I’d made several forays into the real world after my little…vacation. Grocery store. Library. Jason’s house. Work. I even made a stop at Lafayette’s animal-printed love shack, just to say hi and have a pretty muted, depressing discussion about Tara’s unknown whereabouts. He complimented me on my healthy appearance (“Lookin’ hot, Sook.”) and asked me about my recent absence (“Where da fuck you been at?”). I answered him evasively, as I had with everyone else. It wasn’t important, not for them anyway. I just wanted to get back into my old life, even if that was an impossible hope. Routine would at least give me a sense of security, however papery. Everywhere I went, I felt the tight orbit of people’s eyes following me. Their mouths and heads whispered all kinds of garbage about me and my little Houdini act. Big surprise. And they smiled their tight, pained lips in my direction and said they were happy to see me back, usually with a backhanded edge to their concern. I smiled right back. Fuck them.
And then of course, was the other orbit of eyes. Further away from the townsfolk and glinting with far more understanding, the supernatural element of Bon Temps watched my every move. It took about three seconds to suss them. Friend and foe. Weres and vamps. Several humans with insider information. I kept my eyes forward. I didn’t need to look their way to know they were there. Most of them felt harmless, even the voids of the vamp minds, and that told me plenty. They were Eric’s. No question. They skulked in the forest around my house and beyond the reach of the parking lot lights at Merlotte’s. I stayed in my house after dark and got a ride to and from work, just to be safe, but there was a lack of malevolence in the air that led me to believe they were simply watching me.
Eric was watching me.
On the third night after my shift was over at midnight, I caught a ride with Arlene. She dropped me at the end of my street, asking hurriedly if I could walk the forty yards to my door so she could get home to her kids.
“Fine. Night!” I smiled, and jumped out. I didn’t want to, not in the least, but I couldn’t explain to her why. It was just easier to take the brief risk and hope Eric’s spies would double as body guards, should I be attacked by less friendly supes.
I shouldn’t have worried. My jog grew slower and slower as I approached my front porch. The light was on, as always. I found it comforting to come home to, like someone was waiting for me inside. But tonight, as the crickets chirped merrily in the grass around my house, that bare lightbulb also illuminated a guest on my porch swing. His long legs stretched out in front of him, that lazy, sexy slouch of his filling the seat. Dark jeans, black tank, black leather jacket, strange little talisman on a cord around his neck. I squinted and cursed silently. As he watched me slowly enter the light, I saw a traitor circling and rubbing around his ankles. So much for the loyalty of my new pet.
I came to a halt at the bottom of my own steps. We eyed each other evenly. The rage I had felt for this man for so long had drained from me during my time in the Fae world. So much had happened there, my anger at a lot of things had become too expensive for me to sustain. It was exhausting, hating Eric as vehemently as I had. So when he read nothing of it in my eyes, his own expression lost a fraction of its smugness. A fraction, mind you.
“Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood,” he greeted casually, tilting his head.
“Hey yourself.” I was tired. I sat on the steps, my back to the railing, my knees propped up in front of me, facing him. From the angle, he could easily see my legs all the way to where my shorts pulled against my ass. I didn’t give a damn.
But he didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he jerked his chin towards his feet. “Lovely animal. Very…affectionate.”
I blinked. “Thank you.”
“Does it have a name?”
Another pause, his this time. “He’s male.”
I blinked again. “Mittens.”
A dark chuckle. “His feet aren’t white.”
My arms crossed my knees. “Sweetie Pie.”
“There,” his finger danced with conviction. “A plausible lie. Better.”
I sighed. “Can I help you with something, Eric?”
He leaned forward, his forearms coming to rest on his knees. His long, pale fingers dangling between his knees. My secretly named kitty saw them and his eyes widened as he zeroed in on ten airborn targets. He rose to his hind feet and batted at them experimentally. Eric twitched them teasingly. The kitty quickly became over-excited and launched himself at his new toys, slicing and gripping those elegant digits in his furry clutches. Eric was oblivious, the thread-thin scratches healing instantaneously. I couldn’t help it, I smiled wanly.
“He likes you. I’ve never seen an animal – a real one – trust a vampire before.”
Eric smirked slightly, mostly in amusement. “Most won’t. Even domesticated animals are wary of us. They sense we are not human. This one is too young to understand the danger.”
I cocked my head. “Danger of what? It’s not like you drink animal blood. Why should they fear you?”
He smiled with a bit more warmth. “If you were swimming in the ocean and a killer whale began to circle you, would you be frightened?”
My mouth opened at the weird turn in conversation, but I closed it and considered his question. I thought of being in the middle of oceanic nowhere. No boat. No safety. I thought of that fifteen foot black-and-white creature, so beautiful, as it appeared out of the blue. Its unnervingly long dorsal fin parting the water as it circled me. Its size. Its power. Seals, its favorite meal, are so much bigger and stronger than me. I shivered internally.
“Why? There’s never been a recorded attack in the wild. Humans, theoretically, are perfectly safe around killer whales.”
My mind fixated on that fin. It cruised a complete circle around my mind. I shivered again. “It doesn’t matter. It’s a predator. Its interest in me makes me afraid.”
Eric’s fingers spasmed suddenly, causing the kitten to bolt under a nearby chair, his tail fluffed, frightened. Eric’s eyes didn’t leave mine. “It is always wise to fear a predator. Especially one that takes an interest in you.”
The wider meaning of his words weren’t lost on me. After all, a big, bad predator was sitting four feet away, his interest ever apparent. “Should I join my cat under the chair?”
His smile blazed. My eyes widened at the sight. So rarely did Eric ever smile that wide and mean it. “If you’re asking my preference, I would prefer if you ran.” I could see the lust for sex and hunting in his gaze, even in the dim. “Or if you fought.”
I chuckled tiredly and looked away from him, up into the stars above me. “Fight or flight, huh? I didn’t know survival instincts doubled as vampire foreplay.”
“With you, Sookie, there isn’t much I wouldn’t consider as foreplay.”
There was an aggressive sincerity to his words. It was easier to close my eyes and dive into my exhaustion than to deal with it. “You didn’t answer me before. What are you doing here?”
I heard him move. Sitting back again, I assumed. “Watching you.”
I snorted. “I gathered. And others, too. Why are you watching me?”
A pause. “You’re in danger.”
“Not your concern.”
Another pause. “I know.”
I cracked an eye and peeked at him. He had indeed sat back into his original high-and-mighty slouch. “So?”
His eyes did that weird, intensifying thing they did and his mouth went hard. The last time I’d seen this look, I’d pulled away from his kiss and broken the spell that had had us pawing each other like animals. My kitty had regained its bravery/stupidity and crept back under Eric’s feet. Given the little one’s behavior, maybe I should have named him Sookie.
Eric continued to stare. “The possibility of your death…provokes me.” He seemed to have trouble finding the words he wanted, like he was struggling in a language he didn’t speak fluently. Too bad I didn’t understand a lick of Old Norse. Maybe he could better explain in his mother tongue.
“My death would annoy a lot of people, including me. But you’re the only one worried enough about it to be sitting on my porch, Eric. I can only imagine you have better things to do with your time.”
“Perhaps I want more than to simply prevent your death.”
Oh, here we go. “I know, I know. I taste like rainbows and sunshine and children playing and angel’s singing and..”
I stopped. “What?”
In a flash, my bench was empty and a killer whale was suddenly in my face, beautiful and deadly and terribly interested in me. His chest was pushed into my shins as he leaned into me, his knuckles tracing softly along my cheek. I barely felt it, it was so light. Just like before. And his expression, flinty and longing, just like before. I didn’t move. Hell, I didn’t breathe. His eyes touched every inch of my face as he spoke. “I care not for such poetic nonsense. It is meaningless. I have only the memory of taste from my human days, and a thousand years ago in Sweden, the most delicious food available was honey.”
His fingertips grazed my lips. “When I tasted you, that is what I thought of.”
I smiled gently, remembering the countless times I’d cut myself and sucked the salty, metallic wound. “I think it’s been awhile since you’ve tasted honey then.”
With my lips pulled tighter against my smile, he audaciously let his finger slip to my inner lip. He inhaled sharply at the heat and the wet and the velvety smoothness. “Sweet. Warm. Rich. Thick. Perfection.”
I couldn’t help my whisper. “Then what does everyone else taste like?”
He seemed entranced by my face. Like he’d never touched anything so stunning. I couldn’t understand it. I was maybe in the top ten of women in a small small town. I was local pretty. Waitress pretty. To enthrall a man like Eric seemed preposterous. He could have anyone. Anyone. Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox and Julia Roberts and every looker in the past ten centuries before them. I held my breath again and waited.
He watched his finger slide against my blunt, human teeth. I let him. At length, he said, “After that day, they’ve tasted like oxidized copper.”
I grimaced. “That sounds disgusting.”
His eyes finally met mine. He seemed to see me now. “Yes.”
I swallowed. “All the more reason to assume you’re only here for blood.”
The stubborn set of his jaw, the one that used to drive me crazy, clenched resolutely. “If I were, I’d have taken it by now.”
My own jaw set. “Oh, but you’re smarter than that. Why force me once, when you can manipulate me indefinitely?”
“I am not Bill.”
“Bullshit,” I said tartly. “You just weren’t sent, that’s all. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the exact same thing if the Queen had sent you instead of Bill.”
Eric growled suddenly and his arms slammed into the railing on either side of my head. I kept my chin up and stared him square in the face, only two inches from mine. Fuck his scare tactics.
“I wish she had sent me,” he rumbled darkly, looking me up and down with animalistic desire. “To have been your first. To know your body as he does. To know your…” he stopped himself there, but his fangs dropped at the unsaid idea. I didn’t flinch. But so help me, his words were lighting fires in places I swore a vampire would never ignite again. I clenched my teeth.
We eye fought each other in silence for several seconds, me trapped between him and the rail. I refused to notice that all I had to do was part my knees and Eric’s hips would slot seamlessly between my thighs. I also refused to notice how when we were this close, I could see the elegant, slight curvature of his fangs against his other teeth. Bill’s fangs bore a straighter edge to them. Eric’s seemed create the tiniest heart shape as a pair. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to soften at this little detail.
Finally, we felt each other relax against each other, until a furry head popped between us and broke us completely with a plaintive mewl.
I exhaled softly. “Hush, sweetie.”
He butted Eric’s leather-clad arm. “Tell me his name.”
I shocked us both and tipped my forehead against his, closing my eyes, blocking him out while welcoming our connection. “Lord Fluffington.”
I sighed again. “Buster.”
Eric tipped his face closer and rubbed his nose against mine. Sweetly. He inhaled softly and purred as he took my scent. “Lover,” he crooned. “Tell me the name of your damn cat.”
Like I said, I was tired. I didn’t fight, not one single thing in that sentence.
“Eric. I named him Eric.”
I brushed a kiss into those deadly, heart-shaped fangs.