A Corine Solomon Novel
Corine Solomon can touch any object and learn its history. But right now, she's trying to rebuild her pawnshop and her life despite her being marked as a witch. When demons from her past kidnap her best friend, Corine puts everything on hold to save her...
I carried the last of Chance’s boxes up to the flat.
Mexico agreed with my ex, physically speaking. The constant sun was similar to Florida, though the weather was milder and more temperate in the mountains, lower humidity, and so his skin glowed golden, a fine contrast against his inky hair. His features were sharp, feline, but sculpted in a way that you could stare for hours and never tire of marveling at the cut of his cheekbones or the curve of his mouth.
Looking at his impossible beauty, I was reminded again that he wasn’t human. He didn’t sweat or grow facial hair. Once I’d written that off as a unique genetic boon, but it was unquestionably more. While his mother, Min, was human, I was positive his father had been something else. I had no idea what.
Smiling at me, Chance was confident again, and I’d always loved that about him. Generally speaking, he didn’t indulge in long moments of self–doubt. He brushed past me on the stairs, carrying a carton of linens; he smelled of lemon, carambola, and rosewood, top notes from his cologne, Versace Man Eau Fraîche. Less familiar than the Burberry he’d once sworn by, but I didn’t smell of frangipani anymore either. By tacit agreement, we’d decided on a fresh start all the way.
My ex had been serious when he said he’d do whatever it took to be with me, including moving south of the border and starting a new life. The two of us had a complicated history, fraught with old mistakes and regret. But maybe this time our relationship had a real shot.
His building was simple stucco, painted canary yellow with azure trim, a bold color scheme typical of the neighborhood. Down the block, there was a house painted lavender and mint green. His new place had a fantastic view of the mountains instead of the crowded streets below. I stood by the window, lost in thought. Chance was lucky to find something close to Tia’s house. In Spanish, tía meant aunt, and I’d never been clear if people had been calling her Auntie so long it had supplanted her proper name. At any rate, she’d adopted me as part of her family; I felt like a favored niece with her. In recent days, she’d become my mentor as well.
After we’d returned to find my store in ruins, Tia let Chance sleep on the couch while he sought a place of his own; it took three weeks for him to locate a one–bedroom in the neighborhood. During his search, I sorted out the paperwork and paid the workmen with Escobar’s money; he was the rival drug lord with whom I’d allied to take out the Montoya cartel before they could kill me. The Montoyas put me on their hit list over the part I’d played in liberating Chance’s mother from their clutches. So maybe joining forces with Escobar wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, but it felt like my only viable choice for survival at the time. Ergo, I made a pact with Escobar to destroy the Montoyas, and when we succeeded, I walked out with a briefcase full of money—well, enough to rebuild my pawnshop.
It would be better than before, once it was finished, and I’d still have a nest egg in case of future disasters. With Chance around, such events became more likely. Oh, he had his own money, and he’d help, if he felt responsible, but I didn’t want to depend on him—or anyone—again. I’d learned how well I liked self–reliance.
After Chance shook hands on a rental agreement, he’d offered to let me room with him, no strings, but I didn’t want to start our relationship that way. Living together right off? Uh–uh. I’d meant it when I told him I wanted to go slow.
When Tia offered to let me stay with her while I rebuilt, it seemed like the ideal solution. I got a place to live; she benefited from my help around the house and I could drive her around more easily, plus she was training me to the extent that she knew spells and charms. No matter how inept I proved, she never lost patience.
Any other curandera wouldn’t touch me with a ten–foot pole. By dealing with Maury and summoning his mate, Dumah, to solve my problems, I’d marked myself as a black witch, one who trafficked in demons. Maury was the entropy demon I’d set free in Kilmer; Maury saved my life when one of the elders stabbed me that horrible night in the forest. When that debt came due, he had me summon his mate in repayment. I managed to trick him on the letter of the agreement, so while Dumah writhed inside the circle, I renegotiated our terms. In the end, I wound up with his reluctant acquiescence to use his mate as backup against the Montoyas. When push came to shove, I did. I fed those men to a demon to save my own life.
That decision made me anathema to those who worked on the side of right and light, though I was hardly a witch at all, having just realized I could access my mother’s magick, along with the awful touch that once comprised my sole skill. When my mother died saving my life, I gained the ability to read objects with a touch, known among the gifted as psychometry, but my talent wasn’t natural and painless; it carried the pain of the fire that claimed my mother. In the dark Georgia woods where I found her necklace, I touched the metal and unlocked the rest of her abilities. From that point, I felt the difference in my blood and bone. I knew that spells would respond as they never had before.
Fortunately, Tia had studied the darkness of my choices, and then she shook her head. “What I see you’ve done, that’s not your heart,” she’d said. “I know you.”
Most wouldn’t be so kind or understanding. Already, I’d noticed a few people crossing the street to avoid me. As in the U.S., there were gifted in Mexico, but because of my crippled abilities—and the limitation of the touch—I could never ID them unless we made contact and our talents sparked. Now, with my witch sight, I could spot them from a distance, not an aura but a halo of dark or light, depending on their gift and how they used it. My own was a grimy mixture of bright and shadow, mottled from my contact with Maury and Dumah. I tried not to look at it more than I had to. If there was a way to scrub off those choices, I didn’t know what it would be. No, the consequences would remain with me forever. Even if I spent my lifetime doing good deeds, practicing white magic, at best I would be—to others—a nether witch who denied her fundamental nature.
Even if the viper doesn’t bite, it’s still a snake.
Despite ostracism from some of her friends and colleagues, Tia had taken me into her home. I’d asked, “Don’t you mind? They won’t speak to you anymore. You’re an outcast now . . . like me.”
She’d given me a fleeting smile. “I’m too old to care about such things, child. I don’t have much longer, and I choose to spend those days helping you. At least you’re willing to do my shopping when my legs hurt. That’s more than I can say for Juanita Lopez.”
I’d laughed, because Juanita was one of the worst; she’d hated me since my return. Before, she’d paid no attention to me at all. Apparently, my mother’s magick made me register on their visual radars well, whereas the touch had permitted me to run silent. Now I was a marked target.
With effort, I put the dark thoughts aside. Tia had been kind to me. I would make sure she didn’t suffer. She’d helped me with the grimoires I inherited from my mother, explaining various techniques. And she teased me mercilessly about Chance. He was good with her from experience with his own mother, Min.
“You should keep this one,” Tia would say. “You’ll make beautiful babies.”
I always laughed. It was almost—almost—enough to make me forget other pain. But I’d lost so much. Jesse, my almost–boyfriend, who didn’t remember me. My best friend, Shannon, who I missed even more than the man I’d thought I might love. In Laredo, I’d cast a forget spell—and screwed it up, giving the charm too much power—and fogged myself right out of their minds. Deep down I hoped the phone would ring soon. That the effect would wear off, and they’d both yell at me, and then everything could go back to the way it was.
But we don’t always get what we wish for. So far, my cell phone had been silent. No Shannon. No Jesse. And for obvious reasons, no Kel. He wasn’t—couldn’t—be here. It was awful that I wanted him to be, even a little bit, with Chance craving my attention. Kel wasn’t for me; rationally, I knew that. He was Nephilim, committed to fighting for all eternity. He didn’t have a life apart from his orders, and so there was nothing for me with him. It had been around two months since I’d seen him, three weeks since I’d come home. I shouldn’t be thinking of him. I should file our brief connection under MISTAKES I&RSQUO;VE MADE, or more accurately, THINGS I WANT BUT CAN&RSQUO;T HAVE.
Yet I found myself looking for him. Searching the crowd for him. Sure, I could call him, but what would I say? Hi. Missed you. Killed anybody amusing lately? You just didn’t trifle with someone who reported to archangels. So I remembered and I missed him and tried to put the pieces back together. Too bad they’d all been broken into jagged shapes that cut when I tried to connect the edges.
“You all right?” Chance asked, coming up beside me.
The mountains were beautiful, dark green and pointed like weapons against the darkening sky. Where I’d grown up, it was relatively flat and the countryside tended toward swampland. Until coming here, I’d never lived at high altitude. It changed everything from cooking to taking a walk. Everything felt like more of an achievement at seven thousand feet.
Including moving day.
I nodded. “Just tired. You fit a lot of boxes in the Mustang.”
“I’m a good packer. We used to move around a lot.”
“You and Min?”
His silence felt like an affirmative. Then I wondered why I didn’t know more about him, why I’d permitted his reticence. A woman more confident of her self–worth wouldn’t; she’d insist on learning about her lover. And if he didn’t care to share, she’d move on, looking for someone who wanted to be a partner, not a manager. The mistakes in our rearview didn’t all belong to Chance.
At length, he offered, “I think she was hiding from someone.”
“Your father . . . or the Montoyas?”
“Both? Min doesn’t talk about the past much.”
“And you didn’t press her.”
He shook his head. “I never wanted to disappoint her. She’d get this look, like I should know better than to ask. Like it was . . . impolite.”
“Maybe it’s a cultural thing?”
“What I’ve read suggests that it is. Which is weird—that I’m reading what it’s like to be Korean, but I’m American . . . and I’ve learned what I know about relating to people from my mom.”
“Did she ever have a boyfriend when you were growing up?”
Chance laughed. “Never. Not that they didn’t try. But she always seemed like she was waiting.”
“For your dad to come back?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry if this is frustrating, but some of it I really don’t know. She tried to give me a normal American childhood, as much as she could, as much as we could afford.”
“Well, at least you’re telling me straight out that you don’t have the answers,” I said, smiling. “That’s more than I got before.”
“Let’s unpack a little more, and then I’ll get us something to eat.”
The nice thing about the neighborhood, there were several tortillerias and taquerias within a couple of blocks, where I could buy rice and beans. The taco joints stayed open super–late, too, as they were a favorite of the college drinking crowd.
“Will you sleep over?” he asked.
I laughed. “You don’t even have a bed. But nice try.” In truth, he had little furniture. The Mustang carried his personal belongings, his books and clothes, but it couldn’t hold a sofa. “I’ll take you shopping tomorrow in the El Camino. I should be able to fit what you need, if we make multiple trips.”
“Thank you, Corine.”
I didn’t know what he was thanking me for—the offer of help or the second chance between us—but when he leaned down to kiss me, I forgot to wonder. His mouth tasted of tea and lemon with a hint of salt. It was a sweet nothing of a kiss, full of hope and expectation. Happiness swirled through me, despite everything I’d lost.
I forced myself to sound brisk. “If you had your way, we’d make out on the floor all night. Get to work.”
He grinned, shameless and beautiful, and my heart fluttered. The last of the light shone on his raven–dark hair, limning it blue. In profile, he was still the best thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t want to love him again; I feared it, but he had a siren’s call bound up in his tiger eyes and tawny skin. With Chance, I suspected—in the end—I would walk into the water, smiling, and let it close over my head.
An hour later I finished putting away his kitchen things, so at least we’d have cups and plates. The previous tenant had left some rusty wrought–iron patio furniture on the balcony, so we’d eat there, watching the sunset. I let myself out while Chance hung clothing in the bedroom. I ran lightly down the stairs; the hundred pesos in my pocket would more than buy our dinner.
The taqueria was two blocks down the hill. After passing the gate, I jogged them easily; thanks to my time in the jungle with Kel, passing Escobar’s test, I was fitter than I had been in years.
Because the food was good, there were a few people waiting outside. The man at the counter took my order and then I joined the queue. I got tacos al pastor, rice, and beans. Takeaway came in simple containers and wrapped in paper. I cradled the bag against my chest and retraced my steps. The security guy recognized me and didn’t demand my ID this time. He opened the gate just wide enough for me to slip through and then I headed for Chance’s flat. He met me at the door and relieved me of our repast, carrying it out to the balcony without being asked.
I guessed he realized there was nowhere else to eat. But in my absence, he’d fixed up the area with a couple of potted plants, cushions Min had embroidered, and candles. With the sun setting over the mountains, it was breathtaking.
“Absolutely. I can’t believe you managed all this so fast.”
He winked. “Not a problem. I just unpacked the box labeled SEDUCTION.”
“And you were doing so well too.” But I was smiling as I laid out the meal on dishes I remembered picking out with Chance.
Oh, goddess. When I agreed to a second try, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to keep from falling into his arms, without being sure we’d changed old patterns.
To my relief, he accepted the implicit request to back off. “So, what are you doing tomorrow?”
“In the morning I’m meeting with the project foreman and going over progress they’ve made on the reconstruction. Then I’ll practice my spells with Tia.”
“She’s a slave driver.”
“I have to master the magick.” It wasn’t open to debate.
“Are you free in the afternoon? Shopping?” he reminded me.
“Yeah, absolutely. I’ll pick you up at three?” There were a number of furniture stores in the area, and some had cash–and–carry availability. “Let’s see if we can get a mattress first, and then a sofa and a table?”
After dinner he spread some bigger pillows on the balcony and we curled up together. He’d truly given up everything for me. Started over. The night passed in sweet conversation and tentative plans. There was kissing too, of course, but I backed off before it got too intense. That didn’t seem fair to either of us when I would return to Tia’s place at the end of the night. At eleven, Chance walked me to her door, kissed me again, and I went inside.
My mentor had left a lamp on for me, but she’d gone to sleep an hour before; she rarely stayed up past ten. The woman followed the light, working during the day, reading a little at night. We had no television, but I didn’t miss it. Chance would want one, I thought as I put my purse on the bed. I hadn’t put my mark on this space—a simple room decorated in Colonial style—because I wouldn’t be here long, if the weather held and the work crew remained reliable. I’d hired an excellent foreman named Armando who was opposed to physical labor on his own behalf but excelled at making others buckle down.
Butch trotted to meet me, his nails clicking on the tile floor. He’d gotten a little pudgy since our return. He preferred staying with Tia while I worked at Chance’s place, as she had a nice courtyard where he could nap in the sun or chase birds. Usually it was the former—hence the Chihuahua spare tire.
“Anything exciting happen?” I asked, kneeling to scoop him into my arms.
He snuggled in with two quiet, negative yaps. It might not be normal for me to talk to my dog and get an answer, but it had been going on long enough that it didn’t seem odd to me anymore. I’d considered asking why he could understand me, but I’d decided some mysteries were better left alone.
“Did you keep Tia company?”
An affirmative bark.
I stroked his head, then scratched behind his ears, just as he liked. “Good boy. Did she remember to feed you?”
Yap. Yes. But Butch stared up at me with sad eyes, despite the fact that everything seemed to be okay in his world. I thought I knew what it was. “You miss Shannon, huh?”
Shannon had been my best friend ever since I rescued her in Kilmer. She’d become my roommate and my closest confidante. Before the shit went down in Laredo, we’d discussed opening a consignment store in the new building, becoming true partners. The girl had been the closest I had to a sister.
With Butch in my arms, I curled up on the bed and remembered.
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