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CHAPTER 22

"You faked it... faked being affected by me," I realized, shock making my words come out thick and faltering.

Still chuckling, he took a step toward me, and I cringed, frantically trying to find a way to run, to get out of my own apartment. What had moments ago seemed safe and inviting now became close and stifling. My apartment was too small, the door too far away. I couldn't breathe. The amusement on Roman's face shifted to astonishment.

"What's the matter? What are you afraid of?"

"What do you think I'm afraid of?"

He blinked. "Me?"

"Yes, you. You kill immortals."

"Well, yeah," he admitted, "but I'd never hurt you. Never. You know that, don't you?" I didn't answer. "Don't you?"

I backed up farther, not that I had anywhere to go. I was faced in such a way as to only keep moving toward my bedroom, not toward the front door. That wasn't likely to do any good.

Roman still seemed floored at my reaction. "Come on, I can't believe this. I would never do anything to you. I'm half in love with you. Hell, do you know what a wrench you've already thrown into this operation?"

"Me? What have I done?"

"What have you done? You've wrapped my heart around your little finger, that's what you've done. That day... when you solicited me at the bookstore? I couldn't believe my luck. I'd been watching you all week, you know, trying to learn your habits. Christ, I'll never forget the first day I saw you. How feisty you where. How beautiful. I would have gone to the ends of the earth for you right then and there. And later... when you wouldn't go out with me after the signing? I couldn't believe it. You were originally going to be my first target, you know. But I couldn't do it. Not after I'd talked to you. Not after I'd realized what you are."

I swallowed, curious in spite of myself. "What - what am I?"

He took a step toward me, a rueful half-smile on his handsome face. "A succubus who doesn't want to be a succubus. A succubus who wants to be human."

"No, that's not true..."

"Of course it is. You're like me. You don't play by the rules. You're tired of the system. You don't let them push you into the role they've dictated for you. God, I couldn't believe it, watching you. The more you seemed interested in me, the more you tried to back off. You think that's normal for a succubus? It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen - not to mention the most frustrating. That's why I finally decided to call you out today. I couldn't decide if you'd really cut me off for my own good or were just interested in someone else now - like Mortensen."

"Wait - that's why you arranged that stupid little game today? For your own fucking ego gratification?"

Roman shrugged haplessly, still looking self-satisfied. "It sounds so shallow when you put it like that. I mean, okay, it was pretty stupid. And maybe a little childish. But I had to know where your affection stood. You can't imagine how touching it was to see you so worried about me - not to mention the fact that you checked on me first. That was the real kicker: I got priority over the others."

I almost protested that I'd actually worried about Seth first, having only called Roman beforehand because I thought Seth was already accounted for. Fortunately, I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut on that issue. Better to let Roman think he'd proven his point.

"You have issues," I said instead, perhaps unwisely. "Making me jump through hoops like that. Me and the other immortals."

"Perhaps. And I am sorry for any discomfort I caused you, but as for the others?" He shook his head. "It's good for them. They need it, Georgina. I mean, doesn't it piss you off? What they've done to you? You're obviously not happy with your lot, but do you think the folks in charge are going to let you change things? No. No more than they're going to give me or my kind a break. The system is flawed. They're locked in their fucking 'this is good' and 'this is evil' mentality. No gray area. No mutability. That's why I go around and do what I do. They need the wake-up call. They need to know they aren't the be all and end all of sin and salvation. Some of us are still fighting."

"Go around... How often do you do this? This killing thing?"

"Oh, not that often. Every twenty to fifty years or so. Sometimes a century. Doing it sort of cleanses me for a while, and then, over the years, I'll start getting pissed off at the whole system again and stake out a new place, a new set of immortals."

"Is it always the same pattern?" I remembered Jerome's symbols. "The warning phase... then the main attack phase?"

Roman brightened. "Well, well, haven't you done your homework. Yes, it usually works that way. Take out a few lesser immortals first. They're easy targets, even if I always feel a little guilty about it. Really, they're as much victims of the system as you and I are. Still, messing with them freaks out the higher immortals, and then the stage is set to move on to the main attraction."

"Jerome," I stated grimly.

"Who?"

"Jerome... the local archdemon." I hesitated. "Your father."

"Oh. Him."

"What's that supposed to mean? You don't sound like he's a big deal."

"In the grand scheme of things, he's not."

"Yeah... but he's your father..."

"So? Our relationship - or lack thereof - doesn't really change anything."

Jerome had said almost the exact same thing about Roman. Baffled, I sat down on the arm of a nearby chair since it appeared my imminent destruction wasn't quite so imminent after all. "But isn't he... isn't he the 'real target' - the higher immortal you're here to kill?"

Roman shook his head, face turning serious. "No. That's not how the pattern works. After I move on from the lesser immortals, I focus in on the local bigwig. The real powerhouse in the area. That tends to unsettle people more. Better psychological effect, you know? If I can take out the big man on campus, then they worry no one is safe."

"So, that would be Jerome."

"No, it's not," he countered patiently. " Archdemonor no, my illustrious father is not the ultimate power source around here. Don't get me wrong; I'm getting a nice bit of satisfaction from pissing in his territory, so to speak, but there's someone else who dwarfs him. You probably don't know him. It's not like you'd have reason to hang out with him or anything."

Stronger than Jerome? That only left - "Carter. You're going after Carter."

"Is that his name? The local angel?"

"He's stronger than Jerome?"

"Considerably." Roman gave me a curious look. "Do you know him?"

"I... know of him," I lied. "Like you said, I don't hang out with him or anything."

In reality, my mind raced. Carter was the target? Mild, sardonic Carter? I could hardly believe he was more powerful than Jerome, but then, I knew almost nothing about him. I didn't even know what he did, what his job or mission in Seattle was. Yet, one thing that was obvious to me - and only me, apparently - was that if the angel really did outclass Jerome, then Roman couldn't do anything to him, not if the rule about nephilim power not exceeding parental power held true. Roman shouldn't technically be able to harm either angel or demon.

I chose not to mention this to him, however - or the fact that I knew Carter better than Roman believed. The more delusional he was, the more of a chance we had to do something about him.

"Good. I didn't really figure a succubus would be too friendly with an angel, but with you, it's hard to tell. You may have a sharp tongue, but you still manage to gather a lot of admirers." Relaxing slightly, Roman leaned against a wall, crossing his arms over his chest. "God knows I've already gone out of my way to avoid your friends."

Anger helped me overcome my fear. "Oh really? What about Hugh?"

"Which one's he?"

"The imp."

"Ah, yes. Well, I had to keep setting an example, didn't I? So, yeah, I messed with him a little. He'd been impertinent to you. But I didn't kill him." He looked at me in what I supposed was meant to be an encouraging type of way. "That was for your benefit."

I stayed silent. I recalled how Hugh had looked in the hospital. Impertinent?

"And what about the others?" he pushed. "That annoying angel? The vampire that threatened you? I wanted to break his neck on the spot. I got rid of them for you. I didn't have to do that."

I felt ill. I wanted no deaths on my hands. "Most considerate of you."

"Come on, give me a break here. I had to do something, and really, once I'd met your vampire friend at the dance lesson, I couldn't bring myself to do anything to him at all. You put me in a really tight spot. I was running out of victims."

"Sorry for the inconvenience," I snapped, ire rising at his pathetic show of compassion. "Is that why you took it easy on me that night?"

He frowned. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean!" Thinking back to my attack, it all made perfect sense. It had occurred after I'd been to Krystal Starz, the day after I'd run out on Roman at the concert. A perfect excuse for him to be angry and seek retaliation. "Remember? The day after Doug's concert? After I'd been with Seth?"

Understanding washed over Roman's features. "Oh. That."

"That's all you have to say?"

"It was a bit juvenile, I admit, but you can hardly blame me. It wasn't easy watching you cozy up to Mortensen after freaking out on me like that. I'd watched you go home with him the night before. I had to do something."

I sprang up from my seat, old apprehension returning. "You had to do something? Like beat the crap out of me in an alley?"

Roman raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about? I told you I would never hurt you."

"Then what are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about that ice cream place. I'd followed you two around earlier in the day, and when I saw how cute you were getting over dessert, I got jealous and blew the door open. Juvenile, as I said."

"I remember that..." I trailed off stupidly, recalling how the door had blown open at the parlor, letting the outside wind wreak havoc in the small store. Wind like that was certainly uncharacteristic here, yet I had never suspected supernatural influence. He was right; it had been juvenile.

"So what's the alley thing you're talking about?" he prompted.

I snapped out of my memory. "Later... that night. I'd been running errands, and you... or someone... attacked me on the way home."

Roman's face turned cold, his eyes sharpening to aqua steel. "Tell me. Tell me everything. Exactly what happened."

I did, explaining my lead to the Harrington book, subsequent trip to Krystal Starz, and walk home in the dark. I edited the part about my rescuer, however. I didn't want Roman to know I had more than a casual acquaintance with Carter, lest the nephilim think I might be a deterrent to his plans. The more he thought I had no interest in the angel, the more likely I would be able to get out some kind of warning.

Closing his eyes, Roman leaned his head against the wall when I finished, sighing. Suddenly, he looked less like a dangerous killer and more like a tired version of the man I'd come to know and nearly love. "I knew it. I knew noninterference was too much to ask."

"What... what do you mean?" A strange feeling crawled down my spine.

"Nothing. Forget it. Look, I'm sorry about that. I should have taken precautions beforehand to protect you. I knew too... the next day? When I came by and you cut things off between us? I could tell you had been hurt, even through your shape-shifting. I could tell it was supernaturally inflicted too, but I never suspected... I thought it was some other immortal - one of your own circle - you'd tangled with. You had sort of a residual effect on you... the faint traces of someone else's power... like a demon's..."

"But that's not - oh. You mean Jerome."

"Daddy dearest again? Don't tell me... don't tell me he did something to you too." Roman's brief lapse into mildness faded, replaced by something more sinister.

"No, no," I said hastily, recalling Jerome's psychic slap, pinning me to the couch. "It wasn't like that. It was more of a show of power that I caught the edge of. He wasn't the one who hurt me. He'd never hurt me."

"Good. I'm still not happy about what happened in the alley, mind you, but I'll have a little chat with the guilty party and make sure it never happens again. When I saw you that day, I had half a mind to take out all the immortals in the area. The thought of someone hurting you..." Closer and closer he came to me. Hesitantly, he squeezed my arm. I didn't know whether to recoil or reach out to him. I didn't know how to reconcile my old attraction with this new terror. "You have no idea how much I care about you, Georgina."

"Then how... in the alley - "

Before I could follow that thought to completion, another suddenly poked its head up at Roman's words. When I saw you that day. He had visited me the day after the attack, coming over while Carter investigated a nephilim signature. But that was impossible. I couldn't remember where that particular signature had occurred, but it had not been close by. Roman could not have flashed Carter and then made it over to my apartment so quickly.

Iknew noninterference was too much to ask for. I'll have a little chat with the guilty party.

I understood then why Roman felt he could take on Carter, why having less power than the angel would pose no concern. The realization sank into me like lead, heavy and cold. I'm not sure what look crossed my face, but Roman's suddenly softened with compassion.

"What's the matter?"

"How many?" I whispered to him.

"How many what?"

"How many nephilim are in the city?"

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