Thursday, October 10, 2019
Succubus Heat CHAPTER 9
I was starting to envy the teleportation that higher immortals used. I'd always complained about it in the past (it tended to be a bit disorienting), but suddenly, a spot of dizziness seemed trivial compared to doing the Vancouver-Seattle drive yet again. Annoying or not, I was anxious to talk to Jerome, so as soon as Cedric gave me leave to go home the next day, I hit the road back to the States. Isabelle had seemed convincing enough in denying her role in the Army's shenanigans, and both Carter and Cedric seemed certain she wasn't involved either. I couldn't dismiss any leads here, however, not when my permanent return to Seattle was on the line and certainly not when someone was actually messing with Seattle itself. Isabelle might truly be innocent, but I wasn't going to shut the door on this until I'd run it by Jerome. Ã¢â¬Å"It seems like you're here more than you are there,Ã¢â¬ noted Hugh when I called to tell him I was back in town. Ã¢â¬Å"Doesn't really seem like you're being punished all that much.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Punishment's subjective. Do you know where Jerome's at?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Last I knew, he was meeting someone.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"The Cellar?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Mmm, noÃ¢â¬ ¦that new bar in Capitol Hill. Clement's.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Is he going to be mad if I show up while he's at a lunch meeting?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"If he doesn't want to be interrupted, you won't be able to find him.Ã¢â¬ Fair point. Without going home, I drove straight to Capitol Hill, finding street parking that wasn't actually too far from Cody and Peter's apartment. Clement's was a new place that had gone in recently, a bit sleeker and trendier than the Cellar, which was a divey haunt in Pioneer Square we immortals often frequented. Clement's had the same upscale feel and designer drink menu that Mark's had had, and I had a hard time convincing myself that a drink probably wasn't the best idea while I was here in the midst of demonic business. I spotted Jerome right away. He was at a back table, facing the doorway. His eyes met mine as I approached, my signature declaring my presence, just as his came through to me. Only, his wasn't the only immortal aura there. I recognized the bearer's identity before the woman seated across from him even turned around. Nanette. I came to a stop by their table, speechless more from surprise than fear. Jerome and Nanette together? When had this come about? There was a sly smile on her face, like she was in on some joke the rest of us weren't. She had on another cute sundress, lavender silk that looked great with her blond hair, though the spring weather didn't quite seem warm enough for it yet. Of course, when you were a demon, I supposed the fires of Hell kept you warm. Ã¢â¬Å"Georgie,Ã¢â¬ said Jerome, not unpleasantly, Ã¢â¬Å"it seems like you're here more than you are in Vancouver.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Cedric sent me home. He doesn't seem to want me around if I'm not doing something specific.Ã¢â¬ Nanette chuckled and paused to take a drink of what looked like a Lemon Drop martini. Ã¢â¬Å"I imagine so, after that spectacle yesterday. Brilliant work, I might add.Ã¢â¬ I grimaced, deciding to out myself and risk losing Jerome's regard. Ã¢â¬Å"I actually didn't have anything to do with that. They did it without telling me.Ã¢â¬ Jerome didn't seem to mind. Ã¢â¬Å"That footage is all over YouTube. I've watched it a hundred times.Ã¢â¬ This whole thing was so confusing. Jerome ostensibly wanted me to help Cedric unravel the cult, yet my boss clearly took great pleasure in seeing the progress stall out. Again I felt like I was missing a piece of the picture here, making me even less secure about my position. Ã¢â¬Å"Look,Ã¢â¬ I said. Ã¢â¬Å"I don't want to interrupt your drinks. I'd just been hoping to chat with Jerome, but I can find you later.Ã¢â¬ Nanette downed her martini and stood up. Ã¢â¬Å"No, no. We're finished here. Have my seat.Ã¢â¬ I was hesitant, but she was insistent, and Jerome didn't appear to be too put out at her departure. She walked out of the bar like a normal human, not bothering with any elaborate teleportation-at least not while others could see her. He gestured toward her chair, and I sat down. Ã¢â¬Å"So, what can I do for you, Georgie?Ã¢â¬ Jerome was drinking brandy, something more suited to a night by the fire than a Sunday afternoon. Ã¢â¬Å"You were hanging out with Nanette?Ã¢â¬ I asked, momentarily putting Isabelle on hold. Ã¢â¬Å"As you saw.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I told you about her meeting with Cedric.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"And?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"And, doesn't it seem weird that she's meeting with each of you behind the other's back?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"It's not behind anyone's back,Ã¢â¬ he countered. Ã¢â¬Å"I know she met with Cedric, and she knows I know.Ã¢â¬ Isabelle was moving farther and farther to the back burner of my mind. Suddenly, it all seemed perfectly obvious. Isabelle had denied being the angel because she didn't want her situation to change. Nanette, however, did want change. She wanted to stop feeling like Cedric and Jerome were eyeing her territory and squeezing her between them. She'd claimed her meeting with Cedric was defensive on her part, yet I couldn't help but wonder if she might be more on the offensive than any of us realized. Ã¢â¬Å"Georgie,Ã¢â¬ said Jerome dryly. Ã¢â¬Å"I can see those wheels in your head spinning. What are you thinking?Ã¢â¬ Starting with the meeting at Tim Hortons, I gave Jerome a full report of my experiences with the Army and the theories I'd put together about the Angel of Darkness being a literal angel-Isabelle. Ã¢â¬Å"Ridiculous,Ã¢â¬ said Jerome. Ã¢â¬Å"It's not her.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You sound just as certain as Cedric did.Ã¢â¬ He shrugged, almost looking embarrassed to have agreed with his rival. Ã¢â¬Å"Because she's not running any cult. I've met her. She's not the type.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Well, I'm actually starting to agree.Ã¢â¬ I took a deep breath and pushed forward. Ã¢â¬Å"I don't suppose it's occurred to either of you that Nanette could be the one behind this?Ã¢â¬ Jerome's face grew even more incredulous. Ã¢â¬Å"Nanette? Georgie, this is out there, even for you.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What, demons eyeing each other's territories? Come on, Jerome. That's not out there at all! It's what you and Cedric were-maybe still are-doing for each other. If something blows up, Nanette's in a far better position to benefit from it than Isabelle would. Nanette's running to both of you, claiming she's worried about the other when really, she's playing you both off each other.Ã¢â¬ Jerome rolled the brandy in his glass. Ã¢â¬Å"And let me guess: she's blond too, like this alleged golden-haired angel.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"WellÃ¢â¬ ¦Ã¢â¬ He sighed, took a last swig of the brandy, and set the glass down hard. Ã¢â¬Å"Not that I have any reason to explain our goings-on to you, but here it is. Nanette doesn't have the balls to try something like that. Oh, sure, some of your points are correct. This wouldn't be unreasonable demon behavior, particularly one feeling threatened. But not her. She might want to do something like this, but she won't. She's a lot of talk but not much on action.Ã¢â¬ I didn't usually get answers that detailed from Jerome and was a bit taken aback. Ã¢â¬Å"You're certain?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I am,Ã¢â¬ he said firmly. A waiter delivered a new glass of brandy. Ã¢â¬Å"Leave her and Isabelle behind. Find some other reason for what this absurd group's doing. Barring that, disband them like you're supposed to. And barring that , do give me some credit that I can take care of my affairs without a succubus' help.Ã¢â¬ I left not long after that, leaving Jerome to drink alone. As I pushed the door open, I glanced back and studied him. His face was momentarily unguarded, troubled as he stared into the depths of his glass. He seemed very alone, literally and figuratively, despite his bold words. I felt a strange pang in my chest, a bit of sorrow over what was undoubtedly an eternity of torment made worse when complications like our current ones ensued. But then, maybe these bursts of demonic drama helped break up the monotony. I considered errands after that but decided heading straight home sounded best. My phone rang just I stepped into my apartment. I kicked the door closed with my foot while my free hand dug through the depths of my purse. Doug's number showed on the caller ID. Ã¢â¬Å"Is everything okay?Ã¢â¬ I asked as soon as I answered. Ã¢â¬Å"You know what's sad here, Kincaid? You aren't asking if I'm okay. You saw my number, assumed there was some crisis at work, and want to know if the store's okay.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Your point?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"The store's fine. I wanted to know if you're in town. Maddie made it sound like you can cross time and space now and be everywhere all the time.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I wish I could, but yeah, I'm at home. What's up?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You going to Casey's party?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Casey's what?Ã¢â¬ Even as I spoke the words, I remembered Casey pulling me aside in the store and asking if I'd attend her graduation party. Ã¢â¬Å"Ugh. That's today, isn't it?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yup. You want me to pick you up?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Doug, I don't think I can go. In fact, I even told her I couldn't.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Right. Tell me right now, immediately, what you have to do instead.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Well, I, uh-Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"Too slow. You have nothing going on.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I'm just not in a party mood.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"The beauty of that is that when people aren't in party moods, that's actually when they need a party the most.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Doug-Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"Come on! How can you not acknowledge the achievements of some brainiac math major who's graduating early, for fuck's sake?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Latvian.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Math and Latvian. Dual majors.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You're making my point for me. It would be sad and wrong if we didn't help her celebrate. She overcame a life of adversity, coming to this country in the hopes of making a better life for herself and her family.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Doug, she's, like, fourth generation. Her dad's a neurosurgeon.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Come on! Maddie's gotta stay and close, so I have no one to go with. That, and it's kind of creepy how I've been going to social events with my sister lately. I need you to make me look like a man again.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Doug-Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"See you in five minutes, Kincaid.Ã¢â¬ I knew how Doug could be in these moods. He wasn't kidding about showing up in five minutes, and he was also right that I had nothing else to do. With so little time, I simply shape-shifted into a plain gray skirt and black blouse that seemed appropriate for a graduation party. While rustling around for a blank card that I could stick a check into, I dialed Dante to let him know I was in town and to see if he wanted to come with us. Like usual lately, I went to his voice mail. What was it with me and unreliable men? I'd had trouble getting a hold of Seth when we dated because he was always caught up writing. Now I had trouble getting a hold of Dante becauseÃ¢â¬ ¦well, because he was unreliable. I left Casey's address with the message and hurried to get ready. I'd wanted to wear Dante's watch but couldn't find it before Doug showed up-honestly, it had been more like four minutes-so I ended up just running out the door without accessories. Casey's family lived over in Clyde Hill, a beautiful lakeside suburb befitting a neurosurgeon's family. The party had been going on for about an hour when we arrived, and we found their expansive backyard filled with music, food, and people. Dusk was falling, and the soft glow of lanterns strung along trees and the fence line gave everything a sort of elfin mystique. We paused at the yard's entry, assessing our surroundings and looking for others we knew. Ã¢â¬Å"This is kind of wholesome for me,Ã¢â¬ Doug noted. Ã¢â¬Å"There are kids here.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Of course there are. This is a graduation party, not one of your after-show keggers.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Oh, hey,Ã¢â¬ he said brightly. Ã¢â¬Å"There's a bartender. Looks like this'll be tolerably wholesome.Ã¢â¬ Casey found us getting drinks and threw her arms around both of us in a massive double hug. Ã¢â¬Å"Oh! You guys came! Thanks so much.Ã¢â¬ She was aglow with excitement and energy and could barely stay still. She accepted my card with another hug, told us to let her know if we needed anything, and then dashed off when she saw her great aunt from Idaho arrive. Ã¢â¬Å"Wow. All this kind of makes me wish I'd stayed in college,Ã¢â¬ Doug mused. A few of our coworkers waved at us from the far side of the yard, and we began winding our way toward them. Ã¢â¬Å"Yup. You could have had all this fun waiting for you after school.Ã¢â¬ He grimaced. Ã¢â¬Å"The problem is, I was having all this fun during school.Ã¢â¬ The other bookstore staff were happy to see us, and we all fell into comfortable conversation that varied from the party itself to shop talk from work. Casey's family had spared no expense, and waiters came around with various types of finger food. None of us had eaten dinner, so we practically devoured the trays and probably looked like savages in our corner. I was contemplating a second drink when Beth suddenly said, Ã¢â¬Å"Oh, hey. Seth and Maddie are here.Ã¢â¬ I stiffened. One of the reasons I'd answered the door when Doug came to pick me up was that he'd said Maddie was closing. Knowing I'd get a reprieve from her and Seth had made this prospect bearable, but apparently, there'd been some sort of incorrect intel afoot. I did an immediate 180, hoping I had misheard Beth. Nope. There they were: Seth and Maddie. Worse, Seth's little niece Kayla was with them. She was the youngest of his brother's girls, four years old with blue eyes and a mop of blond curls. I'd recently discovered that Kayla had the makings of a psychic and was able to sense the unseen world, much as Dante or my friend Erik could. She was a long way from having their skills or having any idea what they meant yet. For now, she was just a happy little girl-albeit a very quiet one-and seeing her with Seth and Maddie jerked painfully at my heartstrings. Ã¢â¬Å"I thought you said she was closing,Ã¢â¬ I hissed to Doug. He didn't notice the upset tone in my voice and read it as surprise. Ã¢â¬Å"I thought so. Maybe she got Janice to do it. I know she's been giving her more and more responsibility. Makes me wonder about my own job security.Ã¢â¬ The bookstore gang greeted the newcomers with cheering. Kayla broke from her guides and, to my astonishment, ran over to me. Ã¢â¬Å"Georgina!Ã¢â¬ I scooped her up, and that dark, angry serpent within me settled down a little. Not only had Kayla sought me out, she'd also spoken-a rarity. I hugged her to me, and with her in my arms, it suddenly seemed as though all had to be right in the world. Ã¢â¬Å"You've got a fan, Kincaid,Ã¢â¬ laughed Doug. He winked at her. She gave him a shy smile in return and then turned back to me and rested her head on my shoulder. Ã¢â¬Å"She spoke,Ã¢â¬ said Maddie in wonder. Maddie knew I'd been friends with the Mortensens and thought nothing of me knowing the girls. Ã¢â¬Å"An entire soliloquy,Ã¢â¬ I laughed. Ã¢â¬Å"We're watching her while the others are at a school play,Ã¢â¬ explained Seth. Ã¢â¬Å"This party's unreal,Ã¢â¬ said Maddie, gazing around at all the fanfare. Ã¢â¬Å"Does anyone know why she dual-majored in Latvian?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Blow-off major?Ã¢â¬ suggested Beth. Ã¢â¬Å"Anthropology and Women's Studies are blow-off majors,Ã¢â¬ said Doug. Ã¢â¬Å"Not Latvian.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Hey!Ã¢â¬ said Maddie, elbowing her brother. She often wrote freelance articles for feminist magazines. Ã¢â¬Å"Hey, don't take it out on me. I'll never forget you taking that class called Evolution of the Dress.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"It was harder than you think!Ã¢â¬ The rest of us watched the Sato siblings with amusement, and to my dismay, so did Seth. I guess I'd kind of hoped he'd be shooting furtive, longing glances at me. Instead, he watched Maddie almostÃ¢â¬ ¦fondly. Like he found her smart and funny-which she was, of course. He was watching her the way any guy would watch his girlfriend. Ã¢â¬Å"Hey,Ã¢â¬ I said to Doug. Ã¢â¬Å"Why don't you stop annoying your sister and go get us a refill?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You're a bad role model for the kid,Ã¢â¬ he warned. But he took my cup anyway and headed for the bar. If anything, it seemed me holding Kayla gave Seth and Maddie a chance to be more affectionate. They held hands. So, I paid more attention to Kayla, snagging novel appetizers as they went by and explaining to her what quiche and brie were. Once Doug returned with my drink, I took it down pretty rapidly, still conscious of the fact that I held a child. When I'd finished my third, I knew enough to hand her off. Maddie took her by the hand and led her to look at a koi pond on the far side of the yard. This left me alone with the others, and whether it was alcohol or succubus charisma or just a desire to show up Maddie, I found myself coming to life. I joked and talked to everyone, making sure each person was included in the conversation. I saw them all light up, caught up in the aura of comfort and good cheer I created. Maybe I had ulterior motives, but despite that, I actually enjoyed myself. It had been awhile since I'd been able to just have a fun, effortless social encounter. When Maddie returned, however, I decided it was time for my fourth drink. I headed across the yard, graceful in spite of the alcohol. While waiting in line, the guy behind me struck up conversation. Ã¢â¬Å"I've seen you somewhere.Ã¢â¬ I glanced up at him. He was tall, late thirties, and had bronzed hair. I gave him a winning smile. Ã¢â¬Å"That's a very bad pick-up line.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"No, I'm serious.Ã¢â¬ He frowned. Ã¢â¬Å"In the paperÃ¢â¬ ¦were you in some sort of date auction?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Oh my God. You do recognize me.Ã¢â¬ Through Hugh's machinations, I'd participated in a charity date auction last December. I'd ended up going for an obscene amount of money and had made the paper. Ã¢â¬Å"If I remember, you did a lot for that charity.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What can I say? I love kids.Ã¢â¬ Our turns came, and we each got new drinks. Stepping off to the side, we continued our conversation. Ã¢â¬Å"I don't suppose,Ã¢â¬ he said, Ã¢â¬Å"that I'd have to pay that much for a date?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You're asking me out?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Seeing you in person? Yeah. I kind of understand the price now.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Wow, you don't waste time on formalities.Ã¢â¬ He shrugged. Ã¢â¬Å"I don't have time to. Too busy with work.Ã¢â¬ Ah. One of those guys. I didn't have Hugh's ability to see souls, but something told me I wouldn't get an enormous energy fix from this guy. Of course, just then, it didn't matter. I was drunk and distressed and a sleazy guy seemed just like what I needed right then, no matter how inappropriate the setting. In fact, the inappropriateness kind of added to it. Ã¢â¬Å"No, not that much. Though to tell you the truth, I'm kind of busy myself. I don't like to waste time on something that's going to fizzle out. I'm sort of a try-before-you-buy girl.Ã¢â¬ He studied me very carefully, face serious. Ã¢â¬Å"What exactly do you have in mind?Ã¢â¬ I inclined my head toward the house. Ã¢â¬Å"They must have a bathroom in there.Ã¢â¬ As expected, he didn't take much coaxing. The house was wide open to anyone who needed to get in there, and we passed wait staff moving in and out as we sought one of the house's many bathrooms. We finally ended up at a small one on the second floor that was adjacent to a guest room. It didn't look like it saw much use, and as soon as we shut the door, we were all over each other. He'd told me along the way that his name was Wes and that he had some sort of corporate position in a bank downtown. I'm not sure why he was trying to impress me, seeing as I'd made this painfully easy for him, but I appreciated the weak effort anyway. My biggest concern was his relationship to the family, but it turned out he was a friend of a friend of a business associate, so I had little worry about this getting back to Casey. My skirt came off almost immediately, followed by a rapid unbuttoning of my blouse that pulled off a button. It skittered across the floor, lost forever. He left the blouse itself on, simply hanging open, and ran his hands over my body, taking in the black lace bra and matching panties. Ã¢â¬Å"Good God,Ã¢â¬ he breathed. Ã¢â¬Å"You might be worth more than that auction price.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I'm not a call girl,Ã¢â¬ I snapped, irritated for some reason I couldn't entirely understand. Ã¢â¬Å"And make this fast. My friends are going to be waiting for me.Ã¢â¬ Wes seemed a little surprised that I wasn't fawning all over him, but he didn't argue. His pants and briefs came off next, and he grabbed a hold of my hips, tilting me so that I sat on the edge of the counter, with my body at an angle and my head and shoulders against the mirror. The counter and his height lined up perfectly, and a moment later, he was in me, neither rough nor gentle, just somewhere in the middle. It was a little boring, actually, like he couldn't quite make up his mind and take a stand. But as he gripped my ankles and held my legs up, the pace steadily increased, and I saw sweat break out along his brow. The life energy seeping into me was moderate, just like everything else about this tryst, but compared to Dante, it was fairly significant. That energy made up for the rest of it, and when he came with a primal sort of grunt, that burst of life coursed into me in its entirety. Like fine tendrils of light, it raced through my body, reinvigorating me and making me strong. He staggered back, and I hopped down off the counter to quickly put my clothes back on. Ã¢â¬Å"Wow,Ã¢â¬ he gasped. Ã¢â¬Å"That was-Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"Do not say worth the money,Ã¢â¬ I warned. Ã¢â¬Å"Particularly since you didn't pay.Ã¢â¬ He shut up, and I smiled. With a quick kiss on the cheek, I moved over to the door. Ã¢â¬Å"Thanks,Ã¢â¬ I said. Ã¢â¬Å"It was fun.Ã¢â¬ He fumbled for his underwear. Ã¢â¬Å"You want to go out sometime?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Nope.Ã¢â¬ I left him to get dressed, discreetly closing the door behind me and remembering to take my drink with me. No one was upstairs, so our encounter had gone unnoticed-or so I thought. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I nearly walked right into Seth. Ã¢â¬Å"Oh my God,Ã¢â¬ he said, giving me a once over. Ã¢â¬Å"You really did it?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Did what?Ã¢â¬ I asked in a saccharine voice. Ã¢â¬Å"You know what. You've got that-that glow. That, and you're missing a button.Ã¢â¬ I glanced down at the guilty gap in the blouse and shape-shifted it to its former state. Ã¢â¬Å"There. Good as new.Ã¢â¬ He shook his head, keeping his voice low so we wouldn't be overheard. Ã¢â¬Å"I didn't really believe you'd do it. I saw you walk off with him and thought, Ã¢â¬ËNo, she wouldn't. Not here.' So I came over and-Ã¢â¬Å" Ã¢â¬Å"You what? Came to stop me?Ã¢â¬ I couldn't help an incredulous laugh. Ã¢â¬Å"Seth, what I do or don't do is none of your business.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What about Dante? You just cheated on him.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I cheat on all my boyfriends. Did you forget? It's what I do.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You didn't need the energy fix. I could tell.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah, but I wanted the energy fix. What are you, jealous?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"What happened to you?Ã¢â¬ he demanded, evading my question. Ã¢â¬Å"How did you change so much? You're better than this.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I've always been like this. You were just too starstruck to notice.Ã¢â¬ I turned and left him, heading back out to our friends, making sure I neatened up my appearance in tiny increments as I walked. The alcohol was really kicking in at this point, but I was pretty sure I still managed to walk without looking obviously drunk. When I reached the group, Kayla gestured to be picked up again. I was a little hesitant, but she seemed so insistent that I handed my drink to Doug and lifted her into my arms again. Mercifully, I didn't fall over. She studied me with those big blue eyes, and I wondered what she sensed. Something about her gaze affected me in a way that Seth's chastising hadn't. I felt bad for what I'd done. Dirty. Cheap. Ã¢â¬Å"She sure does like you,Ã¢â¬ said Maddie. Ã¢â¬Å"And you're great with her too. You should have kids of your own.Ã¢â¬ I ran a hand over Kayla's fine hair, recalling the dreams Nyx had sent me while she'd stolen my energy. They'd all shown an impossible future, me with a daughter and husband. Ã¢â¬Å"Can't,Ã¢â¬ I said. Ã¢â¬Å"Doug would be lousy at child support.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Oh, be quiet,Ã¢â¬ he snapped back good-naturedly. I think he'd been drinking as much as me by now. Seth returned just then and touched Maddie's arm, his expression grim. Ã¢â¬Å"We should head off. Terry and the others will be back, and Kayla's probably getting tired.Ã¢â¬ Maddie's face fell a little. Ã¢â¬Å"Already?Ã¢â¬ It was the first time in their idyllic relationship that I'd ever seen signs of clouds. Ã¢â¬Å"We need to get her back,Ã¢â¬ Seth reiterated mildly. Ã¢â¬Å"And I've got a chapter to write.Ã¢â¬ She rolled her eyes. Ã¢â¬Å"Ah. Now the truth comes out.Ã¢â¬ Interesting. Maddie had to put up with the same stuff I had. Ã¢â¬Å"Stay,Ã¢â¬ Doug told her. Ã¢â¬Å"I'll give you a ride.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah, like I'd trust you behind a wheel right now.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Then you drive me and Kincaid home, and Mortensen can go now.Ã¢â¬ They all finally decided that was a good idea. As Seth and Kayla were about to go, Maddie suddenly did a double-take. Ã¢â¬Å"Oh! Wait. You have to give Georgina her present.Ã¢â¬ I blinked. Ã¢â¬Å"Present?Ã¢â¬ Seth's face turned almost- almost -mischievous, though he was still clearly bothered by what had taken place in the house. Ã¢â¬Å"Uh, yeah. I just got a box of advanced copies of the next Cady and O'Neill book and wondered if you wanted one.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"IÃ¢â¬ ¦Ã¢â¬ I stopped, unsure what to say. Maddie laughed. Ã¢â¬Å"You've been the belle of the ball all night, and this is what makes you speechless?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Hey, it's not that easy. I meanÃ¢â¬ ¦this is Cady and O'Neill. You know how I feel about them. I've sort of accepted that I wouldn't get to read their next installment until October. If I get it now, my whole universe will be thrown out of whack.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"So you don't want it?Ã¢â¬ asked Seth. Ã¢â¬Å"Oh, I want it. Just seemsÃ¢â¬ ¦I don't know. It feels like cheating.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"They're in the car right now,Ã¢â¬ teased Maddie in a singsong voice. Ã¢â¬Å"Sure you don't want one?Ã¢â¬ I looked at Seth's smile, and something weird passed between us. I could hardly believe that minutes ago, we'd been fighting in the house. The looks we exchanged, the way I feltÃ¢â¬ ¦it was almost like it used to be. I hastily turned away. Ã¢â¬Å"Yes,Ã¢â¬ I groaned. Ã¢â¬Å"Of course I do.Ã¢â¬ Seth said good-bye to the rest of the bookstore gang and tried to find Casey, but she was surrounded by a throng of relatives. Giving up, he led me out of the yard to where he'd parked a block or so away. Kayla was still in my arms. None of us spoke, and it was just as well because my feelings were all tangled up. Every post-breakup interaction between us had been angry or painfully tense lately. Yet, in these last few moments, things had become almost comfortable again. Was it possible we'd ever move past this phase? Could the pain I'd gone through with him really ease up so quickly? He unlocked the car and got the book for me. I hoped I didn't gape like a schoolgirl when I saw it. All Fools Night . The cover showed the skyline of Washington, DC, blurred like a Renoir painting and overlaid with dark indigo. All sorts of warnings about it being an advanced copy and not for sale were on it, but I paid those no heed. I didn't want to sell it. I wanted to read it. Now. When I dragged my eyes up from the cover, Seth regarded me with happy amusement. Ã¢â¬Å"I can't believe you're really that excited.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Why wouldn't I be? And why are you surprised? Lots of people love your books.Ã¢â¬ He shook his head. Ã¢â¬Å"YeahÃ¢â¬ ¦but it's still surreal to think that I can write something-create something-that affects people so strongly that they get an emotional involvement with what I've pulled from my head. And to realize that someone I know personallyÃ¢â¬ ¦knowing it affects you like thatÃ¢â¬ ¦well, like I said, surreal.Ã¢â¬ The sweet, earnest look in his eyes was making butterflies dance in my stomach, so I hastily looked back at the cover. I almost wished we'd start fighting again. Ã¢â¬Å"SethÃ¢â¬ ¦whyÃ¢â¬ ¦why are you doing this?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Giving you the book?Ã¢â¬ He was puzzled. Ã¢â¬Å"No, I meanÃ¢â¬ ¦being nice. And worrying about me back there.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You don't think I'm normally nice?Ã¢â¬ I looked back up and sighed. Ã¢â¬Å"You know what I mean. We've been avoiding each other since New Year's, and when we have been together, it's been disastrous. Yet, here you are bringing me thisÃ¢â¬ ¦I just don't understand it. Was it Maddie's idea?Ã¢â¬ He stared at me for a long time, or at least it felt like it. A chill ran down my spine, and for a second, I felt disoriented, like I was in this time and another, reliving the same moment over again. Ã¢â¬Å"No. I did it because hate shouldn't last forever,Ã¢â¬ he said finally, voice soft. Ã¢â¬Å"Because eventually, you have to forgive. You can't just stop caring orÃ¢â¬ ¦Ã¢â¬ He didn't finish the phrase. Ã¢â¬Å"I think we'll always have a connection, no matter where we go or what we do. And if so, I'd like us to be friends.Ã¢â¬ For the second time that night, I was speechless. There were a hundred things that would have made good responses. Telling him I agreed. Telling him I forgave him. Telling him I wanted us to be friends too. Yet, I couldn't muster those words, and I never had a chance to ponder exactly why because Kayla suddenly jerked in my arms, coming awake with wide-eyed alacrity. Ã¢â¬Å"Hey,Ã¢â¬ a voice called to us. We turned. Dante was about half a block away and walking toward us. With each step, Kayla recoiled further and further from his approach. Dante's lifetime of power-seeking and wicked deeds had left a taint on him, one that Kayla could sense the way she could sense my aura. I didn't entirely know what it felt like for her, but it couldn't be good. Ã¢â¬Å"Here,Ã¢â¬ I said to Seth. Ã¢â¬Å"Trade me.Ã¢â¬ Kayla went to him eagerly, and he handed over the book just as Dante reached us. He put an arm around me and kissed my cheek. Ã¢â¬Å"Got your message and thought I'd come by. Hey,Ã¢â¬ he said, by way of greeting to Seth. Seth nodded back, and whatever fragile companionship he and I had been rebuilding disappeared. Eager to distract, I employed the conversational gift I allegedly had. Ã¢â¬Å"Seth was leaving and just had to get this book for me.Ã¢â¬ I held it up as explanation. Ã¢â¬Å"How was work?Ã¢â¬ Dante kept his arm around me in a way that was almost proprietary. He'd always regarded my past with Seth nonchalantly, but I think me being so deeply involved with someone bothered him sometimes. His eyes lighted on Kayla for a moment. She was trying so hard to keep away from him that she was practically crawling off Seth. Mortal magic and abilities varied considerably, but I imagined Dante must be able to sense her too. A ghost of a smile crossed his lips, and then he turned his attention back to me. Ã¢â¬Å"Slow, as usual. I did get a couple of high teens wanting Tarot.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Oh, lord. Your favorite kind of teens.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Yup. Never questioned the price. I don't even know if they comprehended the fortune, to be honest.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"You didn't tell them about tree frogs, did you?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Tree frogs?Ã¢â¬ asked Seth. Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah, Dante had these kids on acid come in once, and as part of their reading, he told them to beware of tree frogs.Ã¢â¬ Grinning, Dante shook his head at the memory. Ã¢â¬Å"Shit, that freaked them out. You should have seen them when they left the store. They were practically crouching on the ground, looking up everywhere, peering at every window and telephone wire. That would have almost been compensation enough.Ã¢â¬ The image always made me laugh. Ã¢â¬Å"But not this time?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Nah, this group was just sluggish and out of it. On the bright side, they paid me ten dollars for a bag of Doritos I had sitting around. Gotta love kids spending their allowance.Ã¢â¬ Dante and I were both amused by his clients' antics, but glancing over, I saw that Seth was not. Something cold clenched inside me, and I could suddenly see us through his eyes. He didn't really find taking advantage of teens under the influence of drugs funny, whether it was monetarily or psychologically. When I'd first met Dante, I'd actually been appalled by the charlatan side of his business. When had I come to accept it? When had I come to enjoy it? I felt ashamed all of a sudden and hated what Seth must think of me. Then, I became angry for feeling that way, for letting myself feel judged. He had no power over me anymore. It didn't matter what he thought. The last of the coziness between us shattered, and I felt my icy exterior slip into place. I moved closer to Dante, and Seth's body language told me he'd seen the transformation I'd just undergone. Ã¢â¬Å"Well, you guys probably need to go,Ã¢â¬ I said abruptly. Ã¢â¬Å"Yeah,Ã¢â¬ Seth said uncomfortably. Ã¢â¬Å"I guess we'll see you later.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Thanks for the book.Ã¢â¬ He merely nodded and then turned to put Kayla into her car seat. Her eyes met mine and I waved a good-bye, but the look of horror on her face never faltered. I knew it was for Dante, not me, but it hurt nonetheless. Dante wanted to head home and had mostly come to give me a ride. By that point, I felt weary and emotionally disoriented. Home sounded good. We went back inside to drop off my glass and tell Doug I was leaving. Doug looked about as thrilled to see Dante as Seth had, but he said nothing that wasn't in his usual jovial style. On the drive home, I stared vacantly out the window and ran my hands over the book's cover. Ã¢â¬Å"You were kind of chummy back there,Ã¢â¬ noted Dante. Ã¢â¬Å"Huh?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"With Mortensen. I felt like I was interrupting something.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Oh. No. I just got kind of giddy over the book. You know how much I like them.Ã¢â¬ We came to a red light, and he glanced down at the cover. Ã¢â¬Å"Advanced copy? We could make a lot of money on eBay.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Dante!Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Just a joke, succubus. Well, kind of. If you ever wanted to work your wiles on him and get more books, you could start a little side business.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I don't need any extra cash. And my wiles are no good. Things are done. He and Maddie are happy.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"That doesn't mean anything. You don't think he still wants you? You don't think he'd sleep with you if he could?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Why do you assume the worst about everyone?Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"Because it's always true. I'm trying to break you of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.Ã¢â¬ He paused while we merged onto the freeway and headed back toward the city. Ã¢â¬Å"And he can want you all he wants. I don't care, as long as you don't want him back.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"There you go again, acting jealous.Ã¢â¬ I tried to keep my voice teasing in order to deflect how close he'd hit to home. Ã¢â¬Å"I thought you didn't care who else I slept with.Ã¢â¬ Ã¢â¬Å"I don't. Just so long as you don't like them better than me.Ã¢â¬ I laughed and left that as my response, indicating how foolish a notion I thought it was. And yet, as we rode back in silence, I found myself hugging the book closer and closer.