[SNEAK PEEK] SALTING ROSES

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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https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/227430/Salting-Roses

[REVIEW] Q: A NOVEL

Q: A Novel by Evan Mandery

 

“Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, is the love of my life.”

Shortly before his wedding, the unnamed hero of this uncommon romance is visited by a man who claims to be his future self and ominously admonishes him that he must not marry the love of his life, Q. At first the protagonist doubts this stranger, but in time he becomes convinced of the authenticity of the warning and leaves his fiancée. The resulting void in his life is impossible to fill. One after the other, future selves arrive urging him to marry someone else, divorce, attend law school, leave law school, travel, join a running club, stop running, study the guitar, the cello, Proust, Buddhism, and opera, and eliminate gluten from his diet. The only constants in this madcap quest for personal improvement are his love for his New York City home and for the irresistible Q.

A unique literary talent, Evan Mandery turns the classic story of transcendent love on its head, with an ending that will melt even the darkest heart.

 


 

This novel seems to be narrated by the author himself because the narrator is never mentioned by his name. The genre of this novel is science-fiction, a time-travel love story. He invented a character whose name was Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, known as Q, an incredibly beautiful, flawless and a kind woman. I love that the premise was set in contemporary New York which the author could have written various scenarios within the set, perhaps about Q because Q is barely in this novel, given the novel is named Q. Q is only in the beginning and at the very end of the story. The title is sort of misleading but I wouldn’t want to elaborate longer about that. I want to talk about how the narrator was visited by his future self one day. He was told by the older version of himself that he must leave Q or else he will be faced with a lot of awful fates. This novel makes us question our present time decision. Would we change our decision if we meet out future self and knowing what will happen in the future? Of course, there will be consequences if we mess with time-travel. Imagine if your life journey is supposed to go to A but if you decide to go to B, it will mess up the universe and various awful scenarios would be happening. The narrator didn’t seem to realize this at first. Do you think he will realize about the consequences and make the right decision or will he still be listening to his future self and keep going down the B road? If you wanna know how the ending would be, you can buy the eBook now!

 

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https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/227731/q-a-novel

[REVIEW] SWEET DATES IN BASRA

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji

 

Jessica Jiji’s Sweet Dates in Basra is a compelling, poignant, and unforgettable tale of friendship and family, set in Iraq during the second world war. A dramatic departure from Jiji’s previous novel, Diamonds Take Forever, Sweet Dates in Basra brilliantly captures the atmosphere of a volatile Middle East during the previous century and pays tribute to the lost traditions of a once-idyllic world.

 


 

This book is about different religions and social classes during World War 2. From the perspective of a muslim girl, Kathmiya and a jewish boy, Shafiq shows that men and women think differently even when a war is going on. Jessica Jiji shows how a woman’s mind like Kathmiya is always thinking about finding a husband and a life beyond poverty while Shafiq is in love with Kathmiya, he’s also being cautious of the dangers in Iraq, he worries about his safety. Shafiq also has a brotherhood friendship with his neighbour, Omar. This book will make you reflect on yourself, family and it makes us appreciate our friendship with our friends even more. The ending is just heartbroken, poor Kathmiya. Wanna know what will happen to Kathmiya and Shafiq? Get this eBook now!

 

eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/230082/Sweet-Dates-in-Basra

[SNEAK PEEK] THE SISTER WIFE

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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[SNEAK PEEK] RAVISH

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…

Rory.

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—

“Hello?”

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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[SNEAK PEEK] WHEN WE DANCED ON WATER

 

When We Danced On Water by Evan Fallenberg

 

“Ya’allah, Vivi. You’re crazy. It’s four in the morning. Don’t you sleep anymore?”

Pincho has just come home from work at Indigo to find Vivi hard at work on the living room floor. She is surrounded by photographs, tools, a sewing kit, glue and sequins, picture frames, magazine clippings, and various bits and pieces of junk she has collected over the past few weeks.

“Who needs sleep?” she says, a big, crazed smile on her face. “I’m loving this, feeling so … engaged all the time. You know, I don’t even have time for cigarettes anymore. I think I’ve just given them up without ever meaning to. Anyway, my mother always says there’s plenty of time for sleeping in the grave.”

“I’ve heard that joke,” he says, trying to clear a place to sit on the armrest of the sofa. “But seriously, when’s our apartment going to turn back into a place where two people live?”

Vivi looks up at Pincho. There is glitter in his hair and his trousers look newly pressed, but his beautiful face lacks luster, his eyes are dull. She puts down the photos she is holding. “You are such a dear for putting up with me,” she says. “How did I ever get so lucky?”

“Yeah, yeah, kiss my ass,” he says with a laugh. “You think if you’re nice to me I won’t complain?”

Vivi stands up, stretches. “How about if I give you a tour, show you what I’m working on.”

“You’ve been so secretive, I’ve been afraid to ask.”

“Silly, isn’t it? I guess I just … I don’t know, I want this to work out. I really want to get this right.”

“All right, come on. Show me around my own apartment.”

Vivi takes Pincho by the wrist and leads him to the upended cable spool that serves as their dining room table. “I dug out all my old woodcarving tools,” she says as she lifts a small figurine into her hand and passes it to Pincho. “I didn’t even think I’d find them.”

Pincho handles the polished wood likeness of a male dancer with great care and runs a finger down one smooth thigh then the other. “How … ?” He stops mid-thought, entranced. “It’s just beautiful, Viv. I …”

She smiles proudly. “You didn’t know I could do this.”

“It’s not that I … I know you’re really talented but …”

She plucks the statue from his hand. “I did it from a photograph of him. Something from the fifties.”

“What’s this?” he asks, lifting a jumble of cloth from the back of a chair.

“Oh, wait!” she says. He freezes while she gingerly lifts it from his hands. “It’s full of pins.”

Carefully she holds up a not-yet-finished white bolero jacket with brass buttons and presses it onto Pincho’s body: “It’ll be on a mannequin, you see, black tights on the legs, a white shirt on top and this jacket over the shirt.” She leans her shoulder into Pincho’s torso to hold the jacket in place and reaches to the table for a floppy black bow, which she hangs from the jacket, just under his chin. “It’s an exact copy of the costume he wore for this ballet he danced at the Royal Danish Ballet. Don’t you love it?”

“You’re … you’re crazy!” Pincho says with a laugh. “I can’t believe you’ve managed all this.”

As she drapes the jacket over the chair, taking care with the pins, she says, “I’ve got a few amazing recordings, too. Music from his ballets, even a dance lesson he gave once. The sound isn’t spectacular but you can hear that it’s him. The accented Hebrew, the way he kind of barks when he’s peeved.”

“You’ve really taken this all so seriously,” Pincho says. “Taken him seriously. Shit, Vivi, is there anything you don’t know about the guy by this point?”

She looks aimlessly out the window. “Lots. He’s still a mystery, even with all this unearthing. I have to admit I feel kind of like an archaeologist, dredging up layers and layers of him. Hang on a minute,” she says, ducking into her bedroom, then reemerging with a stack of photos. “This is really the crux of it all.”

Together they gaze at one photo after the next. First there is a black and white series that she herself has created: the old man reading his mail, sipping his coffee, walking past the coffee shop, chatting with Yossi. He is never caught gazing into the camera, in fact seems not to sense its presence. The photographs then push back in time, through his six decades of dance in Tel Aviv, and earlier.

“Where did you get these?” Pincho asks, all the while staring at the photographs.

“Mostly from the dance archive at Beit Ariella,” she says.

He gives her a horrified look.

“You monster, I didn’t steal them! They’re prints, anyone can get copies. I got his secretary at the ballet and even his housekeeper to cough up some things, too. That one’s no pushover—talk about loyalty to her boss!”

“Wow,” he says, holding up a prewar family portrait.

“Wait,” she says. “The best one’s at the bottom of the stack.”

They scrutinize a few more photos before they reach the last one. In it, an impossibly young Teo Levin, wearing the very costume Vivi has been sewing, stands holding a barely drunk glass of champagne. To his left and slightly behind is a strikingly handsome and well-groomed man in uniform. His gaze is on Teo.

“Who is this?” Pincho asks.

“No idea. It’s from the archive of a Jewish photographer who came to Israel from Germany in the late 1930s. She died pretty young. Her photos wound up at Beit Ariella and I was lucky enough to stumble onto this gorgeous portrait. I might not have noticed it was him, but then there was the costume. I’d seen it in another photograph.”

“The other guy’s an officer,” Pincho says. “High-ranking. German, of course.”

“Bizarre, isn’t it? I wish I could ask him …”

“Does he know about all this?”

“Who, Teo?”

“Of course Teo.”

“He knows I’m working on something but he doesn’t know what.”

“And you think he’s going to be okay with this surprise?”

“Hard to tell. Yes. I mean, eventually. Anyway, nobody may ever be interested in showing it as an exhibition. So he’d never know. But if so, I’ll find a way to break it to him. I think he’ll like it. Ultimately.”

“Well, you know the guy, I don’t. I hope you’re right. But from what I can see, you’re really on to something. This thing’s a winner. So you’d better start thinking how you’re going to handle it.”

They are quiet for a moment as they stare at the photograph.

“Look at this guy’s eyes,” Pincho says, pointing to the German officer. “I know this look.”

“I’m sure you do. Men fall in love with you every day.”

“That’s not love, Vivi,” he says, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “You think that’s a look of love?”

She takes the photo from his hands, studies it. “What do you think it is?”

“Desire. Hunger. He’s looking at Teo like he’s prey.”

“That’s all? Nothing more?”

Pincho pulls the photo away from her and looks at it again. “I don’t know,” he says, a quiet admission. And then: “You can never know, can you? Not really.”

Vivi puts her arm around Pincho’s waist and squeezes. They breathe in unison, his eyes still on the photograph, hers on him.

“Pinch,” Vivi says, after a few long moments, “what do you think about me having a baby?”

He drops his gaze from the photograph and turns his whole body toward her. “Are you pregnant?”

“No, I mean, what if I decide to become a single mother?”

“I’d say you’d better get this apartment cleaned up before you bring a baby here. You’ll never find him.”

“Really, Pincho, what do you think?”

“It’s hard work, Vivi. I have six little sibs, I know what it’s all about. You’d be spending your whole salary on day care. How would you manage?”

“Oof, you’re so practical.”

“Look, you’d make a great mom, that’s for sure. But maybe the timing isn’t right.”

“Timing? I don’t have much time left. Maybe it’s even too late.”

“You really want a kid, huh?”

“I do. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”

“I would help. Our schedules are so different, I could probably be here to take over from you a lot of hours.”

“Are you crazy? You’re supposed to be working hard, studying and trying to find the perfect man. Being stuck at home with a baby is not in the plans!”

“I’d do it for you, babe.”

“Thanks, Pinch. I appreciate it. But if I make up my mind it will be because I think I can handle it on my own. Or nearly on my own.”

“You know what?” he says. “I just realized something: you’re happier than I’ve ever seen you. Is this about the project? Or maybe having a baby? Or is it something else?”

She laughs, clearly delighted. “You’re lovely,” she says. “Absolutely lovely. Now let’s see if we can find our way to our beds.”

They hug for a moment. Still smiling, Vivi presses her ear to his chest. She can hear his heartbeat, solid and steady.

On an impulse she takes the phone with her to bed and drifts in and out of sleep waiting for the sky to lighten. She dials her mother from under her comforter. “Are you terribly disappointed not to have any grandchildren?” she asks when her mother answers on the second ring, Leah’s voice only slightly groggy.

Leah used to tease Vivi and her brother, Assaf, gently about this, but with a daughter-in-law unable to conceive and an unmarried forty-two-year-old daughter, she dropped this sport long ago. “I can live without grandchildren, but I’m sorry you and Assaf haven’t had the experience of raising children. It’s like nothing else I know.”

“But as a Holocaust survivor …”

“Ah, that.” Leah sighs. “The war produced so many ironies and incomprehensible situations, it’s just one more on the heap. I’m pleased to have raised two healthy and intelligent and caring children. That was my mission. But why are you asking me about this now?”

“It’s been on my mind a lot lately, that’s all.”

Both women know there is more to say, both remain silent.

“Mother?”

“Yes, Vivi.”

“What do you think about these women who have babies by themselves? Career women, I mean, who get pregnant through a sperm bank or a friend?”

“Hmmm.”

Vivi waits patiently, surprised. Her mother is always so sure of herself; she has always been able to answer any question without hesitation. And here she is contemplative, for once weighing her words with true care and attention.

“Yes,” she says suddenly. “I think you should do it.”

“Just like that?!”

“No, not just like that. I’ve been thinking about discussing it with you.”

“Really, you have? You think it’s a good idea?”

“In your case I do. And I’d be willing to give you all the help I can.”

“You don’t think it’s just too selfish of me, without a husband and all?”

“I’ve come to think that husbands are a highly overrated commodity.”

“You certainly didn’t feel that way about Father …”

Leah is silent for a moment. Vivi waits, quiet. Two crows clamor on the sill outside her window. “It was certainly useful having Amatzia around, at least some of the time, that is …”

“That’s all? Just useful?”

“Well, in the beginning it was more than that. But—maybe we should be having this conversation in person, not over the phone …”

“No, Mother, don’t stop now, please …”

Vivi recognizes the sound of her mother’s morning coffee mug meeting the Formica tabletop. She is clearly steadying herself for whatever comes next. “Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that he wasn’t for me. His interests weren’t mine, his culture wasn’t mine, and eventually his body wasn’t mine, either. You remember the little hotel we ran back then on Ben Gurion Street?”

“Yes, of course.”

Leah takes a deep breath. “Well, room number six was his, and he did no small amount of entertaining there. Sometimes I saw the girls coming or going, they wouldn’t have known I was his wife.”

“What? Mother!”

“Oh, it was hurtful in the beginning. I wanted a divorce. But life was hard enough and I knew he’d make it harder for me, so I just swallowed it all and went on raising you and running the hotel and talking publicly about my Holocaust experiences and lobbying or protesting for good causes. I had enough to keep me satisfied and busy. And eventually, when he gave up all that skirt-chasing, we got along all right. Relatively.” She sighs deeply. “So that’s why,” she continues slowly, “I think it’s wonderful that women have the option these days to have babies without having to hitch themselves to some man who may hamper them or make them miserable, that’s all.”

“Mother, I don’t know what to say.” She feels oddly detached at this momentous news, as though her budding happiness has provided an extra layer of protection against sadness, anger and loneliness.

“Let’s talk about it when you come to visit. You haven’t been up here in a while, you know.”

Vivi clears her throat. “Do you think … do you think I’ll make a good mother?”

“An excellent mother,” Leah replies soberly. “And I’ll be a first-rate granny.”

“I’m busy now, a new project,” Vivi tells her mother. “But when I finish—”

“All right, we’ll talk more about it. Do you have an idea who you want for the baby’s father?”

Vivi stares up at the ceiling, then pulls the blanket up to her chin. “An idea? Maybe,” she says. They both sense the conversation should end here and they ring off simultaneously without another word.

 

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[SNEAK PEEK] BOLLYWOOD CONFIDENTIAL

Bollywood Confidential by Sonia Singh

 

The next morning Raveena was having breakfast alone when Randy Kapoor’s secretary called.

Nanda brought her the phone and silently handed it over.

“Thank you,” Raveena said.

Nanda’s expression remained sulky.

Nandini was definitely preferable.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, ma’am, I’m calling from Mr. Kapoor’s office. Mr. Kapoor would like you to meet him here at one P.M.,” a woman said in precise Indian English.

No wonder outsourcing was going to India. The professionals here spoke better English than Raveena did.

“Okay,” Raveena said. “The only thing is, I don’t know where his office is.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will give you the directions. Where exactly are you residing, ma’am?”

Since arriving in India she’d been called madam and ma’am more times than in her entire life put together.

“Umm, I’m in Bandra. Portugal Road.”

“Very good, ma’am. A beautiful area. Our office is in Bandra as well.”

“It is?”

“Yes, ma’am, Bandra is home to many producers, directors and stars. Now, tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and—”

“Auto-rickshaw?” Raveena interrupted. No way was she getting in one of those things. “I was planning on taking a taxi.”

“Oh no, ma’am. A taxi will not take you such a short distance, and why pay extra money besides? Tell the auto-rickshaw driver to take you to Turner Road and from there 14th Road. We are located at 29 Jains Arcade, on the 2nd floor.”

Raveena was scribbling this down as quickly as she could. “Jains Arcade. Got it.”

“Wonderful. I will tell Mr. Kapoor to expect you at one. Have a nice day, ma’am.”

Raveena set down the phone and ate some more of the scrambled eggs Nandini had made. They were delicious, flavored with green chilies, tomato and cumin.

Stuffed, she pushed the plate aside and a large black crow immediately swooped in through the dining room window and scooped the egg off her plate. She screamed and threw up her hands.

The crow then perched on the ledge of the window, gazed at Raveena with a beady eye and promptly guzzled the piece of egg.

Since yesterday, she’d been startled by all manner of winged creatures flying in and out of the house. Because of the heat and Uncle Heeru’s devotion to birds, all the windows were open all the time. When she’d asked her uncle why he didn’t invest in air-conditioning, he’d responded by saying he did not want to catch a cold.

The average temperature in Bombay that winter was eighty-eight degrees.

Earlier, Raveena had seen Uncle Heeru fighting with a crow over a piece of papaya.

With a sigh of acceptance, she pushed her plate closer to the window and addressed the crow. “Dig in.”

Wings outstretched, the crow once more swooped in and grabbed the last piece of egg. Instead of dining on the ledge, the bird flew up into the trees shading the house.

American crows definitely had better manners.

Two hours later, Raveena thought she was going to die.

The auto-rickshaw darted in and out of traffic, at times jumping up on the walkway, before zooming back onto the street. Open on both sides without doors, the contraption made her feel exposed. And she was guaranteed maximum exposure to exhaust fumes.

Raveena had done her hair for the meeting, setting it with Velcro rollers, but the wind and humidity wreaked havoc with the curls. If she was going to be traveling by auto-rickshaw, she’d have to do it Jackie O. style, with a headscarf.

Then again, Raveena saw plenty of Muslim women in burkhas walking up and down the street and thought about wearing one herself for practical reasons. Her hair would be covered. Her face would be protected from grime, and she wouldn’t have to worry about her clothes getting dirty.

The heat was relentless. Not wanting to arrive at the meeting with foundation melting off her face, she’d wiselykept the makeup to a minimum. Just some eyeliner and a dab of Chanel lipgloss.

However, Raveena was regretting her choice of clothing. Her parents had warned her to dress conservatively while in India. So she was wearing beige trousers and a white tailored Oxford shirt.

Meanwhile, right alongside the conservative Muslim women in burkhas were teenage girls in shorts and twenty-something women in tank tops, jeans and everything in between.

Obviously, Bombay was to India what Los Angeles was to the rest of America.

A whole different world.

Raveena especially liked the cute cotton tunics or kurtas she’d seen many women of all ages sporting. They looked comfortable and stylish. Raveena decided to buy half a dozen for Maza and herself while here.

“Fourteenth Road,” the driver said, spitting a stream of tobacco juice into the gutter. He was thickset and heavy, sweat visibly seeping through his khaki-colored clothing.

“Okay,” Raveena said, happy the tobacco spray had missed her nether regions. “29 Jains Arcade?”

The driver didn’t reply, so she repeated the question. He gave her an impatient nod.

“Fine,” she said, sat back and watched the scenery chug by. Cars, buses and auto-rickshaws battled each other for the road. Skinny cows walked alongside, nosing through rubbish for food. The barking of stray dogs was everywhere.

The driver stopped beside a small stand where a man was busy rolling bidis—cheap tapered cigarettes that looked like marijuana joints.

Not realizing they’d arrived at the place, Raveena continued to sit in the back of the rickshaw until the driver turned, looked at her and pointed to the right. She turned and saw a large building.

Raveena paid the driver twenty rupees, about forty cents, and very carefully crossed the street, dodging bicyclists, auto-rickshaws, cars and a hungry cow.

There was a guard at the entrance to the building who stopped her before she could go in. He had an AK-47 strapped to his back.

One of them was seriously packing too much metal.

“I’m here to see Randy Kapoor,” she said, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.

The guard looked her up and down, decided she didn’t pose a menace, and nodded. Raveena opened the door and nearly let out a sigh of relief as the air-conditioned coolness washed over her.

She took the elevator up to the second floor and found herself confronted by a set of thick glass double doors. Engraved into the glass were the words:

Karma Productions

Behind the glass she could see trendy twenty-something Indians walking back and forth, answering phones and working on computers. Raveena entered the bright purple and orange lobby—very MTV—and went up to the black circular front desk.

“I’m Raveena Rai, here to see Randy Kapoor.”

“Oh, yes, Miss Rai,” the woman smiled. “Please come with me.”

Raveena followed her through another set of double doors and into a lavish waiting room done up in marble. Two beautiful gold statues of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, occupied alcoves on opposite walls. A second woman sitting behind a black marble desk rose at their entrance.

“Raveena?” the second woman asked, and Raveena recognized her voice from the phone that morning. The woman came forward smiling. “I’m Millie D’Souza.”

Millie was petite, her black hair cut in a shiny bob. A slender gold cross gleamed against her throat. “Mr. Kapoor has yet to arrive. Can I get you some coffee? A cold drink?”

“I’d love something cold. Ah, you don’t happen to have Thums Up, do you?” Raveena had been craving the drink since yesterday.

Millie looked surprised. “Yes, we do. It’s my favorite, but most people prefer Coke or Pepsi.”

Raveena took a seat on a plush burgundy sofa while Millie returned to her desk and pushed a button on the intercom.

A few moments later a young boy entered the room carefully balancing a tray with two tall glasses, his bare feet moving soundlessly across the floor.

Millie waited until he had left, then took a sip of her drink. “In America you do not have people like our office boys?”

Raveena thought about certain personal assistants in Hollywood who were expected not only to make calls, but wash the star’s Chihuahua’s butt, plan parties for the star’s kids, arrange for sex escorts and bring coffee. But she knew what Millie meant.

“No, we don’t. I mean, secretaries will make coffee for their bosses and get lunch, but that’s not their main job. And they’re usually eighteen years old and over.”

Millie nodded.

Raveena sat back and drank her Thums Up. She was getting addicted to the stuff.

By the time she finished her drink, Randy still had not arrived. Millie was busy taking phone calls and working on the computer but would shoot Raveena sympathetic looks now and again.

To entertain herself, Raveena thumbed through several glossy Bollywood magazines. That was how she got two pieces of very bad news.

The first was from an article on, yes, Randy Kapoor. Apparently, his last five films had all been expensive flops. The very last had been a Bollywood rip-off of Runaway Bride.

She peered closely at a picture of a thin, balding gray-haired man in a suit. He was wiping his brow and looked like the worried accountant of a mobster. According to the caption, it was Randy Kapoor’s financier and father, Daddy.

The picture of Randy himself was blurry, and she could barely make out his features. She did, however, make out the bright yellow Tommy Hillfiger jacket he was wearing.

Very Ali G.

The second piece of bad news was from the gossip pages of a Bollywood rag called Stardust. Raveena was shocked to see her name mentioned. Well, not her name per se, but it was pretty obvious who they were talking about. She quickly scanned the lines:

Rumors have it that casting couch Casanova Randy Kapoor has brought in a foreign actress to play the heroine in his next film. According to the copulating Kapoor, the role required someone of Indian origin but with an American accent. However, Stardust tattlers tell the real tale. As it turns out, no self-respecting Bombay actress will work with the randy Randy. We wish the poor unsuspecting Yank all the best. Maybe she should have brought a chaperone with her…

Great. Raveena had barely been in Bombay for two days, and already her reputation was being battered and splattered across the pages of India’s answer to Variety!

About the randy Randy business—sure, the casting couch was a fixture in Hollywood as well. But Raveena had never encountered it.

She couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or offended about that.

Raveena was still deciding when the door opened and Millie looked up. “Mr. Kapoor,” she said.

Raveena put the magazines away and prepared herself.

She was finally going to meet Randy Kapoor.

 

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