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Believe in Me
By JESSICA INCLÁN
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Jessica Inclán Barksdale
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSayblee Safipour appeared out of swirling gray matter and blinked into the warm, dark glow of a living room that smelled like coconut, pineapple, and a soft ocean breeze. She breathed in something spicy and sweet, the scent of desire floating in the air. As her eyes adjusted to the light that pulsed with yellow heat, she pushed away her hood and flicked her long blonde hair behind her shoulders. A slight, warm breeze moved in through the open windows, the sounds of night bugs and frogs a buzzing song coming from the wet foliage outside. She unbuttoned her robe and took it off, letting it drop into a pool of blue-velvet softness on the couch, and smoothed out her blouse and skirt, until she realized that neither was at all wrinkled from her journey to Hilo from London; matter was an unbroken flow of energy tonight.
Traveling through matter wasn't usually hard, though sometimes waves of energy made things a bit bumpy, space bunching up in rough, uneven pockets, sometimes due to someone's bad magic or simply mischief, the gray like a roller coaster rather than a brisk walk on a flat escalator. What would have made this journey difficult, though, was her reluctance to arrive in Hawaii at all.
Sayblee rubbed her forehead. She didn't even need to look around the room to know what she would find. But she couldn't resist. She took her hand away from her head and surveyed the scene. Yes, it was predictable. Pathetic, even. Basically male. Basically him. Look at this place! she thought to herself, gazing first at the creamy beige couch with the pink lace bra dangling on one arm. She scanned the thick white carpet, sure she'd find a tiny matching thong somewhere, but there were no other undergarments to be found. Probably, Sayblee thought, the woman didn't even wear any, knowing what Felix was like and not wanting to impede his progress. And, clearly, Felix had made progress. On the bleached wood coffee table were two crystal glasses, a quarter inch of pale yellow liquid still in each.
His damn concoction, she thought. Couldn't even wait to finish his drink before pushing the poor woman into the bedroom.
Soft music that he undoubtedly thought would soothe the jumbled nerves of his date filled the room, a tremble of light guitar riffs, flute solos, and some kind of indigenous instruments. A didgeridoo? A rain stick? Sayblee thought, shutting off the annoying sounds with a flick of her mind. The stereo lights blinked and the room fell silent.
An unbuttoned white linen shirt lay on the floor by the hallway. As she stared at it, she heard a soft giggle float under the bedroom door and then a smooth, seductive laugh followed it, the sound of which somehow reminded her of caramel.
Pig, she thought. No, that's too harsh. Dog. Goat, maybe. No, a goat is too cute. Skunk then. Or just pig.
Sayblee walked to the bookcase, picked up photo frames full of happy people she knew well, his brothers and sisters-in-law, his mother Zosime. She stared into their eyes, and soon she felt the impressions of their warm feelings for him as she held the images in her hands. Funny guy, she heard or, really, pulled into her mind, as she moved her fingers over the photos. Why doesn't he settle down? So handsome. All he needs is a good woman. If he wasn't so adorable, I'd kill him. Can he ever be serious? What a charmer. Those eyes would do anyone in. That smile!
Sayblee's shoulders dropped. She breathed in and took her hands away from his photos.
When she'd accepted this mission, she'd agreed to work with him, and work with Felix Valasay she would, even if it killed her. But it was hard to deal with someone who could live like this, who probably did a seduction scene like this every night of the week in this so-called post. Who could he possibly find here, that would lead any member of Les Croyant des Trois to Quain Dalzeil, the sorcier who was determined to destroy the Croyant way of life? The sorcier who had managed in recent years to affect all of Croyant life-creating fear, enchanting the best and brightest, leaving people to live in fear. Sure, Felix managed to come to the aid of people needing him now and again. He'd been there with her just a year ago when a group of Croyant had fought Quain and Kallisto in the English countryside. But the Big Island? This house that smelled like tacky perfume and was filled with enough sexual energy to make the very floor vibrate?
Sayblee shook her head and turned toward the hallway. Why did Adalbert Baird, the Armiger of the Croyant Council, insist that Sayblee was the only sorcière who could go on this mission? So what that she had her particular skill of being able to burn anything she wanted: steel, concrete, quartz, titanium? But from what Adalbert had said, there would be no magic for a while as they blended in with the Moyenne, setting up the trap so slowly and ordinarily that they would attract no attention from Quain or his followers. Her special powers weren't needed at all, or at least until the very end of the mission. So why did she have to end up with this particular sorcier?
Another annoying giggle and then a lazy laugh slipped into the living room. The very air seemed to pulse with gardenia and hyacinth and rum. This was horrible! Intolerable. How was she supposed to interrupt that? She sat down on a beautifully carved wooden chair and sighed, staring at the rows and rows of hardback books, most of them probably uncracked since Felix graduated from the Bampton Academy. What to do? She'd never known how to engage Felix, to move smoothly into conversation with him. Since their days together at Bampton, she'd steered clear of him, even though Sayblee was very fond of his older brothers, Sariel and Rufus, boys who had turned into solid, reliable men. Married men. Committed men. Men!
But there was something about Felix that was just plain dangerous, and Sayblee had recognized that when she was twelve. She'd turned a corner one afternoon after a long class on levitation, and there stood Felix, smiling at her with that smooth, slightly crooked smile, his almost-green eyes full of a fire so unique that Sayblee didn't have a clue how to kindle it. Even then, his black hair was long, held back for classes with a leather string, strands always coming loose and falling in front of his face. Hair she'd wanted to touch, push away, tuck into place.
She'd barely managed to hold on to her textbooks and keep walking, ignoring his taunt of, "Baby, can I light your fire?"
Now, sixteen years later, Felix still had the ability to disarm her. The last time they'd been together had been at Adalbert's house at Rabley Heath, and she'd left one morning early to avoid an awkward good-bye. Her awkwardness. She hadn't wanted to see him smirk, listen to him tease her about her school pranks, rattle on about how she used to set the cafeteria cooks' hats on fire when meatloaf was on the menu. She hadn't wanted to look into his lovely eyes and see, well, so much satisfaction.
And this situation here? Well, it wasn't going to be easy to pull Felix away from Hilo and his little lifestyle. But Sayblee had no choice. What had Adalbert said to her just before she left? He'd stared at her with his kind eyes, his hand running through his long gray beard as he spoke.
"We have the chance, finally, to end this troublesome situation with Quain once and for all," he said. "I think you'd do just about anything to make that happen, Sayblee. Am I not right?" He'd looked at her from where he sat in his deep upholstered armchair. A fire crackled in the hearth. His dog, a Zeno Hungarian Kuvasz, dozed at his feet, the dog's quick breaths full of rabbit dreams. And Sayblee could see the image of her brother, Rasheed, flicker in Adalbert's mind. The Armiger was right. As always.
More than anything, Sayblee wanted to find Quain. They'd been so close to catching him last year. For a moment, he'd been right in front of her in the cavernous room of the Fortress Kendall as she fought with Felix and the rest, but, as always, he'd gotten away. Oh, how she'd wanted to push her fire at him, subdue him, flatten him to the floor. Sayblee wanted to lean over him and demand he tell her what happened to Rasheed.
She wanted the impossible, to have Quain croak out "Your brother's still alive." She wanted Quain to tell her that Rasheed hadn't left of his own free will, that he'd been enchanted, charmed, drugged, coerced. She wanted to strangle out of him the truth that Rasheed was good, that he'd never turn his back on Croyant life or his family. She wanted to have the perfect answer to give to her mother, Roya, so that she would burst into life again and forgive Sayblee for not saving Rasheed in the first place. She needed to obtain all the information she could from Quain, and then ... and then ...
Sayblee closed her eyes and sat back hard against the wooden chair, trying to ignore the further giggles that floated toward her. No. She wasn't doing this just for Rasheed and for her mother, who had never recovered from Rasheed's betrayal of all that the Safipour family believed in and his alliance with Quain. Sayblee was on the mission for all Croyant, and what she had to do was get Felix Valasay out of his bedroom, preferably dressed, hopefully alone, and she couldn't sit here one moment longer.
She stood up and in her mind she moved down the hallway, into the bedroom, and heard the noise of two people moving together-their bodies warm, their minds full of anticipation-could hear Felix whisper into the woman's ear, "You smell so good. I just can't breathe in enough of you."
Sayblee opened her mind and shot out a thought. Yeah, she smells like your house. In about a minute, I myself will be smelling like a cheap drink from Chevy's.
She heard his intake of air, his body moving away slightly from the woman's. Sayblee?
Yeah, it's me. I'm in your living room. I managed to figure out you had a special guest when I was in the air. You and I need to talk. It's Council business.
Right now? Couldn't you go hit the bars for a couple of hours and come back later? Maybe take a nice long night walk on the beach?
Sayblee checked her irritation, biting her lip before thinking tersely, Adalbert sent me.
She waited for a reply, but there was no thought, no sound but the rustle of bedclothes and then the soft murmur of the woman asking a question. Felix's low voice rumbled an answer. More rustling. Then there was silence. Sayblee sighed and turned her mind away from Felix and what was going on in the bedroom and sat down on the couch. She tried to get comfortable, crossing her legs, uncrossing them, smoothing the sleeves of her blouse, the fabric of her skirt on her thighs. She pushed her hair away from her face and then pulled it forward, finally sighing and tying it back with a band she pulled from her pocket.
She looked toward the bedroom door, leaned forward, sat back. Then she stood up, realizing she didn't want to be lower than Felix when he came into the room, giving him the advantage of looking down at her. She walked to the window, stared out at the ocean which was flat and strangely calm, the moon a pan of white on its surface.
"Could you have knocked?" Felix said, walking into the room shirtless and barely wearing the Levi's he was slowly buttoning up. "I could have arranged a later date with the fair maiden, Roxanne. You know I always say business and then pleasure." He paused as he spotted the shirt on the floor, bent down, and picked it up with a crooked finger, smiling to himself.
Sayblee breathed in, kept her mind closed tight because, God!- she couldn't let him know how she was seeing him at this very moment in the living room's soft light. Impossibly, he looked even better than he had the year before, his tall, lean body golden tan from all his important Croyant visits to the beach and the pool and hot tub. He must also have crucial Moyenne contacts at the gym-his shoulders, arms, and abs tight and firm, each muscle clear under the tight gold of his skin. Clearly, he worked out for hours every day. His black hair was lit gold at the ends by days on Hawaiian waves and fell down his back like a silk curtain. He smiled, watching her with his almost-green eyes, his expression full of good humor, even though she'd interrupted him in his pleasure. She swallowed and lifted her chin, her mind clamped so tight that she knew she'd have a throbbing migraine by morning.
"Adalbert wanted me to come right away. I ... We didn't have a chance to contact you. But, uh, where is your, um, friend?"
Felix finished buttoning his jeans and walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge. "I just took her home, erased this date from her mind, and made sure she'd have a long, lovely night's sleep. And she'll awaken fresh and lively, remembering this great dream about me, the wonderful man she met at the gym the day before. But, dammit, Sayblee, I'll still have to start all over next time."
"Oh, poor, poor baby," Sayblee said. "I'm sure it will be torturous work. All that sweet talk and those longing glances. But your date with her will have to wait."
Felix shrugged and took out a can of pineapple juice from the fridge, setting it on the counter. He opened a cupboard and took down a can of cream of coconut and a bottle of Cruzan Rum.
"What are you doing? You can't be making a drink!" Sayblee said, putting her hands on her hips. "I have some pretty important-I have some Council work ... There's stuff I have to talk to you about."
"Now, now," Felix said, holding out his hands for a second in a mock defensive pose. "Don't set fire to my blender. I know how you suddenly lose it, lighting fire to whatnot unexpectedly."
He put down his hands, opened the lid of the coconut cream with a can opener, and spooned a bit into the blender. Despite herself, Sayblee found herself staring at his hands, strong and tan, the fingers long and slim.
"Scorched coladas are not my specialty," he said.
"What?" she asked, looking up.
"Fire. Losing it." Felix glanced at her as he worked, smiling again. "You're already scaring me."
"Knock it off. I am not going to lose it," she said. But maybe she was. She could feel it in her palms, the slight itch in the middle of her hand that always warned her to breathe, to close her eyes, to count to ten. Sometimes, though, she didn't pay attention. "Can't you just, well, whip it together without the blender?"
"Some things without magic are just better," he said, splashing rum, pineapple juice, and ice into the blender and putting on the lid.
"I take it that doesn't include dating. You must need your magic-" Sayblee began, but then Felix flipped on the blender, and she stopped talking. What an ass! she thought, her palms burning.
I heard that, he thought. Anger opens your mind like massage oil.
Sayblee clasped her hands tight and sat down on the couch, her face flaming, and watched him finish making the drinks. He turned off the blender and took down two glasses from the cupboard and filled them to the top.
"Let's go and sit in the lanai. If business is going to ruin my pleasure, the least we can do is be comfortable."
Sayblee stood stiffly and followed him outside. Felix didn't turn on the outside lights, but the moon spun bright silver through the palm fronds, ferns, and vines. A gecko scuttled up the mesh that enclosed the lanai, and toward the shore, a seabird called out, swooping in front of the moon's face. She could hear the lap of the waves, the rhythmic motion of the water against the shore, the lull for a second relaxing her.
Even at night, this was paradise, Sayblee thought, and she could see why Felix stayed here. This was the perfect place for him, with his tanned, beautiful body-she shook her head and closed her eyes, checking again the clamp on her thoughts.
Felix sat down at a wooden table, and Sayblee took a seat as well, feeling how boring and plain she seemed with her white blouse and blue skirt. Besides the lovely pink bra, what had the wild Roxanne been wearing before she hadn't been wearing anything at all? Something wild and flowery and full of flounces and lace? Sayblee could see the kind of woman Felix would like to be with, tan and thin and wrapped in sterling silver, her long dark hair hanging in loose ringlets, her dark eyes full of excitement. Did she wear red lipstick? Black eyeliner? Blue eye shadow?
In the years before Rasheed had left them, in the time before Roya blamed Sayblee for all the emptiness surrounding them, Roya pleaded with Sayblee to try some girly things, holding out bangles and hair combs and earrings. She swooped up armloads of makeup from Harvey Nichols and Harrods, imploring Sayblee to try just a bit of blusher. She bought dresses from Madame Berton Granie's shop Voilà, on the rue Moufftard in Paris, walking into Sayblee's room with bundles of linen and silk and satin.
Excerpted from Believe in Me by JESSICA INCLÁN Copyright © 2007 by Jessica Inclán Barksdale. Excerpted by permission.
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