Calon Suami Buat Novelis oleh Eliza A.B


Nak cari calon suami bukan semudah ABC. Bukan macam pilih sayur di pasar. Kenalah pilih yang betul-betul sesuai dan kena dengan jiwa. Begitulah yang terjadi kepada Qaira Nur Imani. Cadangan Puan Noraini memperkenalkan dia dengan beberapa calon suami membuatkan dia rasa sesak nafas. Qaira Nur Imani, seorang novelis yang serik untuk jatuh cinta lagi. Cukuplah tiga kali dia kecewa kerana bertepuk sebelah tangan. Lantaran itu, pintu hatinya ditutup buat insan yang bergelar lelaki. Namun, perkara itu tidak menghalang Puan Noriani mencari calon suami untuk anaknya itu. “Selagi Aira tak bawa calon untuk ibu, selagi itu ibu akan kacau hidup Aira!” – Puan Noraini Bagi Qaira, nak cari calon suami bukan semudah ABC. Kenalah pilih yang betul-betul sesuai dan kena dengan jiwa serta dapat menggetarkan naluri perempuannya. Kalau boleh, dia menginginkan seorang suami sama seperti hero-hero dalam novelnya. Pertemuan dengan jejaka kacak Hadif Asyraf merubah hidup Qaira. Hadif yang juga mempunyai masalah yang sama dengan Qaira melamar Qaira walaupun mereka baru berkenalan. Bagi Hadif, dia yakin dengan prinsip 5B ciptaannya. Berkenalan, berkawan, bercinta, berkahwin dan bahagia. “Aku nak melamar kau jadi isteri aku. Kita kahwin?” – Hadif “Memang kita dah berkenalan. Kita pun dah berkawan. Tapi kita belum bercinta. Mana boleh berkahwin terus?” – Qaira “Kalau macam tu, kita kahwin kemudian kita bercinta. Aku nak jadi hero kau selama-lamanya.”- Hadif Qaira dalam dilema. Calon sudah ada tapi mampukah Hadif menjadi calon suami buatnya seperti yang diidamkan? Mampukah dia membuka pintu hatinya buat Hadif Asyraf buat kesekian kalinya?

Pertama kali admin membaca eBook ini, admin rasa tertarik dengan perkembangan jalan cerita dan perkembangan watak antara Qaira Nur Imani dan Hadif Asyraf. Dari benci antara satu sama lain hingga lah masing-masing akhirnya terjatuh cinta terhadap satu sama lain. Bibit-bibit percintaan mereka memang sangat sweet hingga bersemut eBook ni admin baca. Jalan ceritanya untuk suatu kejadian agak sedikit meleret dan dicerita berulang kali menyebabkan admin melonjak ke beberapa muka surat seterusnya ketika bacaan. Pada mulanya, Qaira sering kali menghadapi kekeliruan dengan hatinya. Manakala, Hadif pula cepat membaca naluri hatinya, dia cepat sedar yang dia sebenarnya dah jatuh hati terhadap Qaira apabila 3 bulan mengenali gadis itu. Disebabkan Qaira tidak pasti dengan hatinya, bermacam-macam hal yang terjadi selama perkenalan mereka. Admin rasa kesian pun ada terhadap kedua-dua keluarga Qaira dan Hadif kerana Qaira banyak kali buat masalah. Admin rasa mungkin ada antara kita yang boleh relate dengan apa yang Qaira hadapi. Qaira takut bertepuk sebelah tangan lagi sepertimana yang terjadi waktu dahulu sebelum dia berjumpa dengan Hadif. Admin kagum dengan keberanian Qaira untuk luahkan perasaan terhadap lelaki yang diminatinya dahulu kerana walaupun ini generasi yang baru, bukan ramai perempuan yang mahu dan berani untuk membuat langkah pertama. Tetapi jika dah namanya perempuan, maka akan terasa kecil juga diri apabila luahan hati dipandang sepi. Beberapa hari sebelum tarikh perkahwinan Qaira dan Hadif, Qaira menghilangkan diri selama sebulan. Memang remuk hati Hadif bila Qaira buat dia sebegitu rupa. Tapi kenapa Qaira melarikan diri? Apa sebenarnya yang terjadi? Nak tahu dengan lebih lanjut tentang novel ini?



Salting Roses by Lorelle Marinello


The morning interview with her grandma and Sam’s watchful gaze had taken more out of Gracie than she cared to admit. She still hadn’t glanced at the date on her birth certificate. It seemed like a simple thing, just a few numbers—something she’d always wondered about—but just knowing the actual date would make the last week just a little too real. Already she was beginning to lose track of where Gracie Calloway ended and Katherine Hammond began.

Sam had sensed her need to be alone and reluctantly let her leave with a promise to go straight home. Her grandma had backed off when she said she had to pack for the trip to Montgomery to sign papers, which was the truth. But first she had to fix things with Alice.

Old Man Guilt had been following her around all day and wouldn’t leave her be. The image of Alice’s wobbly lips and dog-sad eyes kept popping into her mind. Alice had come out fighting for her, and she’d just stood there, tongue-tied like a fool with her mind looping around the sparkly image of her flesh-and-blood mama.

Gracie kicked off her sandals on Alice’s back porch and smoothed the wrinkles out of the yellow dress, hoping Clare had delivered her regrets and softened Alice up. Her girlish side had always admired Alice’s frilly kitchen in a moth-to-flame sort of way. It was practically a religious experience, complete with a hand-painted statue of a smiling Lord Jesus who stood guard over Alice’s row of fancy china cups and saucers.

The smells—a mixture of fresh-baked pies, coffee, and Alice’s lavender body powder—hit her as soon she stepped through the doorway. Gracie’s apology went still on her tongue.

Alice clutched a rolling pin in her right hand and offered it to Clare. “Now, if the piecrust isn’t kept chilled, it will get sticky, then hard as wood when it bakes. Might even break your sweetheart’s tooth. And he won’t thank you for it. Then you’ll have a toothless man smiling at you from across the table the rest of your days. Makes me shudder just to think of it.”

Clare looked up from what she was doing. “Your neighbor, Skip Evers, has a nice smile.”

Alice quickly swallowed her surprise, then beamed back at Clare. “Why, yes, he certainly does. Mind you, that’s because I told Millie Evers to make sure he brushes twice a day.” As sly a smile as Gracie had ever seen spread across Alice’s lips. “I hear he came by twice to check on you while I was at work this morning.”

Clare blushed. “He did, and the second time he brought me flowers. No one has ever brought me flowers before.”

“Oh my, but how sweet our Skippy is. Flowers, like teeth, are the mark of a true gentleman. Gracie is immune to his charms. But that’s just as well now that she has her fancy mama to make a fuss over her.”

Alice let out a sorrowful sigh, then reached over to guide Clare’s hands. “Roll it gently now, dear. Not too thin. There you go. Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it?”

“This is fun. I could do this all day.” Clare’s voice had a skip it hadn’t had when she arrived in Shady Grove. “What’s next?”

“Hand me that pie dish from the table, would you?”

Gracie stepped out of the shadows and hurried toward the dish. “Here you go, Alice.”

Alice’s hands flew to her chest as she spun around. “Lord Almighty, you scared the livin’ daylights out of me, child. Haven’t I told you not to sneak up on me when I’m in the kitchen? Clare, bring me my stool, would you? My heart’s nearly out my throat. I need to catch it before it runs off.”

Clare plunked the stool down beside Alice. “I can finish. Just tell me what to do.”

Alice reached for Clare’s arm as she lowered herself onto the stool. “Why, thank you. You are such a dear.”

“I’m just so happy to be here. I can hardly find the words.”

Alice tightened her grip on Clare’s hand. Gracie couldn’t believe her eyes … or her ears. Was that a drawl she’d heard slipping over her sister’s New England accent? Alice had turned Clare into her clone, right down to the calico apron hugging her sister’s waist. Where was the brave girl she’d been sharing secrets with just this morning?

Gracie felt her temper bump up a notch. “Are you feeling sickly? Do I need to call the doctor?”

Alice pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and dabbed at her eyes. “I thought you’d be packing for your tea party at the Riverview.” Alice’s sharp gaze was taking in her new dress.

Gracie swallowed the inclination to snap back that she had nothing to pack. “Not yet. I’m only going for one day. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”

Alice leaned toward Clare. “Tell me, dear. What do you think of Gracie in yellow? Did I choose the wrong color?”

Clare’s gaze did the jitterbug, flitting back and forth between Jesus and the teacups behind Gracie’s head. “Yellow turns my skin green, but on Gracie it looks great.”

Bless the teacups and the happy Jesus. The spell was lifted. The Clare she knew was back.

But Alice didn’t seem to notice. She was still considering Gracie’s dress with her finger propped against one cheek. “I suppose it will do for tea with your new mama.”

Clare dropped the rolling pin on the counter and shot Gracie a panicked look. “But I thought you said she’d gone home—”

Alice’s gaze was intent on Gracie’s. “She arrived at the crack of dawn with an entourage of paparazzi.”

“The press was here? Why didn’t somebody tell me?” Clare’s voice jumped an octave.

Alice didn’t seem to notice. She had her laser stare fixed on Gracie. “The street was cluttered with news vans of all sorts, just when that nice Mr. Fontana had told them to stay away. She brought them on purpose, I’ll bet.”

Gracie glared back at Alice. “You don’t know that for sure. She came to invite me to tea.”

“Most folks send a proper invitation.” Alice’s bottom lip jutted out, and her eyes narrowed behind the glare of her glasses. She was still on a snipe hunt.

Clare untied her apron and thrust it at Gracie. “If my mother finds out Lillian is still here, she’ll be right behind her … I’ll have to leave. Where will I go?”

Alice commandeered Clare’s hand and patted it gently. “Don’t worry, my dear. She wouldn’t dare come here, where she’s not welcome.”

Clare stopped dithering and sent Gracie a look of apology. They both knew Alice wasn’t talking about Clare’s mother, but Gracie’s own mama. Artie had been right: This wasn’t a battle Gracie couldn’t win without losing an arm or a leg. She’d only made things worse with Alice.

Gracie slammed through Ben’s kitchen and snatched up the envelope Kate Hammond had given her, then peeked into Artie’s room. He was lying in a sea of new pillows. The oxygen tube still ran from his nose. Playing cards were spread over the coverlet in front of him.

“Quit your spyin’ and get yourself in here. I ain’t had nobody but ornery women bothering me today.”

She’d spent endless hours playing solitaire with Artie: when it was too hot to move, then again when the rains came and they couldn’t go outside and play ball. Artie was the only one she knew who could beat Old Sol with any regularity. Never once had she suspected him of cheating, but Alice claimed he did.

Gracie perched on a stool and studied the cards. “You’ve reached a dead end. Time to fold.”

Artie worked through the cards in his hand one more time. Magically an ace of spades surfaced. Then there was no stopping him. One-by-one, the cards fell into place. A smile tugged at his lips. “You been draggin’ your sorry ass around too long, girl. Don’t you think it’s time for you to pull yourself out of it?” Artie set the last card into place with a snap.

“I’ll drag as long as I want. Besides, I’ve got reason.” Gracie fumbled with the envelope of photos she’d taken from her grandmother.

“Some folks would say you don’t … but they’re not standin’ in your shoes, so you just go on and wallow, now, you hear?” One of his gray brows lifted her way expectantly.

“I haven’t had time to wallow. I’ve got visitors coming out of the walls.”

Artie laid the two of spades on the ace, then shuffled the pile one more time. “That so?” You gonna tell me who, or are you gonna make an old man wear hisself out guessin’?”

“My sister showed up in her mama’s car with a trunk full of fancy new clothes. Now Alice is in her kitchen teaching her to make pies. And I’ve got a grandma who puts a whole new twist on the word Yankee.”

Artie was quiet for a minute, but Gracie wasn’t fooled; his thoughts were working at lightning speed, making connections. “I see you’s wearing Alice’s new dress—even though I knows you never liked yellow.”

“I can change my mind, can’t I?”

“I told you not to worry ‘bout Alice. She might fuss a bit coming out of the gate, but she’ll come ‘round.”

“There was no gate. She cut straight through the fence. All it took was one look at my mama, and she was like a fast horse heading down the track. I tried to slow her down by putting on this silly dress, but she just ran me down and stole my sister. I give up.”

“You know damn well you and Alice ain’t never seen anythin’ with the same pair of eyes. That’s been goin’ on long before this new trouble come along. Why you so worried about what she thinks now?”

Artie’s look told her he knew why, but he wanted her to say it out loud so she could hear the words for herself. What could she say? “My world is burstin’ at the seams. Alice is running off to marry the reverend. Who knows what’s going on between Ben and the Widow Perkins? Did I mention Jimmy is squeezing me out of my job? And you tell me you’ve already bought a space in the Big Man’s parking lot—” She didn’t even bother to add Sam Fontana to the list. “I got more rights than most to feel out of sorts.”

“Yes, you do. But some of those things that’s sucking up your smile is things you can’t change. Let those go. Worry about the things you can change. Facts is facts.” Artie reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers. “Now, what about your new family? I suppose their faces are witchy and ugly like yours, long-nosed with warts. You bring them along?” Artie pretended to peer past her shoulder. Something told her he already knew the details. From the look on his tired face, she’d guess he’d missed his nap waiting for her to show up and spill the news.

Gracie tucked Alice to the back of her mind and offered Artie a smile. “Chantel’s been tattling, hasn’t she?”

Artie nodded, then released her hand and settled into the pillows. “She came over to brag about how that Yankee gave her time off, paid. That girl is so busy looking for easy street, she gonna miss the turn—unlike you. You’s gonna miss it ‘cause you gots your eyes shut so tight you can’t see where you’re goin’.” Artie’s gaze dipped to the envelope. “What you got there?”

“A headache.”

“I mean, in that envelope you’s huggin’ so tight.”

“Oh, this?” Gracie lowered the package to her lap. “Just some old baby pictures. Nothing much.”

“Hand me my glasses, girl. I want to see if you were as ugly as I remember.” Artie cracked a smile, but it was a good twenty calibers weaker than his usual sassy grin.

Gracie’s heart seized up. He was fading right before her eyes. Reluctantly, she dumped the pictures into his lap, then reached for his glasses while she tried unsuccessfully to press the tears back into her eyes. “Here you go. Knock yourself out.”

Artie let her watery voice slide by without a second glance. “Well, look at you. Why, you weren’t nothin’ but a tadpole. I seen kittens born bigger than you. And this must be your daddy.” Artie moved the photo up and down until he found the right focus through his bifocals. “You got his chin. Must have a pair of mules in his britches, jus’ like you.”

Gracie resisted the urge to grab the picture away before Artie saw something she wasn’t ready to admit to. For some reason, the picture was painful for her to look at, but she’d wanted it more than anything. If her grandmother had refused to give it to her, she would have found a way to get a copy, even if it meant stealing.

Artie moved on to the next photo. Gracie held her tongue through his grunts, snorts, and nods. When he’d finished, he tucked the snapshots carefully into the envelope—all but the one.

Gracie reached for it, but he snatched it away.

Slowly he raised his one-eyed laser stare in her direction. “I figured this would be the one you’d like the best. I knowed, if it was me, it would be the one I’d pick. Makes me feel sorta like I gypped your daddy.”

Gracie swallowed the lump in her throat. “Why’s that?”

“Well, ‘cause he’s lookin’ at you like you could move heaven and earth. I’m thinkin’ he was a lonely man and you was his North Star.”

“Save your pity for someone else. He lived in this town, shopped in my store, sent me flowers, but he never told me who he was. I had a right to know, and he never said boo. Now I don’t know who the hell I am.”

“You’re Gracie Lynne Calloway—the girl who pitched three no-hitters in a row; the girl who spends her Thanks-givin’ deliverin’ food to folks who ain’t got none, and it wasn’t ‘cause Alice and her churchy friends made you. You’s still the same girl—except for them shoes. They’s some kinda ugly.”

“They’re yours.” Gracie blinked away her tears.

“I thought I taught you not to lie. They ain’t ever been on my stylish feet. No, siree. Arthur Dubois may be poor, but he gots his pride. You been fishin’ in Moses Day’s trash heap, that’s what.”

Gracie felt tears crowd her eyes again. She dashed them away with the back of her hand. “Alice burned my clothes.”

Artie laid the picture down on the coverlet. After a long silence, he nodded his head. “Me and Alice don’t agree on much, you know that. But I’m thinkin’ maybe this time she’s right.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Artie had always been on her side when Alice got pushy. “Right? About what?”

“That you need to leave the nest. Burnin’ your clothes is her way of shovin’ you out. Ben and me, we got too used to you doin’ for us. Don’t you see, this is your big chance, girl, to do something in a big way besides take care of two old men who smell more every year. Ain’t you got no dreams?”

Gracie stared back at Artie. No one had ever asked her that. The answer had to be yes, ‘cause everybody had a dream, right? She could feel Artie’s gaze hanging on hers, waiting for an answer.

But if she was still Gracie Calloway, not Katherine Hammond, like Artie said, then she was the same child who’d been left on the front porch. Even that girl had had dreams at one time—dreams of a fairy-tale mother who thought she was the cat’s meow. But she’d learned over the years just because she wanted something to be true, dreaming didn’t make it so. Gracie met his prying look with a stubborn frown. “I don’t have time for dreams, Artie.”

“Uh-huh, that’s what I thought. You’s been so busy worryin’ about other folks, you forgot all about little ol’ Gracie Calloway. I’m talkin’ about big dreams like the ones Martin Luther King and John Kennedy had.”

Gracie felt the day creeping up on her. Her arms and legs ached along with her head. She stared at the forgotten photographs in Artie’s lap, then shifted her gaze to Artie’s face. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“I’m askin’ ‘cause you ain’t, don’t you see?”

Gracie felt her voice go small in her throat. She propped one foot on her knee and toyed with the frayed shoelace. “I wanted to sing once. But we both know that isn’t gonna happen.”

“Ain’t that the truth. You got the singin’ voice of a crow. What else? There’s got to be somethin’.”

Sam and his grin skated uninvited into Gracie’s mind. Gracie tried to shoo the image away without success. As soon as one version of Sam was gone, another replaced it, until she felt a serious frown tugging at the corners of her mouth.

When she glanced up, Artie’s eagle gaze fixed on her face. Finally his eyes lit and he cracked that smug grin of his that made his ears crinkle along his cheeks. “You’s in love. Hot damn. About time.”

Gracie hopped off her perch on the bed. “You’re crazy. I’ve got to go pack. I’m going to Montgomery—just for a day, mind you. Don’t go getting any funny ideas about me and Mr. Fontana, because they’re just not so.” Gracie collected the envelope from Artie’s lap.

A broad smile curved his face. “I been prayin’ for this day a mighty long time. Yes, siree. My little chick is about to spread her wings.”

“Well, don’t stop, because it’s not here yet. I’m just going to sign some papers.”

“You go on, now. And get yourself some pretty new clothes while you’s there.” Artie started to cough. The raspy sound was deeper this time.

A rush of fear and lack of sleep the night before made Gracie’s head swim. She reached for Artie’s hand. “I can stay here. Sam can arrange for them to come to Shady Grove, if they need me so bad. I don’t give a damn about the money.”

“You met someone else you want to give it to? Someone who will do good with it? From what you tell me, that money could end up in the hands of some mighty shortsighted folks. I know you, girl. You’d never forgive yourself. It would eat at your socks. Seems to me, you gots some serious thinkin’ to do.”

“I’m beginning to think that’s the problem—too much thinking.”

“Maybe you’re startin’ in the wrong place. First off, you gots to know what your dreams is, ‘cause if you don’t, I don’t see how you can know what to do.”

They were back to that again. Gracie still didn’t have an answer—at least any she was ready to admit to. She prayed that as long as she was still looking for an answer, he’d be waiting. If Artie could trick Old Sol as many times as he had, he could trick the Grim Reaper just once.


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Half Girlfriend oleh Zura Rahman


TATKALA memandu keluar dari pekarangan Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kota Kinabalu, udara segar dari Laut China Selatan menggamit hidung. Baunya umpama rasa air laut, seperti mereka sedang berada di tepi pantai. Segar dan mendamaikan. Sesuai dengan nama jolokannya, Sabah, Negeri Di Bawah Bayu.

Ford Ranger hitam meluncur perlahan menyelusuri bandar Kota Kinabalu yang terletak di pinggir laut.

“Wow, boleh tahan juga KK ni…” tutur Hadana perlahan.

“Apa yang boleh tahan?” CK yang memandu bertanya. Dia mengerling ke arah isterinya sekilas sebelum memandang semula ke hadapan.

Sesampai mereka pagi tadi, kenderaan sudah pun tersedia untuknya. Kawannya Razif, yang menetap di Kota Kinabalu telah bermurah hati meminjamkannya keretanya. Ford Ranger dihantar oleh pekerja Razif ke lapangan terbang.

“Development kat sini. Tak sangka KK ada banyak shopping mall…” kata Hadana sembari melilau ke luar. Di pinggir jalan, pembinaan pusat membeli-belah dan beberapa bangunan lain sedang berlaku. Terdapat juga pusat membeli-belah yang akan dibuka.

“Banyak sangat kut…” tambah CK.

“Dekat-dekat pula tu… Bukan ramai pun orang kat sini.”

“Nak cater orang kat tempat lain juga kut…”

“Hurm… Maybe.” Selain KK, bandar-bandar lain hanyalah bandar-bandar kecil. Pembangunan di bandar- bandar lain tidak serancak di KK.

“Berapa jauh kampung kau dari sini?” Kota Kinabalu tidak sesak seperti di Kuala Lumpur. Hadana memerhati.

“Sayang… Dah lupa?”

“Ops! Sorry, abang. Dana lupa.” Memang sangat kelakar. Sudah berhari-hari mereka cuba mempraktikkan nama panggilan yang dipersetujui. Kejang lidahnya untuk memanggil CK abang seperti dipinta.

Kata CK, dia suka apabila mendengar perempuan memanggil suami mereka abang. Ini akibat dia terdengar seorang wanita dengan suara lembut mendayu memanggil suaminya di Aeon Mall tempoh hari dengan panggilan abang. Terdengar sahaja, CK terus menyuruhnya memanggilnya abang. Sudahnya, seharian mereka berbincang tentang perkara tersebut.

Adegan di bahagian supermarket di Aeon Mall yang berlaku seminggu yang lepas diimbas kembali.

“Hadana… Kau dengar tu,” panggil CK tiba-tiba. Dia seakan-akan berbisik.

CK masih memanggilnya Hadana dan dia masih memanggilnya CK. Dan tentu sekali mereka masih beraku dan berkau.

“Dengar apa?” Tangan Hadana yang sedang memilih lobak merah terhenti. Hadana ingin buat jus saderi dan lobak merah malam nanti.

CK merapatkan badannya ke Hadana dan menundukkan kepala sedikit. Dia turut berbisik.

“Couple kat belakang tu… Wife dia panggil husband dia abang,” kata CK dengan satu keterujaan.


“Kau tak dengar ke, suara wife dia… Lembut dan manja.”

Hadana cuba memasang telinga. Si isteri yang sedang memilih brokoli sedang berkata sesuatu kepada suaminya. Si suami pula sedang galak melayan anak lelaki mereka yang berada di dalam troli bermain peek-a-boo. Lagak si suami yang kelihatan begitu kebapaan menarik perhatian Hadana. Dia berharap CK juga akan menjadi seorang ayah suatu hari nanti. Bukan sahaja seorang ayah, dia berharap CK akan menjadi ayah yang penyayang.

Tiba-tiba telinga Hadana disapa suara si isteri yang begitu lembut. Si isteri memanggil suaminya abang dengan begitu manja. Hadana juga turut terpikat dengan kelembutan dan kemanjaan dalam suara wanita tu. Berasakan diri diperhati, wanita tersebut berkalih ke arah Hadana. Cepat-cepat Hadana hadiahkan sebuah senyuman kepada wanita itu.

“Not bad, right?” 


“Jadi, kau setuju?” CK masih cuba memujuknya untuk memanggilnya abang.

“Memanglah bunyi okey. Tapi aku gelilah…”

“Apa yang nak gelinya? Sayang tu, tak geli?” Lima batang lobak merah dari Australia diletak ke dalam plastik dan dimasukkan ke dalam bakul yang dijinjing CK. Lobak merah itu akan ditimbang nanti.

“Aku gelilah nak panggil kau abang, CK.”

“Tapi, aku suka. Zaman sekarang ni dah ramai orang panggil sayang… Aku nak rasa special sikit.” CK tersengih, menampakkan giginya yang putih teratur.

“Kau bukan nak rasa special… Kau nak rasa berkuasa, kan?”

“Apa pula?”

“Kan, hari tu kau cakap panggilan abang tu berbunyi hormat pada suami?”

“Okey apa? Seorang isteri harus hormat pada suami dia, kan?” CK cuba menegakkan hujahnya.

Hadana menyatakan ketidaksetujuannya. Untuk kali yang entah ke berapa.

“Tapi aku tak nak.”


“Respect is earned, not demanded!”

“Aku minta kau panggil aku abang aje, bukan nak demand apa-apa sangat pun…”

“Aku tak nak panggil kau abang bukan sebab aku tak hormat. Aku tak suka bila kau suruh aku panggil kau abang semata-mata kau nak rasa dihormati. Kita hidup sebagai suami isteri, kita mesti sayang-menyayangi… Hormat-menghormati.”

CK diam. Mukanya berubah kelat. CK meninggalkan Hadana di situ dan bergerak ke tempat buah-buahan. Dia memilih beberapa buah epal hijau.

Apa tidak kena dengan lelaki seorang ni? Sejak beberapa bulan kebelakangan ini, CK jadi sensitif tidak tentu hala. Sebelum ini, dia tidak ada banyak kerenah. Apa yang istimewa sangat dengan panggilan abang itu pada CK?

“Yang ni tak elok.” Hadana mengambil sebiji Granny Smith dari tangan CK. Buah itu kelihatan sedikit lebam. Dia tak nampak ke? Hadana memilih beberapa biji epal lalu dimasukkan ke dalam plastik. Sebiji epal Granny Smith masih dipegangnya. Hadana mengambil buah epal itu dari tangan CK lalu memasukkannya ke dalam plastik yang dipegangnya.

“CK… Kalau penting sangat panggilan abang tu pada kau, aku tak kesah. As long as kau suka, aku tak kesah. Okey?” Hadana cuba memujuk. Nampaknya dia memang terpaksa mengalah.

CK masih diam.

“Jom, kita timbang ni.”

CK membuntuti Hadana ke kaunter menimbang buah. Gara-gara nama panggilan manja, mereka bercanggah pendapat. Bagi Hadana, sejajar dengan tuntutan Islam dan adat orang Melayu, mereka harus memanggil masing-masing dengan panggilan yang mesra dan disenangi pasangan. Sama ada ia abang atau sayang, masing-masing ada keistimewaannya sendiri. Nama panggilan antara suami isteri bukan nama panggilan semata. Ia merupakan satu ekspresi perasaan cinta kepada pasangan.

Hadana berfikir, jika dahulu dia memanggil Naufal dengan panggilan sayang, ada baiknya dia memanggil CK dengan panggilan abang. Janji, ia satu panggilan yang disukai oleh suaminya. Sekurang-kurangnya ia tidak akan mengingatkannya akan Naufal. Kenangan manis dengan Naufal biarlah disimpan sebagai lipatan sejarah. Sekarang, ia adalah tentang mereka berdua.

Rasulullah S.A.W juga memanggil isteri-isterinya dengan nama panggilan yang indah. Sebagai contoh, Siti Aisyah dipanggil dengan panggilan Ya Humaira yang bermaksud wahai si merah jambu. Bukankah ia manis sekali?

Lama Hadana berfikir. Panggilan abang untuk sang suami yang dicintai dan dihormati mungkin tepat untuk CK yang gagah perkasa. Hadana tersenyum meleret.

“Abang…” panggil Hadana manja, seperti yang dipinta oleh suaminya. CK berkalih ke arah Hadana dengan rupa keliru.

“Aku panggil kau, CK!”

“Kau panggil aku abang?”

“Ya, sukalah tu!”

CK tersengih. Kemenangan berada di pihaknya.

“Nanti ada orang tu merajuk kalau tak dipanggil abang.”

“Mana ada merajuk,” ucap CK dengan intonasi cool yang sering digunanya. “Orang macho tak merajuk…” kata CK dengan rupa kontrol macho.

Hahaha! Hadana gelak begitu kuat. Apabila CK memandangnya semacam, cepat-cepat Hadana menekup mulut yang ternganga luas dengan tangan. Niat dalam hati ingin menyakat suaminya, tetapi dia terbabas pula.

“Tapi… Serius, gelilah nak panggil kau abang, CK. Terpeleot lidah ni…”

“Practice makes perfect.” Bersahaja CK berkata dengan begitu yakin. Dan sedikit menjengkelkan. Masih berlagak cool suaminya ini.

“From now on, no more aku… Okey? Tak sedaplah. Kasar bunyinya.”

Kalaulah CK mendengar apa yang dituturkannya bertahun dahulu, tentunya dia akan ketawa sendiri. Siapa yang kasar sebenarnya? Aku-kau itu CK. Dia yang ajar Hadana cakap macam tu dengannya. Sekarang dia sendiri yang mahu mengubahnya.

“Okey, abang.” Hadana menyakat lagi.

Sekali lagi CK tersengih. Gembira kerana akhirnya dia mendapat apa yang diinginkannya.


“Pergi mana?” 


Mulai saat itu, dengan rasmi CK dipanggil abang dan Hadana dipanggil sayang. Aku sudah bertukar saya dan kau bertukar awak.

Bagi Hadana yang sememangnya sebati dengan panggilan aku dan kau dengan CK, lidahnya agak keras untuk menuturkan kata ganti diri mereka. Sudahnya dia asyik tersasul dan terlupa. Dan dia mula rindu akan nama CK yang seksi. Sekali-sekala, nama itu tetap dipanggil, sebagai pengubat rindu.

MEREKA bercadang untuk terus memandu ke Ranau, di mana kampung CK terletak. Selepas itu CK berjanji untuk bawa Hadana bersiar-siar ke beberapa tempat yang wajib dikunjungi mereka di seluruh Sabah. Sebelum pulang ke Kuala Lumpur, mereka akan meluangkan masa di Kota Kinabalu, atau KK untuk beberapa hari.

“Berapa jauh kampung abang dari KK?”

“Lebih kurang 120 km.”

“Untuk ke Kundasang?” Hadana sudah teruja untuk ke Kundasang.

“Kinabalu National Park?”

“Nak ke Kinabalu National Park tu dalam 90 km… Kundasang dan National Park tu tak jauh. Dalam 20 kilometer kut. Tak pun kurang…”

“Jadi tak jauhlah kampung abang dari situ ke Kinabalu Park?”

“Tak jauh. Dari kampung abang pun awak boleh nampak gunung tu, sayang.”

“Ya?” Hadana tersengih. Matanya bulat kerana teruja.

“Mestilah… Aki Nabalu tu besar.”

“Sorry? Awak cakap apa?” Dia masih kekok berabang dengan CK. Sekejap-sekejap dia memanggil suaminya abang, kadang-kadang dia tersasul memanggilnya CK. Apabila memanggilnya awak, bunyinya seperti mereka sedang bercinta di universiti sahaja. CK pun apa kurangnya, namun dia jarang pula tersasul begitu.

“Aki Nabalu. Kami panggil Gunung Kinabalu tu Aki Nabalu dalam bahasa Dusun.”

“Oh…” Sepasang matanya galak memandang sekeliling. Itu adalah kali pertama Hadana menjejakkan kaki ke negeri Sabah yang sering diperkatakan orang. Puas apabila dapat melihat dengan matanya sendiri.

“Le Med…” tutur Hadana perlahan. Itu hotel yang akan mereka duduki nanti apabila mereka berada di KK.

“Selalu abang datang sini, abang duduk kat hotel mana?” Teruk betul dia, sepanjang mereka tinggal bersama, tidak pernah sekali pun dia bertanya di mana suaminya tinggal apabila ke luar daerah.

“Abang selalu duduk di Le Med, kadang-kadang di Sutera Harbour,” terang CK.

“Sayang, nanti bila awak jumpa bapak saya… Awak pandai-pandailah, ya?”

“Pandai-pandai apa?”

“Apa-apalah… Nanti kalau ada orang tanya, awak cakap aje kita kahwin kat KL.”

“Hurm, okey…”

“Other than that, sayang tak perlu risau. Bapak saya tu jenis tak banyak cakap. Insya-Allah dia tak banyak tanya.”


eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com


Maaf Saya Tak Sengaja oleh Akira Dorayaki


HARI ini Aina Cempaka melangkah masuk ke dalam pejabat agak lewat daripada biasa. Nasib baik hanya beberapa orang sahaja staf yang kelihatan. Nampaknya, dia tidaklah begitu lambat.

Aina Cempaka cuba membetulkan kain baju kebaya labuhnya yang singkat sebelah akibat ditiup angin semasa menunggang skuter tadi. Mana tidaknya, dia terpaksa membuat aksi perlumbaan Formula One. Memecut laju mengalahkan Michael Schumacher!

Pandangan mata Aina Cempaka terpaku seketika. Seorang wanita berbaju kebaya ketat dan kelihatan sangat bergaya berada di dalam bilik Faiz Iqbal. Hati Aina Cempaka mula tertanya-tanya. Perasan akan kewujudan Aina Cempaka, wanita berusia dalam lingkungan 50-an itu keluar dari bilik pejabat dan menghampirinya.

“Cik Aina Cempaka, kan?” soal wanita itu agak mesra. Dia tersenyum manis merenung wajah Aina Cempaka.

“Ya, saya. Boleh saya tahu… Puan ni siapa?”

“Saya Datin Mariam. Mak saudara Iqbal. Anak perempuan kepada Tan Sri Berahim. Hurmm… macam mana kerja awak sekarang, okey tak?” Agak aneh sedikit soalan yang dirasakan oleh Aina Cempaka.

“Errrr… okey.”

“Ada tak dia marah-marah?”


“Sikit macam mana tu?”

“Biasalah… kalau saya ada apa-apa tersilap, mesti kena betulkan.”

“Ada dia cakap nak pecat awak?”

“Tak. Errmm… kenapa ya?” soal Aina Cempaka. Tidak selesa apabila disoal bertubi-tubi. Sudah macam wartawan majalah hiburan pula.

“Tak ada apa-apa. Pukul berapa dia selalu masuk ofis?”

“Aaaaa… Datin, sekarang ni waktu pejabat belum mula lagi. Sekarang baru pukul 7.50.” Aina Cempaka menunjukkan jam tangan yang dipakainya. Kalau boleh dia mahu mengelak soalan tersebut. Malas merumitkan keadaan. Nanti tidak pasal-pasal kena marah dengan Faiz Iqbal. Dicap sebagai ‘tukang report’ pula. Oh, simpang malaikat 44!

“Ooo… ya ke? Maaf, saya tak perasan. Awak nak breakfast dulu ke ni?” soal Datin Mariam, mencuri pandangan pada bungkusan polistirena di atas meja Aina Cempaka.

“Ya… nasi lemak sambal sotong. Datin nak join sekali?” agak kekok Aina Cempaka menjemput. Bukan niat hendak ajak betul-betul, buat manis mulut aje. Ajak-ajak ayamlah katakan.

Datin Mariam menelan air liur. Teringin juga dia sebenarnya.

“Tak apalah. Saya tak makan nasi lemak. It contains too much fat. Lebih baik awak jangan makan tiap-tiap hari. Nanti obesiti,” bisik Datin Mariam perlahan.

Aina Cempaka mengangguk. Rasa macam kelakar pun ada.

Hakikatnya, Datin Mariam hanya mahu menduga. Ingin melihat reaksi yang ditunjukkan oleh Aina Cempaka. Berkenan pula dia dengan setiausaha yang baru ini. Berbeza dengan yang lain-lain. Harap muka aje cantik, tapi kalau tidak ada budi bahasa, tidak guna juga. Berbeza dengan gadis muda di hadapannya ini. Nampak jujur dan berpenampilan biasa-biasa saja. Mungkin sedikit dandanan mampu mengubah rupa luarannya. Fikir Datin Mariam dalam hati.

“Datin nak jumpa Encik Iqbal sekarang ke? Selalunya 15 minit sebelum ofis hour dia dah ada. Mungkin kejap lagi ada kut. Nak saya buatkan kopi?” kejut Aina Cempaka. Baru Datin Mariam tersedar daripada lamunannya.

“No… no… bagi saya air suam aje,” pinta Datin Mariam.

Aina Cempaka melangkah masuk ke dalam pantri. Memenuhkan gelas kaca daripada alat penapis air. Sebaik sahaja minuman diserahkan kepada Datin Mariam, Faiz Iqbal muncul di hadapan mereka. Panjang umur betul lelaki ini.

“Mak ngah buat apa datang ofis pagi-pagi buta ni?” soal Faiz Iqbal. Pelik pula melihat Datin Mariam. Jarang wanita ini datang bertandang kecuali kalau ada hal-hal penting.

“Nak jumpa anak saudara sendiri pun salah ke? Betul ke salah, Aina?” Datin Mariam merenung wajah Aina Cempaka yang kelihatan makin serba salah, tidak berani bersuara. Hanya mampu tersengih-sengih macam kerang busuk.

“Tak salah… mak ngah. Masuklah,” kata Faiz Iqbal. Membuka pintu pejabatnya dan masuk.

Datin Mariam melangkah masuk dengan lagak biasa.

Aina Cempaka sudah menghembuskan nafas lega. Tidak tahu hendak layan macam mana lagi. Dia terus kembali ke meja kerja.

“Apa sebenarnya hajat mak ngah datang ni? Nak buat spot check ke apa?” Faiz Iqbal menyorongkan kerusi kepada wanita itu.

Datin Mariam duduk tersenyum di hadapan Faiz Iqbal.

“Bukan spot check, cuma nak pastikan yang secretary ni okey ke tak. Itu aje.”

“Sekarang macam mana? Okey?” soal Faiz Iqbal tidak puas hati.

“Mmmm… okey sangat. Lebih baik daripada yang sebelum ni. Low profile… taklah berlagak diva sangat,” komen Datin Mariam.

Datin Mariam cukup meluat dengan setiausaha Faiz Iqbal sebelum ini. Kebanyakan mereka terlalu menjaga penampilan. 24 jam asyik menghadap cermin. Sampai tetamu lain yang datang pun tidak perasan. Pernah juga Datin Mariam dimarahi oleh setiausaha Faiz Iqbal. Alasannya? Sebab Datin Mariam memandai-mandai masuk ke dalam bilik Faiz Iqbal tanpa kebenaran. Apibila sudah tahu identiti sebenar Datin Mariam, barulah dia tergagap-gagap. Cuba membodek. Itu semua menjengkelkan!

“Tapi, ingat… Iqbal takkan bertanggungjawab kalau dia yang nak berhenti sendiri.”

“Yup, janji tetap janji. Mak ngah tahu tu. Tak payahlah Iqbal nak ingatkan mak ngah banyak-banyak kali. Mak ngah ni memang setia pada janji. Iqbal tu… entah ya, entahkan tidak.”

“Of course yes. The 30 percent is always in my dream. But I don’t want it to remain just in my dream…”

“Yes. Itu semua akan jadi realiti. Itu pun kalau Iqbal tetap pendirian. Anyway, dengar cerita semalam hari terakhir Encik Latif bekerja kat sini. Tak beritahu mak ngah pun. Kata bulan depan nak resign. Macam mana Iqbal boleh approved ni?” soal Datin Mariam.

“Dia cakap nak buat umrah dengan anak isteri dia. Iqbal terpaksalah lepaskan dia. Nak buat macam mana lagi?”

“Okey… alasan diterima. Lagipun mak ngah tengok budak Aina tu macam boleh buat kerja aje.”

“Memang boleh buat kerja pun…” bisik Faiz Iqbal perlahan tapi penuh makna.


“Tak. Mmmm… tok wan sihat?” alih Faiz Iqbal.

“Tok wan… biasalah. Tak nak makan ubat. Bila dipaksa sikit, mulalah. Maki hamun orang sana sini. Mak ngah pun tak tahu nak buat macam mana lagi. Nasib baiklah sekarang ni dia dah boleh duduk atas kerusi roda. Tak adalah mak ngah risau sangat.Hurmm… malam ni Iqbal nak pergi dengan siapa?”

“Pergi mana pulak ni, mak ngah?” Faiz Iqbal menaikkan keningnya. Tak faham. Apalah yang Datin Mariam merepek ni?

“Eh, lupa ke sengaja buat-buat lupa ni? Malam ni kan ada anniversary dinner kat Hotel Grand Sapphire Diamond. Iqbal kena datang tau. Kita mesti tonjolkan penglibatan syarikat kita,” jelas Datin Mariam.

Faiz Iqbal menepuk dahi. Hampir terlupa dia mengenai majlis ulang tahun ke-15 hotel terkemuka itu. Hotel yang merupakan sebahagian daripada pelaburan saham Ibunda Corporation. Mahu atau tidak, Faiz Iqbal mesti membuat keputusan cepat. Selain tok wan, Datin Mariam juga antara individu yang boleh dikategorikan sebagai ‘ahli kumpulan pendesak’ yang berpengaruh. Setiap kata mereka mesti dipenuhi. Tiada jalan keluar.

“Ingat sikit ke modal yang kita dah laburkan kat situ?” tekan Datin Mariam lagi.

“Ya… Iqbal tahu. Malam nanti mak ngah temankan Iqbal ya?” pancing Faiz Iqbal. Sudah dapat meneka apa yang bermain dalam fkiran Datin Mariam.

“Ini majlis berprotokol, sayang… Apa pulak mak ngah yang nak kena temankan?Ex-girlfriend Iqbal kan berlambak-lambak kat luar tu. Ajaklah diaorang. Takkanlah sorang pun tak lekat.” Sinis Datin Mariam.

Faiz Iqbal terus terdiam. Kumpul suara untuk bercakap.

“Itu dulu. Mak ngah pun tahu Iqbal macam mana sekarang ni, kan? Iqbal benci dengan semua perempuan tu. Tak ada kualiti langsung. Semua kaki cukur,” bidas Faiz Iqbal membuat alasan.

Kalau dulu, sebut saja pasal perempuan, Faiz Iqballah orang pertama yang akan mara ke depan. Tidak kisahlah kaki cukur ke apa, asalkan mereka dapat penuhi keinginan Faiz Iqbal sebagai seorang lelaki. Itu sudah cukup! Tapi, sekarang semuanya sudah lain. Sejak Faiz Iqbal terlibat dalam kemalangan jalan raya, dia terus jadi trauma. Tambahan lagi kalau mimpi ngerinya bertandang. Hendak pandang perempuan cantik lebih-lebih sangat pun dia jadi menggeletar. Macam orang terkena sawan. Faiz Iqbal lebih rela tidak kahwin sampai mati.

“Tak pun, ajaklah minah cun yang kat luar sana tu,” kata Datin Mariam, menjuihkan bibirnya ke arah luar sambil tersengih-sengih.

“Tasnim?” soal Faiz Iqbal, melihat Tasnim yang sedang berbual-bual bersama Aina Cempaka di luar.

“Bukanlah… yang itu isteri orang. Nak buat apanya? Maksud mak ngah yang pakai baju kebaya tu. Tu, tu, tu…” Datin Mariam main tunjuk-tunjuk pula.

“Apa-apa ajelah, mak ngah. Mmmm… mak ngah tak nak balik ke? Iqbal banyak kerja nak kena settle ni,” alih Faiz Iqbal. Malas mahu layan.

“Aik, belum panas punggung lagi dah menghalau?”

“Bukan menghalau, cuma risau tok wan kat rumah tu. Takkan nak harapkan nurseaje. Sekali-sekala nak kena ada orang lain jugak yang jenguk.” Faiz Iqbal membuat alasan.

“Risaulah sangat! Dahlah tu… mak ngah pun nak keluar ni. Nak shopping sikit. Bila senang nanti, datanglah rumah. Jenguk tok wan.”

“Itu pun kalau dia suka Iqbal datang. Iqbal ni kan anak angkat aje.”

“Dia sukalah Iqbal datang. Cuma dia malas aje nak tunjukkan.” Jawab Datin Mariam.

Faiz Iqbal mencebik bibir. Tanda meluat.

“Mmmm… kalau macam tu, mak ngah balik dululah.

Penatlah bercakap dengan Iqbal ni!” rungut Datin Mariam. Bosan dengan perangai Faiz Iqbal yang suka mengungkit tentang status dirinya. Sebelum Datin Mariam berlalu, sempat juga dia melemparkan senyuman manis kepada Aina Cempaka.

Beberapa minit kemudian, interkom di atas meja berbunyi. Pantas Aina Cempaka menekan butang menjawab.

“Aina, masuk kejap.” Suara garau Faiz Iqbal terlebih dahulu kedengaran. Tidak sempat pun Aina Cempaka mahu bertanya apa-apa.

“Okey.” Aina Cempaka meletakkan gagang. Bangun dan mengetuk beberapa kali sebelum membuka pintu bilik Faiz Iqbal.

“Kau tak ada baju lain ke nak pakai?” soalnya sinis sebaik sahaja Aina Cempaka melangkah masuk.

“Kenapa pulak?”

“Kejap lagi ikut aku pergi beli baju.”

“Baju kebaya ni okeylah, Encik Iqbal. Apa masalahnya?”

“Kuno. Macam orang tua. Malam nanti teman aku pergi hotel.”

“Errrr… Encik Iqbal dah gila ke? Ingat saya ni perempuan apa? Saya tak semurah itulah!” marah Aina Cempaka, bercekak pinggang. Pantang betul dengan lelaki yang suka mengambil kesempatan. Dasar tidak tahu malu. Buaya tembaga!

Faiz Iqbal mengeluh sakit hati. Banyak songeh pula perempuan ini. Kena cium nanti, baru tahu. Dia ingat Faiz Iqbal tidak mampu hendak buat itu semua?

“Aku nak kau temankan aku pergi dinner malam ni. Syarikat akan sambutanniversary kat Hotel Grand Sapphire Diamond. Anyway, kau memang selalu dressingmacam ni ek?” Faiz Iqbal memandang Aina Cempaka dari atas ke bawah.

Aina Cempaka terpaksa menahan sabar. Kalau ikutkan hati, hendak saja dipulas-pulas muncung lelaki itu. Mulut minta dicabai!

“Saya tak suka dengan cara Encik Iqbal bercakap tu. Saya ada baju sendiri. Terima kasih ajelah,” balas Aina Cempaka melepaskan geram.

Faiz Iqbal mencebik bibir, tanda mengejek.

“Well… see you tonight.” Nada suara Faiz Iqbal berubah agak lembut. Namun, masih dalam mood mengejek.

Aina Cempaka meninggalkan Faiz Iqbal. Tidak ingin dia memberi sebarang reaksi. Dalam mindanya kini ligat berfkir. Entah apalah baju yang hendak dipakai malam ini. Sudahlah beritahu last minit. Menyusahkan orang betul!


“SURPRISE!” JERIT Suzy sebaik sahaja Aina Cempaka membuka pintu rumah.

Penat baru pulang dari pejabat pun belum habis, tiba-tiba disergah dengan hantu berambut kerinting. Nasib baik dia tidak terbagi penampar Jepun. Kalau tidak, jadi bisulah Suzy seumur hidup.

“Terkejut aku. Kau ni dah kenapa?” Aina Cempaka mengurut dada. Kalaulah dia lemah semangat tadi, mesti sudah jatuh pengsan dia dibuatnya.

“Tadaa!” Suzy mengeluarkan sesuatu dari belakang pinggulnya. Di tangan kanannya terdapat sebuah beg plastik berisi kotak nipis dan agak lebar.

“Apa ni?” soal Aina Cempaka.



“Sorry… aku terbuka tadi. Tak tahan. Lagipun tak ada pembalut. Tapi jangan risau, aku tak sentuh pun kad ni.”

Suzy mula mengedik. Menghulurkan sekeping sampul kecil berwarna merah jambu.

“Siapa yang bagi ni?”

“Driver dia aje yang keluar. Aku tak perasan pulak siapa yang duduk kat dalam kereta tu tadi. Dia cakap, ini untuk kau,” jelas Suzy sambil mengingati kembali kereta mewah bercermin gelap yang singgah di hadapan rumah mereka. Hanya pemandunya sahaja yang keluar memberikan bungkusan itu.

Aina Cempaka membuka isi kad.

“Ini mesti daripada bos aku ni…” ucap Aina Cempaka kerana hanya ada kesan cap syarikat yang kelihatan.

“Apalah bos kau ni, nak mengurat pun tak pandai. Ada ke guna cap syarikat nak bagi hadiah. Tak romantik langsung,” rungut Suzy.

“Baju ni untuk dinner malam nantilah. Aku pun tak pasti nak pergi ke tak.”

“Dinner? Best tu… kat mana?”

“Hotel Grand Sapphire Diamond.”

“Aku pernah dengar nama hotel tu. Itu hotel five star, kan?”

Aina Cempaka hanya mengangguk dengan soalan Suzy.

“Pergilah. Bukan senang nak bergaul dengan VIP ni tau. Kebetulan, esok aku ada seminar kat Penang. Bolehlah aku tolong hantarkan kau malam ni,” tambah Suzy penuh teruja.

“Seminar apa? Kau tak pernah cakap pun yang kau ada seminar esok,” soal Aina Cempaka. Agak aneh. Selalunya Aina Cempakalah orang pertama yang mengetahui segala perkembangan dan tindak-tanduk Suzy.

“Errr… sorrylah beb. Sebenarnya, aku pun baru dapat tahu hari ni. Sebab itulah aku tak cakap kat kau.” Suzy tersengih-sengih sambil menggaru-garukan kepalanya.

“Berapa lama kau pergi?”

“Ala… tak lama pun. Tiga hari aje. Kenapa? Nanti kau rindu kat aku ek?”

“Eeee… tolonglah. Kau ingat, kau siapa? Aku cuma rindu kat masakan kau ajelah!” Aina Cempaka mengusik. Mencuit pipi Suzy.

“Eh, cubalah tengok dress ni cepat. Mesti kau yang paling cantik nanti. Tambah-tambah kalau aku yang make-over kau.” Teruja betul Suzy, mengalahkan tuan punya badan.

Aina Cempaka membuka kotak nipis itu. Sehelai gaun berwarna putih dan agak labuh dikeluarkan.

“Cantik, kan? Siap berlabuci-labuci lagi. Ni barulah meletop.” Suzy memuji.

Aina Cempaka tersenyum lemah. Sebenarnya, hati dia berat hendak pergi. Apabila sudah disokong Suzy, mungkin dia lebih bersemangat. Mungkin inilah masanya untuk dia kembali menyerlah. Dia mesti buktikan kemampuannya kepada Faiz Iqbal. Eleh! Setakat dinner aje pun. Bukannya teruk sangat. Pergi… makan… kemudian balik ke rumah. Settle!


FAIZ IQBAL mengerling jam di tangan. Segak mengenakan tuksedo yang baru dibelikan oleh Datin Mariam ketika membeli-belah petang tadi. Majlisnya sebentar lagi akan bermula, namun bayang Aina Cempaka masih belum muncul-muncul. Hampir patah rasa kakinya duduk terpacak di hadapan pintu masuk lobi hotel.

Beberapa minit kemudian, sebuah kereta Kancil berwarna hitam memasuki pekarangan pintu masuk. Seorang wanita yang mengenakan gaun putih melangkah keluar dari perut kereta. Kelihatan cantik dengan rambut hitamnya yang mengurai panjang. Jarang sekali dia melihat Aina Cempaka melepaskan ikatan rambutnya begitu. Selalunya gadis itu lebih gemar bertocang kuda.

Mata Faiz Iqbal jadi terpaku. Jantungnya berdegup laju. Dia menyentuh dadanya sendiri. Aneh! Mengapa tubuhnya tidak menggeletar? Kenapa dia tidak rasa takut? Perasaan ini benar-benar aneh! Langkah Aina Cempaka semakin menghampirinya. Air liur ditelan. Bagaikan dirasuk tidak boleh bergerak, hanya bibir terketar-ketar, tidak bersuara.

“Encik Iqbal?” Aina Cempaka mengipas tangannya pada muka Faiz Iqbal.

“Errrr… lambatnya! Kau ingat aku ni tunggul kayu ke apa? Nak tunggu kau kat sini lama-lama!” jerit Faiz Iqbal. Membetulkan kolar lehernya.

“Maaflah, saya lambat sikit. Tadi jalan sesak.”

“Mana dapat baju ni? Macam tak kena aje.”

“Kan Encik Iqbal hantar petang tadi.”

Faiz Iqbal terdiam.

‘Ini mesti kerja mak ngah. Hesy! Macam mana dia boleh agak aku nak bawak Aina Cempaka pulak ni? Isy, buat membazir duit aje!’ bentak hati Faiz Iqbal.

“Dah. Jom masuk.” Faiz Iqbal menghalakan lengannya kepada Aina Cempaka. Minta dikepit. Aina Cempaka mula teragak-agak.

“Hari ni aje kau boleh pinjam lengan aku. Esok dah tak ada. Cepat!” arah Faiz Iqbal.

Aina Cempaka terpaksa juga menurut. Berjalan seiring menuju ke dewan makan hotel. Suasana mewah dengan lampu malap yang agak romantik membangkitkan lagi perasaan berdebar-debar. Hiasan meja makan eksklusif dengan seni kulinari yang sangat kreatif membuatkan Aina Cempaka berasa lebih cuak. Bukannya dia tidak pernah makan di hotel. Tapi, jujur! Sepanjang hidupnya, inilah kali pertama dia menjejakkan kaki ke hotel mewah.

Faiz Iqbal menghulurkan pinggan putih kepada Aina Cempaka.

“Makan cepat sampai kenyang. Ini sebahagian daripada tugas.” Bisiknya perlahan ke telinga Aina Cempaka. Faiz Iqbal berlalu pergi meninggalkan Aina Cempaka di tempat bufet untuk menyapa tetamu lain yang hadir.

“Lantaklah.” Aina Cempaka memenuhkan pinggannya dengan bermacam juadah. Kuih-muih dan makanan ringan semua jadi pilihannya. Walaupun ini hanyalah hidangan pembuka selera, peduli apa? Biar bertimbun macam Gunung Everest. Bukannya selalu dapat makan macam ini. Alang-alang sudah datang, lebih baik penuhkan sahaja pinggan.

“Hai.” Datuk Mazlan menyapa dari belakang.

Aina Cempaka menoleh. Hanya senyum sekilas dan menyambung semula memasukkan beberapa biji pai nanas comel ke dalam pinggan. Lelaki tua kerepot berkot hitam yang tidak dikenalinya itu asyik memerhatikan Aina Cempaka dari atas hingga ke bawah. Aina Cempaka sudah rasa tidak selesa. Dia mesti cepat meninggalkan kawasan ini.

Belum pun sempat Aina Cempaka melangkah pergi, Datuk Mazlan sudah menghalang.

“Air?” Datuk Mazlan menghulurkan segelas jus oren.

Aina Cempaka memandang wajah lelaki berkumis itu. Hairan. Kenal pun tidak, tiba-tiba sahaja datang menyibuk.

“Orange juice for you,” sambung Datuk Mazlan lagi. Lembut.

“Thanks.” Gelas bertukar tangan. Aina Cempaka mengambil tempat duduk di sebuah meja bulat berdekatan. Orang tua yang tidak dikenalinya itu tetap mengekori. Mengambil tempat di sebelah Aina Cempaka. Aina Cempaka terpaksa berlagak biasa walaupun dalam hatinya tidak keruan. Kurang selesa.

“I tak pernah tengok you kat sini pun. You ni anak Datuk mana? Ke… kerabat?” Datuk Mazlan ketawa.

Menjengkelkan betul mimik mukanya.

“Saya secretary biasa aje.” Ringkas. Tidak kuasa Aina Cempaka hendak melayan.

“Company mana?”

“Ibunda Corporation.” Jawab Aina Cempaka sambil melemparkan pandangan ke arah lain. Perlahan-lahan pai nanas disuap ke dalam mulut.

“Mmmm… you mesti kenal Faiz Iqbal, kan?”

Aina Cempaka mengangguk sambil anak matanya mencari-cari kelibat Faiz Iqbal yang hilang entah ke mana.

“You tahu tak? You ni cantiklah… macam anak patung. Comel!” Datuk Mazlan ketawa lagi.

Aina Cempaka berhenti mengunyah, menjeling lelaki tua itu tajam. Nasib baik dia berkain hari ini. Kalau tidak, pasti diayunnya kaki kanan ke celah kelengkang orang tua ini. Biar mandul seumur hidup!

“Kenapa you tengok I macam tu? Tak apa, kalau you nak tengok, tengoklah puas-puas.” Datuk Mazlan mendongakkan wajahnya ke arah muka Aina Cempaka. Kelopak mata dikerdip-kerdipkan.

“Maaf encik, saya tak suka buat kacau kat dalam majlis orang. Kalau encik rasa nak makan penampar Jepun, saya boleh bagi. Kita tengok, siapa yang tengok siapa nanti?” gertak Aina Cempaka. Agak tegas nada suaranya.

Datuk Mazlan hanya tersengih. Macam kerang busuk. Suka betul dia dengan perempuan sensitif macam Aina Cempaka ini. Lagi garang, lagi dia suka.

“Okey, I’m sorry. I bergurau aje. Takkan itu pun you nak ambil hati.” Datuk Mazlan cuba memujuk. Namun, tiada respons yang ditunjukkan oleh Aina Cempaka. Dia hanya menumpukan sepenuh perhatian terhadap hidangan di atas meja.

Datuk Mazlan mengusap lembut lengan Aina Cempaka. Pantas Aina Cempaka menepis.

“Dah gila ke?” Segelas jus oren disimbah tepat ke muka Datuk Mazlan. Habis basah lencun orang tua itu. Mata Aina Cempaka menjeling tajam. Rasakan! Baru dia puas hati. Itu baru jurus simbahan air. Belum lagi teknik tendangan kupu-kupu.

Datuk Mazlan tetap tersengih. Menjilat bibirnya. Buat gaya menggoda.

Seorang pelayan hotel menghampiri meja makan. Menghulurkan sekeping nota kecil kepada Datuk Mazlan dengan sopan. Pantas Datuk Mazlan menyambutnya. Matanya tidak lekang memandang wajah Aina Cempaka.


Nota bertulis tangan itu direnyukkan oleh Datuk Mazlan. Sakit hati betul dia dengan mesej yang diterima. Mata galaknya melilau mencari kelibat Faiz Iqbal. Sah! Memang si keparat itulah pengirimnya.

Faiz Iqbal hanya melambaikan-lambaikan tangannya dari selang beberapa buah meja yang tidak jauh daripada mereka. Datuk Mazlan bengang. Tapi hendak buat macam mana lagi? Janji tetap janji. Dia perlu bersabar. Ikan yang diimpi, ikan yang susah hendak dapat. Jadi, dia perlu mengalah kali ini.

Datuk Mazlan bingkas bangun. Segera meninggalkan Aina Cempaka di situ. Aina Cempaka sempat menjeling dari sisi ekor matanya. Menarik nafas lega kerana si tua kutuk itu sudah beredar. Mungkin lelaki itu sudah berputus asa, fikir Aina Cempaka. Dia menyambung makan. Perut yang lapar perlu segera diisi.

“Banyaknya kau makan. Boleh habis ke satu malam macam ni?” tegur Faiz Iqbal, menarik semula kerusi yang menjadi tempat duduk Datuk Mazlan sebentar tadi.

“Dah Encik Iqbal suruh saya makan sampai kenyang, saya makanlah. Takkan nak membazir pulak,” ucap Aina Cempaka dengan mulut yang masih penuh.

“Aku suruh kau makan, bukannya mencekik.”

“Makan cepat sampai kenyang. Ini sebahagian daripada tugas… bukan ke Encik Iqbal yang cakap macam tu tadi?” pintas Aina Cempaka. Cuba mengajuk semula kata-kata Faiz Iqbal dengan gaya-gaya matanya sekali.

“Ah, whateverlah! Cepat sikit. Aku hantar kau balik.”

Faiz Iqbal bosan menunggu wanita itu menghabiskan sisa makanannya. Makan pun macam siput. Lembab!

Sebenarnya, ada perkara lain yang membuatkan Faiz Iqbal lebih bimbang. Dia baru sahaja mendapat panggilan daripada Datin Mariam bahawa tok wan akan datang juga malam ini. Sudah ditegah Datin Mariam, tapi tok wan masih berdegil. Dia tetap mahu datang. Kononnya hendak bagi sokongan.

‘Poodah! Menyibuk betullah orang tua ini. Dah sakit-sakit macam tu pun ada hati nak meraikan majlis. Taasub sangat dengan share saham gamaknya!’ fikir Faiz Iqbal.

Faiz Iqbal pantas menarik lengan Aina Cempaka.

“Apa ni Encik Iqbal?” Belum pun sempat Aina Cempaka menjamah sebiji lagi pai nanas di tangan kanannya, dia diheret oleh Faiz Iqbal keluar dari dewan makan menuju ke lobi hotel.

“Lepaslah!” Aina Cempaka merentap tangan kirinya. Cuba melarikan diri. Manalah tahu kut-kut ini satu perangkap. Entah-entah Faiz Iqbal sudah naik gila. Mahu mengapa-apakannya. Aina Cempaka masih ada maruah. Dia bukan perempuan murahan. Ah! Tak semudah itu. Jangan harap kau Faiz Iqbal!

Faiz Iqbal cuba mengejar dari belakang. Langkahnya terlalu pantas sehingga dia terpijak kaki gaun Aina Cempaka yang menyapu lantai. Aina Cempaka hilang pertimbangan dan jatuh tertiarap. Habis terpelanting dan bertaburan pai nanas yang dipegangnya ke atas lantai. Aina Cempaka mengaduh kesakitan.

Ketulan pai nanas yang pecah itu bertaburan betul-betul di hadapan seorang lelaki tua berkerusi roda. Datin Mariam yang mengiringi juga turut sama terkejut melihat aksi badut pasangan tidak sebulu itu. Ini bukannya rancangan hiburan Just For Laughs!

“Apa hal ni Iqbal?” Datin Mariam menghampiri, lalu memapah Aina Cempaka untuk bangun.

Wajah Aina Cempaka terkulat-kulat menahan malu dengan rambutnya yang serabai. Faiz Iqbal pula menekup muka. Keliru. Tidak tahu hendak jelaskan apa kepada Datin Mariam.

“Awak okey tak, Aina?” Datin Mariam mengemaskan rambut Aina Cempaka.

“Saya okey.”

“Macam mana boleh jatuh? Iqbal tolak ke?”

“Errrr… tak. Saya tergelincir tadi. Kasut ni tinggi sangat.” Aina Cempaka cuba berbasa-basi.

“Nasib baik tak cedera teruk. Lain kali jalan hati-hati sikit,” balas Datin Mariam sambil membuat isyarat supaya Faiz Iqbal membantunya menolak kerusi roda tok wan di belakangnya.

Faiz Iqbal menurut. Menolak kerusi roda tok wan mengekori Datin Mariam dan Aina Cempaka menuju ke dewan makan semula.

“Perempuan mana pulak ni?” soal tok wan perlahan. Faiz Iqbal serba salah. Hilang akal hendak bercerita. Nanti apa pulak yang tok wan fkir.

“Dia kawan Iqbal… baru balik dari overseas.”

“Aku ingatkan perempuan simpanan kau tadi. Tak nampak macam taste kau pun.” Perli tok wan.

“Maksud tok wan?”

“Dulu kau kan suka angkut perempuan liar. Entah berapa banyak, aku pun tak tahu.”

“Sudahlah tok wan. Iqbal malas nak cari gaduh kat sini. Jangan sampai orang lain nampak kita bermasam muka.”

“Biarlah! Biar satu Malaysia ni tahu yang kau tu cuma anak angkat aje. Bukan waris halal keturunan aku!” cemuh tok wan.

Faiz Iqbal diam. Diam lebih baik. Kalau dilayan, memang tidak akan habis kata-kata kesat orang tua itu.

Sebaik sahaja sampai ke dalam dewan makan, mereka mengambil tempat di sebuah meja bulat berhadapan pentas utama sambil menikmati persembahan nyanyian artis jemputan. Aina Cempaka terpaksa duduk diapiti Faiz Iqbal dan Datin Mariam sebagaimana yang telah diarahkan.

“Macam mana, cantik tak baju yang saya pilih ni?”

“Cantik. Saya suka. Datin ke yang bagi?” soal Aina Cempaka.

Datin Mariam mengangguk.

“Ingatkan… errr… tak apalah. Baju Datin pun nampak cantik,” puji Aina Cempaka ikhlas. Patutlah! Ingatkan semua ini daripada Faiz Iqbal.

“Lupa pulak saya nak kenalkan. Ini Tan Sri Berahim, CEO dan pengasas Ibunda Corporation. Ayah saya… datuk kepada Iqbal,” perkenal Datin Mariam kepada Aina Cempaka.

“Saya Aina… Aina Cempaka. Apa khabar Tan Sri, sihat?” sapa Aina Cempaka. Tok wan menganggukkan kepala tanda menjawab.

“Dengar cerita, kamu baru balik dari luar negara. Kat mana tu?” soal tok wan.

Mata Aina Cempaka terkebil-kebil. Bila masa pulak dia pergi overseas?

Faiz Iqbal menendang kaki Aina Cempaka. Pantas Aina Cempaka menoleh ke arahnya. Faiz Iqbal membuat mimik muka, suruh menjawab pertanyaan tok wan. Aina Cempaka keliru. Tidak faham apa maksud yang cuba disampaikan.

“Dia baru balik dari UK. Dulu menetap kat sana, sekarang dah pindah kat KL,” jawab Faiz Iqbal.

“Aku tanya orang lain, orang yang lain pulak menjawab,” rungut tok wan.

Datin Mariam tersenyum. Faham akan tembelang Faiz Iqbal. Memang dia sudah mengagak. Faiz Iqbal memang tidak salah memilih Aina Cempaka sebagai peneman. Jarang sekali tok wan ingin bertegur sapa dengan mana-mana perempuan yang dibawa pulang oleh Faiz Iqbal sebelum ini. Aina Cempakalah orang pertama yang berjaya membuatkan tok wan tertanya-tanya.

“Keluarga kamu buat bisnes apa?” soal tok wan lagi.

“Errr…” Aina Cempaka semakin kalut.

“Apalah ayah ni… bagi soalan yang macam tu. Aina dah tak ada siapa-siapa lagi kat dalam dunia ni. Dia sebatang kara. Dia ni memang suka merantau kat luar negara. Nasib baik dulu arwah ayah dia ada tinggalkan beberapa aset dan sebuah syarikat perkapalan kat UK. Tapi, semua tu pengurus mereka yang uruskan,” tambah Datin Mariam, membuat cerita.

“Kenapa Aina tak uruskan sendiri aje?” soal tok wan.

Ketiga-tiga mata merenung wajah Aina Cempaka. Minta jawapan dari bibir yang terkunci rapat itu.

“Errrr… saya lebih suka hidup berdikari. Mula dari bawah. Takkanlah nak harapkan usaha yang sedia ada pulak. Kita mesti cuba sesuatu yang baru, kan?” Aina Cempaka mengatur kata. Menipu sunat dan menunggu reaksi tok wan.

“Bagus! Tok wan suka dengan orang muda macam Aina ni. Bijak berdiri atas kaki sendiri. Taklah nak harapkan business family aje.” Lelaki tua itu ketawa besar.

Tergamam mereka dengan reaksinya lalu turut ketawa bersama.

“Tak payahlah panggil Tan Sri. Panggil tok wan aje. Lagi selesa. Lagipun kamu berdua dah kenal lama.”

“Yalah, tok wan.” Agak kekok Aina Cempaka membahasakan orang tua itu.

“Nampak? Kan senang kalau panggil macam tu. Lain kali, ajaklah Iqbal datang rumah tok wan. Kita boleh borak lebih sikit.” Agak mesra nada tok wan.

Aina Cempaka mengangguk perlahan dengan senyuman. Tidak sangka, taktik penipunya menjadi pula.

Mereka menikmati hidangan makan malam di meja bulat itu sambil menyaksikan persembahan untuk satu jam dan diserikan lagi dengan dua orang pengacara majlis lelaki yang sangat menghiburkan.

Selepas tamat majlis, Faiz Iqbal dan Aina Cempaka mengiringi tok wan bersama Datin Mariam keluar dari hotel.

“Bila ada masa lapang nanti, Aina jangan lupa pulak datang rumah tok wan. Kita boleh berborak panjang sikit. Ajak Iqbal sekali.” Tok Wan tersenyum lebar, menampakkan gigi palsunya yang berwarna keemasan.

“Insya-Allah… tok wan.” Aina Cempaka menyambutnya sopan.

Faiz Iqbal membantu datuknya masuk ke dalam kereta. Sempat juga Datin Mariam melambaikan tangannya kepada Aina Cempaka sebelum pemandu mereka menghidupkan enjin dan meninggalkan pekarangan hotel.

“Nak aku hantarkan kau balik ke?” soal Faiz Iqbal.

“Tak apalah Encik Iqbal. Nanti kawan saya datang ambil.”

“Pukul berapa?” Aina Cempaka mengangkatkan bahunya. Tanda tidak pasti bila Suzy akan datang menjemputnya.

Faiz Iqbal mengeluh bosan.

“Kalau tak tahu, calllah. Itu pun susah ke? Dahlah, jom aku hantar kau balik.”

“Tak payahlah. Saya boleh balik sendiri,” bantah Aina Cempaka. Cuba mempertahankan egonya. Sebenarnya hatinya masih sakit. Yalah, bengang betul dia dengan tindakan Faiz Iqbal tadi. Dia bukannya barang mainan hendak main tarik-tarik. Sakit jatuh tertonggeng, boleh lagi ditahan. Tapi, muka dia ini hendak letak kat mana?

“Kalau kau nak sangat tidur kat sini, go ahead… I don’t care,” tegas Faiz Iqbal. Dia meninggalkan Aina Cempaka sendiri dan terus melangkah masuk ke dalam keretanya.


AINA CEMPAKA berjalan lemah longlai di bahu jalan. Gaun putih yang meleret dan menyapu jalan itu dibiarkannya sahaja ditiup angin malam. Bunyi bingit dan silauan lampu-lampu kenderaan yang lalu-lalang tidak dihiraukannya lagi. Dia sudah nekad tidak akan berpatah balik ke hotel itu lagi. Moga-moga ada teksi atau orang yang nampak jujur untuk dia tumpang.

Telefon bimbit di tangannya digenggam erat. Kalau hendak telefon Suzy pun sudah tidak guna masa ini. Bukannya dia ada kat sini pun. Baru dia teringat yang Suzy ada seminar di Penang selama tiga hari mulai esok.

‘Sekarang ini sudah pukul berapa ya? Sudah hampir pukul dua pagi? Siapa lagi aku nak minta tolong ni? Mohsin! Ya, Mohsin!’

Langkah kaki Aina Cempaka berhenti seketika. Telefon bimbit dicari dan laju jari-jemarinya mencari nama Mohsin dalam senarai buku telefonnya. Tersenyum lebar dia sebaik sahaja menemui nama lelaki itu.

“Helo Sin. Kau kat mana sekarang?” pantas sahaja Aina Cempaka bersuara.

“Ermm… sekarang? Sekarang aku ada kat luar.”

“Luar kat mana tu? Aku nak minta tolong ni…” rayu Aina Cempaka.

“Tolong? Tapi, sekarang ni aku ada kat Penang Airport.”

“Penang? Apa kau buat kat sana? Tak beritahu aku pun.”

“Aaa… sebenarnya aku aku kena pergi tengok tapak. Kerja last minit. Biasalah. Ermm… kau nak minta tolong apa ni?” tanya Mohsin.

Jadi serba salah pula Aina Cempaka dibuatnya. Kalau beritahu mengenai situasinya sekarang, pasti Mohsin risau. Dia masak sangat dengan perangai lelaki itu.

“Eh, tak ada apa. Tak penting pun. Tak apalah. Aku letak telefon dulu.” Aina Cempaka mematikan talian lalu satu keluhan dilepaskan. Saat genting macam ini pulalah, Mohsin ada hal. Malang betul!

‘Hendak telefon siapalah lagi ni? Burn? Ya, Burn!’

Pantas sahaja Aina Cempaka mencari nama lelaki itu. Yalah! Kalau di pejabat, dengan Burn sahaja yang Aina Cempaka ngam. Burn bukanlah orang yang kedekut jasa, pasti dia boleh tolong.

Belum pun sempat Aina Cempaka menekan butang mendail, satu cahaya dari belakang menyuluh terang. Suluhan lampu kereta itu menyilaukan pandangan matanya. Pintu kereta dikuak perlahan. Terkebil-kebil mata Aina Cempaka ingin melihat siapakah gerangan manusia yang baik hati itu.

“Kau ni memang dah gila, kan? Nasib baik aku jumpa. Kalau perogol ke, pembunuh ke culik kau, baru tahu!” jerit Faiz Iqbal lantang.

“Yang Encik Iqbal ni suka sangat menyibuk apasal? Biarlah! Encik Iqbal peduli apa?Go ahead… I don’t care!” balas Aina Cempaka. Memulangkan paku buah keras.

Faiz Iqbal mengetap bibir. Geram pula dengan perempuan kepala batu ini.

“Kenapa degil sangat ni? Jangan jadi bodoh, boleh tak?”

“Bodoh? Siapa yang bertindak bodoh? Saya ke, encik Iqbal?” jerkah Aina Cempaka.

Faiz Iqbal menghembuskan nafas panjang. Semakin sakit pula hatinya.

“Ingat! Tugas kau tak selesai lagi. Jangan nak banyak dalih sangat. Cepat!” Faiz Iqbal merentap lengan Aina Cempaka. Memaksanya masuk ke dalam perut kereta. Aina Cempaka terpaksa menurut. Dia sudah tiada pilihan lain.

Sepanjang perjalanan, mereka hanya diam. Masing-masing membawa perasaan sendiri. Tiada mood untuk bertekak lagi.

“Mana rumah kau?” soal Faiz Iqbal setelah kereta yang dinaiki mereka menyusuri kawasan perumahan kos sederhana.

“Masuk kanan, rumah warna putih tu,” balas Aina Cempaka perlahan.

Faiz Iqbal memberhentikan keretanya di hadapan rumah Aina Cempaka. Aina Cempaka membuka pintu kereta. Lemah.

“Nanti kejap.” Halang Faiz Iqbal. Hanya kaki kiri Aina Cempaka sahaja yang sempat keluar. Pandangannya menghala keluar kereta. Tidak mahu bertentangan mata dengan Faiz Iqbal.

“Aku harap apa yang berlaku hari ni bukan alasan untuk kau berhenti kerja. Kalau kau tetap nak berhenti, aku tak boleh buat apa-apa.” Buat pertama kalinya nada suara Faiz Iqbal bertukar lembut.

Aina Cempaka diam. Tidak menjawab sepatah pun. Melangkah keluar lalu menutup pintu kereta Faiz Iqbal. Dia membuka pagar dan terus masuk ke dalam rumah.

‘Apa yang kau merepek ni, hah? Kalau dia nak resign, biarlah! Yang kau sibuk sangat ni, apa hal?’ Faiz Iqbal memukul kecil kepalanya. ‘Aku dah gila gamaknya!’ bentak hati kecilnya lalu berlalu pergi meninggalkan kawasan perumahan itu.


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Mimpi Yang Sempurna oleh Aiza Qriselda

PUAS. Gembira. Bersyukur. Tiga perkataan untuk menggambarkan rasa hatiku saat ini.

You make the call” – Ternyata Encik Haiman mengotakan janjinya, menyebabkan aku rasa hilang akal seketika saat hasil akhir terpampang jelas di depan mata. Segala-galanya… bermula daripada kad jemputan, makanan, majlis khatam Al-Quran sehinggalah ke majlis resepsi, semuanya mengikut permintaanku. Walaupun hanya ini satu-satunya majlis kami, tanpa majlis lain di Serom mahupun di rumah ibu mentuaku, aku merasa puas.

Happy?” bisikan menyapa telinga.

“Bersyukur. Dan penat.” Aku ukir senyuman paling manis.


Tanganku ditarik dan aku dibawa ke dalam pangkuannya. Pinggangku dirangkul lembut dari belakang dan along muncul secara tiba-tiba mengambil gambar kami.

“Sebab kau orang pengantin baru, maka along tahan muntah pelangi along dan abadikan sweet moment kau orang guna gadget canggih along ni. Kalau tak…” Along menggeleng-geleng. “Hesy, macam manalah adik along yang lasak ni boleh tukar jadi romantik tiba-tiba? Kau jampikan dia apa, Haiman?”

Aku dah bercekak pinggang dan ingin berdiri mendekati along tetapi Encik Haiman menghalangku.

Let it be, sweetheart.

Aku duduk semula. Kali ini aku memilih tempat di sebelah Encik Haiman, bukan lagi di atas pangkuannya.

“Saya tak jampi apa pun, along. Adik along ni yang jampi saya.”

Mataku membulat dengar ayat berani mati encik suami. Walaupun aku terharu bila dia memanggil alongku yang lebih muda daripadanya sebagai ‘along’, rasa terharu tersebut berlalu begitu saja sebab dia menuduh aku menjampinya.

Uiks! Wardah dah besar bijik mata. Nasib kaulah, Haiman. Along lari dulu!”

Memang sengaja cari pasal betul along hari ini. Siaplah kalau aku jumpa dia lagi selepas ini tanpa Encik Haiman di sebelah. Tahulah aku hendak balas apa. Sekarang, selesaikan dengan Encik Haiman dulu.

“Cakap Mayra jampikan abang, ya?” Aku mencerun memandang Encik Haiman sambil menyoal geram.

Mayra. Nama yang pertama kali dipanggil sejak aku bangun tidur pagi tadi, khas daripada Encik Haiman untukku, singkatan daripada Umayra, dengan alasan sebab tak nak sama dengan nama yang orang lain panggil.

“Betul pun, kan?”

“Ingat Mayra ni tok bomoh ke apa nak jampi-jampi orang?”

“Puan bomoh yang cute.”

Aunty long!”

Perbualan kami terganggu sebab Zara dah naik ke atas pangkuanku. Kedua-dua belah tangannya melingkar pada leherku yang terselindung oleh selendang.

“Hai, Zara sayang…” Aku cuit manja hidungnya.

Aunty long cantik hari ni,” katanya.

“Yalah tu aunty long cantik?” Encik Haiman menyampuk. Bila kami bersabung pandang, satu senyuman dihadiahkan untukku.

“Cantik,” tekan Zara sambil mengangguk-angguk. “Pretty macam… princess!”

Kali ini pipi Zara yang gebu menjadi mangsa ciumanku bertalu-talu.

“Adoiii, habis pipi Zara kena lipstik aunty long. Nakallah aunty long ni!”

Tawaku dan Encik Haiman bergabung. Terhibur betul melayan cakap si kecil yang petah tak padan dengan umurnya.

Aunty long nakal pulak dah? Mana satu ni, Zara? Uncle long peninglah, kejap kata cantik, kejap nakal…”

Zara nampak keliru. Dia memandangku dan Encik Haiman silih berganti. Beberapa kali.

Aunty long princess cantik yang nakal… Boleh tak kalau macam tu, uncle long?”

Tawa Encik Haiman meletus lagi. Aku pula sembunyi senyum, berusaha untuk tidak ketawa lagi kerana tidak mahu Zara berkecil hati dan merajuk.

“Mana ada princess yang nakal? Zara ada tengok princess nakal dalam TV ataupun dalam buku-buku Zara?”

Zara menggeleng laju. “Kalau macam tu, aunty long princess cantik ajelah, tak nakal.”

Aku peluk mesra Zara bila mendengar kata-kata tersebut. Sayangku terasa tumpah bergelas-gelas untuknya.

“Zara pun cantik. Cantik sangat. Kalah princess,” aku memujinya.

“Tapi aunty long lagi cantik daripada Zara.”

Tunak aku merenungnya.

“Kenapa Zara cakap macam tu?” soal Encik Haiman.

“Sebab aunty long kahwin dengan uncle long. Thank you, aunty long. Lepas ni unclelong dah ada kawan kat sini, Zara tak risau dah.”

Aku perasan riak Encik Haiman berubah. Aku pun sama. Rasa tersentuh dengan si kecil yang sangat mengambil berat tentang Encik Haiman.


“Alaaa, mama dah panggil…” Zara meluncur turun dari pangkuanku.

“Dah nak ajak baliklah tu… Aunty long esok datang rumah Zara, tau? Zara nak tunjuk Miko.”

Aku angguk bersama senyuman. “Nanti free, aunty long pergi rumah Zara okey, tapi tak janji esok.”


Aku pandang Encik Haiman. Dia hanya tersenyum.

“Bila free, aunty long mesti datang rumah Zara dengan uncle long.” Aku beri jawapan selamat.


Pinky promise.” Aku mengait jari kelengkeng yang disuakan Zara.

She loves you so much,” ulasku bila Zara dah menjauh.

“Tu la… Nak jugak abang kahwin dengan dia kalau dia tu bukan anak buah.”

Laju aku menoleh ke arahnya, selaju jari yang mengetip pahanya spontan.

“Adoi… sakit!”

“Gatal lagi. Anak buah sendiri tu.”


“Tak kuasalah Mayra nak jealous takat Zara tu.”

“Kalau perempuan lain?” Encik Haiman dah jongket-jongket kening. Sah, sengaja nak cari pasal macam along tadi.

“Pergilah cuba menggatal dengan diaorang. Tengok nanti apa Mayra buat.”

“Nak buat apa tu?” Nakal sungguh rautnya kala ini.

“Rahsia. Tapi Mayra janji ada kemungkinan besar abang dan perempuan tu lupa nama masing-masing Mayra kerjakan,” tukasku bersama jelingan.

Namun Encik Haiman hanya ketawa.

I love it bila Mayra tunjuk cemburu macam ni. Cemburu Mayra buat abang bahagia,” bisiknya di telingaku sebelum bangun dan berlalu.

“Abang nak pergi mana?”

“Sana.” Dia menunjuk ke arah sekumpulan lelaki yang baru tiba. Aku melihat jam. Pukul 11 malam baru hendak jejak rumah orang?

“Nak ikut.” Aku meminta.

No. You sit here. Tu semua stok-stok buaya.”

Eeeewww, I smell jealousy there,” usikku.

Giler tak jealous. You’re mine, the one and only,” ucapnya seraya terus melangkah, meninggalkan aku keseorangan di atas pelamin.

Tadi ingatkan semua tetamu telah pulang dan tinggal saudara-mara sahaja, itu yang kami berdua lepak-lepak di atas pelamin indah ini, bajet tengah dating. Sehinggalah si kecil Zara meluru. Ini Zara dah hilang, muncul pula tetamu yang dikatakan buaya. Terus kena tinggal sorang-sorang atas pelamin ini. Baik aku bangun sebelum dicop gila.

Dessert Corner di salah satu sudut menarikku untuk melangkah ke situ. Deretan coklat, aiskrim, kek dan gula-gula yang bermacam jenis semuanya menggamit selera. Lantas tanpa fikir panjang, aku ambil sebiji mangkuk kecil yang tersedia. Puas hati dengan isi mangkuk, aku duduk di atas buaian rotan dan mulakan suapan sambil mata melilau melihat keadaan sekeliling. Dan oh… Aku nampak Encik Haiman yang sedang rancak berbual bersama kumpulan yang baru datang tadi. Sekejap dia serius, sekejap dia mendengar, sekejap lagi dia ketawa. Aku jadi ralit memerhatikan tingkahnya.

“Adoi, Kak Adah! Kalau betul pun rindu tu tengah menggunung, control la sikit.”

Pantas aku kalih ke punca suara. Ida, adik bongsuku.

“Apa kau cakap tadi?”

Ida sengih.

“Kak Adah tu la, tenung Abang Haiman tu macam nampak Frozen Haute Chocolate yang harganya RM3,500 per scoop. Tembus habis! Sabar Kak Adah, tak hilang punya suami Kak Adah tu…”

Terus aku pulas telinganya tanpa belas kasihan.

Auch! Sakitlah, Kak Adah!”

“Nak ulang balik tak apa yang kau cakap tadi?”

“Tak… tak… Sorry, Ida tak cakap dah.”

“Tu aje?”

“Ida tarik balik kata-kata tu tadi. Cepatlah lepas, sakit ni!”

Aku lepaskan telinganya. Temberang aje lebih budak sorang ni. Dia pakai tudung, manalah sampai sangat sentuhan jari-jari aku ini ke telinga dia.

“Dah makan belum?” Aku menyoalnya. Sewaktu di meja makan pengantin tadi, dia tidak ada sekali.

“Dah, makan dengan alang tadi.”

“Malam ni tidur sini, kan?”

Ida menggeleng.


“Esok orang ada kelas tambahanlah, Kak Adah. Umi dengan abah aje yang tidur sini, kita orang semua balik malam ni.”

“Skip la sesekali,” cadangku. Bukan mudah untuk berkumpul sama-sama sekarang ini.

“Hah, yalah tu. Mau kena piat dengan umi nanti. Aura cikgu displin masih kuat tu…”

Aku tidak dapat menahan gelak. Tawaku dan tawa Ida bersatu.

“Tapi terror la, Kak Adah. Boleh khatam dalam masa seminggu tu…”

Aku geleng. “Mana ada. Kan abah pesan jangan tinggal baca Al-Quran? Kebetulan masa dapat tahu nak buat majlis tu, memang dah nak habis. Tu yang sempat habiskan dan dapat buat majlis khatam petang tadi.”

“Abang Haiman ralit dengar bacaan Kak Adah dari luar rumah masa tu.”

“Kau skodeng dia eh?”

“Terpandanglah! Masa tu lalu situ sebab umi suruh panggil abah. Ingat apa, Ida nak mengurat Abang Haiman?”

Aku dah gelak. Teringat semula mimpi dulu yang entah apa-apa.


AKU BERDIRI di satu tempat asing seperti di dalam dunia Alice In Wonderland. Indah namun dalam masa yang sama, menakutkan. Dikelilingi bunga-bunga yang sangat cantik seperti di Lisse tetapi keseorangan. Tiada sesiapa yang menemani. Langsung tidak ada orang lain di tempat yang luas ini. Aku jadi cuak dan cemas. Sungguh aku takut. Ke mana semua orang? Di manakah semua orang? Kenapa aku ditinggalkan sendirian di tempat yang cantik ini?

Tanpa matlamat yang pasti, aku atur langkah merentasi hamparan bunga yang meluas. Anehnya, walaupun berkaki ayam, aku langsung tidak berasa sakit setiap kali tapak kaki menyentuh bumi. Kakiku seolah-olah dilitupi stoking tebal yang lutsinar warnanya.

Setelah sekian lama, hamparan bunga yang aku redah tetap tidak berpenghujung. Lelah kurasa. Titis-titis peluh mula membasahi dahi dan belakang badanku walaupun tiada sinaran matahari yang memancar.

Hujan yang tiba-tiba turun memaksaku berlari mencari tempat untuk berteduh. Mataku gagal menangkap sebarang bayangan pokok besar mahupun pondok untuk berlindung namun aku terus laju membuka langkah demi menyelamatkan diri daripada titisan hujan yang semakin menggila. Pakaianku semakin basah dan rasa sejuk yang mula menerjah sedikit membataskan pergerakan tetapi aku hanya abaikan dan terus berlari tanpa henti.

Di luar kawalan, kakiku tersadung sesuatu lalu aku terjatuh. Sakit. Lelah. Mutiara jernih mula terbit dari kedua-dua tubir mataku. Ya Allah, di mana aku sekarang ini? Mana jalan keluarnya?

Menarik nafas dalam-dalam, aku panggung kepala dari merenung bumi dan mengangkat tubuh untuk bangun. Di hadapanku… betul-betul semeter di hadapanku, ada satu pintu cantik berwarna putih. Hanya pintu. Tanpa dinding, tingkap ataupun sebarang tiang.

Penuh harapan, aku mendekati pintu tersebut. Moga-moga ini jalan keluar untukku meninggalkan tempat pelik ini.

Terbuka sahaja pintu putih tersebut, aku tergamam. Berbeza dengan pemandangan di sebelah sana tadi. Indah sehingga tidak dapat diungkap!

Di depan mataku, terbentang hamparan rumput yang berwarna kuning kehijauan yang dihiasi bebunga merah jambu striking bersaiz kecil, seperti bunga petunia kesukaan umi. Sekumpulan besar rama-rama berterbangan, membentuk satu bayangan pergerakan yang cantik merentasi hamparan yang meluas. Kicauan burung, yang tidak kutahu mana puncanya menyapa halwa telinga dan keadaan angin yang sepoi-sepoi bahasa menjadikan suasana semakin indah dan nyaman.

Tiba-tiba mataku terpaku pada satu sudut. Ada sepasang tubuh yang duduk di atas sebatang kayu besar membelakangkanku. Kedua-dua mereka berkongsi sebuah payung yang warnanya sama seperti bunga merah jambu yang cantik itu.

Sedikit ragu-ragu aku mendekati mereka. Tujuanku hanya satu, ingin bertanyakan jalan keluar.

“Err… saudara?” Aku memberanikan diri menegur.

Serentak kedua-dua tubuh itu berpusing.

“Encik Haiman! Ida! Buat apa kat sini?”

Aku tergamam. Rupa-rupanya tubuh lelaki yang berjaket coklat itu ialah Encik Haiman dan tubuh perempuan yang menyarung blaus putih itu adalah adik bongsuku, Wahida Uzma. Kenapa mereka berdua di sini? Dan kelihatan seperti rapat dan mesra?

“Kak Adah! Hai!” Adikku senyum selamba.

“What are you doing here, Ida? With this guy?”

Ops, Kak Adah silap. This guy adalah bakal suami Ida. He’s such a very nice guy. Kak Adah tak nak dia, kan? Jadi biar adik aje yang ambil.”

Darahku menyirap. Aku genggam tangan kuat-kuat mencari kesabaran. Encik Haiman di sebelahnya yang hanya berdiri tenang aku pandang tajam.

“Apa yang adik saya melalut ni, Encik Haiman? You and her...?”

“Wardah, you jugak yang cakap hal hati dan perasaan I tak ada kena-mengena dengan you, kan?”

“Tapi ni adik saya yang baru berusia 18 tahun!”


“Jom kita pergi, abang. Rimaslah kena bebel dengan Kak Adah ni.” Selamba lengan Encik Haiman disentuh dan ditarik.

“Ida!” Aku tidak dapat tahan diri daripada menjerit.

“Bye-bye, Kak Adah. Nanti tolong jadi pengapit adik, ya? Mmuahhh!”

Aku hanya mampu memandang mereka melangkah meninggalkanku. Senyuman kegembiraan Ida terasa seperti menyiat hatiku. Air mataku turun tanpa dapat dicegah.


“KAK ADAH, berangan!” Lenganku ditepuk.

Serta-merta lamunanku berterbangan.

“Melayang ke mana?”

Aku menggeleng, mengundang tawa si bongsu.

“Majlis Kak Adah ni, siapa punya idea?”

Aku senyum lebar. “Menarik, kan? Kak Adah bagi konsep, the rest hasil usaha abang ipar awaklah…”

“Serius? Dia tak kisah ikut idea Kak Adah yang senget ni?”

Oit!” Aku besarkan biji mata. “Sesuka hati cakap kakak sendiri senget!”

“Dah memang senget pun! Mana ada orang buat majlis macam ni?”

“Apa pasal tak ada pulak?”

“Kak Adah, kad jemputan kau orang adalah kertas fotostat yang tepinya dibakar dengan lilin, okey!”

“Okey apa? Jimat pun jimat. Buat mahal-mahal, cantik-cantik, nanti akhirnya ke tong sampah jugak.”

“Okey, alasan Kak Adah tu diterima. Tapi yang menu tu? Ubi kayu rebuslah, pengat pisang, lepat labu… belum masuk gulai cendawan kukur, ikan masin, jantung pisang, daging salai, sambal bela…”

Aku kerut dahi. “Apa yang salah? Asyik makanan moden aje, sesekali tukarlah selera masakan kampung pulak. Berselera aje Kak Adah tengok tetamu yang datang.”

“Ida tak cakap pun makanan tu semua tak sedap. Memang menyelerakan, sungguh. Tapi jarang kut orang buat, majlis orang-orang elit, hidang makan masakan kampung.”

“Memang Kak Adah minta makanan kampung, sengaja nak buat kelainan. Yang elit tu, gelaran untuk abang ipar awak, bukan Kak Adah.”

“Tapi Ida suka pelamin tu. Simple tapi sangat menarik.”

“Pelamin tu, Kak Adah cuma cakap tak nak ada bunga. Langsung tak terbayang pun pelamin macam tu.”

Mataku terarah pada pelamin yang tidak berorang. Unik. Berlatarbelakangkan suasana malam gabungan warna hitam, ungu dan kebiruan yang dihiasi butiran bintang. Ada hiasan pokok luruh di sebelah kiri dan kanan pelamin yang nampak asli. Di bahagian kiri pelamin juga, ada diletakkan lampu vantage bertiang tinggi dan yang paling epik, ada motor Vespa antik yang disandarkan pada tiang lampu tersebut. Yang paling aku jatuh hati, kerusi pelamin kami, berbentuk bulan sabit berwarna putih di tengah-tengah pelamin.

“Bila Kak Adah dengan Abang Haiman bergambar atas pelamin tu, nampak macam satu pemandangan hidup. Serius amazing!”

Aku hanya senyum.

Dress Kak Adah yang baby blue ni, siapa pilih, Abang Haiman jugak?”

Aku sengih. “Siapa lagi? Abang ipar awak cakap dia pilih warna putih sebab warna favourite Kak Adah, alih-alih mak andam datang bawak warna baby blue.”

“Dia memang pandai pilih, Kak Adah. Cantik! Walaupun tak sarat, it looks perfect on you. Untung Kak Adah. Nanti Ida pun nak cari suami macam Abang Haiman la.”

“Amboi!” Aku besarkan mata. “Dah gatal ya? Nanti Kak Adah adu pada umi.”

“Orang cakap nanti bila sampai masalah, Kak Adah. Bukan sekarang. Orang nak capai cita-cita jadi fashion designer yang berjaya dulu.”

“Bagus, yang tu Kak Adah sokong.”

“Tapi kan, Kak Adah… Abang Zaki tu single lagi, kan? Dia tu handsome macam Nazim Othman la!”

“Ida!” Aku dah angkat tangan untuk mencari sasaran tapi terbantut bila Meen muncul.

“Awak, kita balik dulu ya. Lewat dah ni,” ucap Meen yang menyentuh bahuku.

Aku tengok jam. Pukul 11.30 malam tepat.

“Tak nak tidur sini ke?” pelawaku penuh harapan.

“Tak apalah, lain kali aje.”

“Jom kita hantar awak ke kereta.” Tangan Meen aku paut lalu kami beriringan ke luar rumah. Penuh berhati-hati aku melangkah untuk mengelakkan hujung dress yang aku pakai menyeret bumi.

Take care, okay.” Meen memelukku erat.

You too.”

Be a good wife. And a good mother too.” Meen menunjuk ke satu arah.

Di kawasan taman di tepi kolam, Akim Hareez sedang duduk menghadap kolam seorang diri.

“Mungkin awak dah kena start peranan ibu tu malam ni jugak kut?”

Aku balas kata-kata Meen dengan senyum sumbing. Sebetulnya tidak tahu hendak bagi reaksi yang macam mana.

“Balik dulu, assalamualaikum.”

Aku hanya menanti sehingga kereta Meen hilang dari pandangan sebelum kembali ke pekarangan rumah. Melihat Akim Hareez yang masih tidak berganjak sedari tadi, aku mengambil keputusan untuk menghampirinya.

“Hai, Akim…” seruku dengan nada mesra.

“Kenapa kau kahwin dengan daddy?”

Terpempan aku seketika mendengar patah bicaranya. Hilang sudah gelaran ‘kakak’ yang sebelum ini diberikan kepadaku.

“Ingatkan kau akan kahwin dengan kembar Nazim Othman tu.”

Aku tarik nafas dalam-dalam.

I’m sorry.”

Hanya itu yang mampu aku ucapkan.

Akim Hareez menggelengkan kepalanya beberapa kali.

“Kenapa kau orang kahwin? Aku cuma terfikir… daddy mungkin kahwin dengan kau sebab kes aku tu. Tapi kau pulak, kahwin dengan daddy atas alasan apa? Sebab dia kaya ke?”

Aku beristighfar dalam hati. Rasa kesal tetapi tidak boleh diluahkan. Tuduhan Akim Hareez memang tidak wajar tetapi rasionalnya, aku juga mungkin akan buat andaian yang sama jika aku berada di tempatnya.

Menyeru semangat dalam diam, perlahan aku melabuhkan duduk di sebelahnya.

“Kami kahwin bukan sebab yang macam Akim cakap tu.”

So, sebab apa?” Kali ini Akim Hareez berubah posisi menentang paras mataku.

“Sebab jodoh kami dah Allah tentukan di lohmahfuz? Is that acceptable to you?”

Akim Hareez mengeluh. Wajahnya nampak sedikit keruh.

“Aku ingatkan nak tengok mummy dan daddy bersatu balik.”


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The Sister Wife by Diane Noble


Liverpool, England
July 1, 1841

Lady Mary Rose Ashley sat at a forward angle on the plush velvet seat of the ornate carriage, gazing one minute out the window, wanting to jump, and the next minute, while swaying with the carriage, believing the long uncomfortable ride would never end. It didn’t help that on either side of her sat a fidgety four-year-old twin and, across from her, their equally fidgety and considerably louder seven-year-old brother.

Grandfather had gone to great trouble to arrange for passage for them all, but she became more certain with each turn of the carriage wheel that he kept something from her. Two days ago when the team pulled the vehicle away from the portico and into the tree-lined lane, he had not turned for a last glimpse of the massive Salisbury manor house and manicured estate grounds that had belonged to the Ashley family for centuries. And it seemed his sadness grew with each mile as the groom urged the high-stepping grays on toward the harbor where the Sea Hawk anchored.

Mary Rose peered out the window, searching for her first glimpse of the tall ship in the distance. As the landau raced along the cobbled streets of Liverpool, Mary Rose studied her grandfather’s lined face, wondering again what his stooped shoulders and downcast eyes hid from her. Whatever it was, in her heart she knew all was not right with her grandfather, the Earl of Salisbury.

“Lady,” Pearl said, tapping Mary Rose’s arm. “Am I going home?”

“Yes, Boston is your new home. You’ll like it there.”

“Will I like my new mama?” The catch in her young cousin’s voice twisted Mary Rose’s heart. She reached for the child’s hand. Four-year-old Pearl and her twin, Ruby, sitting on her opposite side, asked the question at least a dozen times a day. She gave them each a confident smile. “Yes, dears, your new mama can’t wait for your arrival.”

Coal sniggered. “How is it you can know this? She’s a relative so many times removed and so far away that I daresay—”

Grandfather held up a hand, palm out, and arched a bushy white brow in the boy’s direction. “And I daresay, you should be aware of your elders and speak to them in a genteel manner, young man. You may have lived only seven years, but you are old enough to behave properly. You should also be aware of your sisters’ feelings. A positive outlook will pave the way to success in your new home.”

“It didn’t help in the last three,” the boy muttered, turning to the window.

“That doesn’t mean my words are false,” Grandfather said. “It only means that all of you must try harder to fit in.”

Ruby sniffled, her eyes wet with tears. She glared at Mary Rose’s grandfather. “Don’t talk to my brother tho mean.” Her lisp was more pronounced when she was unduly stressed, and it seemed lately that the child’s impediment was evident nearly every time she spoke.

The manor house had been nothing but mayhem since the children had blown in like small tornados in the company of Grandfather’s brother and his wife, both looking white-faced and frazzled. The twins were identical, their only distinguishing mark a tiny heart-shaped beauty mark just below Pearl’s right ear. And, of course, Ruby’s speech impediment. It helped, when observing the two from a distance, that Pearl insisted on wearing her hair plaited so her beauty mark would show.

Still holding Pearl’s hand, Mary Rose reached for Ruby’s and gave them both a gentle squeeze. “Grandfather is merely trying to help your brother understand that you must adjust to your new circumstances.”

Pearl looked up at Mary Rose with large eyes that seemed far too wise for one so young. She didn’t speak, but Mary Rose wondered if the child was remembering all the times such an adjustment was called for since their parents sailed to the Sandwich Islands to evangelize the natives. She wondered how parents, no matter their fervency for serving God, could leave their children half a world away.

“I want to live with you,” Ruby said, squeezing Mary Rose’s hand. “I loved the manor houth, but a thip will be even better.”

“Where you live is your mother and father’s decision to make,” Mary Rose said, “and she’s very clear that Grandfather and I are to see you safely to her cousin Hermione’s lovely home in Boston. We cannot go against her wishes.”

“The thip!” Ruby stood up and pointed out the window.

Her twin scrambled to the window and reached for the hand-holds that hung above it. She’d discovered two days ago they were the perfect height for swinging.

Mary Rose sighed. “Pearl, child, you need to get down now. Not only is it inappropriate comportment for a young lady, but you could fall and hurt yourself.”

Pearl kept swinging.

Coal got to his knees and pulled the velvet window curtain back further. “I see it,” he shouted. “The clipper. The Sea Hawk. She’ll beat the record, I just know she will.” In his excitement he bounced up and down on the bench seat.

The carriage rocked and swayed more violently than before, and Mary Rose felt more light-headed than ever. The sight of the crew hoisting sails on one of the taller masts did nothing to assuage her jitters.

Charles, the groom, did some fancy maneuvering in an attempt to crowd into the queue of waiting carriages but missed his first try. Then, racing along the cobbles, he tried the maneuver again, this time bypassing the queue and heading onto the wharf itself.

Mary Rose grabbed the edge of the seat, her knuckles white as they rumbled onto the wharf’s rough wooden planks.

A wave of apprehension swept through her. She had gone along with her grandfather for all the wrong reasons. Her gaze darted to the Sea Hawk then back to her grandfather’s face.

His smile broadened as he looked out over the harbor to the open waters beyond, and he exhaled a long sigh of contentment.

Mary Rose couldn’t help but wonder if they had made a colossal mistake.

Even before he caught a glimpse of the passengers inside, Gabe MacKay knew the gleaming black landau, drawn by four high-stepping grays, meant trouble.

The rig clattered recklessly down the narrow cobbled street that ran parallel to the Liverpool wharf. Without so much as a nod to the other drivers, the white-haired groom cracked his whip above the team and bullied his way through the crowd to the front of the queue of waiting carriages. Gabe drew in his breath. It was only by God’s good grace that someone had not been knocked down or run over by the vehicle.

The groom halted the grays precariously close to the edge of the wharf, just a few dozen carriage lengths from what would surely be a plunge into the brackish waters of the harbor. Gabe bit back an oath and stepped closer to the Sea Hawk’s rail to have a better look. One false move by that high-strung team and the fancy rig, along with its inhabitants, would be in grave peril.

Apparently oblivious to the danger, the groom set the brake and, in one slapdash move, wrapped the reins around the brake handle to keep it from slipping. Without a backward look, he stepped down from his driver’s perch, rounded the carriage, and opened the glass side door with a flourish.

“Bannock’s boucle!” Gabe muttered under his breath.

Just when he thought things couldn’t get more perilous, a passel of children tumbled from the vehicle with shouts and giggles loud enough to carry across the wharf to the quarterdeck where he stood. A tow-haired lass of about five years exited by hoisting herself up like a small monkey to swing from the carriage door; another that looked to be the same size pushed around her then clambered up to the groom’s bench; and an equally tow-haired lad sporting a stick-straight Dutch boy haircut, a sailor’s suit, and striped stockings raced toward the horses, chose the one he wanted, then struggled to mount. Ach! But of course it would have to be the gray in the lead, the one that was already snorting and rolling its eyes.

The elderly groom may as well have been wearing blinders as he went about his business, unloading trunks and valises of varying sizes from a second landau that had pulled alongside the first. Neither the groom nor the stevedore now helping him noticed when the lass on the groom’s bench clambered from her perch, unfastened the reins, then, struggling under the snarled weight of them, climbed back to the bench and pretended with great relish to drive the team.

Gabe heard a chuckle and turned as Captain Hosea Livingstone, master and commander of the Sea Hawk, strode toward him. His friend’s expression said he was as worked up as Gabe about the clipper’s maiden voyage and her challenge to break the world’s speed record.

Gabe had overseen the building of the Sea Hawk for Messrs. R. Napier and Company on the River Clyde. Originally from Nova Scotia, Gabe had studied the architecture of shipbuilding in Boston, and then sailed to Scotland three years earlier to learn more about his trade from a company known to be the best in the world. He began as an apprentice to the head architect, but his skill quickly became apparent and he soon began working side by side with the aging but brilliant builder. The Sea Hawk had a curve and elegant beauty to her that, Gabe felt, was beyond compare. As the project was completed and the sale to Cunard neared, Gabe recommended his friend Captain Livingstone to Cunard, who as owner was in charge of hiring the captain and crew.

Now they were on the Sea Hawk’s maiden voyage to assess the ship’s performance and endurance, in what they hoped would be the fastest Liverpool-to-Boston transatlantic crossing made to date.

He couldn’t think of anyone he’d rather be with on this important voyage. Still watching the landau and its inhabitants, Hosea chuckled. “You are about to be introduced to the Earl of Salisbury and Lady Mary Rose Ashley—and from the look of things, perhaps it’s better done at considerable distance.” He laughed again.

“I have to admit their arrival has proven amusing.” He smiled. “Though something tells me trouble’s afoot, earl or not.”

The fog blanketing the harbor during the predawn hours had rolled out to sea, leaving only a few ribbons of mist in its wake. The foghorn had stopped its mournful cry, and now, above the gusts of wind, Gabe heard snatches of conversation rising from the wharf where passengers and well-wishers had begun to gather. The sounds mixed with a coarse seagoing ditty some stevedores were singing as they loaded cargo in the hold.

Just then a high-pitched whoop-whoop-whoop! carried toward Gabe. He turned to see that the little ruffian had indeed found a foothold and swung himself across the nervous gray’s back. With another whoop and a holler, he bounced up and down as if riding across an imaginary prairie while shooting an imaginary bow and arrow at an imaginary target.

He extended his telescope and raised it to his eye. He had it in mind to stride to the landau himself, remove the lad from the gray, and then have a strong word with whoever was in charge of the little lad and lassies. Was there not a parent aboard that fancy carriage? Or perhaps a nanny? A nursemaid?

As if he’d summoned her with his words, a young woman appeared in the landau’s doorway, and in the circle of his glass. She attempted to remove the giggling tow-headed monkey child from her swinging perch on the door, but the child took flight and landed on the ground in a tumble of skirts, petticoats, and pantaloons. Unhurt, she scampered toward the stack of varying-sized trunks the groom and stevedore had just unloaded and climbed them like stairs. Then she plumped down on top of them, her chin resting in her hands and elbows on knees in a highly unlady-like pose.

Gabe couldn’t help chuckling as he moved the lens back to the woman who, appearing dismayed, called something to the two children out of her reach—the boy still making Indian calls and bouncing on the nervous gray, the girl pretending to drive the rig by flicking the reins she’d unwound from the brake. A lethal combination, to be sure. Surely the woman could see that. He prayed the horses had grown used to such rowdy behavior and wouldn’t bolt.

As if she felt his gaze, the woman glanced up just long enough for him to take in the unruly auburn ringlets beneath a straw bonnet, its froth of netting and ribbons framing a fair face, and the sparkling hue of her eyes, a shade of gold-green the Atlantic took on just before sunrise. She wasn’t beautiful by the standards of the day, too thin and willowy, but something about the shape of her face, the fullness of her lips, and the dark fringe of eyelashes that framed her eyes captivated him.

Then she disappeared back inside the landau.

He kept the glass trained on the doorway. Seconds later she reappeared in the telescope’s lens, this time to help a quite elderly man from the carriage.

Gabe turned to make a comment to Hosea, but his friend had left to talk to Mr. Thorpe, the chief mate. He returned the glass to his eye. It was indeed Langdon Ashley, the Earl of Salisbury. His manner, his dress, bespoke his position in life. Besides, Gabe had seen him caricatured in many a broadside sold by the hawkies in Glasgow’s Saltmarket. His rotund midsection, his mustache with its magnificently waxed and spiraled ends, beaver-skin top hat, and waistcoat that strained its seams to fit his portly frame had long proved irresistible to political artists who penned his exaggerated image. He was well known for his relish for adventure, and had written extensively about his excursions in the Rocky Mountains with Sir William Drummond Stewart, a Scottish nobleman, the oddest of mountain men of the time.

The earl seemed to be searching for something…or someone. He stood near the landau, leaning on his cane. His gaze took in the Sea Hawk, and he scanned the knots of passengers and well-wishers on the wharf. After a moment, he stopped and seemed to recognize someone on the pier below Gabe.

He followed the earl’s gaze to a man standing just yards from the dock, close enough for Gabe to see him well even without the telescope. He was a commanding presence: tall and slender with light brown hair that curled under just before reaching his shoulders, a curious style and not one often seen in England or Scotland. More charismatic than handsome, he seemed to have a powerful hold on the small cluster of people who stood around him, appearing to hang on his every word.

Gabe caught snatches of his conversation before the winds whisked most of the words away. “Good of you to come, brothers and sisters…You’ll be following soon, of course…You’ll find America is a new world, your life with the Saints an exciting new…” He gave instructions that Gabe couldn’t pick up, and then he gestured toward the earl and his party. “By all means, let them know you’re here to see them off.”

His accent was unmistakable. And his delivery bordered on oration. A preacher perhaps? If so, a preacher as American as Daniel Boone’s coonskin hat or Jim Bowie’s knife. But why would the Earl of Salisbury seek him out? And who were the people standing around him? They were mostly families, and rather impoverished in appearance at that. Crossing the Atlantic by clipper ship, especially this clipper, cost far beyond what most Englishmen could even dream of paying.

He was still pondering the connection between the earl and the preacher when a child’s frightened shriek pierced the air.

For a moment, dead silence hung like a pall. Then another shriek, this time louder. The carriage—with the boy on the wildly rearing gray, the little girl in the groom’s seat—had lurched forward, tilting precariously. As the horse reared again, Gabe’s heart lodged in his throat. The earl fell to the ground and rolled toward the safety of the wharf. But the woman, frilly hat askew, had pulled up her skirts and petticoats and, holding on to the carriage with one hand, found her footing and catapulted herself into the groomsman’s box to reach the now sobbing child.

Gabe kept the rig in sight as he took the quarterdeck stairs three at a time, raced to the outer rail, swung his legs over, and shimmied down a rope. It took all of three seconds to reach the bottom, where he dropped to the wharf.

As he ran toward the landau, he listened for the sounds that too easily could follow within seconds: the clatter of the wagon wheels on the rough wood of the wharf and the terrified screams of the horses just before they plunged into the deep waters of the harbor, dragging the carriage, two children, and their mother to certain deaths.

“Jump!” Mary Rose scrambled to get a foothold near the child as the carriage rocked first one way, then the other. “You must jump now—to the other side. Quickly. Do it now!”

Pearl, for the first time in the fortnight since Mary Rose had taken her under her wing, seemed as immovable as a chunk of granite. Nose running and cheeks glazed with tears, the little girl stared at Mary Rose. She held her hands around the tangle of reins in a seeming death grip. Not a strand of leather remained wrapped around the brake. Mary Rose prayed the apparatus would hold just long enough to get the children to safety.

“Jump to me, then, child, jump to me!” This time she didn’t wait for Pearl to act. She flung herself toward the girl and pulled her from the seat. In one swift movement as the horses reared and the carriage rocked, she dropped her gently to the ground, cried after her to run to Grandfather, and then grabbed the reins. The team, following the lead of the gray that Coal clung to, reared and neighed.

With a screech, the brake slid from its shoe and the carriage lurched.

Mary Rose made a grab for the handle but didn’t have the strength to jam it into place. In one swift movement, she tightened her grip on the reins and, holding her breath, pulled back. “Whoa, boys,” she cried and then, swallowing hard, tried to use a calmer voice. “Settle yourselves. Come now, gentlemen, settle yourselves.”

The cacophony rising from the gathering spectators made the team more skittish than before.

“Help uth!” yelled Ruby from somewhere behind Mary Rose. “Thombody, help uth.”

“Jump, Coal,” Pearl cried to her brother. “You can do it. Make believe you’re Davy Crockett. Jump!”

“He’th not going to,” Ruby sobbed. “He’th gonna get killed and we’re not even to America yet.”

The team reared and screamed again, wild eyes rolling. Even Prince, normally as calm as a feeble old cat, rolled his eyes right along with the others and neighed in protest.

And for good reason.

Coal had started screaming like a Comanche again, clinging to the mane of the wild gray in the lead.

Mary Rose’s heart threatened to stop beating. “Jump!” she yelled. Until this moment she didn’t realize how much she cared about the boy. He’d been merely a relative in her charge to see to his new home. And not a pleasant relative at that. Tears stuck in the back of her throat. If the team broke loose and he jumped, he’d surely be trampled; if he held on, the frightened horse would take him with the entire team straight into the deep harbor waters.

“He’th gonna die,” sobbed Ruby from a few yards away. “Pleathe, Lady, don’t let Brother die.”

The lead horse reared again, and the team, sensing freedom, bolted forward and again Mary Rose yanked back on the reins. Her gloves split as the hard leather sliced into her flesh. Instantly, her palms became wet with blood.

Standing to gain better leverage, she repeatedly yanked. And cried out another command.

Still they ran wild.

“Jump, Coal,” she shouted once more. But the boy, clinging to the gray’s mane, seemed not to hear her.

The dark waters of the harbor lay dead ahead.


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Ravish by Cathy Yardley


When Jacob fell asleep that night, he arrived in Rory’s room, just like always—only Rory wasn’t there waiting for him. He was surprised, then he wasn’t. Considering the way he’d left, he could barely expect her to welcome him with open arms, could he?

You’re acting like she’s real again.

He closed his eyes. The damned raccoon. How else could he have known about that strange detail?

“Rory?” he called, searching the room, then the suite. “Rory, please come out.”

He started to feel concerned. He had to find her. He had to figure this out, test her.

Prove once and for all that she’s not real.

He left the room, calling for her down the hallways. When he got downstairs and couldn’t find her, his stomach began to clench, forming a ball of ice as fear stabbed through him. Was she hurt? Was she gone? Had he finally gotten his wish and banished her from his dreams for good?

If you’re not useful, I won’t keep dreaming about you.

Panic flooded his system. Even if she wasn’t real, the thought of living without her touch, without her taste, was almost more than he could bear.

“Rory!” he yelled, rushing outside, scanning the grounds.

He saw her as she was walking up the pathway. She was weeping, looking frightened. When she saw him, she made a strained sob and ran for him. He opened his arms, and she rushed into his embrace. He clutched her frantically, holding her so tight it was a wonder she could breathe. “Rory,” he whispered fiercely against her hair. “I thought you’d gone.”

“Jacob.” She clung to him, burying her face against his chest.

“I’m sorry.” He leaned back, kissing her hard, tasting the saltiness of her tears. “I was an asshole. I didn’t mean it, not any of it…”

“You were right,” she hiccupped. “I didn’t want it badly enough. I thought I was strong enough…”

“You are,” he countered. “You are strong. You’ve made it this long…”

“By doing what?” She shoved away from him, knuckling tears off of her face. “You were right. I was just playing house, wasting time. I didn’t want to face what I was afraid of.” He watched as she swallowed convulsively, her face a mask of shame and pain. “I’m still a coward.”

“No.” He sighed. “You’re not a coward.”

“How would you know?” she asked scornfully. “And why are you even talking to me? I’m not real, remember? I’m just a figment of your subconscious…an unhelpful, useless illusion, at that!”

She turned, ready to head away from him, into the hotel. He looped his arms around her waist, holding tight when she struggled, swearing at him. “Please, please listen to me. I can’t help the fact that it’s hard for me to believe. Would you believe all this, if it were happening to you?”

“It is happening to me!” she spat out, jerking away from him. He followed her through the glass doors.

“If you were me,” he persisted, “a doctor, and you started having sexual dreams about a patient, would you believe that it was someone in a coma actually talking to you while you slept?”

She slowed, and he stepped in front of her.

“You were cruel.” Her eyes were like the moon, silvery and luminescent.

“I know. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to believe in you. I thought I was losing my mind.”

“And now…?”

He paused.

“You’re still not convinced,” she said. She rubbed her hands over her face.

“I’m close,” he said. “And if you knew what I was like, before I met you, you would understand what a huge concession that is.”

“I don’t know you. For all I know, I invented you.” She looked alarmed, then her face relaxed. “But I know that’s not true. I know you’re real.”

For a second, he was fascinated by her certainty. “How can you be so sure?”

She shrugged. “I just am.”

Her faith humbled him. Even though he’d always prided himself on being logical and rational, for a second, he envied her ability to simply believe, and go with her instinct.

“Where were you?” he asked, putting an arm around her shoulders. “I looked for you everywhere.”

He could feel her shake, pressing tighter against his side. “I was taking your advice,” she said with a trace of bitterness. “I was trying to wake up.”

He stopped, startled. “You were? How?”

“I told you there were things on this island,” she muttered. “Things that frightened me. Well, I went there.”

“And…?” He felt excitement—and, strangely, a little apprehension.

“I’m still here, aren’t I?” she snapped. “It didn’t work. I don’t know how to get myself to wake up. But I don’t ever want to go back there again.”

“Back where?”

They headed toward her room, more out of habit than for any specific reason. “Back to the grove,” she said. “When you head down the path, into the rain forest, there’s a small village. Further on, there’s a path that leads into the darkest part of the woods. That’s where it happens.”

“Where what happens?” Jacob pressed.

“Rituals.” She shuddered. “I’m making myself a cup of tea.”

He wanted to keep asking her, but she was obviously still frightened, so he backed off, sitting on a barstool at the counter of her suite’s kitchenette. He watched as she put the silver teakettle on to boil. “You’ve been there before?”

She nodded, her eyes looking haunted. “When I first arrived here, I had started to realize this wasn’t just a dream—or if it was, it was the longest dream I’d ever been in,” she said. “I decided to explore the island. Like you, I figured my subconscious was trying to ‘tell’ me something.” She chuckled bitterly. “Every place seemed to be abandoned. Then I went to the woods. I heard music, drums, chanting. I figured it must be what I was looking for.”

The teakettle whistled, and she started. Then she rummaged for a cup, pouring the boiling water over the teabag. Jacob waited patiently.

“There was a woman there,” she said slowly, holding the teacup absently, warming her palms around it. “A tall, beautiful black woman. She had drawn something on the ground. There was an assortment of people around her. The chanting grew louder, and she started to dance.”

Jacob found himself mesmerized. “Then what?”

“She fell to the ground, as if she were having a seizure,” Rory said in horrified remembrance. “When she stood up, it seemed like her eyes had changed colors. There was a goat tethered, and she…” Rory gagged. “She slit its throat, catching the blood in a silver bowl.”

Jacob’s eyes widened.

“The crowd started to pass the bowl around,” she said. “They started to sing. And drink.” She put the teacup down with a clatter on the granite countertop. “That’s when I noticed that they weren’t really people. I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t human.”

“And that’s what frightened you?”

She stared at him. “It was more than that,” she said. “If you saw them, felt them, you’d understand. The feelings were unbelievable. Overwhelming.”

Jacob didn’t understand. The answer seemed to lie there, in that grove. Granted, what she was describing sounded unpleasant, but at the same time, it was just a dream. Nothing could hurt her. “So, you went back there today?”

She nodded curtly. “I saw the same woman, the same…people.”

“Did she kill anything else?”

Rory shook her head. “She was too busy having sex.” She grimaced. “With two men.”

Jacob choked at that one. “Why was she doing that?”

“Because one wasn’t enough?” Rory said. “How should I know? She mentioned something about Erzuli.”

“Erzuli…” Jacob frowned. “Wait. That sounds familiar. I think I remember my brother telling me something about that.”

“She said that I couldn’t leave,” Rory continued. “She said that I’d leave when I die. She offered to teach me pleasure and power. Even offered to share her men with me.”

Now Jacob was riveted. “What did you say?”

Rory paused, then smiled bitterly. “Why? Jealous?”

Jacob stood up, almost knocking the barstool over. “Yes.”

Rory looked at him, surprised. “What if I’m not real?”

“I don’t care.” He closed the distance between them, kissing her hard. “Whatever you are, I don’t want to lose you, Rory. I need you.”

Her smile wasn’t the bitter, ironic smile she’d been showing, the past few minutes. It was the smile he knew, pure and sweet and delighted. “I love you, Jacob,” she breathed, kissing him back.

He froze. He’d never said the words. To anyone. She held him close, and he held her back, tight enough to bruise.

“I love you, too, Rory.” Then he held her close to him.

She melted against him, and he cradled her, carrying her to the bed. They took turns removing each other’s clothing, then stretched out next to each other, just holding each other. She pressed a tiny kiss on his shoulder. He caressed the curve of her hip, then stroked her back in long, lazy circles. They pressed together, warmth seeping between them as their flesh met and melded. He kissed her slowly, and she hooked her leg over his hip, curling around him. He positioned his cock and entered her, slowly, lovingly. They moved like dancers listening to their own private, slow love ballad. He entered and retreated, each movement a litany to how he felt about her. It was gentle and tender and endless.

When they finally climaxed together, shuddering against each other with quiet, breathless gasps, he kissed her again. I love you, he thought. No matter what, I love you.

She fell asleep, obviously wrung out by both their argument and the day’s events. She was curled up protectively. He covered her with a light blanket, stroking her cheek. She didn’t stir.

He got up, got dressed quietly, and left the room.

Go down the path, he told himself, hurrying. Past the village, into the heart of the forest…

He loved her, whether she was real or not. But he still had to find out if she really was real.

He made it past the poor village and headed toward the dark interior of the rain forest. Just as she’d described, he heard chanting and the rising sound of music and drumming. He walked toward the sounds.

When he entered the clearing, he saw the strange figures she had spoken of. They looked like humans, but there was something strange about them. A feeling of foreboding chilled him to his bones. He ignored it.

It’s just a dream, he told himself sternly.

Of course, if Rory was real, then what was this?

The drumming stopped. A tall man wearing a black hat and suit stared at him. “What are you doing here? How dare you interrupt our ritual?”

Jacob suddenly fell to his knees. His heart seemed to stop in his chest, and he found himself gasping for air.

“Baron Samedi, please,” a woman’s voice purred, and the pressure suddenly abated. Jacob clutched at his chest, taking gulping breaths. He looked up.

A stunning woman, dressed in a scarlet sarong, was standing in front of him. She was beautiful, but there was an aura of danger around her. “Naughty boy,” she said, her voice husky. She stroked his face. “What brings you to my island? I didn’t invite you here—but now that I’ve seen you, I can’t say that I mind one bit.”

His cock went hard in a flash, embarrassing him. She simply laughed, continuing to touch him. When he finally backed away, her eyes flashed—in surprise, he assumed. And anger.

“You’re not one of mine,” she announced, and there was a grumble among the things assembled. “What brings you here?”

“What did you tell Rory?”

“Rory?” She stared. “That…that child called you here? To my realm?”

“Who are you?” he gasped. “What are you?”

“I am Serafina,” she replied, her back straightening, her breasts jutting out proudly. “I am the most powerful vodun priestess to ever live.”

And with those words, Jacob felt a pull, something stronger than he’d ever felt. As she stared at him, he suddenly had the urge to walk to her, to press his mouth on her breasts and her sex, to do whatever she told him to do…


Like a small voice of sanity, he pictured Rory’s face, heard her in his mind. Hanging on to that, he gritted his teeth, staying where he stood.

“Impressive,” Serafina said derisively. “She’s got more power than I thought, to involve an outsider.”

“You’re a dream,” he said. “This is all a dream.”

She shrugged. “So?”

“So you can’t really hurt me,” he said. “Tell me: how can Rory leave this dream? How can she wake up?”

“I’ll tell you what I told the girl,” Serafina replied. “She can’t wake. The only way she can leave is by dying.”

“How did she get here?” Jacob demanded. “Why is she trapped in this place?”

“Do you really want to know?” Serafina walked past him, and he could feel her perfume brushing past him like the whisper of silk. “Look, and I’ll show you.”

She pointed to the ground. There was a drawing, a symbol, formed of some kind of powder. The lines suddenly started to shift and move, like liquid, forming a picture, clear as any television.

He watched in fascination as a younger Mr. and Mrs. Jacquard stood in the same clearing, with Serafina looking the same age, just as dangerously beautiful. Mr. Jacquard scowled, but Mrs. Jacquard’s face showed a heartbreaking desperation.

“Can you help us, Serafina?” Mrs. Jacquard said, in her exquisitely cultured voice.

“I can,” Serafina answered. “For a price.”

“Of course,” Mr. Jacquard scoffed.

“Not money, Henri,” Serafina said with a smile. “The residents of this island know how powerful I am. They come to me because they trust me to help them. I am their leader. But my power needs a wider audience.”

She strode around them, like a cat circling prey. “I will help you have a baby,” she said. “When she is born, you will have a party, inviting your rich off-island society friends. And there, you will introduce me as the reason you were finally able to conceive. You will recognize me, in front of everyone, and tell them of my power and how I helped you. Is that clear?”

“This is ludicrous,” Mr. Jacquard said, starting to walk away. But Mrs. Jacquard held his arm.

“Henri,” she pleaded. “We’ve tried everything else.”

He looked into her eyes. Then he kissed her, his expression more loving and tender than Jacob would have ever thought possible. Mr. Jacquard turned to Serafina. “All right. We agree to your price.”

In the picture, Serafina’s smile was cruelly triumphant.

The picture shifted, changed, then vanished. “They knew the price,” Serafina said, as the picture disappeared. “They broke it. So I cursed the child, as I told them I would.”

“Rory’s here because of a voodoo curse?”

“Don’t sound so skeptical,” Serafina shot back. “You are also here because of voodoo. The fact that you could enter this realm without my knowledge suggests you have some power. But hear me now: if I decide you’re too much of a bother, I will hurt you. Or worse. Stay away from Rory.”

The overwhelming unreality of the moment struck Jacob like a hammer. “You’re adream! Just a dream!”

“Am I?”

With that, she reached out, clawing his chest with her nails. He hissed at the slicing pain. Then she pulled back, her fingernails red with his blood.

“Remember me, doctor,” she said.

Jacob sat up in bed, abruptly awake. He reached down. His shirt stuck to his chest. There were red streaks. When he peeled the material away, there were four horizontal nail marks, dragged down his chest.

“Jacob, I’m really starting to worry about you,” Aaron said, watching his brother warily.

Jacob paced through Aaron’s apartment as if he’d drunk fourteen cups of coffee. He moved frantically, with almost a slight tremble, and his eyes were wild. If Aaron didn’t know how tightly controlled his brother was, he would’ve suspected that Jacob had indulged in some kind of drug or something to get him so wired. Jacob finally looked at Aaron with wild, bright eyes.

“She’s real,” Jacob said firmly. “Rory’s real, and she’s been communicating with me, I swear to God. It’s not a hallucination.”

Aaron sighed. This was what was causing him the most concern. “Just like I told you on the phone, Jacob—she couldn’t possibly be.”

“Listen, I know you think I’m crazy.” Jacob stopped walking, but he tapped his hand against his leg, obviously without thought. “I’ve wondered myself. But there’s just too much that points to this being real.”

“Like what?”

“The damned raccoon—the one she rescued when she was five,” Jacob pointed out. “I even knew its name. How could I have possibly known about that? No one in her family told me before she did; it wasn’t in any of the case files. How could I have known about that?”

Aaron shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Coincidence,” he tried, but knew it was unconvincing.

“And her brain wave activity,” Jacob pressed. “All the doctors prior to me failed to create any change in her mental state. Now, with these dreams, she’s showing improvement. And she only has activity when I’m asleep. When I’m with her.”

“You still have no proof that there’s a correlation.”

“She’s real, goddammit!” Jacob roared.

Aaron stayed silent, his body tensed. The brother he knew would never get involved in a fistfight. But right now, Jacob wasn’t the brother he knew, and he looked ready to take a swing at someone, and Aaron was handy. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” he said, keeping his voice mild even as he got out of his chair, fists beginning to ball.

Jacob glared at him…then took a deep breath, collapsing into the couch. He rubbed at his chest, obviously unconsciously. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m not making my case well, acting like this. You must think I’m a lunatic.”

Aaron wasn’t sure if this was real or a ruse, so he stayed standing. “So what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me.”

Aaron felt a little twinge of relief. “Okay. I don’t think we want to do anything as radical as antipsychotics, but I can prescribe—”

“No.” Jacob’s voice cut across harshly. “I want you to help me with Rory.”

Now Aaron frowned. “With your patient? How? That’s not my field.”

“I think I know what did this to her.” Jacob paused, his mouth puckering as if he’d eaten a sour cherry. “If you didn’t believe me before, this certainly isn’t going to help matters, but…I think she’s been cursed.”

“Cursed.” Aaron drew out the word.

Maybe I should have him put away for a seventy-two-hour psychiatric evaluation. He eyed the phone, calculating whom he should call and how he would restrain Jacob.

Jacob stood, obviously sensing Aaron’s intent. “Hear me out first, okay?” When Aaron nodded, he continued. “In the dream, she took me to see a dark part of the island, where they held rituals. There was a priestess. A voodoo priestess.”

At the word voodoo, Aaron felt enveloped in ice.

“Apparently, Rory’s parents went to this woman because they couldn’t conceive. She promised to help them, in return for introducing her to their rich off-island friends. If they didn’t follow through with their end of the bargain, Rory would be cursed to live as less than a zombie from the first moment she tried to lose her viginity.”

“Are you kidding me?” Aaron blurted out.

“Do I fucking look like I’m kidding you?” Jacob snapped back. “I know how it sounds. But that’s what I saw, what I experienced. And I need to figure out if this is true or not.”

Aaron felt dread start to rise in his stomach. “What do you need me to do?”

Jacob’s expression was set. “That woman, the one you were seeing…”

Aaron closed his eyes. “Mahjani.” Even saying her name was uncomfortable.

“She’s a professor of that kind of thing, isn’t she? Over at NYU?”

“Comparative theology, with an emphasis on tribal magic and lore, yes.” Aaron sounded defensive. How often had he defended Mahjani’s background to a member of his family, or his elite intellectual friends, by using the overblown job definition?

Worse, how often had he failed to defend her?

“I want you to talk to her,” Jacob said. “I need you to find out if she would be willing to help, somehow. If she even thinks she can help.”

“Why don’t I just give you her phone number?”

Jacob looked at him, askance, and Aaron felt like a coward. Probably because that was exactly what he was being. “After the way you left things,” Jacob said bluntly, “I doubt that saying I’m your brother is going to get her to listen to me.”

Aaron winced.

“Listen, if I had time to research this, I would, but you’ve got a ready connection, and I’m sorry, but I really need you to move past whatever happened with this woman and help me out.” Jacob’s eyes blazed with desperation. “Please, Aaron. I really, really need your help. Just smooth things over with the woman, let her know how important this is, and get her to talk to me, okay? Please?”

It must have cost him tremendously, to beg like this.

“I’ll call her,” Aaron promised, with a sigh. “I can’t guarantee anything, but…”

“Thank you.” Jacob stood immediately, the manic frenzy back on him. “I have to get back. When you get her help, could you call me? Any time, day or night.”

“Listen, I told you, she might not cooperate.” Aaron felt like he was being barreled along on a freight train.

“You’ll think of something.” Jacob smiled, a ghost of his normal, reserved grin. It held a twinge of bitterness. “You’re the charming one in the family, after all. The emotional one.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” Aaron’s response was quick and reflexive, since it was a perennial jab: Aaron, the psychiatrist, the only “emotional” one in a family of rational, scientific medical geniuses.

Jacob paused in the open doorway of Aaron’s apartment. “I owe you,” he said quietly. “You need anything—want anything I have—it’s yours.”

That took Aaron aback, and he laughed nervously. “Well, I’ve always had an eye on that Lexus of yours…”

Jacob dug into his pocket, holding out the key.

“I was kidding,” Aaron said, shaken. “Does this case really mean that much to you, then?”

“She means everything to me.”

The vehement way that Jacob made the statement only made Aaron more worried. But at the same time, he saw a passion…a life that his reserved brother had never shown before. He was making a sort of breakthrough.

He might also be having a psychotic episode, the professional part of Aaron’s brain commented caustically.

Right now, Aaron wasn’t acting as a doctor, though. He was acting as a brother.

After Jacob left, Aaron poured himself a large glass of scotch, taking a few manful sips of the stuff. Like the rest of his family, he was too enamored with control to indulge overly in any kind of mind-altering substance, but the prospect of facing Mahjani, even over the phone, was something that needed a little liquid courage.

He dialed her number from memory—even after a year, his fingers still traced the familiar pattern easily. He realized his heart rate had accelerated, and he swallowed nervously as he listened to the phone ring.

After the fourth ring, he realized that she probably wasn’t going to pick up—that he was going to get an answering machine. He felt a combination of regret and relief, trying to mentally prepare the message he was going to leave: Mahjani, this is Aaron White. I need to talk to you. Could you please—


Caught off guard, Aaron cleared his throat. “Mahjani?”

There was a long pause. “Aaron.” There was no questioning in her voice.

“You don’t sound surprised,” Aaron noted inanely.

“I’m not.”

She didn’t elaborate. Considering how long it had been since he’d so unceremoniously dumped her, he wondered why she was expecting to hear from him.

Probably something creepy and “hoodoo” and superstitious told her that you were going to call.

“Still the same old Aaron,” she added. “What do you want?”

He had the disquieting feeling that she had read his mind, and he immediately felt guilty—and irritated. “I need your help.”

“My help?” Now she did sound surprised. “With what?”

“With…your background. I need someone who’s an expert in your field. I need you.” The minute he said the words, he flinched.

I need you.

How often had he said that…usually when they were entwined, naked, writhing in his bed?

“You can’t even say it,” she scoffed. “Why in the world would you need help with voodoo, Aaron? Got an enemy who’s giving you trouble? Need to win some pretty,suitable woman’s heart?”

The bitterness dripped from her words like acid.

“My brother is working with a coma patient. He thinks she’s been cursed. He needs to speak to you.” The words came out clipped, hard as diamonds. “If you want to help, fine. Otherwise, I’ll find someone else.”

Another long pause. Then a sigh.

“I see. Fine, then.”

He felt a little victory…until her next statement.

“Find someone else.”

The click was followed by the long blare of the dial tone.

“Shit.” He dialed back. The phone kept ringing…she’d obviously unplugged it.

He found himself getting up, putting on his coat. He’d mishandled this, as he’d mishandled so many other things. But his brother, the emotionally closed, super neurologist, needed help from his kid brother, the “touchy-feely” shrink. If he could get through to Mahjani, he might have a solution to his brother’s problem—and potentially help him stop Jacob’s imminent breakdown.

He walked out the door at a fast clip.

If Aaron knew Mahjani’s number by heart, he also knew it took exactly thirty minutes to get to her apartment.


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