"Kill me, Doug. Just kill me now. Put me out of my misery."
My immortality notwithstanding, the sentiment was sincere.
"Christ, Kincaid, what did you say to him?" murmured Doug.
We stood off to the side of Seth Mortensen's audience, along with many others. All the seats had filled up, putting space and visibility at a premium. I was lucky to be with the staff in our reserved section, giving us a perfect view of Seth as he read from The Glasgow Pact. Not that I wanted to be in his line of sight. In fact, I really would have preferred that I never come face to face with him again.
"Well," I told Doug, keeping an eye on Paige so as not to draw attention to our whispering, "I ripped on his fans and on how long it takes for his books to come out."
Doug stared at me, his expectations exceeded.
"Then I said - not knowing who he was - that I'd be Seth Mortensen's love slave in exchange for advanced copies of his books."
I didn't elaborate on my impromptu flirting. To think, I'd imagined I was boosting a shy guy's ego! Good Lord. Seth Mortensen could probably bed a different groupie every night if he wanted.
Not that he seemed like the type. He'd demonstrated much of the same initial nervousness in front of the crowd as he had with me. He grew more comfortable once he started reading, however, warming to the material and letting his voice rise and fall with intensity and wry humor.
"What kind of a fan are you?" Doug asked. "Didn't you know what he looked like?"
"There are never pictures of him in his books! Besides, I thought he'd be older." I guessed now that Seth was in his mid-thirties, a bit older than I looked in this body, but younger than the forty-something writer I'd always imagined.
"Well, look on the bright side, Kincaid. You succeeded in your goal: you got him to notice you."
I stifled a groan, letting my head flop pathetically onto Doug's shoulder.
Paige turned her head and gave us a withering glance. As usual, our manager looked stunning, wearing a red suit that set off her chocolate brown skin. The faintest swellings of pregnancy showed under the jacket, and I couldn't help but feel a tug of jealous longing.
When she had first announced her unplanned pregnancy, she had laughed it off, saying: "Well, you know how these things can just happen."
But I had never known how it could "just happen." I'd tried desperately to get pregnant as a mortal, to no avail, instead becoming an object of pity and carefully hidden - albeit not well enough - jokes. Becoming a succubus had killed whatever lingering chance I might have had at motherhood, though I hadn't realized that at the time. I had sacrificed my body's ability to create in exchange for eternal youth and beauty. One type of immortality traded for another. Long centuries give you a lot of time to accept what you can and can't have, but being reminded of it stings nonetheless.
Giving Paige a smile that promised good behavior, I turned my attention back to Seth. He was just finishing up the reading and moving on to questions. As expected, the first ones asked were, "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Are Cady and O'Neill ever going to get together?"
He glanced briefly in my direction before answering, and I cringed, recalling my remarks about him impaling himself when those questions were asked. Turning back to his fans, he addressed the first question seriously and dodged the second one.
Everything else he answered succinctly, often in a dry and subtly humorous way. He never spoke any more than he had to, always providing just enough to fulfill the questioner's requirements. The crowd clearly unnerved him, which I found a bit disappointing.
Considering how punchy and clever his books were, I guess I'd expected him to speak in the same way he wrote. I wanted a confident outpouring of words and wit, a charisma to rival my own. He'd had a few good lines earlier while we spoke, I supposed, but he'd taken time to warm up to them and to me.
Of course, it was unfair to make comparisons between us. He had no uncanny knack for dazzling others, nor centuries of practice behind him. Still. I had never imagined a slightly scattered introvert capable of creating my favorite books. Unjust of me, but there it was.
"Everything going okay?" a voice behind us asked.
I looked over and saw Warren, the store's owner and my occasional fuck-buddy.
"Perfectly," Paige told him in her crisp, efficient way. "We'll start the signing in another fifteen minutes or so."
His eyes flicked casually over the rest of us staff and then shot back to me. He said nothing, but as he scoured me with that gaze, I could almost feel his hands undressing me. He'd come to expect sex on a regular basis, and usually I didn't fight it since he provided a quick and reliable - albeit small -
fix of energy and life. His low moral character erased any guilt I might have for doing so.
After the questions ended, we faced crowd control issues as everyone queued up to get their books signed. I offered to help, but Doug told me they had things under control. So, instead, I stayed out of the way, trying to avoid eye contact with Seth.
"Meet me in my office when this is all over," Warren murmured, coming up to stand close beside me.
He wore a tailored, charcoal gray suit tonight, looking every inch the sophisticated literary tycoon. In spite of my distasteful opinion of a man who cheated on his wife of thirty years with a much younger employee, I still had to acknowledge a certain amount of physical charm and allure to him. After everything that had happened today, though, I was not in the mood to be sprawled across his desk when the store closed.
"I can't," I answered back softly, still watching the signing. "I'm busy afterwards."
"No you aren't. It's not a dancing night."
"No," I agreed. "But I'm doing something else."
"I have a date." The lie came easily to my lips.
"You do not."
"You never date, so don't try that line now. The only appointment you have is with me, back in my office, preferably on your knees." He took a step closer, speaking into my ear so that I could feel the warmth of his breath on my skin. "Jesus, Georgina. You're so fucking hot tonight, I could take you right now. Do you have any idea what you're doing to me in that outfit?"
"'Doing to you?' I'm not 'doing' anything. It's attitudes like that that result in women being veiled around the world, you know. It's blaming the victim."
He chuckled. "You crack me up, you know that? Do you have any panties on under that?"
"Kincaid? Can you come help us over here?"
I turned and saw Doug frowning at us. It would figure. He wanted my help, now that he saw Warren hitting on me. Who said there was no chivalry left in this world? Doug was one of the few who knew what passed between Warren and me, and he didn't approve. Yet, I wanted the escape, belated or no, and thus temporarily evaded Warren's lust as I walked over to assist with the book sale.
It took almost two hours to shuffle customers through the signing line, and by then, the store was fifteen minutes from closing. Seth Mortensen looked a little tired but seemed to be in good spirits. My stomach flip-flopped inside me when Paige beckoned those of us not involved with closing to come over and talk to him.
She introduced us matter-of-factly. "Warren Lloyd, store owner. Doug Sato, assistant manager. Bruce Newton, cafe manager. Andy Kraus, sales. And you already know Georgina Kincaid, our other assistant manager."
Seth nodded politely, shaking everyone's hand. When he reached me, I averted my eyes, waiting for him to just move on. When he did not, I mentally cringed, bracing myself for some comment about our previous encounters. Instead, all he said was, "G.K."
I blinked. "Huh?"
"G.K.," he repeated, as though those letters made perfect sense. When my idiotic expression persisted, he gave a swift head jerk toward one of the promotional flyers for tonight's event. It read:
If you haven't heard of Seth Mortensen, then you obviously haven't been living on this planet for the last eight years. He's only the hottest thing to hit the mystery/contemporary fiction market, making the competition look like scribbles in a child's picture book. With several bestselling titles to his name, the illustrious Mr. Mortensen writes both self-standing novels and continual installments in the stunningly popular Cady & O'Neill series. The Glasgow Pact continues the adventures of these intrepid investigators as they travel abroad this time, continuing to unravel archaeological mysteries and engage in the persistent witty, sexual banter we've come to love them for. Guys, if you can't find your girlfriends tonight, they're here with The Glasgow Pact, wishing you were as suave as O'Neill.
"You're G.K. You wrote the bio."
He looked to me for confirmation, but I couldn't speak, wouldn't utter the clever acknowledgment about to spring from my lips. I was too afraid. After my earlier mishaps, I feared saying the wrong thing.
Finally, confused by my silence, he asked haltingly, "Are you a writer? It's really good."
"Ah." A few moments passed in cool silence. "Well. I guess some people write the stories, and others live them."
That sounded like a dig of sorts, but I bit my lip on any response, still playing my new ice-bitch role, wanting to defuse the earlier flirtation.
Paige, not understanding the tension between Seth and me, still felt it and tried to allay it. "Georgina's one of your biggest fans. She was absolutely ecstatic when she found out you were coming here."
"Yeah," added Doug wickedly. "She's practically a slave to your books. Ask her how many times she's read The Glasgow Pact."
I shot him a murderous look, but Seth's attention focused back on me, genuinely curious. He's trying to bring back our earlier rapport, I realized sadly. I couldn't let that happen now.
I swallowed, not wanting to answer, but the weight of all those eyes grew too heavy. "None. I haven't finished it yet." Practiced poise allowed me to utter those words calmly and confidently, hiding my discomfort.
Seth looked puzzled. So did everyone else; they all stared at me, rightfully perplexed. Only Doug knew the joke.
"None?" asked Warren with a frown. "Hasn't it been out for over a month now?"
Doug, the bastard, grinned. "Tell them the rest. Tell them how much you read a day."
I wished then that the floor would open up and swallow me whole, so I could escape this nightmare. As if coming off as an arrogant strumpet in front of Seth Mortensen wasn't bad enough, Doug was now shaming me into confessing my ridiculous habit.
"Five," I finally said. "I only read five pages a day."
"Why?" asked Paige. She had apparently never heard this story.
I could feel my cheeks turning red. Paige and Warren stared at me like I was from another planet while Seth simply continued to remain silent and look thoughtfully distracted. I took a deep breath and spoke in a rush: "Because... because it's so good, and because there's only one chance to read a book for the first time, and I want it to last. That experience. I'd finish it in a day otherwise, and that'd be like... like eating a carton of ice cream in one sitting. Too much richness over too quickly. This way, I can draw it out. Make the book last longer. Savor it. I have to since they don't come out that often."
I promptly shut up, realizing I had just insulted Seth's writing prowess... again. He made no response to my comment, and I couldn't decipher the expression on his face. Considering, maybe. Once again, I silently begged the floor to consume me and save me from this humiliation. It obstinately refused.
Doug smiled reassuringly at me. He found my habit cute. Paige, who apparently did not, looked as though she shared my wish that I be somewhere else. She cleared her throat politely and started a completely new line of conversation. After that, I scarcely paid attention to what anybody said. All I knew was that Seth Mortensen probably thought I was an erratic nutcase, and I couldn't wait for this night to end.
"... Kincaid would do it."
The sound of my name brought me back around several minutes later.
"What?" I turned to Doug, the speaker.
"Wouldn't you?" he repeated.
"Wouldn't I what?"
"Show Seth around the city tomorrow." Doug spoke patiently, as if to a child. "Get him acquainted with the area."
"My brother's too busy," explained Seth.
What did his brother have to do with anything? And why did he need to get acquainted with the area?
I faltered, unwilling to admit I'd spaced out just now while wallowing in self-pity.
"If you don't want to..." began Seth hesitantly.
"Of course she does." Doug nudged me. "Come on. Climb out of your hole."
We exchanged smartass looks, worthy of Jerome and Carter. "Yeah, fine. Whatever."
We arranged the logistics of me meeting Seth, and I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. I no longer wanted to stand out. In fact, I would have preferred if he could have just blotted me from his mind forever. Hanging out as we toured Seattle tomorrow didn't seem like the best way to make that happen. If anything, it would probably only result in more foolish behavior on my part.
Conversation finally faded. As we were about to disperse, I suddenly realized something. "Oh. Hey. Mr. Mortensen. Seth."
He turned toward me. "Yeah?"
I frantically tried to say something that would undo the tangled mess of mixed signals and embarrassment he and I had stumbled into. Unfortunately, the only things that came to mind were: Where do you get your ideas from? and Are Cady and O'Neill ever going to get together? Dismissing such idiocy, I simply shoved my book over to him.
"Can you sign this?"
He took it. "Uh, sure." A pause. "I'll bring it back tomorrow. "
Deprive me of my book for the night? Hadn't I suffered enough?
"Can't you just sign it now?"
He shrugged haplessly, as though the matter were out of his control. "I can't think of anything to write."
"Just sign your name."
"I'll bring it back tomorrow," he repeated, walking away with my copy of The Glasgow Pact like I hadn't even said anything. Appalled, I seriously considered running over and beating him up for it, but Warren suddenly tugged on my arm.
"Georgina," he said pleasantly as I stared desperately at my retreating book, "we still need to discuss that matter in my office."
No. No way. I definitely wasn't putting out after this debacle of an evening. Turning slowly toward him, I shook my head. "I told you, I can't."
"Yeah, I know already. Your fictitious date."
"It's not fictitious. It's - "
My eyes desperately scanned for escape as I spoke. While no magical portals appeared in the cookbook section, I suddenly locked gazes with a guy browsing our foreign language books. He smiled curiously at my attention, and in a flash, I made a ballsy choice.
" - with him. It's with him."
I waved my hand at the strange guy and beckoned him over. He looked understandably surprised, setting his book down and walking toward us. When he arrived, I slung my arm around him familiarly, giving him a look that had been known to bring kings to their knees.
"Are you ready to go?"
Mild astonishment flashed in his eyes - which were beautiful, by the way. An intense green-blue. To my relief, he played along and returned my serve masterfully.
"You bet." His own arm snaked around me, his hand resting on my hip with surprising presumption. "I would have been here sooner, but I got held up in traffic."
Cute. I glanced at Warren. "Rain check for our talk?"
Warren looked from me to the guy and then back to me. "Sure. Yes. Of course." Warren had proprietary feelings toward me, but they weren't strong enough for him to challenge a younger competitor.
A few of my coworkers also watched with interest. Like Warren, none of them had ever really seen me date anyone. Seth Mortensen busied himself packing up a briefcase, never meeting my eyes again, for all the world oblivious to my existence. He didn't even respond when I said goodbye. Probably just as well.
My "date" and I left the store, stepping out into the cool night. The precipitation had stopped, but clouds and city lights blotted out the stars. Studying him, I kind of wished maybe we were going out after all.
He was tall - really tall. Probably at least ten inches taller than my diminutive five-four. His hair was black and wavy, brushed away from a deeply tanned face that nearly made those sea-colored eyes glow. He wore a long, black wool coat and a scarf with a black, burgundy, and green plaid pattern.
"Thanks," I said as we paused to stand on the street corner. "You saved me from an... unpleasant situation."
"My pleasure." He held out his hand to me. "I'm Roman."
"I guess. It reminds me of a romance novel."
"Yeah. No one's really named that in real life. But in romance novels, there are a million of them. 'Roman the Fifth Duke of Wellington.' 'Roman the Terrible yet Dashing and Eerily Attractive Pirate of the High Seas.' "
"Hey, I think I read that last one. I'm Georgina."
"So I see." He nodded toward the staff ID badge I wore around my neck. Probably an excuse to check out my cleavage. "Is that outfit the standard uniform for assistant managers?"
"This outfit's becoming a real pain in the ass actually," I noted, thinking of the various reactions it had elicited.
"You can wear my coat. Where do you want to go tonight?"
"Where do I - ? We aren't going out. I told you: you just saved me from a minor entanglement, that's all."
"Hey, that's still got to be worth something," he countered. "A handkerchief? A kiss on the cheek? Your phone number?"
"Oh, come on. Did you see how good I was? I didn't miss a beat when you roped me in with that come-hither look of yours."
I couldn't deny that. "All right. It's 555-1200."
"That's the store number."
"How did you know that?"
He pointed to the Emerald City sign behind me. It contained all of the store's contact information. "Because I'm literate. "
"Wow. That puts you, like, ten steps above most of the guys that hit on me."
He turned hopeful. "So does that mean we can go out sometime?"
"Nope. I appreciate your help tonight, but I don't date."
"Don't think of it as a date then. Think of it as... a meeting of minds."
The way he looked at me suggested he wanted to meet more than just my mind. I shivered involuntarily, but I wasn't cold. In fact, I was starting to feel unnervingly warm.
He unbuttoned his coat. "Here. You're freezing. Wear this while I take you home. My car's around the corner."
"I live within walking distance." His coat was still warm from his body and smelled nice. A combination of cK One and, well, man. Yum.
"Then let me walk you home."
His persistence was charming, which was all the more reason I had to end things now. This was exactly the kind of quality guy I needed to avoid.
"Come on," Roman begged when I didn't answer. "This isn't much to ask for. I'm not a stalker or anything. All I want is one walk home. Then you never have to see me again."
"Look, you barely even know me..." I paused, reconsidering what he'd said. "Okay."
"Okay, you can walk me home."
"Really?" He brightened.
Three minutes later, when we arrived at my apartment building, he threw up his hands in dismay. "That wasn't fair at all. You're practically next door."
" 'One walk home.' That was all you asked for."
Roman shook his head. "Not fair. Not fair at all. But" - he looked up hopefully at my building - "at least I know where you live now."
"Hey! You said you weren't a stalker."
He grinned, gorgeous white teeth flashing against his tanned skin. "It's never too late to start." Leaning down, he kissed my hand and gave me a wink. "Until we meet again, fair Georgina."
He turned and walked off into the Queen Anne night. I watched him go, still feeling his lips on my skin. What an unexpected - and perplexing - twist to the evening.
When he was no longer in sight, I turned around and went into my building. I was halfway up the stairs when I realized I was still wearing his coat. How was I going to get it back to him? He did that on purpose, I realized. He let me keep it.
I suddenly knew then that I would be seeing wily Duke Roman again. Probably sooner, rather than later.
Chuckling, I continued on to my apartment, halting after just a few more steps.
"Not again," I muttered in exasperation.
Familiar sensations swirled behind my apartment door. Like a glittering tempest. Like the humming of bees in the air.
There was a group of immortals inside my home.
What the fuck? Did I need to start charging admission to my apartment? Why did everyone suddenly think they could just go right inside when I wasn't there?
It occurred to me then, ever so briefly, that I had not sensed Jerome and Carter's presence earlier. They had caught me completely unaware. That was weird, but I had been too distracted by their news to pay much attention to anything else.
Similarly, my current anger did not allow me to further ponder that odd piece of trivia now. I was too annoyed. Slinging my purse over one shoulder, I stormed into my home.