"Are they really going to believe you're a hapless messenger ?" I asked.
Hugh crooked me a smile and gestured to the paperwork. "Well, they certainly aren't going to believe you did this on your own. But there's no real way to prove my involvement, and anyway, I haven't technically done anything wrong. I'm an imp. I conduct business for Hell. That's what this is."
Too many days of pent-up emotion took hold of me, and I flung my arms around Hugh. "Thank you," I said. "Thank you so much."
It was all kind of awkward since he was trying to juggle the papers, but he still managed to pat me on the back. "It's nothing, sweetie," he said, seeming a bit flustered. "I just hope it actually accomplishes something."
I stepped back and attempted to get myself under control. "How will we know if it does?"
"When you're summoned to Hell," he said.
"Oh." My heart lurched with fear. "I actually . . . actually have to go there?"
Roman leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "How else do you think this is going to get resolved?"
"I'd kind of just hoped they'd send me a letter," I said. "You know, like a college acceptance."
Hugh snorted. "Afraid not. If they respond to it, they'll summon you to Hell and hold a hearing to examine the contract, your complaints, and whatever evidence either side can muster."
I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to picture what that hearing would be like. "I've never been to Hell. Have either of you?"
They shook their heads, which wasn't a surprise. Lesser immortals were recruited on Earth, where they then served. We had no reason to visit the realm of our employers, not even an imp like Hugh. Roman, as a nephilim, was on Heaven and Hell's hit list. Walking into Hell would be like showing up in a lion's den and presenting yourself on a platter.
"I always kind of pictured Hell as a cross between waiting in line at the DMV and watching a marathon of Perfect Strangers," remarked Hugh.
Roman shot him a sharp look. "What's wrong with that show?"
Overcome, I hugged Hugh again and then Roman. "Thanks, you guys. I mean it. I owe you . . . more than I can ever pay back."
"Just win," said Roman fiercely. "That's all the payback I need."
Hugh put the papers into his briefcase and slipped on his coat. "I'm going to get these over to Mei now, then head off to a party and drink away the memories of wading through all that legalese."
"You're going to Peter's?" I asked. Unsurprisingly, our vampire friend was holding a shindig to ring in the New Year.
"Nah," said Hugh. "Not much chance of getting laid there. I'm going to a party one of my nurses is hosting."
We wished him a happy new year and bid him farewell. As soon as he was gone, Roman turned to me. "What about you?" he asked. "Are you going to Peter's?"
I knew Peter was counting on it, but it was hard to make myself feel like celebrating. "No. I'm not in the mood. Besides, I'm not sure I want to risk running into Jerome since I'm sure Mei's going to tell him about the appeal. I'll just keep packing."
"Come on," Roman said. "You can't just sit around tonight. It's a new year . . . new opportunities. Maybe even the chance to break free of Hell."
I nodded, though it was still hard for me to imagine what "breaking free" would even look like. It was something we kept talking about, but I really couldn't feel it yet. And even though I'd talked a good talk to Seth about how the integrity of the soul and eternity were so much more important than any earthly concerns, it all seemed lackluster without him in my life. "I know," I told Roman. "But any celebrating I do is going to be forced. If I'm going to be unhappy, I'd rather do it in a place where I feel comfortable."
He glanced at the clock. "Let's at least go out to dinner. Dress up and get a good meal. Then we'll come back and watch all the New Year's shows."
I didn't have much of an appetite but suspected if I said no, Roman would consign himself to the same self-imprisonment as me. I didn't want his night ruined because of me, especially after everything he'd done this week. One problem presented itself.
"It's almost five," I said. "We'll never get in anywhere on such short notice. Unless we want to dress up for Taco Bell. Which I'm actually not averse to."
Roman was already reaching for his cell phone. "I know someone who's a chef at this Italian place in Green Lake. We'll get a table."
Sure enough. One mysterious phone call, and we were on our way an hour later. I hadn't been up for elaborate styling and simply shape-shifted myself into New Year's finery, with an off-the-shoulder satin dress and my hair cascading in perfect waves. Roman had warned me "no black," so the dress was dark purple, which still seemed appropriate for my mood. I paired it with a glittering necklace of white gold and amethysts that had been my Secret Santa gift to myself. I had great taste.
"Have you made any moves to put your condo on the market?" asked Roman as he drove us through the city. "Contacted a real estate agent?"
I gazed out at the bright lights of the downtown skyline. This time of year, darkness came early. "No. I need to. Unless . . ." I glanced over at him. "Do you want to keep staying there? I'll keep it and rent if you want."
He shook his head, a wry smile playing over his lips. "No. It wouldn't be the same without you and those furballs. I'll get another place. Sell it or rent it to someone else."
"Easier to sell," I mused. "Well, in theory. But I'm not concerned with profit, and it saves the hassle of screening and dealing with - " I stopped as a startling thought suddenly came to me. "Hey. Do we have time for a, oh, fifteen-minute stop? Will your friend get rid of our table?"
"Not if I call. Where do you need to go?"
"The U District. Seth's place. Don't worry," I added, seeing his look of alarm. "I'm not going to do anything crazy or lovestruck. I'm not even going to see Seth. Please? Just a quick stop?"
Roman concurred, though his expression said this was against his better judgment. I almost told him his fears were unfounded because I was only going to actually stop if Margaret was home and Seth wasn't. The odds against that possibility seemed slim, particularly with the way my luck tended to run.
The universe apparently owed me a favor because when we reached Seth's condo, I saw her car there but not his. A light inside gave me hope that they hadn't just all carpooled off together.
"Do you need me to come in?" asked Roman, as he pulled into my parking spot.
"No, but thanks. I'll be right back."
I left the car and walked up to the door, hoping some wacky happenstance wouldn't actually put me face to face with Seth. Not that I wouldn't have loved to see him. God, I missed him so, so much. But I knew no good could come of an encounter between us. I rang the bell and waited anxiously. A few moments later, Margaret answered.
"Georgina," she said, clearly surprised. "What are you doing here?" She took in my appearance. "Are you supposed to meet Seth?"
"No . . . can I come in for a minute? I'll be fast, I promise." She had on a coat, making me think she'd been about to leave. Either that or she was trying to save Seth money on his heating bills.
She gestured me inside and shut the door. "I was about to go to Terry's. Seth's already there." I didn't bother asking where Ian was. He probably celebrated New Year's on January third or something, just to be contrary. "You haven't been around in a while."
I wondered what Seth had told his family about us, if he'd even told them anything at all. Maybe he was just going to say nothing until one of them noticed my absence.
"Ah, well," I said. "Seth and I are having a disagreement."
She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. "You two need to sit down and fix it then."
How I wished it was that easy. I forced a neutral smile. "We'll see," I said. "But the thing is . . . I may be moving. No, I am moving. I have a new job . . . and I was wondering if you'd like to stay in my condo when I leave. I remember you saying you didn't want to impose on Seth's space but that you wished you could stick around more to help. Well, now you can. You can have your own place. Mine."
"I can't afford to keep my place in Chicago and pay rent somewhere here, though," she said sadly. "That's been the problem."