Keeping the plastic cone steady, Sookie was lost in concentration, pouring the massive bag of salt through the cone and into the tiny shakers. Over the years, she’d become a surgeon at this. There was a certain trick to handling the bag, fitting and moving the cone to twenty shakers in a four-by-five square, topping them at the perfect height, and spilling less than three grains in three minutes. She’d honed her timing and her accuracy, and was currently working on breaking two minutes, forty-five seconds. Everyone had their own personal Olympic bests. At Merlotte’s, she had several she was trying to beat, most of them having to do with refills.
Today however, this personal training kept her from thinking about tonight. After scrubbing her kitchen wall of dried fairy blood and furtively taking an iron supplement with breakfast, she’d pointedly embargoed all thoughts about what was going to happen when she got off work at eight. She wasn’t thinking about the dark drive home. She wasn’t thinking about who might be waiting for her when she walked through the front door. She wasn’t thinking about the little thrill of expectation at the idea of someone in her house, waiting for her, wanting her, grabbing her and growling softly the minute she stepped over the threshold. She wasn’t comparing that to the spark of a new relationship, the kind where the girl comes home to a man who’s been planning all day to rip her clothes off and take her right there against the front door, because it had been five whole hours and he couldn’t stand another minute of not fucking her silly.
Optimum salt height on shaker number fifteen came and went, choking around the cone’s neck and spilling a totally unacceptable half a teaspoon on the counter.
“Dammit,” she whispered softly, quickly moving the whole operation to shaker sixteen. But the whole salt-pouring drill was a bust. More than three grains lost was an automatic disqualification.
Her pretense broken, she was forced to deal with the thoughts that were responsible for her lapse.
Stupid freakin’ jerk asshole dead bastard Eric.
Everything was his fault.
Her distraction. Her nerves. Her tension. Her anger. Her disbelief that tonight and three other nights after were actually going to happen. All of it. His damn fault. What the hell was his problem, anyway? Why did he have to make this already-humiliating exchange so personal? Why did it matter if he took her blood directly, or just received it via FedEx in a nice decanter that she could fill up and send over to Fangtasia? He wouldn’t even have to leave work, he could just sip his Bloody Mary/Sookie while sitting at his stupid throne, looking over his adoring human hoard and basking in their breathless, fawning bullshit. She didn’t even need to be in the same city to fulfill their deal.
Shaker twenty finished. Time: three minutes, nine seconds. Pathetic.
Sookie set about screwing on their tops. Up next were the pepper shakers. Infinitely more tricky. Pepper was more misshapen and had more traction. It was an unpredictable pour. Her timing was all over the place.
Twenty empty shakers graced her next tray as she get up with the new bag. “We meet again,” she acknowledged her ground-up foe as she started her ritual all over again.
Eric had to go and fix her precious house. He had to go and buy her beautiful, Amish-style wardrobes that were actually stairwells to unwanted vampire grottoes (with a bed big enough for two, of course). He had to want more than she was offering. He had to scare her. He had to praise her with honesty while leering carnally. He had to make everything so hard when it could be simple. He had to push.
“Sonofabitch,” she muttered under her breath as pepper shaker eight met its quota.
“Miss Sookie Stackhouse?”
Sookie startled at the voice, looking up from her tray and slightly overfilling number eight. Dammit!
“Yes?” she answered automatically.
A man in a blue and gray uniform stood next to the bar where she was completing her prep. He held a thin envelope and an electronic pad in his hand. His ballcap had a pelican on it, and fell over a messy thatch of brown hair. He waited until the set she bag down. Dusting her hands, she reached for the envelope he was holding out to her.
“What’s this?” she asked, taking it and scanning her name and Merlotte’s address.
The man shrugged. “Pelican couriers,” he identified himself, not really heeding her question. “Sign here, please.” He held out the pad.
She took the wand and made a butchered copy of her name on the screen. He took it back and stepped back quickly. “Nice day,” he said by way of goodbye, and headed out the door.
Ripping open the back, Sookie fingered inside and pulled out a heavy piece of official card stock. It was certified and stamped. A property deed of ownership. Her breath caught in her throat as she scanned her home’s familiar address…right next to her name. Sole owner, Sookie Stackhouse.
A piece of white paper was paper-clipped to the corner.
As promised, your home restored to you. You were right. I was remiss not to think of your protection. Always know, your safety is paramount to me.
I look forward to tonight.
She expelled an exasperated breath. See? That shit right there. Why did he have to go and say stuff like that? What was wrong with just sending the deed? She only needed the paperwork, she didn’t need to know that he felt guilty about exposing her to vampire attacks, or that he worried about her, or that he was thinking about tonight just like she was. This could be so straight-forward. Like a tax return, or the arrangements she’d made when Gran had passed. Those things weren’t pleasant, but at least she didn’t have to invest anything personal in them. Now, a man was coming over tonight, intent on invading her personal space, touching her, drinking her, marking her up.
And she was going to invite him in and let it happen. She closed her eyes and willed her anxiety away.
“Missed how fucking sweet you are.”
Kisses instead of bites. Unwanted blood on her wall. A desperately wanted single drop on her finger. Blue eyes going blind and slipping closed, euphoric. Cool hands. Scratchy, angry voice.
Shivering, Sookie picked up the bag of pepper and continued where she’d left off. Eight o’clock loomed before her, tall as her sphinxlike date.
It didn’t happen quite as her illicit imagination had pictured.
As she got out of her car and walked up her brand new porch at eight-thirty, Sookie wasn’t ambushed and dragged inside her door, stripped and thrown up against the wall in a hurricane of passion by a horny, blonde boyfriend who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. In reality, she wasn’t even able to get her key into the lock before he rushed her. With her back to the driveway, she gasped as a blast of air and the hackles on her neck informed her that she was trapped between her home and her former landlord.
Without looking, prey can sense these things. The hunter’s size. His proximity. His intent. Without looking, she knew that all of these things were not in her favor. He was big. He was three inches away. And he was hungry.
She didn’t turn.
He didn’t touch.
Instead, she kept her hand on the lock, waiting for him to make the first move. Something. Anything. His arms folding around her. His hands tugging her backwards, not letting her cross the threshold without him. His lips sliding past her ponytail and into her ear, whispering.
Nothing. Not even the inevitable gust of breath or reflection of body heat. He had neither.
It broke the spell and she let out a shaky breath. “How long have you been waiting for me?”
She made herself turn the key as she spoke. “That was two hours ago. You knew I worked until eight.”
Opening the door, she made herself laugh. “Afraid I’d beat you home and not invite you back inside?”
Two hands grabbed her shoulders, stopping her from stepping in.
With that, she was turned around and pulled into a soft, cotton black hole. She craned upwards, catching the eye of a serious, yet amused vampire. Unable to stop herself, she smiled faintly. “I gave you my word that I wouldn’t.”
His light grip wasn’t forceful, but it wasn’t about to loosen, either. “I despise risks,” he answered in the scratchy, quiet rumble of his.
Sookie chuckled. And just like that, the ice was broken.
“Eric Northman, won’t you please-oh-please come inside my house?”
He cracked a smile. His reservedness disappeared and he released her, turning and bending to retrieve a zipped-up heated bag from the floor, like the type they delivered pizzas in, only not flat. When he stood straight again, Sookie was already halfway to the stairs, hanging her jacket on the bannister.
“What’s that?” she asked as she kicked off her shoes and stretched her toes.
Eric shouldered his way into the entryway, walking to her kitchen. “Your meal,” he answered simply. He set the bag on the table, then unzipped it. Fishing inside, he brought out a covered plate that instantly filled the room with a delectable smell.
Sookie inhaled with relish. “Hmmm…God, that smells good.” She walked over and peeked around his arm, watching him peel back the foil and arrange the plate. On it was a gorgeous cut of beef fillet and roasted vegetables. She could tell from the fancy china and artistic little butter flowers that it was from a restaurant that didn’t ordinarily do takeout.
She cocked her head, watching him. “Why are you feeding me?” she asked offhandedly.
His upper body swiveled, turning into her. Sookie wasn’t sure if she’d ever get used to watching such a tall, lean man move around her. His expression was unreadable, as always. “Because you’re feeding me. Do humans not eat around this hour?”
She snorted and went to the fridge to pour herself a glass a juice. “It’s called dinner time. And yes, yes we do.”
“Then it’s only rational that I make sure you’re properly nourished.” He paused and looked at her. “Does my choice please you?”
Sookie nibbled her lips. There it was again! This ancient, all-powerful creature so inexplicably concerned about her good opinion. She’d bet dollars to donuts that Eric had never fed a human, not even kings, nevermind a nobody from Nowheresville.
He stepped aside, gesturing to the table and chair, indicating that she sit. Her stomach gurgled softly at his offer. She’d been so preoccupied that she hadn’t eaten much lunch, just a stolen fry or two out of basket that Lafayette had set out for Holly. The meal Eric had brought was literally irresistible. And yet, she hesitated.
“It does please me,” she admitted, hoping to avoid a fight. “But I’d like to take care of business first. I’ll eat after.”
Eric’s eyes narrowed. “You’re tired. You’re hungry. Taking your blood before you’ve eaten will deplete you further. I won’t have you pass out in my arms.” His eyes flared briefly. “Not from hunger.”
Sookie rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. And to be honest, I don’t like eating in front of vampires. It’s…”
His brow went up questioningly.
She huffed and looked for the right words. “It’s…disconcerting. Like being naked in front of your pets. You have no idea what they’re thinking about when they watch you.”
His white teeth flashed and a chuckle reverberated in his chest. “I’ve never wanted to be a pet so badly in my life.”
“You know what I mean. I’d rather eat once you’ve left.”
“It’ll be cold by then.”
Sookie shrugged. “I can heat it up. It’s obviously quality. It’ll keep.”
Eric watched her through lowered lids, then relented. “As you wish. Just promise me you will eat. I forbid you to starve yourself out of pride, simply because the food is from me.”
Sookie snorted. “I managed to eat regularly just fine before you came along, Mister Ego. I doubt I’ll start wasting away now, hoping you’ll take notice.”
To her surprise, Eric also smirked in amusement.
Standing somewhat awkwardly, Sookie gestured to the living room. “So. What now? Did you want to…?” She leveled her eyes on the couch, wordlessly suggesting it.
His head slowly followed her line of sight before sliding back in her direction. Sookie silently cursed the way she felt naked and foolish in front of him. She kept her back straight and waited. He wanted to drink from her. The least he could do was proffer some ideas on the how.
He took a step towards her. “What was your preference with Bill?”
Another step. “When you fed Bill, what was your preferred position when he drank from you?”
Sookie blinked rapidly, unsure of how to answer. Eric was yet another step closer, quickly eroding the small space between them again. “I…” she stammered. “I don’t know. I didn’t feed Bill, not like that anyway.”
His head cocked, cool blue drilling into her with renewed curiosity. “Explain.”
Yes, she was definitely naked. Her Merlotte’s baby tee and black short shorts were just a disguise, fooling normal people. Eric had figured out a way to see right through them. He was devouring her. His dauntless interest nailed her right to the floor and kept her there as he examined every last detail, verbal or physical. She felt compelled to answer.
“Well,” she began helplessly. “I mean, I gave him my blood when he was injured. And he bit me during se-,” she cut off and looked away. “You know…during that. But…I mean…we didn’t have a schedule or anything. All of them just sorta happened.”
She was blocked in again. A black t-shirt was suddenly her whole world, filling every last molecule in front of her. A long, elegant finger reached out and tipped her chin up, bringing her eyes with it. She couldn’t read him as he stared down at her intently. There was definitely something there. Something surprised and ponderous. He obviously was taken aback by her admission, yet he didn’t want to betray any emotion.
When he spoke, the grit of his voice made her shiver. “He was a fool,” he murmured, spanning his fingers across her jaw. “A fool not to take open delight in you.”
Sookie’s eyes hardened. “He was kind. He was careful. He never took advantage of me.”
His other hand slid around her waist and pulled her against him. Sookie was too busy trying to win their staring contest to struggle.
Eric lowered. “You never understood your rarity with him. How wondrous you truly are. When a vampire drinks from you, he should revere you for being shown such favor.”
Sookie swallowed nervously. “He didn’t know what I was.”
“What you are is irrelevant,” he hissed softly. “From his first sip, he should have told you that You. Are. Magnificent.”
God have mercy, this was not how the evening was supposed to play out. She was supposed to feed him. He was supposed to leave. She was supposed to eat her nice dinner, take a nice, hot bath, then go to bed. She was certainly not supposed to be in Eric’s arms as he traced her face and called her rare, wondrous, magnificent. And she certainly wasn’t supposed to be allowing it. Nevermind halfway agreeing with him. After she’d found out from Russell and Lorena that her blood was the most spectacular ambrosia they’d ever had the luck to sample, yeah, she’d kinda thought that Bill should have been the first to tell her so. It had been horrible hearing them extol her delicious blood in such cold, calculating appraisal. How much more wonderful would it have been if Bill had held her tight and whispered that he’d never tasted such a delicacy as her, all those times she’d fed him. But no. She’d found out from creepy assholes. Once again, she’d felt naked, being paraded around in front of unfeeling eyes as they carved her up and drank her down.
It had been nauseating.
Only Eric had reserved his praise, drinking only enough to walk temporarily in the sun, and again when he needed human blood to heal afterwards. He’d had the class to tell her in private, last night, exactly how she tasted to him. And for the first time, the description hadn’t disgusted her. It had exhilarated her. Freedom and sunshine. That’s what Eric tasted in her.
Sookie closed her eyes. All of this was making her head hurt.
“So. How should we do this, then?”
Eric didn’t answer her. Instead, he merely took her hand and led her to the couch. He sat, settling deep into the cushions, the trunks of his thighs splaying out lazily as he got comfortable. Looking up at her, he tugged her hand.
Her eyes widened. “In your lap?”
“It’s easiest. I can monitor you better if we’re flush. You’ll feel no pain, I promise you.”
Sookie barked a laugh. “You’re kidding, right?”
He didn’t release her hand. “Trust me. I’ve fed tens of thousands of times. I will take care of you.”
Sookie saw his sincere expression, then diverted her eyes to the ceiling. Stop stalling, she berated herself. Just do it and get it over with.
Ignoring the hunger in his eyes, she stepped between his sprawled legs and sat backwards, sitting up. His thigh muscles were rigid under her. There was absolutely no give with her weight. She held still, straight as an arrow.
“Relax against me,” he instructed.
She shook her head. “Straighten up,” she countered. “I’m not lying back.”
Eric sighed with strained patience and sat up, pulling her deeper into his groin, but joining her at ninety degrees. “Stubborn girl,” he chided.
“Let’s just do this, okay?” she replied, determined not to give in to how…good he felt. He was fingering her ponytail, curling it around, sending pleasant little tugs into her scalp. His fingers traveled to her nape, teasing the soft little hairs. She could sense his mouth, so close to her ear.
Sookie took a deep breath. “Eric?”
His fingers paused.
“Please,” she murmured, looking over her shoulder at him. “I know it was a trap, but…can you be more…” she paused, “…gentle? Than you were the first time? With Russell?”
His fingers fell away.
Looking back into his stony face, Sookie suddenly felt small and helpless. She was willingly wrapped in a vampire’s embrace. She was at his mercy. Any gentleness he showed now was purely at his whim.
He moved again. His hands, so inquisitive, held her lightly, one on the side of her head and the other around her upper arm.
“I tasted your fear that day,” he said at last, his gaze flicking away from hers. “It was…upsetting. I do not like you in pain, Sookie.” He leaned forward, nuzzling just behind her ear. She knew he was searching for an artery, but the intimacy of the act caught her by surprise. She inhaled, startled by how warm and slippery it turned her belly. He found a spot. He kissed it chastely. “Let me show you how it can be.”
He opened his mouth over her and bit down tenderly. There was no pain. Only a slight pressure. Then warmth as her blood charged to the surface of her skin, running straight to him, as if it had missed him like crazy. It exploded into his mouth with all of the eagerness that she had refused to show him.
A moan escaped her lips. Her eyes fluttered. It was done. She was in Eric’s hands. In his mouth. In his throat. She let her head fall into her cradle of his hand, baring her neck, letting him show her that feeding a vampire could be every bit as pleasurable as fucking one. There were no interruptions. No kings to deceive. It was just them and the deal they’d struck.
She went limp against him.
Eric growled quietly, encouraging her. His fingers widened and coasted over her skin, stroking her as he took measured, controlled mouthfuls. He didn’t let a single drop escape. With her eyes still closed, Sookie couldn’t help but smile. Like her, Eric disliked the waste of spilling. She didn’t realize that she’d started leaning, her back finding the perfect resting place against his chest. He was better than a million massage chairs as he vibrated softly with his contentment, relaxing her tired muscles with that odd, but sweet vampire purr.
“Hmmmm,” she crooned. “Much better.”
And it was. So much better. In fact, not only was it nothing like his faux attack on her at Fangtasia, it was nothing like anything she’d ever experienced with Bill. Feeding Bill had always been a frenzy of urgency, either medicinal or in the throes of passion. Never had he pulled her close and sipped from her with slow, deliberate enjoyment. She guessed from his self-hating nature that feeding for feeding’s sake had no pleasure for him. He needed that extra push before he succumbed to that need.
His entire being was attuned to this. There was no shame in him. No hesitation. His pleasure was almost palpable. It filled the air just as sure as his rumblings did. And yet he wasn’t mindless with it. His fingers, playful and soft as they were on her throat, were gauging every minute detail of her pulse. He was holding her like a lover, not pinning her down like prey. His body, his concentration, were completely wrapped around her.
Sookie joined him, concentrating just as hard and slipping into a kind of meditative state. Hers wasn’t a loss of blood, merely a transfer. Still alive, it flowed happily into Eric, feeding his body and nourishing his soul. She could feel it. It worked its way into his chest, his arms, his legs. He was growing warm beneath her. She sighed softly, snuggling deeper, searching deeper. She didn’t say a word. None were needed.
It felt like hours, but after only ten minutes, Eric unsheathed his fangs from her throat. It broke their connection and Sookie jolted, instantly disliking the loss. Eric tightened his hold fractionally, like he feared she was jumping away from him. Gripping her, he began licking his bite, cleaning up every last morsel of the most erotic flavor he’d ever encountered. His lips moved over her nape, his nose in her hair.
“Want you,” he muttered unthinkingly. “So fucking much.”
Sookie blinked rapidly, tension reinflating her previously relaxed form. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t part of their deal, these feelings sparking through their connected skin.
“Heal me,” she asked, sitting up from her comfy recline. She paused and added, “Please.”
Eric tensed in response. He said nothing, but Sookie felt his irritation at the sudden change.
“Always,” he answered softly. He pricked his finger. He healed his mark. She was as clean and unblemished as when she’d first walked through the door.
Wrapping her hands around her upper arms, she rubbed herself briskly and stood up from his lap.
“It’s late,” she said. “I’m tired and I need to eat. Please,” she gestured to the door without looking at him. “Just go. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
A rough growl filled the room, low and sexy and totally unappreciated.
“You will not,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and turning her. She looked up. Strangely, his face was all business.
“What I’ve taken from you will need time to replenish,” he said coolly. “I’ll come back in two days.”
She nodded too quickly and looked away. “Fine. Sounds…fine. See you then.”
The familiar feel of his fingers tipping her jaw. She was forced to look up into unfathomable blue again. He drown her in his silence. It hurt to listen to.
Finally, before he turned away and zipped out into the night before she could see him, Sookie heard his parting word.