"So where's the robe fit in?"
"Something to cheer you up. Since your wardrobe's been trimmed."
"Dante, you've been getting me a lot of stuff lately. You don't have to throw money at me-money you don't have-to make me feel better."
"If I didn't have it, I wouldn't 'throw' it," he remarked dryly. "And anyway...I'm not really the kind of guy who does, like...the candles or the moonlit beaches or recites poetry."
I grimaced. "I don't mind staying away from beaches for a while."
"But," he continued, "I know you well enough to know that mochas and silk make you smile, and that, at least, is something I can do."
My heart twisted further, and I reached out to catch hold of his hand. I understood what he was saying. It wasn't in his nature to do over-the-top romantic gestures, but material purchases were something he could handle, and it was the only way to show me he cared. My guilt redoubled because no matter what he said, I knew he was tight on cash. Yet, my actions and fixation with Seth were worrying Dante enough that he felt he had to do something. I was driving him to it.
"You're sweet," I said. "But don't worry. It'll be our secret."
He brushed his fingers through my hair. "Not that sweet. Look in the bag."
I did. Underneath the robe, unnoticed by me, was a bottle of bubble bath. I held it up questioningly.
"I thought we could take a bath together."
I laughed. "That's almost romantic. You might be closer to moonlit beaches than you think. Although, my bathtub's kind of small."
"I know," he said. "That's what I meant about it not being very sweet. Mostly I want to see what kind of interesting positions we can cram ourselves into while naked and in a small space."
"Well, thank God that in a world gone mad, some people never change."
It turned into a wet, soapy mess, but it was more fun than I expected. No matter what he claimed, the whole feat was semi-romantic. Conversation was easy and light, and we laughed and joked a lot. I almost forgot about Seth-almost. But when things started to get a little hot and heavy, I pulled back. No matter how sexy it was to be wet and naked with someone, it just didn't feel right if that person wasn't Seth.
What made me feel worse was that Dante was accommodating about my mood. He figured my lack of desire was part of my stress, and so we eventually left the tub as chastely as we'd entered. We toweled each other off and then curled up on the couch and watched TV together while I tried not to feel too guilty about the purple robe wrapped around me.
I decided the next day to finally add myself back to the bookstore's work schedule. I only put me down for part-time shifts until the demon business was settled, but at this point, it seemed unlikely I'd be recalled to Canada again. My limbo status couldn't last forever if I wanted to keep my job; Warren's leniency would only last so long.
Roman and I had our plans to go to Edmonds at noon, so for my first official day back, I only worked a morning shift. Part of that shift involved coming in before the store was even open, and I welcomed the solitude. The store always soothed me, and if ever there was a time I needed soothing, it was right now. It was short-lived, however, since my other coworkers began trickling in not long after my arrival. Maddie was among them.
"Hey," she said brightly, popping into my office. "Is this another check-in or are you back for good?"
"For good, I think. Not that it matters. It looks like everything's been fine without me."
She grinned and shut the door behind her. "Oh, we've missed you, believe me. No one's been here to referee my fights with Doug."
I laughed and watched her sit down. "Well then, I guess I got back just in time. Nice shoes."
Maddie extended her legs and admired her candy apple red pumps. "Thanks. Nordstrom's having a sale."
The brown leather Mia heels I currently wore were among my favorites, but after a week now with no shape-shifting, my wardrobe was starting to make me stir-crazy. It was kind of like my hair, I realized. I hadn't realized how dependent I was on shape-shifting to enhance my appearance. I'd lauded myself for living like a human when in truth, I'd been cheating the whole time.
Seeing my wistful look, Maddie asked, "You want to go downtown for lunch and check it out?"
I shook my head with regret. Looking at shoes sounded a lot better than looking at rocks. "Can't. I've got to meet someone."
"Ah, well, let me know when you get some time. You know I'm game." Silence fell, and Maddie shifted uncomfortably. She bit her lip, like she wanted to say something. I started to prompt her, but she spoke first. "So, what did you think of the condo listings?"
"Oh, they were..." Fuck. I'd never even read through them. Roman and Dante had spent more time looking at them than I had. Which one had Dante mentioned? "They were great. I really liked that new one-the one where you can still get in on the choices and stuff."
Her eyes lit up. "Ooh, yeah. I loved that one too. I actually looked them up on the builder's website. It doesn't look like there are many left, but there has to be at least one, or they wouldn't be listed. We should go down there and talk to them in person."
I smiled, feeling horrible about the lie. "Sure...but it may be awhile before I can get a break. We'll have to do it and the shoe trip at the same time."
Maddie nodded, face kind and sympathetic. "No problem. I understand."
More silence fell, and I realized it wasn't the condos that she wanted to talk to me about. That had been a distraction to build up her own courage.
"Maddie, what's going on?"
Her cheery look disintegrated into something much more glum. It was startling. I was so used to her always being in a good mood that the thought of something upsetting her was on par with the laws of physics breaking down.
She met my eyes and immediately looked away. "Oh God. I can't believe I'm about to bring this up."
I was seriously worried now. "You can tell me. It's okay. What's up?"
She sighed. "It's Seth."
"What about Seth?" I asked stiffly. I waited then for the shouts, for the accusations. Any of them would have been understandable. What I didn't expect were tears building up in her eyes.
"I think...I think something's wrong. I think he's trying to let me down easy or something."
"Why would you think that?" I channeled Grace and Mei, keeping my face as still and expressionless as theirs.
"He's just...I don't know. He's been so distracted lately."
"Seth's always distracted. You know how he is with his books."
"Yeah, I know. And it drives me crazy sometimes." I remembered her disappointment at Casey's party. "But this is something different, I can feel it. Only, I don't know what it is. He's not around much, and when he is, it's like he's with me but not with me. He always says nothing's wrong, but it doesn't feel right. And we haven't..."
"Haven't what?" I asked, guessing the answer.
A deep pink blush blossomed on her cheeks. "We haven't been having sex. Each time I even kind of suggest it, he's just not...well, he doesn't really seem into it."
Talking about their sex life was one of the most painful conversation topics I could imagine, short of her realizing I was to blame for its problems. So, I kept up with my pokerfaced therapist mode.
"How long has it been going on?"
"About a week."
Yup, that made sense. That was right around the time my stasis had begun. Here I'd been expecting Maddie to come after me, to pick up on one of the covert looks Seth and I had shared. But she hadn't. It had never even crossed her mind to suspect me of anything duplicitous. In fact, she'd come to me for help because I was one of the few people she trusted with something like this.
And that made it all the worse when I had to lie to her. In any other situation, I would have advised a friend to take control of her relationship, to corner her man and not be used. And maybe...maybe I should have. If I advised her to break up with Seth, that would clear the way for us. Did I want that again? I didn't know. I still wasn't thinking past the day I would turn into a succubus again. I was living irresponsibly, focusing on the now, and continued that here with Maddie.
My next words were spoken so winningly, so convincingly that there was no way she could ever think I didn't have her best interests at heart. I might have been relying on my succubus abilities to smooth my hair all this time, but charming and persuading people was a core part of my personality. She never stood a chance.