I woke up in my own bed and found Mei sitting beside it.Not even Nurse Ratched could have startled me that much.
Mei was flipping through a magazine and glanced up, appearing bored.“Oh.
You’re awake. Finally.” She stood up.
“What…what happened?” I asked, blinking at the light pouring in through my window. I was kind of surprised she hadn’t shut the curtains. She didn’t really strike me as a fun-in-the-sun person.
“You don’t remember?” Her disinterested expression sharpened. “Jerome said it would all come back to you. If it hasn’t…”
I sat up, drawing my knees to my body. “No, no. I remember…I remember what happened at Erik’s. I remember…the Oneroi.” Saying the word made me shudder. “But what happened after that? How long have I been asleep?”
“Three days,” she said flatly.
“What?” I stared at her, my mouth agape. If Mei was the joking type, I would have expected the punch line now. “I don’t…I mean, it went so fast. And I didn’t dream.”
She crooked me a smile. “Seems like you’d want that. And heavy sleep heals you faster.” The smile changed to a grimace. “Not that waiting by your bedside for three days has really felt that fast. Jerome made me keep all your friends away. That was fun.”
“Did you just use sarcasm?”
“I’m leaving,” she said, back to her all business self. “I’ve done what Jerome asked.”
“Wait! What happened to Seth and Erik? Are they okay?”
“Fine,” she said. I waited for her to vanish, but it didn’t come. She peered at me curiously. “It shouldn’t have worked, you know.”
“What shouldn’t have?”
“That ritual. There is no way that human could have found you. Not among all those other souls.”
The Oneroi had said the same thing, and thinking back to the storm of color and disorder, I could understand their reasoning. “We…we love each other.” I wasn’t sure I had the right to those words, but they came out anyway.
Mei rolled her eyes. “That means nothing. Human love – no matter what all your songs and chick flicks tell you – isn’t enough. It shouldn’t have worked.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Well…I guess it did.”
“Jerome knew it would too,” she mused, a small frown wrinkling her brow. Her gaze hardened on me. “Did you? Do you know how it happened?”
“What?” I squeaked. “No! I don’t understand any of this.”
I expected her to deny this and question me further. Instead her frown only deepened, and I realized I was no longer of use in solving this dilemma to her. She vanished.
The instant she disappeared, Roman came bursting into my room. “She’s gone?” he asked. If he was nearby, he would have felt her signature go away.
“Have you been hanging out the whole time?” I asked.
He sat down in the chair she’d been in. “Jerome ordered her not to let anyone come near you.”
“You could have taken her,” I said, attempting a joke.
“Not without causing a whole lot of trouble.” He frowned, eyes troubled with thought. “Although, I would have revealed myself if I’d needed to if that…thing that came out of the gate had tried to take on Carter and Jerome.”
I shuddered at the memory. “I didn’t even know there were monsters like that in the – wait. How could you have helped them? Were you…were you in the circle?” I’d assumed he’d been watching from the sides.
“Of course.” He said no more, and the way he spoke implied that it had been a ridiculous question for me to ask in the first place.
“Are you crazy?” I exclaimed. “You weren’t just letting yourself get trapped. If you were discovered by Mei – even any of the dream creatures – you’d be fucked. They would have turned you in too.”
“There was no choice,” Roman said. “I had to be there, in case you needed me.”
“It was too big a risk,” I countered, my voice faltering this time. “If there’d been a fight, Jerome and Carter would have had no reason to defend you. And while that Morphean might have been afraid to hurt them, you would have been fair game.”
“I told you, it doesn’t matter. I had to be there for you.”
His eyes, those eyes that were so like the sea I’d grown up with, held such earnestness and affection that I had to look away. I couldn’t believe he’d risked what he had for me. Why? He had no reason to care about me after what I’d done to him, yet it was clear he still wanted me. The night I’d been captured seemed like a lifetime ago, but its events came back to me in perfect detail: his lips, his hands…
“I wish you wanted to kill me again,” I muttered. “It was easier.”
He rested his hand on mine, its warmth spreading through me. “Nothing about your life is ever easy.”
I looked back up at him. “That’s for damn sure. But I don’t know…I don’t know if I can do this…by which I mean, well, you know.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “We’ll just keep going on like we have. Roommates. We’ll see where things go. If they change, they change. If not…” He shrugged. “So it goes.”
“Did I mention that it was easier when you wanted to kill me? I’m not sure how I feel about you being so reasonable.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I just feel sorry for you right now after everything that happened. Maybe I’ll change my mind in a little while.” He squeezed my hand. “Was it…was it awful?”
I looked away again. “Yes. Beyond awful. It’s hard to explain. They showed me every nightmare I could have, every fear made flesh. Some of the things they showed me had already happened – and were almost as bad as the nightmares. I couldn’t tell what was reality anymore. They showed me you guys…but it wasn’t always real. I doubted everything: who I was, what I felt…” I swallowed back tears, glad I had averted my eyes.
“Hey,” he said softly, reaching out to tip my chin and make me look back at him. “It’s over. You’re safe. We’ll help you get better – I’ll help. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Again, his feelings for me made me uncomfortable and confused. Was it a lingering effect of the Oneroi? No, I decided a moment later. This was the kind of situation that would confuse anyone. My heart was still tangled up in Seth, someone I knew I should let go, but who had found me against impossible odds. And here was Roman, someone I could be with a bit more easily – well, kind of – and who had risked his life for me. Could I move on with him? I didn’t know. But I could try.
I found his hand again and squeezed it. “Thank you.”
He leaned toward me, and I think we might have kissed, but the ringing of my cell phone jolted us out of any romantic spell. I pulled my hand from his and grabbed the phone from my side table.
“Miss Kincaid,” came the kind, familiar voice. “It is a pleasure to speak with you again.”
“Erik! Oh, I’m so happy it’s you. I wanted to thank you – “
“There’s nothing to thank me for. I would gladly do it again.”
“Well, then, I’m still thanking you anyway.” Roman, realizing this had nothing to do with him, got up and wandered off – but not before giving me one more fond look.
“As you wish,” said Erik. “Are you feeling better?”
“More or less. Certainly better in body. And I think the rest will come.” I wished that with my body’s healing, I could also forget all the horrible things I’d seen. That wouldn’t happen, though, and I felt no need to trouble him with my problems.
“I’m glad,” he said. “Very glad.”
Silence fell, and a suspicious feeling nudged its way into my brain. I’d assumed he was simply calling to check up on me, but something now told me there was more.
“Miss Kincaid,” he said at last. “I’m sure you don’t want to talk about what happened….”
“I – well.” I hesitated. I knew Erik. He wouldn’t bring this up without a good reason. “Is there something we should talk about?”
Now it was his turn to hesitate. “You thank me…but to be truthful, what we did shouldn’t have worked. I didn’t expect it to.”
Mei’s comments came back to me, as did the other conversations I’d witnessed via the dreams. “Nobody seemed to.”
“Mr. Jerome did.”
“Where is this going?”
“I don’t know how it worked. Mr. Mortensen should not have found your soul.”
I loved Erik and hated the irritation in my voice. “I keep hearing that over and over, but obviously he did. Maybe it should have been impossible, but after what I went through? I don’t care how it happened.”
“I would imagine not, but still…still, I can’t help but wonder at this. Would you mind telling me what it was like when he found you?”
That was one part of the ordeal I didn’t mind recounting, largely because it had had a happy ending. Of course, the logistics of explaining it weren’t so easy. I did my best to describe what it was like being adrift in the dream world and how Seth had seemed to call to me. Erik listened patiently and then asked if I’d tell him about my contract with Hell and how I’d sold my soul.
That was a little harder to tell, not to mention a bizarre question. The Oneroi had shown me so many versions of what had happened with Kyriakos and me, and while some had been true and some false, they’d all been horrible. Still, sensing something big might be going on here, I haltingly recounted the whole experience: how I’d cheated on Kyriakos with his best friend, infidelity that was later discovered. It was the sorrow from that that had driven Kyriakos into suicidal grief, which in turn drove me to sign a contract with Hell. I’d sold my soul and become a succubus, in exchange for everyone I knew – including Kyriakos – to forget me and the awful things I’d done.
“Tell me the terms one more time,” said Erik.
“It was that everyone I knew back then would forget me and forget what happened – family, friends, and especially my husband.” My voice choked a little. “It worked. I came back later, and no one knew me. Not even a glimmer of familiarity.”
“There was nothing else in the contract?”
“No. An imp I know looked it over recently and verified it.”
“Oh?” This caught Erik’s interest. “Why would he do that?”
“She. As a favor. The imp who’d brokered my sale was the one who worked with Nyx and kept messing with Seth. Hugh said when an imp shows that much interest, there’s something wrong with a contract. So Kristin – this other imp – looked at my contract.” She hadn’t been very happy about doing that. If she’d been caught snooping in Hell’s records, there would have been some very, very bad consequences. Her gratitude over me hooking her up with her boss had overpowered her fear. “She told me it was airtight. Everything was like it was supposed to be. No errors.”
More silence. This conversation was starting to make me uneasy. “Did this imp – Niphon? – end up doing anything to Mr. Mortensen?”
“Not so much…I mean, it was part of what led us to breaking up….” I paused to collect myself. “But there were a lot of other factors that caused that too.”
“Has Niphon been back?”
“No, but there has been this succubus.” With everything else, I’d forgotten about Simone. “She was impersonating me. Kept trying to seduce Seth…but it didn’t work. I think Jerome sent her packing, but I’m not sure.”
Again, Erik took a long time in responding. Finally, he sighed. “Thank you, Miss Kincaid. You’ve given me much to think about. I apologize if I’ve brought up painful memories. And I’m very happy you’re feeling better.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And thanks again for your help.”
We disconnected, and I wandered out to the living room. Roman was in the kitchen, plating up some grilled cheese sandwiches. “Hungry?” he asked.
“Starving,” I said. He handed me a plate, along with a cup of coffee, and I smiled. “Thanks. Not sure what I did to deserve this.”
“You don’t have to do anything. Besides, I had extra. Wanted a big meal before going to work.”
“Before – what?”
The grin he gave me indicated he’d been dying to deliver this news. “I got a job.”
“You did not.”
“I did. Went back to the school I used to teach at. They had a couple openings, so I’m doing a few classes.”
I was dumbfounded. After all my badgering, Roman had sought gainful employment – in his specialty, no less: linguistics.
“Does this mean you’re going to pay rent now?”
“Let’s not get carried away, love.”
He grabbed a plate of his own, and we ate in the living room while the cats watched hopefully for leftovers. Seeing Godiva, I felt a frown coming on. The dream. The man in the dream. The Oneroi had said it was Seth…but that was impossible. I lifted my eyes up to Roman, wondering if I could rekindle the love I’d once had. If there was any man in any dream, he would be a better candidate.
“You talked to Erik for a while,” Roman said, noting my scrutiny.
“He’s weirded out by my rescue. He says it shouldn’t have worked.”
“Yeah, I heard that too.”
Between bites, I recounted the conversation, including Erik’s interest in Seth and my contract. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” I concluded. “Seth and I still have feelings for each other – feelings we’re trying to get past.” In that moment when our souls had met, though, separating from him had been the last thing I wanted. “Maybe that was enough. Maybe people don’t have faith in the power of love.”
“Maybe,” said Roman. But he looked thoughtful now too.
A knock at the door interrupted further conversation. I felt no immortal signature and hoped it wasn’t my neighbor trolling for more sex. He’d mercifully left me alone so far.
But no, it wasn’t Gavin. It was Maddie.
And she was crying.
I asked no questions. When friends are in trouble, you take care of them first. I pulled her right inside and led her to the couch, immediately putting my arms around her. “What’s wrong?” I asked finally. “What happened?”
She couldn’t speak right away. Her sobs were too great, and she was choking on her own tears. Something nudged my arm. It was Roman handing me a box of tissues. I shot him a grateful look and gave some to Maddie.
At long last, she gasped out, “It’s Seth.”
My heart stopped. For a moment, a hundred awful scenarios flew through my mind. Seth hit by a car. Seth struck by some deadly disease. I clutched her arm, so tightly that I realized my nails were digging into her. I relaxed my grip as best I could.
“What happened?” I demanded. “Is he okay?”
“He ended it.” Her crying renewed. “He broke the engagement and told me it was over.” She buried her face against my shoulder, and I stroked her absentmindedly as my brain tried hard to really comprehend her words. I must have misheard.
“He couldn’t have,” I said, my voice as cracked as hers. “He…he loves you.”
She lifted her head and looked at me with mournful, glittering eyes. “He said he didn’t love me the way he should – that he didn’t love me the way I deserved. He said it’d be wrong to make me marry him, that we weren’t meant to spend our lives together.” She took a tissue and wiped her nose, then her eyes grew wide with desperation. “What does that mean, Georgina? Why would he say he’s making me marry him? I want to. I don’t understand.”
I looked over her and met Roman’s eyes. We couldn’t speak the way greater immortals could, but enough messages passed between us. Seth hadn’t forced her to get engaged, no, but he’d done it out of guilt, guilt for cheating on her and continually being drawn to me when he believed it was better for us to stay apart.
“He said he loved me,” Maddie continued. “But that I needed someone who loved me more – someone I was the world to. He said he’d only hurt me worse if we went on. How could it hurt worse?” The tears grew worse. She pulled away and buried her face in her hands. “It can’t hurt worse than this. I want to die.”
“No!” I said, drawing her back to me. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that!”
“Georgina,” warned Roman softly. I realized I was shaking Maddie and immediately stopped.
“Listen to me,” I said, turning her face toward mine. “You are an amazing person. You are one of the best people I know. You’ll get over this…I swear it. I won’t let you go through it alone, okay? And you deserve the best. If it’s not him, then you’ll get someone better.” The next words were hard for me. I should have rejoiced at this news. I wouldn’t have to watch them together. I also had a feeling that I was somehow involved in this. What had she said? That Seth said she deserved to be someone’s world? He’d told me I was his. In one of the dreams, he’d said that to her, but I now knew that was a lie. Still, I couldn’t help it when I said, “And maybe…maybe if you guys talk more, you’ll understand…”
The sobs abated – just a little – as she gave me a puzzled look. “That’s the thing. I can’t.”
“It may seem that way, but he’s not totally unreasonable.” Why the hell was I playing devil’s advocate here? Because Maddie was my friend, and I couldn’t stand to see her hurting – and because I had also had my heart broken too many times. “Wait a couple days, then find him and see if you can have a, I don’t know, productive dialogue. Maybe you can fix things.” Ugh. “Maybe you’ll at least understand…understand his decision.”
She shook her head. “But I can’t find him. No one can. Georgina, he’s disappeared.”