"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."