I worked until closing that night and didn't get home until around ten. To my surprise, I found Roman on the couch eating a bowl of cereal while the cats competed for who could take up the most attention on his lap. Honestly, they seemed to love him more than me lately. It was a betrayal of Caesarean proportions.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, sitting on the armchair opposite him. I noticed then that the last of the party untidiness had been cleaned. Somehow, I suspected mentioning that would result in him never cleaning again. "I figured you'd be out chasing Jerome's succubus."
Roman stifled a yawn and set the empty bowl on the coffee table. Immediately, both cats sprang off his lap to get to the residual milk. "I'm on break. Been following her all day, though."
"And?" My natural curiosity aside, I was uneasy about the idea of Jerome's authority being called into question. The arch-demon might annoy me sometimes, but I had no desire for a new boss. We'd come dangerously close to a leadership change when he'd been summoned, and I hadn't been impressed with any of the candidates.
"And it was incredibly boring. You're much more fun to stalk. She went shopping for most of the day. I didn't even know stores would let you take that much shit into dressing rooms. Then, she picked up a guy at a bar, and, well, you can figure out the rest."
I rather liked the idea of Roman suffering while Simone had sex. "Figured your voyeuristic tendencies would be into that kind of pornographic display."
He made a face. "It wasn't good porn. It was like the nasty, kinky porn they keep in the back of the store. The kind of stuff that only really sick people go after."
"So no clandestine meetings to report to Jerome?"
"Makes sense, I guess." I stretched out and put my feet out on the table. With Doug incapacitated, I'd spent a rare day on registers, standing more than I usually did anymore. Unless I was mistaken, Roman's eyes lingered on my legs before returning to my face. "If she didn't see any immortal action today, she'd have nothing to tell on."
"Not until tonight, at least."
"How scattered are you? Peter and Cody are having one of their things tonight."
"Oh, man. I forgot." Peter loved to throw dinners and get-togethers and seemed unconcerned that I'd just had a major party of my own. As a nocturnal creature, his soirees always took place late at night. "And Simone's going?"
"Yup. Mei's with her now, and I'll relieve her at Peter's."
"So you'll be there in spirit, if not in person."
"Something like that." He smiled at my joke, and for the first time since he'd returned to town, I saw a genuinely amused sparkle in those teal eyes. It reminded me a bit of the witty, gallant guy I used to date. It also occurred to me that this was a rare non-antagonistic conversation for us. It was almost...normal. Misunderstanding my silence, he gave me a wary look. "You aren't thinking of wussing out, are you? Your day couldn't have been that hard."
I actually had been thinking of wussing out. After yesterday's drama and now my regret over yielding to Maddie, I wasn't sure I was up for my immortal friends' zany hijinks.
"Come on," Roman said. "Simone is so boring. And I don't even mean her activities. She's just bland. If you're not there to entertain me, I don't know what I'll do."
"Are you saying the rest of my friends aren't entertaining?"
"They pale in comparison."
I finally agreed to go. Although, it wouldn't have surprised me if his interest in me making an appearance was just to bum a ride. Nonetheless, I was in a good mood as I headed over to Capitol Hill. It was a little weird having Roman with me and not with me. To continue his spying, he'd gone invisible and without signature. It was like having a ghost in my car.
As usual, I was one of the last to arrive. The Three Amigos - Peter, Cody, and Hugh - were there, dressed in their usual attire now, rather than historically accurate costumes. That meant a perfectly coordinated sweater vest and slacks for Peter, jeans and a T-shirt for Cody, and business casual for Hugh. I held the door open a little longer than usual, to facilitate Roman sweeping in after me. From there, I took it on faith that he was hanging out. As soon as he let us in, Peter scurried back to his kitchen without a word.
Simone was there too. She sat on the loveseat, long legs perfectly crossed and hands resting on her knees. Her body was slim with respectably sized breasts, clad in a black skirt and silvery silk blouse. Her hair was - unsurprisingly - long and blond. Most succubi seemed to think blond was a sure-fire way to get guys in bed. I considered that attitude a sign of inexperience. I'd been a brunette - albeit one with gold highlights - for a while and never had trouble scoring action.
Hugh sat next to her, wearing the flirtatious face that was standard for him when it came to wooing women into bed. Simone regarded him with a polite smile, one she turned on me when I entered. She stood up and held out her hand. Her immortal signature smelled like violets and put me in mind of moonlight and cello music.
"You must be Georgina," she said. "Nice to meet you."
She kept that same polite expression, and I could tell it wasn't faked. It also wasn't mischievous or overly charming. Likewise, she bore none of the open hostility succubi had around each other, or even the sugar-coated passive aggressiveness that was also common among us. She was just averagely nice. She was...bland.
"You too," I said. I turned to Cody as I tried to identify the scents coming from the kitchen. "What's for dinner?"
I waited for the joke, but none came. "That's not Peter's usual style." He was a great cook but tended to stray toward filet mignon or scallops.
Cody nodded. "He was watching a documentary on the British Isles earlier, and it inspired him."
"Well, I've got nothing against it," I said, sitting on the arm of the couch. "I guess we should just be grateful he didn't decide to make blood pudding."
"In Australia, they have a variant of shepherd's pie that has potatoes on the top and the bottom," Simone said out of nowhere. "They call it potato pie."
Several seconds of silence followed. Her comment wasn't entirely off-topic, but it was just odd - particularly since she didn't deliver it in a smug, know-it-all voice that you found among people who always won at Trivial Pursuit. It was just a statement of fact. It also wasn't very interesting.
"Huh," I said at last, voice deadpan. "Good to know the name's accurate. It'll avoid any embarrassing confusion that might occur at dinner. God only knows how many wacky mishaps have happened when people ordered sweetmeats."
Cody choked a little on his beer, but Hugh gave Simone a high-beam smile. "That's fascinating. Are you a cook?"
"No," she said. Nothing more.
Peter popped back in just then with a vodka gimlet for me. After last night's showdown with Doug, I'd vowed to lay off for a while - like, a few days. I suddenly decided I might need a drink after all.
Peter glanced around with a small frown. "This is it? I'd kind of hoped Jerome might come." Our boss used to hang out with us quite a bit but had been avoiding social events since his summoning.
"I think he's got some business to take care of," I said. I honestly had no clue, but I kind of hoped my vague allusion would trigger a reaction in Simone. It didn't.
Peter put on a good spread as always, his kitchen table immaculately set, along with cabernet sauvignon to complement the shepherd's pie. I noted that Guinness might be a better pairing, but he ignored me.
"Where are you from?" I asked Simone. "You're here on vacation, right?"
She nodded, delicately lifting her fork. She'd cut her pie into perfect one-inch-sized cubes. It was enough to rival Peter's obsessive compulsion. "I'm from Charleston," she said. "I'll probably stay for a week. Maybe two if my archdemon will let me. Seattle's nice."
"I've heard Charleston's nice too," said Hugh. He apparently hadn't given up on getting laid tonight.
"It was founded in 1670," she said by way of answer.
That weird silence followed again. "Were you there at the time?" I asked.
We ate without further conversation. At least, we did until dessert arrived and Cody turned his attention to me. "So, are you going to help me or not?"
I'd been pondering how Simone ever managed to score guys and if her use of adjectives expanded beyond "nice." Cody's question blindsided me. "What?"
"With Gabrielle. Remember? Last night?" Right. Bookstore Gabrielle who was only into Goth and vampire guys.
"I didn't promise you I would, did I?" I asked uneasily. There were too many memory gaps from that party.
"No, but if you were a friend, you would. Besides, aren't you some kind of love expert?"
"And if memory serves," said Hugh, "she's not even really good at that."
I shot him a glare.
"You have to give me something," said Cody. "I need to see her again...need something to talk to her about..."
I'd thought his infatuation with Gabrielle had been alcohol induced last night - seriously, was there anything alcohol couldn't be blamed for? - but that look of puppy dog love was still in his eyes. I'd known Cody a few years and had never seen this kind of reaction from him. I'd never seen it from Peter either, but my friends and I had secretly decided long ago that he was just asexual. If vampires had been capable of reproduction, he would have done it amoeba-style.
I racked my brain. "I saw her reading The Seattle Sinner the other day on her break."
"What's that?" Cody asked.
"It's our local industrial-Goth-fetish-horror-S&M-angst underground newspaper," said Peter.
We all turned and stared at him.
"So I've heard," he added hastily.
I glanced back at Cody with a shrug. "It's a start. We've got it in the store."
"Are you guys done with the boring love stuff?" a voice suddenly asked. "It's time to get onto the real action."
The new voice made me jump, and then I felt the familiar crystalline aura signaling an angel's presence. Carter materialized in the one empty chair at the table - Peter had set for six, hoping Jerome would show. Seattle's worst dressed angel sat back in the chair, arms crossed over his chest and expression typically sardonic. His jeans and flannel shirt looked like they'd gone through a wood chipper, but the cashmere knit hat resting on his shoulder-length blond hair was pristine. It had been a gift from me, and I couldn't help a smile. Carter's gray eyes glinted with amusement when he noticed me.
Hanging out with an angel might be weird in some hellish circles, but it had become pretty standard in our group. We were used to Carter's comings and goings, as well as his cryptic - and often infuriating - remarks. He was the closest Jerome had to a best friend and always had a particular interest in me and my love life. He'd let up a little since the recent debacle with Seth.
Carter might be commonplace to us - but not to Simone. Her blue eyes went wide when he appeared, her face completely transforming. She leaned over the table, and unless I was mistaken, her neckline had gotten a little lower since my arrival. She shook Carter's hand.
"I don't think we've met," she said. "I'm Simone."
"Carter," he replied, eyes still amused.
"Simone's visiting from Charleston," I said. "It was founded in 1670."
Carter's smile twitched a little. "So I've heard."
"You should visit," she said. "I'd love to show you around. It's very nice."
I exchanged astonished looks with Peter, Cody, and Hugh. Simone's bland demeanor hadn't lit up exactly, but she'd suddenly become 2 percent more interesting. She wasn't infatuated with Carter the way Cody was with Gabrielle. She was just trying to bag an angel. Good luck with that, I thought. That was ballsy for any succubus. Certainly angels fell because of love and sex - Jerome was living proof - and I'd even witnessed it once. But Carter? If ever there was a staunchly resistant being, it was him. Except when it came to chain-smoking and hard liquor, of course. Yes, things with Simone had definitely gotten more interesting.
"Sure," said Carter. "I bet you could show me all sorts of places off the beaten path."
"Absolutely," she replied. "You know, there's an inn there that George Washington had dinner at once."
I rolled my eyes. I doubted there was any part of Charleston she could show Carter that he didn't know about. Carter had been around to watch cities like Babylon and Troy rise and fall. For all I knew, he'd personally helped take down Sodom and Gomorrah.
"So what kind of action did you have in mind?" I asked Carter. As entertaining as Simone's pathetic flirtation might be, I wasn't sure I was up to American History 101 tonight. "I am not playing 'Have You Ever' again."
"Better," he said. Out of nowhere, Carter produced Pictionary. And when I say out of nowhere, I meant it.
"No," said Hugh. "I spent years perfecting my illegible doctor's signature. I've totally lost any artistic aptitude whatsoever."
"I love Pictionary," said Simone.
"I think I have some things to do," I added. I felt a shove on my shoulder and glanced around in surprise, seeing nothing. Then, I knew. Roman apparently still wanted me to entertain him. I sighed. "But I can stay for a little while."
"Great. That settles it," said Carter. He turned to Peter. "You got an easel?"
Of course Peter did. Why, I had no clue, but after he'd bought a Roomba and a Betamax player, I'd learned not to ask questions. We split into teams: me, Cody, and Hugh against the others.
I went first. The card I drew was "Watergate." "Oh, come on," I said. "This is ridiculous."
"Don't whine," said Carter, his grin annoyingly smug. "We all take a random chance here."
They started the timer. I drew some remedial waves that immediately got a "Water!" from Cody. That was promising. Then, I drew what I hoped looked like a wall with a door in it. Apparently, I did too good a job.
"Wall," said Hugh.
"Door," said Cody.
I added some vertical lines to the door to emphasize the gate aspect. After a moment's thought, I drew a plus sign between the water and wall to show their connection.
"Aqueduct," said Cody.
"A bridge over troubled water," guessed Hugh.
"Oh my God," I groaned.
Unsurprisingly, my time ran out before my teammates could figure it out, though not before they guessed "Hoover Dam" and "Hans Brinker." With a groan, I flounced onto the couch. The other team then got a shot at it.
"Watergate," said Carter right away.
Hugh turned on me, face incredulous. "Why didn't you just draw a gate?"
Simone went after me, and I hoped she'd get "Cuban Missile Crisis" or "Bohr's Law." The timer started, and she drew a circle with lines radiating out from it.
"Sun," said Peter immediately.
"Right!" she said.
I glared at Carter. "You. Are. Cheating."
"And you're a bad loser," he replied.
We played for another hour, but after my team got "Oncology," "The Devil and Daniel Webster," and "War of 1812," and theirs got "Heart," "Flower," and "Smile," I decided to go home. At the door, I heard a wistful sigh in my ear.
"You're on your own," I growled to Roman in an undertone.
I left amid protests about being a bad sport and considered myself lucky when Carter said they were going to play Jenga next.
The drive back to West Seattle was quiet this time of night, and after parking underneath my building, I was happy to see that today's unseasonable heat still hung in the air. Being so close to the water had cooled it slightly, bringing it to a perfect nighttime temperature. On impulse, I walked across the street to the beach, which was actually more like a park: grassy with only a few feet of sand. In Seattle, there were few places that offered much more.
Still, I loved the water and the soft sounds of waves against the shore. A light breeze stirred my hair, and those costly glittering lights shone in the distance. I'd moved here partially to get away from Queen Anne and its regular proximity to Seth, but also because the ocean always brought back memories of my mortal youth. Puget Sound was a far cry from the warm Mediterranean waters I'd grown up near, but it soothed something within me nonetheless. That comfort was bittersweet, of course, but it was an unfortunate tendency of mortals and immortals alike to gravitate toward things we knew would cause us pain.
The water was enchanting, glittering in both moonlight and street light. I stared off at a lit ferry moving toward Bain-bridge Island, then returned my gaze to the lapping waves before me. They seemed to be choreographed into a dance, an alluring pattern that urged me to join in. I might not be able to draw, but dancing was an art I'd carried from my mortal days. The water beckoned, and I could almost hear the music it danced to. It was intoxicating, filled with warmth and love that promised to ease that constant dull ache in my chest, the ache I'd carried since losing Seth....
It wasn't until I was calf-deep in water that I realized what I had done. My high heels were sinking into the sand, and warm day or no, the water was still at a low temperature, its icy touch seeping into my skin. The world, which had before seemed dreamy and hazy, now snapped into sharp relief, no longer an inviting dance that promised comfort and pleasure.
Fear sent my heart racing, and I hastily backed up, something that wasn't easy as the sand wrapped around my heels. I finally stepped out of them and reached down, pulling them up from the water and walking back to the shore barefoot. I stared out at the sound a few moments more, startled at how much it now scared me. How far would I have walked in? I didn't know and didn't want to think about it too hard.
I turned and hastily headed toward my condo, oblivious to the rough asphalt against my feet. It wasn't until I was safely back in my living room - having locked the door behind me - that I felt some measure of safety. Aubrey walked up to me, sniffing my ankles and then licking the salty water that still clung to them.
I'd had one drink almost two hours ago, a drink that had long metabolized out of my system. This had been no buzzed delusion - neither had last night's sleepwalking or near-balcony jump. I sat on my couch, arms wrapped around me. Everything around me seemed a threat.
"Roman?" I asked aloud. "Are you here?"
My only answer was silence. He was still out with Simone and probably wouldn't be back the rest of the night. I was astonished at how suddenly and desperately I wished he were here. My condo seemed lonely and ominous.
Water had splashed against my dress, and I changed out of it, swapping it for the soft comfort of pajamas. I decided then that I wouldn't sleep. I'd wait in the living room for Roman. I needed to tell him what had happened. I needed him to guard my sleep.
Yet, somewhere around four, my own fatigue overcame me. I stretched out along the couch, both cats curled against me, and gradually lost track of the infomercial on TV. When I woke, it was late morning, and sunlight warmed my skin. Roman was still gone. I hadn't been able to wait him out, but I was still on the couch. For now, that was the best I could hope for.
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