I was drunk.
I wasn’t entirely sure when it had happened, but I suspected it had occurred around the time my friend Doug had bet me I couldn’t take down three vodka gimlets faster than he could. He’d promised to take my weekend shift at work if I won, and I was going to do his stock duty for a week if he won.
When we’d finished, it looked like I wasn’t going to be working next weekend.
“How did you out-drink him?” my friend Hugh wanted to know. “He’s twice your size.”
Through the crowd of people crammed into my condo, I peered at the closed bathroom door, behind which Doug had disappeared. “He had stomach flu this week. I’m guessing that doesn’t go so well with vodka.”
Hugh raised an eyebrow. “Why the fuck would anyone take a bet like that after having the flu?”
I shrugged. “Because he’s Doug.”
Hoping Doug would be okay, I scanned the rest of my party with the pleased air of a queen sizing up her kingdom. I’d moved into this place back in July and had been long overdue for a housewarming party. When Halloween had finally rolled around, combining the two events had seemed like a pretty reasonable solution. Consequently, my guests tonight were clad in an array of costumes, everything from elaborate Renaissance faire quality garb to the slackers who’d simply thrown on a witch’s hat.
Me, I was dressed as Little Bo Peep—well, that is, I was dressed the way Little Bo Peep would if she was a stripper and/or a shameless strumpet. My frilly blue skirt stopped just above the half-way point on my thighs, and my puff-sleeved white blouse was so low-cut that I had to be careful when leaning over. The crowning achievement—literally—was my curly mane of flaxen blond hair, neatly arranged into two pigtails tied with little blue bows. It looked perfect, absolutely indistinguishable from the real thing because…well, it was real.
Shape-shifting always came in handy as a succubus, but for Halloween, it was golden. I always had the best costumes because I really could turn into anything I wanted. Of course, I had to keep it within reason. Too much of a change would raise the suspicions of the humans around me. But for a hair change? Yeah. Shape-shifting was pretty convenient.
Someone touched my elbow. I turned, and my smug enthusiasm dimmed a little when I saw who it was: Roman, my sociopathic roommate.
“I think someone’s getting sick in the bathroom,” he told me. Roman was a nephilim, half-angel and half-human, with soft black hair and sea-green eyes. If not for the fact he occasionally went on immortal killing sprees and had me on his hit list, he would have been a pretty good catch.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s Doug. He lost a vodka challenge.”
Roman grimaced. He wore devil horns and a red cape. The irony wasn’t lost on me. “Hope he’s got good aim. I don’t want to clean that up.”
“What, you don’t do housework either?” asked Hugh. He’d recently learned Roman wasn’t paying me rent because he was ‘between jobs.’ “Seems like you should pull your weight around here somehow.”
Roman gave Hugh a warning look. “Stay out of this, Spiro Agnew.”
“I’m Calvin Coolidge!” exclaimed Hugh, highly offended. “This is the same suit he wore at his inauguration.”
I sighed. “Hugh, nobody here remembers that.” That was one of the downsides of being immortal. Our memories became obsolete as more time passed. Hugh, an imp who bought souls for Hell, was much younger than Roman and me, but he had a lot more years than any human here.
Slipping away from Roman and Hugh’s argument, I headed across the room to mingle with my guests. Some of my coworkers from the bookstore Doug and I worked at were huddled around the punch bowl, and I stopped to chat. Immediately, I was bombarded with compliments.
“Your hair is amazing!”
“Did you dye it?”
“It doesn’t even look like a wig!”
I assured them it was a very good wig and dealt out praise for them in return. One person, however, earned a rueful headshake from me.
“You have more creativity than all of us put together, and that’s the best you could do?” I asked.
Best-selling author Seth Mortensen turned to look at me with one of his trademark, slightly scattered smiles. Even when I was dizzy with vodka, that smile never failed to make my heart speed up. Seth and I had dated for a while, plunging me into the depths of a love I’d never imagined possible. Part of being a succubus was an eternity of seducing men and stealing the energy of their souls; a real relationship had seemed out of the question. And in the end, it had been. Seth and I had broken up—twice—and while I usually accepted that he had moved on, I knew that I would love him forever. For me, forever was a serious matter.
“I can’t waste it on a costume,” he said. His amber-brown eyes regarded me fondly. I no longer knew if he loved me too; I only knew for sure that he still cared about me as a friend. I kept trying to portray the same image. “Gotta save it for the next book.”
“Lame excuse,” I said. His shirt depicted Freddy Kruger, which might have been acceptable if not for the fact I suspected he owned it long before Halloween.
Seth shook his head. “Nobody cares what guys wear at Halloween anyway. It’s all about the women. Look around.” I did and saw that he was right. All the elaborate, sexy costumes were on my female guests. With a few exceptions, the men’s dulled by comparison.
“Peter’s dressed up,” I pointed out. Seth followed my gaze to another of my immortal friends. Peter was a vampire, a very fastidious and obsessive-compulsive one. He was clad in pre-Revolutionary French garb, complete with brocade coat and a powdered wig over what was normally thin brown hair.
“Peter doesn’t count,” said Seth.
Recalling how Peter had painstakingly stenciled swans around his bathroom’s baseboards last week, I couldn’t help but agree. “Fair point.”
“What’s Hugh supposed to be? Jimmy Carter?”
“How can you tell?”
I was saved from answering when Seth’s fiancée—and one of my best friends—Maddie Sato appeared. She was dressed as a fairy, complete with wings and a gauzy dress nowhere near as slutty as mine. Fake flowers wreathed black hair that had been pulled into a bun. Her being with Seth was something else I’d more or less come to accept, though I suspected the sting of it would never leave. Maddie didn’t know Seth and I had dated and had no clue about the discomfiture I felt over their whole relationship.
I expected her to slip her arm around Seth, but it was me she grabbed a hold of and jerked away. I stumbled a bit. Five-inch heels weren’t normally a problem for me, but the vodka complicated things a bit.
“Georgina,” she exclaimed, once we were far enough away from Seth. “I need your help.” Reaching into her purse, she pulled out two pages torn from magazines.
“With wha—oh.” My stomach twisted uncomfortably, and I hoped I wouldn’t be joining Doug in the bathroom. The pages showed photos of wedding dresses.
“I’ve almost narrowed it down,” she explained. “What do you think?”
Grudgingly accepting the man I loved was going to marry one of my best friends was one thing. Helping them plan their wedding was an entirely different matter. I swallowed.
“Oh, gee, Maddie. I’m not very good at this stuff.”
Her dark eyes widened. “Are you kidding? You’re the one who taught me how to dress right in the first place.”
She apparently hadn’t taken the lessons to heart. The dresses, while beautiful on the anorexic models wearing them, would look terrible on Maddie. “I don’t know,” I said lamely, dragging my eyes away. The dresses were conjuring mental images of Maddie and Seth walking down the aisle together.
“Come on,” she entreated. “I know you have an opinion.”
I did. A bad one. And honestly, if I were a good servant of Hell, I would have told her they both looked great. Or I would have endorsed the worst one. What she wore was no concern of mine, and maybe if she showed up at her wedding looking sub-par, Seth would realize what he’d lost when we broke up.
And yet…I couldn’t. Even after everything that had happened, I just couldn’t let Maddie do it. She’d been a good friend, never suspecting what had happened between Seth and me before and during their relationship. And as much as that petty, selfish part of me wanted it, I couldn’t let her go forward in a bad dress.
“Neither are good,” I said at last. “The full skirt on that one will make you look short. The flowers on top of that one will make you look fat.”
She was taken aback. “Really? I never…” She studied the pictures, face falling. “Damn. I thought I had this stuff down now.”
I can only assume my next words came from the liquor. “If you want, I’ll go with you to some places this week. You can try some stuff on, and I’ll tell you what works.”
Maddie lit up. She wasn’t gorgeous in the popular, magazine sort of way, but when she smiled, she was beautiful. “Really? Oh, thank you. And you can look for your dress, too.”
“Well…” Her smile turned sly. “You’re going to be a bridesmaid, aren’t you?”
At that moment, I reconsidered my earlier thoughts about nothing being more painful than helping plan her wedding. Being her bridesmaid pretty much blew that out of the water. Those who believed we made our own hells on earth must have had something like this in mind.
“Oh, well, I don’t know…”
“You have to! There’s no one else I’d rather have.”
“I’m not really the bridesmaid type.”
“Of course you are.” Maddie’s eyes suddenly looked at something beyond me. “Oh, hey. Doug’s back. I’m going to go check on him. We’ll talk about this later. You’ll give in.” Maddie scurried off to her brother, leaving me numb and speechless. I decided then it was worth risking illness to go get another drink. This party had taken a definite U-turn.
Yet, when I turned around, it wasn’t toward the bar. It was toward my patio. One of the best features of this condo was its expansive balcony, one that looked out over Puget Sound and the Seattle skyline beyond. As I stood there, though, it wasn’t the view that captivated me. It was…something else. Something I couldn’t explain. But it was warm and wonderful and spoke to all my senses. I imagined I could see colored light on my balcony, kind of like the waves of an aurora. I could also hear a type of music that defied all human words and had nothing to do with the Pink Floyd blasting from my stereo.
The party faded into the background as I slowly moved toward the balcony. The door was open to air out the hot room, and my two cats, Aubrey and Godiva, lay near it to look outside. I stepped past them, drawn toward that which had no explanation or description. Warm autumn air engulfed me as I groped for what called me. It was all around me and yet out of my reach. It was summoning me, drawing me toward something right on the balcony’s edge. I almost considered climbing on the ledge in my heels and looking over. I had to reach that beauty.
Peter’s voice jerked me out of the trance. I stared around, startled. There was no music, no color, no beckoning embrace. Only the night and the view and the patio furniture on my balcony. I turned around, meeting his eyes.
“We have a problem,” he said.
“We have a lot of problems,” I said, thinking of Maddie’s wedding dress and the fact that I’d nearly walked off my own balcony. I shivered. I definitely was not going back for that next drink. Sick was one thing. Hallucinations were another. “What’s wrong?”
Peter led me inside and pointed. “Cody’s in love.”
I looked over at our friend Cody, another vampire and Peter’s apprentice. Cody was a young immortal, optimistic and endearing. He was dressed as an alien, with green antennae sticking out of his shaggy blond hair. The perfection of his silvery spacesuit made me think Peter had played a role. Right now, Cody was staring across the room, mouth open as he gazed at someone. He looked like I had felt just moments ago.
Her name was Gabrielle, and she’d just started working at the bookstore. She was tiny, almost pixie like, and wore black fishnets and a ripped black dress. Her spiky hair was also black, as was her lipstick. Easy coordination. Cody was staring at her like she was the most beautiful creature on earth.
“Huh,” I said. Hugh dated all the time, but I’d never really thought of the vampires—particularly Peter—having any sort of romantic interactions.
“I think he likes that she’s dressed as a vampire,” said Peter.
I shook my head. “Actually, that’s how she always dresses.”
We walked over to Cody, and it took him several moments to notice us. He seemed excited to see me. “What’s her name?” he breathed.
I tried to hide my smile. Cody being smitten was one of the cutest things I’d ever seen and a welcome distraction from the other drama tonight. “Gabrielle. She works at the store.”
“Is she single?”
I looked back at her as she laughed at something Maddie had said. “I don’t know. Want me to find out?”
Cody blushed—in as much as a pale vampire could. “No! I mean…unless you think it wouldn’t be too obvious? I don’t want you to go to any trouble.”
“No trouble for me,” I said, just as Doug walked by. “Hey.” I caught hold of his sleeve. “Do me a favor, and I’ll take my shift back.”
Doug, whose Japanese-American skin was normally golden-tan, could have also currently passed for an alien with his green hue. “I’d rather have my stomach back, Kincaid.”
“Go investigate Gabrielle’s romantic status. Cody’s interested.”
“Georgina!” exclaimed Cody, mortified.
Sick or not, Doug couldn’t resist a little intrigue. “Sure thing.”
He headed off across the room and pulled Gabrielle to him, leaning down so she could hear. At one point, he glanced over toward us, and Gabrielle looked as well. Cody nearly died.
Doug returned five minutes later and shook his head. “Sorry, kid. She’s single, but she doesn’t think you’re her type. She’s into the Goth and vampire scene. You’re too mainstream for her.” I was sipping a glass of water and nearly choked on it.
“That,” said Peter, as soon as Doug was gone, “is what we call irony.”
“How is that possible?” exclaimed Cody. “I am a vampire. I should be exactly what she wants.”
“Yeah, but you don’t look like one,” I said.
“I look exactly like one because I am one! What should I dress up as? Count Chocula?”
The party continued in force for another couple of hours, and finally, people began trickling out. Roman and I, playing good hosts, smiled and bade each of them farewell. By the time everyone left, I was weary and more than happy for it all to be over. I’d refused to drink after the balcony incident and now had a headache as a pleasant reminder of my indulgences. Roman looked as exhausted as me as he scanned the messy condo.
“Funny, huh? You throw a housewarming party to show the place off, and then people trash it.”
“It’ll clean up fast,” I said, studying all the bottles and paper plates with remnants of food. Aubrey was licking frosting off a half-eaten cupcake, and I hastily took it away from her. “But not tonight. Help me take care of the perishables, and we’ll do the rest tomorrow.”
“There’s no ‘we’ in ‘clean,’” Roman said.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” I said, covering up some salsa. “And Peter’s right, you know. You really should do more around here.”
“I provide good company. Besides, how can you get rid of me?”
“I’ll get Jerome to,” I warned, referring to his demon father, who also happened to be my boss.
“Sure. Run off and tell on me.” Roman stifled a yawn, demonstrating just how worried he was about his father’s wrath. The annoying part was, he had a point. I couldn’t get rid of him on my own, and I doubted Jerome would really help. Still, I could hardly believe it when Roman did wander off to bed and leave me alone with the clean-up. I hadn’t thought he go that far.
“Asshole!” I yelled after him, getting only a slammed door in response. He really wasn’t that bad of a roommate, but our troubled past often made him want to annoy me. It worked.
Fuming, I finished the necessary tidying and dropped into bed a half-hour later. Aubrey and Godiva followed me, lying side by side at the end of the bed. They were a contrast in colors, like some piece of modern art. Aubrey was white with black specks on her head; Godiva was a riot of orange, brown, and black patches. All three of us drifted off to sleep immediately.
Sometime later, I woke to the sound of singing…or, well, that was the closest I could come to describing it. It was the same thing I’d felt earlier, an alluring, haunting pull that spoke to every part of me. Warm and bright and beautiful. It was everywhere and everything, and I longed to have more of it, to walk toward the light that shone with indescribable colors. It felt so, so good—like something I could melt into, if only I could reach it. I had the impression of an entrance, a door I simply had to push open and step through and—
Rough hands gripped my shoulders and jerked me around. “Wake up!”
Like before, the sensory overload vanished. I was left alone in a quiet, empty world. No more siren song. Roman was standing in front of me, hands shaking me as his face stared down at me with worry. I looked around. We were in the kitchen. I had no memory of getting there.
“How…what happened?” I stammered.
The face that had taunted me earlier was now filled with concern, something that troubled a small part of me. Why should someone who wanted to kill me be worried about me?
“You tell me,” he said, releasing his grip.
I rubbed my eyes, willing myself to recall what had happened. “I…I don’t know. I must have sleep-walked…”
His face was still drawn and anxious. “No…there was something here…”
I shook my head. “No, it was a dream. Or a hallucination. I had it happen earlier…I just drank too much.”
“Didn’t you just hear me?” There it was again, fear for me underneath the anger. “There was something here, some…force. I felt it. It woke me up. Don’t you remember anything at all?”
I stared off, trying to summon up the light and haunting melody. I couldn’t. “It was…it was exquisite. I wanted…I wanted to go to it…to be part of it…” There was a dreamy, wistful note in my voice.
Roman’s expression grew dark. As a succubus, I was a lesser immortal, one who had once been human. Greater immortals, like angels and demons, had been created at the universe’s beginning. Nephilim were born and fell somewhere in the middle. As such, their powers and senses were greater than mine. Roman could detect things I couldn’t.
“Don’t,” he said. “You feel it again, you pull away. Don’t let it draw you in. Under no circumstances should you go to it.”
I looked back at him with a frown. “Why? Do you know what it is?”
“No,” he said grimly. “And that’s the problem.”