’s, although hers were much more refined.

  “See anything interesting?” her voice drawled, and he gave a guilty start and looked up to see her step down into the entryway and stand there, her arms crossed.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, immediately closing the sketchbook. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

  “It’s okay,” she replied. “There’s nothing secret in there. Just scribbles.”

  “They’re much more than scribbles.”

  She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, her eyes not quite meeting his. “If you say so. Anyway, I’m ready.”

  Odd how she could seem so self-assured and breezy in other ways, and yet obviously had no real confidence when it came to her art. Had her father and grandmother demeaned it or dismissed it in some way, leading her to question her very real abilities? Alessandro could guess, but he didn’t know — and he thought it probably better not to ask. Not right then, anyway.

  “Okay, let’s go,” he told her, and they went through the house and out to the garage. As soon as he pushed the button to turn on the car and the nav system came alive, she leaned forward, speaking directly to it.

  “Artisan, on Cerrillos,” she said.

  “Calculating.”

  A few seconds later, they were backing out of the garage and headed in a direction Alessandro thought was roughly southwest, although he hadn’t really gotten his bearings here in Santa Fe yet. As the car maneuvered them past the worst of the tourist-clogged downtown traffic, Elena said, “Thank you.”

  “For what?”

  “For thinking of this. I doubt I would have asked.”

  No, she probably wouldn’t have. He had a feeling she hadn’t expected him to find her quietly sketching out in the living room; she’d most likely thought he was busy in the kitchen and wouldn’t come looking for her.

  “It’s nothing,” he said. “You got yourself away from your father and grandmother, so you should get away from the restrictions they put on you, too.”

  Elena shot him a grateful smile but didn’t seem to know how else to respond, since she quickly directed her attention to the window and the streets passing by outside. Or maybe she just wanted to see where they were, since they had now driven beyond the downtown area and were in an area she probably ha
dn’t visited before.

  A few minutes later, the car pulled into the parking lot of a medium-sized store that sat on its own in the middle of a block. Alessandro could see why she’d chosen this art store, since it looked big enough to offer a wide selection of paints. That was what he assumed, anyway; even when he’d gone into San Salvador, he hadn’t spent much time there shopping, so he wasn’t exactly the best judge of what constituted a good retail experience.

  They got out of the car and went inside. He let Elena take the lead, figuring she knew what she was looking for. A sales clerk hurried toward her, asking if she needed any assistance, and Alessandro felt his eyes narrow. The guy was probably around his own age, maybe a little younger, and he’d dived on her like a hunting bird spotting some particularly juicy prey.

  However, Elena didn’t seem to notice anything wrong with the man’s behavior. She explained that she was just getting started with oil paints, and so wanted a starter kit of some basic colors, along with a palette, brushes, and a couple of small to medium canvases.

  The clerk, a tall, thin man with his black hair in a ponytail and a scruffy beard partially obscuring his cheeks, hurried her down an aisle without so much as a backward glance at Alessandro. At one time, he might have been amused by the man’s single-mindedness, but right then he was thinking more how he’d like to grab him by the collar of his limp white button-down shirt and haul him away from Elena.

  I’m sure she’d really appreciate that, he thought as he forced himself to wait up front near the cashier’s counter. She’d probably laugh to see you acting like a jealous boyfriend.

  He realized he was jealous. He had absolutely no reason to be — he had no claim on Elena, none at all — but that didn’t change the fact that he was standing here, practically seething, just because a store clerk had spirited her away without so much as an “excuse me.” Alessandro hated to acknowledge the feeling, since it meant he’d already started to look on her as something other than a purely platonic roommate, but there it was.

  Acknowledge it and move on, he told himself. She’s very pretty, and she’s talented and has mostly been nice to you, so no wonder you’re acting like an idiot. When was the last time a pretty woman was nice to you?

 
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