Humiliation burned deep as Sookie ran down her stairs, tightening her thin blue robe around her waist and seething in rage as she felt his amused, unhurried pace behind her. God damn him. She knew it was stupid to run. Where could she go? The kitchen? The porch? Her car? Where could she hide that he couldn’t easily follow? Her naked body blushed deep under the pathetic material. The fact that he’d just seen it all made her wish her entire house was shellacked with silver. Bastard.
“Stay away from me,” she snipped over her shoulder as she came to the landing.
“This is no way to treat your new landlord,” he replied lazily, flashing from behind her, barricading her path in a blink.
Sookie skittered to a halt and stared up at Eric with barely-concealed rage. “I am not yours and I want you out of my house. Now!”
Dry mirth tugged the corners of his mouth. “Funny about ownership, isn’t it? A little piece of paper, and the only power you had over me is gone.”
She scowled at him. “What do you want from me?”
His smile disappeared, replaced by a very serious hunger. “Everything.”
Oh, Jesus Christ. “You can’t have it.”
“I bought it,” he countered, as if that settled everything.
“You bought my house,” Sookie said, amazed that she needed to explain the difference. “The house does not come with me inside it.”
He settled back into his smile. “Well, then I seriously overpaid.”
“That’s your problem,” she informed him, edging around him and heading for the kitchen.
With nowhere to go, she was brought up short when he called to her. Her blood tasted like freedom, he said. Like sunshine. Like all lovely things that vampires missed from their human lives. It was what made her smell so good to them. And unfortunately, others would eventually find out.
“And when they do,” he concluded, “you’ll need protection. I can provide that for you.”
“I’m willing to take my chances,” she answered, turning away and meaning every damn word. How dare he show up, looking up her skirts while professing a higher, noble purpose. Did he think she was stupid? She’d barely made it three steps when he flashed again, blocking her path anew with his dark, towering frame.
“I bought this house because I care about you.”
This stopped her. Looking up into his eyes, Sookie paused mid-stride, uncertainty slowing her step. Cared about her? Since when? What happened to not giving a damn about her? He’d been very clear back at Russell’s mansion that she meant absolutely nothing to him. She was just a lowly inferior, possibly valuable, but in no way worthy of special attention.
He continued. “If all I wanted was to taste your blood, I could do it right now and there wouldn’t be a thing you could do to stop me.”
Sookie’s mouth turned up in distaste.
Eric’s expression went noticeably softer, as did his voice. “Instead,” he said, “I am asking you…to be mine.”
She snorted. Asking, right. Unless she said no. She seriously doubted her consent played much of a role in his restraint if she refused him. Again, did he think she was an idiot?
“I could never be with you the way I was with Bill,” she said hotly, turning away from his pretty face and impressive body as he stood stone-still in her entryway. She didn’t want to look at him. Looking at him always filled her with conflicting emotions that she wanted to ignore.
But she couldn’t escape his voice. “The first time Bill declared you his, how did that make you feel?”
Sookie turned and considered. “Angry,” she answered softly.
His brow quirked. “But safe?”
Sookie’s eyes lowered. She didn’t answer this time. Yes, she’d felt safe. Bill’s first declaration to owning her had pissed her off to no end. At the same time, she’d been in a room full as freak-ass vampires, slithering around her, sniffing at her heels and making all kinds of lewd comments about her sweet scent. She’d seen several flashes of fang as they sniffed out her virginity and made her stomach turn. Only Bill’s dog-like bark, claiming her like a bone, had made them grudgingly back down. She’d hated it, but she’d hidden behind it fast enough.
Sighing tiredly, she sat at the breakfast table, arranging her robe so that it covered as much of her legs as possible. Without looking up, she murmured, “So that’s why you’re here? To offer me a trade? I whore myself to you in exchange for my safety?”
Eric’s quirk quickly turned to a snarl. “Is that how you see it?”
“That’s how you’re selling it.”
“Was it whoring when you allowed Bill to claim you?”
She looked up at that. “I had no idea what a claim meant then. And Bill was gentlemanly enough not to touch me until I wanted him to.”
Eric stalked towards her and squatted by her chair. His fingers found her chin, holding it carefully. He held her gaze firmly. “Would you agree to be mine if I agreed to the same?”
Sookie didn’t like the touch, but didn’t pull away either. “Agree to what, Eric? Eventually whoring myself to you, once I’m comfortable with the idea?”
“Stop using that word,” he growled.
“Then stop trying to buy me,” she countered hotly. “Stop bartering. Stop trying to scare me by reminding me that other vamps will bleed me dry. If you cared for me at all, you’d offer your protection without a claim to me.” She paused, participating in his stare-down. “Or you’d give me my house back, at the very least.”
His growl quieted. Sookie noticed that his fingers had started moving fractionally along her jaw, almost a caress, but not quite. Otherwise, he was still in the way only vampires can manage. She held her breath, waiting for his response.
At length, he spoke. “Giving you your house back would do nothing to protect you long term.”
“Bullshit,” she replied. “You owning this house will get me killed quicker than anything. Sure, you can walk in whenever you want and I can’t stop you, but it also means any other vampire can do the same.”
Eric flinched. The movement, so unlike him, made Sookie flinch as well. He was so close, such an unexpected break in his nerve was jarring. There was hesitation in his eyes. Sookie’s gaze widened, then riveted to his, not letting him look away.
“You hadn’t thought of that,” she mused out loud, astounded. God, was that possible? The great Eric Northman had wanted her so badly that he hadn’t remembered the simple rule that any vampire-owned home was open to vampire entry? Surely not, Sookie thought. The man thought of everything. There was no detail too small that Eric didn’t detect, consider and file away for later. His interest in her be damned. His concentration was unflappable.
His eyes lowered further.
Hers went wider in shock.
It was true.
It hadn’t occurred to him.
“Jeez, Eric,” she breathed softly, sitting up more, taking her penetrating eyes with her.
“No one knows I own this house.” His voice was icy and strong. Defensive. He gathered himself and looked up, completely unapologetic.
Sookie snorted. “Others will find out,” she taunted him with his own words. “When they do, I’ll end up just another red stain on this lovely floor you had waxed for me.”
Eric hissed quietly, his blunt teeth flashing brightly at her. Sookie smiled softly, showing no teeth at all. “Don’t you snarl at me like some pissed-off stray. You’re the one who made it possible.”
He threw himself backwards, prowling darkly around her kitchen, his previous mood of smug certainty gone. Sookie watched his slightly bent form as he moved around a space that was too small for him. “If I hadn’t bought this place, some family of strangers would be living here at this very moment, all of your family possessions locked up in some shitty storage facility in Monroe.” He turned and scowled at her. “Is that your preference?”
“Of course not,” she snipped right back, resisting the urge to jump up and get right in his face. “My preference is to buy it back.”
“You’ve been gone for a year. Have your finances changed greatly in that time?”
“Don’t be a dick, Eric. I’ll pay you back, every penny. But I have to do it in installments.”
A cold smile tugged at his lips. “I don’t want money.”
Sookie grit her teeth. “Are we back to sex again? Jesus, Eric. Is that how little you think of me? Why would I fuck you for my house if I won’t fuck you for protecting my life?”
His smile dropped, but his arrogant expression didn’t. “When you finally agree to fuck me, it won’t be as payment for anything.”
Sookie bit down harder. “Fine. Moving right along. What about working for you at Fangtasia?”
“I don’t need another waitress.”
“All right. What about as a telepath? You used to find that valuable. You can keep me on retainer.”
Eric snorted. “No.”
Sookie threw her hands up in exasperation and got up from her chair. “Well, then we’re out of options.” She gestured towards the door. “You should go. I’m tired and I’m going to bed.” She turned back towards the stairs, flicking her hand in disgust. “Feel free to sneak back in while I’m sleeping and rummage through all my private things. God knows you’ll do whatever-the-hell you want anyway.”
She heard a zip and suddenly her stairwell was blocked by cotton-clad muscle. Without looking up, she punched angrily into it.
“God, what? What? What the fuck do you want?”
Two hands grabbed her fists and plastered them to that wall before gripping her chin and jerking it upwards. Her dark eyes met two light ones, haughty, but more thoughtful than she’d expected. She huffed, more furious than she’d ever felt in her life.
He leaned down into her space. “There’s one more thing you can offer me.”
The soft scrape of his voice made her go still. She hated its calming effect on her. She didn’t want to be calm. She wanted to hit him again.
“Oh, do tell,” she spat acidly. “What can a backwater waitress offer a cold-hearted millionaire except a pathetic mortgage or sex?”
Eric’s eyes softened. Her words had hurt him. Sookie refused to soften in return. She’d been too soft too often for too many people and look where it had gotten her. Her hands were still trapped over his t-shirt. She stared at them resentfully, letting the word ‘sex’ echo uncomfortably between them.
Finally, he spoke. “You can feed me,” he said.
Sookie bit her lip and tried to step away. Eric refused to let her hands or chin escape from under his fingers, tugging her even closer. Through his touch, Sookie could feel a restrained gentleness in him that only fueled her lust for violence. Why did he have to play these fucking games? Why did he back her into a corner, then ask for her surrender instead of just taking his victory? She huffed, keeping her eyes averted, even though he aimed her face squarely at his own. God, she hated him. Hated him. He made her feel so cheap and helpless. And desperate. And wanted. And special. And so totally overwhelmed that she had a hard time thinking clearly.
He said he cared for her. He wasn’t attacking her, like he so easily could. He seemed to need her acceptance. She was sure that if she looked up into his eyes right now, she’d see that need.
She huffed again and jerked her chin hard, dislodging his hold on her. She lowered her gaze to their feet. She let her hands rest where they were against him.
“Blood whoring instead of sex whoring, then?” she said finally.
A motoring growl erupted under her hands in warning. “I said stop using that word.”
“But that’s what they’re called, right?” She looked up now, wanting honesty. “Blood whores? I saw them in Dallas. Wads of twenties in their Fendi purses and bite marks all over their bodies.”
His growl persisted. “Did you ever consider that they enjoy it? That you might enjoy it?”
“Don’t you fuckin’ dare,” Sookie tried to pull away again. Again, she was unsuccessful. “There are plenty of things I enjoy. I like dancing. I like kissing. I like making love. Doesn’t mean I’d do any of them for money.”
Eric’s stony expression went dangerously predatory at her list. Sookie refused to blush. There was something about Eric’s insufferability, something that made her want to say scandalous things, just to provoke him. Make him drop his business-like attitude and just admit what he really wanted. If it was just blood and sex, he could take them. If it was the pleasure of upstaging Bill, Edgington and Sophie Anne by owning her, he could just threaten to kill off her family and friends until she agreed. But the way he kept wording it, like he was doing her a favor by looking out for her or that she might grow to like the arrangement, just made her tongue itch to say every cruel, unchristian accusation she could think of.
Eric loomed before her, close enough to make her crane all the way back and consider taking a step away.
His free hand hovered for a moment, then gently slipped into her wet hair at her temple, following the tress as it led behind her ear and finally to her throat.
Sookie started at his whisper.
He was watching his fingers as they ghosted over her pulse. “Please, Sookie. In exchange for letting me taste you again, I’ll sign the deed to your house over to you tomorrow.”
She answered without thinking. “No.”
He continued to trace her. His face reminded her of an entranced, lovesick poet.
“I…I won’t let you. I can’t.”
“Why?” His voice had gone maddening rough-soft again.
“I don’t want to.”
“You’ve let me before.”
“That was different. You were dying.”
He caught her eyes again. “How can someone so kind be so stubborn?”
Slow, distressing tentacles of panic were working their way into Sookie’s brain. Her anger was eroding. Desperate, she clutched it harder. Damn this fucking bastard. He’d changed tactics, using his height and his stupid, pretty eyes and his rare tenderness to find another path to her concession. She loathed how sincere it sounded. Like she was the most precious thing in the world and he only wanted a piece of her so he could cherish it, like a lock of her hair…or a mouthful of her blood.
She bit her lip again.
It was only blood.
She looked to her left and right. Her family’s home – the home that had been theirs for hundreds of years – was clean and beautiful again. Eric had been kind to it. He’d even paid Jason twice what it was worth before he’d renovated it, giving Jason some much-needed cash to fix his own house. Now, Eric was making another ridiculously generous offer. One that cost her nothing…except her principles. And might end with her dead on the floor, as she’d predicted with other vampires who would lose control and eat her alive.
Bill had managed not to. Edgington and Eric hadn’t killed her, either. He cared for her. Enough to let her yell at him. Enough to ask. Enough to walk away, if she demanded hard enough.
Once again, her mouth spoke without her. “Once.”
Eric blinked. Negotiation. “Indefinitely.”
Sookie took a shaky breath. “Twice.”
Eric’s hand cupped her nape and drew her up, lowering his face to hers in a perfect mimic of a lover about to kiss her. “Twenty.”
Sookie swallowed. He was so close. So safe and so risky. The house could be hers again. She could deny him entry again. All of them. “Five. Final offer.”
He released her hand on his chest and completed his cup around her throat and jaw. She felt his thumbs brush her earlobes. The pulse of her payment throbbed steadily under his palms. She knew he could feel it. She knew it was singing to him even now.
“Freedom,” she pushed quietly. “Sunshine in a pretty blonde bottle. Five times, for an old house in the middle of nowhere. Take it or leave it.”
His thumbs moved slightly, sweeping up and down along her cheekbones. He blinked again. Sookie wondered vaguely if vampires even needed to blink, or if it was just another human habit that died hard. The coolness of his hands was sapping the warmth she’d felt in her shower. Once again, she found herself wishing she could steal into a vampire’s mind and read his thoughts like she could everyone else.
Meanwhile, an eternity passed between them.
“Five,” he said finally. “With two conditions. You will not rescind my invitation. Before, during or after our exchange is complete.” His face was a mask. “I’ll settle for your word.”
Sookie’s jaw clenched. He cares, she chanted silently. He cares enough to protect me. “You’re welcome in my home,” she answered stiffly. “Always. You have my word.”
He nodded, stoic but pleased.
“And the second?” Sookie asked.
His thumbs trespassed over her lips, grazing their plumpness. Sookie bit them inward, denying him.
“You will take my blood again.”
“No.” Sookie’s word dropped flatly between them.
“I don’t care when,” he continued. “Or how. You may drink it from a vial, if you prefer. But my connection to you was weak from the beginning. In a year, it’s grown even weaker. I’ll return your home to you, but I demand that I be able to track you better.”
“It’s all for my benefit, huh? You offering to come save me? I suppose that sensing my emotions and making me dream about you again is totally beside the point?”
Eric smiled softly. God, she was amusing. He could rip her head off with the gentlest tug. It would be so simple. He’d done it many times before. Yet he couldn’t recall a single instance where the human in his grip looked up fearlessly into his eyes and sassed him from the trap of his hands. It gave him a momentary light heart.
“Again, Sookie. Is my offer not better than Bill’s? More honest? You asked once if I would know when you were in trouble before you left for Jackson.” He paused and let her remember. “Did you appreciate our connection then?”
Sookie snorted and looked away. “A silver lining to a very dark cloud, Eric. Don’t push your luck.”
“A few drops more,” he replied soothingly. “Five times. Two conditions. The house is yours.”
They stared awhile, letting the counter-offer sit on the table. Slowly, Sookie’s hands rose and hooked his, pulling them away from her face. A piece of golden hair escaped from behind her ear as she turned away and walked back into the kitchen. Eric didn’t follow, sensing that she needed space to think. He watched as she calmly pulled a glass from the cupboard, setting it on the countertop, before she reached to the butcher block and pulled a knife loose.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
It happened before he could react.
Her sleeve was pulled back. Her arm positioned. Sookie gasped, pain flaring up in their meager bond, as she sliced deep into her forearm, angling the limb over the glass as the thick drip of blood dotted the counter before filling its target. The scent of everything bright and beautiful rushed into the air. Eric’s fangs clicked. Sookie heard them just before she heard the telltale rush of air. Eric was suddenly behind her, clutching her waist and yanking her two inches until her back was flush against his chest. The movement wasn’t enough to upset the flow, which continued to drip into the glass in front of them.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he hissed above her, his other arm snaking around her shoulders, holding her to him as she made good on her first installment.
Sookie was trembling, taking the pain and blinking to keep the tears back as she watched. “Paying you,” she whispered in a strained voice. “This will hold about a cup’s worth.”
Sookie cried out as she was jerked around, her injured arm leaking all over the floor as Eric turned her into him. He yanked her close.
“You’d rather mutilate yourself than let me bite you?” His accusation was filled with anger and bitterness.
Sookie sniffed. Damn, that cut hurt. “I want to keep it simple,” she replied, still blinking profusely to keep the tears back. The result made her eyes look like huge liquid pools of warmth and sadness. Eric snarled, hating the way they made him want to hold her and pet her and whisper to her until he soothed all her fears away. It was pathetic.
He jerked her arm up, heedless of her cry of discomfort, and stifling his appetite, began licking the blood away, cleaning the wound with his antiseptic mouth. Sookie made to pull away.
“Be still,” he hissed, furious that she ruined this for him. He forced himself to swallow without savoring the incandescent flavor of her, shoving it down his throat, clearing a path to the cut. Once there, he sliced his tongue on his fangs and applied his healing blood to her, working his way up the injury and making sure her skin mended back together fully.
Sookie watched with those fucking doe-like eyes. Still working, Eric fused his icy blue fury into them, letting her know with no words that he was livid with her little stunt. She seemed so small, so fragile. She wasn’t moving. She watched as a vampire drank her blood with no pleasure, seeming more concerned with her safety and more angry at her rashness.
Her arm was smeared with a little blood, but was no longer hurt. Sookie watched in amazement as Eric left the blood on her skin and brusquely pulled the sleeve of her robe back down. It had blood on it, too. Eric didn’t see it. Instead, he took Sookie by the shoulders and shook her. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t gentle, either.
“My first payment, is it?” he snarled as he dipped low, right into her face. “Watching you suffer? Being denied the chance to enjoy you? Knowing you choose pain over me?” The acid in his voice dripped and joined her blood on the floor tiles.
Sookie looked up, appalled. “I’ve seen you drink from a glass,” she defended. “What’s the difference?” She spun and grabbed the glass from the counter. The inch of blood jostled slightly as she brought it under his nose. “Drink it. Tell me it still doesn’t taste as good as you remember. Why the fuck should it matter how you get it? You’ve got it, it’s yours.” She shook it at him, tempting him.
“There’s a difference!” he roared, pulling his head back from the dizzying scent. It was making him unstable. Bad things happened when a creature as powerful as him became unstable.
Sookie didn’t heed the dangerous glint in his eye. Once again, she wanted to push. Shove, actually. She dipped her finger in the glass. Eric groaned in rage as she slipped the bloodied digit through his lips and onto his tongue. The barriers he’d made to keep her taste from registering were blown apart. A sweetness he would remember for the rest of his life filled his head. The rest of Sookie’s fingers cupped around his chin and jaw, holding his face as she spoon-fed him.
“See?” she retorted angrily, watching as his eyes slipped closed in bliss and he pitched forward, catching himself with both arms on the counter, trapping her against it. “Freedom and sunshine. All you have to let me do is fill the cup and settle my first debt.”
Eric’s eyes snapped open. Indignation sparked hotly, turning the blue ice into butane fire. Still sucking her now-clean finger, he reached between them and snatched the glass. Sookie shrieked as he hurled it across the room, jumping as it shattered into diamond chips, spattering her wall with blood. He ignored her jolt and hauled her up against him, pulling her finger deep into his mouth, his eyes closing once again. Sookie gasped. His tongue was working overtime, laving her skin with soft, wet sex that had her arching against her will, her breasts pressing wantonly into his upper abdomen. His fangs framed around her knuckle. He did not bite down and prick her skin for more blood.
“Eric.” Her voice was much softer, more questioning and feminine that she’d meant it to sound.
His mouth slid over her palm, down her healed forearm. He inhaled over and over, drinking in the scent of her, but never lapping the drying blood as he moved. Instead, to Sookie’s astonishment, he started kissing. Dozens of them. Frenzied and fast and over the entire length of her lower arm and hand. He was lost.
“Ssssookie,” he moaned softly, butting is forehead into her wrist. “So sweet…missed how fucking sweet you are…”
Sookie glanced at her wall. Her blood – the blood all vampires dreamed about – dripped forgotten down the paneling.
“Eric,” she repeated again.
He ignored her, continuing to rub his nose and lips over her skin.
She pulled out of his grasp and cupped his cheeks, shaking him out of his stupor. “Eric!”
His eyes cleared rapidly and he stared at her, the tiniest smudge of blood clinging to his lips. She thumbed over it. His tongue swiped out to claim the drop as she did.
They stared, incredulous.
A strange, content-sounding rumble emitted from his throat. Sookie noticed how entangled they’d become. His arms held firmly around her back as she clutched his face. There was absolutely zero space between them. She was sandwiched between his lean monolith and the counter. Their faces were inches apart.
For enemies-turned-indifferents-turned-business partners, it was definitely an unusual position.
Slowly and – to her consternation – a little unwillingly, Sookie let her hands fall away from him.
Eric, with the same amount of dislike, loosened his hold as well.
Neither spoke for a moment. Sookie, feeling embarrassed and wanting to put some distance between them, moved to sidestep him. She yelped when his arms shot out again and slammed into the counter on either side of her. Trapped, she looked up. Angry Eric had resurfaced.
“You will not refuse me again,” he spoke low and gravelly. “When I take your blood again, my fangs will be buried in your throat.”
White, slithering, completely unwelcome heat pulsed through Sookie at his words. They were so visceral. So sexual. And there was no arguing with them. She swallowed and did anyway. “I didn’t agree to that,” she said. “We didn’t specify how I’d feed you.”
“I’m fucking specifying now,” he rasped, his lips pulling back in anger. “I drink from you directly, or the deal’s off.”
Sookie shivered. Cold? Fear? Excitement? She shook her head at the last one. “This one still counts.”
He didn’t back off. “Fine,” he rasped. “This was the first. But tomorrow night when I come for the second, you’ll give it to me willingly.” He moved closer. For a split second, she was sure he was going to kiss her again. Instead, his gaze dropped to her lips, but he only spoke. “No theatrics.”
Another flash, another gust of air, and suddenly Sookie was alone in her kitchen.
Still trembling, still awash with so many emotions that she didn’t know which ones to focus on, she turned off the lights and went to bed.
It was going to be a long night.