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It took me a moment to really comprehend that in 30 seconds, the conversation had gone from a deeply seriously mystery about my love life to bowling for demonic bragging rights. And yet, this wasn’t a particularly unusual pattern in my world.
“And by ‘we,’” added Jerome. “I mean you four.” He nodded toward Peter, Cody, Hugh, and me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Let me make sure I’m following this right. You’ve signed us up for some sort of bowling league. One that you aren’t even going to participate in. And this is somehow going to prove your employees’ ‘evilness’ to the world.”
“Don’t be silly. I can’t participate. Bowling teams only have four people.” He didn’t comment on the proving evilness part.
“Well, hey, I’ll totally yield my spot to you,” I said. “I’m not that great a bowler.”
“You’d better become one.” Jerome’s voice grew cold. “All of you had, if you know what’s good for you. Nanette will be impossible to live with at the next company meeting if you lot lose.”
“Gee, Jerome. I love bowling,” said Carter. “How come you never mentioned this to me before?”
Jerome and Carter held gazes for several heavy seconds. “Because, unless you’re ready to take a fall for the team, you can’t really compete with us.”
A funny smile fell over Carter’s face. His gray eyes glinted. “I see.”
“I don’t really like your use of ‘us,’ seeing as you’ve already written off any participation on your part,” I pointed out to Jerome, imitating his earlier snide tone.
Peter sighed, looking rather woebegone. “Where on earth am I going to find tasteful bowling shoes?”
“What’s our team name going to be?” asked Cody. That immediately degenerated into a conversation of truly terrible suggestions, such as Soulless in Seattle and Split Decision. After almost an hour, I couldn’t handle any more.
“I think I’m going to go home,” I said, standing up. I had kind of wanted dessert but was afraid I’d be drafted for beach volleyball and cricket if I stayed much longer. “I brought the wine. You guys don’t really need me anymore.”
“When you get home, tell my wayward offspring that I need him to coach you guys,” said Jerome.
“By ‘home,’ I actually meant Seth’s,” I said. “But if I see Roman, I’ll let him know you’ve found a good use for his formidable cosmic powers.” Roman—Jerome’s half-human son and my roommate—actually was a pretty good bowler, but I didn’t want to encourage Jerome.
“Wait!” Peter sprang up after me. “You have to draw for Secret Santas first.”
“Oh, come on—”
“No complaining,” he argued. He hurried to the kitchen and returned with a ceramic cookie jar shaped like a snowman. He thrust it toward me. “Draw. Whatever name you get is who you’re buying for, so don’t try to get out of it.”
I drew a piece of paper and opened it up. Georgina.
Peter held up a hand to silence me. “You drew the name. That’s who you’ve got. No arguments.”
His stern look stopped me from any more protests. “Well,” I pointed out pragmatically, “at least I have a few ideas.”
To his credit, Peter sent me home with some chocolate fondue sauce and a Tupperware bowl filled with fruit and marshmallows. Hugh and Cody were running forward with the bowling team plan, trying to come up with a practice schedule. Jerome and Carter said little and instead kept watching each in other a speculative, knowing way that was typical of them. It was hard to read much on their faces, but for once, Jerome gave off the vibe of having the upper hand.
I left Capitol Hill for Seattle’s University District and Seth’s condo. All the windows were dark when I pulled up, and I couldn’t help a smile. It was almost eleven. Seth must have called it an early night, something I’d been urging him to do for a while. Thinking of that, my smile faded as quickly as it had come. A few months ago, Seth’s sister-in-law, Andrea, had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The disease had been pretty far advanced when caught, and although she’d almost immediately gone into treatment, the outcome still wasn’t promising. Worse, the treatments had taken a huge physical toll on her, one that was testing the family’s strength. Seth was frequently helping them out, especially when his brother Terry was working, since it was harder for Andrea to care for their five daughters now. Seth had been sacrificing both sleep and his writing career to look after them.
I knew it was necessary. I loved Seth’s family and had helped them out as well. But I still hated seeing Seth run himself down and knew that it hurt him to put his work on hold. He claimed his writing was the least of his problems right now and had time before deadlines were an issue, particularly since his next two books were queued for printing next year. I couldn’t argue against that, but the sleep issue? Yeah, I was on him a lot about that and glad to see my words had gotten through tonight.
I used my key to let myself in and slipped through the condo as silently as possible. I practically lived here lately and had no trouble finding my way around furniture in the darkness. When I reached his bedroom, I could just barely make out his form wrapped up in covers, softly outlined in the light of his alarm clock. I quietly took off my coat and then shape-shifted into a cotton babydoll nightgown. It was sexy but not blatantly so. I planned on sleeping with him tonight, for real.
I slid into bed and pressed myself up against his back, lightly tossing an arm over him. He stirred slightly, and I couldn’t resist pressing a kiss against his bare shoulder. The scent of cinnamon and musk washed over me as he snuggled closer. Despite sternly chastising myself that he needed to sleep, I lightly ran my fingers along his arm and sneaked in another kiss.
“Mmm,” he murmured, rolling over toward me. “That feels nice.”
A few things hit me at once. First, Seth didn’t wear any sort of cologne or aftershave that smelled like cinnamon. Second, Seth’s voice didn’t sound like that. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Seth wasn’t in bed with me.
I didn’t mean to scream as loudly as I did. It just kind of happened.
I was out of the bed in a flash, groping for the light switch on the wall while the intruder attempted to get up. He ended up getting tangled in the covers and falling off the bed with a loud thump, just as I found the light. I promptly reached for a weapon, but seeing as this was Seth’s bedroom, my options were limited. The heaviest, most dangerous object I could readily grab a hold of was Seth’s dictionary, a leather-bound monstrosity that he kept on hand because he “didn’t trust the internet.”
I stood poised and ready to literally throw the book at the intruder as he scrambled to his feet. As he did and I got a good look at him, I noticed something crazy. He looked…familiar. Not only that, but he kind of looked like Seth.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“Who are you?” he exclaimed. He seemed more confused than anything else. I don’t think he found the threat of a 5’4” woman with a dictionary all that frightening.
Before I could answer, a hand touched my arm. I yelped and threw the dictionary out of instinct. The guy dodged, letting the book crash harmlessly against the wall. I spun around to see who’d touched me and found myself looking into the eyes of a white-haired woman with gold cat-eye glasses. She was wearing flowered pajama bottoms and a pink sweatshirt with a crossword puzzle on it. She was also wielding a baseball bat, which was pretty astonishing—not just because it was more dangerous than a dictionary but also because I hadn’t known Seth owned one.
“What are you doing here?” she asked fiercely. She glanced over at the shirtless, dumbfounded guy. “Are you okay?”
For half a second, I actually toyed with the idea that I had somehow let myself into someone else’s condo. Like, maybe I was just one door over. This scene was so ridiculous that a mix-up seemed far more likely. It was only the obvious evidence—like my key and Seth’s University of Chicago teddy bear watching this spectacle—that drove home the fact that I was indeed where I was supposed to be.
Suddenly, the sound of the front door opening and closing rang through the condo. “Hello?” came a blessedly familiar voice.
“Seth!” exclaimed all three of us in unison.
Moments later, Seth appeared in the doorway. As usual, he looked adorable. His reddish brown hair was typically unkempt, and he was wearing a Dirty Dancing T-shirt that I’d never seen before. Despite my panic and confusion over this current situation, the concerned part of me still noted the little signs of fatigue on Seth’s face, the dark circles and lines of weariness. He was thirty-six and usually looked younger than his age. Not today.
“Seth,” said the bat-wielding woman. “This lady broke into your house.”
He looked at each of us in turn before resting his gaze on her. “Mom,” he said quietly, “that’s my girlfriend. Please don’t bludgeon her.”
“Since when do you have a girlfriend?” asked the guy.
“Since when do you have a baseball bat?” I asked, recovering my composure.
Seth cut me a wry look before gently trying to remove the bat from the woman’s hands. She didn’t let go. “Georgina, this is my mom, Margaret Mortensen. And that’s my brother Ian. Guys, this is Georgina.”
“Hi,” I said, feeling surprise of a different sort. I’d heard a lot about Seth’s mother and younger brother but hadn’t expected to meet them anytime soon. Seth’s mother didn’t like to fly, and Ian was…well, from the stories Seth and Terry told, Ian was just hard to track down in general. He was the wayward Mortensen brother.
Margaret relinquished the bat and put on a polite but wary smile. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Ditto,” said Ian. I now understood why he looked familiar. Aside from the fact I’d probably seen a picture of him somewhere, he also shared some of the features as Seth and Terry. He was tall like Seth but with Terry’s thinner face. Ian’s hair was all brown, with no coppery hint, but it had that same messy look to that Seth’s did. Except, on closer examination, I had the feeling Ian’s had been purposely styled that way with the help of much time and product.
Seth suddenly did a double-take between Ian and me. He didn’t even have to say anything for me to guess the question on his mind. Or questions, perhaps. My nightgown and Ian’s shirtlessness undoubtedly raised a number of them.
Ian’s defense came swift and certain. “She got into bed with me.”
“I thought he was you,” I said.
Seth’s mother made a strange noise in her throat.
“You were supposed to be on the couch,” said Seth accusingly.
Ian shrugged. “It’s uncomfortable. And you weren’t home yet, so I figured there was no harm done. How was I supposed to know some woman was going to come manhandle me in my sleep?”
“I didn’t manhandle you!” I cried.
Seth rubbed his eyes, again reminding me how exhausted he was. “Look, what’s done is done. Why don’t we all just go to bed—where we’re supposed to—and then get to know each other in the morning, okay?”
Margaret eyed me. “She’s going to sleep in here? With you?”
“Yes, Mom,” he said patiently. “With me. Because I’m a grown man. And this is my home. And because in thirty-six years, this isn’t the first woman to stay over with me.”
His mother looked aghast, and I groped for a more comfortable topic. “Your shirt’s great.” Now that she wasn’t threatening to strike me, I could see that the crossword spelled out her five granddaughters’ names. “I love the girls.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Each one of them is a blessing, born within the holy confines of wedlock.”
Before I could even fumble a response to that, Ian groaned. “Lord, Mom. Is that from that website I told you not to order from? You know their stuff’s made in China. I know this woman who could have made you one out of sustainable organic fabric.”
“Hemp is a drug, not a fabric,” she told him.
“Good night, you guys,” said Seth, pointing his brother to the door. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
Margaret and Ian murmured their good-nights, and she paused to kiss Seth on the cheek—which I actually thought was pretty cute. When they were gone and the door was closed, Seth sat on his bed and buried his face in his hands.
“So,” I said, coming to sit beside him. “Exactly how many women have stayed over in thirty-six years?”
He looked up. “None who were caught by my mother in so little clothing.”
I plucked at the skirt of the nightgown. “This? This is tame.”
“I’m sorry about that,” he added, waving vaguely toward the door. “I should’ve called and warned you. They just drove into town tonight—unannounced, of course. Ian can’t be expected to do what people expect. It would ruin his reputation. They showed up at Terry’s, but there’s no room for them there, so I sent them on ahead since they were so tired. I had no idea it would result in you trying to sleep with my brother.”
“Kidding, kidding.” He picked up my hand and kissed the top of it. “How are you? How was your day?”
“Well, I tried my best to keep Santa from getting drunk and then found out Jerome signed us up for a Hellish bowling league.”
“I see,” said Seth. “So. The usual.”
“Pretty much. What about you?”
The small smile that had been tugging at his lips fell. “Aside from unexpected family? The usual, too. Terry was out late with work stuff, so I was there all night with the girls while Andrea rested. Kendall has to build a paper-mache solar system, so that was fun for everyone.” He held up his hands and wiggled fingers coated in white powder.
“And let me guess. No writing?”
He shrugged. “It’s not important.”
“You should’ve called me. I could’ve watched them while you wrote.”
“You were working and then…what, it was fondue night, right?” He stood up and stripped off his shirt and jeans, getting down to green flannel boxers.
“How did you know that?” I asked. “I barely knew that.”
“I was on Peter’s email list.”
“Well, regardless, it doesn’t matter. And that mall job is nothing. I could have been over here in a flash.”
He stepped into his bathroom and returned a few moments later with a toothbrush in his mouth. “That job is nuffing. Haf any of your interfeews panned out?”
“No,” I said, not adding that I hadn’t gone on any other interviews. Everything paled compared to Emerald City.
The conversation was put on pause while he finished brushing his teeth. “You should be doing something better,” he said, once he was done.
“I’m fine where I’m at. I don’t mind it. But you…you can’t keep going on like this. You’re not getting enough sleep or working.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He turned off the light and crawled into bed. In the dimness, I saw him pat the spot beside him. “Come over here. It’s just me, I promise.”
I smiled and curled up beside him. “Ian didn’t smell right, you know. I mean, he smelled good, but not like you.”
“I’m sure he spends gratuitous amounts of money to smell good,” muttered Seth through a yawn.
“What’s he do for a living?”
“Hard to say. He’s always got new jobs. Or no job. Whatever money he’s got goes toward carefully maintaining his hard-fought effortless lifestyle. Have you seen his coat?”
“No. The only clothing of his I’ve seen is his boxers.”
“Ah. Well, it must be in the living room. It looks like it came from a thrift store but probably cost four figures.” He sighed. “Although, I shouldn’t be too hard on him. I mean, yeah, he’ll probably hit me up for money while he’s here, but I can’t knock him and Mom coming out to help. At the very least, they can help watch the kids now.”
I wrapped my arms around Seth and breathed in his scent. It was the right one, and it was intoxicating. “And you can catch up on some writing.”
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. I just hope I’m not babysitting Mom and Ian more than the girls.”
“How bad of an impression did I make on her?” I asked.
“Not that bad. I mean, no worse than any woman—scantily clad or otherwise—would’ve made who was spending the night with me.” He kissed my forehead. “She’s not so bad. Don’t be fooled by her conservative Midwest grandma act. I think you guys will get along.”
I wanted to ask if Maddie had met Margaret and, if so, how they’d gotten along. I bit my tongue on the question. It didn’t matter. It was in the past, and Seth and I were the present. Sometimes, especially staying here as much as I did, I felt a little weird remembering that Maddie had lived with him too. There were still little touches here and there that bore the mark of her influence. For example, Margaret was most likely staying in Seth’s office, which had a futon, courtesy of Maddie’s ingenuity. She’d been the one to suggest he get one to help make the office double as a guestroom. Maddie had gone; the futon had stayed.
I tried not to think about those things very often, though. In the big picture, they didn’t matter. Seth and I had come through too much for me to get hung up on something like that. We’d overcome the problems in our relationship. I’d accepted his mortality and his decision to risk his life by being physical with me. True, I still rationed our sex life, but the fact that I allowed it at all was a big concession for me. Meanwhile, he accepted the terrible truth that I was often out sleeping with other men in order to sustain my existence. They were difficult things for us both, but they were worth it for us to be together. Everything we’d gone through was worth it.
“I love you,” I told him.
He placed a soft kiss on my lips and pulled me closer. “I love you too.” Then, in an echo of my thoughts, he added, “You make it all worthwhile. All this stuff I’m dealing with…I can do it because you’re in my life, Thetis.”
Thetis. That was his long-time nickname for me, coming from the shape-shifting goddess in Greek mythology who’d been won by a steadfast mortal. He called me that all the time—and Letha, only once. I thought again about that night. The troubled feelings it stirred never seemed to go away, but I once again tried to force them aside. It was another of those little things that I was trying not to let bug me. It was nothing compared to the greatness of our love, and like my friends had said, Seth had probably overheard the name.
I fell into a contented sleep, only to be awakened abruptly around dawn. My eyes flew open, and I sat upright. Seth shifted and rolled over but wasn’t awakened by my sudden movement. I stared around the room, my heart racing. I’d been jolted out of sleep by an immortal presence, one I didn’t know. It had felt demonic.
There was nothing here now, visible or invisible, but I knew for a fact some servant of Hell had just been in the room. This wasn’t the first time I’d had unwelcome visitors in my sleep, often ones with nefarious intentions. Of course, I’d felt this demon just now, and demons—being higher immortals, not a lesser human-turned-immortal like me—could mask their immortal signature. If he or she had wanted to sneak around or hurt me unannounced, it could have done so. Whoever this was hadn’t cared about discovery.
I slipped out of bed and continued studying the room, looking for some sign or reason for the demon’s passage. I was certain there would be one. There. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of red—in my purse. There was a business envelope sitting on top of it. I hurried over and scooped up the envelope. It was warm to my touch, but as I quietly opened it, I began to feel cold. That feeling intensified as I pulled out a letter printed on official Hell stationery. No good could come of this.
Sunset had filtered more than enough light into the room to read by. The letter was addressed to Letha (alias: Georgina Kincaid), from Hell’s HR:
This is the 30 day notice for your transfer. Your new assignment will begin on January 15. Please make travel arrangements to leave Seattle and report to your new location in a timely manner.