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When You Believe
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Jessica gives an overview of the book:

Running for her life from three thugs, San Francisco poet Miranda Stead plunges through a door to what she thinks is safety. Instead, she finds herself surrounded by a bunch of paranoid, robe-wearing people who seem to read her thoughts. And then he steps up: tall, dark, amber-eyed, gorgeous Sariel Valasay. And Miranda hopes he isn’t listening to her mind because the thoughts running through her head are decidedly blush-worthy… Sariel knows no ordinary human—a Moyenne—should have been able to break through to their world, but here she is, all lush curves, red hair, and snappy comebacks. As a member of the ancient Les Croyant des Trois, Sariel is sworn to protect her kind and their world from the dark forces always at work. He never thought he’d have to protect her from his own desires. His job is simple: he is to use the power of his touch to erase all memories of...
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Running for her life from three thugs, San Francisco poet Miranda Stead plunges through a door to what she thinks is safety. Instead, she finds herself surrounded by a bunch of paranoid, robe-wearing people who seem to read her thoughts. And then he steps up: tall, dark, amber-eyed, gorgeous Sariel Valasay. And Miranda hopes he isn’t listening to her mind because the thoughts running through her head are decidedly blush-worthy…

Sariel knows no ordinary human—a Moyenne—should have been able to break through to their world, but here she is, all lush curves, red hair, and snappy comebacks. As a member of the ancient Les Croyant des Trois, Sariel is sworn to protect her kind and their world from the dark forces always at work. He never thought he’d have to protect her from his own desires. His job is simple: he is to use the power of his touch to erase all memories of the evening from Miranda’s mind. He is to forget hearing her wonderful laugh and funny comebacks in his head, ignore her intelligent questions about his kind and his world, stop feeling the magic of her soul in his veins. But one touch and he knows it won’t be easy. There’s something absolutely unforgettable about Miranda Stead. Tomorrow, he’ll make her forget. Tonight, he only wants to make her believe…

Read an excerpt »

WHEN YOU BELIEVE
Published in June 2006, Kensington Books.  


     She beckoned him forward, and he followed her command, feeling it like a slick silk rope around his neck, a comfortable, accustomed noose that he had worn for two years.  Her call was warm, dark like brandy, sweet and addicting.  He could never disobey her, he knew that in his blood and bones and mind. 

     As if in a dream, he was putting together his belongings, things he needed.  He needed them all, didn’t he?  He wouldn’t come back here, to this house he’d built on the hill overlooking the ocean.  With her, he would change the world and make it better, cleaner, more whole, more purposeful.

     That’s right, she thought, her robe spinning around her as she put it on, her hair a dark drape behind her shoulders.  Her eyes glinted like wet obsidian, her lips like blood. 

     Hurry, he’s waiting for us, she thought.

     He nodded, the silk cord yanking him back to his task.

     Use magic to pack, she thought.  Quain is waiting.

     The noose yanked tighter, but he flinched, hearing that name.  Quain.  The thought of the man scratched against his mind.  Not Quain.  No.

     Yes, she thought.  Let’s not go through this again, shall we?

     The noose tightened, his breath harsh in his throat.

     What he wanted to do now was to stop packing, to pull the woman to him and kiss her into quiet.  All he wanted was to be with her, here, in this house, without the name of the other man, without Quain, in either of their thoughts.

     He’s the only one who matters, you fool.  I thought you understood that out by now.  I thought I didn’t have anything left to teach you.

     She pulled back with her hand, and he jerked and then began to fall forward.  Before he hit the ground, she stopped him up short, and then wound the cord around him, pressing tight, pushing his breath and life out of him as she worked up his body.

     As the feeling left his feet and legs and then torso, he woke up, saw the living room clearly.  His house.  His room.  And her.  She was doing this, all of it.  He didn’t want any part of her plan or her life.

     Rufus! he called out, barely getting the loud cry out of his mind before she yanked hard, and he passed out, nothing in his body but the empty spin of dead thoughts.

 

ONE

      The men had been after her for a good three blocks. 

     At first, it seemed almost funny, the old cat calls and whistles something Miranda Stead was used to.  They must be boys, she’d thought, teenagers with nothing better to do on an Indian summer San Francisco night.

     But as she clacked down the sidewalk, tilting in the black strappy high heels she’d decided to wear at the last minute, she realized these guys weren’t just ordinary cat-callers.  Men had been looking at her since she miraculously morphed from knobby knees and no breasts to decent looking at seventeen, and she knew how to turn, give whoever the finger, and walk on, her head held high.  These guys, though, were persistent, matching and then slowly beginning to overtake her strides.  She glanced back at them quickly, three large men coming closer, their shoulders rounded, hulking, and headed toward her. 

     In the time it had taken her to walk from Geary Street to Post, Miranda had gotten scared. 

     As she walked, her arms moving quickly at her sides, Miranda wondered where in the hell everyone else was.  When she’d left the bar and said goodnight to the group she’d been with, there’d been people strolling on the sidewalks, cars driving by, lights on in windows, music from clubs, flashing billboards, the clatter and clink of plates and glasses from nearby restaurants.

     Now Post Street was deserted, as if someone had vacuumed up all the noise and people, except, of course for the three awful men behind her.

     “Hey, baby,” one of them said, a half a block away.  “What’s your hurry?”

     “Little sweet thing,” called another, “don’t you like us?  We won’t bite unless you ask us to.”

     Clutching her purse, Miranda looked down each cross street she passed for the parking lot she’d raced into before the poetry reading.  She’d been late, as usual, Roy Hempel, the owner of Mercurial Books, sighing with relief when she pushed open the door and almost ran to the podium.  And after the poetry reading and book signing, Miranda had an apple martini with Roy, his wife Clara, and Miranda’s editor Dan Negriete at Zaps, but now, she was lost even though she’d lived in the city her entire life.  She wished she’d listened to Dan when he asked if he could drive her to her car, but she’d been annoyed by his question, as usual.

     “I’ll be fine,” she’d said, rolling her eyes as she turned away from him.

      But clearly she wasn’t fine.  Not at all.

     “Hey, baby,” one of the men said, less than twenty feet behind her.  “Can’t find your car?”

     “Lost, honey?” another one said.  This man seemed closer, his voice just over her shoulder.  She could almost smell him:  car grease, sweat, days of tobacco.

     She moved faster, knowing now was not the time to give anyone the finger.  At the next intersection of Sutter and Van Ness, she looked for the parking lot, but everything seemed changed, off, as if she’d appeared in a movie set replica of San Francisco made by someone who had studied the city but had never really been there.  The lot should be there, right there, on the right hand side of the street.  A little shack in front of it, and older Chinese man reading a newspaper inside.  Where was the shack?  Where was the Chinese man?  Instead, there was a gas station on the corner, one she’d seen before but on Mission Street, blocks and blocks away.  But no one was working at the station or pumping gas or buying Lotto tickets.

     What was going on?  Where was her car?  Where was the lot?  Everything was gone.  That’s all she knew, so she ran faster, her lungs aching. 

     The men were right behind her now, and she raced across the street, swinging around the light post as she turned and ran up Fern Street.  A bar she knew that had a poetry open mic every Friday night was just at the end of this block, or at least it used to be there, and it wasn’t near closing time.  Miranda hoped she could pound through the doors, lean against the wall, the sound of poetry saving her, as it always had.  She knew she could make it, even as she heard the thud of heavy shoes just behind her.

     “Don’t go so fast,” one of the men said, his voice full of exertion.  “I want this to last a long time.”

     In a second, she knew they’d have her, pulling her into a basement stairwell, doing the dark things that usually happened during commercial breaks on television.  She’d end up like a poor character in one of the many Law and Order shows, nothing left but clues.

     She wasn’t going to make it to the end of the block.  Her shoes were slipping off her heels, and even all the adrenaline in her body couldn’t make up for her lack of speed.  Just ahead, six feet or so, there was a door or what looked like a door with a slim sliver of reddish light coming from underneath it.  Maybe it was a bar or a restaurant.  An illegal card room.  A brothel.  A crack house.  It didn’t matter now, though.  Miranda ran as fast as she could, and as she passed the door, she stuck out her hand and slammed her body against the plaster and wood, falling through and then onto her side on a hallway floor.  The men who were chasing her seemed to not even notice she had gone, their feet clomping by until the door slammed shut and everything went silent. 

     Breathing heavily on the floor, Miranda knew there were people around her.  She could hear their surprised cries at her entrance and see chairs as well as legs and shoes, though everything seemed shadowy in the dark light—either that, or everyone was wearing black.  Maybe she’d somehow stumbled into Manhattan.

     But she was too exhausted and too embarrassed to look up right away.  So for a second, she closed her eyes and listened to her body, feeling her fear and fatigue and pain, waiting to catch her breath.  How was she going to explain this? she wondered, knowing that she had to say something.  But what?  Here she was on the floor like a klutz, her ribs aching, and her story of disappeared pedestrians and cars, missing parking lots, and transported gas stations along with three crazed hooligans seemed—even to her—made up. She knew she should call the police, though; the men would probably go after someone else now that she wasn’t fair game.  They were having too much fun to give up after only one failed attempt.  She had to do something.  Miranda owed the next woman that much.

     Swallowing hard, she pushed herself up from the gritty wooden floor, but yelped as she tried to put weight on her ankle.  She clutched at the legs of a wooden chair, breathing in to the sharp pain that radiated up her leg.

     “How did you get here?” a voice asked.

     Miranda looked up and almost yelped again, but this time it wasn’t because of her ankle but at the face looking down at her.  Pushing her hair back, she leaned against what seemed to be a bar.  The man bending over her moved closer, letting his black hood fall back to his thin shoulders.  His eyes were dark, his face covered in a gray beard, and she could smell some kind of alcohol on him.  A swirl of almost purple smoke hovered over his head and then twirled into the thick haze that hung in the room.

     She relaxed and breathed in deeply.  Thank God.  It was a bar. And here was one of its drunken, pot smoking patrons in costume. An early Halloween party or surprise birthday party in get-up.  That’s all.  She’d been in worse situations.  Being on the floor with a broken ankle was a new twist, but she could handle herself.

     “I just dropped in,” she said.  “Can’t you tell?”

     Maybe expecting some laughs, she looked around, but the room was silent, all the costumed people staring at her.  Or at least they seemed to be staring at her, their hoods pointed her way.  Miranda could almost make out their faces—men and women, both—but if this were a party, no one was having a very good time, all of them watching her grimly. 

     Between the people’s billowing robes, she saw one man sitting at a table lit by a single candle, staring at her, his hood pulled back from his face.  He was dark, tanned, and sipped something from a silver stein. Noticing her gaze, he looked up, and smiled, his eyes, even in the gloom of the room, gold.  For a second, Miranda thought she recognized him, almost imagining she’d remember his voice if he stood up, pushed away from the table, and shouted for everyone to back away.  Had she met him before somewhere?  But where?  She didn’t tend to meet robe wearers, even at the weirdest of poetry readings.

     Just as he seemed to hear her thoughts, nodding at her, the crowd pushed in, murmuring, and as he’d appeared, he vanished in the swirl of robes.

     “Who are you?” the man hovering over her asked, his voice low, deep, accusatory

     “My name’s Miranda Stead.”

     “What are you?” the man asked, his voice louder, the suspicion even stronger.

     Miranda blinked. What should she say?  A woman?  A human?  Someone normal?  Someone with some fashion sense?  “A poet?” she said finally. 

     Someone laughed but was cut off; a flurry of whispers flew around the group and they pressed even closer.

     “I’ll ask you one more time,” the man said, his breath now on her face. “How did you get here?”

     “Look,” Miranda said, pushing her hair off her face angrily.  “Back off, will you?  I’ve got a broken ankle here.  And to be honest with you, I wouldn’t have fallen in with you unless three degenerates hadn’t been chasing me up the street.  It was either here or the morgue, and I picked here, okay?  So do you mind?”

     She pushed up on the bar and grabbed onto a stool, slowly getting to standing position.  “I’ll just hobble on out of here, okay?  Probably the guys wanting to kill me are long gone.  Thanks so much for all your help.”

     No one said a word, and she took another deep breath, glad that it was so dark in the room.  If there’d been any light, they would have seen her pulse beating in her temples, her face full of heat, her knees shaking.  Turning slightly, she limped through a couple of steps, holding out her hand for the door.  It should be right here, she thought, pressing on what seemed to be a wall.  Okay, here.  Here

     As she patted the wall, the terror she’d had out on the street returned, but at least then, she’d been able to run.  Now she was trapped, her ankle was broken, and she could feel the man with his deep distrust just at her shoulder.

     Whirling around suddenly, Miranda sucked in air and then spat out.  “Okay, cute joke.  Can I go please?  Just show me where you put the door, and I’ll just be on my merry way.  No questions asked.  I’ve never seen any of you or this place.  What bar?”  What group of scary, insane, weird people on hallucinogenics? she wanted to add.  Loser cult?  Strung out Dungeons and Dragons lunatics? 

     Barely breathing, she stared at the man’s angry face.  As she would have done with an attacking dog or a child having a temper tantrum, she stood completely still and tried to show no fear.

     The group stopped moving and was silent.  Now that Miranda was standing, she could see the unhooded man in the corner, sipping his drink in the candle light.  He was still watching her, and she noticed his long dark hair tied at his neck, pulled away from his handsome face.  Why more of this bunch couldn’t be as friendly and good-looking as he was, she couldn’t figure.

     “You want us to believe you just popped through the wall?” a woman’s voice asked.

     “Christ, no.  I don’t want you to believe I popped through the wall,” Miranda said.  “I pushed through the door, though.  You know.  A thing with hinges?  A knob?  Made of wood?  It opened, I fell in.”

     There was some mumbling in the crowd, and then someone else said, “Oh, goodness, she’s just Moyenne.  Just ordinary.”

     “Right, Philomel.  Moyenne.  In here?  Like that?” another voice said.  “Through the vortex?  Doesn’t happen.  Never happens.”

     “Don’t believe it!” the man said, his voice full of anger now as well.  “I’ve told you we have to be vigilant.  This is exactly what Quain Dalzeil and his followers tried last week.  Think of what they were almost able to do.  We’ve got to do something to send them a message.” 

     “Why don’t we write it on her and send her back,” said another male voice, this one, low, quiet, and full of hiss.  “I’m just the person to do it.”

     Behind her back, Miranda tried to find a door knob or handle. Her ankle throbbed, and she felt sweat trickle along her brow and dip under her jaw.  She should have taken what the three guys outside would have given her.  Maybe she would have lived through it.  These people wanted to carve her up, and she couldn’t find the door knob, a handle, anything to get her out.  Out.

     “I’ll take care of her,” the man said, full of purpose now, his suspicions and the crowd’s agreement giving him the answer he seemed to need.  “Give me room.”

     “Stop it!” Miranda shouted, finding the voice that she’d learned how to use in the “Defense for Women” classes she’d taken years ago.HH   “Leave me alone!”

     The group was silent again until someone laughed, giggled, hiccupped, and then was quiet.

     “Right,” a voice whispered to her left.  “Leave you alone.”

     The man took her arm, and she yelled, “Stop it!” again with all the voice she could find.

     “She’s Moyenne,” the person named Philomel said again.  “She’s scared.  Just let her go, Brennus.  Even if she is a spy, she’s not a very good one, thumping on the floor like that.  Gave herself right away, for goodness sake.”

     Miranda looked for Philomel, but the man was yanking on her, the group crowding in.  Someone had her elbow, another her wrist, and she was being tugged and pulled toward the center of the room.

     “Let her go,” a new voice said, a smooth, strong man’s voice.

     Miranda thought she was imagining it, but everything really seemed to stop.  Hands still grasped her tight, but no one was moving any more, as if they were scared of the man who was speaking.  Even the haze that hovered over the room seemed to have cleared, and she could see who had spoken.  It was the long-haired man from the corner of the room.

     “Get out of the way, Sariel,” said the dark man, still holding tight around Miranda’s upper arm.  “You’ve told us all that you don’t want to be involved in anything related to Quain.  It’s none of your affair.”

     “But this is not your affair either, Brennus,” Sariel said.  “This woman is not who you imagine.  She’s no spy.” 

     Brennus, the dark man, squeezed her arm harder, but Miranda felt others let go of her elbow, collar, waist.

     “How would you know?” Brennus said, his voice angry. “You’ve chosen to ignore the signs.  You don’t want to even think about what Quain is trying to do to our world.  You certainly haven’t shown any interest in dealing with what you allowed to happen before.  Things that were seemingly in your control.”

     Brennus leaned closer to Sariel, a conversation seeming to flow between them.  Sariel frowned and crossed his arms.

     “For instance how would you even see a sign if it—“ Brennus lifted up Miranda’s arm and pushed her forward, “fell into our meeting?”

     “This woman is not a messenger from Quain or even a poor Moyenne trapped by his magic.” Sariel stared at Brennus, almost smiling, his gold eyes full of irritation.  Miranda knew that if he looked at her like that during a fight, she’d want to kick his butt.  But then, as he was trying to save her, she decided to try to like him.  That, actually wouldn’t be too hard. He must be the bar stud, with his slow, smooth voice.  Just look at the way he stood, straight and tall, his shoulders back.  And then there was his black hair, a loose strand along his cheek, so sexy in his . . . his dark red robe?  Who are these people? she thought, pulling at her arm, hoping this Brennus would take the hint and let her go.

     “You said yourself that Quain has bigger plans,” Sariel said.  “How does it involve a fast-talking Moyenne tripping into a meeting?  Don’t you think he’d try another tack this time?”

     “A spy,” Brennus said, turning sarcastic.  “Think beyond your ability, Sariel.”    

     Miranda pulled, moving her good foot slightly, knowing that what happened tonight would be one hell of a poem.  Or maybe a short story.  Both.  Dan wanted her to break into fiction; he’d said so earlier after the reading. 

     “Three successful books of poetry, and you’re ready for a novel,” he’d said earlier, raising his wine glass.

     Dan didn’t know how soon a story would come to her, Miranda thought, yanking her arm hard one last time.  At the same time she yanked up, Brennus let her go.  As she tried to find her balance, she screamed as she put weight on her ankle and then she began to tip.  Back to the floor once more, she thought, putting out her hands to brace her fall.  But then she was caught and lifted, pressed against Sariel who held her to his side, his hand firm on her waist.  She grabbed at his chest, balancing, feeling how tightly he was built, everything under her hands smooth and hard.  She closed her eyes and breathed away the pain in her ankle, smelling him:  oranges, musk, soap.

     “This isn’t about generosity of spirit now, is it,” Brennus said.  “You’ve always had a taste for bad meat.”

     Miranda breathed in and thought, Screw you, jerk, and was just about to say it aloud, when Sariel whispered in her ear, his voice soft and full of laughter, “Don’t say it.”

      She looked at him, and thought, Just like a man.  He nodded, winked, and said, “For now.”

     “For now, what?” Brennus said.

     “For now, let me take her out of here.  Back where she belongs,” Sariel said.  He held Miranda close to him, his shoulder pressed against the side of her face.  “I’ll do what needs to be done.”

     Brennus glowered, crossed his arms, stared at Sariel, but suddenly he didn’t seem so frightening.  More like an irritated grandfather.  Miranda looked out at the crowd.  Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and despite their dark kooky robes, most of the bar crowd looked like people she might meet at Safeway, pushing a cart and grabbing Campbell Soup off the shelves.  Why they wanted to grab at her and carve her up was beyond her.  Maybe it was a cult, some devil worshippers getting over-excited for some Halloween parade.

     “You should see our jack-o-lanterns,” Sariel whispered, and he began to walk her toward the door.

     The crowd moved aside as they passed, but Brennus yelled out as they reached the end of the bar. 

     “You know what to do with her after you’ve played the hero.”

     Her body buzzing with adrenaline, Miranda felt Sariel shrug.  What was he going to do with her? she wondered, trying to keep her eyes focused in front of her. 

     “Don’t worry.  It won’t be anything horrible,” Sariel said.  “Just keep moving.”

     Just before they were at the place where the door was or wasn’t, a woman reached out a hand.  “Sorry, dear.”  Turning, Miranda matched the voice to the face.  It was Philomel, who turned out to be an older woman with wild springy gray hair so thick her hood couldn’t tamp it down, the thick velvet seeming to levitate over her head.   Philomel reached out, touching her arm, and Miranda smiled, knowing that Philomel was the only person in the room besides Sariel who’d not wanted to stomp her to death.

     Miranda put her hand briefly on Philomel’s and then let Sariel lead her to the door, which was there exactly as it had been when she fell through it.  Of course, she thought, Isn’t that peachy.  Sariel clasp her shoulder, laughed low, and pushed out into the street.

 

TWO

Outside, the street had burst back into normal life.  There, finally, were all the people walking from bar to club to apartment.  The lights shone from condo windows, the streets hummed with car and Muni life.  A homeless man with a shopping cart walked by, his shoes scraping along the concrete, aluminum cans clinking as the cart hit bumps in the sidewalk.  Three teenagers in huge pants and large puffy coats ran by, singing some kind of rap song.

     But when she turned back to look at the door, it was gone, the stone wall smooth and seamless.  She turned, put her hand on the wall, half expecting her fingers to disappear as she did.  But instead, she touched only the cold wall, nothing more.

     Miranda shook her head and sighed, almost afraid to look back at Sariel.  For all she knew, he might have disappeared, leaving her here to hobble to the corner and try to hail a cab.  She still felt him holding her around the waist, but she took a deep breath before looking at him.  Of course, he’d changed.  What else could she have expected in this ridiculous night?  Now he was wearing a forest green T-shirt and black jeans, his robe nowhere in sight.  He looked like any guy she might have met in a bar, except better, his cotton shirt tight enough (but not too tight) to show his long, strong arms, his slim waist, his . . . God, she thought, shaking her head, blushing suddenly because she could almost feel him inside her head.

     She said quickly, “I wish I had your quick-change talent.  Might come in handy some day.”  Miranda held onto him tight, her ankle throbbing.

     “You’re not surprised?” He looked at her, his eyes the color of cracked amber, dark flecked, intense.

     “Oh, I’m now in perpetual surprise,” she said. “But since this is just a crazy dream, I know anything can happen.  Rooms and doors disappear.  You can change your clothes without, well, changing your clothes.  People can talk about carving other people up.  I’ve given up on questions, though, because all you’ll have to do is read my mind.”

     “I’m a telepath,” Sariel said simply.

     “I just hope you aren’t a psychopath,” Miranda said.  “Look, I don’t care what you are right now. I’ve given up.  What I need is a hospital.  My ankle is killing me.”

     Sariel brought his other hand to her shoulder and turned her toward him.  Miranda blinked, her breath in her throat, blood rushing to her face.  What was he going to do?  Cave in and carve her up like the man in the bar suggested?  Strangle her?  Posses her mind?  Or . . . Or?  Was he going to kiss her?  What nerve, she thought, realizing she was tipping her suddenly heavy head back with her eyes half-closed, as if she wanted nothing more than his mouth on hers.  Already, she could imagine his lips, soft and first, insistent later with passion.  Yes, she thought.  Well, no.  Not now.  Maybe later.  Okay, now.  Yes, oh yes.  He pressed her to him, and she smelled oranges again.  She tried to say something, but her mouth wasn’t working right, and she closed her eyes, rested against his chest, and fell asleep.

She awoke in a warm, dark room, in comfort, warm, happy, and soothed.  But by what?  Blinking, she raised herself up from the couch.  A candle on the table burned red orange, its light illuminating the walls of the room were lined with shelves, books stacked three deep and piling up on a smooth dark wood floor.  On a desk at the back of the room were scrolls and loose papers, some of which had fallen to the floor.  A strange map was tacked onto the wall above the desk.  The map looked like a normal world in some ways, but it was divided differently somehow, large red and gold and green sections that weren’t the countries she was used to.  On another wall hung an intricate Japanese robe, the silk flickering purple and gold in the light.  A huge sheathed sword hung over a doorway that led to a hall where a brighter light shone.  She lay back, breathing in.  The room smelled like Sariel, orangey, spicy, and hot.      

     For a minute, she focused on the room, wondering what other bizarre things would happen before she woke up in her bed, twisted in sheets, and dripping with fever.  Or maybe she would fly or transport to one of the weird countries on the map or turn into a toad before the doctor at General would say, “Miranda?  Miranda?  Snap out of it.”  But until them, what a dream!  What a room!

      I’m in Edgar Alan Poe’s house, Miranda thought.  I hope he gives me some opium before he straps me under the pendulum or locks me in the cage.

     “No opium,” Sariel said from somewhere down the hall.  “But I have other palliatives.”

     “Since this is my bad dream or intense coma, I’d appreciate it if you’d turn off that mind reading thing,” Miranda said as he walked into the room carrying a silver tray.  “It’s very unnerving.  And when I wake up from this quasi-nightmare, I want to pretend I kept a couple of secrets.”

     “I promise, you won’t remember a thing,” Sariel said, sitting down in a leather chair across from her and placing the tray on the table. As he arranged the contents of the tray, his hair hung down, framing his face.  She could see the candle flickering in the dark, lampblack strands as he worked, his eyes focused, his arm flexing as he stirred something in a bowl. 

     Miranda looked down at the tray—clay bowls full of what looked and smelled like sage and maybe lavender, one full of a liquid, a pyramid-kind of thing made of metal, and a cloth.  There was nothing demented about these ingredients.  No sharp knives or wicked pliers.  No ropes or chains or long needles or saws.  She looked up at him, watching him work with the fragrant plants, their tangy odors calming her further.  He seemed so focused, so intent on helping her, that she truly felt her body soften, relax, fall back against the soft couch pillows.

     “So why won’t I remember a thing?” She crossed her arms.  “I always remember my dreams, and they’re always in color.  Just like this.”

     “This isn’t a dream.  And I can’t allow you to remember it.” Sariel looked up at her, his amber eyes on fire in the candle light.

     Who made you the boss? she thought hard, but Sariel didn’t look up, busy with the cloth and the herbs. 

     “Okay, why then?” 

     Sariel sighed and looked up.  “May I have permission to heal your ankle?”

     “Do you have to ask?  Seems like you guys kind of do what you want.  Transport people around without asking, make doors come and go, threaten to cut up injured women.”

     Sariel straightened, stared at her, the right corner of his mouth pulling into what might turn into a smile.  “I have to ask permission.  It’s only polite.  And your ankle needs healing.”

     “So not only are you a secret Dungeons and Dragons telepath, but you moonlight as a doctor?”

     “I’m a homeopath,” Sariel said, holding up a hand.  “Not a psychopath.  Or a sociopath.”

     Miranda leaned back and looked down at her ankle.  It was swollen and throbbed still, the pain constant and heavy.  If this were a dream, it was the most vivid she’d had.  Probably, she’d hit her head on a post somewhere and was in a coma at San Francisco General, Dan wringing his hands at her bedside.  Clearly, she received a sharp blow, fell to the concrete with a severe concussion with epic delusions.  Or maybe worse.  So not only would she have the whole satanic cult trip to write about, she’d have a brain injury to focus on.  If she could focus on anything once she woke up.

     “Look,” Sariel said.  “I turned the telepathy off like you asked, so I don’t know what’s going through your head.  I should tend to your ankle though.  It’s not going to heal quickly on its own.”

     “You can turn your mind off?” Miranda stared at him.  “Like a TV or a radio?”

     Sariel sighed again, and she could see that he was just barely controlling his irritation.  Obviously, he’d never been in one of her dreams before, all of them full of twists and turns and ridiculous plot lines.  He leaned back in his chair and pushed his hair off his forehead, breathing out.  He watched her, and she felt blood pulse in her ears. In the flickering deep glow of the room, his eyes were full of light.  Miranda remembered what it felt like to rest against his shoulder, his chest under her cheek, his smell of oranges and spice surrounding her.  She remembered how light and floaty and wonderful she felt as he carried her off to wherever in the hell she was now. 

     “Okay, fine,” she said quickly.  “Yes, please, I mean.  It’ll be nice to come to consciousness with one less thing to worry about.”

     Sariel raised his eyebrows, a bit more of a smile on his lips, and then stood up and sat down on the couch next to her feet, bringing the cloth and herbs with him.

     “Those shoes,” he said, his dark eyebrows raised.  “Unless you’re a well-trained pensuer de mouvement, I’d wear Nikes when running around the city.”

     Miranda stared at him as he took off her high heels and put them on the floor.  “A thinker of movement?  I do have some French, though I’d say it’s stuck at sophomore year.  And even then, I got a D.”

     He flicked a look at her, and then brought his hand to her ankle gently, sliding one palm underneath it.  Holding the weight of her tender flesh in his hand, he lay the cloth folded full of herbs on the top of her ankle and wrapped it loosely.  He lowered her leg to a pillow, but he didn’t let go, his hand holding her firmly.  She felt some warm energy move from his hand, through the cloth, into her skin, under it, really, into muscle and bone.

     “Lie back and relax,” Sariel said.  “This will take a little while.”

     She did as she was told, resting back on the pillow, closing her eyes, sinking into the darkness of the room around her.

     She listened to his steady breathing and then focused on his hand on her ankle.  She could feel his strong fingers hold her ankle softly, and she remembered what Brennus had said in the bar.  “You have a taste for bad meat.”

     Bringing women to his house and seducing them with magic hands must be what Sariel did, she thought.  Or what he did in desperate women’s dreams.  Or, well, whatever.  Miranda didn’t care, bad meat or not.  She’d wake up eventually, but now she had his warm hand on her, and she wondered what would happen if he moved up a little, touching her like this everywhere.

     She held back a laugh, trying to stay serious so he wouldn’t stop.  How long had it been since she’d let a man touch her anywhere?  Since Jack left, taking with him her computer, printer, and heart?  Two years almost exactly.  No one since Jack and his brilliant words, lean, poet body, and his girlfriends on the side.  Sure Dan had been asking her out for six months now, but she couldn’t get involved with her editor.  Her poetry was all she had these days, and she couldn’t even kiss a man without one or both of them wanting more, so she’d said no to it all, hugs, kisses, and comfort.  By saying no to that, she was saying no to anxiety, betrayal, stolen goods, and sleepless nights where she relived her every wrong move.  Sex had always messed up everything.

     But this?  Sariel’s hands moving carefully on her ankle and shin?  It was lovely.  She felt so relaxed, so peaceful.  Her ankle wasn’t throbbing any more and the energy from Sariel’s touch was growing hotter, slowly radiating in bigger circles from the point of pain. His fingers were steady and firm.  She could feel the color coming from him into her, something as hot and red as the candle on the table, something tangy and delicious.  In a strange way, she could almost hear him thinking, sending all his thoughts into her very bone, knitting the fracture back together.  But how could she hear that?  She pushed the notion away, letting his motions take over.  His energy moved up in bursts to her shin, her knee, her thigh, and then she gasped as the circle of heat pulsed up farther, tentacles of pleasure pulsing to all the way to her center.

     Miranda didn’t think she made a sound, but she did, hearing it float around the room before it finally vanished.  She’d moaned.  Loudly.  Opening her eyes, she sat up wide eyed and blinking, leaning on her elbows.

     Sariel looked at her, his yellow eyes steady.  “Are you all right?  Does it feel better?”

     She breathed in, trying to ignore the heat heavy pooling in her belly, her heart beating out jungle drum rhythms in her chest.  Miranda was sure that if the lights were on, she’d find herself with continents of blush on her face, throat, and chest, her pale skin aflame.   “Yes.  I’m fine now.”

     He began to lift his hand from her ankle, and she almost reached down to stop him.  Just a few seconds more, she thought, but having an orgasm simply from a man’s touch was too much for even a crazy dream. 

     “Are you sure?  Does it still feel tender?”

     Tender, she wanted to say, you have no idea.  But Miranda shook her head.  “Yes.  I mean, no.  I’m fine.”

     He took his hand away, and her body felt like someone had turned off her main switch.  She swallowed and lay down on the pillow, holding back the urge to tell him that indeed she still felt a slight crick, a hitch in movement.  But that would be a lie.  Her ankle felt perfect, as if she could run a marathon in four-inch heels.

     Sariel carefully folded up the cloth and watched her, unblinking, a tiny smile at the corner of his lips.

     “Test the ankle.  Make sure I did what I set out to.”

     If you only knew, she thought, lifting her foot off the pillow.  “It feels great.”  She moved her foot slightly and smiled.  “A miracle. You are magic after all.”

     “Let’s give it a minute, and then I’ll take you back where you belong.”  He stood up and looked down at her, smiling.  His hair hung down below his shoulders, and she wished he’d put his robe back on, so she could have the full effect of her Prince of Darkness-crazed brain before she woke up.  What would her old Jungian therapist say about this?  She could never tell her mother, but what would her sister Viv think once she heard?  Long robed lunatics worried about a menacing threat and a sexy healer in a candle lit room?  The potential for interpretation was limitless.  Sariel was clearly her repressed sexuality.  The group in the bar was what?  Her most feared audience?  The Holitzer application committee? A packed crowd at the Herbst Theatre waiting for her to deliver perfect poems?  The editor at the New York Times Book Review?  But what about the threat from . . . who was it?  Quain?

     “Who is Quain?” Miranda asked and then immediately wished she hadn’t.  His face shifted, closed, shut down, his warm energy gone, and he turned away from her, picking up the tray and taking it over to a larger table.  There, he poured them each a glass of what looked like brandy and brought back the glasses, handing her one. 

     “You don’t need to concern yourself with that.”  He swirled his glass and frowned, his eyes focused on his drink.  “At least, for now your world doesn’t have to worry.”

     “My world?  What does that mean?  Listen, since it’s my dream and I’m going to forget it all anyway, why can’t you tell me?”  Miranda sat up straighter and took a sip of her brandy, which wasn’t quite brandy but some kind of alcohol, thick and honey-flavored and smooth.  “What can it hurt?”

     Sariel stared down at her and then sat down in the chair.  He pushed the loose strands of hair away from his face and crossed his arms.  As he watched her, she wondered what she must look like.  Not the well-put together sight she’d been when she left her apartment for the poetry reading, stylish in her tight green dress and black heels.  No.  She’d run a half-dozen blocks, fallen on the dirty bar floor, struggled with robed loonies, and done some kind of transporting thing to this couch.  Somewhere between Geary and Lombard, her hair had gone mad, and she could see it curling all around her head and down around her shoulders.  It was her caged animal look, she knew, and it wasn’t her best, her hair a bright cadmium aureole of tangle.  But Sariel didn’t seem to really be looking at her but just beyond.

     “Okay, fine,” she said.  “No Quain.  Just give me the synopsis of what happened tonight.  No, wait.  First tell me what Moyenne means.  What it is, I mean, beyond the French word.”

     Sariel sat back.  “You are Moyenne. We use the meaning ‘ordinary,’ but it’s to differentiate you from us.”

     “And you are?”

     “Croyant.”

     “Believer?”

     He nodded and sipped his drink.  She watched him press his lips together at the taste, and then she took another sip, too.

     “Where do you come from?”  She sank back into the pillow behind her.

     “We come from where everyone comes from.  It’s just that somewhere along the line, Croyant learned how to do things differently.  To manipulate the world in a way Moyenne can’t.  Or won’t.”

      “So, well, how many of you believers are there?”

     Sariel laughed.  “You’ve been with me for about a minute and you already want someone else?”

     “I like variety.”  Miranda smiled back, wishing he would laugh some more, loving the deep sound in the dark room.  “Magic or not.”

     “Not surprising.  You are a woman of infinite tastes,” he said.  “Well, let’s see.  We’re maybe about one half of one percent of the total population, which is what? 6.5 billion?”

     “A baby born every half second.”

     “We humans are a fertile bunch.”  He looked at her, smiling again, and she sipped her drink, hoping to hide her ridiculous blush behind her glass.  What was wrong with her?  She was acting as if she’d never gone on stage and read poems about sex and very specific body parts.  Something about the way she felt around him brought her back to junior high dances after school, her desperate hope that Matt Braccia would ask her to dance to Stairway to Heaven, everyone’s favorite oldie because it turned into a slow dance and lasted for twenty minutes.

     Miranda put down her glass, forcing herself to concentrate.  “Okay, so here I go, math major that I am not . . . That’s three million?  Three million!  Where do you all hide?”

     “In dark smoky rooms wearing robes.  Where else?”

     Miranda stared at him, thinking, watching the light reflect and flicker in his eyes.  “Of course.  How silly of me.  Why did I ask?  So, what about the language thing.  All the French.”

    “It’s our history,” Sariel said, swirling his drink.  “In the 14th century, we formed a world-wide government that was first located in Paris, under the auspices of Louis the XI.  Times were different.  Moyenne blamed us for an outbreak of plague.  Well, I didn’t do well in history classes, but creating our governing body—the Council—was a way to protect ourselves from  . . ."

     He trailed off, taking a deep breath.  Of course, she thought.  What happened to anyone in the past that seemed magic, different, strange?  Salem, Spain, England.  People thrown in water to see if they bobbed like corks, townsfolk tortured for the names of those who cast the evil eye, women who healed and midwifed thrown in prison.

     “I know.  To protect yourselves from us.  The ignorant, torch bearing witch burners.”

     He nodded.  Miranda watched as he took another sip and then brought the glass away from his mouth, his lower lip slightly wet, sticky with the aromatic sweetness.  Embarrassed by her long gaze, she picked up her glass and took an awkward sip of her own.

      “Doesn’t sound like anything I ever learned in history,” she said, licking the liquid off her lips.  “But let’s go back to tonight.  What happened there?”

     Sariel seemed to startle out of a thought and smiled.  “You know more about it than I do.  I was just there for the show down.”

     “Well,” Miranda said.  “What about how I got in there?  I mean, things were looking really strange.  The parking lot was gone and a gas station from the Mission was there instead.  No one was around.  Then there was a door I pushed through and then there wasn’t.  Explain that.” 

     Sariel laughed and shook his head.  “Okay.  But since this is a dream, you have to believe everything until I make you forget.  Like in a dream, anything is possible.”

     Miranda smiled, a flick of nerves in her chest.  “Agreed.  But haven’t I already gone along with quite a bit?”

     He nodded and then took a sip of his brandy and then put down his glass.  “We had arranged a meeting—“

     “Who are we?” Miranda interrupted.

     “A group of Croyant, brought together for a meeting.”

     “Believers of what?”

     “Our full name is Les Croyants de Trois.  But don’t interrupt.  It’s my story.”

     She took another sip.  The believers of three.  Like in the trinity?  Or was it even older than that, going back to the days of goddess worship, pre-historic belief centered on the maiden-mother-crone, three the number symbolizing the cycle of life. 

     Miranda licked her lips, put down her glass.  At least they weren’t Satanists.  Then they would be believers of one.  Satan was a real loner.

     “Exactly,” Sariel said.  “And by the way, you don’t look like a caged animal.  Your hair is lovely, in fact.”  He leaned forward and touched a flyaway curl with his fingertips.  “It’s beautiful. Such an amazing color.”

     Once, again, Miranda was glad for the dark, her face burning. Holy cow!  What else had she thought? “You cheater!  You said you turned your mind off!”

      “I did,” Sariel said.  “But then I turned it on.  If I’m going to tell you secret stories, I need to see exactly what you need to forget.”

     “You really are going to make me forget?”  Suddenly, her head felt woozy, as if he were trying already.

     “I have no choice.  Protocol.”

      Miranda touched the place where his hand had smoothed her curls.  Her lovely hair.  “Don’t make a mess in there, okay?  I’m a poet.  My memory is my stock in trade.”

     “Of course.  Now, can I tell the story?  Or do you want to go home already?”

     She knew she should feel irritated with him for listening to her thoughts, but the drink was making her feel warm and soft and slightly pliant. “All right.  So you arranged a meeting.”

     “Right,” he continued.  “People were coming in from all over because we needed to talk about—well, we’re having some issues.  There’s a faction that’s trying to upset our balance.  A power struggle.  Problems with—”

     “Problems with Quain—“ She stopped speaking when she saw his forehead crease, his eyes flicking in quick anger.  “Sorry.  Go on.”

     Sariel swirled his drink, looking into his glass.  “So in order, to keep Moyenne away from the meeting, we created a vortex.  It’s like energy to push them away from us.  Nothing was supposed to get through.  Nothing ever has before that I know of.”

     “How—“ Miranda began.

     “Remember, you have to believe.”

     “You can tell me anything because I won’t remember.  Remember?”

     “No, pro—“

     “Protocol.  Of course.  How boring,” she said, yawning.  “Not even a hint?”

     “Well,” Sariel leaned back and watched her for a moment, rubbing a hand on his taut cheek.  “Let’s put it this way, thought is energy.  That’s how I got us here tonight.  How I’ll take you home.  How a number of Croyant can think up a vortex together.  But if we somehow moved a parking lot and brought in a gas station, we need a little refresher course.  Someone wasn’t focusing.”

     “Oh.” Miranda blinked and tried to get her mind around that idea, but her head felt wobbly, and she could barely keep her eyes open. “Okay.”

     “So,” he said, “somehow, you got through, dragging your three ghouls with you.  And lucky for you, it seems that they didn’t see the door or even you going into it.   What I can’t explain is how you walked right into the vortex.  Very strange, indeed.  They are usually one hundred percent Moyenne proof.  But I suppose even with magic, nothing’s perfect.”

     Miranda closed her eyes but laughed.  “You are magic.  My ankle . . . .”

     She heard Sariel sit up, the leather creaking. Then she felt him take the glass from her hand and set it on the table.  She felt him touch her foot briefly, his fingers sliding over her heel, the tent of ankle bone, the top of her foot, and then he let his hand slide up her shin.  Thank God I shaved, she thought, smiling, wondering if he’d heard her.

     “Bad meat,” she said softly, barely able to stay awake.

     “That’s another story for another time,” he said, and then he was leaning up to her, kissing her gently on the lips. 

     “Smooth all over,” he said, letting his mouth travel her face, her jaw, the soft skin of her throat.

     She could smell his warm skin against hers, and she tried to kiss him back, knowing she shouldn’t.  He’d turn out to be worse than Jack; Sariel would be a boyfriend who could literally bale out at will.  But Miranda wanted to kiss him, though, wanted to feel his lips on her face, her throat, her . . .  But, oh, she was so tired, her head too heavy to even move.  And then later, when his arms went around her and he pressed her to him, just as he had done on the street, Miranda felt herself disappear into nothing, everything darkness.

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Note from the author coming soon...

About Jessica

Jessica Barksdale Inclán's debut novel Her Daughter's Eyes, published in 2001, was the premier novel published under New American Library's new imprint Accent. Her Daughter's Eyes was a...

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