Chapter 21I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life, and that's saying something.
It was actually the cold air that woke me, blowing in through the shattered windows and whipping the curtains around. Seattle had mild winters, but it was still November. I shape-shifted on a heavy sweater and then noticed that Sol's blood had not disappeared from my skin during last night's transformation, the blood had dried to fine, glittering red crystals on me and everything else. I picked up his discarded silk shirt and discovered it did a pretty good job at wiping them off.
The previous night was a blur, and I had trouble remembering the fine details. I supposed I could blame whatever mystery liquid I'd drank for that. Looking around at the wreckage brought a lot of the events back to me, and the rest I pieced together. Not wanting to linger in this place, I found my cell phone and called for a cab.
As I rode back into Seattle, I decided I wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep some more. My shift didn't start until later; Doug was opening. Wait. No, he wasn't. Doug was in a hospital bed. Sighing, I directed the driver to take me to the bookstore.
Three voice-mail messages waited for me when I arrived in the office. One was from the author we had doing a signing that night, E. J. Putnam. All was in order with his flight; he expected to be here as scheduled. The second message was Beth calling in sick. Jesus. Couldn't anyone stay healthy anymore? That put us down two people now. Warren wrapped up the messages, saying he'd be back from Florida later today and would stop in tonight. I decided to be mad at him out of sheer principle. I'd spent the last week dealing with chaos; he'd been golfing in eighty degree weather.
I got the store running and then staked out a register. Short-staffing will keep a person busy, at least. It gave me little time to reflect on last night's events. Or Doug. Or the fact that Seth hadn't come in today. Or my fight with Bastien."Are you Georgina?"
I looked up into the face of a pretty Japanese-American woman. Her face and build just barely crossed over into plumpness, and she wore her black hair in a high ponytail. Something about her smile seemed familiar."I'm Maddie Sato," she explained, extending a hand. "Doug's sister." I shook her hand, astonished. "I didn't know Doug had a sister. " Her smile quirked a little. "Lots of them, actually. We're kind of spread out around the country. We all sort of do our own thing." "So you came to…see Doug?" I hesitated to bring up such a delicate subject, but why else would she be here? She nodded. "I've been with him this morning. He's doing great and said to tell you hello." That was the best news I could have received. "He woke up." "Yes. He's grumpy and punchy but otherwise fine. He said he has some CDs in your office he wants. He asked if I could pick them up." "Sure, I'll show you," I said, leading her toward the back. Wow. Doug's sister. "How'd you find out about Doug?" "Seth Mortensen called me." I stumbled and nearly walked into a display of gardening books. "How do you know Seth?"
"I write for Womanspeak magazine. Seth had some questions about a feminist organization that he needed answered for his book, and Doug gave him my e-mail address about a month ago. So, we've been in touch a couple times. When Doug…got sick, Seth tracked down my number in Salem and called last night. "
Part of me felt a little jealous that Seth had an e-mail correspondence with her that I hadn't known about, but I immediately quashed such feelings. What he'd done had been terribly considerate. And typical of him. Quietly efficient and kind. I led Maddie into the office and found the CDs in a drawer."Did you drive up last night or this morning?" She shook her head. "Actually Seth picked me up." "I…what? In Salem? That's, like, four hours away." "I know. It was really nice. I don't have a car, so he drove right down after he called, got me in the middle of the night, and then brought me to Doug."
My God. Seth had made an eight-hour round-trip last night. No wonder he wasn't here; he'd gone home to crash. That also meant he hadn't necessarily taken off from the hospital to get away from me. He'd done it to help Doug. A pleasant flutter spread through me at this, half of it relief, half of it a response to still more evidence of Seth's continuing decency and consideration of others.Maddie left me her cell phone number and promised to send my good wishes to Doug. As she was leaving my office, Janice entered it. "Hey Georgina, Lorelei Biljan's here." "Oh, okay. Wait." I did a double take. "You mean E. J. Putnam. "
"No. It's definitely Lorelei. E. J.'s a guy." "I know that," I said. "But her signing's a week from today. Putnam's is today. I had a message about it and everything.""I don't know. I just know she's here."
A horrible sinking feeling built up in me. I followed Janice out and shook hands with a small, solidly built middle-aged woman. I'd seen Lorelei Biljan's pictures in her books. Everything was the same from her brown pixie haircut to her characteristic black clothing."I'm going to see some sights today but wanted to check in first," she told me. "Oh. Okay. Great." I smiled thinly, willing myself to keep breathing.
We chatted a little bit more, and as soon as she was gone, I tore back to Paige's office and ransacked her desk. Sure enough, her schedules showed both authors coming in today. On the master staff calendar, however, she'd put them on separate days. Our own in-store posters also had them on separate days, but checking newspaper ads, I saw them again scheduled for the same day. Our website declared both appeared today, which meant we'd have fans of both here tonight.Good grief. This was like some bad,clichédsitcom. We had two dates for the dance.
I sat at Paige's desk and rubbed my temples. How had this happened? How had perfect, efficient Paige messed up? I quickly answered my own questions: because she had other things on her mind. She had an increasingly complicated pregnancy on her hands, one that had kept her out for almost three weeks now. A distraction like that would let anyone make mistakes. Unfortunately, I had to deal with them.
Andy stuck his head inside. "Oh, hey, there you are. Bruce said to ask you if any of us can help in the café.They're short. And Seth just called the store's main line. Said to tell you he can't do the thing tomorrow. "
"Seth called?" I asked stupidly. So he wasn't asleep. And the "thing" tomorrow had been a date to see a local Celtic band play at a pub. But he was cancelling. The noble reasons I had attributed to him for keeping away from me suddenly seemed less altruistic. "Okay. Thanks."
I stared into space. My world was falling apart around me. I wasn't speaking to the two men I cared about the most. I was in charge of a bookstore that didn't have enough people to run it. Two authors were coming tonight, each expecting to have center stage to promote their books. We didn't have room for that. And to top it all off, I felt like shit. The residual effects of that drug had left me with a wicked headache, and I hadn't gotten nearly enough sleep. Killing a god will really wear you out.
I had too much to do and not enough energy or willpower to do it. Let alone the means. I needed a miracle. Divine intervention. And as feasible as that might seem in my line of work, it probably wasn't going to happen. Unless…Divine intervention?
I found my purse and pulled out one of the packets of ambrosia. Those weird crystals pulsed out at me as I stared at them. What would happen? Nocturnal Admission had risen to stardom in a short time on these. Could I survive one hellish day at work? Would these give me the stamina and know-how to get through it? Or would I just turn into a slobbering sex kitten? I no longer believed Sol had given these to me last night. That had indeed been a date-rape drug. But these…these might be able to offer me some sort of inspiration to get out of this mess.
Of course, there was the whole dangerous addiction and withdrawal problem. But this was my first time. Even mortals had to go through a couple doses before things got nasty, and Carter had said it would take even longer for me to hit the downside. I was probably safe, so long as I didn't get too into whatever it was I was about to become.
Maybe it was the fatigue, but I didn't hesitate further. Don't overthink it, just act. I ordered a white-chocolate mocha from thecaféand dumped the crystals in once I was back in my office. "Bottoms up," I muttered, just before knocking it all back.
When I'd finished, I rested my head on the desk and waited for something to happen. Anything. Mostly I still felt sleepy. I yawned. When did this stuff kick in? How would I know? And good grief, what would I do if this turned into a disaster too? What if it made my day worse? I mean, not that it could get worse. I had two authors booked for tonight. The jealousy Tammi had once joked about could very well occur. Two was a bad number. Two led to rivalry. Add more, and it becomes a friendly group matter, not a one-on-one competition for space and spotlight. I'd been to big events where lots of authors spoke and read. Sometimes they sat on a panel and answered questions together about writing, inspiration, and publishing. Getting those perspectives was neat. It was a cool opportunity for fans of all the writers, and then later, said fans could have books signed by multiple authors. Those events were big deals. They took a lot of planning and a lot of advertising, not to mention a lot of staff.
I sat up a couple minutes later, realizing I'd long since jolted to alertness. I didn't have time to note when that had happened or what it meant. I had too many things to do. My mind raced. In a flash, I was out on the main floor, hunting down Andy. I handed him a staff roster.
"I need you to call every person who's not working today—except for the sick ones. See if they'll come in. Preferably for the rest of the day. If not, we'll take what we can get. Then ask everyone here who's not closing if they can close. Tell them they'll get time-and-a-half."
Andy stared as though he'd never seen me before, but I didn't give him time to question me. I went back to my office, paged Maria, and called Maddie Sato while I waited. When Maddie answered, I explained to her what I hoped she could do for me. She sounded surprised by my request, but she agreed nonetheless. She also promised to make another phone call for me that I wasn't too keen on making myself.
Maria appeared just as Maddie and I hung up. Maria worked part-time and was shy and quiet. She preferred to avoid the registers if she could, being much happier lost in the shelves. She was also an amazing artist.I handed her a piece of poster board from our supply cabinet. "I need you to make a poster for tonight's event." "The signing?" she asked. "Er, signings?" Everyone had heard about the double booking by now.
"Not just a signing. It's a literary extravaganza. It's…" I came up with and then promptly rejected several possibilities. "It's the Emerald Lit Fest." Boring, but straightforward. Sometimes that was better than a gimmick.
"Yes. The first annual one. And put on here that these authors will be there." I handed her a list I'd already made up. "Mention that they'll autograph books. And that we'll have drawings for prizes." I thought some more, making it up as I went along. The ideas just leapt off my tongue. "And that 10 percent of all sales will be donated to the Puget Sound's Literacy Project.""Wow," she said. "I didn't know all this was going on." "Yeah," I agreed briskly. "Me either. Draw it, type it, cut and paste, whatever. Just do it. I need it in twenty minutes. And it needs to look good. "
She blinked and then immediately set to work. While she did, I made phone calls. Print ads were a no-go, but almost everyone had a website. I called the big papers and the small artsy ones. I also called the local writers' groups and convinced them to e-mail their members. Finally, I called radio stations. They were less willing to do anything on short notice, but they were my best bet at immediate advertising. I could have the DJs mention us without a formal commercial. That took a bit of finagling, but we had an account with most of them already that guaranteed payment, and the charitable angle was hard to resist. Okay, I was hard to resist. Even over the phone, I could hear myself wooing and persuading with an unholy skill. Maria stopped working at one point to stare at me with an almost hypnotized look. Shaking her head, she returned to her poster.Andy popped in with the annotated roster. We hadn't roped in quite as many as I would have liked, but we'd definitely increased our numbers. And most of the current staff was staying. Maria finished her poster just then, and it did look good. I drove to the print shop that usually handled our business and turned the poster over to them. "No," the manager told me flatly, making my manic flurry of activity come to a screeching halt. "I can't do all that in under an hour. Three hours maybe. " "Hour and a half?" I cajoled. "It's for charity. An emergency situation just came up." She frowned. "An emergency literacy situation?" "Literacy is always an emergency. Do you know how many children in the Puget Sound area struggle with reading due to lack of resources and education?" Fortunately, being in the book business, I knew all the grim stats. By the time I was done with her, that battle-axe was nearly in tears. She'd do my order, she promised, and she'd do it in my original hour.
While those were being printed, I traveled over to Foster's Books. Locally owned, that store wasn't as big as Emerald City, but it had the same sort of reputation as a local landmark. Technically, we were rivals.Garrett Foster, the owner, looked up when I entered. "Looking for a job?" "I've got one for you," I told him sweetly, leaning on his counter. "I need you to get in touch with Abel Warshawski for me." Abel Warshawski was a reclusive local author who wrote wildly popular books about the Pacific Northwest. He and Garrett were longtime friends, so Abel only did appearances at Foster's. Garrett arched a grizzled eyebrow. "Abel only comes here. You know that. " "I do. Which is why I didn't ask for his number."
I laid into Garrett then about how half of Emerald City's staff were in dire health. I talked about charity and literacy statistics. I pointed out that we weren't technically rivals anyway, since he was in Capitol Hill and I was in Queen Anne. Besides, the book industry was like a family. We all had the same goals."My God, woman," he murmured when I finished. I didn't think I'd taken a breath during my entire spiel. "Are you sure you don't want a new job?" "I just want Abel for the night." He bit his lip. "Think we could get Mortensen over here for a signing some time?" "Hmm." I considered this. Bartering was in my blood. "That depends. You guys close a few hours earlier than us, right? Think we could get a few of you to help us out tonight? Paid, of course." "You've got some balls," he muttered. He stared at me, still thinking, but I knew I had him. He couldn't resist. "Okay, but only if we get Mortensen during a hot time— around his next release." "Done." I didn't like sharing Seth, but lots of big authors made multiple Seattle appearances when a new book came out. I hoped Seth didn't mind being whored out. Oh, well. That was for later.
Before I left, I bought all of Foster's American Mystery and Womanspeak magazines. He hesitated a moment as he rang them up. "Hey…" He looked me over. "I don't suppose you read that story Mortensen wrote…""Well," I said with a breezy smile, no longer caring about my doppelganger,Genevieve,"let's just say he's not the first man I've given some 'inspiration' to." As a parting gift, I also gave Garrett one of our advertisements since I'd had the print shop make me a few to take with me before starting the big order. He stared at the poster incredulously. "You already put Abel on it! Before you even talked to me!"
I left him gaping and went to pick up my posters. I returned to the bookstore and distributed them among three of the staff, arming each with a list of places to hang them. I sent them off and then managed the bookstore end of things, which mostly involved moving a lot of furniture and assigning employee duties for tonight.
When six o'clock rolled around, it really was like a miracle had occurred. Signings normally occurred in the second floorcafé.That spot still made up the heart of the show, but I'd had the rest of the second floor cleared out. That meant a lot of shelves and displays got crammed together while the speakers were on, but it didn't matter so much. Most of the people there wanted to hear the authors, not browse books quite yet.
And what people we had. E. J. Putnam and Lorelei Biljan had each drawn in their respective science fiction and literary fiction crowds. That was big enough, but my advertising had drawn in even more. We were packed. We needed every inch of space rearranging the furniture had allowed. I couldn't remember ever having this many people in the store.
Putnam and Biljan had been a little shaken—and initially unhappy—to find themselves in the midst of the Emerald Lit Fest rather than an ordinary signing. I passed off the confusion as a miscommunication with their people and thanked them for helping the charity. I also reminded them this was a good opportunity to show off for people who normally read other genres, and it wasn't even like either writer was slighted…too much. Each of them got to read a ten-minute excerpt and then field fifteen minutes of questions. It was a bit expedited for a signing, yes, but it worked and gave us time to then have a Q&A session with our full panel ofauthors, consisting of the two headliners plus Seth, Maddie, and Abel. Prize-drawings occurred throughout it all, and I emceed everything myself, not even knowing what I said half the time.
"I can't believe you gave Seth second-billing to Putnam and Biljan," Andy remarked softly to me during the panel. Only those two authors had been given exclusive spotlight. "He's bigger than both of them put together."
"He's also extremely good-natured," I murmured back. Now that I had a momentary breather, I couldn't stop drinking Seth in. I felt like I hadn't seen his whimsical smile and brown eyes in ages. In fact, I hadn't ever seen that particular Captain and Tennille shirt he wore. I wanted to run up to him but held back. Maddie had been the one to ask him to participate, on my behalf. It was one of the things I'd asked her to do this morning.
When all the speaking was done, I had the staff more or less move everything back. We left thecafé cleared out and set up a table for each of the authors to do signings. Even Maddie, who was fairly obscure, had some takers. Womanspeak had sort of a cult reputation, and I think she'd gained a few fans during the panel.
Passing by Seth as he spoke to a fan, I caught his eye and paused. A moment of awkwardness hung between us that even my ambrosia-induced mania could not overcome. We had too much unresolved business between us yet."Thank you," I said simply. "Thank you for doing this." "Well," he said after a moment. "You know me. I haven't missed an Emerald Lit Fest yet. I'm not about to start now." The store was nowhere near emptying when closing came, so we let them stay, especially since we were doing a hell of a business. It was around then that Warren showed up. He stood next to me and joined me in a survey of the crowd around us. "Why," he said after a moment, "do I feel like a parent who has just returned home and found his teens throwing a party?" "Paige double-booked Biljan and Putnam. This seemed like the logical solution." "And when did you discover the double-booking?" "This morning."
"This morning," he repeated. "So, instead of, say, moving furniture on the first floor and simply having two concurrent signings, you decided—with less than a day's notice—to have a star-studded, massively advertised soiree with more people than this store can hold?"I blinked. Wow. That really would have been a simpler solution. "It's a 'fest,' actually. Not a soiree. And don't forget it's for charity." Warren jerked his head toward me. "We're donating this to charity?"
"Only 10 percent," I assured him. "But there's actually a woman here from the Literacy Project who was so impressed that she wants to talk about us getting involved in a much bigger fundraiser with them. It probably won't be until next year—in the spring, of course. We wouldn't want to conflict with the next Emerald Lit Fest.""The next one?"
"Well, yeah. It's a tradition now." I'd been riding the high from all of this pretty steadily all night. I was still so high, in fact, I probably could have arranged and implemented the second Emerald Lit Fest for tomorrow morning. Something suddenly occurred to me. "Hey, am I in trouble?"
He rubbed his eyes. "Georgina, you are…" He shook his head. "Beyond words. And not in trouble. Definitely not. We won't do this much business on Black Friday." He gave me one of his nicer smiles, reminiscent of our more intimate days. "Why don't you go home now? You need it. Your pupils are really big.""Are you throwing me out? Are you sure I'm not in trouble?"
"You're not in trouble. But I've heard about how much overtime you've been putting in, as well as…other things. Paige is going to be here next week, and we'll sit down and talk then." He suddenly did a double take. "Is that Garrett Foster working one of our registers?"
I walked home reluctantly. It wasn't easy abandoning one's brainchild. I still felt high and giddy, like pure adrenaline ran in my veins. I couldn't just go home. I needed to do something. Plan something. Anything active. A few guys glanced at me as we passed each other, and I smiled provocatively at them, nearly making one run into a garbage can. Maybe there were other ways of being active tonight.My cell phone rang, and I answered without thinking. It was Bastien. "Damn it. I forgot I was supposed to be screening my calls. I'm still not speaking to you." "Don't hang up. I have to talk to you." "No, I told you—" "Fleur,I'm leaving." I heard a strained, weary tone to his voice. He wasn't talking about going out for the night. My euphoric glow dimmed a little. "You're leaving Seattle." "Yes." "Why?" "Because it isn't going to work with Dana. We both know it." I stood in front of my building now and stared at it blankly, waiting for some ambrosia inspiration to give me the insight that would help Bastien finally woo Dana. Nothing happened, so I did the only thing I could. "I'll be right over."
I found his door unlocked when I arrived and walked inside. "Mitch" stood in the kitchen with his back to me, hands resting on the island, entire posture slumped. I walked up to him and wrapped my arms around his waist, resting my head against his back."I'm sorry," I whispered. "Me too." "The cooking thing didn't pan out?" I almost laughed at my own pun. God, this ambrosia was great.
"No. Although, I can make a lovelycrème brûléenow. I have some in the refrigerator if you want to try it." He sighed. "But no, it wasn't working. And you knew that, didn't you?" He turned around so that we faced each other.I looked away. "Yeah. But I didn't want to…I dunno. I hoped, I guess. Hoped it would work out." We stood there in silence for a while. No matter how angry I was at him, I hated seeing him like this. Devastated. Defeated. "Fleur,I want to apologize about that night—" "No, it's not all your—" "Just listen to me first," he admonished. "There's something I have to tell you. Something about Seth." And then, just like every other time I visited, the doorbell rang. The incubus waved an annoyed hand. "Leave it." "It could be her." "I don't care. I don't want to see her."
Maybe he was pessimistic, but I'd eaten the Food of the Gods. I felt like I could do anything. I knew I could do anything. My confidence and cleverness knew no bounds. I had created a new tradition at Emerald City in a matter of hours. Surely I could still find some last glimmer of hope for Bastien if I had a chance to speak to Dana face-to-face."There still might be a way," I told him as I walked to the door. " Go invisible if you want. I want to talk to her. " "If it's even her," he called after me. But it was her.
"Tabitha." She smiled. "I thought I saw you come in." I returned her smile with my own. A dazzling one. I wasn't going to be shy and idiotic around her anymore. I should never have been that way under normal conditions, let alone now, when I was at my finest.
"I'm so glad you could stop by," I told her, warmth oozing out of every pore. I beckoned her in as though I lived there. As much as she saw me over there, I might as well have. "Please, come inside. Let me get you something to drink."For the first time, I saw Dana off guard. I was not the Tabitha she knew, and she didn't know how to handle it. Bastien stood in the kitchen, invisible, arms crossed defiantly over his chest. I winked at him and then turned back to Dana. "Mitch is out for a while, if you wanted to see him." "Oh. That's fine. I can, um, stay for a little while…I guess."
She seemed unnerved by my control of the situation. I poured us both iced tea, and we sat down at the table. I led us into conversation about our days, telling her about an awesome charity event I'd been to at a downtown bookstore. Dana recovered some of her composure and returned to her smooth and controlled self. Her bigoted nature aside, the woman could manage a decent conversation, and we clicked. Too bad she didn't channel her intelligence into more useful areas, I thought.
As we talked about assorted things, the solution to the whole Dana situation struck me—it was so obvious. I don't know if it was the ambrosia or not, but I couldn't believe how blind we'd all been. How had none of us figured out the problem with her? What kind of seduction experts were we? Bastien was right. Dana was a lost cause.For him. "Dana," I interrupted in a most un-Tabitha way, "I'm really glad you came over tonight because there's something I've needed to ask you." She choked on her tea. "Yes?"
I propped my elbows on the table, resting my chin in my hands so I could have solid eye contact. "You said a little while ago that you and Bill had lost the romance and that you didn't care. But you know what? I don't believe that. I think you miss it. I think you crave it. But not with him."Dana's face went pale, eyes wide. Bastien, standing nearby, wore a similar look. I didn't care. We had nothing to lose at this point.
"Am I right?" I leaned closer. "There is something missing, isn't there? And you were lying about not knowing what's sexy. You know. You know what turns you on, and you want it. You want it so bad, you can taste it."I swear, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. Dana worked forcibly to control her breathing, staring and staring at me as though I might vanish if she blinked.
"Yes," she finally croaked. "You've been right about a lot of things. Like how we can't choose who we want. And yes…I think we both know what I'm talking about, Tabitha." Some of her old confidence began to return. "At first, I wasn't sure. You were so hard to read. But then, after I saw how awkward things were with you and your boyfriend—how you never wanted to talk about him and said you weren't attracted to him—I knew for sure. That little lingerie show you put on for me cinched it. You were amazing. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I'd already seen you naked in the hot tub, and that had been agonizing enough. I had to see you naked again. And then, as I talked to you more, I realized you were intelligent too. Just like tonight." She took a deep, quaking breath and reached out her hand to cover mine, fingers slowly dancing along my skin. "You're right. I do want something. So bad I can taste it. I know it's wrong, and I know it's immoral, but I can't help myself. I can't help who I want. Can't help wanting you."
No wonder Bastien hadn't been able to close the deal. Dana had wanted me. Probably from the moment I stepped out of the pool in that skimpy bathing suit. Staring at her, I thought about all the horrible things her group did. I also thought about Bastien being tortured by some demon. In some cases, being immortal wasn't always a blessing. Now, I could save him from that fate and send a little payback to the CPFV.
I smiled back at Dana, letting my body language speak for me as the tension mounted. I admit, I was a little surprised that all of my previous encounters had been read as advances on her, but well, whatever. The invisible incubus had run out of the room somewhere around "I had to see you naked again." He returned now, wielding the video camera. Seeing my calculated silence, he waved the camera at me frantically, glee all over his face.
I held the power now to change everything. The power to achieve what Bastien had been fighting for. To save him and humiliate the CPFV. If I could just pull this off. The ambrosia had proved today that my strongest talents lay in improvisation and planning, the ability to multitask and solve problems. That was great. It made me feel better about myself than I had in a while. It was probably what had led me to realize the truth about Dana too. But what about my earlier musings about the ambrosia? In regard to sex? Was my sexual prowess still a key part of me? Had the ambrosia enhanced that too? Could I rock some man—or woman—in bed? Looking at Dana and her now-obvious lust, I knew the answer. I gave a sultry laugh and jauntily brushed my hair out of my face.I could and would rock her world. I was a team player, after all. For both teams. Squeezing her hand, I moved toward her. "I feel exactly the same way."