Forbidden Fruit (Corine Solomon #3.5) - Page 4


“I better take you home. I’ll ask around, regarding the spell, and I’ll let you know what I find out.”

Balls. Round one to Jesse Saldana, but I’m in it to win it.

Four

Since I have Saturday off, I hop a bus that takes me partway to Chuch and Eva’s house. They live outside of town, so it’s still a fair walk. I could call instead, but if you’ve ever tried talking to new parents on the phone, then you know why I’m making the trip. Along the way, I turn down a couple of guys who slow with suggestive looks. Yeah, they’re offering more than a ride…or rather, it’s not transportation they’re thinking about.

As with so many other facts, I’m fuzzy on the details, but I get the impression that Chuch used to be a badass before he settled down. He hasn’t told me as much, but I suspect their old house burned as a result of his shady past. On the plus side, the insurance paid, so they got a new house out of the deal, bigger and better than the old one, mostly because Chuch and his cousins did most of the actual labor, so the money stretched.

The new place is beautiful. It’s weird that I can remember what their old place looked like but not how long I’ve been in Laredo. Or how we met, exactly. But I’m used to that kind of thing—fucking magick, man. Anyway, the architectural style borrows from a couple of schools, Colonial and Mediterranean, which maybe doesn’t sound like it would work, but together, they create an amalgam of Texan charm, warm with stucco and mosaic tiles.

I walk up to the front door and ring the bell. Eva answers a few minutes later, looking harried. Baby Camille is propped on her hip. “Hey, Shannon. How are you? I’ve been meaning to call, but these days, it seems like I stumble from nap to nap.”

“It’s not a problem. Can I come in for a few minutes?”

“Absolutely. Just be warned, the house is a mess.”

Sometimes when people say that, they’re being disingenuous and you step inside to find tidy décor worthy of Martha Stewart. This is not the case with Casa Ortiz. It kind of looks like a baby store exploded in here. There are blankets and afghans everywhere, toys strewn on the floor. A fine layer of dust coats everything, and I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since the floor was mopped.

And there are frogs everywhere. Not live ones, but little ceramic or china knickknacks. Chuch collects them, apparently. He says they’re good luck.

“You want something to drink?” Eva looks so tired.

“Just water for me. Sit down… I’ll get it. What do you want?”

“I want coffee, but I can’t have it. I’m breastfeeding. So water for me too.”

From my stay with them before, I’m familiar with how she organizes her cupboards, so I fill two glasses with ice and pour from the filtered pitcher Eva keeps in the fridge. Then we both sit down at the kitchen table. I feel guilty for bothering her, but I really need to know.

“So I talked to my mom,” I start.

Both her brows shoot up. “I thought she was dead.”

The weird thing is, I don’t remember telling her that…but clearly she knows. This is kind of like me knowing things about Jesse that he can’t recall sharing. Something super weird is going on here.

“She is,” I answer, my expression reminding her that for me, death’s not a barrier to conversation.

“Right. You were saying?” She jogs Camille on her knee, which makes the baby smile, all pink gums and chubby cheeks.

“I learned something interesting from her. It appears that this brain fog comes from a spell. Do you know anything about that?”

For a split second, she freezes. But I read the answer in her eyes. She does know. Maybe not everything, but there are definitely secrets hidden in Eva Ortiz’s dark eyes. Yet she shakes

her head.

“That’s strange. But it explains a lot.”

“Would you tell me if I pissed off a witch?” I ask.

“As far as I know, you haven’t irked anyone. I mean, you haven’t been living in Laredo that long, relatively speaking.” She shrugs. “But I wouldn’t worry about it. Spells don’t last forever. I’m sure if you’re patient, your memories will return on their own.”

“Easy for you to say,” I mutter. “You’re not the one with a hole in your head. Figuratively speaking.”

“I know.” Her look becomes sympathetic. “It must be frustrating.”

Then why are you lying to me?

But before I can press the point, Chuch comes in the back door. “Shan! You missed us, huh?”

Chuch is a thick, short guy just starting to get a paunch. Considering how classically gorgeous Eva is, they make a bit of an odd couple since his face can best be described as…battered. He’s also a hugger. He demonstrates the latter by yanking me out of my chair and squashing me against his chest. Since he smells like motor oil, I guess he was working in the garage. That’s how he makes his living, restoring old cars.

“How’s it going, prima?” Chuch calls me “coz” like we’re related. I’m told it’s affectionate, meant to acknowledge me as family even though I’m really not.

“Not great.”

“What’s wrong?”

Eva shoots him a sharp look, but Camille interrupts with a loud noise, then the smell that permeates the kitchen is truly horrific. If I were eating, I might hurl.

“I need to take care of this,” Eva says.

“Before it eats through her skin,” I mumble.

I’m not sorry to see her go, however. Based on past experience, I know Chuch is susceptible to big eyes and feminine pleading. This means his daughter has him wrapped him around her pinkie. Maybe I can do the same. I lean forward, elbows on the table, watching him as he fixes a glass of sweet tea.

“So what’s on your mind?”

“The amnesia spell somebody dropped on me.”

He offers an assessing look, and his expression turns cagey. “You know about that?”

“Yep.” Maybe I can make him think I know more than I do, trick him into revealing something crucial. Eva will be pissed, but I can live with that.

“Then you know it was done with the best of intentions.”

I didn’t, actually. But that dovetails with my fear that I’ve done something terrible, so bad it had to be wiped from my brain for me to cope. A shiver rolls through me, and it’s not hard at all to aim an anguished look at Chuch.

“Just tell me what happened, please.”

“Shan, if I remind you of what the spell’s blocking too soon, the feedback could seriously hurt you.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“Then you should listen. We’re not keeping quiet to be assholes.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” But being rude will just annoy the few friends I have, so I shove to my feet. “Thanks for the drink. I should get home.”

“Did Maria drop you off?”

“Nah. For me, it’s the bus, then the pedestrian shuffle.” I should’ve lied because now he’s on his feet.

“Let me run you back. It’s two miles to the nearest bus stop.”

“I’m aware. But you don’t need to—”

“Eva!” Chuch calls. “I’ll be back in half an hour. I’m taking Shannon home.”

“Pick up toilet paper and baby wipes!”

He sighs but he’s smiling. “I swear she thinks of something for me to buy anytime I leave the house. It’s like she’s

proving I’m properly trained.”

“You love it.”

“It’s true. Come on.”

Chuch owns six cars in various stages of restoration, and he chooses the sportiest, a black Charger. I climb in, listening to him ramble about marriage and fatherhood. This monologue would constitute complaining from any other guy, but Chuch loves Eva so much that he’s happy she’s there, organizing his life and telling him what to do. I’ve noticed that he doesn’t always listen, however. Sometimes he nods at whatever she says and then does something else.

He’s a fast driver, but safe, so it doesn’t take long to reach my neighborhood, much quicker than the bus. I convince Chuch to drop me off at the mom-and-pop store five blocks from my apartment, and through some miracle I persuade him to let me walk home afterward. He comes in long enough to grab Eva’s requested items, but he hurries off, officially relieved of responsibility. I’m grateful that people care what happens to me, but I need to take care of my own business.

In the market, I take my time since I’m on a budget and it’s an exercise in humiliation if I bring more to the register than I can afford. In my shopping basket, I’ve got bread, cereal, milk, turkey, lettuce, noodles, tuna, tomatoes, and good cheese. Hopefully these groceries will last until my next payday.

At first, I don’t notice my shadow. I mean, the guy’s not memorable: thin, middle-aged, wispy brown hair, and a sallow face. He’s just another shopper in the small store, browsing among the pasta. But when I turn down the next aisle, I see him move in the round, silver mirror hung at the back of the store.

A chill goes down my spine.

Without my radio, I’m as helpless as the next girl, and I don’t like the feeling. As I shop, I watch the way he keeps pace. I can’t decide if this is regular pervert stalking or if he’s observing me for some other, possibly more alarming, reason.

It’s fine. There are other people around.

I’m a little nervous about walking home, but there are no back streets. One of the reasons my half of the rent is so cheap is because the apartment’s on a main road, noisy, but there’s a bus stop nearby and shopping within walking distance. It’s not upscale, but most of Laredo has seen better days. On the positive side, it only costs three hundred a month to live here, plus my share of the utilities.

The creeper’s still following me.

There’s only one cash register, so he waits for a few more people to get in line behind me, while he pretends to study a display. Then he joins the queue. My heart beats faster as I wait my turn. After check out, I have two dollars and forty-six cents left. Could be worse. I already gave Maria the rent money, and the other bills aren’t due until later. I might need to take a second job in order to afford tuition, but that leaves the excellent question of when I’ll find the time to attend classes.

Whatever. I hurry out of the store, wondering if he’ll drop his items and follow. When he does, it feels like ice freezing at the base of my spine. Instead of leaving the parking lot, I set my bags down and get out my phone. When Mr. Nondescript pops out of the market, I snap a picture.

“I’m sending this to my boyfriend, who’s a cop.” Jesse isn’t, but this asshole doesn’t know that. “If I catch you tailing me again, I’m sure he’ll find something to charge you with.”

The man stills, scanning me head to toe at a leisurely pace, and I feel like I need a hot shower. Or maybe I need to sit in the shower to rock and weep…because I’ve never felt tainted by a look before. In the afternoon sunlight, his eyes glint strangely, first yellow, and then red, like blood’s flowing inside his sclera.