Chapter 6One thing about working in a bookstore is you have immediate access to print media:
Nocturnal Admission is a treat for the senses, one of those rare jewels that emerges from the dark obscurity of small clubs and restaurants. Of course, after last night's performance at the Verona, it's unlikely they'll be playing shoddy venues again. Nocturnal Admission is well on its way to becoming a household name—not only at the local level, but the national one as well.
The opening staff and I oohed and aahed over the concert review in the Seattle Times, all of us clustering around the information desk, rereading our favorite quotes over and over. The writer had even provided a few words of Doug's bio— after several other lines praising his voice and onstage persona—adding that he worked at a "local bookstore." We loved that; the nondescript reference almost made us feel like celebrities too.I let them chat on a bit longer, reveling in my own pride and pleasure for Doug, before finally breaking things up. "All right, kids, I hate to crack the whip, but I see customers at the door. "
They dispersed reluctantly, but I saw Andy smirking when he thought I didn't notice him whispering something to Casey. The only word I caught was "whip." Charming. One would think having a dominatrix reputation would at least make me a more formidable authority figure, rather than a source of ridicule.And today, I was the only authority figure. Paige was out sick again, so I had to unofficially work both her job and my own. At least the staff was in good form despite the late night, which made things easier.
Casey seemed unaffected by last night, which I found remarkable. Maybe it was the resilience of youth. After drinking and smoking that much, I doubted I'd have been in as good a shape as she was—and I had the advantage of supernatural healing and recovery. My misgivings about Alec must have been premature, I decided, considering what a good mood she appeared to be in.
She smiled every time I saw her during the day and was always ready with a friendly comment to customers and coworkers alike. When I stopped by to take something from a neighboring register, I heard a customer ask her if she knew offhand whether his books would total under twenty-five dollars or not. She flipped through the stack expertly and had an answer within ten seconds."With tax, $26.57. Put this one back, and you'll be at $22.88. Closest you can get without going over." "Did you do that all in your head?" I asked her later. Dimples showed in her pretty cheeks. "I'm an accounting major." "Yeah, but my accountant sure as hell doesn't do my taxes in his head." "Of course not. But this stuff's easy."
Doug came in at noon, much to the delight of the others. Practically strutting, he couldn't stop crowing about the review and kept asking me if I'd read such-and-such in the article. I had to assure him repeatedly that I'd read it all.
Like Casey, he too acted untouched by last night's partying. He worked and bounced around with what was becoming his trademark energy. Compared to the two of them, I felt downright curmudgeonly, not to mention inadequate. Sheesh. What were immortality and shape-shifting next to superhuman computations and dazzling stage performances?When I returned from my lunch break, he practically sprinted up to me. "Kincaid, Kincaid—you gotta help me out." "What's wrong?" He inclined his head toward one of the registers. Alec stood leaning against it, flirting with Casey. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically at something he said. "Alec came by to tell me he got us a major audition over at the Blue Gallery. We have got to go practice. Stat." "Good grief. Slow down on the italics." "Kincaid, I mean it! You have to cover for me. No one’ll know I left. These guys don't care, and Paige and Warren won't be in." "How long do you need?" "The rest of the day." "The rest of the—that's going to be over twelve hours for me! Besides, I can't close. I'm going to a play downtown." Seth had just secured us some last minute tickets. "Then…stay as late as you can. Janice’ll handle closing." I hesitated. Warren preferred that the manager or one of the assistant managers close, but Doug was right. Janice could handle it. "Kin -caid,"he begged. "Please. I need this. You know I do."
Doug had always been charming and irresistible. Something about him today particularly appealed to me. A master working another master, apparently. When I gave in to his pleas, he picked me up and spun me around in a most undignified way. Two minutes later, he and Alec left, and I settled in for a long day.
When it finally neared its end, I felt certain the store would burn to the ground in my absence. Dragging myself away at last, I drove downtown, found parking, and sprinted into the theatre just as the lights were going down. Breathless, I slid into a seat between Seth and his thirteen-year-old niece Brandy. On the other side of him, Seth's brother and sister-in-law waved to me.
Brandy grinned. She'd been shy the first time we met but now seemed to regard me as the older sister she didn't have. I adored her too. If Seth and I ever split up, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to handle keeping away from his family.
"I didn't think you'd make it," she told me, her features faintly discernible in the dim lighting. In days long past, people would have said she and her mother had "flaxen" hair, but no one really used that term anymore. Still, I always thought it appropriate when I saw that pale shade of gold."Just making a fashionably late entrance," I whispered back. "Remember that when you're older. It keeps men guessing. Once they start presuming anything, there's no living with them."
Brandy giggled. Seth only smiled, but his eyes radiated approval, as he assessed me. I wore wine-colored silk and had my hair in a French twist. His eyes, I'd long since discovered, could be as eloquent and expressive as his pen. The messages they sent me now hardly seemed decent for a public setting. He moved his hand over to cover mine, so that both rested on my thigh, and as the night progressed, I found myself thinking more about that hand placement than the excellent play.
Afterward, he and I stood with his family in the lobby for a while, catching up. Terry and Andrea Mortensen were great people who always treated me with genuine kindness. From what I'd learned of Seth's antisocial habits, I think they regarded me as some sort of last hope for him. Brandy affirmed as much when she and I dashed to the restroom together."Dad told Uncle Seth not to screw things up," she informed me as we washed our hands. "He said even if Uncle Seth is famous, him getting a woman like you defies belief."
I laughed and smoothed down the skirt of my
dress. "I don't know about that. I don't think your dad gives your
uncle enough credit. "
Brandy gave me a sage look, worthy of someone much older. "Uncle Seth spent last Valentine's Day at a library."
We returned to the lobby and spoke a bit more before Terry declared they needed to rescue the babysitter who'd been left with their other four daughters. Andrea touched my arm as they prepared to leave."You're coming to Seth's birthday party, aren't you?" I looked at all of them in surprise. "When is it?" "Thanksgiving. They fall on the same day every once in a while." "It's a good ploy to get turkey and presents," remarked Terry. He was shorter and more clean-shaven than Seth but otherwise bore a fair resemblance to his older brother. "I didn't even know it was coming up." I shot Seth an accusing look. "I forgot." For anyone else, that would probably have been a lie, but I believed him. "So you'll be there?" Andrea again gave me the impression they were desperate to foster Seth's love life. I could have probably negotiated a stipend for showing up. "With bells on."
Seth and I went back to his place this time. I shape-shifted into my favorite pajamas—flannel pants and a cami—and crawled into bed with him. His bed was bigger than mine and had a feather duvet, as well as a teddy bear named Damocles who wore a University of Chicago T-shirt.
Still a little wound up, we talked in the dark about Emerald City for a while, then moved on to books in general. We had a vast array of familiar literature in our repertoire, and we jumped around authors and genres. We both admired Toni Morrison and Tennessee Williams. Neither of us could get through Anna Karenina. Seth hated Jane Austen, whom I adored. As we debated back and forth, I was relieved to be reminded we truly did have a lot in common. Sex was not the only thing between us, even if it was the only thing that stood between us.At some point in the literary discussion, I began to drift off. The long day had worn me out, and sleep felt luxurious. Seth seemed tired too. He and I drew close, lying on our sides, legs touching.
Random thoughts whispered in my head as unconsciousness tugged at me. How Aubrey was doing. Whether Paige's baby would be a boy or a girl. If Bastien was any closer to bedding Dana. How in the world Doug's band had become so amazing so quickly.
I opened my eyes a couple hours later, uncertain what had woken me. One of those weird, unseen things that suddenly break you out of sleep, I guessed. Quiet darkness still enveloped us with no sign of morning in sight. A little moonlight filtered inside, casting funny shadows around the desk and other bedroom furniture. Unlike my place in Queen Anne, car traffic here dropped off at night, so I heard only the sound of breathing and electrical humming.
Then I noticed that Seth and I had moved our bodies even nearer than before. Our legs wrapped around each other pretzel-style, our arms kept us close together. His scent flooded my nose. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed his were open as well. Intense pools of darkness. He was watching me.
Still a little sleepy, I moved my hand up to his neck, twining my fingers in his hair, drawing my face closer to his. His hand rested on the small of my back where the tank top rose away from my flannel pajama bottoms. He touched the skin there just as he had at the concert, his hand sliding toward my side, tracing the curve of my hip before running toward my thigh. The fingers that beat such a steady tattoo on computer keys were as delicate as feathers on me.
My eyes never left his as we touched each other, and I swore I could hear my heart thundering in my ears. Then, despite some screaming voice in the back of my foggy brain, I pushed my mouth toward his and kissed him. Our lips were tentative at first, as though surprised they had gotten this far. We tasted each other, slowly and gently. His hand on the back of my thigh slid upward, and something about shy Seth Mortensen stroking my ass sent a thrill through me. A soft exhalation lodged in my throat, and as my tongue explored past his lips, seeking more, he suddenly pushed me onto my back with an urgency that I think astonished both of us. His other hand slid up under my shirt and cupped the bottom of a breast, and through his boxers, I could tell that more than just his hands and lips wanted this to progress.
Then, ever so slightly, I felt something else. A slight tingling. Angel-fine tendrils of prickly bliss slowly snaking through me, wrapping around me. Exhilarating. Better than any intoxicant I'd ever experienced. Pure life, pure energy.
It was delicious and tantalizing, another dimension of the physical pleasure we stood on the brink of. The fact that it was Seth's was even more alluring. It had his unique essence written all over it. I wanted to dive into it, close my eyes and forget all about being responsible while that sweetness filled me.But I couldn't. My resolve was weakening by the second, true, but I was still holding on. Barely. I broke the kiss reluctantly, trying to muster my strength and move away from him. At the first sign of my struggle, he immediately let me go. "I—I'm sorry," I said, sitting up and putting my face in my hands. I rubbed my eyes as though waking from a dream, which in a manner of speaking, I was. "We can't. It…it started…" "Just from kissing."
It was a statement, his voice coming out husky with desire and sleepiness…and regret. He knew better than most how lethal a passionate kiss could be; I'd almost killed him the last time. Of course, that had been an exceptional situation, and my near-death state had sucked away much more than a deep kiss normally would."Just from kissing," I repeated bleakly. It didn't take intercourse for one person to give themselves up to another. There were no loopholes in this game.
Tense silence crept in around us until Seth sat up as well and shifted his body away from mine. I could hear genuine pain and guilt when he spoke again. "I'm sorry about that. I don't know…meant to have better control. But I just sort of woke up…and I was half-asleep…and then…""I know," I whispered into the darkness. "I know. And I'm sorry too." More silence. "I guess," he finally said, "I should go sleep on the couch…"
I closed my eyes, feeling terrible but knowing he was right. We'd been playing with fire by fooling around with this chaste-sleeping thing. It was a wonder something bad hadn't happened sooner. The more it sunk in, the more I realized how much damage I could have caused. Hell, how much damage had I caused already by taking those few drops of life from him? A week off his lifespan? A few days? Even one minute would have been too much.Bitterness—at the world, not him—dripped from my voice when I spoke. "No. I'll take the couch. We're at your place." "Whatever. Leave me some remnant of chivalry."
I didn't say anything, and we sat once more in awkward silence. A hundred questions hung in the air between us, but neither of us could broach them. Both our faults. When an emotional situation turned uncomfortable, I had a tendency to run from it or pretend it wasn't happening. And while Seth wouldn't exactly run away, he wouldn't initiate the dialogue needed to explore something like this. So we continued sitting there.At last, he stood up. "I'm sorry. Sorry for what I did."
He blamed himself, which was typical of him but not fair, especially since I had technically touched him first. I should have said something then, told him it wasn't all his fault. But the words stuck on my tongue, held up by my own confused feelings. After a few more moments, he left for the living room.
I lay back down, Damocles in my arms, but slept badly the rest of the night. When morning came, Seth and I ate breakfast in more tense silence—he'd finally made my pancakes— broken only occasionally by stiff small talk. We then went to the bookstore together, parting ways quickly. I hardly saw him the rest of the day.
Bastien was in the city for some reason or another that night, so he picked me up later and drove me over to his place for the ridiculous heist at Dana's. When I saw the post-sex energy wreathing him, I knew what had brought him downtown."Don't you get tired of getting laid every day?" I asked him, wishing I could have gotten laid last night.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't actually just ask that,Fleur."He then proceeded to ramble on about his various Dana sightings in the last few days, how chummy they were getting, how it could only be a matter of time before the inevitable.When I didn't really respond, he cut me a sidelong glance. "What's the matter with you? You look miserable." I sighed. "I kissed Seth last night." "And?" "And what?" "What else happened?" "Well…nothing. I mean, a little groping here and there, but that's it." "So?" "So, I shouldn't have done it." A dismissive look crossed his face. "A kiss is nothing. It's not like you gave him a blow job or anything." "Good lord, you're crass." "Don't act like I offended your delicate sensibilities. And you know what I'm talking about." "Doesn't matter. I was weak. I got some of his energy from that."
"Fleur,I love you as much as I've ever managed to love anybody, but this whole thing is absurd. You're never going to be happy until you've fucked this guy, so just get it over with. It'll take away the whole forbidden attraction and allow both of you to get on with your lives. ""'Get on with our lives?' What's that supposed to mean?" I asked sharply.
"I mean half the reason you guys are so infatuated with each other is because you can't have each other. It's not love, but it is a normal human reaction, a catalyst for physical attraction." He paused and considered. "Your maniacal obsession with his books might also be a factor.""That's not true. None of that's true at all. Well, I mean, those books are good enough to be the basis of a religion, but that's not the same thing. That's not why I…" Love him?Hell. I still didn't know if I did or not. I wasn't even sure what love was after all this time.
Bastien shook his head, not believing me but not wanting to argue either. "Fine. Keep going with this. I still think you should fuck him, though. Even if it doesn't make you both realize you're better off apart, it'll at least remove one source of tension between you and maybe let you attempt some sort of normal dysfunctional relationship."I stared bleakly into space. "I can't. Not even one night. It'd take years off his life. I couldn't live with myself." "Bah. Only a handful of years at most. What's that? Besides, men have done stupider things for sex—with women they don't even really like. If he really does love you, he might think it's a fair trade." I shuddered. I didn't think it was fair at all, but he was right about the silly things men would do for sex. I'd seen and initiated plenty of them.
We finally gave up both sides of the argument when we pulled into his driveway. The clock was ticking, and we had to start this operation. Bastien had watched Dana and Bill drive off earlier, and their teenage son had gone down the street to stay at a friend's house. Shifting to be invisible to mortal eyes, Bastien and I crept out the back of his house and scaled the fence into Dana's yard. It sort of made me feel like I was in a spy movie; I half wished we could crawl under some motion-detecting lasers. "They have a security system," I whispered to Bastien as I watched him pick the back door's lock. More useful skills gleaned from long centuries. "Being invisible isn't going to deactivate it. ""No problem. I've done some invisible reconnaissance. I know the code." Sure enough, he punched it into the console once we were in the house, and the readout's red light turned green.
We started in the Dailey office, as that seemed like the most logical place to stash paperwork. Dana had a meticulous sense of organization that creeped me out, and we had to make sure we left everything the way we found it.
Unfortunately, most of the stuff was completely useless. Memos. Efficient—and honest—budget reports. Invoices. Press releases. She had a lot of pictures too, which were at least more fun to look at than the papers. Most of them showed family or CPFV events. A number of the shots had Jody in them, which saddened me. I recalled the other woman's sly wit and passion for art. Why would someone with any sort of intelligence want to get involved in all this?"I didn't realize how active Jody was in this group," I remarked to Bastien. "She wasn't so bad. Dana's corrupted her." "Dana's a persuasive woman. Hey, did you know Jody's last name is Daniels? And her husband's name is Jack?"
We giggled over that and continued searching a while longer before finally abandoning the office. We then ransacked—neatly, of course—any other cupboards or drawers we could find on the main floor. Nothing."Maybe there are secret panels behind paintings," suggested Bastien. "Or maybe the pool-boy thing was a fraud, Dana's honest with her business dealings, and there's really nothing else to get on her except that she's a prejudiced bitch." He rolled his eyes. "One place left. The true sanctuary. The bedroom." I grimaced. Going into someone's bedroom freaked me out. The ultimate violation of privacy. But Bastien charged on, still confident this wild goose chase would yield results.
Fortunately, the bedroom had the neat, sterile look of a hotel, not the warm and sensual air of one's most intimate space. It made searching easier, like I was breaking into a vacant room. We sifted through drawers and closets, again finding little to go on."Eek!" I suddenly cried, staring into an open drawer. Bastien flew to me. "What? What is it?"
I held up what had to be the most wholesome
pair of granny panties I'd ever seen. They were like great-granny
panties. They were even white. You would have thought she could at
least go out on a limb and get them in blue or green or
Bastien elbowed me for my overreaction. "How can you even act surprised after hearing her rants about modest clothing?"