When I woke up an hour later, Eric was still very much with me, even though I was alone.
As I stretched out across his ridiculously comfy bed, I could feel the pulse of his mind, the pleasant burn of his bite on my thigh, and the ghost of his hips lunging between mine.
“Mmmm…” I purred out loud, stroking our bond with lazy approval. “Yummy.”
I know he couldn’t hear me, but he could damn well feel me, just as I felt him. I peppered him with my sense of feeling spoiled and fucked beyond anything proper and decent. He registered my wakefulness, and I smiled at the momentary break in his otherwise somber concentration as I ran my mental hands all over him. He was equal parts of pleasure and rebuke, allowing my fondling, but annoyed that I was distracting him. I laughed and shut it down. Fine. Killjoy.
I got up and took an excursion into his Narnia-esque closet, so chock full of clothes that a medieval forest full of fawns could easily have existed towards the back. There was one panel in particular that stood out. He’d shown it to me yesterday, a section he’d filled with size six women’s clothes. It was a square of bright and breezy in an ocean of black and gray. Sundresses, cute shorts, delicate tops, sandals and feminine sneakers. Dozens of everything, nothing darker than turquoise.
I clucked my tongue, totally thrown for a loop.
If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have said Eric Northman would have insisted on dressing me up like a vampy little doll, should he manage to get his hands on me. Black leather, red lace, garters and scandalous hems, lines that pushed up boobs and sucked in tummies. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting those fashions at Fangtasia. Just look at Pam. Her personal tastes might run towards the pastel to the downright tweenie, but in Eric’s presence, she was freakin’ Elvira.
I took a pair of jean shorts and a peach tank top off the shelves. The designers were way out of my price range, but the style was all me.
Eric. He’d gone and flabbergasted me again.
I quickly found an underwear drawer (I chose a sexy lace set) and got dressed. Looking at myself in a full-length mirror, it was clear that Eric didn’t want some S&M Barbie. He wanted me. He wanted to provide and care for me, not chip and mold me into into Pam’s bouncer persona. Remembering something, I did a quick scan of the hangers and inside the drawers. Sure enough. Eric had once said that he thought the color red suited me very well. I huffed in befuddlement. Aside from a few sets of underwear, there wasn’t a single stitch of red material anywhere in the trove. As much as he liked it, I didn’t wear it, so he hadn’t bought so much as a belt in that color.
I put on a pair of little white tennis shoes and made a decision.
Soon, in the very near future, I was going to go out and buy the slinkiest, sexiest, Chase-Me-Catch-Me-Fuck-Me red dress that Louisiana ever saw. I’d wear my slutty red lipstick and make damn sure all of it transferred to Eric by the end of that night. I’d buy red heels that doubled for ice picks. I’d choose underwear that turned my calculating vampire tycoon into a pawing, mauling mess of animal lust. If he thought he was going to surprise me with his kindness and wish for me to be myself, then he was in for a curveball of his own. Plans made, I sauntered into the bathroom and made sure I looked presentable before I wandered downstairs.
I dove back into his closet long enough to pick a dress and fresh undies for Hadley as well. She’d probably kill for a shower and clean clothes right about now.
I heard muted talking coming from the library as I walked down the dark hallway.
Hadley was speaking. Her voice sounded stronger than it had at the queen’s mansion. Tired, but stronger. I could feel Eric’s rapt attention on her as I opened the door, the dress and underwear folded up in my hand.
They turned in unison to my voice.
I caught a brief glimpse of Eric behind his desk before he was suddenly in front of me. He grabbed me, lifted me up and crushed my lips in a hard, claiming kiss. It wasn’t deep and it wasn’t slow. It was over before I had the chance to respond with anything more than a squeak of surprise. He pulled back, his face serious but his mind throbbing with the thrill of just seeing me. Eric Northman didn’t do anything half-assed, even hello kisses.
“Hi,” I whispered, feeling almost shy at such an eager reception.
“Hi,” he echoed, still clutching me to him.
I gave him an embarrassed smile and disentangled from his arms. Ladies didn’t grope their beaus in front of company. Eric slackened his hold, but didn’t release me.
“Did you already know?” he asked quietly.
I frowned. “Know what?”
He turned slightly and allowed us a sideways view of Hadley. She sat in one of his chairs opposite his desk. Alcide was right, she was skin and bones. Worse than that, the dark circles under her eyes and gauntness of her cheeks made my pretty cousin look almost skeletal. Given that she’d had a mouthful of vampire blood yesterday, her appearance was as baffling as it was sad.
Eric nudged his chin her way, then looked at me. “About Hunter. Did you know the child was also a telepath?”
My eyes rounded and I gazed at Hadley in wonder. Good gracious. She’d told him. She’d told a big, scary vampire about her delicious, mind-reading little boy. I sputtered, but answered. “Yes, I knew. Hadley asked me to talk to him. He’s got a lot of skill, even for a kid.”
Eric trapped my chin and returned my eyes to him. He wasn’t angry, but he wanted my attention. “And you said nothing to me?”
“Not a peep,” I answered honestly. “It’s not my secret to tell. Before yesterday, I thought Hadley had taken him into hiding. I had no reason to think you’d end up responsible for him.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re my bonded. You should have disclosed this to me, regardless of his status.”
“We’ve been together a week, babe. I’ve had other things on my mind. Plus,” I eyed him reprovingly, “You didn’t give me any warning before you claimed Hadley and Hunter. I suggest you pop the hood before you buy the car next time.”
Annoyed, but knowing a winning argument when he heard it, he let me go and wandered back to his desk. I went to Hadley and gave her an awkward, seated hug as I handed her the clothes.
“I’m glad you told him,” I said as I pulled back and stroked her hair.
She gave a watery smile and shrugged. “I’m so tired, Sook. I know I don’t deserve any sympathy. I made my bed. But,” she gestured weakly, “He’s just a baby. Social Services took him back to his daddy. There’s no one to protect him. And he’s just…well, he’s so much like you at that age. I’m terrified another vamp will come along and scoop him up.”
I bit my lips, giving her sympathy anyway.
Eric arched a brow, watching us behind tented fingers. “In what way is he like Sookie?”
I sighed knowingly. “She means he just repeats everything he hears,” I tapped my head, meaning everyone’s thoughts. “People are afraid of him. Probably think he’s a freak. Or worse.” I looked at Hadley to see if she agreed and missed the dark look of anger that passed over Eric’s face.
Hadley nodded. “Everything. What I’m thinking. What his daddy’s thinking. Bank tellers, grocery clerks, other kids at school. He just…” she gestured again, “…just anything. ‘Why do you hate your husband? What does blowjob mean? Why are you praying to God to kill gays? Why did your daddy hit your momma with a bat and say it was a car accident? Why why why?'”
I nodded throughout. God knows I’d heard it all, too.
Eric’s mood shifted. I blinked and focused on his mind. I couldn’t really tell how he was feeling. Something complicated and morose had just settled on him, but it was hard to pin down.
I looked at him. “What is it?”
He hadn’t moved a muscle. “This was your experience as well?”
“Sure. I didn’t know any better. It took me ages to realize other people couldn’t hear outside thoughts. Took me even longer to learn to block them out.”
Solace flooded me. I smiled at him as a thank-you. “It was a long time ago.”
His eyes flicked to Hadley. “Was the queen aware of his gift?”
She shook her head hard. “No. Hunter was a baby when I took up with her. By the time he could talk, I’d already seen her interest in my stories about Sookie. It frightened me, so I kept my mouth shut.”
“So you only sold out one family member, then.”
“Eric!” I rebuked sharply.
Hadley put her hand on my knee. “No, Sook. It’s fine. More than fine, it’s true.” She held her head up and looked at Eric squarely across the desk. “I was poor and desperate and stupid, Sheriff,” she accepted. “When Sophie Anne took me in, I had no understanding of the vampire world, or supes of any kind. And she was kind to me. She fed me nice food, never bit me by force, and she listened when I told her about my family.”
She dropped her head, then turned to me, aching to make herself understood. “You gotta believe me, Sook. I told her about my little family. Jason’s football days and endless girlfriends, how Gran’s pies had no equal in five counties, how sad we were as kids when your folks passed away. When I mentioned you, I never in a million years thought it was a big deal. I even think I was laughing when I told her how nobody could pull a fast one on you, cuz you’d know in a second if they were lyin’.”
I gave her a soft smile. It was true. I’d been an inside joke in Bon Temps for twenty years. There wasn’t a wife in town who hadn’t threatened their hubbys with me, if they suspected he was a cheatin’ dog.
“How ’bout if I drag you over to the Stackhouse girl?” they’d shout at their riled men. “Think she’ll say you’ve been playing cards all night? Or is she gonna say you’ve been with that whore CindyAnn?”
I put my hand over hers on my knee. “It doesn’t matter, sweetie,” I said sincerely. “God knows I’ve pulled a few boners with these vamps. The important thing is to figure out where we go from here.”
Eric rumbled in agreement. “Did the queen tell anyone else about Sookie’s Fae traits, pet?”
I scowled at his nickname, but he and Hadley ignored me as she shook her head. “Never. She was way too interested in Sookie for herself. Her closest adviser was Bill, and she didn’t give him any details. Just that she wanted more information.”
He mulled this over.
“Does anyone in Hunter’s family have ties in the supe community?”
She shook her head again. “Just me.”
He rumbled again. “Then his father and immediate kin are unaware of his value or what he is?”
She nodded, biting her lip in fear for her ‘valuable’ son. “They’ve got no clue. Just that he’s peculiar.”
Eric bared his blunt teeth in anger at the description. Knowing he was equating the word to me, I sent out a soft caress through our bond, calming him. Hadley was perfectly right. Hunter was peculiar. I was peculiar. The whole damn world had gone peculiar.
“So what now?” I appealed to his strategic nature.
He slouched further into his leather chair and considered. “What are your legal claims to the boy?”
Hadley sighed, ashamed. “One supervised visit every other week. After I pulled him out of daycare a few months ago, the court took away my weekends. That, plus no residence and no claimable income, they deemed me unfit to be alone with him.”
My heart ached for my kin. Stupid though she may have been in the past, she loved her son and understood better than anyone the danger he was in if the wrong people put two and two together. His yummy little bloodstream would be sold to the highest vampire bidder in a matter of hours.
Eric also knew this. I could feel the highly-oiled wheels of his mind scrolling quickly. At length, he spoke. “You work for me now. I will sort out some appropriate employment, but as of this evening, you’re is on my payroll. A house will be purchased in your name. You will live there and create a child-friendly environment, suitable for visits with your son. My lawyer will take over your case. He will petition for your rights to be reinstated and push for you to eventually gain sole custody.”
Hadley’s mouth fell open. As did mine.
“You…Sheriff, that’s too much. I couldn’t possibly repay you…”
Eric waved his hand to cut her off. “This is much larger than you, girl. I cannot allow a Fae relative of Sookie’s to be without protection. His exposure and capture would endanger her, as well.” He looked at her meaningfully. “The child knows of Sookie’s powers, does he not?”
Wide-eyed, Hadley nodded.
He dipped his chin. “Then you understand. The sooner I have him in my sphere, the better.”
“You won’t hurt him?”
Her quivering voice made his lip curl, insulted. “I do not desire your offspring, pet. I’m bound to Sookie. She is everything I want. Hunter’s blood has no appeal for me. What I want is containment. We will work with Hunter to make sure he is not a liability to himself or his aunt. Since you are mine, you will comply with my plan.”
I had turned several shades of pleased and jealous red as he spoke. Eric had just announced our bond to another person and it was thrilling to hear, but at the same time, he’d just claimed another woman in front of me. A claim of necessity as it may be, it still got my hackles up. I must have been emitting as much, because Eric’s amusement filtered back to me, his mind stroking and soothing me as he continued to eye Hadley with nothing but cold evaluation. I bit back my annoyance. His claim to her was nothing, just window-dressing to keep the Authority from ripping her head off. I needed to remember that.
Speaking of which. “What about the Authority?” I asked.
Eric’s eyes swept to mine. Their frost melted into warm lagoons. It was crazy how without even moving, he could change so drastically.
“I have written them with our story.” He reached over to his printer and plucked a piece of paper from the tray. He handed it to Hadley. “You will read what I’ve told them and memorize your part in it.” He leaned forward, catching her eyes in that icy glare again. “Be aware, I will glamor you this evening. There’s no point lying to them if they can just reach into your mind and take the truth.”
Hadley gasped. My chest tightened with fear and I opened my mouth to object, but stopped. What could I say? He was right, there was no point. I often forgot that everyone else had to worry about that little vamp trick. I guess that was one good thing we never had to worry about with Hunter. If he was like me, glamoring would never be an issue.
I squeezed her hand. “It’ll be okay,” I consoled her.
“Jesus,” she mumbled. “I guess. So,” she looked at Eric uncertainly. “You need to bite and glamor me before I talk to them?”
He barely nodded an inch.
She exhaled shakily. “When are they comin’?”
“I do not know. With the death of a monarch, I imagine we have little time. We will go to Fangtasia this evening. I assume they will show themselves there.”
She took another breath and rose from her chair. She seemed to notice for the first time that I’d handed her some fresh clothes.
“Mind if I shower first?” she asked him.
He gestured out the door. “Second floor, third door on the left. A guestroom has been readied for you. You’ll find a bathroom en suite.”
She nodded. I stood up and hugged her again. “This is gonna work,” I reassured her. “Nobody knows any of this except us. We’ve just gotta keep our heads together.”
Shivering against me, she pulled back and smiled brokenly. “I love you a million animal crackers, Sook.”
I smiled back at our old childhood game. “I love you a million Oreos, Had.”
With our silly devotion reaffirmed, she stepped back and headed out the door.
As usual, the third person was barely out of the room before Eric was beside me, his forbidding façade cast off, warmth and demand pouring from his eyes and fingertips as they traced my bare arms. I pushed him back until he was partially seated on his desk, then stood between his legs and just buried myself into his delightfully warm torso. God, I never realized how much I liked touching a warm man without the contact amplifying his thoughts. It had always been one or the other; warm man with thoughts or cold vampire with silence.
Eric was a blessed combination of the two. Warm, loving silence.
I sighed into his chest as he trapped me in his arms and rained kisses into my hair.
“God, what a mess,” I muttered into him.
His hands cupped my head, his fingers sliding and massaging along my scalp and oh, God did that feel good.
His mind shrugged indifferently. “It’s a problem. We’ll solve it.”
His t-shirt felt so soft under my cheek, I nuzzled into it, enjoying the sensation. A quiet purr rose from his ribcage and I chuckled.
“What?” he asked, the sound continuing even as he spoke. Interesting.
I stroked along the inverted triangle of his back. “You, that’s what. Whoever knew that Eric Northman could be such a cuddle bug?”
“Ridiculous term,” he dismissed out-of-hand. “Touching you pleases me. That’s all.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied dryly. “I’ve never seen any man leap out of his chair when his girl enters the room, never mind the scariest vampire this side of the Mississipp.”
“Perhaps you should watch your brass, lover, if I’m such a scary vamp.”
“Psht,” I giggled, snuggling even closer. “You love my brass. Teddybear.” I added for good measure.
There is was again. That ancient amusement of his – the one that no one else seemed able to rouse – danced through his mind.
I grinned into his shirt. A long time ago, Hugo had said that it was a real ego trip knowing that we were desired by something so powerful as an old vampire. While I agreed completely (hell, it was exhilarating being desired by such a formidable creature), I found it just as thrilling to know that I made Eric laugh. I mean, honestly. How many things were still funny after a thousand years? Slapstick and sarcasm and dirty sex jokes, surely they get boring and repetitive, no matter what century you’re currently trudging through. Listening to his rumble and his brain as they vibrated with humor, I gloried in the fact that as long as I smart-mouthed my scary vampire at every opportunity, he would always smile for me.
We continued to touch each other lazily, enjoying the brief moment of solitude before Hadley reappeared and the world butted in on us again.
“We have another matter to address,” Eric murmured against my ear.
Lost in him, I was considering pushing him farther onto the desk so I could straddle him. “Ugh,” I pulled a face. “Will it involve talking?”
I nipped along his throat and he tipped his head back in allowance. “Obviously.”
“Then no,” I denied flatly, straining up to nip his chin. “No deal.”
“It’s important,” he smirked and leaned into my mouth, enjoying my little bites and licks.
“So’s this,” I countered. I loved the sandy color of his facial hair as I rubbed my lips across it. Most men, even other blondes like Jason, had dark stubble. Everything about Eric was pale as snow. I dragged my teeth over it in appreciation.
“Tease,” he gruffed harshly, unable to stop his death by a thousand nibbles.
“Crybaby,” I retorted.
He cupped my face and dragged me out of his throat. Once back, he swooped in and launched his own offense, kissing and biting my lips in turn.
Aw, cute. He wanted a win.
I caved and gave it to him, going limp in his hands and soft against his mouth, returning his kiss like the sweet angel he seemed to think I was.
When he pulled away, he was wearing the Sookie Smile.
“You delight me,” he said simply.
I grinned back. “Back atcha.”
He turned his head to the side and jutted his chin. I followed it, seeing my tome on the corner of his desk. My face still trapped in his palms, I raised my brow. “Find anything interesting?”
He nodded, his hands slipping to my throat. “Sookie,” he rasped. “I need to know if it’s possible for you to summon your kin.” He pulled me close again, his lips unable to leave mine alone, even for thirty seconds. “I want some answers, lover.”