JASON SCHUYLER, ONE of my best friends and favorite werewolves, stood in the morning sunlight of the kitchen. His yellow hair gleamed in the light, so that his boyishly handsome face was haloed with sunshine, but as I looked into the pure, soft blue of his eyes I knew that devil’s horns were more his style than halos, and pure was only a way to describe his eyes, not him. He’d been a precocious teenager and his day job was still assistant manager and exotic dancer at Guilty Pleasures. The body that showed around his tank top and jogging shorts proved that he stayed in shape for his job, but none of that was what made halos seem wrong for him. He had a streak of mischief in him so strong that he couldn’t quite resist pushing . . . everything. If the situation was tense he had to resist not making a wisecrack at the wrong moment; since I had the same urge, it was one of our bonding moments. He and I both tended to poke the proverbial badger with a stick until it rushed out of the hole and tried to eat us. We’d both learned over the years to curb this urge, and were much happier for controlling that part of us, but Jason still had that edge of deviltry to the smile on his face, and the shine in those spring-sky eyes.
I pushed my own thick black curls away from my face; they fell right back against my cheek, but sometimes it’s the effort that counts. I sat at the kitchen table in my long silk robe, sipping coffee and watching that smile on his face. Either he was enjoying the hell out of getting us all out of bed at this outrageously early hour, or he was hiding behind the smile. Most of us have our blank face, a version of the cop face, and Jason hid behind a grin usually, but since he also spent a lot of time actually smiling, laughing, or grinning, it was great camouflage for whatever else he was thinking.
I tucked my robe a little closer across my chest, not because Jason hadn’t seen me nude in the past, but because he’d asked for a conversation as his friend, not a friends-with-benefits booty call, so flashing breasts seemed inappropriate. It was tricky sleeping with someone who was actually your friend but never quite your boyfriend, a thin line to walk between true friendship and hey, baby.
“We all work nights, Jason; what was so important that you got us up this early?”
His grin widened, and he stepped forward enough that I could see his straight blond hair without the sunshine special effects. He’d cut his hair again, almost businessman short. He was one of the few men I knew who really did look better in shorter hair; it seemed to open up his face and make you see that he was handsome in his own right, when he wasn’t clowning around or being irritating, though honestly that last part had almost gone away. I’d met Jason when he was nineteen; now at twenty-five he had grown up. I was only five or six years older than he was—depending on the time of year, our birthdays made us seem to gain or lose a year on each other. At twenty-five and thirty it wasn’t a big age difference; at nineteen and twenty-five it had seemed like more.
“Let’s wait for everyone else,” he said, and sipped his own coffee. He didn’t really drink a lot of coffee; he sipped at it, and would eventually put it down about half drunk and cold. Since we ground our own beans and used a French press to make the coffee, it was a waste of good, hot caffeine.
I huddled around my third cup of it, determined to make up for Jason’s lack of enthusiasm.
Envy walked into the kitchen. She was five-eleven, so she towered over Jason and me. I was five-three and he was five-four. She’d combed her thick, almost shoulder-length blond hair, but hadn’t bothered with makeup any more than I had. The strong cheekbones of her face seemed unfinished without the makeup, so that you got a glimpse of what she might have looked like at fifteen instead of the very grown-up early twenty-something. She’d thrown an oversized man’s T-shirt over her, and on me it would have hung to midthigh, or even my knees; on her it barely covered her ass, so that she was all long golden legs as she padded barefoot into the room.
She was everything I’d wanted to be when I was a little girl: tall, blond, and Nordic-looking like my father and stepmother, and stepsister, and half brother, and . . . But I’d made peace with my mother’s Mexican heritage that had given me black curls and dark brown eyes, and could even acknowledge that my skin was paler than Envy’s and she tanned better than I did, which just seemed wrong. She blinked pale blue tiger eyes into the sunlight as if she were startled. None of us were morning people. The tiger eyes were literal; she was part of the golden tiger clan, which was one of the few inherited types of lycanthropy, and one of the ways they proved their pure bloodlines was that they were born with permanent tiger eyes in their human faces. Most of the other wereanimals I’d seen with animal eyes in human form had them because they’d spent too much time in their beast form. You could get stuck, and usually the eyes were the first thing to stick.
“Coffee’s hot,” I said.
“Tea,” she muttered.
I started to tell her to help herself, and then realized she didn’t know where the tea was, or anything. It was the first time Envy had stayed overnight at the house in Jefferson County. She lived at the Circus of the Damned with the bulk of our people, but she’d been dropped off here after her date with Richard Zeeman, wolf king, Ulfric of the local werewolves, and college biology professor. He had a house out here in Jefferson County, too, so it had made more sense for him to drop her here than driving her all the way back into the city to the Circus, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them to make a habit out of it. Richard was sort of my ex; we’d even been briefly engaged. We still had sex occasionally, so having his current lover dropped at my house for a sleepover was a little weird. He’d offered to sleep over with Envy here, but I, and she, had vetoed it. We were all polyamorous, which means to love more, so everyone knew what and who everyone else was doing, but that didn’t mean there weren’t moments when too much sharing was, well, too much. Richard’s work schedule was almost the opposite of mine, which meant that though we were lovers, it wasn’t that frequent. Sex with him was great, but we’d both done a lot of emotional damage to each other over the years, and . . . the needs he’d met in my life were now met by other people, who liked, or loved, each other and got along a hell of a lot better with the other men. Richard was trying, but in some ways he’d worked out his shit too late to truly be a part of our happy little poly group. He sort of floated on the edges of my life, and I on his.
Envy had slept in one of the guest rooms, but still it was the first time she’d curled those long legs underneath my kitchen table.
Was I supposed to wait on her? Fetch her tea? I felt the first bubbling of anger, which was still one of my best things, when I didn’t know what else to do.
“What kind of tea do you want?” Jason asked. He put his coffee down and went to the cabinets. He’d stayed over enough to make tea without having to ask directions.
“Mint,” she said, and laid her head on her arms so that she looked like she was going to take a nap on the table.
“Peppermint, spearmint, or a medley?” he asked.
“You pick,” she muttered, not raising her head.
“Rough night?” I asked, sipping more of the strong black coffee.
She moved her head enough to roll an eye at me through the fall of yellow hair. It reminded me disturbingly of Dev, her cousin, who was also a weretiger of the gold clan, and one of my lovers. Dev was short for Devil, which was a nickname for Mephistopheles. Envy had gotten one of the better family names.
“You really need to have sex with him more often.”
“You mean Richard?” I asked, because she was also sleeping with Jean-Claude, head vampire of the United States and my fiancé. I did mention that we were polyamorous, right? It wasn’t cheating, because everyone got everyone else’s permission, but it was complicated, sometimes very complicated.
“Yes,” she said, still just looking at me with that one inhuman eye.
“Did Richard ask you to talk to me?”
“No,” she said, and just looked at me as if waiting for me to say something. Was I supposed to pry information out of her?
“What made it a rough night?” Jason asked. He’d filled the rapid-heat electric kettle, and it was starting to warm up. He had a mug, and a tea bag was trailing out of it, waiting. There was actually loose-leaf tea in there somewhere, but no mint outside bags.