"Tuesday . . ." I frowned, thinking of my schedule. Tomorrow, Monday, was taken up with work and bowling practice. That didn't leave a lot of time. "We might be cutting it close."
"If you don't have time, it's fine," Brandy assured me. "Really."
"No way," I told her. "We can do it Tuesday morning."
Brandy looked down again. "My dad can pay you back.... I'll ask him how much we can spend."
"Forget it," said Seth, rustling her hair. She squirmed out of his reach. "Send the bill to me. You know where I live."
Brandy protested this, but Seth was firm in his offer - as well as his urging that Brandy not mention it to her father. But once Brandy and Seth were in the other room, Margaret caught hold of my sleeve and pulled me back into the kitchen before I could follow. Our interactions hadn't exactly been antagonistic (aside from our initial meeting with the baseball bat), but they hadn't always been pleasant either. I braced myself for some admonishment about dressing Brandy like a whore.
"Here," said Margaret, shoving some cash into my hands. I looked down and found two fifty-dollar bills. "Seth's not the only with income around here. He can't keep funding the whole family. Is that enough for what she needs?"
"Er, yes," I said, trying to hand it back. I'd actually planned on cutting Seth out as well and carrying the bill myself. "Definitely. You don't have to do this."
Margaret's response was to give me another bill. "Get her shoes too." She closed my hand around the cash. "I don't know what girls her age need when it comes to clothes, but I know you do. The money I can provide. The rest I rely on you for."
That sentiment - that faith in me - was too much, too fast on the heels of the conversation I'd just had with Andrea. "It's not enough," I blurted out. "What I'm doing, compared to everyone else. They're all giving so much. What's a shopping trip next to that?"
Margaret fixed me with a piercing gaze that bore no resemblance to the conservative, sweatshirt-wearing matron I'd categorized her as. "For a girl growing up too fast, whose life is crumbling around her? Everything."
"I hate this," I said. "I hate that this is happening to them."
"God only gives us what we have the strength to endure," she said. I'd always hated that saying, largely because it too seemed to go along with the idea of a universe having a plan for everyone, something I'd seen no evidence of. "They have the strength to get through this. And they have our strength to help them."
I smiled at that. "You're a remarkable woman, Margaret. They're lucky you're here." I meant it. She and I might have different philosophies about premarital sex, but her love for them was undiminished. I wasn't the only role model in the girls' lives.
She shrugged, looking both flattered and embarrassed by my praise. "Like you, I'm just trying to do enough - without wearing out my welcome at Seth's."
"He loves having you," I said promptly.
She rolled her eyes. "I'm not stupid. I want to keep helping, but I know I can't stay with him forever. He's a grown man, no matter how much I'd like to pretend otherwise."
That made me smile even more. "Don't worry. I won't tell him you said so."
Nonetheless, I went home with a heavy heart that night. Seth expected to be up late and hadn't wanted me waiting around for him. We were both conscious of how little time we'd had together recently, though, so he told me he'd join me for tomorrow night's bowling practice. As a general rule, he tried to avoid immortal goings-on, but I think he had a morbid fascination with the idea of bowling for Hellish honor.
"Thank God," said Roman, when I walked in the door. "I thought you were going to stay at Seth's. There's soup on the stove."
"No, thanks," I said. "I already ate."
"Your loss," he said. Judging from the way the cats were circling him for handouts as he settled down on the couch with a bowl, I guess they agreed with him. "How was it?"
My mind was still on the Mortensens, and for a moment, I thought that's what he meant. Then I remembered his single-minded focus and knew he was referring to Las Vegas.
"Surprisingly good," I told him, sitting down in an armchair.
His eyebrows rose. He hadn't expected that answer. "Oh? Tell me about it."
I did, and he listened attentively while eating his soup. When I'd finished the weekend's recap, he grilled me on nearly everyone I'd met there, immortal and mortal alike. In two days, I didn't have that much life history to report but gave him what I could.
"Well," he said, "isn't that lovely." He made no effort to hide his sarcasm.
I sighed. "You still think this was part of some greater conspiracy ?"
"I think it's terribly convenient that this seemingly routine transfer is fulfilling every possible wish you might have."
I scoffed. "Aside from the fact that I'm being transferred in the first place. That's hardly something I wanted."
Roman straightened up, and the cats ran for his abandoned bowl. He ticked off points on his right hand. "Well, let's do a tally, shall we? When I first met you, I asked what your dream job would be. What did you say? A Vegas dancer. And wow! Look what conveniently falls into your lap. And who put it there? In a city full of conniving, backstabbing succubi, you were fortunate to find one as levelheaded as you, complete with the same sense of humor and interests. Funny thing . . . did you even run into any other succubi that entire weekend? In a city packed with them?"
"Roman - "
"No, no, wait. There's more. How'd you meet this wonder succubus anyway? Through your closest immortal friend, who just happened to have been coincidentally transferred to Las Vegas, hired on by your favorite boss of all time. Are you following this fantasy so far?"
"But why would - "
"And," he continued, "lest you grow homesick for the wacky idiosyncrasies of your friends back here, Vegas is ready to supply you with new ones. A zany drunken imp. Seth 2.0. If you'd stayed longer, they probably would have unearthed an angel and a couple of vampires for you. And let's not discount the fact that you're going to Las Vegas in the first place! The single easiest place for a succubus to get by."
"Okay, I get what you're saying." I threw up my hands in exasperation. "It is perfect. Maybe too perfect. But you're missing one fundamental point. Supposing this is true, that someone has set up the most perfect scenario for me ever, a situation designed to keep me happy, why would they do it at all when the thing that would make me the most happy is to stay in Seattle? Why bother with this alternative? Why not leave me as I am?"
Roman's eyes gleamed. "Because that's the one thing they don't want you to have. They want you out of Seattle, Georgina. They want you out, and they don't want you to complain or look back."
"But why?" I protested. "That's what I can't figure out."
"Give me something else to work with," he said. "Hell's not that good. Even the most picture perfect setup has to have a flaw. Was there anything, anything at all this weekend, that felt disingenuous? That smacked of a lie?"
I gave him a wry look. "I was in Las Vegas, hanging out with servants of Hell. Everything was disingenuous."
"Georgina, think! Anything that seemed legitimately odd. Any contradiction."
I started to deny it but then paused. "The timeline."
He leaned forward even more. "Yes? What about it?"
I thought back to my first hours in Las Vegas. "Luis and Bastien both went out of their way to act as though my transfer and Bastien's had been in the works for a while - like Jerome said. But once, Bastien slipped. He sounded like he hadn't been there for very long at all - not nearly as long as they'd said before."
"Like that maybe he was suddenly pulled in on a moment's notice - to coincide with your transfer?"
"I don't know," I said, not liking the thought of Bastien being part of some potential conspiracy centered around me. "He corrected himself, said he misspoke."
"I'm sure he would say that." Roman leaned back now, letting all of this sink in.
"Bastien wouldn't lie to me," I snapped. "He's my friend. I trust him. He cares about me."
"I believe you," said Roman. "And I believe that he wouldn't lie to you about something that he thought might harm you. But if his higher-ups asked him to tell a white lie - fudge a few days here and there - don't you think he would?"