Carla the cupid is an excellent shot, but her chemistry is so bad that most of her matches don’t last. Her dream is to shoot a True Love pair, but until her scores improve, she’s relegated to the Puppy Love division of Aphrodite Agency.
Leeta, a succubus, is looking for a True Love match. Which is highly unusual, as most succubi are aromantic. But Aphrodite Agency—her only hope—turns her away because the receptionist can’t believe she’s not just looking for an easy meal.
Carla agrees to take Leeta’s case on freelance. She figures it’s a win-win: Carla gets to put a succubus’s True Love match on her résumé, and Leeta gets to find her True Love! Except as Carla tries to find a match for Leeta, she finds herself maybe . . . relieved when the matches don’t end well. And Leeta seems to be getting pickier and pickier. Things will never work out until Carla learns enough about chemistry to figure out who’s truly best for Leeta, and until Leeta can admit what—or who—she truly wants.
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Carla hopped out of the elevator, black curls bouncing, as she pulled open the door to the central office. She practically skipped up to the front desk.
Tristan looked up from his computer to grin at her. “Morning, sweetheart. Ready for your quarterly review?”
Carla blushed. “Don’t jinx me! I’m not a Sweetheart yet. But I’ve got a good feeling this time! At last check-in, one of the couples I hit made it to the two month mark, so . . .”
“Two, huh?” Tristan nodded encouragingly. “That’s—that’s good. I mean, two, hey, that’s great. That’s practically years, in high school time.”
“I really like the Puppy Love division,” Carla babbled on, trying to cover the flip-flops she’d felt at Tristan’s response, “but I’ve been in it for so long. I’ve been dreaming of being a Sweetheart cupid for ages. It’s so much more romantic, and it’s better when you’re working with older targets, and that’s just one step behind True Love, and there’s so much overlap anyway—”
Carla obligingly closed her mouth, taking a deep breath through her nose. Her wings fluttered anxiously.
“You’ll be fine,” Tristan said, with a warm smile. “You’re a hard worker, and you love what you do. That counts for a lot here.”
“Yeah . . .”
Tristan glanced back down at his computer. “Looks like Angel’s ready for you. Remember, think cupid: caring confidence—”
“—because we’re confident we care,” Carla finished. She gave Tristan a thumbs-up. “Wish me luck!”
Tristan matched her, then nodded his head toward Angel’s office. Carla skipped to it, trying to make herself feel as positive as she could, and went inside.
“Good morning, Carla,” Angel said. The head of Aphrodite Agency waved her to a chair. “Please take a seat.”
Carla hurried forward and sat in the low-backed chair, her quiver just brushing the top of it. “Morning, Angel! I’m here for my quarterly review.” And possible promotion. Please, please, please, possible promotion!
Angel nodded. “Yes. And you worked very hard this quarter.” The cupid shuffled through some papers. “You almost made your quota this time.”
“Almost?” Carla faltered. “But I thought—”
“Well, you were close! It just looks like five or six of your solo arrows didn’t take.” Angel made a mark on another piece of paper. “I think it’s just about time for you to take another training class in chemistry, but otherwise we’re on the right track. I’ll put you back on partner work with a Matchmaker for the time being, and if all your matches stay together by next evaluation, I’ll take you off your current probation.”
“Oh.” Carla looked at her shoes. “Thank you. But I thought I was off probation. Um, my last one.”
“It was reinstated last quarter, remember? You spent two weeks of solo work trying to match your target with that little aromantic girl.”
Carla swallowed. She had tried to forget about that. It hadn’t ended well for anyone. “Oh. Right. Okay.” She took a breath and just went for it. “What about my application?”
“. . . Yes, I saw that you submitted an application to be transferred up to Sweetheart.” Angel sighed. “I’m sorry, Carla, but my prior decision still stands. You do decently when you’re working with another cupid, but you still don’t meet the solo Puppy Love quota regularly enough to be moved anywhere else.”
“But— I hit everyone dead-on. I’m a really good shot.”
Angel nodded. “Yes. But frankly, Carla, that’s the only reason I haven’t reassigned you back to Playful Banter. When you were training and working with a team, everything went well. When you’re partnering with a Matchmaker, you exceed expectations. But you’re still having trouble with chemistry, and that’s the most important part of working solo.”
The phone rang, startling Carla so badly that her wings almost took her out of the chair.
“Excuse me.” Angel smiled at her and picked up the phone “This is Angel.”
Carla let her thoughts drift as Angel took the call. Matchmakers worked with Requests, the people who came to Aphrodite Agency specifically for a match. They had nothing to do with Random Matches, the people who just pinged ready for love, or trial runs of it, like Puppy Love. Even though Matchmakers were cupids themselves, they focused exclusively on chemistry and didn’t use arrows of their own to shoot. That task was left to other cupids whose marksmanship was good enough to shoot in the exact right moment. Cupids like Carla.
And there was nothing wrong with matching up Requests! Often they were people who had been in a Sweetheart relationship that didn’t evolve into True Love, and had come to the agency looking for more. Carla was always happy to see them eventually get a True Love match.
But her dream was to find True Love for Random Matches. There was something so romantic about two people meeting eyes and just knowing they were destined to be together. True Love was wonderful no matter how it evolved, but Random Matches were special. No one came in and planned to meet someone; it just . . . happened.
That is, if things evolved right. A cupid’s arrow only held the Spark of Interest. It got two (or more, depending on the situation) targets thinking about love and started them on the path toward True Love. But not every Spark grew into a Flame; if the chemistry wasn’t there, the Spark fizzled. That was the whole point of Puppy Love: it was a trial run, and a way for Aphrodite Agency to collect chemistry data so they could eventually form a True Love match.
Carla glanced up. Angel was still talking on the phone. Her eyes fell to the folder on Angel’s desk, and she sighed.
Carla was . . . not so good at chemistry. Her parents used to say that she’d been born with an arrow in her hand, conjuring them up to match up her dolls and friends (luckily the actual magic in arrows that caused Sparks didn’t develop until after puberty). But she just couldn’t get her arrows for Puppy Love to take long enough to collect data. Puppy Love matches were supposed to last two to ten months usually. Carla’s record was two months.
Carla startled and looked up again. Angel was watching her over clasped hands.
“I—I know I’m not the best cupid ever,” she blurted out, “and that I’m not the best at making my quota, but I think it’s partly because I know the matches I make aren’t meant to last. I just know that if I got assigned to a long-term Sweetheart project, I’d do so much better . . .”
Angel frowned. “Carla, you know that’s not how it works. Every match should be treated like it’s top tier, because there’s always the possibility that it will be. Is there a special arrow for the True Love sector?”
Carla shook her head. “No. No, I know there isn’t. It’s all about the right person, the right chemistry, and the right moment.”
“Exactly.” Angel nodded. “And that is all about understanding your targets and tailoring your choices. You can’t just point and shoot. People don’t work that way. The Spark is going to fizzle if the chemistry isn’t there, even if everything else is spot-on.” Angel held out a card. “Report tomorrow for training. Once you finish your week, I’ll pair you with a Matchmaker. Everyone you’ve worked with in the past has expressed interest in working with you again. They’ve all been very impressed.”
“Oh, that’s . . . that’s nice.” Her wings fluttered anxiously, and she forced them to stop. “I’m glad that they think I do good work.”
Angel smiled at her. “It might be worth reconsidering that permanent partnership with the matchmaking division. There are a number of split-second opportunities that could use your targeting skills.”
Carla managed a watery smile, trying to take the compliment for what it was.
Permanent placement with a Matchmaker meant more chances to be part of a True Love match but . . . she wanted to be assigned to Random Matches. To find love for people who hadn’t even been looking for it or didn’t know they could. Aphrodite Agency was open to all magic and fae creatures, but it wasn’t as though humans could walk through their doors to request a match. And they deserved love just as much as anyone else. Carla loved to work with humans, knowing that she would help them find matches even if they couldn’t request them. “I’ll think about it, Angel. Thank you.”
“Good. You’d be of much use to them.” Angel nodded a final time, and then returned to the papers on the desk, a clear dismissal. Carla got up and carefully walked out, holding herself stiff so that she didn’t start to cry.
“You’d be of much use to them”? Meaning you’re not so much use right now, on your own.
When she shut the door and glanced at Tristan, he took one look at her and got up.
“Did it not go well?” he asked softly.
“I’m still not fit to work solo,” Carla said, looking up to keep her tears in. “And if I can’t work solo, I can’t be a Sweetheart. Angel wants to pair me permanently with Matchmaking. They pick the targets, I just point and shoot.” She was crying, she was crying, and she didn’t want to. “I’ll be right back.”
Carla didn’t bother with running, just flew into the bathroom and locked herself in. She spent a few minutes trying not to sob. Well. Trying not to sob too loudly. When she managed to get ahold of herself, she wobbled up to the sink and grasped the sides, staring into the mirror.
It wasn’t fair. She tried so hard when she was on her own. She listened to her targets and observed what they were like, who they liked, and when she thought she’d gotten the perfect match, she took aim and fired. But while the Matchmakers and other Shooters always seemed to know who would work best paired with whom, none of Carla’s own choices ever lasted long enough to be worthwhile.
All she ever wanted was a chance to make a True Love match. To be responsible for that kind of relationship between her targets. She’d managed it a few times when partnered with a Matchmaker, but it had never been her own success. When she’d first started at the agency, she hadn’t minded, but after a while . . .
It was like getting praised for making a delicious cake, when all you did was turn on the oven. Sure, without you the cake wouldn’t have gotten baked, but anyone can push a button. The real mastery came from putting the right ingredients together.
Carla stared resolutely into the mirror and shook her head, tight curls bouncing. No, no, she’d take this as a good opportunity. If she paid really close attention to her Matchmaking partner, maybe she’d be able to learn more about what went into making the right choices. She’d do the best job she could, get off probation, and become part of the Sweetheart division!
She nodded resolutely, patted her hair bows, and marched out of the bathroom.
* * * * * * *
Tristan was waiting at his desk when she emerged.
“Feeling okay?” He handed her a chocolate square.
Carla took it with a hesitant smile. “Yeah. I mean, I have to be. I’m never going to get better if I stick with being sad. I’ll learn from the Matchmakers, and I’m going to ask every question I can think of, and I’m going to make a True Love match. On my own!”
“That’s the spirit,” Tristan said cheerfully.
“Excuse me,” another voice interrupted, cool as silk. “Do I have the right department?”
Tristan and Carla both turned as a woman walked up to the front desk. She was tall and slender, with brown skin and razor-straight black hair, two little brown horns poking up through it. The woman’s hips swayed as she walked, a long, thin tail just barely brushing the floor behind her. She didn’t walk so much as swish, every inch radiating aloof confidence.
“That depends,” Tristan said carefully, moving back behind his desk. “What department are you looking for?”
“I want to speak with Angel,” the woman said. “I have a request.”
“Name?” Tristan was frowning at his computer. “And regarding what?”
“Leeta Absinthe.” A smile. “I wish to contract a Matchmaker’s services.”
“I see.” Tristan looked up at her, smile bland and brittle. Carla barely even recognized him. What was she missing here? “Well, Miss Absinthe, regrettably Aphrodite Agency does not do contract work with your kind. We are not a catering service. Good day.”
Leeta’s eyes glittered, and she leaned forward over the desk, tail lashing behind her. “I assure you, I have no trouble at all securing my meals—” she glanced down at the nameplate on the desk “—Tristan.” She said his name like it was dipped in honey. Tristan actually scooched his chair back a few inches. “I’m looking for a deeper connection, if you will.” She leaned forward a bit more. “Though far be it from me to say that I wouldn’t mind someone fun. Perhaps you could help me, Tristan?”
Tristan stared at her, eyes wide, before swallowing audibly. “Aphrodite Agency does not serve succubi or incubi. I’m afraid Angel would have no reason to meet with you. Good day, Miss Absinthe.”
Oh! Carla finally realized. The woman was a succubus. That explained . . . not very much, actually. Carla had never met one before. Cupids and succubi didn’t usually cross paths, for obvious reasons. But she was here—because she wanted a match?
The succubus crossed her arms, frowning delicately. “Surely we can come to some arrangement. After all, our work usually leads to the same outcome in the end.” She shrugged one slender shoulder.
Tristan bristled. “I will excuse you not to compare my work with your . . . vocation. I make love, thank you very much.”
She smiled again, slow and cold. “How perfect. So do I. In a number of different positions.”
“Miss Absinthe,” Tristan said, steely-eyed. “I do not appreciate your comments, and you are making me look unprofessional in front of my fellow cupid. Angel will not see you. If you do not remove yourself from the vicinity immediately, I will summon security.”
Leeta raised one elegant, unimpressed eyebrow, before letting out a deeply unsatisfied sigh. “Very well.” She glanced at Carla, who blushed under her gaze. “I’m amazed you’re such a close-minded lot about who deserves your kind of love.” Then she turned and walked off, hips and tail swaying.
Both Tristan and Carla watched the succubus push through the double glass doors, and then until she turned a corner and left their sight. Tristan immediately let out a loud breath of air, as if he had been holding it. He shook his head, and then fumbled in his desk for a rose candy, popping it into his mouth before saying, “I’m really sorry about that! I don’t— What an awful woman! The things she said!” He sounded downright scandalized.
Carla didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. “I didn’t think she was that bad. What was the matter?” She looked back toward the doors. “And why don’t we matchmake for succubi? I’ve never heard of that rule before. Well,” she added, bouncing a little on her toes, “I’ve never met a succubus before either, so.”
Tristan threw a caramel cluster into his mouth, chewing frantically. “They just think we’re free meal tickets,” he managed around the cluster. “It’s a completely underhanded mind-set, and they’re never looking for real love. It’s been against company policy since—since I don’t even know when. I’ve had to deal with a few in my time, and they’re all the same.” He huffed, looking downright angry. “All swishy tails and—and innuendo, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that!” he added hastily. “They can’t help that they feed off, well, you know.” This time he pulled out a milk drop, which had to be sucked, so he was at least calming down. “But if some poor fool falls in love with one of them, they can be drained until they die.”
Carla gasped. “If you fall in love with one, you die? That’s horrible!”
Tristan shook his head. “No, just humans. A fae will get very weak, and might even lose some of their more powerful abilities, but we have too much energy to outright die from that kind of depletion unless the incubus or succubus is starving.”
Carla’s bottom lip trembled, and she cast a quick glance toward the glass doors. “So a succubus might never be able to be in love with someone? Or they can’t have someone love them?” If it was that or your match died . . . “That’s—that’s the worst thing I can imagine,” she whispered.
Tristan shook his head again, and patted her on the shoulder. “Oh, they could,” he said, trying to sound comforting. “Theoretically. If the succubus or incubus returns the love, something about the magical chemical properties stops the more damaging part of the drain. Supposedly it even creates a truer bond, on top of making the lust portion a richer food source.” He shrugged one shoulder. “But it’s rare. It’s against their nature to want to settle down. A real love match? Please. That woman just wanted us to do the leg work for a good, steady food source for as long as it lasted.” He glowered, the expression looking entirely out of character on his normally cheerful face. “It’s disgusting! And not something anyone in this agency will ever be tricked into being a part of.” He let out a long breath, rummaging in his desk again. “Peppermint?”