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 would long remember the profound sense of relief she felt just standing in the driveway of the house in Chester. Her flight back from Las Vegas and King Felipe de Castro was delayed in Chicago, and instead of arriving before school let out, it was nearing dark. The lights were already on and the lamps from inside the house spilled their gold gently through the windows as the last pinks and oranges stained the horizon. As Sookie stood and watched, the last light of day slipped away.
Perhaps it was being older, or being in a place that was slower-paced and less involved with jobs and money, but Sookie found she noticed nature with a new intensity. It was more than deciding that the sun made it a good day for tanning (which she never did in a bathing suit anymore). It was standing still for sunsets and lifting her face to the feel of an unexpected breeze. Sookie noticed birds in trees and bees buzzing among wildflowers. It was as if her life consisted now of periods of time interacting with people, and then longer periods of sinking back into a comfortable place where she was part of the natural world around her, moving in a rhythm that was both old and comforting.
Rick came bounding out of the house, “You’re late!” he told her. The hug he gave her was brief and then he walked past her to the trunk of their old car to pull out the suitcase.
“Delayed flight,” Sookie replied, but her real attention focused on memorizing her son’s face and checking for anything new or changed. “Nice uniform,” she told him.
“Please tell me I don’t have to stay at Chester through high school,” he sighed. Chester Academy required their students to wear uniforms. Rick would start in less than a month and his uniforms were ordered before Sookie left for Vegas. Apparently, they’d arrived.
“It does make things easier,” Sookie squeezed her son around his waist, walking toward the house beside him. He was growing again and easily reached her eyebrows. There was no doubt with his big feet and long, thin fingers that he would be tall. The doctor put him in the top percentile and always remarked on it when they had Rick’s iron levels checked.
“It’s like being in the military!” Rick moaned as if that was a bad thing.
“You’ll see. Everyone will be in the same boat and that gives you all something to talk about on the first day, how much wearing uniforms sucks.” It seemed bizarre. Only a few hours ago, she’d been dodging Felipe de Castro, playing a game Sookie knew had nothing to do with affection and everything to do with power. Now, half a world away, she stood in the growing night, talking with her pre-teen son about school and dress codes.
As they climbed the stairs, her boy asked, “So, how’d it go?” He was making an effort not to look at her, and Sookie realized he was waiting for her to brush him off.
“I’ll tell you all about it once we get inside and settled,” Sookie replied. He looked up at her then, his blue eyes that she could see were so like Eric’s, clear and focused. He smiled, and Sookie saw once more how being honest with him had been the best thing. There were things she would tell him about the trip, but she also knew there were things she would only share with Fran.
Fran had returned to Boston. Lora was here.
Lora had announced she would be relocating to Chester. Of course, she was very close to them. She had been there from the night Rick was born and she was the person who spoiled him most. Lora had been married for a long time, but recently her marriage had fallen apart. There were friends who were Lora’s, like Fran, but, as it turned out, most of her friends were ‘mutual’ friends. When she and her husband separated, Lora found that while her husband was invited to dinners and parties, she was not. In the end, it seemed that having an unattached male at the table was easy. Having an unattached female at the table was awkward.
Lora was living in an apartment over the post office. She’d refused to take up a room at the B&B (Rick deserves college. You need your income!) and had roomed with Sarah for a period of time. Now, every morning, she came over to the B&B and helped with the work. It was already agreed that whenever Sookie traveled, Lora would move into Sookie’s rooms and stay until she returned. Sookie was sorry for her friend’s troubles, but she was also grateful at how fate seemed to make things work out.
As for Fran in Boston, the older woman was on her fifth or sixth woman trying to take Lora’s place in her life. The stories had Sookie in stitches. Fran alternately despaired or terrorized, but no one seemed to last more than a week or two. Sookie had no doubt that, eventually, Fran would be worn down by the whole thing, decide to become less particular, and ‘settle’ for one of the doubtless fully, capable women who were coming through her door.
“So, when is your first job?” Lora asked as she laid the dinner dishes.
“Next month,” Sookie answered. She headed for her bedroom to freshen up. She could hear Lora in the kitchen behind her, scolding Rick, telling him his Mother wasn’t going anywhere, and to change out of his uniform before dinner. The sound of Rick’s feet on the stairs sounded like a stampede and Sookie smiled again to be surrounded by the sounds and feel of home.
Over dinner, Sookie told the highlights. She talked about the contract and how many jobs were now expected in any one year. She talked about the number of nights that would require her to be away from home, and how she had refused to work holidays. “We’ll probably be a little jammed up for vacations,” Sookie warned. “I couldn’t very well demand school breaks without the King figuring some things out.”
“You’re sure he doesn’t suspect?” Lora asked.
“He suspects something,” Sookie nodded. “He tried about a dozen different ways to get me to move out there, you know, ‘within his dominion.’”
“Do they really talk that way?” Rick asked.
“Some of them,” Sookie nodded. “Some vampires haven’t been around all that long, but some are really old.” Sookie couldn’t stop the small smile that formed on her lips, “Your Father is over a thousand-years-old.” She could see Rick’s eyes widen. “That’s right. He was a Viking, a real one. He speaks languages that are long gone and he’s seen things that you learn about in history books. He lived through all those moments that changed everything,” and just telling Rick made Sookie admire and miss Eric all the more.
“I saw one,” Rick announced, and Sookie found her fork suspended in midair.
“One, what?” Lora asked.
“A vampire,” Rick shrugged, loading his fork with more potatoes.
“Where was that, Son?” Sookie asked carefully.
“In town,” Rick answered, oblivious to the descending silence around him. “There’s a woman with kids who’s married to a vampire. They’re here enrolling them at Chester and Morris. Mrs. Rice heard them complaining that there were no light-tight rooms anywhere around and she asked me if we had any.”
“What did he look like, this vampire?” Sookie tried to keep her voice light.
“I don’t know. Dark-haired. Tall. He had a southern accent and he seemed nice enough. He felt weird, though.”
“Weird, how?” Lora asked. She’d slipped her hand under the table and was holding Sookie’s.
“You know,” and Rick shrugged and then tapped his forehead. “Up here.”
Now Sookie sat back. “You never mentioned you were hearing others,” she said to her son. She could hear the slight, accusing tone she’d used, and so she added, “Are you? What does it feel like?”
“I don’t hear anyone,” he shrugged. “Not like voices. No, it’s more like being able to pick out who’s happy and who’s not. I can pick out angry all the way across town!” and he grinned.
Sookie smiled weakly. “That’s great, Ricky,” she said and was rewarded by her son’s scowl for using his baby name.
“So why did the vampire feel different?” Lora asked.
Rick put his fork down, and the women could see he was giving it serious consideration. “First, he kind of looked at me funny. It was like he was trying to see into my head, sort of like a headache coming on.” Sookie said nothing, but she felt a chill as her son described glamour. “He asked if I was from around here, which I told him I sure was. Anyway, the other part was while the woman he was with was normal, his head was kind of, I don’t know, empty. He felt like a cold spot in the room.” Rick shrugged and picked up his glass, drinking down the last of his milk. “Anyway, I’ll be able to spot another one right off, now that I know what to look for,” he announced.
“I wonder if you’ve encountered Weres yet,” Lora asked, picking up the conversation, so Sookie would have time to recover.
“Weres? I’m not sure,” Rick was aware that they existed since Weres, like vampires, were mainstreaming and Lora had told him everything she knew about them.
That night, after Rick retired to his room to get ready for school the next morning, Sookie sat down and called Fran. She told Fran about the trip and Felipe’s being creepy with her, “He was testing, Fran. I’m sure of it.”
“It could be he’s just a horny vampire. From what I hear, they all are. Feed and fuck. Isn’t that their reputation? You were fresh meat and available.”
“He can get younger and fresher,” Sookie replied. “There were women all over the place out there. It’s Vegas and he has money. It was like watching fruit flies on two-day-old cantaloupe!”
“Well,” Fran teased back, “You are awful sweet!”
“It was counting coup,” Sookie sighed. “He brought up Eric, and then I knew what it was all about.”
“Then you have a decision to make. You can keep turning him down, which will just make him chase harder, or you can sleep with him and destroy the illusion.”
Sookie barked a quick laugh, “Oh, my God! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little!” Sookie sighed, “I choose the two-step! I don’t have to see him too often. I’ll manage.” Then Sookie told Fran about Rick’s newest revelation and the fact that a vampire had shown up and appeared to have tried glamour on her son.
“It’s possible the vampire saw something that made him suspicious,” Fran agreed. “although Rick is young, and the resemblance isn’t that striking yet. I wouldn’t worry about it, but you know the folks at Chester. If they were enrolling kids, there will be records of both names. Ask, and when they refuse to tell you, pull it out of their heads!”
“You are not a nice woman,” Sookie laughed.
“You don’t survive in this world by being a nice woman,” Fran snarked back.
Sookie determined she would follow-up, though. Too much was at stake, still, it took almost a week before she found herself having tea with the head of admissions at Chester. It was a small town, and everyone knew everyone, so the woman chuckled when Sookie asked about vampires sending kids. “You, too?” she asked. “I can’t decide if it’s prejudice or some kind of grim curiosity.”
“Option two for me,” Sookie grinned. “Although I wouldn’t call it ‘grim.’ No, let’s call it nosey, none of my business, but kind of exciting curiosity!”
“The children are not vampires, of course,” the woman answered. “They are from Louisiana…” and Sookie felt her smile freeze. “Apparently they’ve been married for several years now, ever since they changed the law. Nice people. She’s Lily and he’s Rubio…” and Sookie felt the chill rush through her. It was possible there was another Rubio who was a vampire from Louisiana, but somehow she doubted it. The vampire who had come to town was most likely Rubio Hermosa. He and Sookie knew each other pretty well. He had never been to her house, but he’d met her plenty of times. He’d helped carry out the plan to kill Victor Madden and, since he was a vampire, he would remember her immediately.
What’s more, he knew Eric Northman. She thought again about his meeting Rick and trying glamour. “Are you feeling alright?” Sookie’s friend asked her.
“Fine, fine,” Sookie recovered, but as she set her teacup on the table, Sookie could see her hand was shaking.
For a few days, Sookie could almost pretend that nothing had changed. There were guests to be served and breakfasts to be made. Rick would get up early and rush out the door, anxious to spend the last days of summer with his friends. Rick’s kayak was only one of a flotilla of boats the kids his age seemed to have accumulated and they could be seen all day out on the small lake. Rick told his Mother they were planning an overnight on one of the tiny islands, and Sookie was both happy and envious.
It was in the second week that Sookie found herself sitting at the kitchen table, making a list of the things she’d need for the Denver Summit. She wouldn’t leave for another two weeks. There was no need for her to be assembling lists so soon and it gave her pause. There were so many other things that needed to be done, but this was what she was doing, and then it occurred to her. She was looking forward to Denver in a way she hadn’t anticipated something in a long time.
For so many years, Sookie had settled into her life as ‘Rick’s Mom.’ She built her center around driving her son to his commitments and making friends with the parents of his friends. She made a place for herself in town that allowed her to support those things Rick needed, like school fundraising and the library. Sookie hosted playdates with school mates, and most evenings she had ‘family’ dinners that included students from school who were boarding and didn’t get home-cooked meals often. Sookie had spent ten years here in Chester being Mrs. Hale, and now, suddenly, she was Sookie Stackhouse again, and she felt guilty about how wonderful it felt.
When Rick came home that night, Sookie found herself telling him the story of the first time she’d seen his Father. She described the nightclub and how Eric had summoned her from across the room. She told him how her then-boyfriend had been angry, but how she’d thought of Eric Northman well into the night lying on her bed at Gran’s house. That story led to other stories about growing up in Bon Temps.
For the first time, Sookie told her son about her family. When she told him he had an uncle, she saw a bit of the old resentment creep back in Rick’s eyes. “You have a cousin, too. He’s older than you and he’s a telepath, like me. I don’t know where he is, but it may be time to go looking for him.”
“Do you think I’ll become a telepath?” Rick asked.
“I don’t know,” Sookie shrugged, “but I think that over time you’ll grow into things. My Gran, your Great-Gran, used to say that things come when they’re needed. I think gifts are like that.” Sookie leaned over and placed her hand over Rick’s, “Don’t rush to grow up too soon,” she begged him. “Life will come all too quick. Enjoy this time as long as you can.”
Rick glanced at the yellow-lined pad of paper on the table, “You’re happy to be working with vampires again, aren’t you?”
It was on the tip of Sookie’s tongue to say ‘no’, but she knew that wasn’t the honest answer. “I’m not sure if it’s working with vampires, or just being out in that world again,” she told her son. “It’s different and things seem so much more…”
“Serious?” Rick asked.
“Exciting,” Sookie told him. “Like the Summit in Denver. These Summits are all pretty much the same. It’s a chance for vampires to get together and talk. There aren’t many of them, vampires, I mean. Eric, your Father, told me one time how they were organized. For example, they have broken the United States into four Clans. Denver is in Zeus Clan.” Sookie was surprised how much she remembered. She told Rick about kingdoms and politics. She told him about attending the Summit in Rhodes and what she saw there. He was round-eyed when she talked about the Britlingens and Queen Sophie-Ann.
“So my Father was just a Sheriff then?” Rick asked.
“A powerful Sheriff,” Sookie nodded. “Because of his age he had a lot of influence.”
“What happened to the Queen?” Rick asked, and, taking her time, Sookie told him.
After she finished, Rick didn’t speak for a bit. Sookie could see him turning over the information and finally, he said, “So, let me get this straight. This King, Felipe, killed the Queen and now you’re working for him.”
“He could have killed your Father, too,” Sookie explained, “but he didn’t. He spared him.” Sookie figured they’d had enough sharing for one night, “Rick, I’m not sure how I’d explain everything that happened, but what I can tell you is I don’t hold a grudge. A takeover is a violent event for vampires and always has been. They don’t behave like we do. They are… I guess, more primal. Their world is still kill or be killed. They plot and scheme. If Sophie-Ann had been stronger, she would have survived, but she had money troubles, and when she became physically injured, she was too weak.” Sookie found herself thinking about Andre who had been killed at Rhodes. Andre would have protected Sophie-Ann and Sookie thought about how lonely it must have been for the Queen when she faced the stake that took her.
“It doesn’t sound like a world I’d be excited to be a part of,” Rick said quietly.
“I don’t think I’m giving you a very even picture,” Sookie apologized. “There are times that are wonderful, too!”
“Yeah, sure,” Rick rolled his eyes. “So what do you think you’ll have to do at this Summit?”
“Listen,” his Mother replied. “Felipe will want to know what people have heard or if there’s anyone there thinking about causing trouble. I’ll probably have to sit with him in his meetings and he’ll expect me to spend time talking with people at the parties.”
“They have parties?” Rick asked.
“They do,” Sookie nodded. “Like I said, they don’t get together much, so these Summits are about business, but also socializing. They like to pick cities where they can get out and…” Sookie almost said ‘play,’ but she changed it at the last minute to ’see the sights.’ ”Then, there’s the reception every night and the big ball at the end.”
“Ball? Like a Disney ball with dancing?” and Rick kind of laughed.
“Yes! Like Disney and dancing, Smarty!” and Sookie swatted Rick’s hand.
That night as she finished picking up, she thought about the upcoming ball and, for the first time, she considered the possibility that Eric Northman might be in Denver, too.
Mr. Cataliades contacted Sookie to let her know she’d be expected in Las Vegas two days ahead of the Summit. Including the event itself, there would be one extra day needed for travel and the fee Felipe offered was generous.
Sookie packed her new business clothes and took the train to New York, and then the connecting trains to La Guardia Airport. She decided flying out of the City was more anonymous than the easier trip from Hartford. Sookie felt the inconvenience was offset by the greater security.
School had started the week before, and Sookie returned from the market to find her son sitting across the table from a boy he introduced as George Hermosa. “George is in my class,” Rick told her, “and his Dad’s a vampire.” Sookie could hear her son’s unfinished phrase, the one where he said his was, too. By the time dinner was finished, there was no doubt. George was the adopted son of Rubio Hermosa, and he couldn’t wait to introduce his parents to the Hales when they visited next in October.
Sookie had a long talk with Rick after George left. She scolded him for calling attention to them, and let him know what a difficult position he’d put them in. “How can I protect you if you broadcast where we are?” she asked.
“I deserve to know where I come from!” Rick snapped.
Rick wanted to know when he could meet his relatives in Louisiana. He wanted to know when he could stop hiding. He told her he would lay low as long as she could give him a date when the lying would end. The talk turned into an argument and, after some harsh words, Sookie told him that when Rick was fourteen, they would figure something out.
That night while she talked with Fran, she felt drained. “How do I make this right?” she asked.
“Well, you knew this couldn’t be forever. He is still a boy, but he’s not a baby. Fourteen is a good age. Sixteen would have been better,” and Fran sighed. “When you showed up at my house, I thought I’d never seen a braver, more foolish woman. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Sookie. You have a couple years. You’ll figure it out.”
Now, Sookie was standing in a line with other members of Felipe de Castro’s retinue in Las Vegas, getting her instructions, and she worried that Rick would never be ready for this. “This is your agenda,” Angie handed Sookie the page. Each night was outlined and there were specific instructions for where Sookie needed to be. Most nights, she was to accompany the King. She would be required at all his business meetings. She was to attend a presentation by Moshup Summit on solar technology, and she was to spend time at the beginning of each night in the exhibitor’s hall, ‘collecting.’
There were two lines on the second night that said, ‘King’s Discretion.’ “What are these?” Sookie asked Angie.
“Private meetings,” Angie sniffed. “Felipe will only have a few of us with him. If there are only vampires in the room, he won’t need you. If there are others, you will be required to attend,” and then Angie said, “Oh! And those lines where there is an asterisk,” and Angie pointed at several lines, including the closing ball, “We’re having a wardrobe delivered. The dresses are labeled. Make sure you wear the right one to these.”
“I brought my own clothes,” Sookie couldn’t help but feel suspicious.
“You’ll wear what you’re provided,” Angie said pleasantly, but then she dropped fang to make sure Sookie understood it wasn’t something to be discussed.
There were three other people in their party. There was a secretary whom Sookie suspected was Felipe’s current companion, an accountant, and Mr. Cataliades. While Desmond had bowed to her, he didn’t go out of his way to be friendly, and Sookie wondered what was going on with him.
Once they were dismissed, the attorney approached Sookie, “Have you had supper?” he asked. When she indicated she hadn’t, he said, “Why don’t we take a trip into town? I don’t believe you’ve had the pleasure of eating on the Strip. If you aren’t too tired, we could even take in a show. The King’s status allows us access to any venue. You may take your pick.”
It was smoothly done and within an hour, they were seated next to each other in the main restaurant at Mandalay Bay.
As soon as the waitress left, the attorney pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her home number. Lora picked up and handed the phone to Rick. Sookie could tell her son wasn’t alone, and he gave her the bare minimum for answers. After five painful minutes, Rick handed the phone back to Lora. Sookie heard Lora walking and figured she was moving to another part of the house. “He’s with George again,” Lora told her. “They’ve spent most of this afternoon talking about blood and donors when I’m not supposed to be able to hear. Rick is getting one heck of an education, but I can’t fault George. Rick is relentless, a regular Mr. Twenty Questions.”
When Sookie hung up the phone, Mr. Cataliades was watching her. “It is probably more than just idle curiosity now,” the attorney chided her. “He may be experiencing cravings he doesn’t understand. He may be manifesting other symptoms he can’t explain. You need to take him to see your friend, Amy Ludwig. She will be able to tell you what part of this is his need to know and what part of this is his need.”
Sookie couldn’t argue anymore. Ignoring this was only making the situation worse. “I’ll contact her when I get home,” Sookie agreed. “I’m sure she can answer his questions better than I can. It’s just he looks like everyone else. He’s had a great childhood. He has friends.”
“There’s nothing that says that needs to change,” Desmond assured her. He reached for her phone and added the contact information for Doctor Ludwig. “Do both of yourselves a favor,” and he gave Sookie a direct look, “Call her as soon as you can. I’m sure you’ve warned him about his behavior, but like every adolescent, he won’t listen to his Mother. Amy will read him the riot act and I suspect he’ll listen to her.”
Sookie snort-laughed, thinking of the diminutive, fiery Amy Ludwig backing up her gangly son. “I’ve seen her scare grown vampires. I’m sure she can handle one hard-headed, bratty boy.” When the attorney nodded, Sookie said, “So, what’s going on with you? I hardly see you anymore.”
“I have been erring on the side of caution,” Mr. Cataliades told her. “I am in a contract with the King that requires me to carry forward a number of assignments,” and he paused to give Sookie a look.
“You going to get yourself killed over these assignments?” Sookie asked.
“I certainly hope not,” the demon sat back and laced his hands across his belly, “but if that should be the outcome, I’d prefer not to implicate anyone else.”
“Sounds like you’re in a bit of a pickle,” Sookie said cautiously.
“It will teach me for thinking myself infallible,” the demon nodded. “Let that be a warning to you. Just because someone is thinking something, it doesn’t mean that it’s true. It appears that the King is aware of my ability to read others, and he used that knowledge to his advantage.”
“How much longer does he have you?” Sookie asked.
“Another year,” Mr. Cataliades sighed. “Still, no use crying over spilled milk. Let’s use our time to walk through what our employer has been doing.”
Mr. Cataliades spent the next hour outlining the various plots Felipe de Castro was playing. During salads, the attorney described how the King was using his influence in both Narayana and Amun territories to make Stan Davis feel himself hemmed in by enemies. Once the main course arrived, the demon talked about the bribes that had been paid to buy friendships in Moshup, and even Zeus. After the plates were cleared, Desmond leaned forward and said, “Felipe feels his ace in the hole is Freyda of Oklahoma. He is certain that since he supported her claim to Mr. Northman, the Queen will favor him. Felipe has even gone as far as to hint that he would support Freyda being named Clan Chief should Stan fall.”
“So, do you think she’ll take Felipe up on it?” Sookie could hear how weak her voice sounded. All she could see was the tall, thin, beautiful woman who had shown up at her house in Louisiana, wanting to see the human who was pledged to the vampire she wanted.
“I know you have no reason to trust or like Freyda,” Mr. Cataliades said with a knowing glance, “but she is probably blameless in this. I will say that she has handled herself very well in this matter. She has dodged all efforts to have her declare her intentions. She has led Felipe on one merry chase after another.”
“So no answer, then?” Sookie sipped her coffee.
“Felipe is certain he will have Oklahoma’s answer at this Summit. She told him she would be here,” and then the attorney stopped talking and waited, allowing the pieces to fall into place for Sookie.
“So…” and Sookie licked her lips, “So, if Freyda is here, then…”
“It is likely she will bring her consort, yes,” Mr. Cataliades finished for her.
When Sookie didn’t say anything, the attorney nodded, “There is something else you should be prepared for,” he told her. “You will likely see others you know, vampires from Amun and Zeus. Don’t expect them to acknowledge you. You are standing beside someone they don’t trust, someone they may view as an enemy. You will be registered under your actual name as a member of Felipe de Castro’s personal retinue. I would suggest you restrict your social activities to the King’s companion…”
“Amber,” Sookie named the King’s secretary.
“Indeed,” Mr. Cataliades acknowledged. “She is not bright but, if you are with her, it will suggest that she is the one with the very personal relationship with the King.”
“I don’t feel so good about any of this,” Sookie sighed.
“You aren’t meant to,” the attorney agreed. “It’s a job for which you are being well-paid. We arrive in a great show, we do what is necessary, and when the Summit is over, you are transported to the airport, and you get to go home.”
“Why don’t you come visit me?” Sookie offered. “You’ve come before.”
“I have obligations at the moment that are keeping me here,” Mr. Cataliades said evasively and, before Sookie could try to persuade him further, he called for the check and they were on their way back to the palace.
The fleet of limos that transported Felipe de Castro and his retinue from the Denver Airport to the hotel were all white. Sookie couldn’t help cringing. To her, after all her time in New England where money was never flashed about, it looked like the clown circus coming to town.
Felipe insisted Sookie ride in his car and he seated her beside him. That placed Amber, Felipe’s assistant and current bed warmer, on the seat facing them. Amber amused herself for most of ride by crossing and re-crossing her legs, each movement causing her skirt to ride up a little higher.
Of course, Felipe noticed, but he didn’t leer or make any comment to encourage. Instead, Felipe spent the half-hour walking through the agenda with Sookie. There were no repeats of his previous behavior, in fact, Felipe had been nothing but a gentleman. He complimented Sookie when she made a good observation and he laughed at her jokes. He did compliment her appearance, but only when he complimented others, and he kept it light. Whatever he was doing, it was working, and Sookie found she was relaxing around him.
Tonight, Sookie was wearing a conservative skirt. It was fitted a little more across her backside than she liked, but the shoes that were waiting for her weren’t skyscrapers, and she figured she could make it into the hotel without falling on her face. She was also wearing a blazer that carried Felipe’s monogram. She considered it her uniform of sorts.
The accountant and Amber had blazers that matched hers. The accountant was riding in the second car with some of the bodyguards. Felipe also had a third car with personal servants who would do all the things a hotel staff would normally handle. They’d wear their full livery like in Las Vegas and Sookie figured that was so folks would see pieces of Felipe everywhere they looked. ‘Like spreading manure,’ she thought, looking out the window.
When they pulled up to the hotel, the door was opened, and Amber bounced out. Sookie took the offered hand next, and Felipe followed. As Sookie took a deep breath in preparation to walk into the crowded hotel lobby, Felipe said quietly, “Are you ready for the pimp walk?”
“What do you mean?” Sookie couldn’t help asking. The way he said it seemed so out of character for the King, almost without accent.
“Do you really think this is me?” he sighed, keeping his voice low. “The exaggerated accent? The flamboyant clothes? The ostentation? Yet it does create a good illusion, one that encourages people to sneer at the cape and ignore the man underneath.” Sookie’s mouth opened a bit. She knew Stan nurtured a false front, but it hadn’t occurred to her the Nevada King might do the same. “Keep that in mind when you put on some of the dresses I’ve engineered for you, that the point is not to display your flesh for my enjoyment, but to lure in the unwary. I am told there are plots to cause problems for this Summit. Use all your tricks, Miss Stackhouse, to keep everyone here safe, even if that means you have to humiliate yourself for an evening or two.”
Then the King moved forward with a swirl of his cape, barely acknowledging the bows of the bell captains, creating a stir in the lobby, and Sookie found herself looking at him with new eyes.
While she stood to the side with Amber and Ted, the accountant, a familiar face walked across the lobby. Rubio Hermosa hadn’t changed at all. He was tall, dark, and still handsome. He swept into a bow before her, “I heard you had joined the retinue, Sookie,” he greeted her.
“I didn’t expect to see you here,” Sookie stammered.
“I am here representing the King’s Louisiana and Arkansas assets,” Rubio answered smoothly. “It’s a small retinue but, then, of course, this is far from our territory and we represent a small part of the King’s wealth.”
It hadn’t occurred to Sookie that her old friends would still be under Felipe’s rule, but, of course, it should have. Things didn’t change quickly in the world of vampires. Their time didn’t move the same as it did for humans. She figured for Rubio and the others, the years since Sophie-Ann’s fall would still seem like a moment in time, while for Sookie, it seemed almost a lifetime ago. “It’s really good to see you,” Sookie returned. “How’s Indira?” she asked, “And Pam? I’ve been gone a long time and where I am, I don’t get any news.”
“We all continue as we always have,” Rubio answered. “Fangtasia continues. Business continues. We hunt and prosper.”
It was on the tip of Sookie’s tongue to ask about his marriage and she only just held herself back. She had to remind herself that while Susan Hale knew about his family, Sookie Stackhouse did not, so she covered by saying, “And you? How are things for you?”
“I am well,” he smiled. “I have a family now, a human woman I married. She has children and I’ve adopted them.”
“Congratulations,” Sookie replied, relieved she wouldn’t have to keep this secret now.
“And what about you?” Rubio asked, “Do you have a child?” There was something about the way he was looking at her that made Sookie blush. “I never married,” Sookie said quickly, covering. She couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow Rubio knew, or suspected, and she resolved to be extra-vigilant.
Felipe walked toward them, a hotel concierge following. After the keys were distributed and Rubio greeted the King, Felipe said, “There is a small reception for the monarchs this evening. Sookie?” and he looked at her, “You will not be required, so you will be free to accompany Amber to the hotel spa. I have arranged full treatments for both of you. What better way to recover from the stress of travel?” Amber let out a sound that might have been a squeal.
“That’s real nice of you,” Sookie said automatically. She wasn’t fooled. Felipe wanted her to troll for information.
Things were settled and, two hours later, Sookie was face down on a low, padded bench having warmed stones placed on her back. Amber was chirping away with her attendant, asking about waxing services. Sookie opened her mind and listened to those around her.
It was the usual array of thoughts. These were women and men who had accompanied vampires. Only one was also vampire, the rest were human. Sookie didn’t understand vampires’ reluctance to play with Weres, but she’d heard their blood didn’t attract vampires like human blood did, and there was some general prejudice at play as well. Sookie filtered through the humans, touching lust, greed, affection, and, in one case, the despair of a girl who was certain this was the last trip she’d take with the vampire she loved. It made Sookie’s heart ache, and she was trying to determine who the girl was when two woman walked out of another part of the spa, talking. “He’ll be pissed when he finds out!” one said, her voice almost hissing.
“You got to love a woman with big balls. What was her excuse?” the other was leaning forward.
“Unexpected business emergency. It’s great to be a Queen. Like anyone would question you!” her companion returned.
“Does that mean her dreamy consort is here all by his lonesome?” came the question, and Sookie saw, clear as day, just as the woman had seen him earlier, Eric Northman standing in the hotel lobby.
“Hell, girl! I’ll help you tap that!” her friend laughed and then they were gone.
The stones on her flesh were warm, almost uncomfortably so, but all Sookie could feel was cold.