My brief exchange with Janice had left me feeling strange, however, and I couldn't muster the energy to go strike up a conversation with some discontent suburban businessman. Instead, I consoled myself with impulse purchases for myself and even found a couple of much-needed gifts for others, proving that I wasn't totally and completely selfish. By the time I left, I felt confident traffic had died down and would give me an easy drive back to the city. As I walked past the center of the mall, I heard Santa ho-ho-ho-ing loudly while waving his arms energetically around, much to the terror of a small child on his lap. My guess was that someone had cracked and broken the drinking rule.
On the way home, I noticed I had three voice mail messages, all from my friend Peter. Before I could even attempt to listen to them, the phone rang.
"Where are you?" Peter's frantic voice filled up the small space of my Passat.
"In my car. Where are you?"
"At my apartment. Where else? Everyone's here!"
"Everyone? What are you talking about?"
"Did you forget? Damn it, Georgina. You were a lot more punctual when you were unhappy and single."
I ignored the jab and scanned through my mental calendar. Peter was one of my best friends. He was also a neurotic, obsessive compulsive vampire who loved hosting dinners and parties. He usually managed to throw something together at least once a week, never for the same reason, so it was easy to lose track.
"It's fondue night," I said at last, proud of myself for remembering.
"Yes! And the cheese is getting cold. I'm not made of Sterno, you know."
"Why didn't you just start eating?"
"Because we're civilized."
"Debatable." I pondered whether I wanted to go or not. Part of me really just wanted to get home and snuggle with Seth, but I had a feeling he'd be working. I likely couldn't expect snuggling for a while, whereas I could appease Peter right now. "Fine. Start without me, and I'll be there soon. I'm just getting off the bridge now." Wistfully, I drove past Seth's exit and instead set my sights on the one that would take me to Peter's place.
"Did you remember to bring wine?" he asked.
"Peter, until a minute ago, I didn't even remember I was supposed to be at your place. Do you really need wine?" I'd seen Peter's wine cabinet. On any given day, he had a dozen each of reds and whites, both domestic and international.
"I don't want to run out of the good stuff," he said.
"I seriously doubt you're going to - wait. Is Carter there?"
"Okay. I'll pick up some wine."
I showed up at his apartment ten minutes later. His roommate and apprentice, Cody, opened the door and gave me a broad, fang-filled smile. Light, music, and the scent of fondue and potpourri washed over me. Their home put Santa's gazebo to shame and had decorations filling every square inch. And not just Christmas ones.
"Since when do you guys have a menorah?" I asked Cody. "Neither of you are Jewish."
"Well, we're not Christian either," he pointed out, leading me toward the dining room. "Peter wanted to take a multicultural slant this year. The guestroom is all done in Kwanza decorations, if you know someone looking for a truly tacky overnight experience."
"It is not tacky!" Peter stood up from a table where our other immortal friends sat around two tubs of melted cheese. "I can't believe you're so insensitive to other people's religious views. Jesus Christ! Is that boxed wine?"
"You said you wanted wine," I reminded him.
"I wanted good wine. Please tell me it's not blush."
"Of course it's blush. And you didn't tell me to bring good wine. You said you were worried Carter would drink all your good wine. So I brought this for him instead. Your wine is safe."
At the mention of his name, the only heavenly creature in the room looked up. "Sweet," he said, accepting the box from me. "Santa's little helper delivers." He opened up the box's dispenser and looked at Peter expectantly. "Do you have a straw?"
I sat in an empty seat beside my boss, Jerome, who was contentedly dipping a piece of bread in molten cheddar. He was the archdemon of all of Seattle and chose to walk the earth looking like a circa 1990 John Cusack, which made it easy to forget his true nature sometimes. Fortunately, his brimstone personality always came out the instant he opened his mouth. "You're here less than a minute, Georgie, and already you've made this get-together fifty percent less classy."
"You guys are eating fondue on a Tuesday night," I retorted. "You were well on your way without me."
Peter had settled himself back down and was trying to appear calm. "Fondue is very classy. It's all in the presentation. Hey! Where'd you get that?"
Carter had set the wine box on his lap, dispenser on top, and was now drinking from it with an enormous straw that I suspected had been literally conjured from thin air.
"At least he's not doing that with a bottle of Pinot Noir," I told Peter good-naturedly. I helped myself to a fondue fork and speared a piece of apple. On the other side of Jerome, Hugh busily typed away on his phone's keyboard, reminding me of the family at the mall. "Telling the world about this lowbrow party?" I teased. Hugh was an imp, a type of hellish administrative assistant, so he could have actually been buying or selling souls via his phone for all I knew.
"Of course," said Hugh, not looking up. "I'm updating Facebook. Do you know why Roman won't answer my friend request?"
"No clue," I said. "I've barely spoken to him in days."
"When I talked to him earlier, he said he had to work tonight," Peter explained, "but that we should go ahead and draw for him."
"Draw?" I asked uneasily. "Oh Lord. Tell me it's not Pictionary night too."
Peter sighed wearily. "Draw for Secret Santas. Do you even read the e-mails I send?"
"Secret Santas? Seems like we just did that," I said.
"Yeah, a year ago," said Peter. "Just like we do every Christmas."
I glanced over at Carter who was quietly drinking his wine. "Did you lose my hat? You look like you could use one." The angel's chin-length, blond hair was even more unkempt than usual.
"Tell us what you really think, Georgina," he replied. He ran a hand over his hair, but it somehow only made things worse. "I'm saving it for a special occasion."
"If I get your name again, I'll buy you two hats so you don't have to ration yourself."
"I wouldn't want you to go to the trouble."
"No trouble at all. I get a discount at the mall."
Jerome sighed and set down his fork. "Are you still doing that, Georgie? Don't I suffer enough without having to endure the humiliation of a succubus who moonlights as a Christmas elf?"
"You always said I should quit the bookstore and find something else to do," I reminded him.
"Yes, but that was because I thought you'd go on to do something respectable. Like become a stripper or the mayor's mistress."
"This is just temporary." I handed Carter the elegant crystal wineglass that had been sitting by my plate. He filled it with wine from the box and gave it back. Peter groaned and muttered something about despoiling Tiffany's.
"Georgina doesn't need material things anymore," teased Cody. "She's paid in love now."
Jerome fixed the young vampire with a cold stare. "Do not ever say anything that saccharine again."
"You're one to talk," I said to Cody, unable to hide my smile. "I'm surprised you could drag yourself away from Gabrielle tonight." His face immediately grew dreamy at the mention of his ladylove.
"That makes two of us," observed Peter. He shook his head bitterly. "You guys and your perfect love lives."
"Hardly perfect," I said at the same time Cody said, "It is perfect."
All eyes fell on me. Hugh even looked up from his phone. "Trouble in paradise?"
"Why do you always assume that? And no, of course not," I scoffed, hating myself for the slip. "Things are fantastic with Seth."
And they were. Just speaking his name sent a flood of joy through me. Seth. Seth was what made everything worthwhile. My relationship with him was what had caused the rift between me and my former co-workers at the bookstore. They saw me as the reason for his breakup with Doug's sister. Which, I suppose, I was. But no matter how much I'd loved that job, giving it up was a small price to pay to be with Seth. I could endure being an elf. I could endure the quotas he and I put on our sex life, to ensure my succubus powers didn't suck him dry. With him, I could handle anything. Even a future of damnation.