Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The sun was warm so they drove with the windows open. Hunter was in the backseat, wearing sunglasses and nodding in time to the music. Brigid had her hand out the window, allowing her fingers to ride the air currents. They’d been scheduled to leave early, nine o’clock, but Hunter hadn’t shown up until later.
Rick glanced in the rearview mirror, asking, “How you feeling?”
“Like old mud,” Hunter croaked. Rick’s cousin had already drained several bottles of water and was starting on another.
“Rough night?” and Brigid turned around a little.
“Late night,” Hunter answered.
“Not at the Palace.” They both knew Rick was really asking a question, and Hunter smiled wryly.
“Not at the Palace,” he confirmed, and then sipped from his water bottle again.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Rick growled. “You finally get your freedom and throw it away just as fast. If they don’t kill you, they’ll turn you and then you get to answer to some asshole for the rest of your life.”
“So you say!” and Hunter took off his sunglasses. His pupils were dilated and he was pale. “Just making up for a little lost time,” he told Brigid, before stretching and putting his shades back on. “That pair last night were worth it! Legs that went down to there and plenty of imagination!”
“You led a pretty sheltered life,” Brigid huffed. “How would you know what’s imaginative?”
Hunter tapped his head, “Don’t need to do things to know things, right, Rick?” and he winked broadly.
Rick sighed, “Good thing I can’t read you.”
“Why is that?” Brigid asked. “You can read everyone else, even me!” and she play-punched her boyfriend’s arm.
“Demon blood,” Hunter explained. “I must be close enough to the demon side that it blocks my head from Mr. Nosey up there.”
“Back at ya!” Rick mumbled.
“So, he can’t read you either?” Brigid asked Rick.
“No, Hunter can’t,” Rick replied.
“So, that makes you two the Neutral Zone,” Brigid grinned. “That’s not a bad thing.”
“What’s the Neutral Zone?” Hunter asked.
“Star Trek?” and Brigid gave Hunter a stare. “Picard? Make it so?” When Hunter continued to stare blankly, Brigid shrugged. “Pity. We won’t be able to share any of our best ones.”
“Lursa and B’Etor!” and Rick grinned at Brigid. When they stopped laughing, they explained the premise to Hunter while Brigid brought up pictures of the Klingon sisters up on her phone.
“Yeah,” Hunter conceded, “I can see it. They do look like Pam and Karin.” He handed back the phone, sighed, and pointed at his head. “Nope, can’t read you at all, but I suppose it could be worse,” and he pushed the sunglasses back in place.
“I think we should lay low tonight,” Rick said, speaking into the mirror. “You look like shit and it’ll give me a chance to show Brigid around. You, too, if you’re up to it.”
“If this place is everything you say, I’ll be feeling great in no time,” Hunter grunted.
“I’ll call Mustapha when we get there. He’s expecting us.” Rick checked the clock again. Another two hours, at least. It would be almost dinnertime when they arrived. “We should find a grocery store when we get close.”
Hunter glanced at the bag at his feet. “Why? I think your Mom had them pack the store. I had to shift stuff twice to get my bag in behind the cooler. Besides,” and Hunter leaned back, letting his head drop against the headrest, “I’m not going to feel like cooking tonight. Let’s just find someplace fast when we get there. We can do the play house thing tomorrow.”
Brigid shrugged and it was decided. They lost GPS a couple times but the sun was still sitting on the horizon when they pulled up the long driveway. The yellow of the house looked soft in the fading light and the porch swing moved slightly in the air. “This is where your Mom grew up?” Brigid asked. She was sitting forward and out the door almost before the car stopped.
“Hey, slow down!” Rick called, then swung around to nudge his dozing cousin. “Wake up! We’re here.”
Brigid was standing on the soft apron, her arms out. “Oh, I see what you mean!” she told him, settling against him when he wrapped her in his arms. “It’s so beautiful!”
The peepers were singing and birds were calling. Rick pointed out the path to the cemetery before saying, “Come on, let’s go inside.”
The push pad lock combination worked, and the lights did, too. The walk through downstairs didn’t take long. “It’s homey,” Brigid agreed, and then he led her upstairs. The room that had been his Mother’s and her Gran’s before her smelled a little musty, so he opened windows.
Behind them, Hunter clomped up the stairs, overnight bag in hand. He opened the door across the hall. “Small,” he grumbled.
“Try upstairs,” Rick offered. “Mom said we had an uncle who turned the attic into a bedroom.” It took a few doors, but Hunter found the one hiding the stairs. After a minute there was the sound of the bag hitting the floor. “Guess he’s decided,” Rick grinned.
Brigid was looking around the room, opening the closet door and then dresser drawers. “I love it here,” she said softly. “I… I can’t explain it, but it feels like home.”
Rick couldn’t say anything. He felt it, too. “I knew you’d love it,” he whispered, feeling suddenly shy.
“Someone’s coming!” Hunter called from upstairs. Rick walked over to the window and, sure enough, a set of headlights turned into the driveway.
“Shit!’ and Rick pulled out his phone. “I was supposed to call Mustapha.” He glanced at Brigid and felt a sudden panic. No one knew they were here, at least, not yet, and someone was coming. “Stay here,” he told Brigid. “When you get an answer, tell him we’re here,” and handed her his phone.
Walking down the stairs, Rick focused on the car approaching the house. By the time he reached the porch, he relaxed. He knew the vampire and knew his Father had sent her. “Hello,” she greeted him. “You may not remember me.”
“Sure, I do,” Rick replied. “You’re Heidi. You helped me find my Mother that night.”
“Welcome to Area 5 in the name of the King,” and Heidi executed a small bow.
Rick returned the courtesy, “It has been a while.”
“I was traveling the last time you were in the Area,” the vampire explained. “I’m watching things while the Sheriff is in New Orleans.” Rick knew Heidi meant Mr. Hermosa, and then, with a jolt, he realized that when his Mother lived here, that Sheriff was his Father. “I have people patrolling the woods,” Heidi was explaining. “If you see anyone out there, don’t worry. They’ll keep their distance.”
Brigid joined him on the porch. “This is Heidi,” and Rick introduced them. Heidi’s eyes narrowed and she leaned back just a little. “What is it?” Rick asked.
Heidi looked thoughtful and Rick almost dipped into her head to get his explanation, but then she answered, “I’m not sure. May I?” Rick nodded and Heidi stepped up on the porch. She wasn’t obnoxious about it, but she was clearly sniffing them. “Would you mind stepping over there?” she asked Rick, gesturing toward the far end of the porch.
“I showered this morning,” Brigid grinned.
“No, it’s not you,” Heidi said almost to herself. She jerked her head toward Rick, and he returned to stand beside Brigid. “Yes, that’s it,” she said. “It’s when you are together,” and she looked at Rick. “It’s faint, but you smell of the Fae.”
“Not surprising,” Hunter said as he stepped from the house. “We’re related, and now, we’re here. You know the Fae. They’re all about love and hearts and little wings. I’m surprised unicorns aren’t prancing out of the forest. The whole place feels like dream central.”
“So, you feel it, too?” Rick asked his cousin.
“The other-worldly, skin-stroking thing?” Hunter asked, describing the feeling the house gave Rick fairly well. “No, not at all!” and then he laughed.
“Well, I’m not related, but this place feels like no other place I’ve ever been,” Brigid proclaimed. “I like it,” and then her stomach growled.
“Someplace close we can grab dinner?” Hunter asked.
“There’s a restaurant about ten minutes from here,” Heidi replied. “Local place.”
“I think I’ve been there,” Rick answered. “Pam took me. They had great chicken fingers and fried pickles.”
“Sounds like my kind of place!” Hunter grinned.
The phone rang and Brigid handed it to Rick. “Left a voice mail,” she told him.
It was Mustapha, and he agreed to meet them at Merlotte’s. “Do you have other plans?” Heidi asked. “I’d suggest staying close to home at night. We’ve had some trouble, nothing serious.” Rick’s thoughts returned to that night at Fangtasia. He could almost hear the vampire’s screams in the night air and he shuddered.
Brigid laid her hand on his arm as Hunter said, “Fangtasia.”
“Try not to make a lot of side trips,” and Heidi was staring at Hunter. “Remember you are visiting, even if you are related. If you visit Fangtasia, any vampire place, you need to check in.”
“Sure,” and Rick pulled himself together. “We will. I don’t need any trouble.”
“Of course, you don’t,” and Heidi bowed. Rick didn’t even try, but Heidi was thinking, ‘but you are your Mother’s son,’ so clearly that he couldn’t avoid it.
“Got your money?” Hunter asked, as Heidi pulled away.
“No,” and Rick turned to head back into the house.
“What’s that?” and Brigid pointed at the tree line. There were several movements, shadows among the trees.
“Our guards,” Rick told her. He watched a few seconds, then smiled at Brigid. “Best just to ignore them. Let them do their job.”
“That’s creepy,” Brigid grimaced. “I mean, shouldn’t we invite them in or something?”
“You don’t need to invite them,” Hunter volunteered. “The house belongs to a vampire. Means any vampire can come in whether you invite them or not.”
“That’s a thing?” Brigid asked. It gave Rick the excuse he needed to head upstairs for his wallet. When he got back to the porch, Hunter was still talking about vampire limitations. It wasn’t something Rick had thought to tell her, but he realized he was pleased she was learning about it. He might be vampire, but she wasn’t, and knowing how to fend off vampires might prove useful.
“Silver chains, really?” and Brigid looked skeptical.
“I should probably get you one,” Rick confirmed. “Doesn’t have to be big. Burns them.”
Brigid looked worried, “But, I don’t want to hurt you, Rick. I don’t want to have anything that would hurt you.”
“I’ve told you before, I’m different,” and Rick wrapped Brigid into his arms, needing to feel her. “Silver doesn’t work on me. You can’t rescind my invitation. You’ll just have to deflect me the usual way.”
“Knife, gun…” Hunter called out, heading for the car. “Bad shrimp, speaking of which, let’s go find this place. I’m starving!”
It didn’t take long. The parking lot was pretty full, and Rick found himself gripping Brigid’s hand a little tighter than usual. Hunter led the way and they were shown a booth that was a little further back than the one where Rick sat with Pam. Rick was glancing away when Sam Merlotte walked up. “Been a long time, Northman,” he said. When Rick turned his head, Sam let out a low whistle. “Damn, you look just like the Viking.”
“We met,” Rick replied. “It was a while ago, the night my Mom was turned.” Rick held out his hand, “Rick Northman.”
“Sookie’s boy,” and Sam took his hand.
Rick made introductions, and when Sam shook Hunter’s hand, he said, “I met your Mom once. Hadley was a beautiful woman. Sookie, Rick’s Mom, she spoke of her often.”
“I barely remember her,” and Hunter looked wistful, but then he seemed to remember himself and looked around. “I hear you have the best chicken finger platter around.”
“Fried pickles, too,” Brigid grinned. “Never had them, but they sound good.”
“Best there is,” Sam nodded. He looked at Rick, “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Rick knew Sam Merlotte was asking about blood, but he answered, “Sweet tea, if you have it.”
“Cher, this is Bon Temps,” Sam replied, broadening his accent, “There’s always sweet tea.”
Heads turned as the door opened and Mustapha Khan walked in. He spotted Sam Merlotte right away and the Shifter’s eyes let the Packmaster know where his target was sitting. He walked the same way Rick remembered, with that slight roll to his shoulders that seemed to scream he owned the place. “You all recovered?” he asked Rick.
Rick knew Mustapha was talking about the last time they’d seen each other. “Right as rain,” he replied gaily. “Let me introduce you to my girlfriend.” Mustapha had already met Hunter, but the Packmaster declined their offer to slide into the booth. Instead he grabbed a chair and turned it so he was sitting at the head of their table.
“Waiting for someone?” Sam asked.
“Someone you know,” Mustapha replied, and Sam left to put their orders in. “How was the trip up here? Been to the house yet?”
“You already know the answer to that,” and Hunter tapped his forehead.
“You know how I feel about you picking my head,” and the Packmaster pulled his phone.
“How’s Warren doing?” Rick asked, changing the subject, then turned to Brigid, “I told you about Warren. Great guy!”
“He is,” Mustapha grumbled. It was enough to make the Packmaster turn his attention from Hunter, but not enough to distract him from the job at hand. “Your minder will be here in about ten. I don’t expect any trouble from any of you. This is supposed to be a little recreational visit, so I expect you’ll be staying together…” and his stare returned to Hunter.
“Yeah, sure,” Hunter shrugged. “As long as they’re going to the same place I am.”
The food arrived, including an extra burger for Mustapha. “Look, Hunter, we’re not here to cause trouble,” Rick scolded his cousin.
“I have plans,” Hunter informed them. “I have some friends who are meeting me tomorrow night.” It was news to Rick, and apparently news to Mustapha as well.
“What friends?” the Packmaster asked.
“Some vampires I met in New Orleans,” and Hunter dug into his food. “Couple gals who know how to have a good time. They’ll be at Fangtasia.”
“The ones from Mississippi? Terri and Jennifer?” Brigid asked. Rick stared at her. He knew she’d been watching Hunter romancing his way through the Vampire’s Ball, he just hadn’t thought it was so closely.
“Yup, the very ones,” and Hunter helped himself to a couple fried pickles. “They’ll be on their way home and we thought it would be fun to have them do a little side trip up here.”
“Only if they’ve checked in,” Mustapha growled. “If they haven’t, there could be trouble,” and he started poking at his keypad again.
Hunter’s eyes darted to the Packmaster, narrowing, but then his mouth fell open. “Wow, will you look at that? There’s something you don’t see that every day!” and he gave a low whistle. The woman was dark-haired and well-muscled. She caught Mustapha’s eye and started walking toward them. “Boy, things get better and better!” Hunter chuckled, ignoring the dark looks from around the table.
“Packmaster,” the woman greeted Mustapha. She didn’t bow, but it was clear she was Were and Mustapha was her leader.
“Kara, these are your charges,” and Mustapha Khan turned to the table. “This is Kara. She’s going to be staying with you during the day.”
“With us?” and Hunter grinned. “No problem. I’ll stay on the couch. You can have my bed, Little Lady.”
“Sam Merlotte has rental properties,” and Kara gave Hunter a direct stare. “No need to trouble yourselves.”
It occurred to Rick that having an attraction closer to home might make this visit with Hunter easier, so it wasn’t just manners that had him saying, “Seriously, there’s a bedroom we aren’t using. If it would make your assignment easier, we’d like you to come stay at the house, not that we’d even consider trying to give you the slip, would we, Hunter?”
Hunter had returned to eating, but managed to look offended. “Hell, no!” he mumbled, covering his mouth with his hand. “I’d be happy to make sure you’re close to me,” and then he jumped. Rick stared, and when Hunter jumped again, yelping, “Ow!” Rick turned to Brigid.
“He deserved it,” Brigid shrugged.
“Guess I did,” and Hunter gave a lop-sided smile. He reached under the table, and Rick was pretty sure he was rubbing the shin Brigid kicked.
“Slide over,” Kara said to Hunter, and he did. “Mind if I order?” she asked Mustapha, “I’m starved. The waitress was called and another round of sweet tea showed up followed by chicken and French fries. “Mustapha tells me you’re here for the next three days.”
“That’s the plan,” Rick confirmed. “We thought we’d explore a little, but mostly hang out, play some music. This is vacation and we’ve been pretty busy since we got here.”
“Then, back to New Orleans?” Mustapha asked.
“Say bye to Mom and Dad, yeah,” Rick nodded.
Sam Merlotte came back, wiping his hands. “Three nights,” Mustapha told him.
“Heard the vamps have folks out at the house already.” Sam nodded at Kara. “I can get you the key whenever you’re ready.”
“No need,” she told the Shifter. “They’ve offered their spare room and I’m going to take them up on it.”
“Probably for the best,” and Sam gave Mustapha a direct look.
“What’s going on?” Rick asked. “Might as well tell me. You know I can just ask Hunter to find out.” Hunter flashed a grin. Rick knew his cousin wouldn’t readily open his shields in this space full of humans, but he couldn’t threaten to do it himself without revealing himself.
“Nothing particular,” Mustapha said smoothly, but when Rick raised his eyebrow, the Packmaster sat back, crossing his arms. “All right. That Assizes you attended? It didn’t settle things. We’re still getting reports of assaults, robberies, that kind of thing.”
“Making people lose faith in their Sheriff,” Sam grumbled. Rick knew he was talking about Mr. Hermosa. He wasn’t sure what happened when a vampire was fired, but all he could think about was what happened to Kings in a takeover, and he felt sick.
“Speaking of trouble…” and Mustapha looked angry. Rick looked out the window. “Jason Stackhouse!” the Packmaster said under his breath. He glanced around at them and then gave a sigh. “Guess we might as well get this over with.”
“Who’s he?” Brigid asked.
“My uncle,” Rick told her.
“My cousin,” Hunter added, craning around to watch the blond man make his way into the diner.
Rick had to admit, his uncle was still a handsome man. He was broad-chested, the way men who’d worked with their hands got when they grew older. His blond hair was faded, but he had Hunter’s lop-sided smile. Rick glanced toward the back of the restaurant. The last time he’d seen his uncle, he’d been hanging with a group of what were clearly friends around the pool table. He hadn’t been able to read minds then, but he had read moods, and he could tell his uncle held no affection for him.
The back was empty tonight, but Rick still dipped into Jason’s head, just to make sure. He realized his uncle didn’t recognize any of them. He was headed their way because he knew Mustapha Khan. It wasn’t until he got closer that he started really looking at the faces around the table, and it slowed his step. “Sam,” he greeted the owner, and then “Packmaster, what brings you out here?” He was staring hard now, puzzling it out. “I know you,” he said to Rick. “You look exactly like someone I know.”
Rick made a decision and held out his hand. “Probably my Dad. I’m Rick, your sister’s son.”
“Sookie’s boy?” and Jason looked toward Sam. Sam nodded and Rick could see something had changed. Jason looked back at him, then Brigid, and then across the table at Hunter.
Hunter half stood, offering his hand. “I’m kin, too. I’m Hadley’s son, Hunter.”
Jason shook with them, looking a little lost, then nodded at Kara before looking at Brigid. “We related, too?”
“No,” Brigid smiled. “Not yet.” Rick found himself blushing as his heart caught. With those two words, he was ready to fly. He grinned at her, letting her know how happy her admission made him, and she blushed in return.
When Rick turned back, he watched his uncle’s shifting emotions. Jason’s mouth worked and he licked his lips before that lop-sided smile returned. “Damn, family!” he exclaimed, “I’m happy to meet you. And you’re staying here? Out at the old house?”
“Rick tells me that’s where his Mom grew up,” Brigid answered. “You, too?”
“With my Gran,” Jason nodded, then turned to Rick, “Guess your Mom didn’t sell the house after all.”
“It belongs to her,” Rick answered.
Jason looked around, as if he wasn’t sure what to do. “Would you like to join us?” Brigid asked.
There wasn’t any room at the booth, but Sam glanced over his shoulder. “I could move y’all to the big table in back,” and it was settled.
As they carried their things, Mustapha spoke quietly with Kara, and then walked over to Rick. “I have business. Looks like you’re okay for tonight.” He stared toward the door before saying, “Try to keep your extra-curricular activities to Fangtasia or here. I don’t want to worry you, but I’d rather not take any chances.”
Hunter was laughing at something Jason said, and Rick glanced toward them. “What about Hunter’s playmates?” he asked.
“I think your cousin’s going to find out they had something unexpected come up.” Mustapha glanced at Hunter again. “Keep an eye on him. I know you probably already heard, but last time he was up here, he got himself in a bad place. Desmond Cataliades was with him, otherwise he might have ended up dead.”
“Dead?” and Rick found himself staring at Hunter. “You think he’s trying to get himself turned? I mean, it’s always with vampires, right?”
“I don’t know what he’s thinking,” the Packmaster replied, “but I’ve seen these guys before when I was in the military. He’s running, but he can’t figure out if he’s running to or running from.” It gave Rick pause and he resolved to have a conversation with his cousin later.
“Happy to hear Stackhouses are back in the homestead,” Jason was saying when Rick rejoined his party.
Brigid was standing beside his uncle. Her blue eyes were wide, “I hadn’t realized your Gran died there.”
“Thinking that house went to strangers was like losing her all over again,” Jason snuffled, and then the smile was back again. “But didn’t happen. Course, I’d guess it looks different inside, but still. It’s with family.”
“I don’t think it looks that different,” Rick told him. “Some of the furniture looks new, but most of it looks like it’s always been there. The kitchen table looks like it was built in the room. I can’t see how they would ever get it out of there without pulling down a wall.”
“Heavy, trestle thing?” Jason asked, and when Rick nodded, he said, “Look at the far corner. I carved my initials in that table one morning. Gran just about took the hide off me.” A hamburger was placed in front of Jason and another round of fried pickles showed up. The waitress had a check in hand and Jason grabbed it. “On me!” he announced. “These folks are my family,” and he looked proud.
“I’m still Eric Northman’s son,” Rick said softly. He waited for that to register and the angry man he’d felt before to return.
“And Sookie’s,” Jason said, putting his sandwich down. “Guess you heard I didn’t like your…”
“Father,” Rick supplied. The table around them grew quiet.
Jason sensed it, looking around. “I’ve said some hard things about your… Dad,” he acknowledged. “Seemed to me my sister, your Mom, wasn’t treated right by him. Of course, that was before your time, but people around here talked about how he married her just to use her,” and Jason pointed at his head, so they’d know he meant her telepathy. “You know he never really married her back then, right?”
“What do you mean?” Brigid asked.
“Wasn’t any Church wedding. He could have. It wasn’t legal at first, but then it was. He just never did. Never gave her no ring. Never moved her into a nice house. Never moved in with her. He had all this money and plenty of folks running around doing what he wanted. Drove that fancy car, but left my sister looking like the town…. Trash.” Rick was pretty sure his uncle was going to use a different word. Jason shrugged a little, grabbing a French fry. “Saw them on TV couple days ago. Guess he did right by her in the end.”
“They are very happy,” Brigid assured him. “It’s that big love, you know? The one you can almost see when they’re together? I don’t know what happened in the past, but what I saw was a man who’d do anything for her.”
“That’s how it should be,” Jason said numbly, then cleared his throat. “Well, what do you say? Want anything else? How about some peach cobbler? Sam’s wife makes the best cobbler around.”
“I’m so happy we met,” Brigid told Jason. She glanced at Rick, “It’s good to meet family, isn’t it?” She didn’t wait for Rick to answer. Instead, she turned back to Jason, “So, tell me, are you married? Does Rick have more cousins?”
Jason’s mouth was full, but he nodded, holding up his finger. “Divorced,” Jason mumbled when he could, and wiped his mouth. “Three boys, but they moved with their Momma down near New Orleans.” He sniffed, before grabbing a pickle, “Don’t really see them anymore, not unless I make a special trip. Heard she’s remarried, though.”
“I’m sorry,” Brigid told him.
She nudged Rick. He looked at Kara who stared at him, and he did the right thing. “Would you like to come out to the house tomorrow? We didn’t have any particular plans. Maybe you could show us around.”
Hunter opened his mouth, but Jason was already saying, “Really? Well, I’d like that! I have work, of course, but I could be by around four. We could grab some dinner and I can show you Bon Temps. Your Mom was a real member of this community once upon a time. She had friends here.”
Kara followed them back to Hummingbird Lane. Hunter rode in the backseat. He chatted, but then he got a text and after that, he went silent, staring out the windows. “You okay?” Rick asked him about halfway home.
“Fine,” Hunter answered, but everyone could tell by his tone that he wasn’t. As soon as Rick had the car in park, Hunter was out of the car, inside and upstairs.
“What do you think that’s about?” Brigid asked. Rick had an idea. Mustapha hadn’t been subtle. Rick was willing to bet Hunter’s new ‘friends’ weren’t coming to Fangtasia anymore.
Kara pulled a duffle bag out of her trunk and followed them in. They showed her the spare room, and she excused herself to head outside. “I’ll introduce myself to your other friends,” she grinned. “Don’t wait up, but don’t lock me out.”
“Want to stay up?” Rick asked Brigid after Kara left.
“I’m exhausted,” she answered. Rick trailed her up to the main bedroom after shutting off lights, making sure the front door was locked, and the back door was open. Brigid was already in bed, the quilt pulled up over her shoulder. It was a matter of minutes before he was beside her.
She was wearing a t-shirt but nothing else. He stroked up her leg but Brigid caught his hand, pulling it around her as she spooned against him. “Too many people in the house,” she mumbled.
As if he knew, Hunter moved above them and the floor creaked. “Your uncle seemed so happy to see you,” Brigid whispered, “almost relieved. You could tell he’s lonely…lost. He brushed off his divorce, but I think it makes him really sad.”
The meeting had gone differently than Rick would have predicted, and then he remembered something she’d said. “Speaking of marriage,” and Rick kissed the inside of Brigid’s palm. “’Not yet?’ Does that mean you intend to make an honest man of me?”
“Probably,” and Rick could tell Brigid was smiling. “Not now, though.”
Pulling her closer, Rick’s hands started moving, “What do I have to do to earn it?” he teased, but Brigid pulled away and turned so she could face him.
“You know I can’t even think about that until I’m twenty-one.” Suddenly, his Brigid was all business. “I need to tell you something. I’m failing. It’s bad. I probably won’t make it through the semester. As soon as MaMere hears about it, I’ll be pulled out of school. I still have two months until I’m free. I won’t be able to make it that long, not in Boston.”
“What are you saying?” Rick asked, his chest feeling tight.
There wasn’t much light but Rick could clearly see Brigid’s face. “That teacher of yours? The one in Chester we met?”
“Mr. West?” Rick felt confused. He couldn’t think why Brigid would be bringing up Dan West right now.
“Remember how he offered a berth, delivering his boat? Well…” and she dipped her head against his chest. “I said yes. I’ll be leaving for Florida as soon as we get back.”
“What are you talking about?” Rick stammered. “You can’t just leave.”
“It will take a couple weeks to outfit, and then another month to cross,” Brigid told him. “By the time we reach England, it will be days, maybe a week until my birthday.”
“What is it about your birthday?” Rick protested.
“I’m under her guardianship,” Brigid told him. “The minute I turn twenty-one, it’s over. I get some money, not much, but mostly I get my life back. MaMere can’t order me around anymore.”
“But, what about us?” Rick asked. He hated how whiny he sounded. “What about me?”
“No one’s going to whisk you away if you flunk out,” Brigid told him. “No one’s going to pressure you. Not really. Your family loves you. You matter to them.”
“You matter to me,” Rick whispered.
“And, when I’m free, I’m going to come back,” Brigid whispered. She kissed him, and Rick kissed her. Suddenly, it didn’t matter to either of them that Hunter was upstairs or that Kara could return any minute. Neither of them was happy until he was well-seated and she was riding him. “I love you,” Brigid proclaimed, and as they found completion, Rick knew he couldn’t let her leave without him.
“I feel better about Rick, don’t you?” It was the second time she’d said it, but the feeling of relief she felt didn’t diminish.
“He seems settled,” Eric agreed.
“Do you think he’ll be able to pull this semester out?” They were heading toward the offices. The Ball was over and their guests gone, but now the real work began. There were overtures to make and reports to review. Maxwell had several proposals that required their attention, proposals that would commit their still thin finances for the next year. Sookie knew she needed to focus, but her mind kept returning to the way her son hugged her, kissing her cheek and then her forehead. It was sweet but unexpected. Sookie didn’t wait for Eric to reply. “I know I wasn’t on board, but I think Brigid might be good for him. Well?” she demanded. “What do you think?”
Sookie stopped walking. Eric took another few steps before stopping as well and turning. “Well?” she asked again.
“I’m not answering you because you don’t truly need my answer.” He was giving her that slightly patronizing look, the one that made her want to hit him.
There was no use in trying to leash her frustration. She knew he could feel it anyway. “I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t want to know! I swear, Eric! It’s like half the time you don’t even listen to me!”
“I will listen when the timing is appropriate,” her husband said a little too smoothly. “Our son was here. He has returned to school. He will call when he calls and until he fails or succeeds, there is little we can do to affect his future.” Eric jerked his chin down the hallway. “What we can affect is the kingdom he finds when he next visits. We have made a good start, but the decisions that lie ahead are not clear. We will need to be clever and smart, and that requires your full attention.” Eric’s rebuke stung, all the more because Sookie knew her husband was right. Eric’s face softened, “Find your discipline, Älskade. Clear your mind. Your instincts can allow you to see things with great clarity, or they can pull you in many directions, leaving you wandering. Be in the moment! Bring all your senses to bear. Watch what is said and how those talking say it. Learn to read those around you.”
“If only I still…” but Eric cut Sookie off with an impatient gesture.
“Why do you continue to hobble yourself?” he growled. “I never thought you were clever because you had telepathy. Your ability to see transcends Fae tricks! People confide in you, they trust you, and your instincts rarely fail.” Eric straightened, “I need you to walk into that room and be my second. I need you to listen with your own ears and your own judgment. Tell me when you agree and question when you don’t. Don’t let my own prejudices sway me! Be the Queen you were meant to be!”
Sookie felt herself stand taller, finding her belief in herself in her husband’s eyes. “I love you,” she told him.
“I know,” he replied, only then allowing a slight smile to play across his lips.
Maxwell Lee was waiting when they opened the door. He was showing something to Pam, but turned toward them, bowing, “Majesties!”
Over the next hour, Max outlined two proposals. The first involved investing in two vampire-friendly hotels in the Old Quarter. There were buildings that were vacant, holdovers from the devastation of Katrina. The first had an internal courtyard complete with a small fountain. The second had a rooftop pool. They poured over numbers and Sookie found herself drawn into the possibilities. She asked about staffing, and when they started talking amenities, her days of running the B&B kicked in, prompting her to ask about regulations, parking, and the hook. “A theme gives people a sense of belonging,” Sookie explained, “It calms them, vampires, too.” She felt Eric’s approval and looked up to find him watching her, his eyes glowing.
“We could structure one toward women,” Pam suggested, picking up on the suggestion. “A spa, softer fabrics, buttery colors.”
“And the other more upscale metro,” Maxwell nodded. “Urban vibe, edgier.”
“How long to have them on line?” Eric asked.
Timelines couldn’t be confirmed until final designs were provided, but both Eric and Sookie gave the green light. “Of course, if tourism fails, we’ll be stuck with two semi-vacant buildings,” Pam observed.
“Which is why I chose these properties,” Maxwell answered. “They are small, exclusive. They can handle a King and his retinue, as long as he only brings the essentials. When there’s no royalty in town, it’s a limited number of rooms, and this one,” and he pulled out the building with the pool, “can have sections shut down, if needed.”
The money involved made Sookie’s chest tighten, but Eric didn’t seem fazed by the numbers.
“And, I’d like to propose we take over the Krampus Krewe,” Maxwell announced, pulling out another set of drawings.
“We’ve already pretty much taken over the Krewe of Boo,” Sookie pushed back. “We got some grumbling from the organizers over that, so why would we do it again?”
“These are activities that showcase our ability to walk the streets,” Maxwell explained. “It makes mainstreaming a reality. It tells vampires all over the world that in New Orleans they are accepted… revered!”
“’Revered’ may be going a little far,” Sookie scoffed. “I think between taking over Hallowe’en and the Vampire’s Ball we’ve done enough.” She turned to Eric, “I get it. People like us, they interview us, they photograph us… I saw our faces on some girl’s t-shirt for goodness sake, but what I know is that once you get up on that hill, there’s always someone ready to knock you off.”
“How much money are you thinking?” Eric asked Maxwell.
The figure was enough to make Sookie gasp. “Over the next five years,” Maxwell qualified.
Eric turned to Pam. “What do you think?”
Pam shrugged her elegant shoulder, looking from her Maker to Sookie. “I can see both sides. This is a good thing. It’s brought us notice and money, so why not double down?”
“Because humans are weird,” Sookie replied. “They love you one minute, but the second they think you’re lording it over them, they turn on you.”
“Jealousy,” and Eric nodded. He turned to Maxwell, “Not this year. I agree, our activities so far have proven successful, but I don’t think we should move too far too fast. Let things settle. We can revisit this in five years.”
They were well into the review of the Area financial reports when Thalia joined them. “You’ll want to see this,” she said, and taking the remote, turned on the television.
“So, what’s to keep them from impregnating our women?” It was a grey-haired man being interviewed on the conservative Christian station. “Bad enough they kidnap folks, turning them into Devil’s spawn, but now they can make more of their own this way?”
The camera switched back to the studio. There was a panel and Rick’s picture came up on the screen in back of them. “It is an alarming development,” one of the panelists said.
“I think it’s a sign,” another sighed. “God is telling them that there’s only one true way to make children, and he’s given that gift to our own vampire King and Queen.”
“But, is he really their child?” the host questioned. “I don’t think we’ve seen any DNA evidence…”
“Can we bring up the photos?” the first panelist challenged, and the images on the screen changed to a side by side of Eric and Rick. Aside from the eyes, the faces were nearly identical. “I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of turning humans,” the panelist continued. I know we’ve talked about regulating it before and we got shot down, but now? There’s the proof. They have plenty of ways to reproduce that don’t involve killing folks.”
“This is dangerous,” Thalia growled.
Pam snorted, “It’s a local station with a bunch of wingnuts. No one’s going to pay any attention to them.”
Sookie couldn’t help staring. She wanted to reach right into the TV and pull the images of her husband and son off the screen, shredding them so they could never be used again, but she knew that wasn’t realistic.
“It will blow over, Maxwell agreed, but Sookie wasn’t so sure.