by R.L. Naquin
Ellen flounced into the office, rosy cheeked and self-satisfied. She hung her wings on the hook beneath her name and rang the bell next to the wipe-off board. The entire freaking office went wild with applause.
Except for me. Oh, I gave a polite clap, sure. But I didn’t bother to offer even a fake smile, and had she deigned to look my way, she’d have seen the poison darts I was pretending to shoot at her out of my eyeballs.
Because Ellen was obnoxiously petite, the boss-lady had set up a stepstool for her. I watched barely five feet of bubbling cuteness climb the step to draw another tick mark beneath her name on the board. She flashed a grin over her shoulder at the rest of the room, then added two more ticks.
The room erupted again. She smoothed her little pink-and-white cardigan, then hopped down.
I stared at my computer screen in despair. I wasn’t cut out for this. Every match I tried to make blew up in my face. I was the worst matchmaker in the Cupid department. And if I didn’t make a match soon, I’d be demoted and transferred to somewhere far worse.
Honestly, I wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d had any other choice. There were only two ways into the Mount Olympus Employment Agency: you could be sponsored and brought in by a blood-related god—like Ellen had—or you could have unknown god blood somewhere in your heritage and hit rock bottom.
That was how I got there. Apparently, I was related to some minor god, and when I found myself homeless, unemployed and alone—boom. Some bum I’d never met before grabbed me and dragged me into an abandoned building. Except the building was different inside—huge, clean, and filled with people. Not sure which was more terrifying, abduction by a bum or the magic office, complete with gorgon receptionist.
I suppose I could have run, but I didn’t have much choice. I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t get to choose my new profession, either. They made me a cupid. And I sucked mightily at it.
I pushed my sweaty bangs away from my eyes and focused on the screen. It was no use. I’d been trying to fill the grid for so long, I’d lost track of where I’d started. Better to start from scratch. Tapping the reset button, I watched the sixteen portraits of lonely men and women shuffle like cards and spread themselves to the edges of my screen. The grid in the middle emptied its rows and columns for me to refill.
The Fates department had determined through whatever weird methods they used down there that several of these people were meant for each other. They did not, however, say which ones. Those of us working in the Cupid department were left with these gaping Sudoku grids that we had to sort through and attempt to place the right couples together in the right squares.
I squinted at the profiles beneath the photos. Derrick of the smoldering eyes was a dentist. I dragged his picture to the upper-left square. Felicia, a redhead with a lovely smile, was a veterinarian. I dropped her next to him. Hey, she obviously had good dental hygiene, a fact I was certain would appeal to Derrick. To her right, based entirely on her job as a veterinarian, I placed Stan, a blonde surfer with a golden retriever. But the grid line between the two blinked red.
No good. I took a closer look. Okay. So, Stan was gay. I tried placing him underneath Derrick's picture. The screen remained steady.
“Interesting.” I tapped the screen with a chewed fingernail. “Dr. Derrick goes either way, don’t you, buddy?”
Except that I could see absolutely nothing compatible between Stan and Derrick other than the fact that they both enjoyed the company of men. I sighed and dragged Stan to the bottom left corner of the grid for holding.
The Fates department probably thought this entire process was hilarious.
Stephanie, a stockbroker, was originally from a small town in Alabama—a much more likely match for Derrick, who came from a different small town in Alabama. I placed her picture where Stan’s had been, directly beneath Derrick.
The key now was finding another match that might fit beneath the veterinarian and to the right of the stockbroker.
This was always the part that hung me up. Whenever I made it this far, I panicked. How could two different men be possible matches for the same two women?
I scanned the other twelve faces staring at me from the screen. Ah. Dave. Long hair tied in a ponytail. Charming grin. No job. Dave was an artist who made beaded jewelry and sold it to tourists on the boardwalk for cash, then couch surfed for a place to sleep.
Dave was a project. Two successful woman. One handsome freeloader. I dropped Dave’s photo next to Stephanie and beneath Felicia.
I groaned. Putting Dave in a middle spot instead of on an edge meant I would have to find four women who were potential love matches for him. I really didn’t want to give this lowlife that many shots at love. Where was the justice in that? Smoldering-eyed Derrick with an education, a career, and an open mind only got two possible mates.
Maybe it was the right answer, but I wasn’t going to be responsible for it. I hit reset. If I started over with someone else in the corner—Deadbeat Dave, for instance—I’d get a better idea of where everyone was supposed to go.
Gods, I sucked at this.
Two hours later I had a reasonable grid setup that I thought was, if not right, at least partially right. The next step would be fieldwork. As much as I hated setting the grid, donning the Cupid wings and running around town invisible to meddle in people’s lives was worse.
I was worse.
On one assignment, I’d helpfully tipped over a man’s coffee on a woman because I had the vague idea that this was what in the movies they called a “meet-cute.” Her hand was badly scalded, which meant she was unable to make the flute audition for the Miami Symphony Orchestra. She lost her dream job, then sued the pants off of the guy who’d spilled his coffee on her. He lost his construction business and moved back to his parents’ house in Missouri.
Not a meet-cute.
In the seven months I’d been in the Cupid department, I’d made three successful matches. Two of them were during training, so I’d had help. I was on very thin ice.
I glanced up at my assigned wings hanging on a hook next to Ellen’s. Her cutesy giggles drifted across the office and over the wall of my cubicle. Ellen was cut out for this. Ellen had an instinct. Ellen was freaking adorable.
As I rose to make my reluctant way to grab my wings off their hook, I backed my chair into something solid. When I turned, I found the mail guy pushing his cart right behind me.
“Oh, sorry, Rudy. I didn’t realize you were there.”
He grinned. “My fault, Dory.” He reached into his bag. “Got a package for you.”
Rudy handed me a red velvet box, no bigger than a grapefruit and shaped like a heart.
I frowned. “Who’s it from?”
Rudy shrugged. “No idea. I just make the deliveries.” He skipped away, every few steps lifting off the floor with the aid of his winged sandals.
I dropped back into my chair and stared at the box. It was beautiful in its simplicity—the dark red almost a burgundy. The point on the bottom was rounded, giving the heart a more friendly feeling, like a bubble or a twelve-year-old girl’s dots above her letters.
The velvet was smooth and luxurious against my fingertips as I lifted the lid. I had no idea what to expect.
Candy. Jewelry. Someone else’s present delivered to me by mistake. Even a dead mouse. Any of those things could have been in the box and barely fazed me. What was really in there shocked the hell out of me.
At first, I thought the box was empty. A light flashed from its inky depths, and I dropped the damn thing on my desk. Lavender smoke puffed out, laced with sparkles and the smell of roses.
The smoke cleared and a moving image of the boss-lady smiled up at me. “Please see me in my office, Miss Anderson. And bring your wings with you.” The face dissolved.
Boss-lady hadn’t been to the Miami branch in months. I shivered. This was probably a very bad thing. I’d once heard of a woman in the Muse department who couldn’t complete her artist quota. They’d demoted her to Hades and made her a poop scooper for the three-headed dog, Cerberus.
I moved to the wall and unhooked my wings. They seemed so light in my hands for being so large. If I slipped them on, I’d be invisible once I left the building. I shook my head. There was nowhere to hide. They’d find me eventually.
And maybe scooping dog poop the size of a bowling ball would turn out to be my calling. Cupid sure wasn’t it.
I knocked on the office door and waited for the sensual voice of my boss to invite me in. The door opened on its own.
When you’re in the presence of a goddess, it’s difficult to figure out where to look. This particular goddess was an even bigger problem.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, adorned the pink, frilly office like a centerpiece at a wedding reception. She was breathtaking, smelled like a botanical garden after a spring rain, and sounded like a purring kitten. She was also practically naked by current cultural standards. The frothy bit of fabric she had draped over her hid nothing.
“How wonderful to see you, Miss Anderson. Please. Set your wings on the table next to you and have a seat.”
I did what I was told, swallowing a lump in my throat and keeping my gaze on her pink marble desk. Disappointing a goddess—especially this goddess—was the most embarrassing and shameful thing I’d ever done. It was worse than the time I’d tucked the back of my skirt into my pantyhose on a dinner date with a chiropractor named Chip. The maître d’ stopped me, but not before I’d marched clear across Andre’s waving my baggy white granny panties at everyone in the dining room.
Yet this was worse.
Aphrodite stared at me until I met the gaze of her lavender eyes. She cleared her throat, and it sounded like a choir of harmonizing lilies. “As you know, Dory, your success rate has been…unfortunate.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” In comparison, my voice was a hoarse, unlovely whisper.
“Oh, now. It’s not a tragedy. No one’s going to chain you to a rock and let a vulture eat your liver over and over.” She laughed and it sounded like adorable white mice ringing miniature golden bells in their tiny paws.
She clapped her hands and the door opened again. I twisted in my chair for a better view. In strode a tallish man with brown hair and large brown eyes behind a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. He pushed the glasses up the bridge of his nose and cleared his throat.
“Dory, I’d like you to meet Ben.”
He nodded at me and smiled. “Hi, Dory.”
I didn’t say anything. My jaw felt frozen shut.
Aphrodite rose and handed a file with my name on it to Ben. “Ben will be taking you to your new assignment.” I vaguely heard her speaking behind me, but nothing she said seemed to matter. Something about Hercules being my new supervisor and cleaning Augean stables or something.
I lifted my hand to acknowledge her. “Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
Ben’s eyes sparkled like a disco ball at a skating rink. He smiled and brushed my bangs from my face. “Shall we go?”
I nodded. My heart thudded in my chest, and my stomach danced the Macarena.
We walked through the office, and behind me I heard Aphrodite’s voice again. “Well, done, Ellen. Ben was a perfect choice.”
“What do you say we try to get you a better assignment?” Ben took my hand. “Do you believe in Fate?”
I smiled up at him, and the warmth of his gaze spread over me like a soft fur. “They’re two floors down, right?”
Behind us, someone rang the matchmaker bell, long and loud, and the office went wild.
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