I'd seen my archdemon less than twelve hours ago. Surely, surely, if this was real, Jerome could have brought himself to at least mention it. The transfer of a succubus would be a big deal for him. He'd have to juggle both the fallout of losing me and gaining someone else. But, no. Jerome hadn't behaved as though he had a major personnel change coming. He'd said nothing to even hint about it. One would think this would have trumped his bowling league just a little.
I realized I was holding my breath and forced myself to start breathing again. A mistake. Whoever had sent this had clearly made a mistake. Lifting my eyes from the paper, I focused on Seth's sleeping form. He was sprawled in his usual way, with his limbs all over the bed. Light and shadow played across his face, and I felt tears spring to my eyes as I studied those beloved features.
Leaving Seattle. Leaving Seth.
No, no, no. I wouldn't cry. I wouldn't cry because there was nothing to cry about. This was a mistake. It had to be because there was no way the universe could be this cruel to me. I had already gone through too much. I was happy now. Seth and I had fought our battles to be together. We'd finally achieved our dream. That couldn't be taken away from me, not now.
Can't it? A nasty voice in my head pointed out the obvious. You sold your soul. You're damned. Why should the universe owe you anything? You don't deserve happiness. You should have this taken away from you.
Jerome. I had to talk to Jerome. He would sort this out.
I folded the letter four times and stuffed it into my purse. Grabbing my cell phone, I headed for the door and shape-shifted on a robe. I managed to slip out of the room without a sound, but my victory was short-lived. I'd hoped to be able to sneak outside, past Ian in the living room, and call Jerome in privacy. Unfortunately, I never made it that far. Both Ian and Margaret were up and awake, forcing me to stop middial.
Margaret stood in the kitchen cooking something on the stove while he sat at the kitchen table. "Mom," he was saying, "it doesn't matter what the water-to-coffee ratio is. You can't make an Americano out of drip. Especially with that Starbucks crap Seth buys."
"Actually," I said, slipping the phone regretfully into my robe's pocket, "I bought that coffee. It's not that bad. It's a Seattle institution, you know."
Ian didn't look as though he'd hit the shower yet, but at least he was dressed. He regarded me critically. "Starbucks? They might have been okay before they became mainstream, but now they're just another corporate monstrosity that all the sheep flock to." He swirled his coffee mug around. "Back in Chicago, I go to this really great hole-in-the-wall cafe that's run by this guy who used to be a bass player in an indie rock band you've probably never heard off. The espresso he serves is so authentic, it's mind-blowing. Of course, most people have no clue because it's not the kind of place mainstream people tend to frequent."
"So," I said, suspecting one could make a drinking game out of how many times Ian used "mainstream" in a conversation, "I guess that means there's plenty of Starbucks here for me."
Margaret nodded briefly toward Seth's coffeemaker. "Have a cup with us."
She turned around and continued cooking. The phone was burning in my pocket. I wanted to sprint toward the door and had to force myself to behave normally in front of Seth's family. I poured myself a cup of delicious corporate coffee and tried not to act like they were keeping me from a phone call that could change the rest of my life. Soon, I told myself. I'd have answers soon. Jerome probably wasn't even up. I could delay here briefly for the sake of politeness and then get my answers.
"You're up early," I said, taking my coffee over to a corner that gave me a good view of both Mortensens. And the door.
"Hardly," said Margaret. "It's nearly eight. Ten, where we come from."
"I suppose so," I murmured, sipping from my mug. Since signing up for Team North Pole, I hardly ever saw this side of noon anymore. Children didn't usually hit Santa up for Christmas requests so early, not even the ones at the mall I worked at.
"Are you a writer too?" asked Margaret, flipping over something with a flourish. "Is that why you pull such crazy hours?"
"Er, no. But I do usually work later in the day. I work, um, retail, so I'm on mall hours."
"The mall," scoffed Ian.
Margaret turned from the stove and glared at her son. "Don't act like you never go there. Half your wardrobe's from Fox Valley."
Ian actually turned pink. "That's not true!"
"Didn't you get your coat at Abernathy & Finch?" she prodded.
"It's Abercrombie & Fitch! And, no, of course I didn't."
Margaret's expression spoke legions. She took down two plates from the cupboard and stacked them high with pancakes. She delivered one to Ian and the other to me.
I started to hand it back. "Wait. Is this your breakfast? I can't eat this."
She fixed with me with a steely gaze and then looked me up and down. It gave me a good view of the quilted teddy bears on her sweatshirt. "Oh? Are you one of those girls who doesn't eat real food? Is your usual breakfast coffee and grapefruit?" She gave a calculated pause. "Or do you not trust my cooking?"
"What? No!" I hastily put my plate on the table and took a chair across from Ian. "This looks great."
"Usually I'm vegan," said Ian, pouring syrup on the pancakes. "But I make exceptions for Mom."
I really, really should have let it go but couldn't help saying, "I didn't think 'usually' and 'vegan' go together. You either are or you aren't. If you're making exceptions some of the time, then I don't think you get the title. I mean, sometimes I put cream in my coffee and sometimes I don't. I don't call myself vegan on black days."
He sighed in disgust. "I'm vegan ironically."
I returned to my pancakes. Margaret was back to cooking again, presumably her own breakfast now, but still continued the conversation. "How long have you and Seth been seeing each other?"
"Well . . ." I used chewing as an excuse to formulate my thoughts. "That's kind of hard to answer. We've, um, dated off and on for the last year."
Ian frowned. "Wasn't Seth engaged for part of the last year?"
I was on the verge of saying, "He was engaged ironically," when Seth himself emerged from the bedroom. I was grateful for the distraction from explaining our relationship but not pleased to see Seth up.
"Hey!" I said. "Go back to bed. You need more sleep."
"Good morning to you too," he said. He brushed a kiss against his mother's cheek and the joined us at the table.
"I mean it," I said. "This is your chance to sleep in."
"I got all the sleep I need," he countered, stifling a yawn. "Besides, I promised to make cupcakes for the twins. Their class is having a holiday party today."
" 'Holiday,' " muttered Margaret. "Whatever happened to Christmas?"
"I can help you," I told Seth. "Well . . . that is, after I take care of a couple of things."
"I can make them." Margaret was already going through the cupboards, seeking ingredients. "I've been making cupcakes before any of you were born."
Seth and I exchanged glances at that.
"Actually," he said, "I can make them on my own. What would help the most, Mom, is if you could go to Kayla's school today. She's got a half day, and Andrea will need babysitting." He nodded at me. "You work tonight, right? Come help me with the twins. I know they can use more volunteers. Elf costume optional. And you . . ." He turned to Ian and trailed off, at a loss for how Ian could actually be helpful.
Ian straightened up importantly. "I'll go find an organic bakery and pick up some stuff for the kids who want to eat baked goods that are made with free-range ingredients and don't contain animal products."
"What, like free-range flour?" I asked incredulously.
"Ian, they're seven," said Seth.
"What's your point?" asked Ian. "This is my way of helping out."
Seth sighed. "Fine. Go for it."
"Cool," said Ian. He paused eloquently. "Can I borrow some money?"
Margaret soon insisted that Seth have breakfast before attempting anything else, and I took advantage of his becoming the center of attention. I quickly put on casual clothes and made a polite exit, thanking her for breakfast and telling him that I would meet up with him at the twins' school for cupcake distribution. As soon as I'd cleared the condo, I began dialing the phone again.