While Eric and Alcide were outside talkin’ man business, I entertained myself by torturing Hadley via text messages. The last week had made me cautiously optimistic. The Authority, as far as I could tell, had really forgotten all about her once Eric agreed to take her on as part of his “royal” retinue. I hoped the former queen’s peculiar interest in her had been chalked up to a stupid woman’s stupid fancy, and that was it. No one had suggested Hadley was special outside of her pet status. And mercifully, Hunter seemed to go unnoticed altogether. Hadley had not had custody of him the entire time she’d been a pet, and she’d had the two brain cells needed to keep her mouth shut about him, so our fears about vampires uncovering their (our) yumminess was slowly beginning to fade.
But someone else’s interest in her made me smile like a fool.
I heard his mental, growly appraisal of her every time they were together, just like I heard her fluttering, insecure admiration of his kindness/handsomeness/unfairly distracting ass. According to Hadley’s brain, she’d never seen a man boss a pair of jeans around like Alcide could. (I disagreed, but to each her hunky own.)
And right now, she was front of house, sayin’ her goodnights to other staff and nervously waiting for said hunky guard to pick her up and take her home, as he had every night for the past week. She’d given some very weak objections to the hiring of a guard to follow her around everywhere. She honestly felt, even with the dangers posed to Hunter, that she just wasn’t worth the hassle. I hadn’t told her about the other werewolf (whom I hadn’t met) that was distantly following Hunter. Alcide swore by her, and I did feel better knowing the little boy had protection. I’d kept it to myself because I didn’t want to worry Hadley. She’d been through a lot, and she hadn’t had Gran or anyone else to help her through it. Finally, she was trying to put herself right, and I wasn’t about to turn my back or add to her troubles by pointing out everything that could go horribly wrong.
Instead, I chose to tease her. Alcide was the perfect vehicle.
And right now, she was feeling especially twitterpated as she kept checking her watch and wondering silently if she reeked of booze instead of the nice perfume she wore, knowing weres were big scenters and hoping he liked her choice. I couldn’t resist. I took out my phone.
He’s here. Have you started wearing your sexy underpants yet? -S
I sent it. Four second later, Hadley swore at me through the wall. “Shut up!” Then wrote back.
Shut up! He’s a nice guy, that’s all. Keep your nose on your face and outta my biznuz. -H
Your sex biznuz. -S
You’re lucky I love Eric so much. Otherwise I’d smacka bitch. -H
Get your love off my man. Smooch the wolf instead. -S
Forget it. Ima smack you good. Get out here and take it like a man. -H
Save it for Alcide’s ass. You stare at it so hard that you can prolly read his credit cards. -S
You suck. -H
He hopes you do. -S
There was a thirty second pause and I couldn’t help but giggle.
Does he really? -H
Suddenly you’re so interested. -S
So does he? -H
He tries not to, but yeah. He alternates between wanting to wrap you up in fluffy blankets and hot cocoa to wanting to…ya know. -S
There was another, slightly longer pause.
He doesn’t act like it. -H
Jeez, Had. Because he’s not an asshole. -S
I snuck a peek into her head and saw genuine surprise at his interest. I supposed it made sense. Hadley had never gone for nice guys before. She’d always leaned towards men who hid their own insecurity by being selfish, running around on her, then running off entirely when things got too serious. And there was the queen. Hadley thought Sophie Anne had been good to her, but by that, she thought that any lover who didn’t beat on her or get her pregnant was a sweetheart. Who knows? Maybe the vampire had been good to her, like Eric was to me. I could call her a bitch and every other name under the sun, but again, I’d called Eric those same names not two months ago.
I guess everyone’s relative.
I tried to be understanding. That, and a little bit pushy, gently prodding her towards a man I knew to be good. I was already excited for him to meet Hunter. I’d only met the little guy once, but he was cute a bug’s ear and I knew Alcide well enough to know he wouldn’t just throw himself on a grenade to save him, he’d also play with him. Talk to him. Let Hunter read his mind and reinforce that being different was no big deal. It made me happy, knowing Hunter would have a positive supernatural role model. A strong, successful, kind man who happened to be a monster, according to western myth. Hunter needed to see that lie exposed.
I already had visions of them as a family. Hunter, scared of the boogyman under his bed, would run to his parents’ room and into the arms of a werewolf for comfort. It was so cute, I almost needed a tissue.
Suddenly Eric’s side of our bond pinged and my ears perked, knowing he was coming for me and moving fast.
I popped my phone into my pocket and gripped my purse.
A tornado whipped into the office and I could only shriek with laughter when it caught me and blew out two sets of doors and into the predawn sky.
“Bad man!” I shouted over the whip. “What about the car?”
“Forget it!” he shouted back. “I want my sunrise!”
Naturally. Eric was getting as bad as I was about his sun addiction. It was so unfair to think that he’d never have to worry about skin cancer.
I drew a breath when I remembered that I wouldn’t have to either from now on. At least, I didn’t think so. It seemed unlikely that my Fae immortality could be trumped by cancer. Or heart disease. Or any kind of illness. I had never been sick a day in my life, really. Not even a sniffle or a single chicken pock, and that was before my Choosing Eric had frozen me in the state I was in now. Trauma was still an issue, but medically speaking? I was pretty sure I could lie in the sun for fifteen hours straight and only suffer a darker tan.
Eric was moving fast.
In midair, the sun exploded in the east, raining bright light over my right shoulder, which told me we were heading north, far out of town.
I peeked up and looked at him. Eyes slanted against the headwind, he was trained on his course, too intent to notice.
I reached up and took his chin between my fingers, tugging his face to meet the sun. Golden light spilled over his face, into his hair, filled his bright blue eyes and made them sparkle. I had always thought that Eric was a stunningly handsome man, but the darkness had never done him justice. In the night, he had the faint glow of a very pretty opal. In the day, he glittered like a diamond.
His gaze warmed as he acknowledged the sun and he slowed down to enjoy the view as it hovered on the horizon. When he looked down at me, his brow creased.
“You’re looking at me strangely,” he said.
“Am I?” I gently traced his outer eye.
He paused and readjusted, hiking my legs more firmly around his waist. “Yes. What are you thinking about?”
I glanced at the sun, then back to him. “Nothing you don’t hear a thousand times a day. You’re a heartbreaker. Beautiful as the day is long.”
Aside from his eyes widening slightly, he didn’t react. He never did, it seemed. I sighed and looked back at the sunrise. It was the first we’d shared while hovering. Snuggling closer to him, I wasn’t bothered in the least that he stayed quiet. That was his way. I’d learned over the past few weeks that my compliments turned him very serious, almost like he didn’t quite believe me and was waiting for a caveat or for the bond to tell him that I was merely being polite.
There was no caveat. And I sure as hell wasn’t being nice. I was being honest. It was so odd that he questioned my sincerity when every human he’d ever met had told him the same. He was so perfect, it hurt to look at him.
“There are other beautiful vampires,” he said finally. “Of all descriptions.”
I shrugged against his cheek. “Good for them.”
“Do you believe…if you’d never met me…that perhaps you would have Chosen another?”
I looked at him, puzzled. “No,” I answered. “After being with Bill, if I’d never known you, I doubt I would have ever went looking for another vampire.”
“You can’t hear us. Surely that’s a good reason to consider another mate from our kind.”
My frown deepened. “Maybe. Where’s this coming from?”
I couldn’t feel much of anything in our bond. No jealousy or insecurity. Just… a kind of distant curiosity.
When he spoke, he was looking towards the sun with yearning etched in his face. “Nowhere. Just a hypothetical.”
I nibbled my lip, determined to tease him as much as I had Hadley. “There are other fairies, too. Purer than me and ten times prettier. If one of them had come to your bar instead of me, would you have bonded to her?”
His neck snapped his head back to me so sharply that I feared it might have broken. “Never.”
“For a vampire, the expression ‘Never say never’ couldn’t be more true.”
“I said never. No woman is the world can match you.”
“Pashaw,” I laughed lightly. “I can think of three in Bon Temps alone.”
Baring his teeth, he shook me. My laughter broke. His arms were around my back and he jostled me just hard enough to make me stop. “These women, do they have your eyes?” he asked sternly. “Do they have your fearlessness? Your loyalty? Would they come to my bar and ignore me? Would they have spurned me until I learned how to win them fairly? Or could I simply glamour them into baring their necks and their bodies to me? Could they possibly make me love them? Make me want them until I couldn’t think of anything else?”
He all but spat over his shoulder and I watched him with wide, incredulous eyes.
“No,” he answered himself, snaking his arms tighter, holding me by the nape. “There are not three in Bon Temps. There are not three on this continent. There isn’t a single creature in existence. It’s you. And only you. More astonishing and beautiful than the sum of your parts. Nothing less could have captured me, Sookie. Nothing.”
I tried not to go all mushy. I also tried not to get mad. “And you think you’re any different for me? That you’re just a pretty face and a quiet mind?” I tsked him, shaking my head slowly. “I’m not going to spend the whole day listing all the things I love about you. But believe me, they range from your courage to your clothes to the shape of your damn fingernails. Every tiny little thing. I couldn’t have picked a better man for myself if I’d been given the power to build him from scratch. You’re even better than that, because you’re not just exactly what I want, you’re exacty what I need.”
I waited a tick before I shook him back. “Okay?”
“Your words. They astound me,” he said.
I laughed again. Harder and with more happiness than before. “Lord knows why. Like I said, you must hear them all the time.”
“Not like yours.”
I shook my head again, smiling, but not really understanding. I was happy that my praise meant so much to him, but I was no poet.
The sun was completely out now, dazzling us with its brilliant light.
“Good morning, Eric,” I whispered to him.
“Good morning, Sookie.”
“So where are you taking me?”
At that, he began moving again. “I have a gift for you.”
I flicked his ear. “What did I say about giving me stuff?”
He actually bit my ear in retaliation. “I believe you said you were a material girl and that if I didn’t shower you with furs and sports cars and tiaras, you’d leave me.”
“Verbatim. But you could deliver all of that stuff to the house. Where are we going?”
He cracked a grin. “Not the house.”
In fact, it was a lake. Caddo Lake, to be exact. I’d never been there, even though is was only about fifteen miles out of Shreveport. People had always told me it was beautiful. A national park, full of wetlands that looked positively primordial. Cypress trees and Spanish moss and low, lazy water that hadn’t circulated in months. It teemed with scaly, leathery animals, fit for gliding and swimming and slithering. Beautiful, but as an ecosystem, it was distictly unwelcome to humans with their lack of fins and clumsy limbs. Because of that and its park status, buildup around the shore was minimal.
But Eric, as always, had seen an opportunity.
As we drew closer to the swamp forests and further away from civilization, I could just make out a roof poking out between the branches of a particularly dense cluster of trees.
“There,” he said, and honed towards it.
“What is it?”
We drew closer, lower, until I finally could see its entirety. It was a beautiful stilt house, standing in clear defiance of its sludge foundation. There were no roads, no fancy landing strip. This house had been built for boat access only, with the clear intent to get away from the whole world. I gave a startled exhalation as we landed on a deck of very expensive heart wood.
“Who lives here?” I asked, looking through glass walls, which seemed to wrap around the entire exterior.
“Us,” he anwered. “When we feel like it.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring with exactly two keys on it. “My home in Shreveport is known by others. Our royal residence is not yet complete. I discovered this while looking for a safe house several years ago and glamoured the owner into selling it to me. It was mine. Now it’s yours.”
“Eric! You stole it!” I slapped his head.
“I paid him handsomely for it, then planted the suggestion that he was tired of the mosquitoes.”
“Thief thief! Lord, I can’t believe you sometimes.” I looked at the keys dangling from his fingers and cursed under my breath as he noted my excitement under my lecture. I made a sheepish noise and walked up to press my face against the glass, looking into a gorgeous living room, complete with a huge fireplace, leather sofas, woven rugs, even a stuffed moose head on the wall. It was very rustic chic.
“So who was he? The owner.”
“A horror writer. He came here to sequester himself when working. The sound of the aligators frightened him. He wrote his best novels when scared himself.”
“Anybody I’d know?”
He gave me an infuriating look, like he knew but wasn’t telling. “I imagine so. The New York Times Bestseller List is always up his ass looking for its next number one.”
I crinkled my nose, looking at the fancy slate tiles in the open kitchen. “He didn’t unload these ass gems in this house, did he? I don’t want to find writer plops on my nice, new floor.”
“All ass plops have been removed and sent to his publisher, I assure you.”
I turned from the house and leaned into his arms, giggling.
“Does it please you?” he asked, smirking.
“It’s lovely. Not exactly Fort Knox, but I love it.”
“Its strength is in its isolation. And its windows. A vampire would never rest in such a sunny, vulnerable place. Its the last place anyone would look for me.”
I cocked my head. “Why the heck did you buy it before? You would have cooked in there!”
“The bedroom is light proof. And I’ve never used this place before now. It was merely an option.”
I reached out and took the key from his hand. “I should make you give it back to the writer,” I slid the key into the sliding door’s lock. “He obviously put a lot of work into this house.”
I slid the door open and was greeted with the smell of cedar. I inhaled deeply, smiling despite myself. Sunlight poured over every surface as I walked straight to the kitchen and opened a container on the counter marked ‘Coffee’. It was filled to the brim. I arched my brow at him.
He shrugged as he shouldered his way in and slid the door closed behind him, locking it immediately. “I might have had Pam stock it with food.”
I filled the coffee maker, grinning at him. “You’re awful. Stealing. Delegating.”
“I paid the man well and it took Pam an hour to stock. She’s been tasked with worse.”
Coffee maker simmering, I wandered into the living room, where Eric was already starting to make a fire in the harth. As I settled into camel back sofa, I watched his wide shoulders as they sawed back and forth with his chore.
“Thank you,” I said. “I won’t accept it as mine, but I love that you’ve brought me here. I feel like we’re a million miles from anyone.”
Arranging the wood into a tidy pyramid, Eric struck a match on his boot and threw it at the base. The flame hesitated, dimmed, then began to grow.
“It’s yours if I have to glue the keys in your hand. And we have matters to discuss.”
I settled back. This sounded like I needed to get comfortable. “What’d Alcide say?”
A burst of speed and suddenly Eric was sprawled on the couch with me, his head in my lap. “He has a hard-on for your cousin. And someone has been following them for the last few days.”
“Shit. Does he know who it is?”
“No, but he described her. It sounds like Claudine is watching them. A fairy woman, at the very least.”
“How does he know about fairies?” I asked.
“He doesn’t. But she’s beautiful and smells like an orgasm. He knows enough to know she’s like you.”
I looked down and saw my hand was already in his hair, absently combing back and forth. “What do you think she wants?”
He was quiet for a moment, his blue eyes going slowly blind with pleasure. “I’m not sure. I’ve given him permission to take whatever precautions he deems necessary.”
I blew out a breath. “If it’s Claudine, then I’m not too worried. I’m pretty sure she’s not dangerous.”
“Why are you sure?”
“I’m not 100%, but I doubt she’d reveal herself to me and treat me like an equal, only to turn around and stalk my cousin.”
He settled deeper into my thighs. “Fair enough. But it may not even be Claudine. I’m preparing for the worst.”
“I appreciate that.”
We sat quietly for a moment. The fire built up slowly until it was crackling happily, cutting through the chill of the early dawn and warming the houses many hard surfaces. Through the invisible walls, we could see in every direction, the wetlands slowly coming to life with birds calls. I could feel myself growing drowsy. I really was turning into a vampire’s companion. The sun made me think of turning in instead of getting up.
“Speaking of Claudine, we need to think about meeting Mab,” I said, yawning.
“Yes,” he said. He didn’t elaborate.
My eyes were drooping. “Really should.”
I could just make out his face in my lap. His eyes were closed. He was drifting away.
“Eric. We should… talk…”
I don’t remember what happened next. We must have fallen asleep. All I know is that when I woke up, we were still in a forest, except it was golden and unworldly in beauty.
And I smelled cookies.
In my lap, my vampire continued to rest. The Fae realm shimmered all around us. Suddenly a pop sounded. And another. And another. Until we were completely surrounded by fairies. They stood around us, looking down with quizzical glances and me and more fearful stares at Eric. The last pop signalled Mab’s arrival. She stood directly in front of us, her cold eyes taking us in as we lay curled in our sleeping position.
Eric and I had been summoned at last.