Author’s Note: Because I am headed out on vacation I did not take my usual stop to my beta. Any mistakes are my own. But Breathesgirl is more than an editor and I owe her gratitude for Bill’s book.
Nautical Note: The Banks are what the prime fishing grounds off the coast of the United States and Canada are called. They are great underground plateau historically renowned for the abundance of fish and other aquatic creatures. In the days of sailing, fleets of small ships would take off to spend a week or more line fishing for cod and swordfish. Because of the prevailing winds, the voyage was often smooth and fast. It was more like coasting over ice than sailing the sea.
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.
Sookie managed to pull her bags and laptop together in the early morning. As she stumbled around the darkened bedroom she stubbed her toe and swore loudly. “You all right in there?” Charles called from outside.
“Fine!” Sookie snapped back. She looked at Eric, laying in his daytime rest and had a moment when she just felt like pinching him. It was a mean thought, but it was morning and she felt like crap and she needed coffee. Sookie immediately felt guilty and instead of giving him a pinch, she leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Love you to bits, Honeybunch” she whispered. She figured she’d get it in now; she could just see Eric’s expression if she called him that while he was awake. She felt a smile start tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Sweetcheeks,” she tried out. ‘Damn,’ she thought as she started giggling, ‘I really am losing it.’ “Teddy Bear,” she snorted.
“You ready, Mistress?” Charles’ call now sounded from closer; he must have been just on the other side of the door. Sookie sobered. She figured he’d probably heard every word.
“Yes,” she called back, “coming out now.” Sookie shifted the suitcase to the door and then wheeled it through ahead of her. She was wearing a nice pantsuit. The informality of the meeting in combination with the long car ride ahead of her convinced her to go with something comfortable.
Charles kept his head down as he reached out for the handle to her suitcase. Sookie darted back in the bedroom and grabbed her purse. As she walked back towards the door she took a last look at Eric. She remembered what he’d said last night; about it being uncomfortable to be apart. Sookie realized she did feel a tug in her chest; like her heart was pulling towards him. “I’ll be home soon,” she told her sleeping lover and she kissed her hand and placed it on his foot. ‘I am just being a big old mush ball,’ she scolded herself and she walked back out into the sitting room, closing the door firmly behind her.
As they walked out the suite door, Sookie saw a new face where Stuart had stood. “Mistress,” the new were said and he bowed deeply.
“Hey y’all,” Sookie answered. “And you are…”
“James,” he supplied.
“James is the new day guard for the king. He is the one who will run errands,” Charles supplied.
“Errands like walking me to the car?” Sookie asked.
“Yes, Mistress,” Charles smiled. “Like that.” Sookie dipped into Charles’ head and then pulled back, blushing. He had heard every word she had said to Eric through the door. Charles thought she was a firecracker and he thought well of Eric for tolerating a strong woman at his side. Then Sookie caught something else.
“Where’s Stuart this morning?” Sookie asked.
Charles did not change expression but there was something; a twitch. “Stuart doesn’t work here anymore,” he told her. And Sookie knew. Stuart didn’t work at the palace because Stuart couldn’t work anywhere. Sookie figured that Thalia had probably ended him as an example to the others.
“I’m sorry,” Sookie said. Her voice sounded sad, but she realized with a surprise that there was some part of her that wasn’t sorry. On the other hand she was angry. She had trusted Thalia. She knew that Thalia and Eric and Pam knew how she felt about people being hurt because of information she provided.
Sookie started walking after James. She followed him into the elevator and barely acknowledged the guard who shut the door for them even when he smiled and said, “Good morning, Mistress.” Sookie realized she was happy Stuart wasn’t anywhere near Eric. In fact, she didn’t feel bad about Stuart at all. She was in a twist because she felt that her trust had been betrayed.
She followed James toward the doors that led to the street. Sookie stopped in the middle of the hallway and it took James a few strides to realize she wasn’t behind him anymore. The telepath took a deep breath. ‘Since when am I okay with this?’ she wondered. ‘What kind of Christian does this make me?’ But she knew that deep down she was okay. She looked up and as she met the guard’s eyes she could hear him wondering if Sookie was someone to be trusted; if she had the balls to stand up and fight for the King.
‘Brother, you don’t know the half of it,’ Sookie said silently. ‘Balls as big as all outdoors.’ “Sorry about that,” Sookie said out loud and she pasted her Crazy Sookie smile on her face. “I stepped out of my shoe. I’m okay now. Let’s get going,” and she moved forward towards the waiting car and Mr. Cataliades.
The black car had a large bench seat and enough leg room so that Sookie could have made a bed on the floor. Mr. Cataliades was already inside. “Good morning, Miss Stackhouse!” he said cheerily.
“Good morning yourself,” Sookie returned. She tried to make it sound cheery right back but she could hear the strain in her voice. As she sat back Meg appeared in the open door.
“Mistress?” she said. “Miss Devrah sent these things for your ride. There’s a blanket and a pillow in this bag, the young woman extended a large canvas tote. “There’s an assortment of magazines and a book in the pocket in the back of the seat. Oh! And there’s an envelope with a message from that New York lady in there too. She and her folks left about an hour ago. She said something about returning in a couple days?” Sookie nodded and picked the envelope from the back of the seat. Meg held up a large lunchbox. “There are some snacks and a couple sandwiches in this one.” Mr. Cataliades took the lunch bag from Meg’s hands. Once he did, Meg turned around and reached for something else. When she turned back she had a different sack and a tall metal thermos in her hands. “And here are some of those Danish ya’ll like and coffee fixed the way you like it, Mistress.”
Sookie’s eyes zeroed in on the thermos. ‘Damn,’ she thought. ‘The last time something looked that good it was tall, blond and bent over,’ and then she burst into a genuine smile. “That is just the nicest thing! Please thank Miss Devrah for me and thank yourself. You made my morning!”
Meg’s smile seemed to lift her whole face. “You travel safe now, Mistress. Miss Devrah said she’s planning something special for dinner for tomorrow night and if you could let us know when you’re getting close.”
“I will,” Sookie promised and she reached over and grasped Meg’s hand to squeeze it. In that touch Sookie caught a line of worry running through the young woman. There was something she was fretting about; something that had her worried that her days in the palace would be numbered. She was thinking about cutting and running before anyone found out. Sookie didn’t feel any danger from her; more that is was something in the past. “See ya,” Sookie said and she released the girl’s hand and gave a little wave.
The door was shut and the car moved forward. Sookie smiled at the lawyer. “Well,” she said. “Let’s see what Miss Twy has to say.” She slit open the heavy cream envelope and pulled out the monogrammed card. Twy wrote that she would be back to coordinate the coronation plans with Dechlan in two days, She would need at least an hour of Sookie’s time to confirm preliminary details. She also wanted to book a taped interview for both she and Eric to appear on a segment of Good Morning New Orleans. At the bottom was a postscript telling Sookie that Twy had talked with Bill Compton’s editor. Sookie was pretty sure that Bill Compton was going to get a new kind of attention from now on and she didn’t think it was going to feel much like star treatment. Sookie couldn’t help grinning as she turned to Mr. Cataliades. “Seems like my life is on the express train again,” she told him.
“You can handle it,” he smiled.
“Guess so,” she answered. “And I guess I should be clear with you that I have an invitation to stay at my brother’s house tonight with his family and I already told him I would.”
“Mr. Northman informed me last night,” Mr. Cataliades told her. “Our driver is a were and he will accompany you.” Sookie rolled her eyes. The attorney shook his head and tutted. “You know it would be foolish to travel now without someone acting as your bodyguard,” the demon scolded. “Miss Decker will be tested by Thalia and should be cleared to travel with you by the time you head to Iowa. This gentleman,” and Mr. Cataliades waved toward the front, “has been employed in the palace for some time. Mr. Northman remembered him from the time of the Queen. The king specifically selected him as your second bodyguard.”
“I don’t understand why,” Sookie huffed. “It’s not like I’m in some kind of danger. And I’ll be with my brother and his wife. Jason’s not exactly defenseless.”
“Miss Stackhouse,” the lawyer said sternly, “Having a guard walking behind you now is not so much for protection as for appearances.”
“What?” Sookie exclaimed. “If this is all some kind of big ‘looky me-I’m all important’ thing? Well that is just plain foolishness! I’ll feel silly and folks will think I’m just stuck up.”
Before she could say anything else, Mr. Cataliades leaned forward and grasped her hand. “There are those in our world who will judge you based on how you appear. If you appear to be a person of importance, then those in our community will treat you accordingly.” Sookie set her lips in a thin line and looked out the window. It all just seemed so over the top to her. “I understand that this may feel strange,” Mr. Cataliades said in his best convincing voice, “but it is important that we establish you as someone worthy of respect, and to do that you are going to have to accommodate some of the trappings of royalty.” Then Mr. Cataliades smiled. “After all, you are a Princess. Think what Prince Niall would say.”
Sookie couldn’t help the small smile that tilted her lips. “Guess you are some kind of sweet talking lawyer after all. Well let’s get on up to Shreveport and see if we can’t shut the barn door on at least one bag of cats once and for all.”
“You have a unique turn of phrase, but I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Mr. Cataliades declined her offer of coffee and then reached for the bag of Danish. Sookie looked at the cup of coffee in her hand, shrugged and took a sip from it herself. She set the cup in the holder near her seat and watched as the bridges over the highway on their way out of town slid by; the same bridges that had held people who had cheered and waved to the new vampire king only a few days before. She blinked once and twice and then she didn’t open her eyes again.
“Miss Stackhouse?” There was a touch on her arm. “Sookie? We have arrived at the hotel. I need to check in and then we should get to the courthouse.” Sookie nodded.
“Good,” she mumbled. She swallowed and then peered owlishly at the attorney. “Hope I didn’t snore.”
“Hardly at all,” Mr. Cataliades winked. “Ah! Here we are!” The car was taking a wide turn and then came to a stop. A man in uniform walked forward to open the door but her driver was out in an instant and around the car to place himself between her and the bell captain.
“Mistress,” he bowed and handed her out. When the attorney unfolded from the sedan, he touched Sookie’s elbow and they walked side by side, the were driver falling in behind them. As they stood at the registration desk Sookie could see the driver watching their luggage and scanning the lobby. This were was a little taller than Sookie but much broader. The sleeves of his shirt were stretched over his arms and his chest looked like a barrel. Sookie wondered if he had to have his shirts custom made because from where she sat he didn’t look like he had any neck at all.
Sookie put on her best hostess manners and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name. My apologies.”
The were bowed stiffly. It was like watching a log bend. “You need not apologize, Mistress. It is my place to serve you. My name is Owen. “Then the were turned to Mr. Cataliades who had joined them. “I understand that Miss Stackhouse will be staying with her brother?”
Sookie’s mouth screwed shut and she felt a mighty irritation. “Owen?” she said sharply. When his eyes snapped back in her direction she said, “If you have something to ask about what I’m doing you better be asking me. You understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said in the automatic way of long practice.
‘Someone’s momma taught him right,’ Sookie thought. “Well I’m glad to hear that. You are right. I am staying with my brother and his family tonight. They are about a half hour from here in Bon Temps. I’ll text but I’m pretty sure there won’t be any problems finding you a bed. Now, my brother lives at the end of a long road. There’s a pond in the back and woods all around. If you were planning on patrolling you could do it in a different way and it might be easier for you.”
Owen’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “The king has informed me, Mistress,” he said. Sookie found herself almost instinctively sliding into Owen’s head. She could see Thalia hissing as Eric was telling Owen about the trip to Bon Temps. Sookie was pretty sure that Thalia would have something to say to her when she returned. As she pulled herself back the telepath realized Mr. Cataliades was aware of her eavesdropping and he smiled and nodded approvingly.
After a quick stop to freshen up, the party went back to the black car and made their way to the Caddo Parish Courthouse. Owen dropped Mr. Cataliades and Sookie at the steps. Once they were all back together they passed through the metal detectors in the Courthouse and made their way to the floor that held the family counseling officers. Mr. Cataliades had Sookie take a seat on a wooden bench in the hall while he went to chat with the officer in charge. Owen had taken his jacket off and Sookie saw that his heavy shoulders strained the short-sleeved shirt he wore. Sookie reflected that all weres seemed to have that stocky build and she wondered how the local Packs were doing. She pulled out her cell phone and checked for messages. When she found one from Alcide Herveaux she thought ‘speak of the devil’. He knew she was in town and wondered if she could meet him for lunch.
Mr. Cataliades came down the hall towards her. “Well, the counsellor knows we are here. We are on time. Now we just need to wait for Mr. Merlotte to appear.” Then Mr. Cataliades started looking up and down the hall like he actually expected Sam to walk out of the elevator or exit the stairs. Sookie just shook her head. ‘Lawyers are sure good actors,’ she thought.
Sookie smoothed the leg of her pants before looking sideways at the demon. “How long do you expect we should wait?” she asked.
Mr. Cataliades sat down and leaned back, his hands laced across his stomach. “Fifteen to twenty minutes is customary,” he said. “If Mr. Merlotte fails to appear, I will make that known and confirm a second date. Of course a certified letter will be sent to Mr. Merlotte’s last known address to inform him that he may be endangering his rights in this matter.”
“Huh,” Sookie contributed. She held up her phone and thumbed the screen. “I got an email from Alcide Herveaux,” she told the lawyer. She could see Owen’s head turn and she could tell that he was listening intently. “He wants to take us to lunch. Would that be okay?”
Mr. Cataliades shrugged. I have no objections to having the Packmaster buy me lunch,” he said gravely.
“How come I think he’s going to want to bring the big card?” Sookie asked. The lawyer looked at her rather archly and nodded. Sookie smiled and shook her head as she texted Alcide back, letting him know who was with her and accepting the Packmaster’s offer. She looked up and said, “He asked us to meet him at Superior’s Steakhouse. “ Owen turned, his eyes large. “You know where that’s at?” she asked him.
Owen nodded. “Yes, Mistress. I know where to find it.” Sookie could see that the were was impressed. Mr. Cataliades also looked pleased.
“They serve quails with grits as an appetizer,” he told her. “It’s quite spectacular. I may have to order two.” And then the lawyer settled back, a self-satisfied smile on his face.
“Are you fighting with Alcide?” Sookie asked.
“Why no, Miss Stackhouse,” the lawyer answered smoothly. “We simply have a particular relationship. It generally involves some amount of give and take.” Sookie’s eyes narrowed as she figured that most of give must be on Alcide’s side and most of the take being done by the lawyer.
When the time had elapsed, Mr. Cataliades walked back down the hall. After ten minutes or so, the lawyer emerged with another man. They shook hands and the lawyer walked back towards her. “Well, it would appear that Mr. Merlotte had missed his appointment.” The demon shook his head and looked grave. “Your court-appointed counsellor is most put out by Mr. Merlotte’s lack of respect for the process, particularly since he insisted on this course of action. Very, very bad,” the attorney tutted. “In view of all this, the officer has agreed to sign a temporary order opening up your joint accounts so that you can draw reasonable expenses and meet your obligations. Most kind.”
The drive to the restaurant took a little over 15 minutes. Alcide was waiting at the door as they pulled up and Sookie found herself unexpectedly happy to see him. She remembered the brash, handsome were who Eric had strong-armed into helping her in Jackson so long ago; that time that Lorena had kidnapped Bill. But as Sookie walked forward that impression shifted. Alcide was older now. ‘Kandace must be feeding him well,’ she thought as she saw what could have been a slight overhang of belly and the beefier look of his chest. Then she clearly heard his thoughts on seeing her. Alcide was thinking that Sookie looked haggard. He was wondering how long it would take for chronic anemia to kick in and destroy what was left of her looks. Sookie found her fondness rapidly disappearing. When she noticed the few gray hairs among the brown on his head she couldn’t find one minute of regret to spare.
“Sookie,” Alcide acknowledged in his deep, level voice.
“Alcide,” Sookie answered. She stopped well short of the Packmaster and waited. In past Sookie would have stepped forward and hugged this man. She would have welcomed him as more family than friend. But that was before Jannalyn. Sookie realized some small part of her blamed Alcide for what happened; for the night of the judgment and Sam being killed and all of the things that went so wrong from that moment. If she was being fair, it was likely some part of what happened would still have gone wrong. But maybe, just maybe if she hadn’t been so emotional she would have used the cluvier dor for something else. ‘But would you be standing here now?’ a small voice asked. ‘Would you finally be with Eric?’
Alcide’s eyes slid to Mr. Cataliades, and then returned to Sookie. And then the Packmaster did something that Sookie would have never expected. Alcide Herveaux bowed to her.
Sookie found herself blushing. When Alcide straightened he saw her flaming cheeks and grinned, and the brash, handsome were; the one who had looked out for her in his own haphazard way so long ago was back. “Looking good girl,” he told her and hooked his elbow.
“So are you, Alcide,” she smiled. Sookie hooked right through and together they headed into the restaurant.
Once inside a hostess walked immediately forward, passing by another party to greet them. Sookie knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. Alcide’s business was doing well and he probably came here pretty often to entertain. The hostess led the party to a small table in a quiet corner. Owen held out Sookie’s seat and then stepped back. “You joining us?” Sookie asked.
“No, Mistress,” the were shook his head. “I’ll eat later.” Then he positioned himself a short distance away with his back to the wall and out of the flow of traffic. Sookie rolled her eyes and looked at Mr. Cataliades.
“Really?” she said. “This is downright embarrassing. I feel like a mobster’s wife.”
Alcide laughed. “Guess you are, kind of,” he snarked. “Sheriff to king. Thug to mobster. Guess that all goes together.”
Sookie found herself glaring at Alcide. The waiter had appeared, filling water glasses and taking drink orders. Menus were handed around. Alcide stopped smiling and stared over his menu at Mr. Cataliades. Mr. Cataliades stared right back. When the waiter left Sookie cleared her throat. She fixed Alcide Herveaux with her own stare. “I am all ready to have a nice lunch, but we need to get something all clear between us. If you disrespect Eric I’m leaving.” Alcide broke eye contact with Mr. Cataliades and looked at Sookie with surprise.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said with feigned innocence. “I was just making a comparison.”
“I know what you were doing,” Sookie interrupted. “And I won’t have it. Are we clear?”
Alcide’s lips twitched as he looked down at his menu. “Yes, ma’am,” he said in a voice that was at once correct and teasing.
Sookie took a deep breath. “Well okay then,” she said. “So Alcide, how are things going? I hear good things about the Pack. And how’s Kandace?”
Alcide lifted his water glass and took a sip. “The Pack is growing. And Kandace is doing well.” Then Alcide got a look on his face and turned to Sookie. “In fact Kandace is doing great. We are real good.”
The waiter came by and everyone gave orders. When it was Mr. Cataliades turn he asked for two orders of the quail appetizer. He then proceeded to order a staggering number of other things on the menu as well. Sookie wondered if there were other people who were going to be joining them. Alcide’s face became stonier and stonier. When the demon concluded with two orders of crème brulee for dessert he turned back and gave Alcide yet another self-satisfied smile. Sookie was going to ask what was going on but Mr. Cataliades beat her to it by saying, “I hear you have a wonderful family, Mr. Herveaux.”
Alcide’s face was sour, but he answered like nothing strange was going on. “Yup. Two sons and another baby on the way. Obligations.” And then Alcide’s face softened and he turned to Sookie. “Nothing like kids to make you feel young again,” he told her. “Want to see pictures?”
Somehow Sookie had always figured Alcide would be a great father and she watched his whole face light up as he fished a cell phone from his pocket and start typing away on the screen. Alcide turned the phone towards her and actually scooted his chair closer so he could show Sookie the photos and see them himself. “I’m Jackson’s Den Leader,” Alcide murmured when they looked at the photo with both Alcide and a smiling, gap-toothed boy in uniforms. There were pictures of two boys in Hallowe’en costumes and again with their faces painted for Mardi Gras. The last photo was a heavily pregnant Kandace smiling with the boys on both sides of her kissing her belly. “We didn’t want to find out but Kandy is thinking it’s a girl this time,” Alcide said. Sookie realized he was talking more to the woman in the photograph than he was to her. His eyes were shining and Sookie didn’t need to poke in his head to know how much he loved her.
Sookie was surprised at how much looking at the photos stung. It wasn’t like she had ever wanted children. In fact when a stray thought had crossed her mind before she had dismissed it out of hand, not wanting to accidentally pass her telepathy along to another. But then Sam and she had married and for a brief time she had thought maybe it was something they could explore together. Now, with her life linked to Eric that door was finally and forever closed. But as each smiling face flicked by on the screen; as Alcide told her stories of Jackson and Liam and his hope for a baby girl, Sookie felt a deep longing. ‘Guess that’s what they mean when they talk about biological clock,’ Sookie thought. And then she realized, ‘But there is no clock for me anymore,’ and she pasted her Crazy Sookie smile on her face and put her thoughts away to explore later.
Alcide tucked the phone back into his pocket. “The Pack is going okay,” he told her. “Growing.” The waiter came over with plates and fussed over napkins. Then he laid out appetizers and rolls. Sookie noticed there were four plates around the lawyer. Alcide’s mouth was downturned, then he turned back to Sookie. “Guess I do have to admit it’s better knowing there’s a king back in the state.”
Sookie had a bite of roll in her mouth and almost choked. She drank water and when her throat was clear she said, “I never thought I’d hear that from you.”
Alcide shrugged. “It’s better when there’s a strong presence to police their own. Princess Elsa did a decent job but towards the end she was more focused on her nightclub career than keeping the peace.”
“Princess Elsa?” Sookie asked.
“Yeah, the Ice Queen,” Alcide chuckled.
When Sookie’s eyes remained clueless, Mr. Cataliades said, “He means Pam Ravenscroft.”
Alcide turned a stony stare the lawyer’s way. “Hey,” Alcide snarled, “You missed a speck on that plate. You might want to hit it with your finger.” Then he turned his head back to look as Sookie just in time to miss the demon smile broadly; his teeth appearing long and shark-like. Sookie shivered and flicked her eyes from the attorney to the Packmaster. “Yeah, “ Alcide continued, “Pamela kept the problems down to manageable but there have been some pretty regular incursions lately. Mostly coming down from the north but we’re also getting trouble from the No Man’s Land between the states. And since Rita left and De Castro pulled out it’s been escalating. Rogue vampires mostly. Some packs looking for new territories. I get the feeling someone’s feeding them information, but I can’t tell.”
“Someone from the outside?” Sookie asked.
“No. Someone from my own house,” Alcide answered. “Or someone pretty close.”
Sookie looked at Alcide closely. “You thinking Hotshot?” she asked.
Alcide shrugged. “I don’t know what to think,” he told her. “And I have no way to find out.” The waiter returned and brought three salad plates. Sookie wrinkled her forehead. She didn’t remember ordering salad, but then the waiter set all three next to Mr. Cataliades and removed the appetizer plates. Two of the appetizers had been barely touched but the attorney had moved things around with his fork so that the plates were a mess. Sookie’s eyebrows were climbing and Alcide huffed. The Packmaster seemed to grind his teeth, take a breath and then put a neutral look on his face. “It’s all a guessing game,” he sighed. Then he looked up at Sookie under his brows and his look turned speculative. “Of course, if we had a sachem..” and he let that thought linger in the air.
Mr. Cataliades stopped his fork in midair and turned to Sookie. Sookie found herself staring open-mouthed at Alcide and then her anger took charge. “Are you kidding?” she asked. The telepath found herself leaning forward. “Please tell me you’re kidding. Please tell me that you don’t have some crazy idea that I would ever do something like that again. Do you have any idea how sick I was? I had nightmares for weeks after that.” Sookie didn’t mention that the last time she had played the role of sachem she had gone straight from the Pack meeting where she had taken the potion that allowed her to see the auras to Fangtasia where she and Eric had killed Victor Madden. If she was being perfectly truthful the blood and destruction of the killing had lingered far longer than the after effects of the herbal concoction. “There is no way in hell I would ever drink that crap again, Alcide and I can’t believe you have to balls to ask.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sookie could see Owen leaning in. He likely had heard every word and it made her feel somehow safer that he appeared willing to defend her against another were. Sookie dipped into his head and confirmed that he was thinking that the Shreveport Packmaster had better not upset the telepath any further. But her guard was also intrigued by the idea that this woman was someone who had functioned as a sachem. Sookie could hear that the position was one of great reverence and that those who could perform the role were rare.
Sookie broke off her poking when the waiter returned again. He removed the salad plates and started delivering their entrees. The telepath and Packmaster had both ordered a small steak. A similar steak was placed in front of the attorney. Then a small table was set nearby and no less than six additional plates were left. There was another steak and two kinds of fish. There was a softshell crab and something that looked like chicken and pasta. And then there was a plate of crispy fried chicken. There were additional bowls with assorted sides and the lawyer looked over the plates, then looked straight at Alcide and positively beamed. “Bon appetite,” Alcide growled and then under his breath Sookie heard him say, “Sure hope you don’t choke.”
“Now, now, Mr. Herveaux,” the demon chuckled. “Surely you would only wish me the best.”
“Yeah, sure,” Alcide smiled through gritted teeth. Alcide turned back to her and smiled a little less fiercely. “I wish you would consider it, Sook. We are in all kinds of hurt right now. We’ve been growing and a lot of us have started families; not just me. We’ve been making friends with the were panthers. But now all that could end. There have been a couple attacks. A woman was hurt.” Then Alcide looked down and Sookie could tell he was feeling uncomfortable about something. He looked up at her and nodded a little. “And I got hurt,” he told her. “Yesterday. I was leaving the office late and he came out of the dark. I don’t even know if it was a were or something else. All I do know is if I hadn’t turned when I did the knife could have hit my kidney and I’d be dead.” Sookie realized that the overhang she had taken for marriage fat was actually a bandage. “I haven’t told Kandace. I’ve let her think we’re fighting. Figured that would be easier for her than having her worrying about me and the kids; you know. While she’s pregnant and all.”
Sookie could feel the Packmaster’s worry and concern and she could feel her own guilt and sense of honor. “Fuck a zombie, Alcide!” she exclaimed. “What would you need me to do? Read folks?”
Alcide’s expression turned hopeful. “Yeah, pretty much. I know that it’s hard for you that you can’t see our heads as clearly as you see humans. I know you didn’t like it, but the potion did work. Now you know we are out of it. But I think I can reach out to another Pack…”
“That won’t be necessary,” Mr. Cataliades interrupted. “Miss Stackhouse will provide her own supplies.” He wiped his mouth carefully with the cloth napkin. “And in exchange for this valuable service, what are you provided to give her?” Sookie was going to protest, but then she remembered how Alcide had never been above using her when he needed. She sat back and allowed her gaze to become speculative.
“Well,” Alcide said and he looked toward the ceiling. “I have already provided you with a were from my own Pack.” The Packmaster turned his eyes towards Sookie. “By the way, how do you like Shari? She’s good people and she put her hand right up. Maria-Starr always thought well of you and she told her cousin about before… well, you know. Before.” Sookie found herself softening to the idea some more and then she caught a stray thought from Alcide wondering in a very matter of fact way if using Maria-Starr’s memory would make this go easier. Sookie snapped back and turned her eyes in a deliberate way to Mr. Cataliades and nodded her head.
The lawyer seemed to have been waiting for this moment. “I would remind you that the were you sent; Miss Decker was a benefit that was due Miss Stackhouse as a Friend of the Pack. That Miss Decker feels more than just duty makes her a vast improvement over the last guards you provided.”
Sookie focused in on the last sentence. “What guards were those?” she asked Mr. Cataliades. When the lawyer continued to stare at Alcide, Sookie turned and asked, “What guards is he talking about, Alcide?”
The Packmaster shifted a little. “He’s talking about when you were with Sam. You know, before the fire.” Then Alcide dropped his eyes and had the grace to look ashamed. “I swear to God, Sookie, I didn’t know what was going on. If they had told me I would have come out there and laid into Merlotte. I swear I would have.”
Sookie felt her face getting warm. “So, you had members of your Pack… where? Following me?” Sookie could feel her heart rate ratcheting up. Mr. Cataliades laid his hand over hers and Sookie took a long, deep breath. She steadied herself and then turned back to Alcide. “I think you better tell me about this. Why did you have people watching me? “
“Well, it wasn’t cause I was stalking you,” Alcide protested. “Pam paid for them. After the other deader gal left.”
Mr. Cataliades patted Sookie’s hand and the telepath looked his way. “Perhaps I should tell this to save Mr. Herveaux the embarrassment of admitting again to his failure.” The lawyer moved a plate out of the way and took Sookie’s hand more firmly. “Miss Ravenscroft was uneasy about your safety. Once the year had passed and Karin left your woods, Pam contracted with Mr. Herveaux to have security patrols in your woods every night. Mr. Merlotte was quite convincing that he could provide proper security for you during the day.” Sookie found her throat was aching as she thought of Sam’s idea of proper security.
“Sam also made sure that we kept my guards well away from the house,” Alcide added. “Said that it wasn’t right to be under the microscope all the time. Said that you needed time to be together and that if you knew about the security it would just bring up all the old stuff about King Coldass and his dumping you.” Alcide saw Sookie’s face and rushed, “Sorry! Sorry, that came out wrong.”
“Mr. Herveaux was paid to provide two guards at all times. And he did,” Mr. Cataliades continued.
“There were three actually. You know, so they could rotate,” Alcide added.
“Of course, one of the three was a female. She was apparently quite forceful.”
“April,” Alcide volunteered.
“Yes,” Mr. Cataliades nodded. “Just so. After the fire that young woman was found murdered. It would appear that she had been involved with your husband and when he decided to end things with you..”
“He killed her.” Sookie finished. The telepath bit her lip and looked across the restaurant. ‘It seems so long ago, now. I knew he’d been cheating on me. He didn’t make it a secret that he had someone on the side. But how could the other guards have not known?’ she thought. “Did the other guards know what was going on in the house; that Sam was hitting me?” Sookie asked out loud. Sookie could hear Owen’s shocked thoughts.
“I don’t think so,” Alcide said. “They never mentioned it. They patrolled pretty far away from the house.”
“Are they around?” Sookie asked. “I’d like to talk with them.”
Alcide’s brows drew together. “Why, Sook? It’s over. What will that solve?”
Mr. Cataliades looked at the telepath, then the Packmaster. “We are attempting to secure Miss Stackhouse’s divorce. Were there testimony from a credible witness that Mr. Merlotte was abusive, we might be able to speed things along.”
“You’re going to marry the dead man?” Alcide asked, his eyes wide. Sookie could hear the Packmaster telling himself it wasn’t his business but she could also tell that Alcide Herveaux was appalled. Sookie knew that the threat the Pack was currently facing was real and the Packmaster was desperate to find the traitor in his midst. Alcide schooled his face into something more neutral and told her, “Sorry. Jeff, one of the guys who was on your detail; he’s left the state. I’m not sure where he is. But Brian is still around. I’ll have him get in contact with you.”
Sookie nodded and then turned to Mr. Cataliades. “Desmond, I would be willing to be a sachem for Long Tooth Pack; in fact for any Pack that needs help. But I don’t want to find myself being tricked into stuff I don’t understand or being abused because I’m willing to provide a service.”
“Of course, Miss Stackhouse,” the attorney beamed, looking at Alcide. “I will draft a contract; something along the lines of the consulting agreement you have in place with Amun Clan. But in this instance I think you might consider have all inquiries come through my office. And as for the guard the Packmaster is providing to fulfill his obligation to you, I’m sure that part of what is included are all expenses. In addition, I’m sure that Mr. Herveaux will personally vouch for the conduct of any guard he now provides to you as reparations for the poor job he did in past.”
“Now wait one minute,” Alcide exclaimed.
“No, you wait one minute, Alcide,” Sookie leaned forward, her face angry. “You can’t tell me no one heard nothing. It’s not possible. You’re lucky I’m willing to let you try to make this right. If I wanted to, I could have Mr. Cataliades sue you and I’d take everything you own. If I was really angry,” and Sookie could feel that small voice within her coiling and smiling, “I’d end you myself.” Alcide sat back quickly and Sookie could hear the note of surprise and something that might have been awe coming from Owen.
“What are you?” Alcide asked.
“Something different now,” Sookie told him. Then she pasted her smile on her face and pulled out her broadest southern accent. “Now don’t you forget about Brian. Say hi to Kandace for me.” And lunch was over.
Sookie and Mr. Cataliades were standing on the curb waiting for Owen to return with the car. Sookie turned to the attorney and said, “Okay, now you have to tell me what the food thing was all about. I mean you ate some but most of it you pushed around on the plate and had them bag for later.”
The attorney chuckled. “I had the misfortune of representing Mr. Herveaux’s father in some financial transactions. There was quite a bit of money due me. Of course, as you may recall, Herveaux Senior had some amount of money owed to quite a few people.”
Sookie nodded. Jackson Herveaux, Alcide’s father, had been handsome but a gambler. The telepath had been there the night he lost his life in the fight of succession when Colonel Flood died.
Mr. Cataliades nodded. “When Jackson Herveaux died, Alcide decided that all but the debts secured through contracts died with him. Unfortunately some part of the debt owed me was not secured through a properly executed contract. It was a bit of sloppy lawyering on my part; a mistake that I assure you I will never repeat.”
“So, when you get the chance..” Sookie began.
“I take the debt out in trade,” the lawyer finished. “It allows me to feel that I wasn’t totally cheated.” The attorney shrugged. “Besides, the Packmaster writes it all off as a business expense. I suppose in some way it is a win win for all parties concerned.”
Sookie looked down and thought before she asked her next question. “Do you think that my being a sachem for the Packs is wise?”
Mr. Cataliades’ face lifted as his smile lit his broad face. “My dear Sookie, you have agreed to become the Ancient Pythoness to the two-natured. Your reputation will grow and your standing in the supernatural community will be enhanced. You truly are becoming a force to be reckoned with.”
Sookie thought back to Rhodes and the one time she had met the Ancient Pythoness. She had not had the impression that the crone had approved of her. Sookie remembered how Eric had fallen into step behind her that day; how he had stood by her side in so many ways. She found that her chest hurt, like her heart was somehow pulling out of her body.
Sookie took a deep breath and smiled. “Ancient Pythoness, huh? Sure hope this doesn’t mean that I have to dress like her. She looked like shit.”
Sookie couldn’t keep the grin off her face as Owen steered the car down the long driveway that led to her brother and Michele’s. The house had changed. Jason had added a second floor and there was a long low porch that stretched along the whole front. There were baskets of wave petunias swaying under the eaves, and then the sun caught the metal roof and it glinted just a bit. ‘Gran would have loved this,’ Sookie thought.
As they pulled up into the yard the door opened and Michele came out, wiping her hands on a towel. Jason was right behind her, a boy in his arms. Sookie didn’t wait for the car to come to a complete stop, much less for Owen to open the door. She was out in an instant and in Michele’s hug. “Oh!” she cried. “Oh I am so glad to be here. Thank you so much for letting me come.”
“Don’t talk crazy,” Michele said in her ear. “We would have been all kinds of hurt if you were this close and didn’t come to stay.” They loosened their hug and Michele turned Sookie so that she was facing Jason.
“Is this Dermot?” she asked, never taking her eyes from the round cheeked, brown haired boy who was in her brother’s arms. He had a giraffe in his hand and he looked at Sookie with large, uncertain brown eyes.
“Sure is,” Jason smiled, bouncing the boy a little. “Course we call him Bit. For ‘little bit’.” The boy’s wary look never changed and Sookie couldn’t help but smile.
“Sure is,” Michele volunteered. “Only half days but it made the house awful quiet.”
Jason smiled at his wife. “Too quiet. Got us up to all kinds of foolishness.” Michele turned bright red and Sookie knew.
“You expecting?” she asked before her throat closed and her eyes stung too much. Michele nodded, her smile stretching from one side of her face to the other and Jason was beaming. “I am just so happy for you,” Sookie managed and she threw her arms around Michele again and used it as an excuse for the tears she felt starting down her own face. When she had herself a little better in hand she turned to where she knew Owen was standing patiently. She introduced the were to her family and Michele made sure he was okay being put up in one of the boy’s bedrooms.
“Well, why are we all standing out here in the dirt?” Jason asked. “Y’all come on in and sit yourselves.” He turned back, chucking his son up and down a bit and led the way into the house.
Sookie looked around at all the changes. She wouldn’t have recognized it. The shape of the rooms were the same but everything else had changed. Jason set Bit down and told him to go grab a fishing pole and catch them some dinner. Sookie couldn’t keep her eyes from following the boy scooted towards the back door. “He’ll be one big mudball when he gets back, Jason!” Michelle scolded.
“Don’t worry, hon. I’ll hose him off before we need to leave.” Then Jason turned to Owen. “Come on, let me show you where we’re putting you. Need help carrying those suitcases?” And Jason peeled off to show the were to the upper story.
Michele walked to the refrigerator and grabbed the pitcher of sweet tea. She jerked her chin at a chair for Sookie to sit and then she started pouring. When everything was set, including a plate of lemon squares, Michele sat down herself. “So?” she said. “Queen of New Orleans?”
“No,” Sookie huffed back. “Not Queen. Truth be told, just a living in sin, can’t wait for her divorce to come through, pissy most days blond hog caller from northern Louisiana.” Sookie smiled a wry smile. “Who just happens to be shacking up with a Viking sex god who is the Vampire King of Louisiana.”
“No shit,” Michele said. And then she laughed and Sookie laughed with her. “Damn Sookie, you happy?” her sister in law asked her.
Sookie thought about how rough and tumble the last three days had been, but then she thought about Eric and she thought about Jackson. She remembered the way they read to each other and laying together in each other’s arms in front of the little gas fireplace. She thought about her lover’s face as he told her the stories of his life. Sookie looked out the window to see a bird swoop past and land in a tree and she closed her eyes. She could see again that moment when she had opened her eyes at Sanctum and Eric Northman had been in front her, appearing like the answer to every wish she had ever whispered. “Oh yes,” Sookie breathed. She looked at her sister-in-law and knew her own face was glowing. “Oh yes, so happy!” Then she placed her hand on her chest in an almost automatic gesture and rubbed a little to ease the ache “And you?” she asked under her eyelashes.
Michele just beamed right back. “Yup, sis. Me too. Of course I don’t have a Viking sex god, but your brother does okay.” They smiled as Jason and Owen walked into the kitchen.
“I’m going to show Owen outside,” Jason told them. Sookie saw that Owen had changed out of his suit jacket and dress shirt to a t-shirt that had a gym logo.
“Why don’t you take some tea with you?” Michele asked. She got up and pulled out a couple aluminum glasses that Sookie remembered from when she was little. “And can you make sure Bit doesn’t go back into that swamp area again? He came back with leeches on him last time and it just about turned my stomach to pull them off.”
‘Sure, hon,” Jason said and then he reached over and grabbed all but one cookie off the plate in a great food grab moment. Michele made a screeching noise and swatted at him but it was too late. Jason rolled his eyes and said, “Come on Owen. Let’s beat feet out of here,” and the door opened and closed with a whoosh.
Michele took the plate and refilled from a Tupperware on the counter. “I swear he is worse than the boys. I don’t know what happened to him. I know your Gran would have raised him right. Did someone drop him on his head?”
Sookie smiled and rolled her eyes in return. “Couldn’t tell you but he’s your worry now.” Then she looked around. “Where’s JC?” JC, or Jason Corbett was Jason and Michele’s oldest son.
“He’s off with the Bellefleur’s boy. He got an invite to go out to their country place and ride ATVs this weekend. He’s been doing real good at school so it was a nice treat.” Michele looked at Sookie and said, “I’m sure hoping we’ll see more of you now. We’ve missed you.”
“Missed you too,” Sookie said and she raised her cup. Michele raised hers and they touched brims and then sipped. Sookie nibbled on a cookie and then asked, “You feeling okay? The baby and all?”
Michele nodded. “I am. Not sick this time like the other two. Hoping that means a girl. I told your brother that if I don’t get my girl this time we are going to try again right away and I’m going to make him wear a dress and braid his hair to guarantee.”
Sookie giggled. “Damn, Michele. He’s still pretty good looking. You better be careful or you’ll find that he gets chased by all the women-lovin’ women and you could be out in the cold.”
Michele laughed out loud and the two of them started trading gossip and news. Time passed and Jason brought Bit in under his arm. The little boy had dirt all over him and there was at least one suspicious dark spot on a bare, tanned leg. “Going to take this one upstairs and get him in the bath,” Jason called. “Owen took off to do a patrol of the land. He asked if we would set some sandwiches out for him. He figures he’s better off outside for the night.” Sookie raised her eyebrow. “Nothing to worry about, sis,” Jason replied to her unspoken question. “He just takes his job serious.”
“You better make sure you scrub him good,” Michele said. “I don’t want him sweating dirt into his bed. You know how sensitive his skin gets.”
Michele turned back to Sookie and said, “Oh my, look at the time. I hope you don’t mind but the Home Coming is this week. We kind of have to go and you’re welcome to come with us. You’ll see pretty much everyone from town.” Then Michele lowered her eyes.
Sookie found herself smiling. The Home Coming was an annual event that their Church sponsored. A large tent was put up and all the parishioners came to sit in metal chairs and bring pot luck food. The singing was always amazing; old gospel tunes sung in harmony and the preaching was something that had brought Sookie great peace in past. Sitting in the chair under the tent with its electric lights was one of her earliest memories. It was before Gran; before her parents’ death. “I’d love to,” Sookie said. “But I get the feeling that I’ll be looking at more questions than I have answers.”
“I don’t want you to feel bad about this, Sook. But since Bill’s book came out.” Sookie could hear Michele’s hesitation. “Well, the gossip just started to die down.”
“I don’t mind. I don’t!” Sookie promised. “Besides, it will be easier for Owen if I stay put. Truth be told I could use some time to myself.”
Michele looked worried. “Well I’m sorry to hear that. I saw Tara in town and she was so excited to know you were coming.” Michele shrugged. “She’ll be here in about fifteen minutes. I can still call and tell her not to come.”
Sookie found herself smiling ear to ear.
Sookie wondered with some amazement that even though she and Tara hadn’t seen each other in years it felt like only yesterday. She noticed a few more lines on her friend’s face and Tara was wearing her hair a little differently. But there was something about how she held her head and wore her clothes that made her Tara; Sookie’s best friend.
Tara told Sookie about all the goings on. They talked about how Vampire Bill had showed up and re-opened the house near the cemetery. He was spending more time now with the Bellefleurs. Halleigh and Andy were actually kind of pleased. Portia was not and was having a hard time being polite about it. Most recently Bill had started renovation work and hadn’t approached a single local contractor. He was getting his labor out of Minden and folks were figuring that he considered himself too good for their town. “Wasn’t right, his writing about the two of you in that book the way he did,” Tara offered.
“Well he is going to have to fix it, or else,” Sookie told Tara in return. They sat at the table drinking tea and then helping themselves to Jason’s beer as Sookie told her friend about the way Bill had tried to get her back and how she’d ripped him a new one and how Bill was going to find himself at the business end of a nasty New Yorker. “She’s meaner than a razorback and twice as canny,” Sookie told her friend.
“So,” Tara said, looking at Sookie in a very interested way, “Eric Northman?” Sookie tilted her head and waited for Tara. Sookie knew that Tara was no particular friend of the fang. Her friend had had a terrible experience with vampires in her past. But Eric had been the one who had helped to bring it to an end. “You all settled there, finally?”
Sookie shrugged and started to peel the label on the beer bottle. “Yeah, I guess,” she said.
From across the table Tara could see that there was something eating at her friend. “All right, Sookie. Spill. You’re living with him now. You are being linked with him every time his name comes up, and it comes up a lot. Vampire King? Girl, this is Louisiana. Makes him a bigger celebrity than any of those Hollywood types. So, what is it?”
“How can you love someone and just know that it’s not going to work out,” Sookie said. Her heart was hurting just saying the words.
“Why do you think that? He suck in bed?”
Sookie snort laughed. “Well to be perfectly blunt, yeah he does. And really, really well.” Tara giggled and Sookie rolled her eyes. “Bed is the one place we’re perfect together. If I could just keep him there 24/7 I wouldn’t have a problem in the world. Other than starving. Because I’d be so blissed out, I wouldn’t remember to eat. Or drink. Or pretty much anything else.” Sookie rolled the bottle between her hands. “No, its’ not that. It’s the other stuff.”
“Like what for instance?” Tara asked.
“Like I’m always the last one to know anything. Sam Merlotte filed papers to block the divorce. Eric knew. Never told me. There was other stuff about Sam too; stuff I needed to know. But Eric just figured; well I don’t know what he figured. But seems like every time I turn around I’m finding out stuff about me and the folks telling me assume that I must know, because Eric does.”
“Do you think he’s just forgetting?” Tara asked. “JB does that all the time. He makes plans and then thinks he told me, but it was just a talk he had in his own head.”
Sookie smiled, thinking of Tara’s handsome but somewhat dim husband. “No, I don’t think vampires are able to forget. I think it’s something else. Maybe he thinks he’s protecting me.”
“Or it could be a guy thing. You know they don’t know how to talk about important stuff. Any time it comes anywhere near feelings, they become the one word wonders. ‘How do you feel about that?’ ‘Fine’ Does that make you angry?’ ‘I dunno.’” Tara shook her head. “When men end up with that Y chromosome it really means they’re missing something. They need that extra leg because there are big old gaps where they just don’t get it. How else do you explain socks? The minute they drop them on the floor they become invisible to men. Or dishes in the sink.”
“Or towels in the bathroom,” Sookie giggled.
“Exactly!” Tara said. “Sook, you can’t be holding that stuff against him. It’s genetic. They’re sweet but defective.” Tara threw her arms up into the air. “See? No X. Only a big ole Y.” Sookie was laughing now.
When they stopped laughing Tara looked at her friend. “What’s important is do you love him?”
“Yeah,” Sookie sighed. “Yeah, I sure do. Hurts just not being with him,” and Sookie realized she was rubbing her chest again.
Tara leaned forward and took Sookie’s hand. “Sweetie, the heart wants what the heart wants. Your head can talk at you all day long. It can tell you all kinds of lies and spin tales about what could be or should be. If you listen to your head, or to what other people tell you or to anything else but what your heart is telling you I can guarantee you’ll regret it. All that stuff that drives you crazy? That’s just the spice. It gives you something to work on and fight about and make up over.” Tara smiled and squeezed the telepath’s hand. “If your heart is telling you this is the one, then you need to step up. If he’s doing something that drives you crazy, don’t be telling me. Tell him.”
“I do,” Sookie said. “I do but he doesn’t hear it.”
“Then tell him again. Write it in big letters. Carve it in his pillow. He’ll hear you eventually. You know he loves you because you couldn’t love him if he didn’t. Not really.”
“But he’s so aggravating!” Sookie hissed.
Tara smiled broadly and held up her arms in a big Y.