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By Fiona Zedde
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Fiona Zedde
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBliss Sinclair walked in from the rain, brushing sparkling raindrops from the sleeve of her gray suit. She stopped and shook herself like a cat. More droplets scattered, flying from her large haloing Afro to the carpet that lined the main lobby of the Volk Publishing building. People walked around her, some watching her display with something like amusement. Others were too focused on the clock, already beginning to chime nine A.M., to pay her any attention. She shrugged again, to better settle the jacket on her back and shoulders, and headed for the bank of elevators at the rear of the lobby. The gray carpet muffled the sound of her footsteps as she stepped into the chrome elevator and pressed the button for the twenty-third floor.
Just as the door began to close, a woman slid quickly between them. She brought with her the light, mossy scent of Chanel No. 19 and nodded briefly at Sinclair before staring ahead at the mirrored wall of the elevator.
Despite her coolness, the woman immediately drew Sinclair's attention. She was a clever mixture of elements. Her hair was tamed Africa, thick and permed to tumble to her shoulders in shiny waves that framed her square-jawed, Anglo-Saxon face. Freckles sprinkled like brown sugar over her nose and cheeks. As Sinclair watched, a hint of a smile pulled at the woman's full mouth. She was beautiful, Sinclair decided. And her creamy milk and coffee skin looked delicious in silk.
"Hello." The woman's voice was a velvety southern drawl.
Sinclair slid her gaze to the elevator doors, embarrassed to be caught staring. "Hi."
The woman took Sinclair's reply as an invitation and looked fully at her travel companion, her mouth still curled in that almost-smile. "Do you work here?" she asked.
Realizing that the woman wasn't offended by her blatant ogling, Sinclair relaxed. "Yes, on the twenty-third floor."
"You must do some pretty expensive work for Volk to be that high up in the building."
"Not really, just a little accounting." Sinclair turned to look at the woman. "What are you doing here?"
A real smile captured her mouth. "I don't look like I work here?"
Sinclair figured that honesty was best in this case. "Not really."
"Then I must be a writer. Coming to meet with my editor."
"Ah. What have you written for us?"
"A couple of books. Essays."
"Hmm." Sinclair sized the woman up again. She didn't seem at all like the intellectual type. Rather like one of those hard-edged businesswomen, in her tailored silk pantsuit. "I don't read much nonfiction, although I've been meaning to start."
"That's funny that you say that. I could never really get into fiction." The woman's mouth twitched. "I'm Regina, by the way."
Regina nodded just as the elevator door slid open. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Sure." Sinclair watched the woman walk toward an unfamiliar cloister of offices. She blinked when the gunmetal gray doors closed, cutting off her view of the silk-clad backside gliding down the hallway.
"Baby got back." Sinclair coughed when she realized she'd said that out loud. Still, she chuckled to herself as she stepped out of the elevator and down the carpeted hall to her office. Shelly Romero, her secretary, was already at her desk when Sinclair walked in. Shelly looked like a child who'd come in for "bring your daughter to work" day and just stayed. Dark hair in two ponytails, glitter eye shadow from the kids' section and barely business attire. She was a liberal arts college graduate still safely ensconced in her twenties and with ambitions of being a published poet. That ambition was what drew her to Volk Publishing three years ago and the belief that as long as she had some link with the publishing house she had a chance of having her first book published by them. As far as Sinclair knew, Shelly was still unpublished.
"Good morning, Shelly."
"Don't you look cheerful this morning?" Shelly grinned and handed over a large stack of mail. "Did you get lucky?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" A smile shadowed Sinclair's mouth.
"Only if it involved at least one other woman. Otherwise save it for the boys in the break room."
Sinclair rolled her eyes then stepped away as Shelly's phone rang and the secretary turned to answer it. Ever since she had "accidentally" walked into a lesbian bar uptown and ran into the younger woman over a year ago, they'd become more than open with each other. Shelly was the closest thing she had to a friend in this city. In her office she put her briefcase and purse away, humming a light tune under her breath. When she found herself tapping her feet to the same song as she opened the mail, Sinclair laughed softly, wondering at her sudden good mood. An image of the woman in the elevator immediately came to her. So what? Regina was an attractive woman. It wasn't like anything was likely to happen between them. Though a girl could dream ...
That night, Sinclair's boyfriend, Yuen, coaxed her out for a book release party, an event that she had offhandedly mentioned to him weeks ago and where his favorite author was launching her latest book. When they walked into the hotel ballroom it was chaos of flashbulbs, megawatt smiles, towering displays of food, and free-flowing alcohol.
"This is great," he whispered, tilting his head to kiss her cheek. "If I'd known you were this well connected I'd have asked you out years ago." His thick black hair fell over his eyes. He seemed nothing like the thirty-five-year-old lawyer he was. His full lips were more prone to smile than not, and his slim youthful body could have easily belonged to a teenaged underwear model. There were days when Sinclair wondered what he was doing with her.
She lightly pinched his wrist. "It wasn't that big a deal. Everybody in the office gets an invitation."
When they walked through a mirrored archway, Sinclair gave her hair a discreet fluff and threaded her arm through Yuen's. Today, like most days, she wore her hair in a large Afro to rival Angela Davis's. The makeup she'd brushed on thankfully didn't look out of place. It was just enough to emphasize her full mouth and wide, slightly tilted eyes. Yuen once said that she looked like a hungry fox, beautiful but inclined to bite a hand off and swallow it whole if someone was stupid enough to try and get too close. It didn't help that there was a reddish cast to her skin. Sinclair acknowledged that she looked a bit too thin, but could think of no immediate remedy for the situation. Sometimes she just didn't feel like eating.
"Linnet's over there." Yuen drew Sinclair's attention to the author and her entourage who had set up a display on a large dais at the front of the room. The walls of the ballroom were lit with artfully done track lighting that brought the eye straight to the life-sized mock-up of Linnet Costa's book jacket. Naughty nubile angels were her latest obsession. Apparently they photographed well.
"And the best part is that the food and drinks are on the house," Sinclair teased.
"Nice." He sounded like a college kid let out for his first spring break.
The guest of honor worked the room well, looking wicked in head to toe fire-engine red. The latex and metal dress sparked as much conversation as her book. Sinclair hoped that she looked half as good when she turned fifty.
"Go on and introduce yourself, Yuen. I'll be back here getting a bite to eat." He looked at Sinclair as if he thought she was joking. "Go ahead," she said. "I won't leave without you."
"Funny. Since I drove."
Her smile faded as he walked away. She glanced at her watch. Two hours should be a reasonable amount of time to stay, she thought.
It was the woman from the elevator. Tonight she wore black slacks that sat low on her hips, emphasizing their soft curve and her flat belly. The blouse was a sheer white and showed off the lift of her slight breasts under a white camisole. Her upswept hair made her seem taller than before. Still, she had to be at least three inches shorter than Sinclair's five feet ten. Her scent, Chanel Coco if Sinclair's nose was correct, invited her a closer inspection.
"Good to see you again," Sinclair said.
"Believe me, the feeling is mutual." Regina's glance traveled quickly down Sinclair's body, taking in the loosely draped burgundy dress and high heels. "I never figured you for a Costa fan."
"I'm sure there are lots of things you figured about me that were wrong," Sinclair smiled to lessen the sting of her words. From the corner of her eye she saw Yuen pause and clear his throat, preparing to approach his idol.
"Touché." The corner of Regina's mouth lifted. "Would you like a drink?"
They walked to the bar together where Regina ordered a tequila sunrise for herself and a gin and tonic for Sinclair. With their drinks in hand, they left the bar for the cozy comfort of the attached lounge with its overstuffed love seats and thick rugs, all in shades of red and copper. They found an empty sofa in the midst of the shifting crowd and sat down.
"So what other things would I have figured wrong about you?"
"I don't know." Sinclair eyed the smaller woman over the rim of her glass. "You haven't told me what other conclusions you've jumped to."
Regina laughed. "I'll keep those to myself for now." She sipped her drink and nodded toward the guest of honor. "So, do you know Linnet?"
"No, not really. I've seen her in the building a few times, but that's about it."
"You must run into a lot of women in that elevator." A smile settled on Regina's coral mouth.
"Not many interesting ones."
Regina smiled at the implied compliment. She leaned closer, draping her arm along the back of the sofa, tickling the other woman's nose with her lightly floral perfume. Sinclair's breath caught. She could've counted the freckles on Regina's nose if she'd wanted to.
"This is her, right here." Yuen's voice made Sinclair look away. He stood a few feet away with a smiling Linnet Costa next to him.
Regina leaned back from Sinclair as they drew closer.
"Linnet Costa, this is my girlfriend, Bliss Sinclair. She was the one who invited me here tonight."
"Ms. Costa." Sinclair stood up and extended her hand to the handsome woman. Still seated on the couch, Regina watched the introductions with a curious smile.
"Please call me Lin." Then the writer turned to Regina. "Nice to see you, Regina. I thought you were on tour."
"Not until the end of next month." Regina stood up, too, and gathered Linnet in a surprisingly intimate embrace. "Your book is terrific, by the way. When is the next one coming out?"
"Spoken like a true fan." She turned to the man at her side. "Yuen here was just telling me about his pro bono work with the Delancy witches three years ago. That case gave me a great idea for a book."
Regina shuddered theatrically. "You're right. Madness, group sex, witchcraft, and murder. Sounds right up your alley, Lin."
The others laughed, but Sinclair wrinkled her nose. Of course, Yuen noticed.
"What?" he asked.
"Should you even be talking about that case? Client confidentiality and all that?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Lin said with a smile that wasn't the least bit apologetic. "You're very right, Sinclair. I was just so fascinated with the whole story. I was the one who brought it up."
Yuen's smile held a trace of embarrassment. "I was just helpless to Lin's charms." They shared a guilty laugh.
"You wouldn't be the first," Regina said. She and Linnet smiled at each other.
"Linnet! Linnet!" A man loaded down with camera equipment waved frantically to get her attention. He was having issues pushing both his bulk and his equipment through the crowd.
"Pardon me, everyone." Lin excused herself and started to make her way to his side.
They watched her graceful back disappear into the crowd.
Sinclair was the first to speak. "She's a very nice woman."
"And gorgeous too." Yuen tilted his head close to his girlfriend's. "Though nowhere near as beautiful as you, of course."
"No need to be diplomatic, my lovely boy toy. She's definitely gorgeous and any man would be a fool to kick her out of bed."
Sinclair turned to Regina. "Why would you say that?"
"She's bi. It's pretty common knowledge." Her eyes flicked over Sinclair.
"Yup." Yuen gave his best leer. "Maybe you and Lin could hook up while I-"
Sinclair poked him in the belly before he could finish. "Don't be a pig."
He oinked. Regina laughed. "By the way, we were never really introduced earlier, but I'm Regina Velasquez. Lin and I are old friends."
"A pleasure." They shook hands then started laughing again. Sinclair rolled her eyes.
"I had a good time tonight. Thanks." Yuen held Sinclair's hand as they walked through the gilt-edged revolving doors and emerged onto the street.
"I'm glad you liked it."
A scent of rot rose up from the gutters, mingling with the smells of old fruit and spilled alcohol that poured from the doorway of the market they quickly walked past. On the wind, the acidic tang of piss floated from the alley near where Yuen's car was parked. They hurried to the black Lexus convertible and drove off.
"Want to come back to my place for a drink and a little sex?" Yuen asked as they drove uptown. He wasn't joking.
Sinclair shook her head and manufactured a smile of regret. "No. Not really. I'm tired. That party wore me out."
"I forgot that it's only Wednesday and you have work tomorrow."
"Yes." Sinclair didn't need reminding. She already had her suit pressed and laid out for the next day.
At her apartment, Yuen kissed her good-bye, touching her with a possession that seemed odd for him. "I'll call you later." His hardness pressed against her belly.
As soon as Sinclair crossed the threshold of the apartment, she shrugged off her coat along with any lingering traces of tiredness. It wasn't deliberate. She wanted to be tired. But even with a long soak in the bathtub and a luxurious cuddle in her grandmother's old cotton robe, she still had too much energy to sleep.
After almost five years the insomnia still caught her off guard, as if there was something she could do on one particular night that would put her right to sleep. Instead of sleeping, she read. Thousands of books filled her neatly arranged shelves, every genre, every author she'd found even mildly interesting from all her years of working at Volk. She turned on the bedside light and curled up under the covers to read.
Morning. Sinclair stepped out of the shower, toweled herself dry, and put on her robe. The apartment was quiet. No music. No noise of someone else stirring in the bed. And up this high on the fifteenth floor, not even the noise of traffic intruded. Sometimes she thought that could be part of the problem. She was so separate from everyone, no real friends, no family. Now, as the days passed, an unfamiliar sense of loneliness was beginning to invade her life.
Her only real pleasure came from being in her apartment, sheltered by its sand-colored walls, comfortable earth-toned furnishings, and memories of her grandmother. Photographs that she had taken a long time ago hung in their expensive, oversized frames all over the apartment. Bare-limbed trees weighed down by snow, boulders framed by magnificent blue skies and tinted gold by the sun. An old photo of her and her grandmother on a faraway beach, laughing. All images from the happier and well-traveled life she had before her grandmother died.
Her Gram had had a fascination with America and its landscape. She took endless pictures of it, mostly crooked, underexposed, or unrecognizable shots that keenly disappointed her and eventually drove Sinclair to take photography classes in high school. She and Gram saved for months to buy the camera that ended up documenting their last few years together. Sinclair put that camera away years ago, stuck it in the back of a storage closet along with a few other things that she didn't want to see anymore.
Excerpted from BLISS by Fiona Zedde Copyright © 2005 by Fiona Zedde. Excerpted by permission.
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