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Succubus Blues CHAPTER 12

“Man, if Jerome had threatened to stash me somewhere, I wouldn’t be out snooping around.”

“I’m not snooping.I’m just speculating.”

Peter shook his head and took the cap off a beer.I sat with him and Cody in their kitchen, the day after Hugh’s attack.

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A ham and pineapple pizza had just arrived, and Cody and I dug into it while the other vampire merely watched.

“Why can’t you just accept this for what it is? Jerome’s telling the truth. It’s a vampire hunter.”

“No. No way. None of this adds up. Not the goofy way Jerome and Carter are acting. Not Hugh’s attack. Not that fucked-up note I got.”

“I figured you get screwy love notes all the time. ‘My heart bleeds for you, Georgina.’ Written in actual blood. Stuff like that.”

“Yeah, nothing like self-mutilation to turn a girl on,” I muttered. I gulped some Mountain Dew and returned to my pizza. Really, as far as caffeine and sugar went, Mountain Dew was nearly as good as one of my mochas. “Hey, why aren’t you eating any of this?”

Peter held up his beer bottle by way of explanation. “I’m dieting.”

I peered at it. Golden Village Low- Carb Ale.

I froze, mid-bite. Low- carb?

“Peter… you’re a vampire. Aren’t you by definition always on a low- carbdiet?”

“It’s no use,” Cody chuckled, speaking up for the first time. “I’ve already had this argument with him. He won’t listen.”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Peter eyed our pizza wistfully. “You can make your body look like anything you want.”

“Yeah, but…” I looked to Cody. “Can he really even put on weight? Aren’t immortal bodies, I don’t know, unchangeable? Or timeless? Or something?”

“You’d know more about it than me,” he said.

“We eat other things.” Peter rubbed his stomach selfconsciously. “Not just blood. It all adds up.”

This had to be weirdest thing I’d heard since Duane’s death. “Stop it, Peter. You’re being ridiculous. Next thing, you’ll be down at Hugh’s asking for liposuction.”

He brightened. “Do you think that would help?”

“No! You look fine. You look the same as you always have.”

“I don’t know. Cody’s been getting all the attention whenever we go out. Maybe I should get more blond put into the spikes.”

I refrained from pointing out that Peter had been almost forty when he’d become a vampire, his hair heavily receding. Cody had been very young – barely twenty – and bore tawny, leonine good looks. Immortals who were formerly human stayed fixed at the age and appearance immortality had taken over. If the two vampires still frequented clubs and college bars, I didn’t doubt Cody had more luck.

“We’re wasting time,” I exclaimed, wanting to derail Peter from this whole image thing. “I want to figure out who attacked Hugh.”

“Christ, you have a one-track mind,” he snapped. “Why can’t you just wait to find out?”

Good question. I didn’t know why. Something inside me was tugging to get to the truth of this, to do what I could to protect my friends and myself. I just couldn’t stand passively by.

“It couldn’t have been a mortal. Not from the way Hugh described the attack.”

“Yeah, but no immortal could have killed Duane. I already told you that.”

“No lesser immortal,” I pointed out. “But a higher immortal…”

Peter laughed. “Oh-ho, you are pushing the envelope now. You think there’s some vindictive demon out there?”

“They’d certainly be capable.”

“Yeah, but they have no motivation.”

“Not nece – “

A funny sensation suddenly spread over me, tingly and gentle and silvery. I was put in mind of the fragrance of lilacs, the tinkling of small bells. I looked sharply at the others.

“What the – ” began Cody, but Peter was already moving toward the door. The signature we all felt was similar to Carter’s in certain ways but lighter and sweeter. Less powerful.

A guardian angel.

Peter opened the door, and Lucinda stood there primly, her arms clasped tightly around a book.

I nearly choked. It would figure. As a general rule, I didn’t interact with many angels in the area, Carter being the exception because of his relationship with Jerome. Still, I knew who the locals were, and I knew Lucinda. She wasn’t a true angel like Carter. Guardians were more like the heavenly equivalent of Hugh: former mortals who served and ran errands for all eternity.

I had no doubt Lucinda performed all sorts of good deeds on a daily basis. She probably worked in soup kitchens and read to orphans in her free time. Whenever she was around us, however, she became a prissy little bitch. Peter shared my sentiment.

“Yes?” he asked coolly.

“Hello, Peter. Your hair is very… interesting today,” she observed diplomatically, not moving from the doorway. “May I come in?”

Peter scowled at the hair comment but had too many good hosting instincts drilled into him to not wave her inside. He might tease me about mortal hobbies, but the vampire had a meticulous sense of propriety and etiquette bordering on obsessive-compulsive disorder.

She swept inside, proper in an ankle-length plaid skirt and high-necked sweater. Her short blond hair curled under in a perfect bob.

I was a different story. Between my plunging neckline, ultratight jeans, and fuck-me heels, I felt like I might as well lie down on the floor and spread my legs. The demure look she gave me clearly implied she was thinking the same thing.

“Charming to see you all again.” Her tone was crisp, formal. “I’m here to deliver something from Mr. Carter.”

“Mr. Carter?” asked Cody. “Is that his last name? I always thought it was his first.”

“I think he just has one name,” I speculated. “Like Cher or Madonna.”

Lucinda said nothing to our bandying. Instead, she handed me a book. Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex.

“What the hell is that?” exclaimed Peter. “I think I saw it on some talk show.”

I suddenly remembered walking out with Carter in the hospital and how he’d claimed to own a book that would help me with Seth. I tossed it on the counter disinterestedly.

“Carter’s fucked-up sense of humor in action.”

Lucinda flushed deep crimson. “How can you use such language so carelessly? You sound like you’re… like you’re in a locker room!”

I smoothed down my tank top.

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“No way. I’d never wear this in a locker room.”

“Yeah, it isn’t even in school colors,” said Peter.

I couldn’t resist toying with the guardian. “If I were in a locker room, I’d probably have on a short cheerleader skirt. And no underwear.”

Peter continued playing off me. “And you’d do that one cheer, right? The one with your hands splayed against the shower wall and ass sticking out?”

“That’s me,” I agreed. “Always ready to take one for the team.”

Even Cody flushed at our crassness. Lucinda was practically purple.

“You – you two have no sense of decency! None at all.”

“Oh whatever,” I told her. “Back at the country club, or wherever you and the rest of the choir hang out, you probably wear a shorter version of that skirt all the time. With knee socks. I bet the other angels really go for the schoolgirl look.”

If Lucinda were any one of my friends, a comment like that would have only escalated into more sarcasm and snide remarks. The guardian, however, merely stiffened and chose to rely on deadpan self-righteousness.

“We,” she declared, “do not carry on in such an unseemly manner with each other. We act with decorum. We treat each other with respect. We do not turn on each other.”

This last one came with a brief eye-glance toward me.

“What was that for?”

She tossed her hair, what little of it there was. “Oh, I think you know. We’ve all been hearing about your little vigilante act. First that vampire, then the imp. Nothing about you people surprises me anymore.”

Now my face flushed. “That’s bullshit! I was cleared of Duane a long time ago. And Hugh… that’s just stupid. He’s my friend.”

“What does friendship mean among your kind? He’s just as bad. From what I heard, he received a great deal of amusement telling anyone who would listen about your little whip and wings getup. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t mind my observation, I think that has to be the most degrading thing I’ve ever heard. Even for a succubus.” She arched a glance toward the book I had tossed to the counter. “I’ll tell Mr. Carter you, uh, received the book.”

With that, she turned neatly and left, closing the door behind her.

“Sanctimonious bitch,” I muttered. “And how many people know about that demon girl thing anyway?”

“Forget her,” said Peter. “She’s a nobody. And an angel. There’s no telling what they’ll do.”

I scowled. And then, it hit me. I couldn’t believe I’d never thought of it before. Maybe Lucinda needed more credit.

“That’s it!”

“What’s it?” mumbled Cody through a mouthful of nearly cold pizza.

“An angel killed Duane and attacked Hugh! It’s perfect. You were right in saying a demon would have no reason to take our side out. But an angel? Why not? I mean a real one, not a guardian like Lucinda.”

Peter shook his head. “An angel could do something like that, but it’d be too petty. The great cosmic good-versus-evil battle is bigger than one-on-one matches. You know that. Taking out one agent of evil at a time would be a waste of resources.”

Cody considered. “What if it was a renegade angel? Someone not following the rules of the game.”

Peter and I both turned to the younger vampire in surprise. He’d been more or less avoiding our speculation this evening.

“There’s no such thing,” his mentor countered back. “Is there, Georgina?”

I felt both vampires’ eyes turn to me, waiting for my opinion. “Jerome says there are no bad angels. Once they’re bad, they become demons, not angels anymore.”

“Well, that kills your theory then. An angel doing something bad would fall and not be an angel anymore. Then Jerome would know about him.”

I frowned, still intrigued by Cody’s use of the word “renegade” over “fallen.” “Maybe angel sin is like human sin… it’s not always ‘bad’ if the person thinks they’re doing ‘good.’ This one hasn’t gone over yet.”

We all pondered this a moment. Humans continually labor under the delusion that there really is a precise set of rules on what sin is and is not, rules that one might break without even realizing it. In reality, most people know when they do wrong. They feel it. Sin is more of a subjective matter than an objective one. Back in the days of the Puritans, corrupting souls had been no problem for a succubus since almost anything sexual and pleasurable felt wrong to those men. Nowadays, most people don’t regard premarital sex as wrong, hence no sin is committed. Succubi have been forced to become more creative over the years if they want to get an energy fix and corrupt a soul.

Still, by that logic, it was possible that a renegade angel who believed he or she was doing good might not cross into the realm of sin. If there was no sin, then there could be no fall. Or could there be? The whole concept strained the mind, and Peter apparently thought so too.

“So what’s the difference? What makes an angel fall? We’re staking a lot here on a technicality.”

I could have concurred until I recalled something else. “The note.”

“Note?” asked Cody.

“The note that was on my door. It said I was beautiful enough to tempt angels into falling.”

“Well, you do look pretty good.” When I raised an eyebrow, Peter said grudgingly, “Okay, that is kind of suspicious… but it’s almost too suspicious. Why would someone overtly leave a calling card?”

Cody nearly jumped out of his seat. “It’s some kind of psycho angel who likes playing mind games. Like in those movies where killers carve clues into their victims, so they can watch the police puzzle things out.”

I shuddered at that image as I thought over what I knew about angels in general, which really was nothing. Unlike our side, the powers of good did not have the same cryptic hierarchy of supervisors and geographical networks, no matter the stories about cherubim and seraphim. After all, we were the ones who had invented middle management, not them. I always had the impression that most angels and denizens of good operated like private investigators or field agents, completing assorted angelic missions in a very loosely organized way. Such an open venue would provide ample chance for someone to surreptitiously tackle a side agenda.

Angelic involvement would also explain the subterfuge, I reflected. Their side was embarrassed. Typical, really. Little embarrassed our side anymore. They, however, would be shamefaced to admit one of theirs had turned rogue, and Carter, being so chummy with Jerome, had conned the demon into keeping quiet about the whole matter. All of his sarcasm and attempts to mock me were only more weak efforts at saving face.

The more I considered this far-fetched theory, the more I liked it. Some disgruntled angel, wanting to be heroic, decided to turn vigilante and take on the forces of evil. The renegade angel theory would explain how any of us could be legitimate targets, as well as shed light on why no one could sense this being since we now knew higher immortals could hide their presence.

Which made me wonder why exactly Jerome and Carter were also masking their presence. Were they hoping to catch this angel unaware? That, and…

“Why’d this person let Hugh live then?” I looked from vampire to vampire. “An angel could take out any of us. Hugh said he wasn’t winning, and no one interrupted. The attacker just got bored and took off. Why? Why kill Duane but not Hugh? Or me, for that matter, since this person knows what I am.”

“Because Duane was an asshole?” suggested Peter.

“Personality aside, we all weigh in just as heavily on the evil side. Hugh maybe even more so.”

Indeed, Hugh was in his prime as far as immortals went. He no longer held a novice’s inexperience like Cody, nor had the imp grown world-weary and bored like Peter and I had. Hugh knew enough now to be good at his job, and he actually liked what he did. He should have been a prime target for any angelic vigilante wanting to make the world a better place.

Cody agreed with Peter. “Yeah. Evil or not, some of us are more likable than others. Maybe an angel could respect that.”

“I doubt an angel would find any of us likable – “

I cut myself off. One angel did like us. One angel hung out with us a lot. One angel who seemed to be everywhere Jerome was lately when these attacks happened. One angel who knew us personally, who knew all of our habits and weaknesses. What better way was there to track and study us than to infiltrate our drinking group and pretend to be a friend?

The idea was so explosive, so dangerous, I felt ill at ease just giving shape to the thought. I certainly couldn’t utter any of it aloud. Not yet. Cody and Peter hardly believed the angel theory at all. I doubted they’d jump on board if I started accusing Carter.

“You okay, Georgina?” Cody queried when I lapsed into silence.

“Yeah… yeah… fine.” I caught a glimpse at the time on the stove and jumped up from my chair, head still reeling. “Shit. I’ve got to get back to Queen Anne.”

“What for?” asked Peter.

“I have a date.”

“With who?” Cody grinned slyly at me, and I blushed in response.

“Roman.”

Peter turned to his apprentice. “Which one is that?”

“The hot dancing guy. Georgina was all over him.”

“I was not. I like him too much for that.”

They laughed. As I picked up my coat, Peter asked: “Hey, I don’t suppose you could do me a favor sometime?”

“What?” My mind still clung to the mystery winding around us. That, and Roman. He and I had talked on the phone a few times now since the last date, and I was growing more and more amazed at just how well we clicked.

“Well, you know how they’ve got those computer programs in salons that will show you what you’ll look like with different colors and cuts? I was thinking you could be like a living one. You could morph into me and show me what I’d look like with different hairstyles.”

Silence hung in the room for a full minute as Cody and I stared at him.

“Peter,” I told him at last, “that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

“I don’t know.” Cody scratched his chin. “For him, it’s not bad.”

“We have too many other issues to deal with right now,” I warned, having no patience to humor Peter with niceties. “I’m not wasting my energy on your vanity.”

“Come on,” pleaded Peter. “You’re still brimming from that good virgin guy. You can spare it.”

I shook my head, slinging my purse over one shoulder. “Succubus 101. The farther a transformation takes me from my natural form, the more energy it expends. Cross-gender changes are a pain in the ass; cross-species ones are even worse. Playing salon with you would burn through most of my stash, and I’ve got better things to waste it on.” I eyed him dangerously. “You need some serious counseling for body image and insecurity, my friend.”

Cody regarded me with new interest. “Cross-species? Could you, like, turn into a Gila monster or… or… a sand dollar or something?”

“Good night, boys. I’m out of here.”

As I departed, I could just barely hear Peter and Cody debating if it would take more energy for me to change into a really small mammal or a human-sized reptile.

Vampires. Honestly, they’re like children sometimes.

I drove home in record time. I remembered to shape-shift my heels into sandals and walked up to my building’s door just as Roman did.

Seeing him banished any lingering thoughts of angels and conspiracies.

He had told me to dress casually for this evening, and while he had done the same, he still managed to make jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt look like runway fashion. I apparently had the same effect on him because he caught me up in a giant bear hug and kissed my cheek.

“Hey, gorgeous,” he murmured into my ear, holding on to the embrace a bit longer than necessary.

“Hey, yourself.” I disentangled my body from his and smiled up at him.

“You’re so short,” he noted, cupping my cheek in his hand. “It’s cute.”

Those eyes threatened to engulf me, and I hastily turned away before I did something stupid. “Let’s go.” I paused. “Um, where are we going?”

He led me to his car, parked just down the street. “Since you seem to be so good with your feet, I thought I’d take us somewhere to test the rest of your bodily coordination.”

“Like a hotel room?”

“Damn. Am I that obvious?”

Several minutes later, he pulled into a dilapidated establishment with a blinking neon sign reading BURT’s BOWLING ALLEY. I stared in open distaste, unable to hide my feelings.

“This is your choice of date? A bowling alley? Not even a nice one at that.”

Roman seemed unconcerned about my lack of enthusiasm. “When was the last time you actually went bowling?”

I suspected it had been back in the 1970s. “Not in a very long time.”

“Exactly. You see,” he began conversationally as we went inside and approached the counter, “I’ve got you figured out. You claim you don’t want to get serious with anyone, but I still get the impression you go out a lot. Size ten, please.”

“Six and a half.”

The cashier gave us each a pair of unsavory-looking shoes, and I felt grateful germs posed no threat to me. Roman handed over some cash, and she gestured us down to our designated lane.

“Anyway, like I was saying, regardless of your intentions, you must still end up dating quite a bit. I don’t know how you couldn’t with the attention you attract.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I sat down by our lane and took off my Birkenstocks, still eyeing the rental shoes askance.

Roman paused in his own shoe-tying and gave me a long, steady look. “Oh come on, you can’t be that oblivious. Men check you out all the time. I always see it when I’m with you. Walking through the bookstore, going to that bar the other night. Even here, in this place. In just walking over from the counter, I saw at least three guys stop and watch you.”

“Is there a point here somewhere?”

“Eventually.” He stood up, and we walked over to a rack of communal bowling balls. “With all that attention, guys must ask you out all the time, and you must give in sometimes, just like you did with me. Right?”

“I guess.”

He paused in his ball selection and gave me another one of those breathtaking, soul-searching looks. “So tell me about your last date.”

“My last date?” I somehow didn’t think Martin Miller counted.

“Your last date. I mean a real date, not like a casual grabbing a drink thing. A date where the guy gave his best shot at planning an itinerary he thought would get you into bed.”

I tested the weight of a fluorescent orange and green swirled ball, racking my brain. “The opera,” I said at last. “And dinner at Santa Lucia’s.”

“Nice spread. And the one before that?”

“Jesus, you’re nosy. Um… let’s see, I think it was the opening of an art exhibit.”

“Undoubtedly paired with dinner at some restaurant where stiff waiters say ‘thank you’ after you make a selection, right?”

“I guess.”

“Just as I thought.” He hoisted a navy blue ball into the crook of his arm. “This is why you’re resistant to dating, why you don’t want to get serious with anyone. You’re such a hot commodity that plush, five-star dates are par for the course. They’re ordinary. Men try to throw out all the stops for you, but after a while, you get bored with them.” His eyes danced mischievously. “Therefore, I will differentiate myself from those losers by taking you to places your little elitist feet would never dream of touching. The salt of the earth. Back to basics. The way dating was meant to be: two people, more concerned with each other than their posh venue.”

I walked with him back to our lane. “You just took an awfully long time to say you think I want to go slumming.”

“Don’t you?”

“No.”

“Then why are you with me?”

I eyed that gorgeous appearance and thought about the conversation we’d had the other night on classical languages. Looks and intellect. Hard to beat. “You’re hardly slumming it.”

He smiled at me and changed the subject. “That’s your choice?”

I looked down at the ball’s psychedelic color pattern. “Yeah. This night is already turning surreal enough. Figured I might as well get the full experience. Maybe we’ll drop some acid later.”

Roman’s eyes crinkled with amusement, and he cocked his head toward the lane. “Let’s see what you can do with it.”

I stepped up uncertainly, trying to remember how I used to do this. All up and down the alley, I could see other players walking up and throwing with ease. Shrugging, I stood at the line, drew my arm back, and threw. The ball flew out jerkily, sailed about four feet, hit the lane with a loud crack, and then promptly entered the gutter. Roman walked up beside me, and we silently watched the ball complete its journey.

“Are you always that rough with balls?” he asked finally.

“Most men don’t complain.”

“I imagine not. Try making contact with the floor before you let it go this time.”

I gave him a sharp look. “You aren’t one of those guys that gets off from showing women how much better you are at stuff, are you?”

“Nope. Just offering friendly advice.”

My ball returned, and I followed his instructions. The ball’s impact proved quieter that way, but I still ended up in the gutter.

“All right. Show me what you can do,” I grumbled, sitting down huffily into a chair.

Roman strode up to the lane, movements graceful and flowing like a cat’s. The ball poured from his hand like water from a pitcher, sailing smoothly down and hitting nine pins. When his ball returned, he threw it effortlessly once more and took out the obstinate tenth.

“This is going to be a long night.”

“Cheer up.” He chucked my chin. “We’ll get you through this. Try it again, and aim more toward the left. I’m going to get us some beers.”

I threw to the left as advised but only succeeded in hitting the left gutter. On my second throw, I tried greater moderation and managed to hit one pin on the far left. I whooped in spite of myself.

“Nicely done,” cheered Roman, setting two mugs of cheap beer down on the table. I hadn’t drunk anything not from a microbrewery in over a decade. “It’s all about baby steps.”

That certainly turned out to be true as our evening progressed. My pin count increased slowly, though I soon developed the nasty habit of creating splits on my first throw. I showed no aptitude for picking them up, despite Roman’s best explanations. To his credit, he gave good, nonthreatening advice, as well as some hands-on instruction.

“Your arm goes like this, and the rest of you leans like this,” he explained, standing behind me with one hand on my hip and the other on my wrist. My flesh warmed at his touch, and I wondered if his actions were truly driven by altruism or were an excuse to get his hands on me. I exercised such techniques regularly in succubus work. It drove men wild, and now I knew why.

Ruse or no, I didn’t tell him to stop.

I hit my peak in the second game, even managing one strike, though my performance declined in the third round as beer and fatigue took over. Sensing this, Roman called our bowling adventures closed, lauding my progress as highly impressive.

“Do we have to go to a dive now for dinner, in order to keep with this dream-date slumming fantasy you’ve got going?”

He put his arm around me as we walked out to the car. “I guess that depends if you’ve succumbed to my wily charm or not.”

“If I say yes, will you take me somewhere good? Sometimes the posh places do work, you know.”

We ended up at an upscale Japanese restaurant, much to my satisfaction. Taking our time, we savored both food and conversation, and again Roman’s knowledge and wit impressed me. This time we discussed current issues, sharing opinions on recent news and culture, things we liked, things that drove us crazy, etc., etc. I discovered Roman had traveled quite a bit and held strong views on world politics and affairs.

“This country is so in love with itself,” he complained, sipping sake. “It’s like one big mirror. It just sits all day and looks at itself. When it can be bothered to look away, it’s only to tell others ‘do this’ or ‘be just like me.’ Our military and economic policies bully people outside our borders, and inside, conservative groups bully other citizens. I hate it.”

I listened with interest, intrigued at this side of a normally light and easygoing guy. “So do something about it. Or leave.”

He shook his head. “Spoken like a comfortable citizen. The old ‘if you don’t like it, you can just leave’ policy. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder than that to cut yourself off from your roots.” Leaning back, he forced levity with a small grin. “And I do do things here and there. Small acts. My own battle against the status quo, you know? Attend the occasional protest. Refuse to buy products made with third world labor.”

“Avoid fur? Eat organic food?”

“That too,” he chuckled.

“Funny,” I said after a moment’s silence. Something had just struck me.

“What?”

“This whole time, we’ve talked about current things. No sharing of traumatic childhoods, college days, exes, or whatever.”

“So what’s funny about that?”

“Nothing really. It’s just that the human mating process usually seems to dictate everyone share their histories.”

“You want to do that?”

“Not really.” I actually hated that part of dating. I always had to edit my past. I hated the lying, having to keep track of my stories.

“I think the past plagues us enough without muddling it into our present. I’d rather look forward, not backward.”

I studied him curiously. “Does your past plague you?”

“Very much so. I fight every day to not let the past overtake me. Sometimes I win, sometimes it does.”

God only knew mine did the same. It was odd to talk to someone about this, someone who felt the same way. I wondered how many people in the world walked around with invisible baggage, hiding it from others. Even while packing said baggage, I’d always kept it concealed. I had a driving need to keep up surface appearances – hence the so-called “happy face.” I’d smiled and nodded through the worst times of my life, and when that superficial reaction had not been enough, I’d finally just run – even though it cost me my soul.

I smiled slightly. “Well then. I’m glad you and I stick to the present.”

He tweaked my noise. “Me too. In fact, my present is looking pretty damned good right now. Maybe my future too, if I keep weakening your resolve.”

“Don’t push it.”

“Aw, come on. Admit it. You find my outrage at the powers-that-be endearing. Maybe even erotic.”

“I think ‘entertaining’ would be a better word. If you want outrage, you should spend time with Doug, my coworker. You guys have a lot in common. By day he cleans up and plays respectable assistant manager, by night he’s the lead singer of this wacky band, registering his discontent against society through music.”

Roman’s eyes flickered with interest. “Does he play around here?”

“Yup. He’ll be at the Old Greenlake Brewery this Saturday. Me and some of the other staff are going.”

“Oh yeah? What time should I meet you?”

“I don’t recall inviting you.”

“Don’t you? Because I could have sworn you just named a day and place. Sounded like a passive invitation to me. You know, the kind where it’d be my job to say ‘mind if I come along,’ and then you say ‘yeah, no problem,’ and so it goes. I just skipped a few steps.”

“Most efficient of you,” I observed.

“So… mind if I come along?”

I groaned. “Roman, we can’t keep going out. It was cute at first, but it was only supposed to be one date. We’ve already gone past that. People at work think you’re my boyfriend.” Casey and Beth had informed me recently what a ” hottie” I had.

“Do they?” He looked very happy about this.

“I’m not joking here. I mean it when I say I don’t want to get serious with anyone right now.”

And yet, I didn’t really mean it. Not in my heart. I’d spent centuries cutting myself off from any sort of meaningful attachment with another person, and it hurt. Even when I had purposely cultivated relationships with nice guys in my succubus glory days, I had immediately dropped them and disappeared post-sex. In some ways, my life now was even harder. I avoided the guilt of stealing a nice man’s life energy, but I never had true companionship either. No one who cared exclusively for me. Sure, I had friends, but they had their own lives, and those who got too close – like Doug – had to be pushed away again for their own good.

“Don’t you believe in casual dating? Or even male-female friendships?”

“No,” I answered decisively. “I do not.”

“What about the other males in your life? That Doug guy? The dance instructor? Even that writer? You’re friends with them, aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s different. I’m not attracted – “

I bit off my words, but it was too late. Roman’s face bloomed with hope and pleasure. He leaned toward me, touching my cheek with his hand.

I swallowed, terrified and thrilled by how close he was. Beer and sake had made me fuzzy in body and mind, and I made a mental promise not to drink the next time we went out. Not that we were going out again… right? Alcohol confused my senses, made it harder to differentiate between the succubus feeding instinct and pure, primal lust. Either one was dangerous around him.

And yet… in that moment, lust wasn’t even really the issue. He was. Being with him. Talking to him. Having someone in my life again. Someone who cared about me. Someone who understood me. Someone I could go home to. And with.

“What time should I meet you?” he murmured.

I looked down, suddenly feeling warm. “It’s a late show…”

His hand slid from my cheek to the back of my neck, intertwining with my hair and tipping my face toward his. “You want to hang out beforehand?”

“We shouldn’t.” My words all seemed long and drawn-out, like I was swimming in molasses.

Roman leaned over and kissed my ear. “I’ll be at your place at seven.”

“Seven,” I repeated.

His lips moved to kiss the part of my cheek closest to my ear, then the cheek’s center, then just below my mouth. His lips hovered so close to mine; my whole body concentrated on that proximity. I could feel the heat from his mouth, like it had its own private aura. Everything moved in slow motion. I wanted him to kiss me, wanted him to consume me with his lips and his tongue. I wanted it and feared it, yet felt powerless to act either way.

“Can I get you something else?”

The waiter’s mildly embarrassed voice shattered my numbing haze, snapping me back to reason, reminding me what would happen to Roman even with a kiss. Not too much, true, but enough. I broke out of his grasp and shook my head. “Nothing else. Just the check.”

Roman and I spoke little after that. He drove me home and made no advances when he walked me to the door, only smiling kindly as he chucked me under the chin again and reminded me he’d be by at seven on Saturday.

I went to bed restless and aching for sex. The alcohol helped me fall asleep easily, but when I awoke in the morning, lying in bed in a drowsy state, I could still remember how it had felt to have his lips so close to mine. The lustful yearning returned with a vengeance.

“This is no good,” I complained to Aubrey, rolling out of bed.

I had three hours before work and knew I needed to do something other than daydream about Roman. Remembering that I had never followed up with Erik, I decided I should pay him a visit. The vampire hunter theory was more or less obsolete as far as I was concerned, but he might have found something else of use. I could also ask him about fallen angels.

Considering the whole “stashing” threat, I probably should have experienced more concern about going back to Arcana, Ltd. Still, I felt more or less safe. One thing I had learned about the archdemon was that he was not a morning person. He didn’t really need rest, of course, but it was a mortal luxury he’d taken to wholeheartedly. I expected him to still be asleep, wherever he was, with no way of knowing what I planned to do.

Dressing and eating breakfast, I soon hit the road to Lake City. I found the shop effortlessly now, feeling dismay once more at its barren look and empty parking lot. Yet, when I entered, I saw a dark shape leaning over a corner of books, too tall to be Erik. Pleasure at the thought of Erik getting more business coursed through me until the figure straightened and fixed me with a sardonic, gray-eyed expression.

“Hello, Georgina.”

I swallowed. “Hello, Carter.”

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