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Succubus on Top CHAPTER 4

“Doug!”

He shrugged.“It’s not a big deal.I mean, it’s pretty hot, really.”

“But I didn’t do those things.

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It’s not really me.”

“She sounds just like you. Her name begins with a Gtoo.”

“But it’s not…” I swallowed, noting the similarities as well.

Doug watched me appraisingly. “You can’t really blame them. Description-wise, you two match, and everyone knows you and Mortensen are chummy – not to mention what a zealous fan you are and all. After they read the story, Casey even made the brilliant observation that you guys came in together yesterday. You should have seen the speculation that started.”

“But…that was nothing.” No one at work even knew Seth and I were dating. I hadn’t wanted that widely known. “We hadn’t done anything.”

Doug shrugged again, rising from the computer. “Too bad. I wouldn’t have thought less of you if you had, you know. It’s your business anyway.” I groaned. “Not when it’s in print for everyone to see.”

“I thought it was all fictitious,” he reminded me with a sly grin, putting on his coat.

“It is! Doug, what am I going to do?”

“Don’t know, Kincaid. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Maybe start with asking Mortensen why he’s putting his fantasies on display for everyone to see.” He tweaked my cheek, and I squirmed out of his reach. “As for me, I’ve got a rehearsal to get to. Big night tomorrow. Later.”

My shift proceeded miserably after that. Now that I knew what the looks were for, the experience moved into a whole new realm of humiliation. I hated idle speculation, hated people thinking terrible things about me. I mean, it wasn’t like I hadn’t ever tied someone up before or had sex in an elevator, but come on. It wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted people to consider publicly. I liked to keep my intimate affairs discreet.

I therefore stayed in the office as much as possible, only going out to help when absolutely necessary, and to check if Seth had returned yet. Finally, a couple hours before closing, I saw him back at his table. I sat down opposite him in a rage, not even caring what others would think of us being together.

“Why did you do it? Why did you write me in like that?”

Seth looked up from his laptop, his expression clearly implying whatever writing he was working on still held his attention more than I did. For all I knew, I was at the center of an orgy in some novel now. “What?”

“The story!” I threw American Mystery onto the table loudly. “You wrote me in. I’mGenevieve.”

He blinked. “No you aren’t.”

“Oh yeah? How come both our names begin with a G? How come we look alike?”

“You don’t look anything like her,” he countered.

“That’s not what half the store thinks. They think she’s me! They think you’ve written up a fling we had in an elevator.”

Realization flashed across his face, and to my horror, he actually smiled. “Really? That’s funny.”

“Funny? It’s terrible! They all think I’m a bondage freak.”

“Thetis,” he began gently, still damnably serene, “I – “

“Don’t ‘Thetis’ me. It won’t work.”

“I wrote that story, like, six months ago. Long before I met you. The publishing world doesn’t move that fast.”

“Well, the others don’t know that.” I hovered on the verge of tears.

“I’d never write in anyone so blatantly.”

“Yeah? Well, they don’t know that either,” I said, slouching back against my chair miserably, arms crossed.

Seth sighed, his amber brown eyes compassionate as he regarded me. “Look, do you want me to say something? Tell them that it wasn’t you?”

“Lord, that would just convince them even more that it was me. Besides, what are you going to do, call a press conference to clear my name?”

“I’m sorry,” he told me seriously. “I never thought anything like this would happen.” A hesitation. “Do…do you still want to go out tomorrow night? I mean…if you don’t…”

The old adorable shyness fell over him, and I couldn’t stay mad.

“No,” I told him. “I still want to go, but…I think we should, you know, show up at the concert separately. Most of the staff will be there, you know.”

He opened his mouth to speak but then reconsidered. I suspected he had been about to accuse me of overreacting, but apparently my radiating fury made him think better of it. Seth wasn’t exactly the confrontational type. Or, considering the mood I was in, perhaps he just wasn’t the stupid type.

“Okay,” he finally said. “We’ll meet there.”

“Georgina?”

Looking up, I saw Paige standing over us, disapproval all over her face. I hadn’t even noticed her approach. She wore another of her beautiful power suits, this time in an electric violet that looked stunning with her dark skin.

“Can I speak to you for a few minutes?” she asked, tone grim. “In private?”

I followed her to her office, letting her close the door behind us. Not surprisingly, a copy of American Mystery sat on her desk.

“So,” she began crisply, “I’ve been hearing some rumors – “

“Damn it. It’s not me.”

I proceeded to relate to her my own recent discoveries, pointing out Seth’s observation concerning how long it took for works to come out in print. When I finished, I think I had mostly convinced her of my innocence, though sordid stories flying around the workplace still obviously distressed her.

Studying nothing in particular, Paige drummed her lacquered red nails against the desk as she thought about what to do. “This will get cleared up with the staff in time. That, or they’ll just get over it. What I don’t like is the idea of any outsiders drawing conclusions. You do sound like that character, and anyone else who reads the story could make the same mistake. I don’t want rumors starting that half of Seth’s reason for working here is that he gets sexual favors on the side, courtesy of our employees.”

“Oh Lord.” I covered my face with my hands, wondering how celebrities dealt with truly large-scale scandals. This small one was bad enough. I wanted to disappear. It tainted the beauty of what Seth and I were trying to build.

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“I think the best way to approach this is – “

Her words dropped off as a grimace crossed her face and one hand clutched her stomach.

I started toward her. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, forcing a strained smile. “It…it’s nothing.”

“The hell it is. You should call your doctor…or at least go home.”

“No, it’ll pass. Besides, I’ve got too much to do. I need to make the new schedule and go over some inventory stats.”

“That’s crazy. I can do that stuff.”

She shook her head, arguing again, and I argued right back. At last, Paige yielded, which only verified something must be seriously wrong. Those who went head-to-head with her rarely won.

So, I finished my shift doing her extra jobs and serving as backup. It was exhausting, but I was happy to do it, still worrying about her and her baby. When we closed, I headed straight over to the suburbs, following the directions Bastien had given me.

When I pulled up to his house, I could only sit in my car and stare for a few minutes.

Now, I had a few well-formed ideas about the American Dream. After all, I’d been alive in the days when the term was first coined. I’d seen it arise, seen the mythology that surrounded it, seen the white picket fences and cute, well-kept neighborhoods. I’d even watched Leave it to Beaver. Seth’s brother, for example, lived north of the city and had a pretty nice chunk of it carved out.

But this? This was an American Wet Dream.

Bastien’s house went on forever, expanding ostentatiously beyond its marble and taupe facade. Even if he’d had a wife and family, I doubted they could have filled it up, and anyway, the kind of people who lived in these places didn’t have large families. After all, this was the generation that had, what, 1.75 kids?

The garage had three doors, as advertised, and tasteful shrubs and ornamental trees decorated the lawn. Since it was dark now, I couldn’t see the rest of the neighborhood in detail, but I suspected I’d find more of the same. One house, next door, was lit up and busy with people. It was even bigger than Bastien’s and probably the location of the party.

“Are you compensating for something?” I asked when the incubus opened his door.

Mitch Hunter flashed me the million-dollar grin. “My sweet sister, you and I both know that’s not true. Love your haircut.”

I’d come as Tabitha Hunter, lean and blond, though I’d conceded to his earlier complaints and given myself shoulder-length hair. He kissed my cheek and ushered me inside for a quick tour.

After a few rooms, it all started blurring together. Cherry hardwood floors. Gorgeously painted walls. Sleek black appliances. Wainscoting. A hot tub out back. Enough guest bedrooms to house a Girl Scout troop. And cute, cleverly placed knick-knacks everywhere.

“Isn’t this going a bit far?” I asked, pointing to a framed copy of the Lord’s Prayer in the foyer.

“Tabitha, my love, man cannot survive on bread alone. We can, however, survive on delicious appetizers and hamburgers, so let’s head over.”

We arrived considerably after the starting time, since I’d been at work, and the party was in full swing. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss these suburbanites after all.

“Mitch!” called a loud voice as we shouldered our way through the people. Most were dressed for the barbecue theme in shorts, T-shirts, and Hawaiian prints.

“Hey, Bill,” returned Bastien, extending his hand to a plain yet well-groomed man with silver-streaked black hair. I recognized him from his photos. Dana’s husband. “This is my sister, Tabitha. Hope you don’t mind me bringing her.”

“No, no! The more the merrier, I say.” He allowed a small, artificial laugh and smiled at me, making his eyes crinkle. “Especially ones so pretty. Makes me wish I was a younger man,” he teased with a wink.

Unable to resist, I looked up at him through my lashes and said demurely, “I’ve always thought age was kind of irrelevant, Bill.” I held onto his proffered hand. “I know I’m always happy to learn from those with more…experience.”

His eyes widened slightly, lighting with both intrigue and alarm.

“Well,” he said after an uncomfortable moment, “I should probably spread myself around.” He remembered to let go of my hand. “Feel free to find something to eat, and don’t forget to try the pool.”

He glanced at me and my come-hither smile consideringly, hesitated, and then reluctantly departed.

“Don’t ever do that again,” hissed Bastien, steering me toward the kitchen by the arm.

“Do what?”

“Flirt with this group! You’re supposed to be bolstering my wholesome image, not leading on my target’s husband.”

“I wasn’t leading him on. Besides, what’s it matter? Scandalize them both.”

“No. Dana only. My show.”

I cut him a look but said nothing. He wanted me as an observer but not a participant. It figured. All the glory for himself, praise from those above. He’d always had this competitive need to make himself shine. It was one of the things that I liked about him – an eager desire to prove himself the best. I guess I’d had it once too, but not anymore. As far as I was concerned, he was welcome to all the fame and fortune of this gig.

“Just play my sweet, angelic sister,” he continued in a whisper. “Possibly my sweet, angelic, and frigid sister.”

Moving through the house gave me a chance to take in more of the party’s theme. Faux palm trees. Glittering, decorative suns everywhere. Small appetizer tables set up here and there, laden with deviled eggs, cocktail wieners, and cubed cheese. It was silly in some ways, but someone had obviously paid a lot of attention to detail. I appreciated that. All of the guests looked like Bill – and Bastien and me, I realized. Clean-cut, with every hair in place. High quality, conservative clothes (in a tropical sort of way). Upper-class. White.

They freaked me out.

The kitchen proved to be the true hub of food, and I decided to simply gorge myself rather than risk more conversation that might upset Bastien. I loaded up a paper plate with a hamburger, potato salad, and some kind of weird Jell-O-fruit-whipped-cream hybrid dessert.

My efforts to simply eat unnoticed proved futile, as I soon found myself surrounded by a group of women. I didn’t know where they’d come from. One minute I was just eating, the next minute six perfect faces were smiling at me. They were like a pack of wild dogs, yipping nonstop, honing in on lone prey. They’d even managed to separate me from Bastien, all the better to tear me apart. The incubus now stood across the room with a similarly ravenous group of men, no doubt discussing cigars and lawn mowers. I shot him a panicked look, but he merely shrugged.

“Mitch’s sister,” oozed one of the women. “I should have known! You guys look exactly alike.”

“Well, not exactly alike,” tittered another. She wore an appliqu?¦ sweater vest. Yikes.

“We were just talking about stamping. Do you stamp, Tabitha?”

“Urn, like use stamps?” I asked with a frown. “I mean, I mail things…”

The Stepford Wives giggled again at this. “Oh! That’s so funny.”

“We mean rubber stamps. Arts and crafts stamps,” explained one of them. She’d introduced herself as Jody – the only name I could remember among the group. Probably because she seemed to have a slightly higher IQ than the rest. And was the only one of us without blond hair. “You use them to decorate things. “

She dug into her purse and produced a small invitation on beautiful ivory cardstock. Scrolling vines and flowers decorated the front.

“This is the invitation Dana made for this party.”

I stared. “Seriously?”

Somehow I’d imagined the “Great Job!” kind of stamps that teachers used on well-written papers. This was beautifully inked and in different colors. It looked professional, like something from Hallmark.

“Mitzi’s having a stamp party next week,” exclaimed one of the other women. “We could show you how to do it.”

“Ooh…that would be so fun!”

“Yes! Let’s!”

“Gee, it looks kind of time-consuming,” I told them, wishing desperately that I was somewhere else. I was sure I could have held my own in a cigar and lawn mower conversation better than a stamping one. “I don’t think I have the time.”

“Oh, but it’s so worth it,” one assured me earnestly. She wore earrings that spelled ALOHA in dangling letters. “Betsey and I made bridal-shower invitations for her sister all day yesterday, and the time flew by. “

“Did you use those cute dove stamps?” cooed another, not unlike a dove herself. “I spent all Tuesday looking for those at the mall.”

“Don’t you guys work?” I asked, wondering at their frequent use of “all day.” A century ago, I wouldn’t have given it a thought. But this was the age of the so-called modern woman. We weren’t supposed to lounge around in parlors anymore and pass out from wearing corsets.

They turned to me, mouths agape.

“Well, there’s so much to do around the house,” Jody finally said. “Most of us are too busy with those things.”

Like stamping?

“Besides,” laughed Bitsy or Muffin or whatever the hell her name was, “it’s not like we need to. Do you have a job?”

“Well, yeah…”

“What’s your husband do?”

“Oh. I’m not married.”

This got more stares, and then suddenly they erupted with ideas and suggestions of “perfect single men” who worked with their husbands.

I had to get out of here. Either that or render myself funconscious with the wrought-iron pig wearing an apron that sat on the kitchen table.

I turned anxiously to Jody. “Didn’t I hear there was a pool somewhere?”

She brightened. “There sure is. I’ll show you.”

We extracted ourselves from the others, and she led me toward the back of the house.

“Sorry if they’re a little overwhelming,” she apologized. “I sort of feel responsible for their stamping frenzy. “

The fact that she’d used the word “frenzy” to describe them made me laugh. “How so?”

“I got them into it.” Her dark eyes twinkled. “Never thought it’d go this far, though. I used to be an elementary art teacher, and sometimes they remind me of the kids. They’re all good souls, though.”

“Why don’t you teach anymore?” Drawing pictures with children sounded like a wicked cool job to me. If nothing else, the grading had to be easy.

“Well, Jack likes me at home, and this way I get to take out my artistic urges on the house – and enable the neighbors. Every time I get hooked on a new project, our house takes the brunt of it: pottery, beading, watercolors…”

“And stamping?”

She laughed. “And stamping.”

“Could you, like, teach part-time and still get everything done around the house?”

“Maybe. But I’ve also got my CPFV duties, so my schedule’s pretty packed.”

CPFV? Damn. For a minute there, Jody had seemed like a pretty cool person. “You’re a member?”

Her expression registered mild surprise. “Yes, of course. We all are. You should come to a meeting someday. I know Dana would love to have you.”

“Where is Dana?” I hadn’t even seen the main attraction tonight. “I mean, I’m such a fan and all. When Mitch told me we were coming, I couldn’t even believe it.”

Pursing her lips, she glanced around with a cute frown. “I’m not really sure where she is. She’s probably just mingling. Everyone wants to talk to her. But don’t worry – you’ll see her before you leave.”

“That’d be great.”

She smiled and gave my hand a quick squeeze. “I hope we get to see you around. Oh – here we are.”

We arrived in a massive, glass-encased sunroom containing a crystal blue pool. It looked lovely and inviting. When Jody asked if I had a suit, I assured her I had one under my clothes and thanked her for helping me. She returned to the main party, and I slipped into a bathroom where I shape-shifted into a turquoise bikini.

Some people eyed me curiously, probably wondering who I was, but they left me alone once I was in the pool. I dove under, swimming laps, enjoying the solitude water offered. It had been a long time since I’d been able to do this. I knew Seth swam at a local health club; he said it helped clear his head sometimes. He and I would have to go together one of these days. Or better yet, swim in the ocean somewhere. Yes, that was the way to go. Moonlit beaches and tropical air, away from this crummy rain. Maui. Cancun. Hell, why did we even have to constrain ourselves to North America? We could go to the French Riviera, the Greek Islands…

I was so caught up in my fantasies that when I climbed out of the pool, I didn’t notice the woman in front of me. I sidestepped, ever quick on my feet, just barely avoiding collision.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t see – “

I froze. It was Dana.

She looked exactly like her promotional pictures. Slim, average height, shoulder-length black hair, and penetrating blue eyes. Her bio placed her in her forties, but she looked a lot younger than that. The result of all that clean living, I supposed. She wore khaki shorts and a green T-shirt, modestly covered by a white button-up blouse tied in a knot over her stomach.

A smooth, cool smile settled on her face, and those eyes reminded me of a hawk seeking out prey.

“No harm done,” she said in that same hypnotic radio voice. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Dana.” She extended a hand, and I took it.

“Yes. Of course you are. I mean, I know you are. I’ve seen your pictures. Er, I mean, I’m a fan and all…”

“And you are…?”

“Oh. Sorry. I’m Tabitha Hunter. Mitch’s sister. Though maybe you knew that. Everyone says we look alike. I guess we do. I’ve never really thought about it…much…”

Ye gods, why was I rambling like this? I had worked dukes and bishops who were ten times scarier than her. They hadn’t turned me into a blathering idiot. What was it about one radio bigot that should prove so unsettling?

The eyes, I decided. They reflected no warmth. They were shrewd. Conniving. The kind of eyes that warned she had not risen to where she was today without hypervigilance. The kind of eyes that had an agenda.

“It’s nice to meet you,” she said, still maintaining that too-perfect smile. “I didn’t know Mitch had a sister. You seem to be…enjoying the pool.”

Her eyes glanced down over me and back up, suddenly making me feel self-conscious. Water dripped most unflatteringly off of me, and I uneasily wondered if this suit showed too much skin. At least it wasn’t white. Bastien’s warning about wholesome image came back to me for real, and I understood his concern now. Looking like a strumpet could be bad for his reputation. If he drew whispers and disdain, he might be ostracized from this group and lose access to Dana. Suddenly, Dana’s frostiness didn’t seem so weird. It was disapproval. She had, after all, delivered a whole spiel on the abominable state of today’s fashions. Here I was embodying it.

“It’s very nice,” I said. “One of the, um, best pools I’ve swam in.”

I stopped before I could say something else even more asinine, and silence fell. She looked as though she expected me to continue and could wait all night until I did. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to talk to this weird woman about. My alleged hatred of homosexuals? Ask if she had recommendations for a more modest swimsuit?

“So, um…” I began. “This barbecue theme…it’s really, uh…”

I was saved just then – sort of – by Bastien. He strode up to us, appearing very excited to have found Dana. A sharp look in his eyes said he was less thrilled to see me, especially in this state, but he kept it masked from the other woman, instead coming off as amiable and charming as ever.

“Ah, Tabitha, I see you’ve met our hostess.”

“Yes,” agreed Dana. “We’ve been having a most stimulating conversation. Your sister’s quite the wordsmith.”

I flushed. Bitch. When I was in my zone, I could outtalk her any day.

“Glad to hear it. My Tabby Cat here is nothing if not stimulating.”

Oblivious to my horror over my new nickname, Bastien steered her into some pleasant conversation about the creativity of the party and the beauty of her home. Her demeanor warmed up only a bit from what it was with me. She still came off cool and watchful. Maybe she was always chilly around people, and it wasn’t just me. In fact, I thought optimistically, this slightly elevated interest in Bastien might indicate that she wanted to throw him up against a wall.

They conversed a bit longer about something I lost interest in, and I tried to stay inconspicuous, though I could tell I never dropped off Dana’s radar. She was studying me, trying to figure me out. Finally, Bastien said good-bye, and we began our retreat toward the front door – once I’d changed back to decent clothing, of course. Our exit proved more difficult than expected since apparently it was customary to say good-bye to every single person you passed and get continually delayed by meaningless small talk.

“My God,” I exclaimed once we were safely back at his place, “that was annoying.”

He turned on me, anger flashing in those movie-star blue eyes. “Are you completely out of your mind?”

“Okay, you’re right. I’ve been in more annoying situations. Remember that marquis’ party back in Marseille?”

“That…that getup! When I first saw you two together, Dana looked ready to explode. Thank goodness this body’s more flat chested than your other one. It saved you from looking like a complete pinup.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I was just trying to escape those stamping women and headed for the pool without thinking. I have a suit just like this at home. It was stupid…but I don’t really think it caused long-term damage.” I hoped.

His expression darkened, and he threw himself into one of the living room’s exquisite armchairs. It was covered in white suede. Breathing on it would probably get it dirty.

“I don’t know. She was distant with me – you saw it.”

“I was hoping that’s how she always is. And she was a bit more responsive with you than me,” I offered helpfully.

“No. You should have seen her when we spoke earlier tonight. Much friendlier. She definitely clammed up with you around.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, feeling idiotic. “I guess I shouldn’t take a front-row seat to this after all. I’m cramping your style. Or rather, destroying it.”

His stormy expression lingered a bit longer, then disappeared like clouds swept away by wind. That was my Bastien. Quick to anger, quick to love. “No matter, Fleur .Takes a lot more than you to ‘destroy my style.'” He patted his lap and grinned. “Come here, sis, and I’ll tell you the rest of my brilliant plan.”

I rolled my eyes. “Are we that kind of family?”

His smile broadened, and I sat down, unable to resist that goofy charm. He slung his arm around me in an old, familiar way, and I leaned into him. It was nice to have the touch and comfort of another living thing, romantic or not.

“So there’s another part of this wacky plan?”

“Not so much another part as an entirely different plan. A backup plan, if you will.”

“Oh no. Here it comes.”

“Naturally, I’d much rather disgrace Dana in a horizontal kind of way, but in the very unlikely event that doesn’t work, there’s a much less exciting – yet effective – way to do it. And you’re going to help me.”

“How so?”

“We’re going to break into her house. “

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