Seth shot up from the chair, face filled with hurt and fury.It was surreal.For a moment, he looked like a stranger .
. . and yet, he also looked like everyone I’d ever known. Everyone I’d loved. Everyone I’d hurt.
“You,” he exclaimed, striding toward me. “How could you do that to me? How could you do that to me?”
I had never heard Seth yell like that. I cringed against my chair, too stunned to react. Meanwhile, Hugh seemed to come to life. He had been as shocked by Seth’s initial reaction as me, particularly since Hugh understood even less than I did about what was going on. He was still undoubtedly confused, but some instinct spurred him to action when he saw Seth advance. I didn’t think Seth would’ve hurt me, but he was kind of scary just then. Hugh grabbed a hold of Seth’s arm.
“Whoa, whoa,” said Hugh. “Easy there. Everyone calm down.”
Roman likewise seemed to suddenly realize something was wrong here. He’d been so excited by the developments, his face aglow as all his theories fell into place. Now events were moving in a direction he hadn’t foreseen. He rose, mirroring Hugh’s fighter’s stance. Only, Roman was doing it defensively, coming to stand in front of me, in case Seth broke Hugh’s hold. That didn’t seem very likely. The imp was strong.
“How could you do that to me?” repeated Seth, voice still roaring with fury. “I trusted you! I trusted you and I loved you!”
I had witnessed all of this unfolding but hadn’t dared allow myself to really and truly accept it. I had seen the impossible. I had seen Seth relive the lives of men he hadn’t known – men he couldn’t have known – walking back through the centuries of my long existence. Some voice inside of me kept saying, No, no, this isn’t happening. This can’t be real. It’s some trick of Hell’s. I was working hard not to process what I’d heard because processing it meant accepting it. But with those last words, Seth penetrated something inside of my numb self. He broke through, and I snapped.
“I didn’t! I didn’t do anything to you!” I cried. I had to peer around Roman to meet Seth’s eyes and almost wished I hadn’t. They were cold. So terribly cold and hurt.
“You cheated on me,” said Seth, straining against Hugh. “Cheated on me with my best friend. . . .” Yet, even as he spoke, I could see him falter. The feelings he’d felt as Kyriakos were real, but he was examining it now as Seth Mortensen. The mixed realities were confusing him. It was understandable. They confused me.
“Seth,” I said desperately. “I didn’t do that to you. Think about it. I love you. I love you so much.”
Seth stopped struggling, though Hugh didn’t relinquish his grip. Seth’s features were still filled with hurt and confusion. “Not to me . . . to him. But I am him. I’m all of them.” Seth closed his eyes and took a deep breath. What had been reasonable and clear under hypnosis was becoming more difficult to grasp. “How? How is that possible?”
“Past lives,” said Roman. “You’re right. You were all of them. You lived all of those lives, long before you were born into this one.”
“Reincarnation? That . . . that’s impossible,” said Seth.
“Is it?” asked Roman, regaining some of his confidence now that the situation was no longer escalating. “How do you know? Do you have a direct line into the way the universe works?”
“So, wait . . . what about you guys?” asked Seth. “Are Heaven and Hell not real?”
“Oh,” said Hugh wryly, “they’re real.”
“All of it is real,” said Roman. “And vastly more complex than any faulty human system can understand.” He turned to me, expression softening. I must have looked terrified. “What Seth saw . . . what he lived through. You knew all of them, didn’t you? All of those identities?”
I focused on Roman, afraid I’d lose my nerve if I looked at Seth again. I nodded. “Yes . . . they were all people . . . all men I knew in my life.”
Hugh frowned. “How is that possible? I can get on board with reincarnation. I’ve seen enough to believe it can happen. But him always being reborn around you? You running into him – what was it, ten times? That’s statistically impossible.”
“The things we’re dealing with aren’t really governed by statistics and probability,” said Roman. “There are other forces at work here, forces that guide his rebirth. It was part of his contract, the deal you made as Kyriakos. What can you tell us about it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. . . . I don’t remember . . . I . . .” Seth shook his head, the anger returning. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Let me go. I need to get out of here. I need to get away from her!”
“Seth . . .” I said.
“But you’re the key!” exclaimed Roman. “The key to unlocking Georgina’s problems. You’re the other contract, the one Erik was talking about. You’re tied to her, tied to everything that’s been going on with her.”
“I don’t care,” said Seth. He seemed to just barely be able to keep his emotions in check. “I don’t care about your various and sundry plots! Do you have any idea what I just saw? What I just went through? I’m still not even sure I understand any of it! I don’t understand who I am! All I know is her – and what she did to me.”
“Seth,” I tried again. Or should I address him as Kyriakos? I didn’t know. “Please . . . I love you. I’ve always loved you. What happened . . . it was . . . it was an accident. . . .”
The look Seth gave me was dark and wary. “It sure didn’t seem like an accident when I walked in on you.”
“I never meant to . . .”
“To rip my heart out?” he cried. “To destroy my world? My life?”
“Roman,” said Hugh carefully. “Maybe we should give him some time to process this.”
“We don’t have time,” said Roman. “Hell can move fast – especially if they find out what we know. If we’re going to save Georgina – “
“I don’t care!” said Seth again, this time with more vehemence. “I don’t care what happens to any of you, and I certainly don’t care about what happens to her. It’s probably less than she deserves.”
“She didn’t do anything to you,” said Roman. “She’s been a pretty solid girlfriend, from what I’ve seen.”
“Seth,” I pleaded, knowing Roman wasn’t quite getting it yet. “I . . . I’m sorry. It was a long time ago.” My words were terribly, terribly inadequate, but Seth was tapping into things I’d forced myself to block out – because they were too painful.
“For you, maybe,” said Seth. “It happened over the course of centuries. One life for you. But for me . . . whatever you guys did with the hypnosis, it’s all here now. All of those lives . . . those memories. Here in my head at the same time. It didn’t happen ‘a long time ago’ for me. It’s like it just happened yesterday! All those feelings, all that pain . . .”
“It’ll fade,” said Hugh, not sounding as though he was certain. “What you regressed through is still fresh, and you weren’t brought out of the trance properly. Give it time. Or . . . if you want, I can put you back under and make you forget this.”
“And forget her?” demanded Seth. “So I can forget what a faithless, conniving bitch she’s been to me?”
“Seth . . .” I could feel tears forming in my eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. If I could take it back, I would.”
“Which part?” he asked. “The part where you proved our marriage meant nothing to you? Or the countless other times you lied to me and broke my heart? Do you have any idea how I feel? What it feels like to be experiencing all of that at the same time? Maybe you’ve moved past it all and don’t care anymore, but it’s real for me!”
“It is for me too. I . . . I love you.” They were the only words I managed to get out, and they still weren’t enough. Where was all my usual glib charm? My ability to talk my way out of anything? I was still too choked up on my emotions, still reeling from the fact that looking into Seth’s eyes meant looking into the eyes of every man I’d ever loved. I wanted to convince him how sorry I was and explain that having a long life hadn’t dulled the feelings inside me. If anything, it had only provided more time for those feelings to sink in and punish me. I wanted to explain to him how I’d felt during that first transgression and how it had been a poor reaction to feelings I didn’t know how to process as a scared young woman. I wanted to explain that most of my actions since then, especially the times I’d pushed away other lovers, had been weak attempts at protecting them.
There was so much I wanted to say, but I just didn’t have the words – or courage – to get any of it out. So, I remained silent, and the tears spilled out of my eyes.
Seth took a deep breath, forcing. “Let me go, Hugh. I won’t hurt her. I don’t want anything to do with her. I just want to go home. I need to get out of here.”
“Don’t,” said Roman. “We need him. We need more answers, so that we can understand the contracts.”
“Hugh, let him go.” I barely recognized the voice as my own. Roman looked at me incredulously.
“We need him,” he repeated.
“He’s done enough,” I said flatly. In my head, Seth’s words echoed: I don’t want anything to do with her. “We’ve done enough to him.” When nobody reacted, I met Hugh’s gaze squarely. “Do it. Let him go.”
Hugh glanced between Roman and me and then made a decision. Still keeping hold of Seth’s arm, Hugh steered him away from us and walked him to the door. Roman made more protests and took a few steps toward them, but I remained frozen where I was. I didn’t look behind me, not even when I heard the door slam. Hugh returned, and Roman slumped back into his chair, sighing with frustration.
“Well,” he said. “Once he calms down, we’ll get him back and talk things out.”
“I don’t think he’s going to calm down,” I said, staring off at nothing. I don’t want anything to do with her.
“He’s just in shock,” said Roman.
I didn’t answer. Roman didn’t know. Roman didn’t understand the full scope of our history together. He hadn’t seen Kyriakos’s face after my betrayal, the grief that had been so deep it had nearly driven him to suicide. That was part of why I’d become a succubus, using my soul to purchase peace for him in the form of forgetfulness. It was the only way to save him. But if he remembered everything now, if he really was Kyriakos reborn . . . then, no. He wasn’t “just in shock.” I had done a terrible, terrible thing to him, and his outrage wasn’t unfounded.
A shiver ran through me as I thought about the instant connection I’d had with Seth, the feeling like I’d always known him. It was because I had always known him. Life after life. I’d always felt like we were bound into something greater than ourselves . . . and we were. Something great and terrible.
Hugh dragged up a chair and sat across from me. He caught hold of one of my hands. “Sweetie, I swear to you, I had no clue any of that would happen.”
I gave him a halfhearted squeeze back. “What . . . what did you think would happen?”
Hugh glanced at Roman. “He asked me if I could hypnotize Seth and attempt some past life regression. I had no idea what it was for. Fuck, I had no idea it would really work, let alone walk us through nine emotionally damaged lives. Ten, since we now seemed to have fucked up this one.”
I felt hollow inside, hollow and aching. I turned to Roman, astonished I could manage any sort of reasonable discussion when my world had just been destroyed. “How did you know it would happen? How did you figure all of this out?”
“I only figured some of it out,” said Roman. “It was actually your stupid Santa stuff that tipped me off. About how that guy was worried about Santa being in two places at once?” He scoffed and raked a hand through his hair. “I started thinking about how everyone says your contract is fine and how Erik had mentioned a second contract. We’d already deduced Hell wanted you and Seth apart, but why? And I thought, what if it’s like the Santa thing? There’s nothing wrong with your contract or Seth’s in and of themselves, but together, something goes wrong.”
“How did you even know Seth had a contract?” asked Hugh.
“Well, that’s the thing. I didn’t. And since Seth had never mentioned it before, it seemed he didn’t know he had one either. And how could that be? I started thinking maybe it was because he hadn’t made the contract in this life. I thought maybe Hell had a long game going on with him across lives, and hence . . . the hypnosis.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Hugh, shaking his head. “You made a fuckload of deductions there.”
“And they were right,” said Roman. “Georgina and Seth both have contracts with Hell. And those contracts don’t work together.”
“Why not?” I asked.
That zealous gleam was back in Roman’s eye. “What were we able to deduce about Seth’s contract? What did he get?”
The only thing I’d deduced was that Seth was never going to speak to me again. When I refused to answer, Hugh obligingly played student to Roman’s teacher. “He got ten lives instead of one. The gift of reincarnation.”
“Why?” asked Roman.
“To find Georgina,” said Hugh. He paused, and I guessed he was replaying what Seth had described. “It sounds like he died in that first life, and when the time came for his soul to move on, he was aware of missing her. I’m guessing Hell wouldn’t have gotten his soul then, so they made the deal to give him nine more chances to find Georgina and be reunited with her.”
“He did find me,” I said flatly. “Over and over.” Betrayal after betrayal.
“Yes,” said Roman. “And you were drawn to him without even realizing it. He certainly seemed to fit your dreamy artistic type each time. But you never made it work out.”
“Which Hell was probably hoping for,” said Hugh. The imp in him was coming out, puzzling over how a contract like this would have been designed. “Hell has to be fair, but they always want an advantage. So, they probably went into the deal thinking a guy hoping to make amends with his soul mate could never do it if she was a succubus. Seth – or whoever – certainly didn’t know that. He only knew that he was supposed to have forgotten her.” He thought about it a few moments more. “There’s nothing wrong with that, though. That’s hedging your bets on a contract. There’s no violation.”
“You’re right,” said Roman. “And that’s not the problem.” He focused back on me. “What was your deal? What was your contract for becoming a succubus?”
“You already know it,” I said wearily. I was tired of the scheming and fallout. I want to crawl off, curl up in my bed, and sleep for the next five centuries. I wanted to renegotiate my contract and have my memory and heart purged of all pain.
“Humor me,” he said. “Just tell me the basics again. The deal Niphon made with you.”
“Roman, leave her alone,” said Hugh.
I waved him off. “Fine. I sold my soul and became a succubus in exchange for everyone I knew as a mortal forgetting about me.”
Roman looked so supremely satisfied and triumphant that I wanted to punch him just then. He nodded to Hugh. “And tell me Seth’s again, to the best of your guessing.”
“At a guess? He gets to live ten lives, all of which will put him near her, giving him the chance to find her and make amends with her. Hell gets his soul at the end of the tenth life.”
“And why did Seth make the deal?” prompted Roman, practically trembling with excitement.
“Because he remembered that – ” Hugh cut himself off, eyes widening.
“Exactly,” said Roman. He shook me in his excitement when I didn’t react right away. “Don’t you get it? Your contracts contradict each other! In fact, Seth’s should never have even been written! He remembered you. He knew that you were gone from his life.”
“He knew his ‘soul mate’ was gone,” I said bitterly. “I don’t think he remembered specifics. You saw how much trouble he had.”
Roman shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m guessing your contract specifies forgetting you entirely. He remembered. By that happening, Hell violated your contract. Then, they wrote an impossible contract for him, claiming he’d have the chance to reunite with you – which again, implies a degree of remembering you.”
“We don’t know that exactly,” warned Hugh. “We haven’t seen the contract and didn’t get all the details from him. I couldn’t follow if he got anything for patching things up with her or not.”
“We know enough,” said Roman. “Seth wanted to be reunited with her and make amends. For that to happen, it would contradict Georgina’s contract – specifying he forget her.”
“I’d want to see the wording,” said Hugh. “I’m not trying to dash your hopes. I just know how these things work.”
“Fair enough,” said Roman. “But can you deny that when Seth called her ‘Letha’ last month, that was most definitely in violation of her contract? He remembered. Not consciously. But some part of him, deep inside, remembered her.”
My thoughts were still moving sluggishly, but something clicked into place. “The transfer . . . the transfer came through the morning after I told Jerome about Seth calling me Letha.”
“Yes,” said Roman. “That’s why things were mucked up with it. I guarantee my dear father has always known about your contracts and has accepted them grudgingly, especially if Seth’s contract allows for you two to keep running into each other. But, when you told the gang about the name, Jerome had a serious problem. He recognized the violation and tattled to his superiors as fast as he could, making them panic and act quickly – too quickly – to get you out of here.”
“But . . . it already happened. Seth remembered. The violation took place,” I said, scarcely able to believe it.
“It’s like a tree in the woods,” remarked Hugh. “It only happens if they’re called on it. Neither you nor Seth would have known about the contracts or any violation. You were oblivious. Jerome needed to keep it that way, get you guys apart and kill any chance of you figuring out what had happened.”
“Hence the Vegas dream job,” said Roman. “It’s like we talked about before. Forbidding you guys to be together would’ve drawn too much attention. A run-of-the-mill transfer, however, would’ve seemed like business as usual – if not for the screwup. Hell was so anxious to get it going that they sent you the memo before Jerome had a chance to meet with you. I guarantee everything you saw in Vegas was thrown together on a day’s notice.”
I drew my hand back from Hugh’s and buried my face in my palm. “Oh God.”
Roman patted my shoulder in a way that was probably supposed to be comforting but mostly made me grit my teeth. “God’s not the one you’ve got to look to right now. Do you realize what you’ve got here, Georgina? A once in a millennium opportunity to thwart Hell! You can challenge them, call your contract into dispute. And Seth’s. All you need to do is talk to him, get the exact details of – “
I jumped up from my chair, finally giving way to all my own grief and fury. “No! Didn’t you see his face? Didn’t you hear him? He won’t talk to me! Not now, not ever. And don’t say he’s just in shock again,” I warned, seeing Roman about to speak. “You don’t know what I did, what it was like for him . . . back then. There’s a reason I made him forget! He’s not going to forgive me for this. Never. He didn’t then and isn’t going to now. Oh Lord. Why did we have to do this? Why did we have to make him remember? We should’ve just let him forget. . . . Everything was fine. . . .” My frantic pacing led me over to the living room window, where I drew back the curtains. It was late in the day now, the sunset turning the clouds orange.
“Fine?” asked Roman, coming to stand beside me. “Hell was creating elaborate ploys to separate you and cover their asses! And they were killing his sister-in-law to do it. That is not fine. You and Seth have done nothing but play into Hell’s hands all these centuries. Over and over, you find each other and lose each other, you bicker and fight, throw it all away on mistrust and lack of communication. Are you going to let that continue? Especially when they didn’t even give you what you were promised?”
I rested my cheek against the glass, taking comfort in the coolness, refusing to listen to Roman’s logic. “But Seth didn’t remember until we made him.”
“Not true. He remembered before that,” said Roman. “On his own, when he called you Letha. That’s how this all started. Nothing we did here changed that.”
“He hates me,” I said, fully aware of how whiny I sounded.
Roman didn’t try to deny it. “People forgive.”
I scoffed. “Do they?”
“They do,” said Hugh, coming to stand on my other side. “Seth must have – or whomever he used to be. Your husband. Why else would he have made that bargain in the first place to find you?”
“Because he didn’t remember what I’d done,” I said. I met Hugh’s eyes. “He only knew that I was missing from his life.”
“You answered your own question, sweetie. His love for you was stronger than his hate, if he was able to remember the one and not the other.”
I wanted to argue with that but didn’t know how. “I can’t . . . I can’t face him. You don’t know what this is like. It’s . . .” My lifelong fear? My greatest sin? “I just can’t.”
“We need to know about the rest of his contract,” said Roman. “We need all the details if we’re going to see this through.”
Hugh sniffed. “You keep saying ‘we,’ but somehow I don’t see you being the one filing the paperwork with Hell to challenge her contract.” When Roman didn’t answer, Hugh added, “Which, by my estimate, we don’t need any more of Seth’s information for. We already have enough to question her contract’s integrity.”
“Question its integrity?” exclaimed Roman. “We have enough evidence to blow it wide open.” There was that metaphor again. Roman loved the dramatic. “Hell failed to hold up their end of the bargain. They told you they’d make everyone forget. Obviously, they didn’t.”
“It may not be quite that simple. Hell will question what you call evidence,” said Hugh.
“But it can be done, right?” asked Roman. “You know how to do it – to file the necessary paperwork?”
“Well, I’ve never done it before,” said Hugh. “Jesus. I don’t know anyone who’s done it.”
I dragged my gaze from the window. “Don’t,” I told Hugh. “It’s not worth it. You don’t know anyone who’s done it because no imp who values his job or his life would ever try to get a contract revoked. I don’t want you doing that for me.”
“Hugh,” said Roman, looking over me like I wasn’t even there. “You could free her. You could get her soul back for her. You could end this life she has – sleeping with strangers for eternity.”
“Stop it,” I snapped. “Stop trying to guilt him into it. I made this choice. No one tricked me into being a succubus. They told me what it entailed and what I’d get.”
“And you didn’t get it,” said Hugh quietly.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. If I didn’t have Seth, one form of Hell was as bad as another.
“I would do it for you,” said Hugh. “I’ll file the paperwork. Maybe you knew what you were getting into, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to change your mind – especially if you were played. If you want it, I’ll help you do it.”
“Why?” I asked, recalling all the times Hugh had become uneasy whenever we’d talked of challenging the status quo. “Why would you risk it?”
“Because you’re my friend,” Hugh said, his lips twisting into a bitter half smile. “And that still means something to me. Besides, give your pal Hugh some credit here. I might be able to pull this off with minimal punishment for myself.”
A strange feeling welled within my chest, tight at first and then loosening. This day had become one impossible thing after another. Somehow, hearing Hugh say it made it more real. I was so used to Roman’s ideas and dreams for undermining Hell that at times, it was easy to ignore them. But to hear Hugh saying this might actually work . . .
I swallowed, feeling more tears were on the way. “I can’t even imagine that. A world where I don’t belong to Hell. I don’t know what my life would look like.”
“Like anything you want it to,” said Hugh, wrapping me in a hug. Behind me, I heard Roman sigh.
“Well. I’ll settle for one contract blowing up in Hell’s face. I mean, Seth was already Hell-bound anyways, wasn’t he? With or without any of this?”
I winced. It was true. Seth’s soul – once so bright and shining – had darkened when he cheated on Maddie with me. He’d come to my bed out of love but had still felt guilty over what he’d done. The mark of sin had tainted his soul enough that were he to die right now, Seth would go to Hell.
Hugh cleared his throat and let go of me, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “It’s funny you mention that. . . .”
“Why?” I asked.
“I hadn’t seen him in a while and nearly didn’t notice . . . but today when he was here, his soul . . .” Hugh shook his head. “I don’t know what all he’s done, but it’s lightened. It’s not the spotlight it used to be, but something’s changed. Enough of the taint’s gone now that I don’t think he’s marked for Hell anymore.”
“Except, he is because of his contract,” I realized. “That was the price for all those lives. It doesn’t matter how good he is.” I felt my legs grow weak again and had to struggle to stay up. Seth had redeemed himself for his sin. How? Probably through the sacrifices he’d made for his family. He’d given up the things he loved most for them – writing, even me. It was a remarkable feat, something few humans were able to rebound from. Usually, those who were damned stayed damned.
But it didn’t matter. Seth’s soul could shine like a supernova and he would still go to Hell, because it was the same soul he’d had as Kyriakos, the one that had made the bargain to come and find me.
“We don’t know for sure,” I said. “He didn’t make it clear if he definitely signed his soul over or if there was a wager, like he’d get to keep it if he made amends with me.”
“Which doesn’t really seem like it’s going to happen at the moment,” said Roman. “So either way, he’s damned.”
“Unless we can break his contract too,” I said. “And we need his help for it.”
Hugh gave me a sympathetic look. “Do you want me to try to talk to him?”
I had hated myself for what I’d done to Kyriakos all those years ago, hated myself so much that I’d paid the ultimate price to be wiped from his memory. And after seeing the look in Seth’s eyes earlier . . . well, honestly, if given the chance, I might very well have asked to be erased again. I couldn’t stand seeing that hate, that disappointment in the eyes of someone I’d loved. I’d hurt him. I’d let him down. I wanted to hide and never see him again because if I faced him, I would have to face the failings within myself.
That had always been a problem for me, I realized. I hated confrontation – especially when I was the one at fault. I’d continually run away from that my entire life.
I forced a weak smile for Hugh, who stood there offering me a cowardly way out. No, I decided. If we were going to get Seth’s help, it would be better coming from me. Would he talk to me? I didn’t know, but I had to try. For nothing else would I have risked facing that hate and sorrow again . . . but for Seth’s soul, I would.
“I’ll go to him,” I said.