Eric’s first thoughts as he rose for the evening were of Sookie. He was surprised to find he could feel her through their blood bond. He could tell there was distance, but he clearly sensed the thrum that was her life force. He was still in his travel coffin and the enclosed space allowed him to luxuriate in the scent of her. He knew that he would need to wash her from his skin but for these few minutes he could close his eyes and remember their time together.
There was a purity in purpose that resulted from having a bond in place; even one as temporary as the exchange he and Sookie had made. His thoughts had been warring with him when he arrived at Sanctum. He had told himself so many times during his years in Oklahoma that his feelings for the telepath were ended. He had almost convinced himself that he could carry out De Castro’s assignment and remain indifferent. He had been proven wrong.
Accepting his affection for her so quickly had been a gamble; perhaps a weakness that he was unable to resist. But then had come the blood exchange. In that moment of sharing, Sookie’s emotions had been laid open to him. He could feel her attachment and her sincerity. He could feel her joy. He was sure that he felt love from her. He wanted to trust that those feelings were constant and strong. Granted, the Sookie that he knew before Oklahoma had not been constant. She had said one thing and then done another. But this had felt different; she had felt different.
For a moment, Eric considered that in all his long existence as vampire he had never truly loved. He appreciated that his ability to discern feelings; to navigate the obstacles of the heart were undeveloped. He found himself contemplating the possibility that for all his knowledge and experience that in this aspect he was unschooled and therefore vulnerable. Then, in the next minute he accepted this possibility and refocused on this moment; on the next step that would move him forward and one step closer to being able to claim Sookie Stackhouse as his once again.
Eric took one last inhalation, feeling like he was holding her to him in every way possible. Then he opened the coffin. The room was as he had left it. Clothes awaited him on the bed. He walked through his closet and started the water in his shower. As he emerged, the steam following him, a donor appeared. He fed then sent the woman on her way. He had found that fucking them rarely satisfied him. For those times he had needed the release and focus that sexual activity provided he would ask for a particular group of donors. He had assembled them over time; pretty enough, skilled and undemanding. But now he felt no need. He pulled his cell phone from the charger cradle and sent his text message to Nevada.
‘Apologies for delayed transmission. Phone trouble. Stackhouse has declined. Instructions?”
He hit send and then walked to the business offices.
Sandy Seacrest was already at work when he arrived. Her greying head was turned to the dual monitors. She appeared to be reconciling local reports to a larger balance sheet. She turned her head and briefly bowed, acknowledging him. “Welcome back.”
Eric had come to like Sandy. She reminded him of Maxwell in many ways; smart, well ordered. Eric found himself smiling. ‘A plodder,’ he thought. ‘But a good one. I wonder why she stays with De Castro?’
Eric bowed slightly in return. “Good evening. Everything in order?”
Sandy had turned back to the monitors when she answered him. “Everything but you. Did you forget to update someone on your progress?”
“Felipe has contacted you.” Eric said it as a statement. “I have already texted him with my progress. Or I should say my failure.” Sandy looked up at him, her eyebrows raised. “My charger was missed in the packing.” This was a lie but Eric had taken the extra step of throwing his away in a trashcan in downtown Kent as he was leaving.
“Not like you to be so sloppy, Regent.” She gave him another sharp look.
Eric smiled and shrugged. He attempted to look nonchalant. “I probably could have made other arrangements but I’m not used to failure. I was sure that I would be returning with good news. I had even considered the possible side benefit of bringing Miss Stackhouse here to Oklahoma now that I am free to do so.” Eric broadened his smile into more of a leer. “She has always proven herself most entertaining. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in her more interesting assets.”
Eric did not believe that Sandy was convinced. He waited for her to press her investigation. She didn’t; instead she turned his attention to the papers and folders on the desk near him. ‘This is interesting,’ Eric thought.
He walked to the desk and picked up the first folder. It included a detailed report of the assets that were either sold or pending sale. The expected windfall in cash was substantial. There were additional assets that were identified as potential candidates for sale. He would look these over in more detail later.
The next folder was a prospectus on investment opportunities available in the kingdom for natural gas exploration. There was also a paper that had been published by the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. Eric quickly read through the arguments and information that illustrated the benefits of establishing ventures that incorporated both natural gas exploration and renewable energy sources. Sandy’s report concluded with a financial prospectus on investment potential for both natural gas and the natural gas/renewable energy options.
Eric realized he was impressed. The analysis and recommendations were not the work of some pencil pusher. He found the insights provided to be both thought provoking and innovative. Eric had always prided himself on being someone who could come up with solutions to what appeared to be insolvable problems. The work in his hand suggested that he had found someone who could see what lay beyond conventional thinking every bit as well as he could.
Eric walked over to Sandy and laid the report down in front of her. When she glanced up he smiled. “It’s brilliant,” he said.
Her look was wary. “Brilliant? In what way?”
“Your recommendation to co-develop allows both short term profit with a long term plan. As pressure for greenhouse gas reduction continues we could take advantage of developing technology to flex between gas and renewables. We trade carbon credits to offset penalties and there are tax credits available to cushion initial investment in infrastructure. That is brilliant.” Eric noticed the flare in the woman’s eyes. ‘She is not used to anyone appreciating her,’ he realized. ‘She is used to being overlooked.’
“Well regent. Provided you live through the next week I would be happy to work with you to get things rolling. There are a number of opportunities; some are available immediately; some will need some massaging to present themselves.”
Eric found himself smiling more broadly. ‘So, brilliant mind and a sharp sense of humor. Interesting, indeed.’ Out loud Eric said, “Providing I remain among the walking dead I look forward to it.” He waited for Sandy’s smile to broaden before adding, “I am pleased that you have elected to stay here. I realize you could have returned to Las Vegas. I am honored.”
Sandy nodded. “I think we can accomplish much, Eric.” Eric realized it was the first time since her arrival that she had used his first name.
They both turned to watch Karin enter the office.
“Master, welcome home,” Karin said. She inclined her head in a bow. Eric noticed she was not smiling.
During the time Eric had spent at Sanctum, Karin had felt a shadow of great happiness; almost like a dream. Over the years when she had experienced something like this; when Eric had allowed their bond to remain fully open, she had come to recognize it as things that either happened while Eric was far away or things that had happened while she was at rest. Now the contentment she had felt through their bond was laced with a different level of intensity. It made her feel like her nerves were singing.
Then something clicked in place for her. A memory. Sookie! This was about Sookie Stackhouse. Karin found herself growling. She spun on her heel and left the office. She needed to get away from prying eyes to sort this out.
Karin walked through the corridors and made her way outside. She ran through the fields until she found herself on a rise some distance from the house. As she turned she saw Eric drop from the sky to stand near her.
Eric gave Karin an appraising look. “You were always clever.” Karin felt the bond between herself and Eric dampen. It wasn’t gone but the sharpness of the emotions dulled.
Karin couldn’t keep the anger from her face. “Why Eric? Why go down that rabbit hole again? She was almost the end of you. I know I asked you to be kind to her. That didn’t mean taking her back into your bed. Didn’t you tell me that you were done with her? Didn’t you tell me you had learned your lesson?” Karin started pacing. “I can feel your distraction. You are not yourself.”
“Enough,” Eric told her. “Sookie and I are reconciled. She is mine and she will be your mistress.” Eric found his earlier doubt reasserted itself. He ruthlessly shoved the doubt away and switched gears. “We have other concerns.”
Karin dropped her eyes. She understood why Eric pulled back from her, but she felt like it was punishment for something that was not her fault. She schooled her face and then continued their conversation. “Like Felipe’s reaction when you tell him that you failed to secure his telepath? You did fail, didn’t you?” Karin felt her anger creeping up within her again. “Was that your plan all along? Did you always know that you would be placing yourself and all of us in danger?”
Eric shrugged. “I’ve texted De Castro. I’ve informed him that Sookie is not expected to return to Louisiana. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from him soon.”
Karin leaned forward. “Surely you know that you can expect retribution. But I said from the beginning I thought this was just another trap.” Karin looked down as she considered her next words. When she raised her head again it was to say words that Eric could see were a struggle. “I respect your decisions Eric. I am yours to command. But what is your future with her? Has she agreed to be turned?”
Eric looked away. This was always the crux of the matter. Sookie was temporary. That he would risk his future and the future of his progeny for a being that was only a moment in their long lives would never make sense to a vampire. But Eric realized that his heart was no longer vampire. It was something other. He knew that for him life would no longer continue once Sookie Stackhouse was gone from it. He shook his head.
“It is unlikely. But that is not our immediate issue. The Summit is in two weeks. There are many details to be worked through. Felipe will want to present a strong and unified front. His territory expansion may look like a gain for the Clan on the surface but I can’t imagine his fellow monarchs are comfortable. They must consider the possibility that Felipe will want to acquire their kingdoms as well.”
Karin nodded. “Sandy and I have been working full time with the Los Angeles planning team. We’ve had to give lists and background information on who we are bringing. We’ve been uploading presentations for meetings to a cloud storage site. They have imposed a size limit on data so your communications team is restructuring a video we prepared that introduces the state and the opportunities it presents. You’ll be chairing the New Ventures committee. Sandy and I have been working on your speaking notes. We were thinking the topic would be natural gas exploration as a forward-thinking investment.”
Eric smiled, pushing comfort and pride toward his child. “Impressive. It will help to attract others to the state. I can’t imagine that the contingent would be many beyond Sandy and the two of us. Who is left?”
Karin smiled wryly. “Not many. As you know there were no problems with the transition. We have had no rebellions or outward signs of disloyalty but the majority of those who were living here have chosen to leave for other territories.” Karin sighed. “While there are rumors of your fairness the locals just don’t know you. They are afraid of your reputation as a warrior.”
Eric looked back toward the house. “No matter. We will build and vampire will come.” They stood together companionably. Then Eric spoke again.
“I have been thinking about your suggestion that we use the media as a shield. It has merit. Before I left there were a number of humans expressing an interest in having me interviewed or having me talk on some show. Can you work with the media people and get that started?” Karin nodded. “This will present a challenge, but if it can be arranged I would like to bring national interest to the opening of the next Fangtasia. See if there may be an outlet or two that would like my personal tour and commentary for the event.” Eric thought about it. “Oh, and contact the organizers. See if they would be willing for me to bring journalists and others into the Summit itself. Kind of a ‘day in the life’ piece.”
Karin smiled. “You know you will quickly find their ways invasive.”
Eric smiled back. “No doubt. But I suspect they will be less invasive than the sharp end of a stake.”
Eric’s phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. “De Castro.” He jerked his chin toward the house. Karin turned and ran back across the fields. Eric could see her pulling her phone from her pocket. ‘Perhaps my luck is returning,’ he thought.
Eric waited until the third ring, then answered his cell. “Northman.”
“Please hold,” said the pleasant voice and Eric found himself listening to the sound of Spanish guitar muzak. He tapped his foot, counting until he heard Felipe’s voice.
Felipe stretched back, his robe falling open. For two days he had anticipated the Viking’s call. His spies had reported Northman’s arrival in Connecticut. The king was aware that he had gone to Sanctum and had not returned to his resting place. It was unlikely that the meeting with the Stackhouse woman had been unpleasant. He knew the hour Northman returned to Kent and the details of his transport to the waiting flight back to Oklahoma. He knew that he traveled alone. During that entire time he had had no word from Northman. ‘Sloppy,’ he thought. ‘Not like our Eric. Yes. The meeting must have been very cordial indeed.’ Felipe threw his head back and smiled so that his voice on the call would sound welcoming. “Eric! You still have your hands?”
Felipe could detect the slightest of hesitations. “Yes majesty. My apologies. I texted as soon as I rose this evening.”
Felipe glanced at the clock. He didn’t doubt Northman had contacted him soon after rising. But it was not the first thing he did. Not at all. Felipe made sure that his voice remained relaxed. No need for the Viking to know too much. Better to let him reveal himself. “How nice. And my telepath? Perhaps you decided to let me wait because you were entertaining her? I understand she is a passionate woman. I could imagine she is a pleasant bed fellow.”
Eric made an effort to bring a smile to his own face as well. “I regret that my convincing seems to have proven wanting, majesty. As I stated in my message, Miss Stackhouse declined my offer. She remained at Sanctum. As your subject and regent I could not force the issue without creating problems that could reflect upon you.”
Felipe hissed. It was important that the Viking think that he had been surprised. “How unfortunate for everyone. You are sure that you put your best effort into it, Eric? You know how important this was to all of us.”
Felipe sensed no hesitation now. “I made every effort. I suggested a future together. I told her that her family and friends miss her. I underestimated how angry she was with me. She blames me for the shifter. She thinks that if I had not left her as I did she would not have married Merlotte.”
Felipe weighed the words. It sounded plausible. And had the Viking returned to the Kent house every night instead of staying as a guest of Sanctum he might have even believed it. Felipe knew that the lady of Sanctum wouldn’t allow a problem to remain under her roof with a guest, no matter what the history. ‘So, Eric. you are willing to lie to me,’ Felipe thought. ‘Now the game begins.’
Felipe ended the call and asked that Horst join him. “Time to start planning for the Summit,” he told his second when he arrived.
Pam felt like she was taking a victory lap. The venue they were opening on Figueroa Street was everything that epitomized west coast chic. The bar itself was long and low with retro fittings done in nickel and red enamel. Walls hosted banks of flat screens with video images that changed in synchrony with the music. The venue itself stretched up three levels with viewing platforms and a variety of seating areas that allowed parties a sense of privacy while still being tied into the action. Maxwell had told her that he thought the overall effect reminded him of Falling Water. Pam had come to understand that Max was an architecture enthusiast. He was particularly fond of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and had a tendency to push designers to use certain elements that echoed the work of the man. Pam looked around again. If this was any indication, Pam thought she could find herself a fan as well.
There had been challenges in training the wait staff to navigate the steps required with multiple tiers. In the end they had decided to hire almost exclusively supes. Aside from having almost perfect equilibrium they had greater stamina. Word traveled and there was a definite buzz from the human population that looked forward to immersing itself in this ‘other’ world.
‘Yes,’ Pam thought. ‘Maxwell Lee has outdone himself.’ The venue had been a joint venture. Pam had found the real estate but the rest had been all Max. The work with the architect and designer had gone quickly. Max had demonstrated that he could communicate concepts and both of the firms involved were broadly hinting at a larger partnership. The build-out had come in under budget. Since they were planning more west coast expansions, the contractor had been promised the exclusive if he could impress on this one. He had kept his word. The supplies and improvements were delivered as ordered and on time. Uniforms were inventoried. All key positions were filled including back-up. There had been a running conversation about whether to offer kitchen service. In the end they had agreed that in addition to extended hours and special club membership and privileges they would offer a kitchen concession. This would be made available on a rotating basis to new and upcoming eateries in the Los Angeles area. Aside from the fee that would be charged for the opportunity at exposure the other criteria for selection focused on the quality of fare. In order to be selected, the restaurant needed to demonstrate that its offerings would delight the palates of the rich and famous.
Pam had been spending most of her waking hours either in conversation with or meeting the Los Angeles Summit organizers. She found herself impressed with the professionalism of the staff. The venue selected for the conference, Mistral, was the latest acquisition by Robert, the California king. While Pam had met Robert in the past she didn’t know him well. That was not unique; he was a self-acknowledged introvert. He preferred his books and music to public appearances. His talent appeared to lie in finding and hiring capable people who developed intense personal loyalties to him. There were those who said that it was impossible to find anyone who considered themselves his enemy. Pam wondered what a vampire with Robert’s reputation thought of Felipe de Castro.
The Mistral was a total gut/rehab of an historic building located right off Los Angeles’ financial center. It was short; only 6 stories. This was purposeful. After the incident in Rhodes most vampires preferred structures with fewer stories. It made rescue in the event of fire possible. The conference rooms within the facility were comfortable. Unlike most human conference centers, there had been an effort to ensure that meeting rooms were soundproofed. Rooms were light-tight. Elevators were oversized to accommodate travel coffins as needed. Of course each floor was also serviced by a freight elevator for that purpose. Concierge service was provided on every floor. There was a small restaurant on the first floor but it would have been considered undersized in any other place. Donors were available 24 hours a day and were secured through the national register.
Security was something new. Every guest was required to provide a retina scan to allow room access as well as access to meeting rooms. Scans were created as part of the check in procedure. It had been suggested that zip drives with scans be supplied for those arriving in day sleep, but the hotel had rejected this. Bags were tagged to individual owners. Everything coming in was examined. For those arriving during day hours this could be off-putting. A vampire’s coffin was considered their intimate living space but any discomfort was weighed against the risks for them all. Everyone needed to present themselves to a member of the hotel staff within 24 hours and it was a system that was working at other hotels that specialized in vampire trade.
There were fewer protests these days. The zealots would always be there, but all in all vampires continued to find a way to integrate themselves into everyday society. Glamour was discouraged as a general rule. There was even talk of making the practice illegal. The idea that anyone could simply alter a human’s memories had been a major impediment to building trust between the species. As vampires continued to mainstream the frequency of protest had slowed. There was even talk of a network television sitcom that would feature a vampire couple as part of the Fall line-up.
This was part of what had led to Los Angeles being selected as the venue for this Summit. Since Rhodes, Summits had been hosted in smaller cities. It was thought that this would ensure greater control. The compelling argument to move to a larger venue had been that if vampires were to gain a more general acceptance they could not appear to be hiding. There were two cities in the United States where tolerance was gauged to be highest – New York and Los Angeles. So, the decision was made to take the risk.
Pam was looking forward to the upcoming events. The kick off would be here at Fangtasia-LA. Felipe de Castro had specifically instructed that the event be vampire only. Pam would need to revisit that decision during her calls tonight. Many of those traveling here were bringing human companions or had humans, weres and others who traveled with them. And because Los Angeles was a town that was notoriously unable to hold a secret the news of the advance opening was already on the streets. Pam wondered how vampire hierarchy would be explained to humans. It seemed inevitable that this information would not stay hidden much longer. She wondered how her human business associates would take the news that she was a Sheriff in addition to a business woman. She smiled. She could see their faces were she to walk into a meeting complete with six shooter and a brass star. ‘Good grief,’ she thought. ‘I’ve clearly been on the road too long!’
Pam grabbed the remote for the video screens. She had an hour or two before she needed to start the next rounds of conversations. She had time to catch up on the shows she’d been recording. ‘What a wonderful thing this watch anywhere technology is,’ she thought. She logged into her account. While her watch list was coming up she reached behind a bar to grab a TruBlood. Once she had microwaved it she kicked back to watch the most recent episode of Doctor Phil.
As soon as the opening teaser started she found herself staring at multiple images of Bill Compton. She turned up the volume.
“…national sensation with his new book, Bonded by Desire. Bill Compton will be joining us to talk about his experience in mainstreaming in America. And we’ll talk about that rumor about whether his book is based on a real life interspecies romance. So don’t go away.”
Pam felt an odd pull. She couldn’t tell whether she was amused or appalled. Bill Compton? Best seller? There was something oddly out of joint in the universe. She wondered if Eric knew about this.