The girl deliberated, and I wanted to yell at her that it was a scam. But I needed Dante's advice and didn't want to get on his bad side. Not that I was necessarily on his good side right now.
"I don't want to pressure you," he told her gently. "So, please. Don't feel obligated. Just do whatever your heart tells you to do. I mean, if the cards have told us anything, it's that you have to protect your heart now as you enter this important stage of your life."
That sold her. "Okay. I'll do it."
I watched in disbelief as the two of them walked to his register. She handed over two-hundred-forty dollars - plus tax - and he gave her a Tarot punch card, not unlike what you'd get at a coffee or sandwich shop.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," I told him when she was gone.
"Succubus. Nice to see you too."
"That wasn't a romance reading."
"Nope," he agreed, coming over to stand beside me. "It actually suggested she'd soon be having a sex change and joining a suicide cult."
"But you told her it was about love."
"She's twenty years old. Love's all they want to hear about at that age."
"You're going to Hell."
"I could have told you that. In fact, I did tell you that last time, didn't I? Now. What can I do for you? You change your mind about the sex?"
"No. Of course not."
He looked offended. "Of course not? What's with the attitude? I'm not that unappealing."
"No," I agreed. He looked like he still hadn't shaved in a couple days, and there was something very sexy about that and the way his indigo T-shirt fit him. I hadn't realized before what nice ab muscles he had. Probably the lack of business around here gave him lots of time to work out. "But that's not why I'm here. And honestly, if this behavior is just the tip of the iceberg, I'm thinking your soul isn't going to be worth my time anyway."
He threw his hands in the air. "She comes and insults me, then expects help. So what is it you want? Your dishwasher finally break?"
"No, but I had the dream again. And there was more."
I recapped it, and he listened, face unreadable.
"You sure you don't want a new dishwasher?" he asked dubiously.
"What about kids?"
"What about them?"
"You want them?"
I fell silent, and despite his lopsided smile, I could see Dante scrutinizing me. He might be a con artist, but he was smart. The best ones always are. People like him make their living reading people and exploiting little things - like that girl's longing for romance.
"It doesn't matter," I said. "You know that. I can't have them."
"I didn't ask that, succubus. I asked if you wanted them."
I averted my eyes, studying the crystal ball. With the way the sunlight hit it, I suspected it was actually plastic.
"Sure. I did even when I was mortal. If I could have kids now, I would."
He nodded, and for the first time, I got the impression he might almost be taking me seriously. Almost. "And let me guess. You woke up without energy."
"Yes, and I'd gotten a victim the night before. Just like last time."
His face turned speculative. "Interesting. It only happens when you're charged up."
"What do you think it means?"
"Dunno. Might not mean anything."
"It has to! I'm losing energy for no reason at all."
"You're stressed," he argued. "And you're, like, one of the most uptight people I've ever met - immortal or otherwise. You've spent centuries wishing you could get knocked up. You have this celibate boyfriend thing going on. And you work for that demon, right? The one who looks like Matthew Broderick?"
"John Cusack," I corrected. "He looks like John Cusack."
"Whatever. That's enough to tax anybody. Your dreams are manifestations of the woes in your life, coming out of your subconscious in vivid, energy-sucking ways."
"You are so unhelpful. Your dream expertise is a scam - like everything else."
"Nah. Not everything I do is a scam. I know dreams. I know spells. And I know what could help you."
He pointed to the counter. "You and me. Up there. Naked. Horizontal."
I groaned. "Wow, you really weren't lying. You are a romantic."
"A pragmatist. And an opportunist."
"A sleazy guy, treating me like a cheap whore..."
"Fuck, I haven't been laid in months, and now this succubus shows up wanting my help. You'd try to bargain for sex too."
I eyed him warily. "Is that what this is about? I have to sleep with you to get help?"
Dante shoved his hands in his pockets. "Nope. You'd be more fun if you were willing, I think. Besides, I have no other help to give."
Disappointed, I made motions to leave. "Okay. Thanks. Sort of."
"You know what else might help?" he called after me.
"If it involves sex - "
"A vacation. At the very least, a massage. Basic stress reliever things."
Those were actually reasonable things, and I was pleasantly surprised to see his mind wasn't always in the gutter. "They can help," I told him. "But I doubt a massage will fix the problems in my life."
"Maybe. Maybe not. But if you want a free one...a naked free one..."
I'd already felt like my romance with Seth was some infinite loop tape reel. The rest of my life apparently was too. Have the same dream, go to Dante, get no help, go to work, and ruminate. Because that's exactly how my day was unfolding, just like before.
I went through the motions of paperwork and customer service at Emerald City, all the while consumed by images of the little girl in the dream and the sweet fantasy of having a daughter. My heart ached to see her again, to see that smile. Everything at my job seemed so shallow and meaningless compared with her.
When work ended, I brought Maddie back to my apartment to make good on my promise to get her a date.
"You're going to sell me?" she exclaimed when I told her the plan.
"It's an auction," I said. "For a children's charity. You don't hate kids, do you?"
"Well, no, but - "
"Then this'll be great. Here, try this on." I tossed her a BCBG shopping bag. She eyed it warily.
"Isn't that a place for teenagers?"
"It's a place for anybody with style," I assured her.
She opened the bag and pulled out the knee-length dress I'd picked up for her the other day. It was silk chiffon with a dark pink geometric print. The empire waist had a slightly gathered top, and the V-neck had a bow that tied underneath it. Fluttery cap sleeves finished it off.
"I can't wear this," she said immediately.
"Why? Because it'll look good?"
She shot me a glare. "There's hardly anything there."
"What? There's plenty." I owned lots of dresses that had "hardly anything there." This was elegant and tasteful. Amish country compared to some of my clothing. "Try it on, and we'll see."
She did, reluctantly, and I could have crowed with delight when she stepped out of my bathroom. I'd totally nailed the size. It fit perfectly.
"There isn't an extra inch here," she fretted, pulling at the fabric around the waist.
"Doesn't it make me look fat?"
"It makes you look great. If it were spandex or something, there might be a problem, but this is light and drapey."
"The neckline's awfully low - "
"Oh, be quiet," I snapped. "And let's finish the rest of you."
I did her makeup and arranged her hair down for a change. It shone like black silk when brushed out, and I thought it was a shame she wore it in a haphazard ponytail so often. Besides, everyone knows that in the movies, shy girls always become beautiful by letting down their hair and taking off their glasses. Maddie already wore contacts, but the principle was still sound. I finally finished her off with half-heeled shoes I'd bought to match the dress. Higher ones would have looked better, but even I knew when not to press my luck. Satisfied with the results, we headed out to the auction.
"You're like my fairy godmother," she muttered as we walked into the hotel the event was being held at. "But I'm still a pumpkin."
I elbowed her. "How did you get so negative? You should start some angstful emo rock band to compete with Doug's."