After spending a much-needed evening making love, Eric and I had spent the morning and midday fast asleep, tangled up in each other with a cool breeze filtering through the window I broke. (I hoped Eric proved handy, as I didn’t think the glass people made housecalls in Mudville, USA.) When we woke, his mood seemed to have improved dramatically. My massage had taken a very surprising turn, when watching my own fingers, I saw little bolts of Light flare up and transfer into Eric’s skin. Moaning gratefully, he’d been none the wiser that his rubdown was a bit more sparkly than ordinary. Smiling to myself, I kept silent. I didn’t think he’d appreciate my informing him that his vampiric skin “sparkled.”
Once he deemed it safe, he flew us back into Shreveport. He wanted us in wardrobe when the curtain went up.
And now it was barely nine o’clock at night, and Fangtasia’s crowd was thin and mostly breathing, but already, we had our first guest show up. Jessica, far from the fair and perky teen I’d known not one month ago, sat alone at one of the tables near the stage. Pale even at her healthiest, she now looked ghastly. Her normally shiny red hair hung lifelessly around her shoulders and looked as lackluster and sickly as old, caked blood. Her eyes were rimmed from too little rest and too many bloody tears. She was dressed in plain jeans, a ragged hoodie and a pair of Converse that had seen better days. She was hunched over, her arms folded up between her thighs, her head nearly touching the table. A Tru Blood sat untouched in front of her. I imagined that dozens of bottles had been wasted in the same manner, Sam heating one after the other, insisting she eat, and getting nothing but a twenty-dollar loss a pop.
A sad, dead orphan.
Occassionaly, she would look up at Eric’s empty throne. He hadn’t made an appearance yet, nor did he ever until both clock hands were out of the big numbers and into the little ones. The folks didn’t come for an over-eager host. They came for a tiger who entered and exited the public part of the enclosure whenever he fuckin’ felt like it. Maybe he’d sit on his perch and give them a thrill. Maybe he’d charge the fence just to watch them jump. Maybe they’d leave the zoo without a sighting, but dang wasn’t it exciting to think he might be in the back eating a gazelle?
I rolled my eyes.
People were idiots.
But Jessica wasn’t. She simply had nowhere else to be. So she waited.
I watched from the portal window of the backroom, standing on my tip toes. Suddenly there was a wall at my back, one that didn’t need to stand on tiptoe to see over my head.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I didn’t turn around. “Feeling guilty. You really shouldn’t keep her waiting, baby. It’s cruel. Nobody cares if you cut her some slack and grant an early audience. Just look at her,” I pressed my fingers into the glass, “She’s broken.”
“No,” he spoke kindly. “If she were broken, she’d be dead. Children truly damaged by their maker’s end simply refuse to go on. They pick fights with stronger opponents. They stop eating all together. They glamor a human to stake them. The strongest walk into the sun and stay there. Jessica mourns, but she’s fighting. I see it. She will heal eventually.”
I couldn’t believe we were looking at the same person. “Fighting? She looks as limp as sour milk in a wig.”
“Give her time. She’ll curdle into a very strong cheese.”
I snorted. Turning to him, I was momentarily sidetracked by my pretty, pretty tiger. Black leather pants, finished off with a thick, rough belt and aged silver buckle that looked more like an S&M prop than an accessory. I’d have to fortify myself against all female customers imagining him slowly drawing it out of his belt loops, wrapping it around his knuckles, or halving it into a whip. Or just popping it open and demanding they suck him back to life.
Too bad. He wasn’t a hitter (of lovers) and the eternal hope of sucking him back to life was MY job.
His black wife beater topped the outfit, his talisman visible with the low neckline. His hair was slicked back. Overall, it was a severe, unforgiving look.
My costume, however, was downright baffling.
I’d stood in his office just before opening, holding my arms out wide. “Pick your poison,” I said, offering myself. “Leather? Spikes? Safety pins? Enough kohl to make me blind? Go on and doll me up Fangtasia-style.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. I’d managed to find another pair of shapeless sweats at the house, which I’d thrown on before putting my hair up in a ponytail. I looked plain as Jane and was completely open to being transformed in my vampire king’s image. He had insisted I sit with him tonight by his throne, which was a first since we’d bonded. I hadn’t been up there with him since the very first night we’d met. For the last few weeks, when he brought me to work, I stayed in the back, helping him with admin and sitting in on his private meetings. I wasn’t part of the zoo.
But tonight, I would be. So I prepared myself to play the part.
After what seemed like a really long time, Eric finally turned to the endless piles of boxes he kept of new clothes for me (Why not just put them on a rack?) and carefully selected a rather plain brown one. I took it from him, rather surprised that Gothic clothing would come in such drab wrapping, but once I opened it, I looked up at him with a frown.
“I don’t understand.”
He had already settled behind his desk, typing furiously on his keyboard. He looked up momentarily at the open box in my lap. “You don’t approve?”
I looked back down at the lovely coral pink dress. It had the same fun, girly lines to it that many of my sundresses had, though this dress was meant for fancier outtings. The bodice was an intricate braid of silky material, cut snugly along the bust. Strapless. The skirt had an A line, landing just at my knees. The cut was clever, and slackened just under my boobs, obscuring the true shape of my belly. Under the dress were white plastic bangles for my wrists and a headband that was the same shade of pink. I didn’t see shoes, but he always had a pair for me, so I wasn’t worried about going pregnant and barefoot.
In this getup, I wouldn’t look like a vampire companion. I’d look like me.
“Is this really what you want me to wear?”
He leaned back from his desk, giving me his full attention. “Would you prefer leather and spikes? I didn’t buy any for you, but we can raid Pam’s office if that’s what you’d rather.”
I ran my hands over the delicate weave as it tracked between the breasts and down the lower abdomen. It was, without a doubt, a beautiful, happy dress. “This is exactly what I’d choose if you gave me all the dresses in the world to pick from. But that’s not the point. We’re on display. And right now, we look like Gomez Addams and I Dream of Jeannie.” I gave him a playful quirk of my brow. “I’m pretty sure this violates your branding.”
Cool blue appraised me. He’d said simply. “Fuck it.”
And that was that. And now here I stood. Pink from head to peep toe, looking as fresh as strawberry cream. In a bar full of sore thumbs, I was the brightest of them all.
But the public viewing of the king and his bubblegum consort would come later. Right now, I just wanted him to help my friend.
He gave it a moment’s thought, then relented. “Pam,” he spoke in a low voice to the vampire at the other end of the room. “Bring the girl. Be gentle.”
Pam, who’d been admiring her nails while working the door, turned towards his voice, then walked across the room to Jessica’s table. Jessica raised her head again as Pam said something to her.
“Should I leave you two alone?” I asked without looking at him. “I don’t want to intrude on her pain.”
“No,” he answered. “You’re my consort. You stay for all business unless a superior vampire is present and asks you to leave. The girl is inconsequential.”
I turned and gave him a disapproving look.
He saw it. “The girl,” he amended slowly, “is unaffiliated with politics.”
In the bar, Pam was gesturing (gently) to us behind the door. Jessica nodded with jittery little jerks of her head, wiping her cheeks and standing up. She made a hurried attempt to smooth her plain clothing, seeming to realize that she hadn’t dressed to be received by a king. Pam watched impassively, then said something which I’m sure sounded like, “Eric doesn’t give a fuck about your outfit, sweetheart. He gives a fuck about moving your ass when he summons you.”
For Pam, being gentle meant she used ‘fuck’ no more than twice in one scolding.
Jessica nodded again, dropping her hands too quickly, then shuffled her way towards us.
Eric took my hand. “Come. Sit by my side. Offer condolence only if she breaks down. Don’t speak of Bill unless she asks you. Yes?”
I took his advice on board as we made our way into his office. I took my new chair next to his behind his desk, crossing my ankles and sitting up straight. I tried to look official and kind in the same expression as a small knock hit the door.
“Enter,” Eric called.
Jessica opened the door and I instantly hated that I was part of this talk. Up close, she looked even worse. At least corpses were relaxed and inanimate, no matter how they met their end. Jessica looked tortured and dead at the same time. The worst possible combination of the two. She looked plaintively at Eric, and made no move to walk further into his office once the door closed behind her. Her fear of this man, her king and her sire’s hated enemy, was palpable.
I reached to Eric and silently begged him to be good to her.
I know he felt it, but he gave no outward sign.
Instead, he gestured to the chair in front of his desk. “Jessica. Sit.”
Staring at him like he had a gun on her, she obeyed, lowering herself into the seat, her posture so stiff it looked painful.
“Eric,” she acknowledged, then started and quickly made to rise from the chair. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to call you. Do I bow first? I wasn’t taught how to greet a king, so do I call you something differ-?”
He raised his hand in the air and cut her off. “Eric is fine. Sitting is fine. Other monarchs will demand for formality, but I do not.” He paused until she timidly put herself back into the chair. “Not from friends, anyway.”
I let out a tiny breath of relief and hugged our bond gratefully.
Over the next half hour, Eric patiently explained our version of events. The queen. Bill’s admirable, but politically incorrect choice to stay with her. My cousin and her decision to stop her at all costs. Eric’s and my limited involvement in the whole affair. Hadley coming to Eric after torching everyone else. Jessica listened quietly, her eyes focused on the rug. She’d ask a question now and then, but mostly she just seemed to slouch with each passing minute, the weight of closure bending her in half.
Neither vampire looked at me. I was more than happy to be ignored.
When she’d heard it all, she finally looked up. “Hadley killed Bill? And you took her in?”
I stiffened. We were entering tricky territory now. Eric’s eyes turned decidedly chilly. “Yes.”
“After what she did to one of us? One of your own subjects?”
“Hadley saved us from a red nightmare that would have resulted in many more true deaths. Bill would have been executed the minute the Authority found her nest. Either way, your maker was screwed. Hadley’s intervention was a godsend and you will quash any infantile notions of revenge you plan on taking. Hadley is mine. Touch her and I’ll kill you myself after I hunt you for sport.”
Jessica immediately cowered, drawing her legs up, as if lava were inching toward the chair legs. Hiding her face behind the curtain of her hair, she muttered, “I wasn’t plannin’ to hurt her. I’m just angry is all. And… sad, I guess. I’ve lost my second father, and the better of the two at that.”
I felt something in Eric shift dramatically. Again, not that anyone other than me would ever guess. “You’re entitled,” he allowed softly. “Losing a maker is a pain unlike any other. Feel angry. Feel sad. But do nothing.”
She sniffed. I saw the beginnings of red tears in the rims of her eyes. “Yessir.”
An air of settlement came over us as Eric sat more comfortably in his seat, signalling that the unpleasantries were now over. He gauged her for a moment before continuing. “What do you want, Jessica Hamby?”
She drew her brows together. “Sir?”
“Want. What do you want? You’re currently haunting your maker’s antebellum shack and working in a grease fire waiting to happen. Are these the dreams you’d hoped to realize?”
She scoffed. “My dreams consisted of getting out from under my parents’ roof. Since then, I’ve just been happy to be free.”
“Your boredom will soon overtake your joy. You need a long-term plan. So, what would you like to do with yourself?”
She wet her lips nervously. Eric noted her fear to answer him. “Speak candidly,” he said.
“Well, sir. My freedom and immortality won’t pay the bills on their own. I have no money. No education. No home outside of Bill’s, and I don’t even know what’s going to happen to that property, now that he’s gone. Living under his floorboards and working at Sam’s is about all I can do. For now.”
I looked at Eric. He seemed amused by her words. “You haven’t considered glamoring a rich human for money and shelter?”
Her pale eyes widened. She shook her head hard. “I’m a good girl, sir. I stole a plastic watch from a Walmart when I was six, but that was it. God punishes the greedy and the thieves. I’ll make my own way. I’ve got nuthin’ but time.”
His amusement increased at her Christian morals. I crinkled my nose at his dismissiveness towards our newfangled religion and its core beliefs. Surely Vikings didn’t go around pinching money off each other without retribution. All people hated a cheat.
“What of your human lover? The tall boy? I understood him to be yours.”
Pain etched deeper into her features. “I broke up with Hoyt after I felt Bill die. He was a good man, but he couldn’t help me. He needs a nice girl. And I need space. We ended things on a civil note.”
Eric must have admired her. He smiled at her and meant it. I relaxed even more. For the first time, I felt we were going to forge a good relationship with Bill’s ‘baby girl’.
He spoke finally. “I like your tenacity. And your pluck. Your turning, while arbitrary, has enriched our population. Bill accidentally made an excellent vampire.”
Jessica gave him a pinched smile. “After he finished beating himself up about it, he thought so, too.”
With that, Eric sat forward suddenly, his fingers a blur on his keyboard. “You’re my subject now, so ‘your way’ is now mine to provide. Continue to be a good girl, an active member of our community, a model of mainstreaming. You may stay at Compton’s if you wish, but I can furnish you your own home, which you might want to consider. As of next term, you will continue your education at LSU.”
Jessica’s eyes widened further. “I’m just a waitress. I couldn’t afford half of what you’re-,”
“You are not a waitress. You’re my Chief of Operations and you now answer to Pam. You’ll take night courses on the evenings you do not work. To provide for your immediate requirements, I’m setting you up with twenty thousand dollars. Once you’ve worked for me for a suitable amount of time and have garnered some workplace skills, you’ll apply to the AVL for employment.”
Her eyes were now traffic lights. “Eric…sir, I…”
He paused typing and looked up. “What?”
“I won’t play king to a pile of nocturnal white trash. Your betterment is more for me than it is you. The Authority is always watching. They snicker at kingdoms like Nebraska and Georgia. They’re jokes and I’ll be Christ if I allow my subjects to languish under my reign. You’re bright. You’re young. Bright, young people go to school and get jobs. Once you established yourself over the next few decades, you’ll truly understand what it is to be free.”
The room filled with cool silence as Jessica chewed on that. Finally, she smiled with a bit of warmth. “When Sam said you wanted to see me, I half-thought you were going to kill me.”
Good lord, why? I wondered silently.
But she and Eric regarded each other knowingly. “We had our differences,” he said. “And we would have killed each other to win Sookie. But I do not begrudge him in death. As for my feelings about your lineage, the sins of the father die with the man. I have a faint appreciation for you. What you do with my help and my advice will cement my partiality one way or the other.”
I got hot around the ears, but I tried not to blush. I didn’t like hearing about their dogfight over me. It reminded me of Eric’s less civil ways in our early encounters. His crudeness and his competitive pursuit of me. And I certainly didn’t like the thought of one of them killing the other to “win” me. Like I was blood-filled trophy or a medieval princess watching passively as my suitors clobbered each other with sticks in an arena. But I swallowed my distaste. After all, he had won. I did Choose him.
For the first time, Jess seemed to notice I was there. “Do you miss him at all? Bill? I’m only askin’ because he missed you terribly. Loved you more than anything in the world.”
Eric stiffened, his hands gripping the keyboard and making the plastic creak warningly. I sent him love. Then I answered. “I hate that he’s gone, Jess. I really do. But no, I don’t miss him. He wasn’t part of my life anymore, not after what happened. But I’m sad about it. I wish everything had gone down differently.”
I dipped into Eric to see how he felt about my answer. He was tense. Maybe he thought I was holding back. Maybe I was. Just a little. I smiled at Jess. “I really hope we can be friends, though. I’ve always liked you.”
She returned it. “Me too.”
Eric picked up his phone and blasted out a text. I took the moment to stand up and circle the desk. I hugged Jess around the shoulders. The chill of her body caught me by surprise. I’d already forgotten what it felt like. She accepted it awkwardly, patting my arms, but avoiding eye contact.
She sniffed, wiping her eyes again. “So what now?”
Eric had no sooner set his phone down when Pam entered the room, a human boy in tow that couldn’t have been older than the twenty-one year age requirement of the bar. She put her hands on her hips as she came to a halt by Jessica’s chair, jutting her chin at the guy. “He volunteered.”
Dressed in jeans and an LSU sweatshirt (speak of the devil), the guy smiled uncertainly at all of us. “This lady said there was a damsel in distress that needed help in here.” He looked down at Jess, then at me as I resumed my seat by Eric. His eyes passed over me and went back to Jess. “It can’t be her,” he spoke of me. “You look like the saddest damsel I’ve ever seen.”
I pushed myself into his mind and listened. Never done this before Lady said she needed help Doubt they’ll hurt me Blonde girl looks normal Three vampires in a locked room are you fuckin’ crazy? It’s fine, they asked they coulda just glamored me I’ll be fine I wanna know Wanna help Girl’s pretty under all that mess
At least Pam hadn’t taken him against his will. He was a little nervous, but actually wanted to be here, and not because of some Gothic fetish for the undead and for that I thanked Pam’s momentary lack of tackiness. She’d managed to find a good Samaritan.
I put on my hostess face. Human to human, I made introductions. “This is Jessica. She’s been under the weather lately and Tru Blood isn’t helping much. Would you mind terribly if she fed from you? She won’t hurt you and you’ll be helping out a real sweet girl.”
Jessica dropped her head in embarrassment. “Please, y’all. This isn’t necessary, I’m fine.”
“Silence.” Eric sliced the room in half with his cold command. He drilled the young man with his glare. The boy squirmed a bit, but stayed upright and stared right back. I’d never met him before, but I was proud of him. Not all humans were sycophantic scaredy cats. I sat up straighter. We were every bit as noble.
To everyone’s amazement, the boy reached down and touched Jessica’s shoulder. When her eyes shot to his at the unexpected touch, he smiled wanly. “Are you a Christian, ma’am?”
“Born and raised.”
“So was I. And you know that good deeds are our stock in trade. I was taught to share what I have with those in need. I ain’t got much, not much but the blood in my veins. And wouldn’t you know? A pretty girl could use some.”
She looked up from under her eyelashes. “This ain’t hardly the place for a nice Bible salesman like you. What are you doin’ here?”
He chuckled, then astonishingly, pulled up a second chair to sit next to her. Obviously, he didn’t realize Eric was a king, but still, he seemed to have forgotten the two much scarier vampires in the room as he kindly patted Jessica’s knee. “Even Bible salesmen get curious. The Lord forgot to mention vampires in our book. Figured I’d come see for myself.” He paused. “I’m Jimmy Ostergaard. I study chemistry. It’s nice to meet you, Jessica.”
He held out his hand. Jessica took it. His smiled widened. “You’re cold.”
She grinned back. “You’re not.”
They’d all but forgotten the three adults in the room. Finally, Eric spoke. “Pam, take them to your office. Give them privacy.”
Jimmy tugged her hand jokingly. “Come on. Soup’s on.”
Eric gestured to the door. “Go with him. Feed carefully. You’ve been punishing yourself through starvation and you can get carried away. When you’re done, return to Pam. She’ll explain your new position to you.”
Jessica nodded. “Thank you, sir. I promise I’ll live up to your expectations.”
“Yes, you will.”
As the two young people headed out, Pam lingered for a moment until they were in the hall. “Chief of Operations?” she asked with a slight sneer.
Eric shrugged. “Make something up.”
She gave him the finger and slammed the door.
I reached for his hand under the desk now that we were alone. “That went well.”
“I thought so.”
The doorknob turned and Pam popped her head back in. So much for being alone. “By the way, you errand-inventing jerk, your cooch doctor is here.”
She slammed the door again.
We looked at each other and I took a deep breath. “The interview with a vampire continues.”