Call of Water, Madame Tan's Freakshow, book 1

Chapter 2

  Outside, I drew in the warm summer air. Propping my hands on my thighs, I leaned forward, staring at the toes of my sparkly shoes. A beautiful mix of ache and sweetness swelled in my chest—an echo of what I felt while Zeph was singing.

  I desperately tried to hold on to the feeling, but it was fading with every passing second, and I hated for it to disappear completely.

  “Hey,” a male voice, rough and deep, said from the left of me.

  A tall man was leaning against the wall there—well-dressed, in a grey suit, his dark hair neatly cut and styled. A thin stream of shimmering smoke curled from the end of the long, dark cigarette in his hand.

  “Are you going to vomit?” he asked calmly, staring at me with a pair of silvery-grey eyes. “If you do, could you please step farther away from the door? Maybe move under that tree over there?”

  With another deep breath, I straightened up.

  “I’m not going to throw up,” I assured him.

  Normally, I’d feel fairly uncomfortable when talking to a handsome stranger. However, this one had kind of broken the ice by starting with the most awkward topic. He'd been fully expecting me to vomit in front of him. There could be no way but up for me with him.

  “I’m fine,” I said. “Just needed some air.”

  He nodded, a flash of understanding crossing his expression. “Is Zeph on stage?”

 “Zeph?” I rubbed my face, collecting my thoughts that had been swept away by that magical voice back in the room. “Yes. He is…was. He’s just finished the first song.”

  “His singing tends to have an intense effect on people.” The man took a drag of his cigarette. “It will pass,” he added with confidence.

  I didn’t want it to pass…

  Fragrant and rather pleasant, the smoke wafted my way. It smelled of something earthy and flowery, like moss and lavender, with a hint of sweetness. Oddly, it had no smell of tobacco, and hardly of any actual smoke at all.

  “Does he know about the ‘effect?’” I asked.

  “Zeph? Of course he does.”

  “So, he does it on purpose then?” I blurted out, then bit my tongue, realizing how stupid my question sounded—as if Zeph should be held responsible for what his voice did to me.

  The stranger silently regarded me for a moment, making me feel even more foolish.

  “Never mind,” I mumbled, turning to go back inside. “I'll go.”

  The door opened before I touched it, letting a person out. Another man.

  Zeph, himself.

  “Lero—” he started, addressing my smoking companion then cut himself short, spotting me. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t realize you had company.”

  When speaking, his voice sounded pleasant, although not as devastatingly enthralling as when he was singing.

  I realized I could focus on other things while he spoke, things I had not noticed at all while he was singing. Like that he was wearing a dark, well-tailored suit, but no tie—the collar of his white shirt open.

  Or that his hair was cropped short on the sides and was left significantly longer on top. The color of it was such a light shade of blond, it almost appeared white with a beautiful silvery sheen to it.

  Or that his eyes were the most amazing shade of blue—cerulean—like the sea water of the beaches in the Caribbean.

  I suddenly realized I’d been staring at him too closely for way too long.

  “I was about to leave,” I muttered, dropping my gaze down.

  “Must you?” Zeph asked unexpectedly, tilting his head in a way I found extremely appealing. “I like your hair,” he added, with a light smile.

  I raised my hand to my wavy, shoulder-length tresses I’d dyed pink and blue before this trip.

  “Um…” I’d never been good at accepting compliments. All my words, French or English, suddenly deserted me. “Thanks,” I finally managed.

  “Sea colors.”

  “See…what?”

  “Your hair reminds me of sunrise in the ocean,” he explained. “When the rising sun shines through the water, sometimes it looks just like that under the surface—aquamarine and magenta.”

  That was romantic. Poetic even.

  Who would watch sunrise from underwater in the ocean, though? Was he making fun of me?

  I glanced at him again.

  His eyes twinkled with genuine interest.

  Was he simply having a conversation? Or was he flirting with me?

  Honestly, I couldn’t tell. And that wasn’t Zeph’s fault. As far as interactions with the opposite sex went, I was often clueless.

  Since my college graduation, I’d been spending a lot of time inside, away from people in general, including men. Being a graphic designer allowed me to work from home, which nurtured my inner introvert. By now, I’d accumulated a respectable number of clients by creating all kinds of products for them—from company logos, to business cards, to promotional fliers, to book covers. But I never actually had to meet any of my clients face to face.

  I loved my work. As a result, however, my already impaired social skills had severely atrophied from the lack of use.

  Zeph continued to stare at me. Shockingly, there still was no judgement, no mocking in his eyes. Seeing his easy expression, I sensed tension drain from my shoulders.

  I even ventured a smile in reply. “I love bright colors.”

  “I see that.” He quickly slid his gaze down my outfit—a hot-pink off-shoulder top, black shorts, violet fishnet stockings, and silver crystal-studded ballet flats. “Listen. Would you like to watch the rest of the show?”

  “Sure.” I nodded. “Are you going to sing again?”

  “Not until later. I’ll take you in.” In a chivalrous gesture, he offered me his arm.

  A short cough sounded, followed by a puff of smoke that curled over my head. I’d forgotten all about the smoker by the wall. He appeared to be watching us with an unsettling intensity.

  “Um, didn’t you come here to speak with…him?” I asked Zeph.

  “Oh, yes. Lero…” Zeph turned his way. “Ivan is looking for you. Jaqueline accidentally broke the last bottle of Guillon.”

  “Why did we only have one bottle?” Lero growled. “And why does he need me for that? Tell him to send Jaqueline to the store to buy enough until the next order comes in. And hurry before the store closes.”

  “Jaqueline is needed to wait the tables—”

  “Well, then Ivan will have to wait the tables himself,” Lero cut him off, gruffly. “Since he can’t make decisions as a bar manager, he’d better be good at waitressing.”

  “Will do, boss.” Zeph saluted Lero cheerfully, not at all taken aback by the other man’s grumpy tone.      “After you, mademoiselle.” He held the heavy door open for me.

  Inside, Zeph paused in the hallway to exchange a few phrases with a stocky man who spoke French with a slight Eastern European accent—Ivan, I assumed. Zeph then led me into the room with the stage.

  A beautiful dark-skinned woman in a golden gown was singing in a strong, vibrant voice while a group of male dancers performed a dynamic choreography around her.

  Several pairs twirled on the dance floor and between the tables. I searched for Fleur, finding her in the company of a handsome dark-haired young man, who occupied my seat. The two appeared to be engaged in a lively conversation.

  “Well.” I clasped my hands in front of me, unsure of what to do now but determined not to show it to Zeph. “Thank you for your assistance.” I tipped my head, expecting him to leave now. Surely, he must be needed some place else.

He stared at me, not going anywhere. A light half-smile playing on his lips.

  “Did you like my singing?”

Did I? The echo of longing rippled through my chest all over again.

  “It was incredible,” I confessed. “Magical.”

His expression turned thoughtful. He looked at me intently, as if searching my face for something.

  “Do you live in Paris?” he asked. “Or just visiting?”

  “Visiting.” There was no need to mention that I was considering moving to the city. I hadn’t made any definite decisions yet, anyway. “I’m leaving in eight days.”

  My words seemed to please him. Arching an eyebrow, he gave me a devastatingly handsome grin before leaning close to my ear.

  “Shall we dance?” His warm breath puffed softly against my neck, sending tingles down my skin.

  “Oh, no. I don’t dance.” I shook my head, more energetically than was necessary. “I can’t…”

  “I’ll teach you,” he said dismissively, already maneuvering us between the tables to the dance floor.

  “I…I don’t believe I’m teachable.” I huffed a laugh, nervously glancing around. It felt as if everyone was staring at me right now, judging, ready to laugh.

  People had noticed Zeph among them. They started waving and smiling at him. He returned their greetings, exchanging a handshake or a few words here and there.

  “There is nothing to it,” he assured me, stopping in the middle of the dance floor.

  A spotlight immediately zoomed in on him, illuminating me too.

  I blinked, blinded by it. The walls seemed to be closing in on me, everyone’s attention pressing down on my chest, making it harder to breathe.

  “I can’t…” I croaked. “It’s too much.”

  “Too much of what?” he asked with confusion.

  Zeph obviously had no problem being in the center of attention. He thrived in the spotlight.

  How was I supposed to explain this to him? He wouldn’t understand.

  “Too close to…” I waved my hand around. “Everyone?”

  “Too close?”

  He gave me a penetrating stare. Feeling hot and cold at the same time, I had no idea whether I looked pale or flushed. He seemed to notice my distress nevertheless and gestured to the side somewhere. The spotlight moved away from us.

  “Is this better?” He asked, leading me to a darker corner of the dance floor and to the fringes of the crowd.

  “Yes.” I exhaled, feeling like a complete idiot. “Sorry…I’m not good at handling public attention.” I huffed a nervous laugh, half-expecting him to leave any minute now. “It’s, um, stage fright?”

  “Stage fright? I wouldn’t know what that is.” He chuckled.

  “I bet you wouldn’t.” I giggled, with more mirth and fewer nerves this time.

I hadn’t even noticed when he’d placed my hand on his shoulder. Circling my waist with his arm, he leaned in. “Is this too close?”

  The scent of his cologne, warmed by his body heat, reached me, making me a little lightheaded.

  “No.” My heart thundered wildly in my chest, but I didn’t want him to move away from me. “This is just right.”

  “Good.” 

  A brilliant grin spread on his face. Its radiance seemed to expand like an explosion, sweeping everyone in his vicinity into smiling, too. Of course, I couldn’t resist grinning back.

  He took my other hand in his. “Now just listen to the music and follow me.”

  Feeling weak in my knees, I found it impossible to disobey him. His will was like a strong current, persistent and unstoppable.

  “Listen carefully,” he instructed. “Every second beat, we shift weight…” He leaned slightly side to side, urging me to follow with his hand on my waist.

  “This is not dancing.” I snorted softly. “This is just…swaying to the beat.”

  “Sure, it’s dancing.” He winked at me. “Dancing one-o’-one, for the complete beginners like yourself.”

  I followed the movement of his body, side to side, until I no longer had to think about it. After a few moments, it felt as if Zeph, me, and the music—all became one, moving in sync.

  “Okay,” I said tentatively. “I can do that.”

  “Well then. If you have mastered the ‘swaying to the beat’ part, let’s add some steps, shall we?” He led me through a few basic steps, probably a waltz if I had to guess, talking me through them as he demonstrated.

  Bending my head down, I watched his feet deftly move along the dance floor and tried to match his steps. The trick was not to plant my ballet flats on top of his polished dress shoes.

  “Eyes on me,” Zeph commanded. Letting go of my waist for a moment, he lifted my head with his hand under my chin until my gaze met his. “Just like that. Let your feet do the work without your close supervision.”

  “I don’t think I can trust them,” I laughed.

  “Just try.”

  Miraculously, my feet did end up figuring it out all on their own, with only minor initial tripping over themselves. Which was a good thing, because staring into Zeph’s eyes was more enjoyable than watching his feet.

  Zeph’s long, thick eyelashes were of rich chocolate-brown, considerably darker than his nearly white, blond hair. The combination was unusual and extremely appealing. His eyes seemed to always hide a smile, just like his mouth. The sunny twinkle bounced in his gaze, brightening his entire face.

Staring into his eyes was mesmerizing. The wave of their shimmering blue swept me along, carrying me off with the music into the dance.

  I blinked, dropping my gaze down to break the spell and catch my breath.

  “Up,” he commanded, softly but firmly. “Eye contact is part of the dance. A very important one, too.”

  Tentatively, I cast a glance at him from under my eyelashes. “What if I trip and fall?”

  “I’ll catch you.” His voice dipped with the promise, the low vibrating note brushing pleasurably along the bare skin of my arms. “But you won’t trip. You’re doing great.”

  He led me around the floor once more before the singer finished her song. Something faster with a Latin beat started playing.

  “One more?” Excitement sparked anew in Zeph’s eyes.

  “Um, I think I’ll need a break.” I laughed. “I still can’t believe you actually got me to dance!”

  His grin stretched wider. “I knew you’d like it.”

  Oh, I liked it. I’d never had a chance to learn to dance in any shape or form. Having Zeph for a partner should’ve been intimidating. He moved through the music like a fish in water, as if he’d been born dancing. At the same time somehow, he had managed to put me at ease.

  “A glass of Champagne?” He didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave me, and I liked that way too much.

  “Sure.”

  Instead of the table I was sharing with Fleur where my seat was still taken, Zeph led me to the bar. He stood with his back to the stage, so that facing him, I could still watch the show.

  “What’s your name?” He asked when the bartender poured us two flutes of Moët & Chandon.

  I hadn’t even told him my name yet!

  I felt like slapping myself. But then again, he’d never asked until now, and I wasn’t sure when would’ve been a good time to introduce myself earlier.

  “I’m Ivy.”

  “Ivy?” he repeated, as if tasting my name along with a sip of his Champagne. “It’s beautiful. Where are you from? America?”

  “Canada.”

  “Is it your first time in Paris?” He tilted his head again, and this time I found the gesture simply adorable. “Your French is incredibly good, by the way.”

  “Thank you, I’ve been studying it since kindergarten. I’ve been to Paris quite a few times. My friend lives here. She is, um…” I searched the room for Fleur again. She was no longer at our table. “There.” I spotted her in the middle of the dance floor with the same dark-haired man who was talking to her earlier. “She is dancing.”

  “So, you have another week here, then?” Zeph peered at me over the rim of his glass. His sunny expression dimmed as he waited for me to reply.

  “Eight more days.”

  “Good.” As if released from restraints, his smile beamed bright again. Although, it wasn’t clear what exactly he was smiling about. That I was leaving the country soon? Or that I still had a decent amount of time to spend in Paris?

  “Listen.” He set his flute on the counter. “I’ll have to go back on stage in a minute. Can we talk more once I’m done? Please?”

  It was impossible to say no to those eyes. Even if I wanted to. But I didn’t.

  “I’d love that.”

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