oman met her outside, pushing past the patrol officers who had clearly been keeping him back.
“Christy! I was so afraid that . . .” He stopped himself and wrapped his arms hard around her, holding her tight and rocking. It felt oddly jarring after the ghost’s—the Master’s—powerful but gentle embrace. “Where
“Well, see, I—”
“Never mind. All that matters is that you’re safe.” Roman drew himself up and slung a protective arm around her waist. “Come on, sweet girl. Let me take you home. You can tell me all about it in the car.”
“I can drive myself, my car is—”
“I won’t hear of it. You’re pale and you’ve clearly had a bad scare. Let me take care of you.”
His insistence frightened her a little. The intensity of his eyes and the strength of his grip on her arm. Sanchez’s vague warnings echoed in her head, pissing her off. What business did he have, making her doubt her old friend?
“Okay.” She smiled at him. “Thank you.” And then he considerately turned off his usual blasting techno music and they rode in the car in blissful quiet.
Though it made the uneasiness stir again, she also didn’t argue when Roman brought her back to his place instead of her hotel room. Taking care of her seemed to make Roman happy, and it helped to be around him, a real human being she’d known nearly forever. And she did know him, despite Sanchez’s oily hints. Besides, she owed Roman for coming to her rescue yet again.
Especially because now, along with everything else, she felt guilty.
She imagined little green wisps of guilt-smoke wafting out of her ears, seeping from her pores as if she’d eaten too much garlic and wasn’t fit for romantic company. Roman had accepted her story at face value, sympathetic that she’d felt rattled at being left alone and had gone seeking Carla. If he’d too easily believed that she’d be dumb enough to get lost and then take a nap in the bowels of the opera house, that was her own fault for taking the bimbo defense.
Playing dumb works until you get tired of everyone thinking you’re a waste of air
, her father had reminded her the one or two times she’d tried that tactic with him.
One did not want Carlton Davis thinking you were a waste of air.
Roman’s place turned out to be a small mansion up Hyde Park Road. He excused it as modest—not like his folks’ place—but it clung to the hillside, a jeweled spider, multileveled with balconies and an infinity pool. All the brightly lit windows looked out over Santa Fe valley. The sunset views, no doubt, would be spectacular.
Christy stood in one of those windows, admiring the view, feeling more grounded all the time. The events of the night faded more with every passing moment. She could almost believe her own story—that she’d fallen asleep and dreamed it all.
“Not how I imagined you seeing my house for the first time,” Roman called from the open-area kitchen, where he was getting her a glass of wine. She became abruptly conscious of her grubbiness. Somehow she always felt underdressed around him. It wasn’t the money—she’d been around enough rich people to know plenty of them bought their clothes at Target.
She smiled over her shoulder. “It’s okay. I appreciate you giving me shelter.”
“I asked Gloria to start a bath for you in the guest suite.” Roman handed her a half glass of white wine. “I’m sure you’ll feel better after you’ve cleaned up.”
The wine tasted amazing, a soothing sweep through her bloodstream. It would have been really nice to have more than the child-sized portion he’d given her. She cast a rueful glance at her dusty sweatshirt. “I’d just have to put these back on—not much point.”
“I may have bought a few things I thought would look nice on you.” He smiled broadly when she protested. “Now, now—no complaints. I love to give you gifts. You might as well get used to it. The guest suite is down that way. Gloria is waiting for you. She has a robe you can put on, too.”
“Am I, um, staying the night?”
“I think that’s best—what your father would want me to do. You’re safe here with me, Christy, I want you to know that. I respect you as a woman. Don’t worry that I’ll take advantage. I want to do this right. In fact, we’re having a family party this weekend. I’d like you to come out to the Compound, see my father again and finally meet my mother and sister. They’ve been asking to see you. I told them we’ve been going out as more than friends.”
Whoa. Really too much to process all at once.
Guilt, guilt, guilt
. The little guilt fairies pranced around in her head.
“What is it, sweet girl?”
“Do you consider us to be . . . exclusive?”
He smiled at her over the rim of his much more generous glass of wine. “Don’t give a moment’s worry to that. I would never cheat on you. It goes against everything I believe in, our families’ honor, my church. You can trust in me, Christy. Always.”
He was such a great guy.
She didn’t know what Sanchez’s beef with him was, but she, at least, could show she believed in him. So, while she really would have rather holed up in her hotel room to think about all that had happened, instead she obediently trotted down to the guest wing level, to make Roman happy and to let poor Gloria go to bed.
Roman’s housekeeper turned out to be a matronly Hispanic woman who clucked sympathetically over Christy’s frightening adventure in the half English/half Spanish patois many New Mexicans seemed to use. Which meant she didn’t understand most of what the woman said to her. But that was okay.
Besides, the tub was fabulous.
Big enough for five people, sunken into the floor, and set into a niche of bay windows that hung over the valley, it more than made up for time served with only a small shower stall.
She sank into the steaming water, scented with something reminiscent of orange blossoms. Too sweet, but well intentioned. Gloria bustled off with Christy’s clothes, presumably to wash them, leaving her with a fluffy white robe.
“Captive again,” she muttered to herself. But then decided she didn’t mean it. Roman was only being kind. And the protective thing was because he cared for her. After all, he’d been the one to call the cops when he’d come looking for her and found her car still there, Carla gone, and the place locked up.
Christy swished her shoulders in the water, scooting down to get the heat up around the tight base of her neck. Apparently Carla thought Christy had taken off, and the woman had left without noticing her car was still there.
Gloria came bustling back in to see if she needed anything. When Christy asked for more wine, Gloria nodded with a Buddha smile—and brought her herbal tea and a burrito wrapped in a napkin, so she could hold it.
Suddenly ravenous, having totally forgotten that she’d never eaten dinner, she devoured the burrito, which turned out to be perfectly complemented by the soothing tea. Ferociously sleepy, she forced herself to climb out of the luxurious tub and pulled on the robe. The connecting guest room sported more windows and a California king bed that had been turned down for her.
Her bag sat on the dresser and she checked her phone. Nothing from her father, thankfully. Charlie had left her a voice mail telling her to take a sick day to rest up. He sounded carefully neutral. Hopefully he wasn’t angry at her causing so much trouble. She didn’t mind the reprieve from getting up early, however.
The phone was down to the last 20 percent of battery, but her charger was back at the hotel. Nothing to be done. Weary, she sat on the edge of the bed. Roman had left a note on her pillow, wishing her good night and sweet dreams. He’d see her in the morning.
Sliding naked between the million thread count sheets, she killed the bedside lamp and gazed at the warm lights of the city in the valley. The moon, the same amber-orange color as the discreet downward-facing lights, lowered herself in serene splendor toward the horizon. Christy toyed with the silver spiral pendant, sliding it back and forth on the chain, remembering the smile in the Master’s voice at seeing it, those chiseled lips curving beneath the inscrutable black mask.
Of course she dreamed of him.
Not of Roman, the handsome, genuinely caring guy who’d been her prince charming all her life. No—she dreamed of the Master. A swirl of dreams repeating themselves, a badly streaming movie that caught itself, restarted, and played again. Over and over, she waltzed with him, held at arm’s length while her nipples stood taut and her groin throbbed. Then she ran down the stairs, calling, shouting for someone. And her foot slipped off the metal step. She fell, dropping through black space, still calling that name.
Then they waltzed again, in dizzying circles. She pleaded with him, but he stayed remote, holding her only by his gloved hands, his icy-blue gaze focused on the distance.
She woke, disoriented, in utter darkness. Instead of the rough, over-bleached hotel sheets, expensive cotton flowed against her naked skin. Roman’s house.
But why was it so dark?
Finding her phone on the bedside, she saw it was past eleven in the morning. A remote control next to it let her open the blackout shades that had been lowered for her sometime during the night. Like blast shields on a spaceship, the blinds all rose simultaneously in majestic silence along the row of windows, letting in the bright morning sun.
She found a pink-flowered sundress in the bathroom, along with a cardigan and ballet-slipper flats. Gloria had washed her undies and left them on the hamper. No sign of her jeans and sweatshirt, alas.
Dressing in the clothes, which fit fine but seemed as if they belonged to some other girl, Christy wandered through the sprawling house, looking for Roman. Or food. Possibly both.
If anything, the place was even more beautiful in the daylight. Exquisitely decorated in what she’d learned was northern hacienda style. Not the adobe and Saltillo tile, but patterned brick and wood floors graced by rugs with colorful designs. The house could have stepped out of
magazine, and very likely had been featured in it at some point.
It was the antithesis of the phantom’s abode, the opposite of the eccentric cave deep beneath the opera house. Roman Sanclaro lived like a king, presiding over a world the Master lurked beneath.
She found Gloria in the kitchen, and the woman awarded her a bright
along with a mug of coffee, then pointed outside.
Roman sat at a table by the pool, shaded under an umbrella, working on a laptop. He waved and smiled at her but was absorbed in a phone call, so she wandered around the pool area.
The day was shaping up to be warm, the tiles of the deck nearly hot under her feet. The infinity pool stretched right up to the edge, water spilling over the far edge to fall into a trough that caught it to recycle back in. Beneath, the high-desert scrub scattered across the sharp incline, a sere contrast to the crystal aquamarine water of the pool.
“How’s my girl?” Roman’s arms slid around her waist and she leaned back against him. He kissed her cheek and mmm’d appreciatively. “I love your perfume. Sweet, like you.”
She laughed. “It’s your perfume. Of course you like it.”
“I do like what I like. And you—do you like my house? Pretty view?”
“It’s breathtaking. The way this pool seems to fall off the cliff is truly spectacular.”
“Yes. Though I’ve thought that when I have children, I’ll have to change it—wall it off. Too dangerous, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. “I haven’t been around little kids much. Surely that’s a ways in your future, isn’t it?”
He turned her in his arms and she faced him, the sun bright in her eyes so she squinted up at him. The disadvantage of flats.
“I think it’s finding the right person,” Roman said. “I’ll be thirty before much longer. I’ll need a son to follow in the family business.”
“And what if you have daughters?” she teased, trying to lighten his serious mood.
“Then I’ll have to make sure they marry the right boys.” He kissed her, chaste and light. “Do you think your father approves of me?”
“I’m not sure he approves of anyone.”
“He likes me. I’m sure of it. Come.” He grinned with charming confidence and steered her back to the table. “Gloria is bringing out some lunch.”
“I should get back to the hotel—my phone is nearly out of juice.”
“I’ll take care of that.” He slid the cell phone out of her hand and disappeared into the house.
Feeling at loose ends, she sat and sipped her coffee. She should be enjoying herself. The digs and the view were certainly far superior to the hotel’s—and, alas, better than the apartment she’d rented. But it was weird not to have her stuff. She nearly went to fetch her iPad, just to have something to do, when Roman, followed by a beaming Gloria, reemerged.
She clucked at him until he moved his laptop and files off the table, then proceeded to unload enough food to feed ten people, including a pitcher of sangria. Christy eyed it.
“A bit much for a weekday, isn’t it?”
“We’re celebrating your being okay.” Roman flashed his white teeth and took her hand. “I want you to rest and enjoy yourself today. I have some work to do, but I can do it from here. I thought maybe you could sunbathe by the pool. It’s supposed to be sunny and warm all day.”
“This dress isn’t really right for it.”
“I think it looks great on you.”
She plucked at the skirt, scattered with blush rosebuds. “I don’t wear much pink.”
“You should.” He poured her a half glass of sangria. “It suits you—very feminine and sweet.”
, she finished mentally, then felt bad for being snarky, if only in her head.
“Besides,” he continued, “I have some extra bathing suits, for guests.”
“All right, then,” she capitulated, “vacation day it is.” And she added more sangria to her glass, pretending she didn’t see his concerned frown.