It was easier said than done, and once Hugh and Roman gave me some space, the full impact of what had taken place really and truly hit me.
Seth was Kyriakos.
Kyriakos was Seth.
Even after witnessing what I had with my own eyes, I don’t think I would have believed it if something inside me …
some gut instinct . . . hadn’t told me it was all true. Not that I’d ever suspected it. Not that I’d ever dreamed it. The draw that I’d felt to Seth had been strong, no question, just as the draw to his other incarnations had been. I’d always felt there was something special about Seth in particular, though, and wondered now what might have set this life apart from the rest. Did some part of me – or some part of him? – recognize that this was the last chance for us to be together? Was that where the urgency was coming from? Or was it more about the passage of time and whom I had become? Recent years had made me more jaded about life as a succubus, and I wondered if perhaps that was what made him and our love so precious to me at this point in time.
Our love, which had just blown up before my eyes.
I called in sick to work the next day, something that didn’t really go over all that well. It was Christmas Eve, one of the busiest days for Santa and his mall team, but I didn’t care. There was no way I could face that chaos, not after what had happened with Seth. I was told curtly that if I didn’t come into work, then I shouldn’t expect to be rehired next year. I almost laughed and only barely managed to cling to some shred of professionalism, as I gravely informed my manager that I’d take that risk. Next Christmas, I’d most likely be in Las Vegas. Even if I wasn’t, I was pretty sure I could manage to get by without minimum wage and my foil dress.
Finding Seth proved trickier. He didn’t answer my phone calls, and when I went to his condo, no one answered. Neither his nor Margaret’s car was parked out front, leading me to believe they were either doing last-minute Christmas shopping or visiting Terry and Andrea. If it was the former, I had no way of locating Seth easily. If it was the latter, I certainly wasn’t going to barge into Terry’s house and demand Seth speak to me. The situation might be dire, but I still had my boundaries.
It would’ve been so easy to use these obstacles as the means to dodge talking to Seth altogether. Despite my assurances to Hugh and Roman, I really didn’t want to see Seth. Well, the part of me that was in love with him did. That part was in agony every moment we weren’t together. But the rest of me didn’t want to face that expression again, that terrible hurt on his face. I didn’t want to confront the reality of what I was.
Despite agreeing to see Seth, I really hadn’t been able to truly convey to Roman and Hugh just how agonizing the thought of facing up to my sins was. I hadn’t been able to handle the wrongness of what I’d done then; I could barely do it now. I’d sold my soul, blighted away the memories of all those I’d loved . . . all because I didn’t want to accept the responsibility of what a terrible thing I’d done. You’d think after almost a millennium and a half, that fear and self-preservation would have changed. I guess it hadn’t.
Or maybe it had. The fact that I was trying to find Seth now was proof that I had changed a little, enough to attempt another conversation after his adamant rejection of me.
I glanced behind me. I was standing in line at a coffee shop Seth occasionally patronized to sit and write. Coming here had been a long shot, and I hadn’t been all that surprised to see he wasn’t around. Last I knew, he hadn’t been here in ages, especially with everything going on in his family. Apparently, this place had other patrons I hadn’t known about.
“Doug,” I said in surprise. I quickly placed my order for a white chocolate mocha and then waved as Doug strolled over to me. He’d just come in, and fine drops of water covered his black hair. “What are you having?” I gestured to the barista. Doug looked a little surprised but only hesitated a moment before ordering an inhumanly sized cup of drip.
“Thanks,” he told me, when I handed it over to him.
“You want to sit a minute?” I asked. My original intention had been to grab the mocha and go. I didn’t know what Doug’s plan was, but some perverse urge made me want to try to get a moment with him.
“Sure,” he said, looking a little uncertain. “But just for a minute. I’ve got to be at work in an hour.”
“We don’t want you to be late for that,” I agreed, settling down at a small table that gave us a fine view of the sleet outside. Seattle wasn’t really known for white Christmases. “All those last-minute shoppers trying to get their boxed sets.”
The ghost of a smile crossed his face. “You know it. I’m surprised you aren’t at work. Is it true? I heard you were, uh, working elf duty at a mall on the Eastside.”
I grimaced. “Painfully true. But I quit today.”
His eyebrows rose. “On Christmas Eve? That’s cold, Kincaid. Think of the children.”
“I know. But, well, something came up. . . .” I glanced away, unable to meet his eyes as all my troubled feelings threatened to surface.
“Yeah, I can tell,” he said.
I dared a look back. “What do you mean?”
Doug shrugged. “I don’t know. Just this vibe I always got off of you when you were feeling blue. You put on a good face for most of the world, but when something hurts you, your energy changes.
Christ.” He took a big drink of coffee. “Now I’m sounding all New Agey and shit.”
“Well, whatever it is, your instincts are right.” I reconsidered. “Though ‘blue’ is kind of an understatement. More like navy. Or even black.”
“Mortensen?” he guessed.
I shook my head and glanced away again. “You don’t want to hear about that.” Although, perhaps some part of him would be glad to know Seth and I were through. It’d be vindication after what we did to Maddie.
“Try me,” said Doug. When I didn’t answer, he sighed. “Kincaid, I don’t hate you. I’m not happy about what went down, but in some weird, twisted way, I do still care about you. If something’s wrong, you can tell me. Did Mortensen hurt you?”
“No,” I said. Then: “Well, yes, but not without cause. I hurt him first.”
I dragged my gaze back to Doug. His eyes were dark and serious, no trace of enjoyment in my suffering. “I’ve been trying to find him today . . . trying to get a hold of him. But I think he’s avoiding me. No, I know he’s avoiding me.”
“You’ll patch it up,” said Doug.
“I don’t know. I don’t think we can this time.”
” ‘This time,’ ” he scoffed. “Kincaid, the first moment I saw you and Mortensen together, there was something there. I don’t know how to describe it. I was always surprised you guys never went out. I was surprised when he started going out with Maddie, though they seemed happy enough until . . . well, you know. Until he figured out he should be going out with you.” He paused, thinking. “Anyway, I talk a good talk about love in my songs but really don’t know shit about it in real life. From what I do know, though, I feel like it’s going to take more than whatever argument this is to keep you guys apart.”
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice of you . . . but you don’t know. What I did was pretty terrible.”
“What you guys did to Maddie was pretty terrible,” said Doug. “But I’ve forgiven you.”
“You have?” I asked, startled.
“Yeah.” He seemed a little surprised by the admission. “I mean, it helps that this neurosurgeon asked her out last week. I can forgive a lot if it means having a doctor brother-in-law. But in all seriousness? I know you guys didn’t mean to hurt her, just like you didn’t mean to hurt Mortensen here. What you did do is screw up majorly in the forthcomingness department.”
“Forthcomingness?” I repeated.
He waved me off. “Whatever. It’s a word. If you guys had been honest with yourselves and with her, you could’ve saved everyone a world of hurt. Keep that in mind now.”
“You’re a regular relationship guru,” I said, earning me another scoff. Yet, as wise as his words sounded, I still didn’t think there was any way to fix this thousand-year-old hurt. Before I could muster another comment, my phone rang. I looked down at the display in surprise. “It’s Seth.”
“You better answer it, then,” said Doug.
With a gulp, I did.
“Hello? Yeah. Uh-huh . . . sure. Okay . . . I understand. Okay. Bye.”
I disconnected and Doug gave me a questioning look. “That didn’t sound all that warm and fuzzy.”
“Seth wants me to come to Christmas dinner tomorrow,” I said disbelievingly.
“Well, that’s a good sign,” said Doug.
I shook my head. “I don’t think it is. He said he doesn’t want to create more upset in the girls’ lives and just wants me there for appearances, to make them happy. He made it clear that nothing’s changed, nor does he expect it to.”
“I guess it’s more of a lukewarm sign, then,” said Doug.
I sighed, and Doug gently chucked my chin.
“Cheer up, Kincaid. You wanted to talk to him. Here’s your chance, no matter what he said. Don’t waste it.”
I mustered a smile. “How’d you get so wise, Doug?”
He finished his coffee in a gulp. “Fuck if I know.”
Doug’s words were the kind that you hear in movies and books, the kind that power the against-all-odds comeback we love to see. It was my one chance, my chance to break through Seth’s walls and surmount the insurmountable problems between us.
But Seth made sure I never had the chance.
I arrived on my own, laden with presents, and was immediately directed to entertain the girls. Seth made the request, since he and most of the other adults (except Ian, who only marginally counted as an adult anyway) were dug in inside the kitchen, and it seemed very reasonable. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded either, except I had the gut feeling Seth was purposely keeping us far apart and constantly surrounded by people.
So, I played with the girls, only half-listening as they excitedly told me about what they’d gotten for Christmas. The only time my brooding thoughts shifted from Seth was when Brandy remarked about how more presents had shown up under their tree this morning than could be accounted for.
“No one will own up to having gotten some of the presents. Mom and Dad think Uncle Seth did it. He thinks Grandma did it,” Brandy said in a soft voice, so the littler ones wouldn’t overhear her.
“What kind of presents?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Just toys . . . but lots of them. Like, Mom and Dad got Morgan some Princess Ponies. But this morning ? There were some Power Prism Ponies there too.”
I vaguely remembered Carter and Morgan discussing those very ponies. “Maybe Santa came by,” I said.
Brandy rolled her eyes, looking skeptical. “Maybe.”
When dinner came, there was no avoiding being near Seth. Everyone expected us to sit together, and he could hardly ask to move somewhere else. But again, with so many people around, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to bring up any dangerous topics in the middle of Christmas dinner, and Seth knew that. Both of us were silent, simply listening as the others talked excitedly about the day and how happy they were that Andrea was feeling better.
When dinner ended, Seth was the first one up and made a big deal about how all the guys should do dishes tonight while the ladies of the household retired to the living room. Everyone was pleased with this idea, except for Ian and me.
“What is it with you guys and Christmas?” asked Andrea conspiratorially.
I was sitting with her on the loveseat watching as Kendall directed Morgan’s ponies into an epic battle to the death. “Huh?” I asked, glancing away from the battlefield.
“You and Seth,” said Andrea. “I remember last Christmas, you guys were the same. Isn’t this supposed to be the happiest day of the year?”
I repressed a grimace. Last Christmas, I’d found out that Seth had slept with Maddie in an effort to “protect me” from a relationship with him. Yeah. That hadn’t been a great holiday either.
“We’ve got nothing against Christmas,” I said bleakly. “Just . . . some issues to sort out.”
She frowned. “Is it about his tour? I figured you’d be for that.”
“His publisher wants him to go traveling right after New Year’s. Seth had originally refused because of . . . well, me. But I’ve felt so good lately, I told him he shouldn’t waste the chance.”
I hadn’t known about that. I wondered if it was something that had just come up in the last day or if Seth simply hadn’t told me beforehand. The tour would fall before my Las Vegas transfer, and I wouldn’t have put it past Seth to decline it in order to maximize his time with me. Well, at least before things went bad.
“That’s not it,” I said after several seconds, when I realized she was expecting an answer from me. “It’s . . . complicated.”
“It always is,” she said wisely.
I looked past her, toward the kitchen, where I could just barely see the Mortensen men moving around with the dishes. “For now, I’d just settle for a few moments alone.”
She made no comment about that, but later, when the guys returned to the living room, she said very casually, “Seth, would you mind going upstairs to get my red cardigan? I left it on the foot of the bed.”
Seth was about to sit down – far away from me, of course – but sprang up instantly at the request. As soon as he’d disappeared up the stairs, Andrea nudged me with her elbow. I turned to her, startled, and she jerked her head toward the stairs.
Go, she mouthed. I glanced around, saw no one was paying much attention to me, and hurried after Seth.
I found him in the bedroom, staring around curiously for the sweater that most likely didn’t even exist. When he saw me in the doorway, he sighed heavily, realizing he’d been tricked.
“I don’t have time for this,” he said, attempting to move past me.
I put out my arm to block the door. “Seth, please. Just listen to me. Just for a few minutes.”
He stood there, only a few inches away, and then backed up. Since he apparently didn’t want to push past and risk touching me, he must have decided distance was better, even at the risk of being trapped in the room. “Georgina, there is nothing you can say. Nothing that can change what happened between us.”
“I know that,” I said. “I’m not going to try.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “You aren’t?”
I swallowed, all words and thoughts fading from me as I stared into his eyes. There it was – that look. That same look of hurt and utter devastation that Kyriakos had worn so many centuries ago. It was looking out at me through Seth’s eyes.
I nodded. “We need to know about your contract. We just want to know some details.”
“To help you?” he asked.
“To help both of us. From what we’ve gathered, Hell violated my contract when it wrote yours. And that makes the conditions of yours contradictory. We might be able to get them both invalidated . . . but we need to understand yours better.”
Seth leaned against the wall, eyes staring vacantly ahead as his thoughts turned inward. “I don’t even understand the details of my contract. I barely remember it. . . . I mean, I do and don’t. What went down . . . with the hypnosis . . . it’s real and it’s not.”
I started to take a step forward, wanting badly to touch him and comfort him since he was clearly distraught. Caution held me back. “You have to try. Right now, if you don’t, then you’re going to go to Hell when you die. Doesn’t matter if you become a saint before then. That contract brands your soul . . . unless, well . . . we’re not sure if there was some condition that if you and I got back together, then you’d be free. That’s what we need to know.”
“Does it matter?” he asked. “Seeing as that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen – doesn’t look like it was ever going to happen, if all those lives were any indication.”
“Well, I mean, yeah . . . it matters in that the more information we have, the better our case.”
“Can’t you just have Hugh look it up?”
I shook my head. “Not without raising attention. It’d be better if we can get the details from you.”
“Well, sorry, then. I don’t remember anything more than what I told you. And honestly? I don’t care.”
“How can you not care?” I asked incredulously. “It’s your soul we’re talking about!”
“I’ll take my chances,” he said.
A spark of anger permeated the sorrow that had clung to me these last couple days. “There are no ‘chances.’ It’s a done deal. Your soul belongs to Hell. Nothing’s going to change it.”
“Does it really matter? You gave your soul to Hell.”
“For you!” I cried. “I did it for you. To save you. I would do it a hundred times over if I had to.”
Seth scoffed. “Why didn’t you just not cheat on me one time?”
“I was young, and I was stupid,” I said, amazed at how levelly I could acknowledge that. “I was scared, and I felt like you were so far away from me. Like I wasn’t part of your priorities anymore. It was all about work and music for you.”
“And you never thought about talking to me about any of that first? You know you can always bring anything up to me.”
I sighed. “To you, maybe. Not to Kyriakos. He . . . you . . . may have meant well but wasn’t always so easy to get through to.”
“But I am him,” argued Seth, though he sound a little unsure. “Er, was.”
“Yes and no,” I said. “Look, I’m no expert on reincarnation, but from what I know, even though the soul and some parts of the character are constant, there’s still, like . . . evolving taking place. You grow and change. That’s the point of reincarnation. You’re the same person, but you aren’t. You weren’t perfect back then. Hell, you aren’t now. Maybe you – Seth – can handle talking about this . . . maybe after ten lives, you’ve developed enough relationship maturity. Back then? I’m not so sure. I obviously didn’t have it either.”
“Obviously,” he repeated. His gaze held me for a long time, and this time, I couldn’t tell what he was feeling. At least there was no overt hate or anything. Either that, or he’d simply learned to conceal it. Finally, he said, “I meant it. I don’t remember the contract details. . . . Just that I would be allowed to keep finding you.”
“That’s it?” I said. “Nothing else? If there’s anything more . . . I mean, the stakes here are huge, Seth. I know you said you’d take your chances, but remember when we’re talking about your soul, we’re looking beyond the scope of one human life. We’re looking at eternity.”
“There you go again,” he said, with a small, rueful smile. “Making an argument for the sanctity of the soul, a soul you threw away.”
“And I told you before, I’d do it again.”
“So you wouldn’t have to face me and look me in the eye after what you’d done.”
“In part,” I said. “But also to save your life. To give you a chance at happiness. Because at that moment . . . that was more important than my eternity.”
Seth took a long time to answer, and I again wished I knew what was happening behind those brown eyes. Whose thoughts were stirring in there? His or Kyriakos’s? Or any of the other men I’d had turbulent romances with?
“You didn’t want to face me then,” he said at last. “But here you are. Why? To save your own soul?”
“To save both our souls,” I said.
Seth straightened up from his slouch against the wall and moved toward the door. “I can’t help you. I mean it – I don’t remember anything else. Now. If you’d please make some polite excuse to the others and leave, I’d really appreciate it.”
He came to stand in front of me in the doorway, and for a half a second, time stood still as we studied each other, only a few inches apart. A thousand feelings warred within me, powered by a thousand years’ worth of lifetimes. With a slow nod, I yielded and let him walk past me.
He didn’t look back.