NOTE: I want to thank everyone who has commented or otherwise posted feedback on the story. Your enthusiasm for the characters and storyline has been most appreciated. We are nearing the end – there will be 35 chapters including an Epilogue. In April-May I expect to start posting the next part of this story called The Far Reach.
My thanks, as always to my beta reader who takes my work and polishes it pretty – Breathesgirl. And to AmericanAndroid who created an amazing piece of art – haunting and beautiful.
Sookie found herself up and about by late morning. She kissed Eric’s still cheek and pulled her sticky self out of bed. One hot shower and a grumbling stomach later she found herself walking into the Minnesota kitchen. Sookie had half-expected to find the usual near-abandoned feel that seemed to be every vampire building during daylight hours. Instead she found herself walking into a hive of activity. There were people chopping and bringing in produce. The dry sink she’d notice earlier was now filled with flowers and herbs. There was a woman standing in the middle of the room who seemed to be directing. Sookie stood in the doorway wondering if she should come back later when the woman turned and noticed her. “ I’ll bet you’re Sookie Stackhouse, the telepath,” she said and walked forward, holding her hand out. “I’m Deirdre, Maude’s human second.”
Sookie found herself pasting her crazy Sookie smile in place. The way that this woman was just stating things out loud and acting like it was the most natural thing in the world to say was making Sookie a little uncomfortable. Deirdre turned around leaving Sookie standing in the doorway and returned to what she was doing but she never stopped talking. Sookie learned that Deirdre oversaw the running of the household but she also operated as vice president of operations for Maude. Much of the research done for Maude’s holdings in agriculture and food processing was done by humans and they worked better when they had a human counterpart. Deirdre also prattled on about how since crops grow during the day having full operations working while Maude and her vampire staff slept were essential.
Sookie watched as Deirdre directed a small group of people working around the twin commercial stoves tasting and testing a new soup recipe. “You like cooking?” Deirdre asked her. When Sookie nodded, Deirdre gave her a wry smile and said, “Me too. ‘Course could be I love the eating part of cooking a little too much,” and she winked.
“Lucky,” Sookie said. “Gets too easy for me to forget sometimes.” Deirdre’s look turned all business then and Sookie wondered what the woman had been told about her. Sookie peeked into Deirdre’s head and found that Maude had told her second quite a bit about her guest’s background including her relationship with Eric Northman. Deirdre pressed Sookie to sit down. Sookie found herself faced with a large bowl of a creamy soup. Deirdre used the excuse that they needed an impartial opinion on the recipes they were testing. Sookie smiled and dipped in. The taste was somehow familiar and yet unexpected. She looked up, the question on her lips.
Deirdre chuckled and beat her to it. “It’s a cream based soup made with butternut squash and lime. Unique taste signature. You like it?”
Sookie nodded. “It is different but delicious,” she said. Deirdre nodded to one of her assistants and another ladle of soup was poured into the bowl. Sookie smiled, accepted the bread offered and cleaned up every drop. She waved off a second helping and asked, “How did you come up with the idea? I never would have thought to pair those together.”
Deirdre wiped her hands and sat down. “Part of it is science. I have a degree in biochemistry. It’s what attracted Maude to my resume. I use my knowledge of chemical interactions to predict how combinations will meld. Of course I also collect recipes from everywhere I go and from anyone I meet. Most cultures have a book of phenomenal food that they’ve been preparing for generations. A lot of it is disappearing right now so I’ve been in high gear on the collection side.” Deirdre glanced at a young man who was busy at a cutting board. He smiled and brought over two bowls of fresh diced fruit. “Try this,” Deirdre said. She handed Sookie a fork and took one for herself. There were chunks of mango and pineapple and kiwi. They were all dusted with some kind of powder. Sookie thought it might be cinnamon but the flavor was sharp and hot. “Chili powder,” Deirdre told her. “And I just use fresh squeezed lime juice as a dressing. Folks in Central America have known about this forever. Now I’m finding a way to market it here.”
“You know, I don’t really associate human food and vampires,” Sookie said. “I was told that some vampires really struggle with food smells.”
“I’ve heard that too,” Deirdre confirmed, “but I’ve never really seen it. We cook here all the time. The real genius in the house for taste testing is Maude herself.” Sookie raised an eyebrow.
“How is that? Can she eat human food? Eric always told me it would make him sick.”
The red-headed woman nodded. “If she ate it I expect it would. She uses her ability to smell to help tweak in the right combination of spice and flavor. She says that after all these years she can still taste something just by the smell of it.” Deirdre shook her head. “She is really the most remarkable woman. I feel privileged to work with her.”
Sookie found herself testing more samples and combinations. The two women chatted about tastes and spice and how different methods of preparation brought forward different aspects of a food’s natural taste and texture. Sookie started to share some of the recipes her Gran had taught her. She talked about salting and brining and bacon fat. The two women debated the use of vinegar versus mayonnaise in the preparation of coleslaw. By that afternoon Sookie had an apron of her own and her hair pulled back as she demonstrated the way her Gran had showed her to sweat salt pork into red beans and rice.
As the shadows started to lengthen Sookie smiled and told Deirdre she would need to get going. “Expect you want to be around when your man wakes,” Deirdre said. Sookie faltered for a moment. This was really the first time she had ever had this kind of frank conversation about her relationship with a human. It felt odd. She took off the apron and patted her hair in place. As she was walking toward the door Deirdre said, “You are welcome to come back any time. Your experience in true southern cooking would be a real help to me. If you’re still here tomorrow I hope you’ll consider returning.” Sookie found herself smiling from the heart. The chance to cook with another woman was something she realized she missed. It brought back home and childhood and family.
“I hope I can,” Sookie said. And she meant it.
Sookie found she was able to navigate the corridors and find her way back to Eric. Sookie opened the door carefully and moved the light barrier to one side. She made her way to the bathroom and allowed the water to warm before stepping under the spray. She picked up the sweet soap and the hand cloth and began scrubbing the cooking smells from her skin. She was just lathering her hair when she heard the door open. She smiled as the vampire stepped in behind her. He turned her slightly and pulled her under the stream of water angling her so that the spray ran over them both. He placed his hands under hers and took over the process of soaping and rinsing her long hair. He took his time, holding out strands of her hair and allowing the water to rinse away the shampoo. She could feel how he was turning his body against hers making for interesting friction. She opened her eyes and saw him making every appearance of taking his duties very seriously. Then he would bend at the knees a little allowing his hardened length to shift and nudge between her legs, and then he’d straighten up allowing it to pull from her again.
“I know what you’re up to, buster. Don’t you go pretending like you’re all business.”
He looked down at her and gave her a mischievous smile. “I’m only helping you. There are so many places that need cleaning.” Eric reached for the soap and began with her shoulders. He massaged the planes of her back and then moved to work the column of her spine with his thumbs. Somehow he managed to apply enough pressure to cause her front to rub back and forth against his own hardened length in a most delightful way. Sookie could have almost believed it was accidental until she saw Eric’s hooded eyes watching her.
Sookie smiled a little as she took the soap and returned the favor. She rubbed shoulders and back and then followed the line of his hip to the v that led down. When her hands reached his cock she looked up into his eyes all innocence. “My, my, what happened there?” she smirked.
Eric growled and lifted her, pressing her back against the tiles. Sookie wrapped her legs around him and held his eyes as she placed him to her entrance. When she cupped his sac he surged upwards and into her. He bowed his head, the water sluicing down his back and across his shoulders to run between them. He waited until he felt her relax just a little before taking up the slow rhythm that was theirs. Sookie scissored her fingers around him, feeling him slide in and out of her warmth. Her breath sped up to pants as his tempo increased. She thought of that time; their first time that had started in the shower at Bon Temps and found herself thanking god for giving someone the smart idea of bringing running hot water inside. She looked up at Eric begging him wordlessly and he bent down to give her his mouth. “Rub yourself, Sookie,” he growled into her mouth and she shifted her fingers forward to bring pressure to her clit. She felt herself starting to climb.
“There!” she cried and he continued to move in her at just the right angle. Her mouth dropped open and his fangs found her as she cried “Yes! Yes Eric! Yes!” He pulled from her neck and moved within her more quickly, his voice strangled and he spoke words she didn’t understand. She felt him releasing within her, his pulsing prolonging her own.
They finished their shower and Eric began to dress. “We will be expected to make an appearance, lover.” Sookie nodded and started gathering her clothes when Eric stopped her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m throwing some clothes on so I can go to my room. All my stuff is over there.”
“There is no ‘your’ room, älskare,” he said. He jerked his chin toward the closet. Sookie opened the door to find her things hanging beside his.
“Sneaky vampire,” she smiled.
Bartlett finished looking over the suitcase one more time. “I am never comfortable being apart from you.”
Russell smiled from the bed. “It’s the bond, Bartie.”
“Yes,” Bartlett snarked at him. “That must be it! After all who could love a man who remembers such inconvenient things unless there was some physical tie between them?”
Russell laughed. “You would have collected on the Cayenne and you know it! I told you he’d do anything for her and I was right. I expect my Tesla to be ordered by the time we arrive home.” Russell jumped up and moved quickly to bring his arms around Bartlett. He held him in place while he nuzzled his lover’s ear. “You really are most irresistible when you pay up on bets.”
“Asshole!” Bartlett said, but he was laughing. He turned to kiss his mate. It really was harder for them to separate now. It seemed impossible to believe that they could be any more tightly entwined, but here they were. Bartlett was resigned to feeling the pull that would accompany their physical distance. It would increase with each night like a wire pulled just a little more tightly. The last time it had taken almost a week to reach a stage where he experienced actual pain. ‘It will probably come sooner this time,’ he thought. ‘Well, no use dwelling on something that can’t be helped.’
“What do you make of Kentucky’s unexpected departure?” Bartlett asked.
Russell stepped back and led Bartlett toward a large armchair. When Bartlett sat Russell positioned himself on the arm’s chair and wrapped his arms back around the other king. “I’m not sure. I don’t really buy the whole unexpected circumstances thing. Something happened and Maude knows what it was.” The king shrugged. “I’m sure it will be revealed in time. I thought it was interesting that Northman’s child took off with them.”
Bartlett laid his head against Russell’s chest enjoying the feeling of comfort he gained with the physical contact. “That Thomas is a cupcake. With her maker surrounded here why shouldn’t she get a little for herself?”
Russell squeezed him. “Romantic!”
“Of course! And I’ll have to have my fill here because the next few days will be grinding. By the way, thanks again for nominating me as head of the Clan Council.”
“Your welcome. And stop grousing. You are wonderful. You were made for the role. Everyone loves you. They listen to what you say. The other Clans respect you. Delegate more and trust our people.” Russell kissed Bartlett’s temple. “Please Bartie, please take care of yourself.”
Bartlett turned his head to capture Russell’s lips He was sorry that they were so short on time. “I will. And what will Rusty be doing here while I’m off kinging?”
“What else? Teaching kingcraft.” Russell ran his thumb along Bartlett’s jaw. “Northman will make a fine king if I do say so myself.”
Bartlett hummed. “And you do.” He stood up and walked back to recheck the closet. “I was thinking about the agenda again. If we stick with the usual sequence we would confirm all the contracts on the first day. We won’t get to the changes in fealty until the second day just ahead of the tribunal. That would mean we would have to reconfirm all the contracts involving Sandy and Northman.” Bartlett turned back to see Russell’s reaction. “What if we move the fealty to the first day? It’s unorthodox but it will create quite the stir. Might as well get the excitement over and then the boards are clear for the territorial questions.”
Russell leaned back and closed his eyes. “It’s risky, Bart.”
“It does give Felipe twenty-four hours to sway opinion. But it also gives the tribunal and everyone else the chance to ask themselves who would step up to the power vacuum. Everyone knows Sandy is the financial brains behind de Castro. Angie was not quiet about her departure. Jonathan and Victor Madden are dead. Who does that really leave him? Horst! And no one is mistaking that lump for Warren Buffet!”
Russell found himself nodding. “You see? This is why you belong as the head of the Clan. First class thinking!”
“Well, this is the part that worries me,” Bartlett continued. “We still have the roadshow following Northman. I heard from the hotel organizers that they are already receiving requests for press passes.” Russell shrugged. “Rusty! Think this through. Seacrest renounces fealty and re-pledges to Stan. No big deal there. Northman renounces as regent; there is going to have to be some discussion. Then he pledges to you and you’re actually there. It won’t be the letter. He’ll have to take a knee. Think about the photographs. We are going to have to explain this.”
“You don’t think they’ll buy that it’s a party trick?” Russell smirked. When Bartlett shot him an evil stare the king pulled his face into a more serious look. “I know! It’s not funny. We will need a cover story. Why not get Northman’s human to handle it?”
Bartlett smiled, “Funny you should mention it. The famous Twy is meeting me in Jackson tomorrow.”
“Careful, Bartie. You could end up ruling us all in the end.”
Bartlett kissed Russell’s head. “Perish the thought.”
‘I’ve had a bad day.’ Horst had heard the song playing in the lobby of the Musical Shores hotel. Those words had repeated a couple of times; clearly the chorus and now they were stuck in his head. I’m most certainly having a bad day,’ he thought. ‘The worst.’
Felipe de Castro had been furious following the dismissal of his suit to recover Sookie Stackhouse at the Narayana Summit. While the king had always understood there was a chance he could lose, it had been the way his argument was so quickly dismissed that had left him in a blind rage. Felipe interpreted King Robert of California’s peremptory action as a slap in the face. Horst had agreed. He suspected the California king’s actions were aimed to punish for something that had nothing to do with a certain telepath from Bon Temps.
As soon as he could leave the assembly without losing all face the king had retreated from the ballroom to his suite. He had been accosted by reporters along the way and only by the narrowest margin had he managed to not kill or maim anyone. He had hissed and the cameras had flashed. His subsequent destruction of the hotel suite had left Horst feeling both humbled and shaken. The fury of the king had been so close to the surface. It was Horst’s first inkling that the friendship between them was shifting. Felipe had turned to Horst once his temper had run its course and said, “Clean it up,” in the same way he would have snarled at some lackey or servant. Horst had tried to overlook it. His king was upset and Robert’s actions had been humiliating.
But things between them did not get better. The kings and queens were on the dais as the closing ball got underway. Portia, Queen of Oregon had turned to Felipe, her lip curled. “A word of advice?” she’d said. “If you don’t improve your decisions about what arguments to make and how to make them you’ll lose your head. Get better advisors!” and then she’d turned from Felipe and treated him for the rest of the evening like he was a bad smell. It was tradition that kings and queens danced, either with each other or with each other’s consorts. Horst watched as his king was snubbed by every person he approached. Felipe had left the ball early.
When Horst followed the king to the suite, he pointed out how Eric, as regent, had a duty to stand by his king. The poor treatment they endured from their peers was something that Horst blamed on Northman and Seacrest. They should have known there was a problem and addressed it before the king arrived. They should have informed both the king and himself of the situation so they would be prepared. Horst told Felipe he thought it showed a lack of loyalty. The king had not responded; in fact he had given Horst a cold eye and shut the door to the suite leaving his second standing in the hallway. Horst had heard the lock being engaged.
On the plane the next night Horst had tried to talk with the king about what had gone wrong and how to re-approach the goal of retrieving Miss Stackhouse from Mississippi. Previously these types of sessions together had always been pleasant and informative. They would find things to laugh about and would bounce ideas back and forth. Instead, Felipe had leveled a cold look at Horst and hissed. For the remainder of the flight the king spoke with the pilot, the stewards; everyone but his second.
Horst found himself remembering the conversation in the king’s garden in Las Vegas when they had strategized ways to reacquire the telepath. They had both agreed. Felipe had laughed about the plan and called it an inspired idea. They had gloated and made small side bets over which one of them Stackhouse would end up preferring when required to provide blow jobs as well as telepathy. Now it seemed like de Castro was blaming him; like the king had not been involved in any of the planning that led to this debacle. Knowing that rank had privilege didn’t make the injustice feel any less sharp.
On arriving home to Las Vegas Horst found that their troubles were just beginning. There was a stack of paperwork on his desk including legal notices from several banks. Their operating accounts were overdrawn. Checks had been bouncing and the notifications had been sent to Sandy Seacrest. Horst sneered, thinking about how this would be the end of her until he remembered that he had been the one to order that several of her email accounts be redirected. He had meant to embarrass her. Now it wouldn’t take her much to paint a picture that would embarrass him. Horst had picked up the phone and called the banks himself to arrange short term loans to tide them over. One of the banks had agreed but the other had expressed reservations. They would have to discuss it with management they told him. Before hanging up the person on the other end of the line asked about Sandy and made it clear that the management team did not respect Horst in the same way they respected Miss Seacrest.
Then Horst found out that Sonny McMillan had set up some kind of venue at one of the king’s hotels for hosting fights. The idea was good and it would allow them to draw more people to the sport and the casino, but the expenses had been high. McMillan had paid premiums to have the work done quickly. But he had also hired non-union workers and now there was more trouble. Like most of the casinos in Vegas the king’s holdings used union labor to supply the people that provided food, laundry, housekeeping and bartending. Unions represented the dealers and the entertainers. Waitresses, hostesses and servers were all card-carrying members. McMillan’s actions had kicked off a brushfire. Horst finished calls with the banks and rolled right into calls with the unions.
It was worse than he imagined. Not only had McMillan been hiring non-union construction crews he had been making it known to every representative who expressed a concern that he had no use for unions and no one was going to force him to use union workers for any job associated with Flying Tigers. The union reps Horst reached that night were already talking strike. Horst wanted nothing more than to allow some cooling between Felipe and himself but there was no avoiding bringing this news to the king.
Horst had bowed low. There was a small voice in the back of his head that was telling him that a stake could be looming large in his future and that the hand that wielded it would be his former best friend. The thought had made Horst bow even lower. He couldn’t help thinking through the events that had brought him from being named regent to being in danger of final death all within the space of a week. If it had been anyone else Horst would have found it funny.
Horst had survived his interview with the king and over the next few days had negotiated a truce with the unions. But when he had confronted Sonny, the bastard had refused to relent. It had taken the both of them being brought before Felipe like truant children to get any concessions. What was worse, the shifter had acted like he had some leverage over the king and de Castro had acted like that might be the case. If Horst hadn’t known better he would have thought his monarch was afraid of McMillan. It was confusing. Horst made a note to himself to have all his surveillance tapes on the shifter pulled and checked.
What had not been resolved with the unions was the uncertainty introduced by rumors of impending bankruptcy. There was talk of requiring financial assurances and special accounts holding money in escrow to guarantee payrolls. Vendors and suppliers had started calling. The king became personally involved as the number of calls increased. Then the word had come that their primary bank would not be extending any further credit. This caused alarms to ripple through the entire organization. Felipe had turned on Horst then. He blamed Horst for being so dismissive of Sandy Seacrest. He demanded that Horst apologize to the older vampire and recall her immediately to work on the crisis. Horst had placed calls to Oklahoma asking to speak with Sandy. He had been told that the calls had been delivered but Sandy had not returned the calls. Then Horst was told that she had already left for Nashville to start work on negotiations to tie their gas fields into shared pipelines.
Horst had found himself before the king again. Felipe had snarled, praising Sandy for taking the initiative to place her king’s work first and lambasting Horst for alienating the talent that was needed to run a successful kingdom. Then Felipe had dropped another bomb. He had called Angie and begged his child to return to him.
Horst had felt a cold dread creep through him. He recalled that last conversation between himself and Angie. Horst had been feeling full of himself; so secure in the king’s affection. He had dismissed Angie as nothing more than a glorified fuck and feed; only good for one thing. He had broadly hinted that the king had outgrown her. Horst had used his powers of observation and his long association to push every button and exploit every insecurity Angie had. It had been petty and cruel and largely false but Horst had experienced a moment of real satisfaction as he watched her face crumble. He hadn’t expected that she would leave but he remembered thinking that it had been a bonus. Now she was coming back and was clearly in the king’s favor. Horst could feel the point of the stake inching closer and closer.
With so many crises piling one on the other Horst had cancelled his planned trip to Louisiana. He was assured that Pam Ravenscroft and her business partner would be at the Amun Summit hosting business meetings and running a table to secure investors for an international expansion of the Fangtasia franchise. It was when he was thinking about this that Horst realized that Felipe had not mentioned his regency in several days. Horst had a sinking feeling.
When the day for departure to Amun Summit arrived Felipe let Horst know he had no intention of attending. Felipe would stay and sort out the disaster that faced him. Horst would go to Nashville alone.
“You have two assignments, Horst,” Felipe had spit at him. “It would be best for you if you succeed with them.” Felipe had been informed that there was to be a tribunal. Representatives from all four Clans would be involved. They would be asked to review whether consolidating territories was advisable and they were looking specifically at Nevada. “You will represent our kingdom, Horst. I have already retained Mr. Maimonides as counsel.” The king did not think much would come of it; probably a work group to study the situation further. The notification had not included a summons, and Felipe thought that by staying behind is would further assure that no immediate action would be taken. It was on the tip of Horst’s tongue to protest his monarch’s decision but he found himself afraid to push the king any further.
“Make sure that Northman and Seacrest stand behind you,” the king had continued. “ They are respected and they will both be there. Do whatever you need to do to make it right between yourself and them. Fix what you have broken.”
The second assignment he faced was securing an alliance between the king and Alabama. “Gaming is gaining popularity in her state and there is access to Florida money. We talked about offering Pam Ravenscroft. If you have to, use that as a bargaining chip. Alabama may enjoy the idea of the sheriff between her legs. If she does take us up on it we still have Maxwell Lee to run the Fangtasia franchise.”
Horst had found himself stammering as he suggested to the king that Alabama may prove suspicious of their motives. Felipe had turned ugly then, snarling, “You always thought you were so clever? Find a way!” and the audience had been over.
Horst had found he had trouble collecting his thoughts on the trip to Nashville. He had been to Musical Shores on a prior trip. Even knowing the layout he found himself bumbling with directions.
Now Horst was on his way to the Alabama queen’s suite to open discussions. The doors to the elevator opened and the refrain continued to cycle in his brain. “Yes, you’ve had a bad day,” ran over and over as he stepped forward.