Steadfast

Page 16

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“Holy Christmas, what was that?” Verlaine came up, already looking at the playback of the video on her phone. “This town is getting even weirder. Now we have possessed PTA moms wielding axes.”

Nadia let her hands fall to her side. To Ms. Walsh she said only, “We should get out of here. Let them sort things out.”

Which didn’t make much sense, but Ms. Walsh simply nodded. She backed away slowly, never taking her eyes off Nadia. The bracelet of charms around Nadia’s wrist had never felt so conspicuous before; she always thought of it as looking like just another piece of jewelry, but now she felt as though she were wearing a flashing sign that proclaimed her a witch.

That was ridiculous, of course. But as she watched Ms. Walsh go, one thought flashed through Nadia’s mind: She knows.

6

“FREE CHIPS,” GAGE SAID THROUGH A CRUNCHY MOUTHFUL. “Free salsa. To what do I owe the honor?”

“To Tuesday nights usually being the slowest of the week at La Catrina.” Mateo was wiping down the next table, getting it ready to turn over—though from the looks of things, it would be a while before it was filled. The red leather booths were mostly empty; the brilliantly colored skeletons on the walls almost had the place to themselves. Gage was the only person in Mateo’s section at the moment. “Also to my girlfriend being at the town hall meeting with Verlaine.”

“Verlaine—that’s the girl with gray hair, right?” Like most people, Gage didn’t seem to be able to remember Verlaine for very long. “Girlfriend, huh? You and Nadia sound serious.”

“Definitely.” Mateo knew he was starting to grin, and that he was probably going to get teased about it, but he didn’t care. “As serious as it gets.”

“Whoa, whoa. Check yourself. ‘As serious as it gets’ is my grandparents, who just had their fifty-third anniversary.”

“Okay. As serious as it gets before that.”

Gage shook his head. “Listen, don’t bite my head off for this, but it wasn’t that long ago that you and Elizabeth Pike were acting like you were way more than friends.”

The memory made Mateo’s gut turn over. At Gage’s party, he’d passionately kissed Nadia . . . at least, someone he’d believed to be Nadia. But Gage and everyone else there had seen the truth: Mateo had been in Elizabeth’s arms the whole time. Elizabeth had cloaked herself in magic and tricked him into thinking she was Nadia.

“That was a one-time deal,” Mateo said. “One time only. The biggest mistake ever.”

“So Elizabeth’s available again?” Gage looked hopeful.

“Seriously, don’t go there.” Although Mateo seriously doubted Gage would ever get up the courage to so much as talk to Elizabeth, or that Elizabeth would pay him any attention if he did, his friend’s old crush on her was so powerful that he felt like he should warn him off just in case. “Trust me on this.”

“You aren’t talking like you’re totally over Elizabeth. Or even slightly over her.”

“There’s nothing to get over,” Mateo said, temper rising—but he bit it back just in time. Gage Calloway was the closest thing he had to a best friend besides Nadia, and it wasn’t Gage’s fault he could never know the truth about what had happened with Elizabeth, or what she really was. “I promise.”

Gage shrugged as he dug another chip into the salsa. “All I know is, Elizabeth better be on the same page about you guys being ‘over,’ or you’re setting yourself up to be the guy in a Taylor Swift song.”

“She’s on the same page. That much I know for sure.” At least he didn’t have to worry about her touching him ever again.

Mateo’s phone buzzed in the pocket of his black apron. He lifted it to see a text from Nadia. As the messages kept coming, line after misspelled, rushed line, his eyes widened.

“Uh-oh,” Gage said. “Girlfriend drama?”

Now Verlaine had just sent him video of—whoa. “You could say that.”

“I should never have tried a brand-new spell in an emergency.” Nadia leaned against the side of the building, her face still streaked from her earlier tears. They stood in the alleyway behind La Catrina, in the harsh circle of light from a nearby streetlamp; everything else around them was dark.

There were shapes and shadows around them only Mateo could see—like faces made of darkness, staring all the while—but he was learning to put those aside when he could. Right now Nadia needed him. “You were trying to help Mrs. Prasad. You did your best. You couldn’t have known that was going to happen.”

“I could’ve known if I had enough practice.” She pushed her thick, black hair back from her face, like a little girl awakened from a nightmare. “Instead the exact same demon I was trying to expose? He had to fix everything.”

“You said he just . . . gave you an extra minute. You’re the one who saved the day.”

“If Asa hadn’t done it, Mrs. Prasad probably would have killed somebody, and it would have been my fault.”

Mateo took her by the shoulders. “No. Nadia, come on. Snap out of this. You and I both know who’s really responsible. Elizabeth is the one who killed Jeremy. She’s the one who put a demon in his place. This is her fault. Only her fault. So stop beating yourself up about it, okay?”

Nadia shook her head. “It’s not that simple.”

“Yeah, it is.” He folded her close against his shoulder. His fingers were woven through the thick silk of her hair, cradling the back of her head. He tried to imagine all the thoughts within her brain, the countless strands of hope and grief and love and fear interwoven there, so infinitely more complex than he could ever begin to understand. And yet there was nothing he wanted more than this—to know her. His lips against her temple, Mateo murmured, “You try to take care of everyone, all the time. Then you get mad at yourself when it’s impossible.”

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