Chapter 2"Bastien," I breathed, still disbelieving. "Bastien!"
I threw my arms around him, and he lifted me up like I weighed nothing, twirling me around. When he gently set me back on my feet, he looked down at me fondly, his handsome face cracking into a grin. Until I saw it, I hadn't realized how much I'd missed that smile.
"You look exactly the same," I noted, taking in the curling black hair that touched his shoulders, the eyes so dark a chocolate brown they almost looked black as well. Unlike me, he liked to wear the shape he'd been born with, the body from his mortal days. His skin was the color of the mochas I consumed regularly, smooth and lovely. His nose had been broken when he was human, but he never bothered to shape-shift the signs away. It didn't detract from his looks any; in fact, it sort of gave him a dashing scoundrel persona.
"And you, as usual, look completely different. What are you calling yourself these days?" His voice carried a faint British accent leftover from many years spent in London after leaving the slave plantations of Haiti. He kept that accent and the French expressions of his childhood only for effect; when he chose to, he could speak American English as flawlessly as I could."Georgina." "Georgina? Not Josephine or Hiroko?" "Georgina," I reiterated. "Very well then, Georgina. Let me see you. Turn around." I spun around, like a model, letting him get the full effect of this body. When I faced him again, he nodded with approval.
"Exquisite—not that I'd expect any less from you. Short, just like every other one, but the curves are in all the right spots, and the coloring is very nice." He leaned closer to me, studying my face with a professional eye. "The eyes I especially like. Catlike. How long have you been wearing this one?""Fifteen years." "Barely broken in." "Well," observed Hugh dryly, "it sort of depends on how you define 'broken in.'"
Bastien and I both turned, remembering we had an audience. The other immortals watched with bemusement, the poker game momentarily forgotten. Bastien turned on a high-beam smile and crossed the room in a few quick strides.
"Bastien Moreau." He extended a polite hand to Hugh, every inch of him polished and deferential. Incubi, after all, have just as good a sense of customer service and public relations as succubi. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
He made equally polite introductions with the rest of the group, pausing momentarily when he reached Carter. A brief flicker of surprise in Bastien's dark eyes was the only other indication that he found an angel in our midst odd. Otherwise, his surface charm remained perfect as he smiled and shook Carter's hand.Although clearly surprised at Bastien's presence, Peter stood up dutifully. "Have a seat. You want a drink?" "Thank you. You're too kind. Bourbon on ice, please. And thank you for allowing me to show up so unexpectedly. You have a stunning home." The vampire nodded, mollified at someone finally appreciating his hospitality.
I, however, had other concerns and wondered what had caused the incubus to "show up so unexpectedly." I suddenly remembered Jerome's taunting surprise. "Jerome knows you're here, doesn't he?"
"Of course. Long since arranged." Our kind could not cross into another's territory without making arrangements with the local supervisor. For a group that had allegedly rebelled against the system, we had a staggering amount of rules, regulations, and paperwork. We made the 1RS look juvenile. "He told me where to find you tonight.""And you're here because…?" He flung a playful arm around me. "You're pushy. No "Hello, how are you"? Can't I just stop by to see an old friend?" "Not in this business." "How long have you known Georgina?" asked Hugh, shifting his solidly built body into a more comfortable sitting position. Bastien turned thoughtful. "I don't know. How long has it been? Ages?"
"You have to be a little more specific than that," I reminded him, my mind slipping back to a London of long ago, recalling rough-hewn streets redolent with the scent of horses and unwashed humans. "Early seventeenth century?" He nodded, and I let my tone turn teasing. "Mostly I just remember how green you were.""I have no idea what you're talking about." "Whatever. I taught you everything you know. " "Ah, older women." Bastien glanced around at the others, shrugging his shoulders with feigned haplessness. "Always so sure of themselves."
"So, explain how this works," Cody urged eagerly, young eyes on Bastien. "You're like the male equivalent of Georgina, right? You shape-shift and everything?" Having been an immortal for less than ten years, Cody was always learning something new about us. I realized he'd probably never even met an incubus before."Well, there's really no equivalent forFleur, butyes, something like that." I think he preferred calling me Fleurbecause it was easier than trying to remember the names I kept acquiring over the years. "So you seduce women?" pushed Cody. "Exactly." "Wow. That must actually be hard." "It's not so—wait a minute," I said. "What are you implying over there? What's this "actually" business?" "Well, he's got a point," insisted Peter, handing Bastien the drink. "It's not like your job's all that difficult, Georgina. By comparison, I mean." "My job's very difficult!" "What, getting men to have sex with a beautiful woman?" Hugh shook his head. "That's not hard. That's not even remedial." I looked at them incredulously. "It's not like I can just jump into bed with anyone. I have to get quality guys." "Yeah, as of a month ago maybe."
Bastien shot me a sharp look at that remark,
but I was too annoyed to acknowledge it. "Hey, I just won an award,
you know. Got the certificate and everything. And anyway, contrary
to your pathetic love lives, not all guys will immediately give in
to sex. It takes work."
"What, like horns and a whip?" suggested Peter slyly, referring to a particularly embarrassing incident from my past.
"Several lifetimes' worth," chuckled Bastien, still watching me. "Those are trade secrets, I'm afraid. Although, really, in Fleur's defense, the techniques are the same for both of us. You should have been paying more attention to her. ""Low-cut necklines aren't exactly a trade secret." "Much more to it than that, my friend. Especially with Georgina. She's one of the best." Hugh and the vampires looked at me as though they'd never noticed me before, apparently attempting to figure out if what Bastien said was true. "No need to start that up," I pointed out hastily. "Come on, weren't you just bragging about how you taught me everything I know? You and I used to run some good rackets back in the day." "What kind of rackets?" asked Peter. When I wouldn't answer, Bastien merely shrugged. "Oh, you know. The kind that require a partner. " Cody's eyes widened. "Like…group sex?"
"No!" I protested, unable to stay silent at that. Not that it wasn't in my curriculum vitae. "Partnerships to suck somebody in. Play husband and wife. Or brother and sister. Or…or…whatever it takes to nail your mark."Bastien nodded along with me. "Men really like the thrill of winning over someone's beautiful young wife. Women too, for that matter. The forbidden always has a certain allure to it."
"Wow." Cody and the others pondered this new development and tried probing us a bit more for details. Bastien, sensing my reluctance to elaborate about the past, gave vague answers, and conversation soon drifted to other topics—as well as to Peter's amazing dinner. It wasn't Met good, but maybe the company had biased me.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" I murmured to the incubus later, as our group finally rose from the table and began making motions to leave. I was dying to know what could have drawn him here and earned Jerome's approval. Hell's denizens could take vacations, but this smacked of business.Bastien patted me on the back, giving me his trademark grin. "In good time, my sweet. Is there somewhere we can talk?" "Sure. I'll take you back to my place. You can meet my cat." When Bastien left me to once again thank Peter for dinner, Carter strolled over. "Are you seeing Seth soon?" "Later tonight." Seeing his amused expression, I scowled. "Just get it over with, okay?" "Get what over with?" "The part where you tell me how stupid it is to try to have a serious relationship with a mortal." The mirth faded from his face. "I don't think it's stupid." I studied him, waiting for the punch line. "Everyone else does." "Does Seth? Do you?"
I looked away, thinking about Seth. That funny, distracted look on his face when inspiration seized him. His goofy T-shirt collection. The exquisite way he could capture the world on paper. How warm his hand was when it slid into mine. The way I just couldn't stay away from him, despite the million reasons that said I should. Suddenly, caught in Carter's penetrating eyes, something inside of me let loose. I hated how the angel could do this to me.
"Sometimes I do. Sometimes I look at him…and I remember how it was when I kissed him and felt that love. It makes me want that back. I want to feel it again. I want to return it. Other times, though…other times, I'm so scared. I listen to these guys…and to Jerome…and then the doubts gnaw at me. I can't get them out of my head. We've been sleeping together, you know. Literally. It hasn't been a problem so far, but sometimes I lie awake watching him, thinking this can't last. The longer it does…I feel like…like I'm standing on a high wire, with Seth at one end and me at the other. We're trying to reach each other, but one misstep, one breeze, one side-glance, and I'll fall over the edge. And keep falling and falling."I took in a shaking breath when I finished. Carter leaned toward me and brushed the hair away from the side of my face. "Don't look down then," he whispered. Bastien had returned, catching the end of my soliloquy. "Who's Seth?" he wanted to know later, once we were back at my apartment. "Long story." Yet I found myself spilling it anyway.
Of course, telling Bastien about Seth meant telling him about a lot of other things too. Like a recent encounter with Jerome's half-human, half-angel son—a stunningly beautiful man with a twisted sense of social justice who had been on a semipsychotic mission to make other immortals pay for the shoddy treatment of him and his kind. The fact that he had been a good dancer and a phenomenal lover had not really been enough to make up for his wanton killing of lesser immortals and subsequent attempt on Carter.
That, of course, led me to next explain how Seth had witnessed the inevitable showdown and had been injured when I kissed him to get an emergency fix of energy. Jerome had wanted to erase Seth's memory of the whole event, as well as the writer's love for me. I had begged the demon not to, finally getting him to agree when I offered to devote all of my efforts back to seducing and corrupting decent men like a good little succubus should. Horatio's visit had been the ultimate testimony to my "new and improved" self.Bastien, sprawling on my sofa, listened thoughtfully and frowned when I finished. "What do you mean? Why weren't you going after decent ones already?" "I got tired of it. Didn't like hurting them." "So what? You were going after bad ones?" I nodded. He shook his head, knowing as well as I did how little life energy an ignoble mortal yielded compared to a good one. "PoorFleur.What a miserable existence that must have been." I gave him a bittersweet smile. "I think you're the first person that's ever sounded more sympathetic than incredulous. Most people think I'm idiotic for getting by like that."
"It's a pain, yes," Bastien agreed, "and requires more frequent fixes, but hardly idiotic. You don't think I have days when I feel the same way? When I just want to throw my hands up and leave decent women alone?""Why don't you?"
"Not our lot. You and I are glorified prostitutes—courtesans, if you want to be more genteel, but it's all the same thing. Switching to bad ones won't change our fates. Won't even do anything in the long run, really, except relieve our guilt a bit, and even that relief doesn't last forever. ""Christ. You aren't really making me feel better." "Sorry." "No, no, it's okay. Whatever. I mean, it's nice to have someone to talk to about this. No one else—none of the other immortals—really get it. "
He snorted. "Of course they don't. How could they?" My silence agreed for me, and Bastien gave me a kindly look. "Not that your friends weren't nice. Are there other immortals in the city you can talk to? Any succubi or incubi?"
"A few more vampires and minor demons, but that's it. They're less social than the ones I run with. I have some good mortal friends too. Still. They're not the same either." I smiled gently. "They're not you. I've missed you."Bastien tousled my hair, earning a critical glance from my cat Aubrey. "I've missed you too." "So will you tell me what's going on now?" His serious mien turned jovial. "Not sure what you're going to think about it, now that I've heard all of this." "Try me." Sliding off the couch, Bastien settled next to me so we could speak face-to-face. "You ever heard of Dana Dailey?"
"I live on this planet, don't I? She's always my first choice when I'm driving in my car and feel like listening to some highly commercial, conservative rhetoric." I didn't make any attempt to hide my disdain. In addition to touting worn-out family values, radio host Dana Dailey also enjoyed working thinly veiled racist, homophobic, and even sexist insinuations into her talk show. I couldn't stand her."I imagine that mood strikes you quite a bit. Did you know she's Seattle based?" "Of course. It's a wonder she hasn't dragged down the property value. " "Funny you should mention that. A house in her neighborhood just came up for sale." "So?" "So, our employers have purchased it." "What?"
Grinning, knowing he had me hooked, Bastien leaned in eagerly. "Pay attention,Fleur,because here's the good part. We got wind of some rumors concerning Mrs. Dailey's ex-pool boy in San Diego. He claims to have been 'romantically involved' with her."I racked my brain, recalling a promotional picture I'd seen of her and her politician husband on a billboard. "Have you seen Mr. Dailey? I'd opt for a pool boy too. What became of the rumors?" "Oh, you know. The same thing that always happens to rumors with no proof. They faded away; nothing happened." I waited expectantly. "Okay, and the house fits in how?"
"Well, like you said, her husband's no prize. Of course, she isn't going to get divorced or anything, not when it could potentially tarnish his political future and her whole prissy, on-air family-values campaign. But…the naughty streak is still there. If she's strayed once, I bet she could be lured into doing it again."I groaned as the pieces fell together. "Like with a handsome, debonair neighbor?" "Debonair? Really, you're too kind." "So what happens after that?" "Then we just let the evidence do its work." "Evidence?" "Well, yeah. We're not going to go the way of the pool boy. When I manage to lure the illustrious Mrs.
Dailey into physical pleasures surpassing her wildest dreams, there'll be a camera rolling. We're going to record this for posterity, then go to the press. Full exposure, full takedown. No more radio empire preaching to the masses to return to pure, decent ways. Even her husband's political campaign will be marred, thus opening the door for some liberal upstart to take his place and help get this area back into the corrupt rut it so desperately longs for. ""Gee, it's all so neat." He eyed me. "You doubt the plan's brilliance?" "I don't know. I appreciate the ballsy factor here, but I think this is kind of out-there, even for you. I can't imagine Dana Dailey’ll go down so easily." "Leave the going down to me." "Your ego's out of control." He laughed and pulled me to him. His arms felt good around me. Familiar. Reassuring. "Admit it. That's why you love me. " "Yeah, you're like the brother I never had. One that doesn't set my hair on fire. "
His eyes sparkled wickedly. "And once again, you've jumped ahead of me. I want you to see me in action on this— not to mention keep me company while I'm in town. You've got to come visit—as Mitch's sister.""Who?"
Bastien suddenly stood up and shape-shifted. The familiar features morphed, leaving no trace of the rakish incubus I knew. Six-two and broad-shouldered, he now had dark blond hair and sky blue eyes, his face only just losing its pretty boy aspect and giving way to the sizzling promise of an experienced, confident man in his early thirties. When he smiled, those perfect teeth lit up a room.He winked at me. "Mitch Hunter," he explained in a suave, movie-star voice. No accent now. "You got an equally cheesy title to go with that? 'Mitch Hunter, MD' or 'Mitch Hunter, Private Investigator?' Seems appropriate." "Nah. I'm a consultant, of course. Everyone's favorite nondescript yet well-paid white-collar job." "You look like you need a golf club in one hand and a burger flipper in the other." "Tease all you want, but Dana won't be able to resist this. Now"—he gestured for me to stand up—"let's see what you can do." "Are you joking?" "Do I look like I'm joking? If you're going to come visit me, you've got to put on some family resemblance." I rolled my eyes and stood up. After a moment's study of his features, I shape-shifted my petite body into a taller, more athletic one with long blond hair. He scrutinized me, then shook his head. "Too pretty." "What? This is perfect." "That body's unreal. No one looks that good. My God woman, that ass." "Oh, come on. You don't think Special Agent Mitch Hunter's sister isn't the type to spend two hours a day on a stair-climber?" Bastien grunted. "You've got a point there. At least lose some of the hair. These suburban types go for boring and practical." "Yeah, but I'm not suburban. I'm your hipper, more stylish—" Someone knocked at my door. He glanced at me questioningly. "Oh! It's Seth." I changed back to my normal body, and Bastien did the same. I opened the door.
Seth Mortensen, best-selling author and professional introvert, stood outside my apartment. Clad in a Frogger T-shirt and corduroy jacket, he seemed to have forgotten to brush his hair again. It was messy and brown with a faint coppery cast, mirrored in the perpetual five o'clock shadow across his lower face. His lips turned up in a smile upon seeing me, and I couldn't help but briefly ponder how soft and kissable they looked."Hey," I said. "Hey." Despite whatever attraction burned between us, the engine of our conversation always took a little while to turn over. I led him inside, and his expression faltered a bit when he saw Bastien. "Oh. Hi." "Hello," boomed Bastien, extending his hand. "Bastien Moreau." "Seth Mortensen." "A pleasure. I've heard all about you. Your books are fabulous. I mean, I've never read any of them—just don't have the time for that anymore—but I'm sure they're magnifique." "Um, thanks." "Bastien is an old friend," I explained. "He's going to be in town for a while on…business."
Seth nodded, and silence dropped in between all
of us like a fourth companion. Finally, Bastien cleared his throat.
I could see from his face that he was already losing interest,
dismissing Seth as too quiet and unexciting. The incubus craved
"Well, I should take off. I don't want to interrupt your plans."
Bastien had said he didn't want to interrupt our plans, but we didn't really have any, short of spending the evening together. I suppose most couples, running out of options, could have resorted to sex or at least making out, but the nature of our relationship required a full itinerary. We mustered some ideas."You want to rent a movie?" I offered. "I've got some coupons." We ended up renting Gladiator, at which time I discovered Horatio's free rental coupons had expired long ago. "That son of a bitch!" "Who?" asked Seth. But of course I couldn't explain. Fucking demons.
Back home, Seth and I snuggled on my couch as we watched, warm and close yet still safe from any detrimental succubus effects. He listened with bemusement as I pointed out historical inaccuracies, most of which involved how much dirtier and smellier the Roman Empire had been.
When it finished, we turned off the television and sat together in the dark. Seth stroked the side of my face, sifting through the strands of my hair and occasionally brushing my cheek with his fingers. A small gesture, yet when that was all you could do with another person, it became startlingly erotic.
I looked up at him. I knew what I saw when I studied him. He was everything I could want and everything I couldn't have. The steady, loving companion I'd pined for all these years. I wondered what he saw with me. The expression he wore now seemed fond. Admiring. And a little sad."But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair ow’st; Nor shall Death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st; So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. "
"Sonnet Eighteen," I murmured, thinking he recited beautifully. Hell, forget his recitation skills. How many guys in this age of instant messaging even knew Shakespeare anymore? His amused little half-smile played over his face."Clever and beautiful. How could any man settle for a mortal woman?" "Easily," I returned. My friends' misgivings suddenly loomed up in me. "You could, you know." He blinked, and his rapt look faded, giving way to exasperation. "Oh. Not this discussion again." "I'm serious—" "And so am I. I don't want to be with anyone else right now. I've told you that a hundred times. Why do we keep talking about this?" "Because you know we can't—" "Nobuts.Give me some credit for being able to control myself. Besides, I'm not with you for sex. You know that. I'm with you to be with you." "How can that be enough?" It never had been for any other man I'd known.
"Because…because…" He tipped my chin up with his hand, the emotion in those eyes making my insides melt. "Because being with you feels so right…like it's always been meant to be. You make me believe in a higher power for once in my life."
I closed my eyes and put my head on his chest. I could hear his heart beating. He wrapped me to him, his embrace warm and solid, and I felt like I couldn't get close enough to him. Probably I should have let the discussion go then, but one more thing was still on my mind tonight. After all, I had a gold-embossed certificate sitting on my counter."Even if you can control yourself…even if you can stay celibate, you know I won't be." The words hurt coming out, but my mouth's control switch didn't always function so well. Besides, I didn't want anything standing between us. "I don't care." But I felt his hold on me stiffen a little. "Seth, you will—" "Thetis, I don't care. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters except what happens between you and me."
The fierceness in his voice—a contrast to his normal placidity—thrilled me, but it was not that that made me give up the argument. It was the word "Thetis." Thetis. Thetis the shape-shifting goddess. The shape-shifter wooed and won by a steadfast mortal. Seth had coined the name for me when he learned I was a succubus, when he'd first insinuated that my infernal standing was not a deterrent.I pulled him closer. Don't look down. We went to bed shortly thereafter, Aubrey snuggling up at our feet. The feel of Seth's body curled by mine under the covers was tantalizing, a cruel whisper of the restrictions around us. I sighed and tried to think of something other than how nice he felt or how great it would be if he slid his hand up my shirt. I grinned as a most unsexual sentiment came to mind. "I want pancakes." "What? Right now?" "No. For breakfast." "Oh." He yawned. "You'd better get up early then." "Me? I'm not going to make them." "Yeah?" His sleepy voice carried mock sympathy. "Who's going to make them for you then?"
"You are." It was a well-known fact—at least to Seth and me—that he made the best pancakes known to mankind. They always came out perfect, light and fluffy. Through some kitchen magic, he even managed to put smiley faces on them when he made them for me. Once he'd even puta Gon one. I'd assumed it was for my name, but later, he'd sworn it stood for "goddess.""Am I?" His lips brushed my earlobe; his breath was warm against my skin. "You think I'm going to make you pancakes? Is that how you think it's going to be?" "You're so good at," I whined. "Besides, if you do, I'll sit on the counter in a short robe while you cook." Oops. Maybe pancakes could become sexual after all. His soft laughter segued into another yawn. "Oh. Well then." He kissed my ear again. "Maybe I'll make you pancakes. " His breathing grew slow and regular, the tension in his body easing. Soon he slept, not troubled or tempted in the least by having me in his arms.
I sighed again. He was right; he did have self-control. If he could do this, surely I could too. I closed my eyes and waited for exhaustion to take over. Fortunately, it didn't waste any time; staying up late will do that to you. Maybe that was the real key to sleeping chastely.
I woke up in his arms hours later, hearing the ever-so-faint sounds of bad seventies music drifting through the wall. One of my neighbors felt the need to do aerobics to the Bee Gees every day around lunchtime. Certifiable insanity.Wait. Lunchtime?
I sat bolt upright, panic jolting me into full consciousness as I assessed the situation. My bed. Seth sprawled beside me. The full roar of traffic outside. Clear, winter sunlight pouring through the window—a lot of sunlight.Fearing the worst, I looked at the nearest clock. It was 12:03.
Groaning silently, I groped on the floor for my cell phone, wondering why no one had yet called me in to work. Looking at the phone's display, I realized I'd turned the ringer off during the movie. Seven new voice mail messages, the phone read. So much for pancakes. Tossing the phone back down, I looked over at Seth, the cuteness of him in a T-shirt and flannel boxers momentarily allaying my frustration.I shook him, wishing I could just crawl back under the covers with him. "Wake up. I've got to go." He blinked up at me drowsily, further increasing his appeal. Aubrey wore a similar look. "Huh? Too…early." "Not that early. I'm late for work." He stared at me blankly for a few seconds and then sat up nearly as rapidly as I had. "Oh. Oh man." "It's all right. Let's go."
He disappeared into the bathroom, and I shape-shifted my appearance once more, turning the pajamas into a red sweater and black skirt, my loose hair into a neat bun. I hated doing this so often, much preferring to rifle through my own closet. Shape-shifting also burned through my energy stash that much more quickly, requiring more frequent victims. Unfortunately, time-crunches call for certain sacrifices.When Seth returned, he did a double take at my appearance and shook his head. "Still can't get used to that."
I expected him to go home and sleep, but he went with me to the bookstore. Its coffee shop was his favorite place to write. As we walked into Emerald City Books andCafé,I breathed a sigh of relief that neither my manager Paige nor Warren, the store owner, appeared to be around. Still, business had already opened for the day without me, and my chipper, morning-people coworkers made it impossible to sneak in without notice."Hey, Georgina! Hi Seth!" "Georgina and Seth are here!" "Good morning, Georgina! Good morning, Seth!"
Seth left to take up his writing station upstairs, and I made my way to the back offices. All of them were dark, which I found odd. No managers at all. Someone should have opened before me. I flipped on the light in my own office.I was so fixated on figuring out what was going on that the demon took me completely by surprise. Red-skinned and multihorned, he leapt out at me, waving his arms and making unintelligible grunting sounds. I yelped and dropped the things I'd been carrying, recoiling. A moment later, my senses returned, and I walked over and smacked him on the side of the head as hard as I could.