- Seth

I looked up at Roman, who had been studying me while I read. I didn't know what astonished me more: Seth returning - because of me - or the god-awful news about Andrea. Both were monumental in their own ways. One was a tragedy of epic proportions.

I swallowed, afraid if I fully processed it all, I'd start crying. "I'm not sure how much more I can handle tonight," I said in a small voice.

Roman's face was a mixture of sympathy and cynicism. "Well, you've got one more thing."

He handed me a magazine. It was a trashy celebrity gossip one that was a popular source of mockery over at the bookstore. I couldn't imagine why he was giving something so trivial to me, in light of everything else that had gone on. One page was marked with a Post-it, and I flipped to it.

It was a spread of assorted celebrity shots, the kind of candids that paparazzi delighted in: actors out with their children, pop stars spotted in Las Vegas nightclubs. I skimmed over the two pages, feeling a frown grow on my face as I tried to figure out why on earth I'd care about this right now.

Then, I found it. It was a small picture, shoved off to the side between much more interesting and larger ones of badly dressed actors. The caption read: Best-selling author Seth Mortensen enjoys some natural beauty in Mazatlán.

And it showed Seth and me kissing on the beach.

Chapter 24

"This...isn't possible," I said.

"I don't know," said Roman dryly. "Looks pretty possible to me."

"But Seth's an author. These kinds of magazines don't care about people like him."

"He's so commonplace for you that you don't realize how famous he is. And, hey, if it's a slow week, they probably take what they can get. Sex sells - and that's pretty sexy."

I looked down at it again. It was pretty sexy. They'd taken it when I'd been lying on top of Seth, and the sarong had slipped enough that I was showing an awful lot of skin. Nausea rolled through me.

"Maybe no one will see this." Yet, even as the words left my lips, I knew that was wishful thinking on my part. As I'd noted before, this magazine was a favorite at the store, largely because of its outrageously ridiculous articles. Someone, somewhere was going to see this picture. And while the articles might be fabrications, a photo like this - which clearly showed our faces - could hardly lie.

I let the magazine fall to the floor. "I can't...I can't deal with this. Not after everything else."

Roman frowned, legitimate concern filling his features. I don't think he was happy about either the picture or Seth's new resolve, but it had to be obvious that more than these bits of news were plaguing me.

"Georgina, what else is - "

I held a hand up. "Not now. Tomorrow. We'll talk tomorrow. Too much...too much has happened tonight." Erik's lifeless eyes flashed in my mind. "It makes this seem like nothing."

He hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. You want to set aside some time for tomorrow night? I don't mean a date. Just, I don't know. Get dinner, talk about all this so it doesn't eat you up. I really am worried about you."

I started to say he shouldn't worry, that I'd be okay, but I backed off. I really didn't know if I was. "I'd like that," I said honestly. "If my damage control doesn't conflict, then sure. I'll tell you all about it." I stood up wearily. "But now - bed."

He let me retreat to my bedroom, his heart in his eyes. It made me feel worse, largely because of what a low priority his feelings were for me right now. Obviously, they were important to him, and I appreciated his ardor. And his feelings did mean something to me. There was something very sweet and comforting in his offer to breathe and just talk. But in light of everything else going on? I couldn't allow myself to process anything too deep with our relationship right now.

Particularly when I had to face the gauntlet at the bookstore the next day. I'd had a number of past times entering Emerald City where I'd been met with curious and covert looks. More often than not, it had been over something ridiculous, and I'd had no clue until later. Today, I knew exactly what was going on. There was no question that the damned magazine had gotten around.

And the looks this time weren't inquisitive or smug. They were accusatory. Disdainful. I couldn't face them. Not yet. I hurried through the store as quickly as I could, seeking my office - which I vowed not to leave for the rest of my shift. It was pretty hypocritical, considering my judgment on Seth avoiding his problems. Only, I didn't have as much luck getting away from mine.

Maddie was sitting at my desk.

I hadn't seen her in a week, not since she'd come to my condo. I'd told her then she could have indefinite leave from work and hadn't expected to see her back anytime soon. Now she stopped me dead in my tracks.

Her face was much calmer than I would have expected. No, it was more than calm. It was still. Perfectly, eerily still. Like a sculpture. And when she looked up at me, it was like looking into the eyes of the dead. Cold. Emotionless. Nonetheless, I shut the door, fearing what was to come.

"I had a million theories, you know." Her voice was as flat as her expression. "Never, ever did I consider this one. I mean, I wondered if there could have been another woman. But I never thought it'd be you."

It took an impossibly long time for my lips to move. "No...it wasn't that. It wasn't like that at all. That's not why he did it...." I couldn't finish and suddenly questioned my words. Wasn't that - by which I meant, me - exactly the reason he'd left her? Maybe our beach interlude hadn't been the direct cause, but I had certainly been the catalyst.

The magazine lay on my desk, open to the guilty page. She picked it up, studying it with a calculating look. "So what then? You were just comforting him after the fact?"

"Actually...well, actually, yeah. That shot was taken afterward."

It still sounded lame, and we both knew it. She threw the magazine down, and finally, the emotion came to her face. "What, and that makes it okay?" she cried. "You - one of my best friends - running off with my fiancé the day after he dumps me?"

"It wasn't like that," I repeated. "I went to find him...to see if he was okay."

"And then you made sure he was okay?" she demanded. Her words were sarcastic, but tears glittered in her eyes.

"No...I didn't expect anything like that to happen. And really, nothing much did happen. The thing is..." I took a deep breath. "We used to date. Before you guys were together. We never told anyone. Things ended...well, pretty much just before you started going out." Like, almost the day before.

That caught her off guard. Her eyes went wide. "What? You had a past...you went out with my boyfriend and never told me? He never told me?"

"We thought it'd be easier."

"Easier? Easier?" She pointed at the magazine again. "You think seeing you guys back together in full color was easier?"

"We aren't back together," I said quickly. "He didn't end things because he was cheating - " Again, I had to admit the truth to myself. He hadn't been cheating on her when he broke the engagement, but we'd slept together earlier in the relationship. "I was as surprised as you were. And I was worried. I told you, I went to find him, but we didn't sleep together. Then I left. That's it."

The tears were on her cheeks now. "It wouldn't have mattered if you had slept together. You guys keeping that past from me - you guys lying is worse. I trusted you! I trusted both of you! How could you do this? What kind of person does this to their friend?"

A damned soul, I thought. But I didn't say that. I didn't say anything.

Maddie shot up from the desk, futilely trying to wipe away the tears that were still coming. "Doug warned me once, you know. He said there was this way you guys always looked at each other that made him wonder. I told him he was crazy. I told him he was imagining it - that it was impossible. That you guys would never do that to me."

"Maddie, I'm sorry - "

She hurried to the door, pushing past me. "Not as sorry as I am for putting my trust in you. For putting my trust in both of you. I'm quitting. Right now. Don't expect to see me again." She jerked the door open. "I don't know how you can live with yourself. You two deserve each other!"

The door slammed loudly, rattling my ears. I stayed where I was, staring blankly at the desk, unable to move. Unable to think or react or do anything useful. I don't know how you can live with yourself. Me either.

Tags: Richelle Mead Georgina Kincaid Fantasy
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