Succubus Revealed Chapter 12

My brief conversation with Kayla tormented me for the rest of the evening as I corralled kids at the mall.I couldn’t shake the image of her eyes as she told me about “the Darkness.” It was one of those times I both blessed and cursed her psychic abilities.If she hadn’t had them at all, I never would’ve known anything was amiss in the Mortensen household.

But with her imprecise understanding of her powers, I was left with too many questions about what she might have sensed. Erik would’ve known instantly.

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There was another thing for me to worry about.

Erik. Murdered because of me.

And if we were operating on the assumption that Hell had directly acted against him, then what was I supposed to think about Kayla? In the past, any unusual supernatural activity in the area had been the result of rogue forces outside of the Heaven and Hell system. After all, Heaven and Hell had certain rules they were supposed to follow. Milton was proof, however, that Hell wasn’t above breaking those. So was it possible someone from my own side had been visiting Andrea Mortensen – coincidentally during the times her condition worsened? And if so, why?

That, as Roman had pointed out, was a question with an answer that would crack all of this wide open.

My only pause in ruminating on immortal affairs came when I tried to coax Walter into doing a house call to the Mortensens. Two mothers had gotten in a fight in line, so we were all on an impromptu break while mall security sorted matters out.

“Santa doesn’t do house calls,” Walter told me.

“Last time I checked, that’s exactly what Santa does,” I countered. “Every Christmas Eve.”

“Santa can’t just be hired out for entertainment. Children must either wait until Christmas morning or come visit the retail wonderland Santa’s gazebo is in. Those are the rules.”

“Of course you can be hired out,” I said. “It’s why you’re working here to begin with! Come on, I’ll pay you. I’ll buy you a drink. Both, if you want. These are little girls who need to see Santa. Their mother has cancer, for God’s sake. How can you not be moved by that?”

He peered at me through his spectacles. “I’m very sorry for their plight, but I can’t do it. Taking on this role is a commitment for the holiday season, a vow to stay true to the spirit of Santa. If I’m outside this mall while playing this role, and Bob is here playing the same role, then what does that say to the children?”

I stared at him incredulously. “Well, unless these children are capable of breaking the rules of time and space, none of them would know there’s a Santa here, in Lake Forest Park, or in any of the other thousands of malls in this country.”

“I would know. I can’t be Santa while Bob is playing Santa. It would break our sacred pact.”

” ‘Sacred pact?’ It’s just a job!” I was seriously considering breaking the drinking rule. If I got him tipsy enough, surely he’d agree to what I wanted.

“Not to us, it isn’t,” he told me solemnly. Security finished up their intervention, and the line began moving again, bringing the discussion to a halt before I could point out that last I’d checked, liters of whiskey weren’t part of the “spirit of Santa” either.

I might as well have been Grumpy for the rest of my shift. I appreciated Walter’s dedication to the role, but honestly, it was kind of pushing absurdity.

I stayed at Seth’s place that night, in spite of my earlier plans to talk to Roman about what Kayla had told me. But when I called Seth on my way home, there was just something so sad and strained in his voice that I knew it was more important to be with him. Andrea’s worsening condition had hit him hard. He and I spent the night chastely, but there was a desperation in the way he held me, a sense that I was all that was keeping him going in this madness.

“Oh, Thetis,” he whispered, kissing my cheek as we snuggled in bed. “What am I going to do without you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said automatically. “I’m still here for a while.”

“I know,” he said. “But then . . .”

Silence. My heart lurched.

“I know,” I said at last. “I know you can’t leave them. It’s okay.”

“At least until she gets better. . . .”

His words faltered for a moment. I could guess his emotions because I shared them. We were both worried about that looming, unspoken fear. That maybe Andrea wouldn’t get better. And the really, really awful thing was that if she didn’t, then eventually, Seth might be able to come to me in Las Vegas. But how could I live with myself knowing what the price of my happiness was?

He finally managed to find his words again. “I understand why you get so frustrated with the universe,” he said. “I’ve never wanted anything so much as I’ve wanted to be with you. I finally got you . . . and now this happens. People talk about throwing everything away for love, but reality doesn’t work out that way. And honestly, if I was the kind of guy who could ignore his family for his own selfish wants . . . well, then, I don’t think I’d be worthy of you. So here we are.”

“It’s okay,” I repeated, forcing more bravery than I felt. “We’ll be fine. They need you. Do what you have to do.”

“Georgina.”

“Seth.” I brushed my lips against his. “This is more important right now.”

“Than us?” he asked.

It took me a long time to answer. But I did.

“Yes.”

The next day I had an early shift at the mall, working with Bob. I attempted the same bargain I had with Walter, in the hopes of arranging a visit to the Mortensen girls, only to be met with the same response. I’d kind of hoped that since Bob wasn’t a blatant alcoholic, he’d be more reasonable. No such luck. He was full of the same nonsense about the magic and integrity of the Santa role.

Fortunately, things improved when I found Roman at home afterward. We had bowling practice that night, but I’d wanted to talk to him in private. My other immortal friends could be coaxed on board with a lot, but as Hell’s hand became more obvious in all of this, I was hesitant to get them involved. Roman didn’t face the same repercussions, and I didn’t mind exposing myself to the wrath of my employers. I was less excited about subjecting my immortal friends to that same wrath on my behalf.

“Did she say anything else about this ‘Darkness’?” Roman wanted to know, once I’d recapped everything for him. “Greater immortal, lesser immortal, outside deity?”

“She doesn’t understand what any of that is,” I said. “She’s only four. Five now, I guess.”

“She needs to understand it,” he said darkly. “You should train her up.”

“With everything else going on in her life? I think that’s the last thing she needs.”

“Not if some supernatural creature is making her mom sick!” Roman perched on the edge of the couch, his sea green eyes both thoughtful and angry. “And let’s face it, Georgina. If something is, I really can’t imagine it’s because the powers that be have singled out that family by random. If something’s targeting Andrea Mortensen, it’s because of her connection to you.”

I felt ill. More consequences, laid at my feet.

“So Andrea suffers because of me,” I said, sinking into a chair. “Wonderful.”

“It’s Hell,” said Roman. “What do you expect? If they want back at you for something, then they’re going to find creative ways to do it.”

“Seems like there are more direct ways to make me ‘pay,’ ” I noted. “Especially seeing as they own the contract on my soul. We’re assuming a lot that this is Hell.”

Roman shrugged. “Not really. We already know they’re interfering with your life. And healing and injuring are specific powers given to angels and demons.”

“Do you think Carter could tell what visited her?” I asked. “If he looked at Andrea?”

“I think he could.” Roman considered for a few moments. “The question is if he would get involved with it at all. You know how he is. Heaven, at least, makes a pretense of playing by the rules.”

I nodded slowly, remembering my last conversation and how reluctant Carter had been to intervene. “True,” I murmured.

“Well,” said Roman, straightening. “You can ask him right now.”

“Huh? How?”

“He’s coming to practice. I overheard him and Jerome talking about it yesterday.”

Apparently, Seth wasn’t the only one with a perverse interest in watching Jerome’s misfits bowl for his honor. I stood up as well.

“Then let’s go. I’ll drive.”

As we headed downstairs, I gave Roman a sidelong look. “Have you ever wondered how you’d look in a white beard and Santa hat?”

Roman returned my look warily. “No, I have not.”

I quickly explained how the Mortensen girls hadn’t seen Santa yet this year. He was already shaking his head before I finished the story.

“Come on, Roman. They need to see Santa. And I know you don’t have any of those hang-ups like Walter does about multiple Santas existing together.”

“Nope,” agreed Roman. “My hang-up is about preserving my dignity, no matter how good the cause. Besides, I don’t feel that guilty. If you really wanted them to see Santa, you could shape-shift and put us all to shame.”

I scowled. It was annoying because it was true.

Roman and I were the last to arrive at the bowling alley, much to my dismay. I’d hoped to speak with Carter privately, but he and Jerome were already deep in conversation (and in their cups). The rest of the Unholy Rollers were waiting anxiously for their leader and gave me no end of grief for not wearing my shirt.

“I forgot,” I said. “It’s no big deal. I’ll wear it for the real game.”

Peter sighed. “But it helps build team solidarity now. And that sense of bonding and closeness will make us better.”

“Actually,” said Jerome, “hitting more pins would make you better.”

“Look,” I told Peter. “If I have to use the bathroom at some point, I’ll shape-shift the shirt on.”

“It’s not the same,” he grumbled.

Fortunately, Jerome’s impatience allowed little time for further debate on the matter. He hadn’t seen how our last practice had ended and was anxious to know if we’d improved. We had, to be fair, but I think Jerome was expecting us to all be throwing strikes every time. When it was clear that wasn’t the case, he grew impatient and angry.

“How can you do that?” he demanded, after Cody made an impressive 9-1 spare. “Why can’t you just hit them all the first time?” He glared at Roman. “Do something.”

Roman eyed his father irritably, not liking his teaching skills questioned, especially since Cody was the best of us. “Why don’t you? Why don’t you give it a shot, Pop?” Jerome had been up pacing by the lane but wouldn’t deign to actually touch a ball himself.

“Because it’s not my job,” Jerome retorted.

Roman rolled his eyes. “Then let me do mine.”

While they bickered, I leaned over to Carter. “I need to talk to you. In private. Can you stick around after this?”

Carter had been watching the father?Cson exchange, but his eyes flicked briefly toward me when I spoke. He gave a small, barely perceptible nod. And when Jerome returned to his seat a few moments later, saying he wanted to leave and drink off his annoyance at the Cellar, Carter declined the offer.

“Nah,” he said lazily, stretching. “I think I’ll see how this pans out. There’s no way Peter can keep throwing splits like that every time. It defies all the rules of physics.”

Peter looked torn on whether he should be flattered or not by that.

“Fine,” said Jerome. “If you’ve got any miracles you can work to help them, now’s the time to cash them in.”

“Noted,” said Carter, waving as Jerome left.

My lesser immortal friends were agitated by our boss’s disapproval, so I focused on the game and didn’t bring anything up with Carter until we finished our practice. Jerome could criticize all he wanted, but Roman really was a good teacher. I think our greatest triumph was when Peter went four frames in a row without a split, thus returning the laws of physics back to their rightful state. True, he didn’t get any strikes or spares either, but by that point, we were all so exhausted that we were willing to take what victories we could.

Roman, Carter, and I let the others leave ahead of us – once I’d promised I would definitely wear my team shirt next time, of course. As soon as we had relative privacy, I explained my problem to Carter. His face grew graver and graver as he listened.

“Daughter of Lilith,” he said when I was done, “you know I can’t interfere.”

“I’m not asking you to,” I said. “Not exactly. I just want to know if you could tell if someone – like a demon – had made Andrea Mortensen sick.”

Carter’s gray eyes were unreadable. “Yes. I can tell.”

“Will you go see her with me and tell me what you sense? That’s it. I’m not asking you to break any rules.” Well, I didn’t think I was. Honestly, I didn’t understand half of these “rules” he was always talking about. “I just need the information.”

“Okay,” he said, after what felt like forever. “I’ll go with you. Giving you that information doesn’t violate anything.”

“I don’t suppose,” said Roman, “that telling us why Hell would do this wouldn’t violate anything either?”

I answered before Carter could. “We already know. To get to me. I’ve pissed somebody off, and they’re going to make me suffer by making those I love suffer.”

“Yeah, but why Andrea?” asked Roman. “I mean, no offense, but there are other ways to hurt you more. Why not make Seth suffer?”

I couldn’t help but scoff. “Well. With this transfer, I kind of feel like he already – ” I came to a screeching halt, once I realized what I’d been about to say. Roman was sitting opposite me in one of the worn leather chairs, and from the rabid look in his eyes, I thought he was going to reach over and shake me.

“What?” he demanded. “What did you just think of?”

“Andrea’s sickness is terrible,” I said slowly. “A horrible, unfair thing that could hurt her whole family. But there’s something else. As long as she’s sick, as long as the whole family needs help . . . Seth has to stay with them. He can’t go to Las Vegas with me.”

“And there it is,” said Roman, wonder lighting his eyes. “That’s what this transfer is about. To get you out of Seattle, away from Seth, and to make sure he can’t follow.”

“Eventually . . .” My stomach was twisting again, just like it always did when I thought of people being affected because of me. “Eventually he’d be able to. Andrea will either get better, or . . . or she won’t.”

“Yes, but how long?” demanded Roman. “How long will that take? Long enough for you to fall even more in love with your picture-perfect scenario – the one that they handcrafted for you? Long enough for you to move on with some other artsy introverted mortal? By the time he’s free, it won’t matter.”

I was staring off at Roman but not really seeing him. Jerome had always been annoyed at my relationship with Seth, chastising me for being too attached to a mortal and letting it affect my job. Carter himself had said I was doing something that Hell didn’t like. Was it possible this was it? That all of these forces were moving to keep Seth and me apart?

“If Hell wants me away from Seth, then why not just forbid it?” I asked. “Jerome’s given me a hard time before. Or why not just drop me somewhere . . . anywhere . . . that isn’t here? Why should they care that it’s a place I’ll fall in love with?”

“So that you’ll forget him,” said Roman. “So that you won’t look back. If they ordered you apart, a teenage forbidden romance complex would kick in like that.” He snapped his fingers. “You’d never stop pining for him. But this . . . this is more subtle. And effective.”

“It is,” I agreed, still reeling. “Even after all of Jerome’s criticism, I never thought . . . I never thought Hell would be this upset over me being with a human.”

Roman had no answer for me but lifted his eyes to Carter. “You’re being awfully quiet.”

Carter shrugged, face neutral. “You two have plenty to say. No need for me to chime in.”

“Are we right?” I asked the angel.

“Of course we are,” said Roman. “You’ve always known Hell thought you were too distracted by Seth. This explains everything.”

“Doesn’t explain Erik,” I said.

“Are you sure you have nothing to add?” asked Roman, gaze still on Carter.

“I think we should get to the Mortensens’ before it gets much later,” said Carter mildly. “I’m sure those girls have respectable bedtimes.”

I stood up, knowing we’d get nothing else from him. “I have to drop Roman off at home first. Then we can go over there.”

“How are you going to get me in to see her?” asked Carter. “It’ll be a little weird bringing in a stranger to a sick woman’s bedroom. Do you want me to go invisibly?”

I’d been about to suggest that very thing when a new idea struck me. I gave Carter a once-over. “Have you ever wanted to put on a Santa suit?”

“I have always wanted to do that,” said Carter gravely.

Roman groaned.

Once I explained the situation to Carter, however, he was totally on board. In fact, he told me not to worry about the costume arrangements and promised to meet me at Terry’s in an hour, once I’d had a chance to drop Roman off. As soon as we were in the privacy of the parking lot, Carter vanished into thin air.

“I hope he doesn’t get an outfit from wherever it is he normally does his shopping,” I mused to Roman as we drove. “We don’t want a hobo Santa. Although, if Ian’s there, he’d probably approve and say we were breaking out of the mainstream’s iron grip.”

“Goddamned hipsters,” said Roman. He leaned his head against the car’s window. “You’re rolling the dice a little with Carter, but something tells me he won’t mess this up, not for a bunch of girls with a sick mother. He’s an angel, after all. He’s got to earn his keep somehow.”

“And thank goodness he doesn’t have any hang-ups about Santa being at more than one place at the same time,” I joked. “No space?Ctime contradictions there.”

Roman jerked up so fast, I nearly slammed on the brakes, thinking I was about to hit something. Half a second later, I realized whatever had startled him was in his own head.

“Oh God,” he said.

“What?” I asked, acting like him earlier. “What did you just think of?”

“I think . . . I think I’ve figured this out.” There was awe in his voice.

“What? This mystery we’ve been beating our heads against? We already figured it out.”

Roman shook his head, wide-eyed. “No . . . oh, Jesus. Georgina, if I’m right . . . how do I even prove if I am?” He leaned back in dismay. “How do I get proof?”

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” I demanded.

“No. Not yet. Just drop me off, and we’ll talk when you’re done. I have to figure this out.”

There wasn’t much that was more infuriating than that. I hated having the lure of a secret being dangled before me. I hated the “I’ll tell you later” stance. But no matter how much I badgered him, he refused to say any more. With Carter on his way to Terry’s, I couldn’t linger long over Roman. I had to get to Lake Forest Park first. With much grumbling, I left Roman to his machinations, after first warning him that he’d better be ready to spill when I got home later.

When I arrived at the Mortensens’ soon thereafter, I was relieved to see that Seth was around and that all the girls were still awake. Recalling Carter’s joke, I’d worried on my drive over that it might be past the littler ones’ bedtime. Most of them were in their pajamas, but it was clear from their excited reaction to me that sleep was the farthest thing from their mind. Returning their hugs, I couldn’t help but imagine their response when the real act showed up.

Only Brandy stayed on the couch when the others hugged me. She still smiled and nodded in greeting, but there was a haunted, hollow look that hadn’t been there yesterday during our outing. My heart ached for her. After letting her have her night out, they must have told her the truth today about her mom. I sat down on the other end of the couch.

“Did you have fun last night?”

“Yeah,” she said. “It was okay.”

“Do you want to see the pictures?” asked Kendall excitedly. She nudged Brandy. “Show her!”

Smiling at her sister’s enthusiasm, Brandy produced her cell phone and gave it to me to scroll through. It was filled with the kinds of pictures girls her age like to take, group shots of her and her friends crowded in, some with silly faces. I was pleased to see that it looked like any other school dance. I hadn’t been sure what to expect from a church. The shots of her in particular were stunning. Margaret had done a good job with the French twist. One picture showed Brandy grinning next to a cute boy with sandy blond hair. He looked like a smart surfer. I glanced over at her and raised a questioning eyebrow. She nodded.

“Nice,” I said.

A knock at the door brought everyone’s excited chatter to a halt. Terry looked up in surprise from where he’d been leafing through a picture book with McKenna. “Who on earth is that?” He glanced around the room, as though doing a head count to make sure anyone who might possibly stop by was already here. I suppose with that many daughters, there was always the risk of losing track of one. Ian, Margaret, Seth, and I were also accounted for. There weren’t too many others who would drop in unannounced.

“I don’t know,” I said cheerfully. “Seth, why don’t you answer the door and see?”

Seth immediately picked up on the tone in my voice. He shot me a questioning look but walked over to the door anyway. He turned the knob and leaped back in astonishment when Carter burst in through the door.

Well, I was taking it on faith that it was Carter, based on our earlier conversation. Because really, the man who entered the living room looked nothing like the disreputable angel I knew. In fact, he didn’t look like any of the Santas I knew. He looked better. There was magic in the way he moved his round frame. His red suit seemed to shimmer, and his rosy cheeks looked like he’d just come in from the North Pole, not a dreary Seattle winter.

He had out-Santa’ed Santa.

“Ho ho ho!” he bellowed, in a voice that filled the entire house. “Merry Christmas!”

Dead silence and wide eyes met him for a few moments. Then Kendall and the twins began squealing in delight as they ran over to him. “Santa! Santa!”

“What are you doing here?” demanded Kendall. “You aren’t contractually obligated to come here until Christmas Eve.”

“True,” he said in a booming voice that I still couldn’t believe was Carter’s. “But I have to find out what you want for Christmas, don’t I?”

This was met with more oohs and ahhs, and the twins urged him to sit down on the couch. Brandy scrambled out of the way, and Kendall immediately took her turn first, claiming Santa’s lap.

Margaret and Terry looked like they were going to burst into tears. Ian looked dumbfounded. Seth caught my arm and pulled me to the side.

“Is that one of the guys you work with?” he whispered.

I grinned. “In a manner of speaking. It’s Carter.”

Seth did a double take, wearing the amazement I’d felt earlier. “Really? But how . . . I mean . . . even his body . . .”

“Mysterious ways,” I replied.

Kendall was rattling off a list of board games and economics books. Nearby, the twins stood quivering with excitement, eager for their turn but too well bred to show bad manners in front of Santa. After a few subscriptions to prominent business magazines and newspapers, Terry gently cut Kendall off and suggested she let her sisters take a turn. Kendall agreed eagerly, but not before throwing her arms around Carter and thanking him.

“Okay,” said Seth, drawing me near. “This was kind of amazing. Not that I should be surprised by anything you do anymore.” He kissed my forehead. “We definitely have to make the most out of your last month. If we’re going to be apart for a long time, then we have to find a way to work around my schedule here.”

I started to protest and tell him not to change his plans with the family because of me but stayed silent instead. Some desperate part of me wondered, what did any of it matter? If Hell wanted us apart, then we couldn’t stand against that. “A long time” would become “never.” Maybe I really should be trying harder to maximize these last precious days. And yet if I did . . . would that make Hell work harder against us?

Glancing up, I saw Morgan had now replaced McKenna on Carter’s lap. They were having a discussion on the virtues of two different kinds of pony action figures. Morgan wasn’t sure what kind she wanted.

“Princess Ponies come in more colors,” she told him seriously.

“True,” he said. “But some of the Power Prism Ponies are unicorns. And you can do more stuff with their hair.”

Across the room, I saw Kayla curled up in a chair, watching Carter raptly but making no moves to talk to him. Slipping away from Seth, I walked over and knelt beside her.

“Are you going to tell Santa what you want?” I asked in a very soft voice.

It took Kayla several moments to tear her gaze from him. “He’s not Santa,” she said. I was grateful she spoke as quietly as me. No one else heard.

“Of course he is,” I said. “Who else would he be?”

“He’s not Santa.” She smiled and studied him again. “He’s beautiful. He’s more beautiful than anything.”

No human could see an angel in his or her true form, unless the angel revealed it. Even then, a human would be destroyed by it. No, Kayla wasn’t seeing Carter’s true form, not exactly, but she was seeing something. Some piece of his true nature. I felt a moment of envy, wondering what it was she saw, what her senses allowed her that mine didn’t. Whatever it was, I’d never know, but the enchanted look on her face made it clear it was wonderful.

“Beautiful,” she repeated. She looked back at me. “Can he stop the Darkness?”

“He’ll try,” I said. Not the entire truth, but it would have to suffice. “Can you pretend he’s Santa? Tell him what you want for Christmas?”

She nodded solemnly, just as Morgan finished and Carter beckoned toward us. I walked Kayla over. I helped her onto his lap, and he glanced up at me with twinkling gray eyes. Those, if nothing else, were definitely Carter’s. I stepped back and let them talk. Kayla continued staring adoringly at him, but no one except me knew what truly captivated her. She looked like any other child starstruck by Santa as she related her list, making no mention of his beauty or supernatural creatures prowling through her home at night.

Leaving them to it, I quietly went upstairs and peered in Andrea’s room. She was awake, reading a book. Dark circles hung under her eyes, and her face looked gaunter than last time. She nonetheless gave me a cheery smile.

“Georgina,” she said. “I should’ve known you were the source of all that commotion.”

I laughed. “Not all of that. A friend of mine is here, playing Santa for the girls. He’s taking their Christmas orders right now.”

Her expression softened, resembling the near tears I’d seen on the others’ faces. “That’s very sweet of him. And of you.”

“Would you like to meet him before he leaves?” I asked.

Andrea grimaced and absentmindedly patted her hair. “Yes, in theory . . . but Lord. I look terrible.”

“Believe me,” I said. “He doesn’t care.”

When I went back downstairs, Kayla had finished, and Carter was trying to get a list out of Brandy who told him point-blank there was no way she was getting on his lap.

“I think you have plenty to work on with their orders,” she told him good-naturedly.

“And there’s nothing you want?” he asked in his best echoing Santa voice.

“Nothing you can give, I’m afraid,” she said. Her smile faltered. “But thanks.”

Carter peered at her with that piercing look he sometimes used on me, the one that seemed to look right inside me. “No,” he agreed. “You’re right. But I can give you all my prayers. And my hopes for the best.”

Brandy stared at him, caught up in that gaze, and simply nodded. I don’t think she knew what a powerful thing it was, for an angel to offer all of his prayers, but she most certainly sensed the sincerity and intention in his words. “Thanks,” she repeated.

I caught hold of Carter’s arm. “Their mom wants to meet you, Santa.”

He stood up and followed me to the stairs. We passed Ian along the way, who watched us condescendingly. “Aren’t you going to ask what I want?”

Carter paused and looked him over from head to toe. “Sorry. My workshop doesn’t do shabby chic.” Carter continued following me, despite Ian’s protest that his style was “vintage” and that “shabby chic is for wannabes.”

If Andrea felt insecure at the thought of meeting a stranger, she did a good job of hiding it. Indeed, when Carter walked into her bedroom, a little awe passed over her face, reminding me of Kayla. Andrea couldn’t see what her daughter had, but I think she sensed some of Carter’s grace. He came to a halt at the foot of her bed and took of his red hat in a genteel style, revealing rows of white curls.

“This is my friend Carter,” I said, after first making sure no one small had followed us.

“Mrs. Mortensen,” he said, dropping the showmanship. “It’s very nice to meet you.”

She smiled, and the joy in it made her beautiful, despite her weary state. “Nice to meet you too. Thank you for coming over and seeing the girls.”

Their exchange was brief. He said something nice or funny about each girl, making Andrea’s smile grow and grow. She in turn couldn’t stop thanking him. When the pleasantries were finally done, I bid her farewell and stepped outside the room with Carter. I closed the door and was about to head downstairs when he caught my hand.

“Did you see what you needed to?” I asked quietly.

He nodded, face grave, looking more like Carter than ever. “You were right. Her condition was made worse – by a demon.”

“Can you tell which demon?” I asked. I knew Jerome didn’t have my best interests at heart, but it was a hard thing to think of him purposely harming those I cared about.

“No,” said Carter. “But it probably wasn’t Jerome. It’s the kind of dirty work a minor demon would do. I can also tell you that her illness, originally, was natural. Nothing gave this to her.”

“They just made her relapse when she was starting to get better.” To get to me. To keep Seth busy.

Carter nodded.

“Okay. Thank you for coming here tonight. I appreciate it.” I started to turn, and he again stopped me.

“Georgina . . .” There was an odd, troubled note in his voice, one I didn’t usually associate with confident, laconic Carter. “Georgina, I’ve told you over and over that there are rules about what I can and can’t do, how much I can be involved. As a general rule, I’m really not supposed to do too much active interference in mortal lives.”

“I understand,” I said.

“But what happened to her . . .” He frowned slightly. “That was another breaking of the rules, something that shouldn’t have happened. And in this situation, two wrongs can make a right.”

I stared up at him in amazement. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I can heal her. I can’t completely eradicate the cancer, but I can take it back to the level it was at before she was harmed this week. I can undo what they did to her and clean the slate.”

My jaw wanted to drop. “That . . . that would be amazing !” Carter still looked sad, and I couldn’t figure out why. Did he feel like he was violating a rule, even if he was righting a wrong? “What’s the matter?”

He sighed. “What you and Roman said earlier . . . about Hell wanting to keep you and Seth apart? About how her condition keeps him here? Well . . . it’s possible, this is exactly what they want. She got better, then they made her worse again. Then, if she gets better on her own – or because of me – then everyone gets hopeful again, until they come back and make her worse. I’m not saying they will come back. But that they could. A limbo state like this ensures Seth stays around. If I heal her now – and I will if you want – I might be perpetuating that.”

There were two key things I pulled out of that. One was a very, very subtle acknowledgment that Roman and I were right. Oh, Carter wasn’t saying for sure that Hell was after Seth and me, but he certainly wasn’t denying it either. It was all part of that careful angel way of his. The other thing – the most startling one – was the implication that thwarting Hell meant keeping Andrea out of the limbo they wanted her in. Seth would always be tied to his family if she moved in and out of health. If she completely recovered, he would be free. And if she died . . .

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. Heal her. I don’t care if he stays here forever, so long as it keeps her alive.”

Carter nodded, and something shone in his eyes, something a little like pride . . . and sadness. “I thought you’d say that.”

He knocked gently on Andrea’s door before stepping back inside. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “But I forgot to ask what you wanted for Christmas.”

Andrea laughed, eventually degenerating into coughing. Reaching for a glass of water beside her bed, she finally recovered herself. “That’s nice of you, but I’m too old.”

“Never,” said Carter. “There must be something.”

Andrea was still smiling, but it grew a little wistful. “There is something,” she said. I wondered if she’d ask to be cured, which was obviously what Brandy had wanted as well. “I want . . . I want my girls to be happy. No matter what happens to me, I want them looked after and cared for.”

Carter-as-Santa studied her with that soul-searching gaze, and it was as though something passed between them, something I wasn’t part of. At long last, he said, “I swear, it will be so.”

He walked over to her bedside and extended his hand to her. A chill ran down my spine as he did. I swear. Those weren’t words an angel could say lightly. I’d thought what he’d said earlier to Brandy was powerful, but it was nothing compared to this. Tentatively, Andrea took Carter’s hand. I saw nothing blatant, no blinding flash of light or anything like that. I didn’t even feel anything with my immortal senses. But Andrea’s face transformed, growing radiant and dreamy, as though she were seeing and hearing the most beautiful things in the world. When Carter released her hand, she smiled at him and closed her eyes, drifting into sleep.

“You healed her?” I asked, deciding not to mention the promise.

“Yes,” he said. “She won’t remember much of my visit.”

“Probably just as – “

My cell phone rang, and I hurried out of the room to answer it before Andrea woke up. It was Roman.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey, are you still with the Mortensens?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I think I’ve figured out how to prove my theory,” he said, voice stern and strained.

“I still don’t even know what your theory is,” I said.

“You will soon enough. Ask Seth how he feels about hypnosis.”

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