Call of Water, Madame Tan's Freakshow, book 1
“How many times have you been to Paris?” Zeph asked as we walked along Boulevard de Clichy.
He kept the pace slow, and I liked the leisurely stroll. Fleur had told me not to hurry back to her place when she left Le Loup Solitaire on the arm of the dark-haired man, Louie, who didn’t leave her side all evening. I assured her I would take my time, and I was thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.
“I’ve been to the city about five or six times,” I replied. “But I’ve been to France more often than that, under the language exchange program. Fleur’s family lives in Bourges, south of here. They used to host me under the program. They took me to Paris on a few occasions. Now that Fleur is in university, she lives here, and I stay with her when I visit.”
I didn’t want to discuss my possible move with Zeph, since nothing was definite yet. Also, I was certain my life details wouldn’t be of interest to someone who had a voice of an angel and sang on stage at a cabaret.
“You must have seen all the touristy things by now, then?” he asked.
I nodded. “Pretty much. I’ve been exploring this city left, right, and center.”
“How about up and down then?” He tilted his head, gazing at me with those mesmerizing eyes.
“Um…” It wasn’t easy to focus with his attention directed at me this closely. “What exactly do you mean?”
“Come.” He tugged me by my hand to a small door leading to a basement, around the corner off Boulevard de Clichy.
“A wine bar, though not what you may expect. They don’t serve Champagne here. Instead, they have sparkling wine infused with strawberries. Lero would call it ‘in poor taste’. He doesn’t allow such cheesy stuff in his classy establishment. But I find it tastes delicious.”
* * *
The strawberry infused sparkling wine tasted delicious.
“I told you.” Zeph beamed at me when I confessed how much I liked it.
“Lero is missing out.” I giggled, the effervescence of the fragrant bubbles seemed to have risen from my glass to my brain.
“Lero is an old snob.” Zeph huffed a laugh. “And extremely old-fashioned. To him, things only have value if they have been properly aged. Wine, cheese, liquor, music... Even clothes.”
“Well, his clothes seem fashionable.” Lero’s smart three-piece suit came to mind. Visually, he didn’t appear to be much older than Zeph. But there were people born with old souls, weren’t there?
“He prefers a classic cut to his clothes.” Zeph shrugged. “Which doesn’t change dramatically over time.”
He had left his own suit jacket back at Le Loup Solitaire. The night was too warm for it, anyway.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Lero.” Zeph raked his hand through his silky blond hair, suddenly making me wonder what it would feel like between my fingers if I did the same. “He just makes himself such an easy target for jokes by being an insufferable snob about everything. Just try to call any sparkling wine ‘champagne’ in his presence, you’ll see the face he makes.”
“How long have you been working for him?” The relationship between these two seemed to be closer than that of an employee and a boss.
“Since I was old enough to sing in a cabaret.”
“Are you friends?”
“More than friends. We’re family. Lero raised me since I was six.”
“Six?” Surely, I didn’t hear him right. Lero didn’t seem to be older than thirty. Thirty-five maybe? With Zeph being probably in his mid-to-late twenties, I had no idea how Lero could have raised him if he most likely was still a child himself when Zeph was six. “Isn’t he about your age?”
“He’s older,” Zeph replied vaguely, and left it at that.
Well, I only ever saw Lero at night, in a pretty dark courtyard. There was a chance I judged his age incorrectly.
“Where are your parents?”
“Dead,” he replied, with a somber shadow quickly passing through his expression. “I don’t remember them at all.”
“What happened?” I ventured to ask. “Do you know how they died?”
“There was an accident,” was all he said, and it did not feel right to ask more after that. “How about your parents?” He changed the subject.
“Mine? Oh, they’re both alive and well. Both are happily married, although no longer to each other.” I smiled, making light out of what was a rather heavy situation for me when I was younger. I spent most of my childhood feeling guilty for spending time with either one of them while they battled each other for a larger share of custody of me. Then, when I was old enough to spend my time any way I pleased, they already had their new families, and I often felt like I was, if not exactly unwanted then at least not missed, if I didn’t show up at family functions and such. “They divorced when I was eight, remarried within a couple of years of each other, and started their new families. They’re happy.”
I took another sip of my “distasteful” drink.
“How about you?” he asked. “Are you happy, Ivy?
“Me? Sure I am. I work as a graphic designer, my dream job.”
My mother didn’t consider design a serious occupation, more like a hobby. I’d had a long fight with her over my decision to study it in college. She wanted me to become a lawyer, like my stepfather, or an accountant, like herself. But I stood my ground on that one. I knew I would be terrible in law or accounting. But that didn’t bother her, she simply wanted her daughter to be employed in one of those fields.
“Anyway,” I continued with an awkward one-shouldered shrug. “I’ve graduated, started my own business, and I’m doing well enough to afford a rented basement apartment in Toronto and a trip to Paris every second year.” I cheerfully raised my glass, ready to toast to my achievements. “I’ve got it all.”
“I’ll drink to that!” Zeph clinked his glass with mine.
* * *
It might be the effects of the strawberry-infused “champagne.” Or maybe the heat of the summer night. Or, most likely, Zeph being right next to me, his arm wrapped around my waist, the warmth of his body seeping in to me through the thin material of his shirt. But everything inside me floated with effervescence of complete happiness as we strolled down a lit street after leaving the wine bar. There was no other place I would rather be at that moment than right here with him.
Zeph steered me into a side street, under an arch between two buildings.
“Shortcut,” he replied with a wink to my questioning gaze.
It occurred to me that I had no idea where we were supposed to be going at all.
“A shortcut to where?” I asked.
“You’ll see.” He gave me a teasing smile. “I promised to take you up and down, didn’t I? The wine bar was down, now I’ll have to take you—”
He cut himself short. The smile, I was beginning to adore, dimmed as he came to a halt in a dark narrow court between four buildings.
The space appeared completely deserted. Then I spotted large, tall figures sneaking in the surrounding shadows.
“Zeph?” I half-whispered, sensing his body suddenly tense.
Gently nudging me behind him, he tugged the sleeves of his shirt up past his elbows. I noticed long silvery scars running up the back of his forearms.
One of the large shapes stepped out of the shadows, emerging as a massive man. He was completely bald with a large, intricate tattoo running around his neck and down one of his arms.
The tattoo on the stranger’s arm flashed with streaks of red. They twinkled along the lines of his body art, dove under the short sleeve of his t-shirt, then skimmed around his neck before disappearing completely.
That must be a trick of the light from the street behind us. I blinked, perplexed and worried at the sight of this silent, ominous shape in front of us.
“On the other hand.” Zeph took my arm, stepping back, away from the menacing stranger. “Taking the long way may be more enjoyable tonight.”
Shielding me from the scary figures in the courtyard, Zeph quickly retreated back into the well-lit street.
“Who were those guys?” I asked when we were back in the relative safety of light and people once again.
Leading me down the street, Zeph glanced over his shoulder a few times.
“I’m not sure.” He yanked his sleeves down again, concealing the pale lines on his arms. “Don’t worry about them. They’re gone. All is good.” His voice lifted, and he hugged my waist again. “We’re going up, remember?”
No one seemed to be following us from the courtyard, and I slowly allowed my body to relax against his again. Since Zeph had dismissed tonight’s incident, I decided to do the same.
Another block down the street, he maneuvered me between the pedestrians to another basement door. This one was painted with red, white, and blue stripes.
“This is down. Not up,” I pointed out, as we descended the concrete steps. “Down is the opposite of up, Zeph.” I giggled, my mood lifting again, along with his.
“Sometimes you need to go down before you can go up.” He opened the door to a small ice cream parlor. “What flavor is your favorite?”
Choosing just one flavor of ice cream proved to be impossible. Most of the space was taken up by a long counter flanked by two tall refrigerated display cases, with dozens of different flavors and thousands of possible combinations.
After scouring through them all for a few minutes and tasting nearly half of them, I finally asked for a double scoop of pistachio and lemon ice cream layered with mango sorbet.
“One scoop of strawberry ice cream, please,” Zeph ordered, after I had gotten my combination of flavors tastefully arranged in a tall glass, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with shredded coconut.
“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe my ears, hearing his order. “Just the good old plain strawberry?”
“Is strawberry not adventurous enough for you?” He took the small waffle cone from the man behind the counter.
“Only one scoop? How is that nearly enough?” I shook my head.
“To be honest, I’m counting on stealing a lick or two of yours.” Lifting an eyebrow, he stalked my way, pretending to go after my ice cream.
“No way!” I giggled, dashing for the door. “There are no friends in love, and war, and…ice cream.”
He caught me by my elbow.
“I’m not sharing.” I said firmly, a wide smile refusing to leave my face.
“This way.” He opened the door, next to the one we came in. “We need to go up, now. Remember? Way, way up.” He started to ascend the narrow staircase behind the door.
Holding my ice cream in one hand, I placed the other on the metal railing and followed him up. One flight of stairs after another, and another, and another…
After a while, the concrete steps were replaced by a narrower set of wooden ones, then they turned into a metal, spiral staircase.
“Does it ever end?” I panted from the effort of climbing up for what felt like forever.
“Eventually,” Zeph replied cheerfully, taking another bite of his ice cream. “Almost there. Trust me, the view is worth it.”
I stomped up a few more steps, licking my ice cream above the edge of the glass as it started to melt.
“Voila!” Zeph opened the door at the very top of the winding staircase.
Warm summer breeze blew in playing with my hair as I followed Zeph onto a tiny patio outside.
“The Eiffel Tower is on the other side of the rooftops,” he explained. “But I like the view on this side probably even more. It’s less tired, you know.”
“It’s beautiful,” I agreed, gliding my gaze up the rows of rooftops that ascended the hill to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Backlit by bright lights, its building sharply stood out against the night sky.
“Sound travels well over all of this.” Zeph swept his arm in front of us.
“You sing from here?”
“Not as often as I’d like.” He laughed. “And definitely not as loud as I would want to. You may be surprised, but there are some people in this world who have no appreciation for music.” He shrugged, finishing his ice cream in a few more bites, then stepped closer to the metal railing, facing the city.
His chest rose with a deep breath before he unexpectedly belted out a line of Alfredo from La Traviata by Verdi,“Libiamo, libiamo ne'lieti calici—”
“Shut the fuck up!”
Immediately came in French and English from quite a few directions.
“See?” He spread his arms wide, grinning at me. “There are no music lovers in this building.”
I hid a chuckle behind my hand. “You know, the time of the night might be severely impairing their appreciation right now.”
Something about Zeph singing his heart out from a Parisian rooftop seemed exceptionally hilarious to me. Personally, though, he could sing anything to me anytime. As far as I was concerned, I’d listen to him day and night.
“You have an amazing voice, Zeph. I’m no expert, but your range is impressive. I mean, that was just one line, but opera singing is not an easy feat.”
“According to Lero, opera is the most acceptable way of singing.”
“Lero? But he owns a cabaret not an opera theatre.” I’d heard a wide variety of music performed at Le Loup Solitaire that night.
“That is probably the only reason why he suffers through my performing other music genres. Cabaret crowds love variety.”
“What genres do you prefer?”
“Honestly? All of them. Why limit yourself? People need all kinds of music. I like to sing what I feel like, depending on the mood I’m in.”
“Really?” I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. Surely, someone who could execute an opera aria this well would have a word or two to say about popular music. “Any genre? Rap, techno, pop, Latin? Rock?”
“They all can be fun,” Zeph insisted. “All have their purpose.”
Tousling his hair in a sexy way, he yanked the collar of his shirt up. With a smoldering look for me, he suddenly broke into the male part of Señorita.
The sizzling hot lyrics of the song, combined with the sexy swagger he moved with in my direction and the sultry note he slipped into his voice, made my breath hitch.
Swallowing a mouthful of ice cream, I parted my lips, suddenly short on oxygen when he came to me and circled my waist with his arm.
“Ooh, la, la…” I mouthed the end of the last line along with him.
His eyes were of deep turquoise in the night, and I was losing myself in them.
The line died on his lips as he drew me closer, his gaze sliding down my face. Breathless, I watched his tongue dart out to lick his bottom lip. The sudden desire to taste it burned in my chest.
“Is this too close?” he murmured, his lips hovering a hair’s breadth away from mine.
“Not close enough,” I whispered.
The next moment, his mouth was on mine, tasting, taking, claiming. The strawberry flavor mixed with something hot and spicy—Zeph’s taste—an intoxicating combination. I couldn’t get enough of it, greedily kissing him back.
Haze swirled through my mind, as if a strong current was dragging me under. But I was unable and unwilling to fight it, hopelessly lost to Zeph’s kiss.
Moving my hand holding the ice cream out of the way, I pressed my chest to his then slid my free hand up into his hair. The strands caressed between my fingers, soft and silky. The sensation was even better than I’d anticipated.
The glass tilted in my weakened fingers, and I nearly dropped the ice cream. With a noise of surprise against his mouth, I broke the kiss, grabbing the glass firmer. Thankfully, the ice cream was still there.
Zeph didn’t release me from his arms, didn’t even allow any space between us. His chest rising and falling against mine, I felt his heart thunder under his shirt.
“Do you need my help with this?” he asked, pointing with his chin to the glass with my dessert.
“What’s about that ‘no friends in ice cream’ statement?” he teased, with a chuckle into my hair.
“I admit I have overestimated my ice cream eating capacity.” I smiled into his shirt.
“It’s a good thing then that mine is limitless.”
Bringing the glass between us, I took a spoonful of my half-melted dessert and fed it to Zeph since both of his arms remained wrapped around my waist.
“Wow.” He blinked after tasting it. “This is some crazy combination of flavors.”
“Good crazy or bad crazy?”
He tilted his head, considering my question.
“Not sure. I need another taste to decide.”
I fed him another spoonful then another, realizing that everything about tonight was kind of crazy. In a good way. In an exceptionally crazy good way.
Our adventure didn’t turn out to be wild. By most standards, it could hardly be called an adventure at all. We danced, we went out for drinks, and we ate ice cream—all the things that millions of people our age did on a weekly or even daily basis.
The craziness, the beautiful wild excitement I felt, from that first dance with him to the very last bit of the ice cream, came from the man I was with.
Being with Zeph was both intense and comfortable. The feelings he stirred inside me flapped like a bunch of disoriented butterflies on steroids in my stomach. Yet I felt no need to pretend to be someone I was not, which was new and unusual for me in the company of a man, or any new person for that matter.
“It was delicious,” Zeph murmured after I had fed him the very last spoonful of my ice cream.
“Mhm, it was,” I hummed in agreement, licking the spoon after him.
“I don’t want this to end.” I knew he was no longer talking about the ice cream. “Spend the rest of the night with me, Ivy.”
I dropped the spoon into the glass a bit abruptly, and it landed with a loud clank.
“What do you have in mind?” I asked, with a new thrill surging through me. Truthfully, I was not ready for this night to end, either.
Zeph took the glass from me, setting it on the base of the flower pot by the railing, then slid his hand up my back, cupping my nape, his thumb stroking the side of my neck.
“I want to take you home.”
Even if I didn’t catch the way his voice rasped at that moment or the way his arms flexed a bit tighter around me, I could have guessed by the dark heat flashing through his eyes what exactly he had in mind for the rest of the night with me.
Warmth rushed from the contact of his hand on my neck down through my chest…and lower.
Giving in to him, I relaxed my spine, and he immediately drew me into his chest. I buried my face in the opening of his shirt, nuzzling the side of his neck and inhaling a lungful of his scent.
Clean, fresh, with a bit of saltiness, like the ocean spray—still with a hint of strawberry sweetness on his breath. He smelled so good.
He was good…
“I’ll give you my address,” he said, pressing his forehead to mine. “Text your friend, tell her where you’re going.”
…and so very responsible.