Disclaimer: All recognisable characters and settings belong to Charlaine Harris. She created and owns them, I'm just playing dress up.
Author's note: Hi lovely readers! Sorry this sequel has been so long coming. It's half written, so I'm intending to post a chapter a week while I'm finishing it so you don't all forget I exist.
As usual, this is an adult story. It will be long (so long) and there will be angst. In fact just imagine 'Don't Panic' written in friendly pink letters at the start of every chapter. It will help. First a brief recap for those who don't want to reread Turbulence, and then on with the show...
Recap of Turbulence:
Three years after he was forced to marry Freyda, Eric was caught up in a complicated political plot woven by Alabama, an old adversary, who married Freyda bigamously using a loophole in Ocella's contract. Eric was tortured and almost killed. Rescued in the nick of time, Karin and Freyda were ended in the fight. Pam brought Eric home to recover.
Back at the farmstead, Sookie, grieving over a miscarriage, argued with Sam, who took off to Texas without her for Thanksgiving. After much soul-searching over her failing marriage, Sookie went to Pam for advice and was shocked to run into Eric.
The next day Sookie was kidnapped by Lattesta but rescued by Pam. Back home she sustained a serious head injury. Eric healed her despite his own injuries, but collapsed. Sookie woke up to find him out cold. She fed him, but it took Pam's blood to revive him. A furious Sam arrived and so, unexpectedly, did Niall. Niall offered Eric a healer to repay him for saving Sookie.
The healer, Rory, was a fae woman who is more than she seems. Part-dae and an empath; she healed Eric and helped with the trauma of his torture. Eric thanked her, giving her some power over him.
Sookie got sound advice about Sam from Michele and Kennedy, Tara not so much. Sam was evasive about the guards Niall mentioned, so Sookie went to Fangtasia to ask Pam. She shared hug with Eric and discovered her peaceful life was a sham. The guards had foiled several attempts on her life. Then Rory arrived and dropped a bombshell: Sookie was tied magically to Sam, a 'join' created by the wish Sookie made to save him. Rory was adamant that Sookie didn't love Sam, but Sookie protested that she did and left.
When Sam found Sookie at home smelling of Eric, he flew into a rage, almost shifting. Sookie discovered, from Niall, Amelia and Dr Ludwig, that the join was responsible for Sam's erratic behaviour. Jason saw Sookie's bruises and picked a fight with Sam, landing them both in jail. Kenya, worried Sookie would be hurt, persuaded Sam to stay away for a few nights. It all came to a head in his trailer: Sam forced Sookie to admit she didn't love him. In turmoil, he moved out of the house.
Meanwhile, Eric was in Dallas for Alabama's trial. Rory arrived with damning evidence against her and her plot was exposed. The verdict went against her. Eric ended her, getting closure, and found he had powerful allies. Texas, Mississippi and Indiana asked him to take Louisiana, but Eric was wary of another plot.
Niall found a way to remove the join. Leaving a letter for Sam, Sookie said good-bye to her family and friends and travelled to England. There she crossed into another realm to meet a powerful ancient woman who immersed her in a sacred pool to remove the join. She made it back to England and Niall, and then collapsed.
Part I: Safe Harbour:
Darkness. My eyes wouldn't open. My limbs were limp, unresponsive. I was swaying in some-one's arms, carried. Then lowered, jostled onto a soft bed. Oblivion.
Rousing briefly, eyes scrunched against the dim light, I struggled to roll over, damp sheets clinging to my clammy skin.
Later, a draft roused me, cool against the sweat on my back. I shivered, chilled. Soft covers were tucked gently around me, hushed voices whispered close by. Cocooned in comfort and warmth I slid back into the dark, to dream strange dreams.
Dead birds hung in a tree; dead birds that stirred, screeching and flapping to life.
Honey eyes in a tanned face, crooked teeth in a shy smile.
A drowned woman rose, dripping, from a pool, her cold flesh flushing with life and health, straggles of hair dark with water and dripping weeds drying rapidly into golden braids woven with water lilies. She smiled at me.
A wood, blanketed with snow that melted in seconds, a carpet of blue flowers blossoming in its place.
The dreams let me go, let me float to the surface.
The room was dark and I burned with thirst. A cloth, cool and wet, dabbed gently at my forehead. A wiry arm slipped under my shoulders and lifted me. A glass pressed against my lips, coaxing words were murmured. I drank the tepid liquid greedily, tasting sweetness and spices.
Sleep and fever dreams tugged me back into the depths.
I felt like an old dish-rag that had been wrung out too many times. Frayed around the edges.
I opened my eyes to a blue wall, which might have been calming if I had the slightest idea where I was. There was a quiet familiar noise behind me, a rhythmic snick-snacking. Gingerly rolling onto my back, I saw a homely bedroom with solid wooden furniture, door half-open and one window, drapes closed against the daylight.
An elderly lady sat beside the bed, knitting with neat precision. Her hands stilled and she looked up.
Unruly tendrils of white hair curled from her bun to frame her nut-brown face. A face wizened with age, cheeks plump, but etched deep by wind and sun and ready smiles. Her warm brown eyes crinkled with pleasure.
"Good mornin', dearie. Daveth will be relieved. That boy 'as been worried sick." Her voice had a warm, rich burr that rubbed all the hard sounds of her words soft.
I conducted a mental stock-take. Nope, I didn't recognise my hostess or this room, and I didn't recall a Daveth either. I cleared my throat and asked huskily, "What date is it?"
Now that might sound rude, and not the most obvious question to ask after waking up in a strange bed, but my situation was hardly normal. My last coherent memory was coming back – to England, I hoped that was where I was – after a trippy day-trip to another realm. Having left in the depths of winter and found spring had sprung when I returned, the date was an urgent priority.
She answered kindly, "It be Sunday, twenty-third of May, my love. Niall brought you 'ere Tuesday last, burning up with fever. 'E asked me to look af'er 'ee. I be Talwynn. But 'ee can call me Wynn."
"Pleased to meet you," I croaked automatically. I'd been gone six months, just as Niall predicted. "Where am I? Who's Daveth?
"We be jus' up the 'ill from the Rising Sun. My grandson Daveth fetched your things over." She gestured at my case sitting in the corner, and then tutted at herself. "'E'd be Dave to thee. 'Ee fetched 'ee from London last December." Her eyes flickered with caution. "Remember that?"
"None of that. Wynn," she corrected firmly, looking relieved I hadn't forgotten. "Now, I'll fetch some broth and af'er that 'ee can 'ave a bath."
Wynn was tiny and some age if Dave was her grandson, but she sure wasn't frail. She bustled up and down the steep stairs with a tray and stripped the bed the second I was out of it. The broth soothed my throat and the bath was heavenly. Weak and shaky, I pulled on a fresh nightgown and slid gratefully between clean sheets. Wynn let me sleep the day away, only waking me for more broth in the evening.
Wynn left me alone most of the next day. I appreciated that, feeling like I'd had a bad bout of 'flu. I'd never liked company while I was too weak to keep out thoughts that weren't mine. I spent the time resting, napping and thinking. Thankfully my head was clear despite my fatigue.
The weightiest topic, the one that consumed me in quiet moments, was my marriage to Sam.
I came to some long overdue conclusions. Michele had been spot on: I had settled for less, for safety over passion, friendship over ardour. That missing spark was why Sam complained that I shut him out. Not that he was wrong. I had.
I hadn't given our relationship my all.
It went beyond stubbornly keeping my savings to myself. I had consistently hidden parts of my life, myself from him: I didn't share my grief, my fears over my fairy-ness, even my renewed friendship with Pam. I didn't discuss the future with him. I didn't act as if we were a team.
We had our 'special' difficulties too. My telepathy got in the way and, if I was honest, I had a hard time with Sam's otherness too. If I'd tried harder to accept his nature maybe I could have overcome that. But I hadn't. I hadn't tried with my whole heart.
Sam was right: no healthy relationship could flourish if one person held back.
Oh sure, I'd thrown myself into being a dutiful wife to compensate for the absence of passion between us. I'd taken that too far, giving up my college dreams without a murmur of discontent, concentrating on Sam's needs instead – running the bar, fitting in with his family, providing him with children, or trying to – all when I hadn't truly loved him.
Mulling over how much I'd changed for Sam made me uneasy. Pam had nailed that, I admitted ruefully. I could blame it on the fairy magic, but I had vowed to prove his mom Bernie wrong, vowed to make Sam happy, hadn't I? I suspected that was sheer Stackhouse stubbornness, no magic required.
Discovering my wish had kept Sam magically tied to me had been a shock for both of us. Sam resented the hell out of me for inadvertently taking his freedom. The whole mess forced us both to face the painful fact that I didn't love him and that hurt him deeply. With a nudge from Bernie in evil mother-in-law mode, Sam had abruptly moved out. Right after that, the awful prospect of the magic destroying Sam had sent me rushing across the Atlantic in full-on saviour mode to get rid of the damn 'join'.
Now the crisis was over, Sam's resentment didn't seem entirely reasonable. It wasn't like I'd planned to control him; the join was an unintended consequence of saving his life. Sam had reacted as if I'd done it deliberately.
He'd sure been quick to jump ship on me, too. That hurt and I went to sleep that night a little resentful myself.
The second day brought further clarity, my blinkers gone with the join. I shook off my disquiet about what that implied and evaluated Sam as a husband, fairy magical influences aside. I owed him that much.
He was a good provider. We ran the bar well together, our skills complementing each other's. He was kind and decent. We shared similar values and faith. He'd done his best to protect me from his family's curiosity, tried to calm their fears about my ability. They'd accepted me after a few hiccups, Bernie aside. And he'd tried to stand up to her, as best he could. Most of Bon Temps approved of us. He was a good friend.
Those things were all positive, but didn't I deserve more?
And Sam had his flaws.
He was secretive and not just about being a shifter. His casual mention of a wild teenage past made me realise that after three years together I knew precious little about his life before he came to Bon Temps. I could forgive him hiding a painful past, but not for hiding things I needed to know: things about the supe world, what was happening around me and the danger I was in. He was far too eager to keep me in the dark over that. I didn't want that sort of protection.
He was an intensely private man. That made him uncomfortable with my telepathy and around Hunter. Yet Sam didn't respect my privacy, never had. That wasn't the magic. Years ago he'd revealed my relationship with Bill to all and sundry without a second thought. He had no qualms about discussing my business online with Lord knows who either. When things went to hell between us, he ran his mouth off to Tara and half of Hotshot about me, triggering a buzz of salacious gossip, all of it untrue.
I expected more consideration for my privacy when he guarded his own so tightly.
Sam had an unfortunate tendency to jump to conclusions. First my miscarriages were cause by his nature, not that he furnished me with that explanation. Then he blamed the vamp blood I'd had. When Eric turned up, Sam was convinced that I'd invited Eric into our home, that Eric had engineered getting his blood into me again. Granted, Sam had never been fond of vamps – a prejudice handed down from his mom, I suspected – and Eric was certainly not his best undead buddy. But it wasn't just vamps; Sam had treated Quinn with the same suspicion.
Come to think of it, Sam had been territorial back when we were engaged, muttering and pouting every time I ran into Bill or Alcide. I'd been flattered, put it down as a supe thing. I knew now, no thanks to Sam, that he didn't get full rights over me in the supe world until we were married, which explained some of his insecurity. Unfortunately, like a fool, I'd kept the peace by avoiding Bill and Alcide. That set an unfortunate precedent. Sam expected me to avoid any man he saw as a threat.
So … Sam didn't trust me. He was jealous and possessive.
Remembering how Sam was back when I was with Bill, I figured that was Sam's true self, not the magic. I wouldn't stand for that or his recent behaviour – searching my purse and phone, maybe even following me to Fangtasia.
Could I trust him?
He'd flirted with that shifter girl at Merlotte's. Right in front of me. He might have felt guilty, but he certainly didn't stop being 'friendly' to female customers to spare my feelings. I got pissed all over again when it dawned on me that Sam sure had one hell of a double standard there, expecting me to avoid attractive men.
He had refused that skank he met in Texas, the one who shoved her tongue down his throat all uninvited. I rolled my eyes. He was drunk and dancing with her, it wasn't that uninvited. How much temptation he could resist without fairy magic tying him to me? He said himself shifters found the call of the wild hard to ignore. Worse: when Thalia said he smelt of another woman he'd flat-out lied. Instead of coming clean about Skanky McSkank he'd used my telepathy to mislead me without a second thought. So quickly and smoothly I felt it showed his true character.
A man used to covering his tracks.
That gave me pause. Messing around with other women and lying about it? Hell no, that wasn't for me.
Other incidents seemed manipulative with hindsight. For such a private man, proposing in front of our friends was odd. Had he done that to make it harder for me to refuse him? Had he gone as far as getting Jason and Tara on side beforehand, hoping they'd sway me?
Then there was the subtle pressure to have children. The birth control 'oops' on our honeymoon had freaked me out, but he was totally unfazed. He dropped hints that I stubbornly ignored, until he offered to babysit Tara's twin on our first Valentine's Day. What guy does that? That was decidedly suspect. Had he tried to rail-road me into that too? Sam never questioned if I really wanted kids, or opened up on why it was so important to him. Did he even want kids or was that the join pushing him to bind us together anyway he could?
The violence though, that had to be the magic. I knew Sam, the normal stresses and strains of life wouldn't have been enough to push him to that. Probably.
I sighed. The damn fairy magic clouded everything.
The last two strikes against him disappointed me deeply and there was no magical pass for either in my book.
First, he had no idea how miserable I'd been for the last year. I didn't think that was expecting too much. It was obvious to Kennedy, Michele and even Pam, who barely saw me. Sam, who lived with me, had been completely oblivious, blamed it all on the miscarriages. I wanted a husband who was in tune with me, not one who took me for granted, saw me as a baby-factory.
Second, as Michele predicted, Sam had been real reluctant to try therapy. Maybe men did baulk at that, but he must've known it was our only chance. Without real commitment from him it would have been as effective as slapping a band-aid on a severed artery.
No, all in all, Sam was not the right man for me. Not even a good-enough man.
Bottom line: I didn't love him.
That evening not only was I well enough for a proper meal, but I was decided. I was ready to call it quits and start divorce proceedings as soon as I got home.
Kennedy was right: I would survive it.
Wynn had just arrived with breakfast when loud footsteps thundered up the stairs. She winked at me as she settled a full breakfast tray on my lap. The bacon smelt delicious. She crossed quickly to the open door and hissed, "Daveth, stop that racket!"
The footsteps stopped and there was a much quieter mumbled apology.
"I should think so too, young man." The mischievous look she shot me contrasted with her scolding tone. She asked me conversationally, "Can 'e see the patient?"
I grinned. "Sure."
Footsteps hammered up the last few stairs and a large body filled the doorway. Dave, his hair a little longer than when I'd last seen him but his eyes just as friendly, grinned broadly at the sight of me sitting up in bed. His thoughts were still murky to me but I felt his relief, which was more than I got from Wynn. She was a closed book and I had no idea what kind. I felt at ease with her, though.
"Morning, Miss Stackhouse. You look a lot better. Nana's remedies never fail, hey Nana?"
"Shush boy. Did 'ee get my shopping?"
"Yes, Nana. It's in the kitchen. Think you'll be up and about soon, Miss Stackhouse?"
"I think so. It's nice to see you, Dave. Call me Sookie."
He beamed at me. "You should stay another week, see the sights. I'd be happy to show you around."
"Oh, I couldn't. You've both done so much–"
Wynn butted in. "Nonsense. I don't turn sick folk out, not even Niall's kin." She winked mischievously. "And an 'oliday do 'ee good, lovey."
I'd already discovered saying no to Wynn was fruitless; the spry old gal rolled right over you like Katrina. It was tempting, but I had Jason waiting for me, and Sam… I sighed. "I'll think about it."
Wynn gave me a shrewd look before she ushered Dave out so I could eat in peace.
After lunch, Wynn insisted on some fresh air, saying, "Sunshine be good for thee and thine, my love."
I didn't argue. Dressed in comfortable sweats, I made my way shakily downstairs and followed her out into the backyard, squinting against the light.
Linked by stone steps, a series of lawns were cut into the steep rising hillside. Each was surrounded by lush beds teeming with a bounty of plants that burgeoned over the green pools of neatly trimmed grass. A profusion of flowers of all colours, it was a genuine English country garden, the daylight version of Karin's moonlit painting.
Wynn settled me halfway up the slope, on a sheltered bench angled to catch the afternoon sun. I tucked the blanket she gave me over my legs. The heat wasn't as fierce as Louisiana, but the May sunshine warmed my bare arms pleasantly nonetheless.
Wynn reappeared in a wide hat, carrying a shallow wicker basket that held a ball of string and a small curved blade. A silver sickle. Odd, but Wynn was no ordinary old lady. She began working her way along the beds, cutting stems of flowers and herbs, tying them in bundles and humming quietly to herself. I soaked up the rays, relaxing to the sound of bees lazily visiting the lavender that was sending up clouds of sweet scent around me.
After a spell, Wynn's task brought her closer and we chatted some, finding we had barmaiding in common. She told me how she met her husband, a handsome fisherman, in the pub she worked at, and the fuss his mother made over them marrying because Wynn was older than him.
"Family be family, but in-laws be zummat else," she chuckled and I agreed heartily, thinking of Bernie.
Wynn lost her husband to the sea, but not before he had time to give her two strapping lads, and 'plenty of practice making 'em' she added with a wink. She told old stories about the herbs she was cutting. I suspected she knew a few unconventional 'recipes', but I didn't like to ask outright if she was a witch when she'd been so hospitable. We shared gardening tips, which led to me admiring the red rose climbing above her back door. I wondered aloud how Gran's roses were faring under Jason's less than tender care.
Wynn glanced up from her work and said shrewdly, "Ee were close to 'er."
Wynn was someone else's grandmother. I missed mine. I swallowed. "Yes. Gran raised me and Jason after we lost our parents."
"What were she like?"
I answered haltingly at first, watching Wynn's gnarled brown hands gathering stems instinctively. I described Gran's cooking, her DGD meetings, her love of gardening and gossip. Words flowed easier as I recounted anecdotes about her whooping Jason and putting Maxine Fortenberry in her place, chuckling at the memories. I touched on her strength, her love and her worries for us. Wynn didn't pry, but lulled by the garden and the sun I found myself telling her how Gran was torn between Fintan and her husband, how my daddy and Aunt Linda came to be, and how I wished she'd confided in me when she was alive so I understood why I was different.
Easing herself up and taking a seat next to me, Wynn asked if it had been hard, not knowing.
I answered frankly, unearthing things that had been buried for an age, painful hard things that sat in my heart like stones: the way my mother treated me, how hard school was, growing up as Crazy Sookie in Bon Temps, even a whisper of what Bartlett had done.
When I trailed off into silence, Wynn patted my knee, nodded to herself and got stiffly to her feet. "These old bones be ready for a cuppa, my love. I'll fetch us a cream tea."
She took her harvest inside, giving me time to pack away my sorrows and dry my eyes. When she came back, carrying a loaded tray, she'd swapped her gardening clothes for a Sunday-best dress. 'Cream tea' was fluffy home-made raisin scones with a generous spoonful of Wynn's best strawberry jam and a dollop of cream thick enough to cut. She called it clotted cream. It was delicious.
The mug of tea was very soothing. If the flavour was unusual, it hit the spot and I wasn't complaining.
The sunshine helped; I felt stronger. That evening I ate a light meal in the kitchen with Wynn, admiring her copper pans and the drying herbs hanging from the ceiling, drinking more of her unusual tea.
I went to bed early and lay in the dark, my body relaxed and my mind strangely lucid. Talking with Wynn had drawn long-forgotten memories up from the dark depths, the past bubbling up to bring the present into sharper focus.
I'd made some colossal mistakes with Sam. I wasn't the sort to put myself under a microscope and self-analyse, but I would be doomed to repeat those mistakes if I didn't understand them.
Gran had raised me with old-fashioned ideas about marriage. Not that I was about to throw all of them out with the bathwater, but marrying Sam had fulfilled the life goals I'd been raised to seek: a well-run home, a hard-working husband, a couple of healthy kids. Sam fit the bill, down to the white picket fence if the one around his trailer counted.
I'd never expected to be so blessed, so I'd never given much thought to whether I actually wanted that. Women had other options these days. High-powered careers.
Well, some did. Education, a lack of it, limited my options. I'd planned to rectify that, but I hadn't even taken a bookkeeping course for the bar. I'd hardly hit my thirties running, career-wise, but there was still time to go to college. School had been a disaster, but I had control of my telepathy now. Heck, if Jason could do it, college would be a piece of cake.
Doubts about my intelligence whispered in my ear, nibbling at my confidence. I silenced them firmly, recognising a legacy from my momma, Michelle. All those tests she put me through, teachers and psychologists with long faces shaking their heads sadly at my parents.
That was enough to knock any kid's self-confidence.
I wasn't stupid or defective. I knew that. I wasn't that scared kid either, begging to stop the tests that made my head hurt, pleading for my momma's approval.
I didn't beg for anyone's approval now, I thought fiercely.
I'd pleaded with Sam not to leave me. Heck, I'd stooped as low as a desperate 'I love you'.
I winced, ashamed. Oh, I'd convinced myself I meant it, but the lie was obvious to Sam. He had, quite rightly, laughed in my face.
It would be easy to say the join confused me, camouflaged my feelings, but honestly that was an excuse. Marriage meant love, had to in my book. I'd married him, therefore I must love him. I'd said it, lying to both of us, because otherwise nothing about us made sense.
That was on me.
But... I would never beg a man to stay if I was myself. I had too much pride. The neediness, the weepy apologies that coloured my time with Sam, those had to be the join. Right?
Those damn memories bubbled up at me. Momma, cold and disapproving; my childhood, spent ostracised and lonely; my daddy gone, washed away. Even Gran's love couldn't heal those wounds completely.
I yearned for the love and companionship I'd missed out on, hearing only criticism and censure from the thoughts around me. Had I clung to Sam because of that lonely child who believed no man would ever want her?
Because I was broken, damaged goods. I didn't deserve happiness.
That hurtful litany had haunted me after the miscarriages. Rationally I knew it wasn't true, but my reaction had been far from rational. I had been devastated.
The root of that internal voice was smack-in-the-face obvious. Uncle Bartlett, the gift that just kept on giving.
Momma's reaction too. Sookie's messing around with boys too young, making up nasty stories for attention. Labelling her peculiar daughter a precocious liar was preferable to losing a babysitter and time alone with my daddy.
If only I'd been like other kids, blissfully ignorant of her opinions and Bartlett's twisted desires. My damn telepathy ruined my innocence far too young.
A moment of clarity jolted me.
I was blaming my telepathy, not the people who hurt me.
Just like momma had.
I'd been doing that for years. When other kids avoided me, pitied me or, worse, taunted me out of fear, I blamed my disability not their small-minded intolerance. Crazy Sookie was a target unless she became Normal Sookie. I'd prayed to fit in, be a regular person. I hated the telepathy, tried to hide it, scrub it away.
Why wouldn't I? I'd learnt to be ashamed of it at my momma's knee. Even Gran's acceptance couldn't undo that.
How long had that particular monkey been riding me?
Too long. Marrying Sam gave me a chance to be 'normal'. Determined not to spoil it, I told Sam I could hardly read his thoughts. Sam encouraged me to try and it was fun at first, but even that turned sour. It was okay to joke around, but if I accidentally overheard him when he didn't want me to, or when we fought, Sam took it as a betrayal.
Just like momma, he couldn't accept my quirk. The last in a long line of rejections, Sam's bit deep.
I gasped, covering my mouth in the darkness.
I'd bitten back. All those fights when I lashed out, recklessly provoking him. That was why. I was angry, so angry, that even Sam, my husband, hated that part of me.
Gran was the only one who'd accepted my telepathy. Even daddy hadn't, although he had once shrewdly asked my opinion of a business deal so he wasn't as disgusted by the idea as momma. But if he suspected I could read minds, why hadn't he tried to help me?
Maybe he didn't want to rock the boat with momma. I wished Gran had told him. If he'd known where it came from, things would have been different for sure. But Gran kept me and everyone else in the dark, ashamed of her adultery with Fintan and unsure how to explain the whole fairy thing. That hurt, even now, that she kept her secrets rather than stepping up for me.
Learning that your guiding light was fallible was a hard lesson, but I should take comfort in it. Much as I loved her, Gran hadn't been perfect. If the best of us made mistakes, I could forgive my own.
And correct them. I vowed I'd never be ashamed of my telepathy again. It was part of me.
My strange bout of introspection had unknotted something inside me.
The next morning, Thursday, I threw caution to the wind and decided to take that vacation I deserved. I'd be a fool not to; it was a once in a life time opportunity.
Wynn insisted I was welcome to stay with her, but I decided to go back to the hotel. Niall had reserved a room there for me. I felt guilty accepting his generosity until I reminded myself sternly that he'd missed years of birthdays. The guilt might have won out if he'd stuck around instead of dumping me with strangers. Pleasant strangers, but still strangers.
I called the airline and confirmed my flight home in a week, and then, after checking the time difference twice, I made two calls to Louisiana.
Pam didn't sound surprised to hear from me an hour before dawn her time. I told her when I expected to be home and she offered to have a car meet me in Dallas. I accepted gratefully, and promised we'd have that talk about the guard situation that was six months overdue for her, only days late for me. As I hung up after our mercifully short call, I cringed wondering if the guards had lost income while I was out of town, but it couldn't be helped.
I had to wait a while to call Jason, but I timed it just right and caught him at home. We had a garbled conversation. Already excitable with the approaching full moon, he was ecstatic that I was okay and that I'd be home before Michele was due to give birth. I was pleased as punch to hear it was a girl. Junior was babbling in the background and I got more sense out of Michele once she took the phone. She complained about her aching back, but scolded me when I offered to come home early to help out. She told me to bring back an armful of souvenirs and, with her order to have a wonderful vacation ringing in my ears, I packed up my things, hugged Wynn and headed gleefully to the Rising Sun.
I got the same room. I may have bounced on that gorgeous half-poster bed again, squealing like a kid.
Part 2: Renewal:
I spent my first day solo, exploring the harbour and snapping away with the digital camera Dave leant me. He wouldn't accept anything but a hug for it, but I'd insisted on buying my own memory card. Sun was forecast for the week, giving me a cheerful icebreaker to use with everyone I met. Chatting about the weather really was a national pastime. Folk were real friendly to a single girl too, which eased the awkwardness of being alone.
That afternoon I strolled along the seafront nibbling an ice-cream. Some giggling ahead of me caught my attention. Two teenage girls, arm in arm, were chattering away without a care in the world.
I sighed. Tara. We hadn't parted on the best of terms. She'd bawled me out. I'd slapped her. I hadn't spoken to her again before I left, not caring whether I was burning my last bridge with her. I glanced guiltily at the girls in front of me, heads bent to together, whispering secrets.
I hadn't given Tara that recently: unconditional support, no questions asked.
I'd been judgemental of the way she raised her kids. She got overwhelmed, resented the twins at times, but she wasn't a bad mother. I'd been reacting to her thoughts, so painfully like my momma's. Oh, I'd kept my criticisms to myself, but I'd hardly been encouraging. Which was awful; Tara had enough doubts over her parenting skills after her own lousy role models. Lord knew how I'd take to motherhood myself if I was ever blessed with it. It wasn't easy.
Then there was her unhappy marriage. In my heart, I felt JB deserved better.
Trouble was Tara was stained by her past in my eyes, that woman hell-bent on poor choices she'd been. The one who got tangled up with orgies for Eggs and took gifts from Franklin Mott. The one whose butt I rescued from that psycho Mickey, almost a day late and a dollar short.
I didn't trust her moral judgement.
Although I understood exactly why Tara had settled for JB after those jerks, I dismissed her complaints and unhappiness with a cold: She made her bed.
An incredibly hard-hearted attitude when I'd done just the same with Sam. Ironic too, given that I was the one refusing to lay in my bed, not Tara. She wasn't getting a divorce.
Unless JB had found out about Clive. I shuddered, recalling Tara's intimate memories of him. Keeping an affair secret around me was no mean feat, but if she didn't think it I couldn't hear it. And Tara was good at hiding things from herself.
Maybe if I'd been more sympathetic...
I sighed irritably. Nope, I wasn't taking responsibility for her mistakes. That was on her.
Not that she'd kept her nose out of my marriage. I was so pissed with her. She'd always had my back, but she took Sam's side every damn time we argued. Why was she so invested in me and Sam? Guilt over her own rocky relationship? Or …
Oh, hell. The wish. Had it influenced her somehow, to keep us together? If it had, I had no idea how to undo that.
No point in fretting about something I couldn't fix. I resolved to be a kinder, more compassionate friend when I got back. If Tara was still speaking to me, that–
A man brushed passed, a blast of his mental chatter startling me.
I looked around. The seafront had filled up, the sun drawing out the crowds, but I wasn't being bombarded mentally. Perplexed, I focused on the nearest person. Nope, my telepathy worked fine if I homed in. So why…
Blood. Eric's blood.
Blood only lasted a few months, but as far as my body was concerned only a few weeks had passed. The effects were still strong. It had certainly kicked my control up a whole notch. Vamp blood always made it easier, but this was a dream. Shielding was so effortless I'd barely noticed I was doing it.
A lot of Eric's blood, then.
Was that significant? It made me uneasy, but I couldn't undo that either, so I chose to view it as a blessing. It would make visiting busy tourist spots easier.
Eric hung around in the back of my mind all day. He leapt right to the front of it when I saw someone tall ducking under a low door in the hotel dining room. The old building was centuries younger than Eric, giving weight to how much he'd seen in his long life. I toyed with my evening meal, wondering what the heck he ever saw in a barmaid from backwoods Louisiana.
Seeing him after three years had been a shock, an emotional roller-coaster.
I'd fed him blood without a second thought. I had nightmares about him dying. I'd cried in relief at his recovery. We'd shared a very emotional embrace.
But I second-guessed his every move and assumed the worst motives: He was looking out for his own ass. I was an asset to control with his blood. He was out to provoke Sam.
It was safe to say I had very mixed feelings about Eric.
Pam wanted me to trust him. She made reasonable points about how he'd acted over the whole Freyda debacle and I'd refused point-blank to listen.
Now I'd had time to absorb what she said, I accepted that he hadn't had a choice or much to gain by marrying the stuck-up witch of Oklahoma. That meant I couldn't, in all fairness, continue hating him for choosing to further his own position over staying with me. He hadn't.
I was at a loss as to what to feel instead.
It was water under the bridge, ancient history, I told myself and concentrated on eating, recalling other things Pam had discussed. Sam. My guards. Her parting comment one night that Sam wasn't the reason I'd stopped seeing her.
Oh shoot. I finally got that.
She was right, damn it. Sure, I was wary of her reaction to Sam and I knew damn well Sam would rather I had nothing to do with the vamps, but that wasn't the reason I broke off our friendship.
It was Eric.
She reminded me too much of Eric. I couldn't bear to see her after he left. I looked down at my plate and swallowed hard. The holes he left in my life and my heart had healed over, but the scars still ached.
I'd covered up that ache with bitterness, clinging to the idea that he'd left for power and money. That was why I suspected everything he did when he came back. It was safer.
Because when he left, I lost more than I cared to admit.
The next day I opened my door to find Dave with a gorgeous bunch of flowers.
"Sweet peas for a sweet lady," he said, bashfully holding them out. I took them and buried my face in them. They smelt heavenly. Once I settled them in a vase by the window, I thanked him with a kiss on the cheek just to see him blush.
He drove me down to Plymouth, on the south coast, where I stood on the very dock the Mayflower had sailed from and had my picture taken. We visited a museum about the Pilgrim Fathers and Francis Drake, who'd also sailed from the harbour. I gushed over the cobbled streets and the old buildings, taking an album's worth of photos. We ate lunch in a pub and then visited two Elizabethan houses, with leaded windows and wooden beams darkened with age. I brushed away images of Eric in period dress, ducking through the low doorways with that smirk of his, and concentrated on appreciating the history.
On the way back Dave took a detour to a certain inn on a bleak moor, made famous by a Daphne du Maurier novel I'd read as a teenager. I was eager to see if the setting lived up to my imagination.
Supposedly haunted, the impressive stone building wasn't so bleak in the sunshine, which suited me just fine. I'd had my fill of brooding moors during my otherworldly trip. I wandered around the little museum while Dave regaled me with stories of smugglers and wreckers, secret caves and daring chases across the moors. We had a lovely meal there before the long drive back. I dozed in the back seat, still tired from the fever and that night I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep the second my head found my pillow.
On Sunday, Dave took me down the coast to Tintagel, said to be King Arthur's birthplace. We had a walk to reach it, but when it came into view at the end of a steep-sided valley I was stunned.
It wasn't like my naive idea of Camelot, like a castle in a movie.
Bare stone ruins jutted like broken teeth from a steep windswept island a stone's throw from the shore. It wasn't difficult to imagine it in its heyday, majestic and imposing. The wind whipped white wisps of cloud across the blue sky and the rugged coast was bright and beautiful in the sun. The scene stole my breath.
We checked out the visitor centre, had a picnic in a sheltered spot, and spent the day scrambling over ruins and rocks, exploring caves and splashing in shallow sea water. Plenty of exercise with no time to dwell, just what I needed.
I was exhausted when we got back to the hotel. Dave suggested a shorter trip for the next day and I agreed.
I spent Monday in Ilfracombe, with its picturesque harbour nestled between wooded hills and houses painted in merry blues, pinks and greens. It was spring bank holiday, so the place was swarming with day-trippers and I was glad my telepathy was behaving itself. Even so, I was careful not to brush against anyone as I walked around the streets.
I found a café called Adele's. The name seemed prophetic and I went inside, pleased to find a cheerful bustling place serving cheap decent food. I picked a healthy sandwich to balance out all the cream teas and squeezed into a table by the window. As I ate I eavesdropped on the family behind me, whose kids were giggling and talking excitedly about the beach.
The staff were run off their feet. A sullen young woman was wiping tables briskly between customers. I sympathised; it was miserable to be the one working when everyone else was enjoying a holiday. Gazing out the window, I drifted off into thoughts of home and Gran. A noise disturbed me. The poor girl had dropped a fork. It skittered across the floor towards my chair, so I picked it up and held it out to her.
"Wait a second," she snapped, clattering the dishes she was carrying down on an empty table so she could restack them less precariously. A customer with a cut-glass accent asked for ketchup and she nodded tightly at him, muttering under her breath as she stomped off to fetch it.
When she came back, I said in a friendly tone, "It's sure busy today. You must be itching for a break."
She snorted. "Yeah. I bloody well am." Her scowl relaxed and she rubbed her face tiredly. "Look, sorry I snapped. I shouldn't be in today …"
She trailed off and I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. Hastily scrabbling in her apron for a tissue, she quickly wiped her face before picking up the pile of plates and moving towards me.
"Oh honey," I said kindly, "I was a waitress for years. I know it's tough."
She gave me a weak smile and said quietly, "Sorry about that. I … Well, I lost someone close a few days ago and I'm still a mess."
"Oh," I stuttered, taken aback by her confession, so at odds with the happy atmosphere. "Sorry to hear that," I mumbled as she reached for the fork. She stiffened as our fingers brushed, her furious thoughts hitting me like a punch to the gut.
Sorry? You're not sorry. You didn't know my dad. I wish everybody would stop saying stupid meaningless shit.
She left, muttering a sharp 'thank you' that sounded as hurt as she felt.
I chided myself; I'd felt exactly the same when I lost Gran. Every clichéd condolence at her funeral was another barb, half-hearted words that insulted her memory and made me want to slap–
I stiffened, inhaling sharply.
"Sorry to hear that."
I'd trotted out that well-worn phrase recently. I wasn't the only one who reacted badly to it.
My insipid reaction to Karin's death.
Oh Lord. A few days earlier I'd used the same phrase for Freyda. Freyda, the conniving witch I held in deep contempt. No wonder Eric had been offended when I'd used the same mechanical phrase for Karin, his vampire child. Probably the closest person to him after Pam.
How would I feel in his shoes, if I'd just lost Jason?
I rewound that conversation and saw it in a whole new light. I'd compounded the insult with a petty jab at him too, calling Karin just another blonde who could fight.
Pam. She hadn't meant to shut me out, talking about Karin, that painting. She was mourning her. Trying to show me Karin was more than the stereotype I'd reduced her to. Pam didn't wear her feelings on her face, but that didn't mean she didn't feel the loss deeply. Karin was dear to her, and Eric, part of their … family, I guessed, or the closest vamps got to one. If I hadn't been so caught up in my own drama...
I'd been appallingly rude to them both.
And Pam was my friend. A true friend deserved genuine condolences for the loss of family, not half-assed Hallmark phrases.
I wasn't proud of the way I'd laid into Pam that night either. It had been a slap upside the head to discover I needed round the clock guards, that my quiet life was a big fat fake. Reeling from that come-to-Jesus, I'd latched onto old issues with Eric and exploded. Pam got caught in the blast. The way she'd bowed her head...
I'd really hurt her. No wonder Eric had snapped. Pam was all he had left.
Sweet baby Jesus, these insights into what a crappy friend I was could just stop already. I took a bite of my sandwich and chewed woodenly, staring out the window blindly as I swallowed.
I had been defensive with Eric too. Protecting myself.
With half a world between us, it was safe to drop those defences and see him with clear eyes.
All the things he'd done when he left that made me so angry... Eric had been in an impossible situation. We both had. I might hate the way he'd chosen to handle it – if Sam had been Mr Right, 'passing me on' to him wouldn't raise my hackles so much – but Eric had been backed into a corner. He hadn't had a lot of options.
He'd done the best he could. He wasn't perfect, just like Gran. I could let the water wash my anger under that damn bridge.
Trust him like Pam wanted? Maybe.
With my safety, at least.
I had to admit, high-handedness aside, Eric had always had my safety in mind. Oh, I'd denied it in the past, accusing him of self-interest over the pledge. Out of irritation mainly. I'd never really nailed his butt over that, letting it lie despite feeling snowed. Perhaps he'd taken that as carte blanche to make decisions for me.
Still, I owed him.
I couldn't be anything but grateful for the guards who'd repeatedly saved my butt. I had protection from half a dozen royal vampires. Eric credited that to my bravery at Rhodes, but I doubted I'd have it without him.
He came to my house to give me his blood when he was severely injured, risking his very existence from Pam's reaction. Disgracefully, I hadn't even thanked him.
I needed to put that right when I got home.
My mood was sombre until I met up with Wynn and Dave that evening.
Wynn had invited me to a local village festival. Dave found us a good spot on a sidewalk overlooking the small sandy beach. Wynn nodded to a few people in the crowd around us, all nut-brown and small, all (I checked cautiously) unreadable to me. Just like Wynn, who grinned at me widely and announced, "Here they come, my lovey."
The throbbing drums got louder and the crowd buzzed with excitement as the strange parade came into view. It was chaotic and loud and vibrant. Like a very good-natured, family-orientated Mardi Gras. Minus the beads, nudity and drunkenness. And much smaller, cosier. I let myself get caught up in the atmosphere, blessing my tougher shields.
Dave explained the men in red were the king's redcoats; the guy backwards on the donkey was their prisoner, an Irish rebel. There was a lot of dancing and music as they acted out shooting him, but one of the players, the fool, brought him back to life. Then, dancing to a merry tune, the parade wound down onto the sand below us and the men in red acted out killing him again. And then, just to be sure, they threw him out to sea to catcalls and laughter.
Wynn was calling out excitedly next to me. I joined in, infected with the enthusiasm of the crowd around me. I was buzzed, buoyed up on a wave of strange energy.
On the way back, Wynn told me the re-enactment wasn't strictly accurate. If locals had hunted a man to his death four centuries ago, it wasn't the Earl of Tyrone, who'd escaped safely to Spain. Her accent thickened. "It be an older spring ritual, one these young'uns 'ave long forgot. Thrice killed, that be zummat older than iron."
Wynn's eye gleamed amber in the dusk, a sense of ancient intelligence and fierce glee pouring off her for a second.
Alone in bed, I wondered whether a good Christian should approve of a tradition that diminished the casual brutality of the past, made it safer with laughter. Tamed it.
Wynn's joyful wildness was something else. Whatever she was, I realised I would be sad to see that tamed.
On Tuesday Dave promised me the prettiest castle for miles. He brought his four-wheel drive and we took the scenic route over the moors, stopping for me to take pictures of wild ponies with thick coats and sturdy legs, ponies let loose to graze free on the windswept hills.
Hidden in a wooded valley, the castle was more intact than Tintagel, but then it was only five centuries old.
Eric's age would be a whole lot less impressive if I'd grown up here surrounded by ruins and ancient festivals.
Passing under the imposing arched gateway, I wandered into a ruined building. Despite the sunshine, it was chilly inside the roofless shell. I ran my hand along the cool stones, wondering who had used this dank basement in years gone by. In the far corner, I got the chills, feeling eyes on my back. No-one was there, but a sense of loneliness and despair enveloped me. I shivered and my breath puffed out as a white cloud.
Spooked, I shot out into the sun. Dave took one look at my face and cheerfully declared, "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"It's haunted?" I squeaked.
"The White Lady walks these ruins," he said in a deep serious voice, then broke into a grin. "Starved to death by her sister in this very spot. Over a man," he added with a wink.
"It's not funny," I snapped.
His eyes widen. "You saw something?"
I looked back at the doorway and shivered. "I …felt something."
He shuffled his feet and mumbled apologetically. "Sorry, Sookie. I didn't know you had the sight. You okay?"
"Just peachy." I turned away, covering my unease. I'd never seen a ghost before. "What's over there?"
Thankfully, Dave dropped the subject and nothing else spectral made itself known the rest of the day. I had Dave stop for groceries on the way back. As my vacation was drawing to an end, I wanted to repay my hosts. I took over Wynn's kitchen and, as promised, treated them to some Southern home cooking.
Wynn's praise was particularly gratifying – she was a great cook herself – and Dave put away so much fried chicken that Wynn cackled he'd be laying eggs in the morning. He flushed beet red, but he made sure I gave Wynn the recipe.
Wednesday I spent in a bikini on a glorious beach, sand stretching for miles. I sunbathed lazily, watching surfers and reading my book. It was heaven.
Until one too many couples walked past me holding hands.
The last guy happened to be tall and blond, so Eric leapt to the front of my mind. Again. I sighed and put down my book to stare moodily at the sea.
Meeting Eric was awkward. I felt the loss of our closeness keenly. Seeing him comatose had shaken me and it had been a relief when his sickening injuries were healed.
I hesitated to attach a deeper meaning to those reactions. I'd duped myself into believing I loved Sam after I'd saved his life, I wouldn't repeat that mistake. Rushing to save Eric was just my nature, no more than I'd do for any friend. Obviously I had some lingering … affection for Eric, beyond simple leftover lust for an attractive man I'd known intimately. What exactly that meant was not clear, even with the join gone.
A flood of guilt washed over me. I was still married, I shouldn't be thinking about Eric that way. I winced, remembering the gossip flying round Bon Temps. No, definitely not about Eric.
It was irrelevant anyway.
That last confidence-boosting message he'd sent had a definite air of finality to it: You're tough, you'll survive. Have a nice life. Hardly flirtatious. Pam seemed sure he didn't plan to pursue me. That healer was sniffing round him like a bitch in heat, too.
He hadn't even wanted a blood connection to me – that stung, but that was only my wounded pride talking. Nothing more.
He wasn't interested, so why I was wasting a second thinking about … Oh. Could his blood be influencing me even after he severed the connection? I had run straight to Fangtasia…
No, I'd gone to see Pam. I hadn't even known he was there.
I took a deep cleansing breath of salt air, and blew it out slowly. I'd jumped to enough conclusions about Eric. I wasn't going down that road again. I vowed to allow him a clean slate when I saw him again. Wipe the past away.
I spent the rest of the afternoon developing a nice healthy tan and building up an appetite for my first taste of 'fish and chips'. Best eaten out of the paper wrapping, sitting on the harbour wall, according to Dave, who turned out to be perfectly correct. It was delicious.
I hugged Wynn tightly and thanked her again for the calming 'tea' tucked away in my suitcase. Shushing me, she saw me into the car. I waved until she was out of sight. We were heading to London a day early because I had a stop planned on the way.
Stonehenge was an anti-climax. I got some good photos, but no-one was allowed to get close to the huge stones. Dave saw my disappointed pout and took me to Avebury instead. It was an odd place, a whole village built inside a stone circle.
Over four thousand years old. Bite that, Northman.
I was fascinated by the enormous ditch ringing the village and the natural, uncut shapes of the stones. I put my hand on one. It was gritty and warm from the sun. A faint hum rose up my arm and the strange vibration warmed me, just like my great-grandfather's kiss. I lifted my hand away slowly, frowning at the stone suspiciously. I rubbed the tingle from my fingers and Dave gave me a curious look.
I shrugged, dispelling my disquiet with a mundane task: shopping. I'd been racking my brain for a gift for Amelia and this was just the place to find one. I browsed the tourist shop, full of New Age crystals and dragon ornaments, and found something perfect for my witchy friend.
I bought Dave lunch as a final thank you for playing chauffeur, before we set off for a cheap airport hotel in London. Dave insisted on taking a room and escorting me to my flight the next morning. Niall's instructions he said, but I suspected it was Dave's idea. We'd developed an easy friendship over the week and I was going to miss him. He was a sweet, shy man. I sure hoped his wife appreciated him.
When we parted at security, I gave him a peck on the cheek and a long hug. He still blushed.
The taxiing plane drew my thoughts towards home. My stomach fluttered with eager excitement. I was at another crossroads, a turning point, and I just knew things would be different. Better.
I felt different.
The malign influence of the join was gone and talking to Wynn had exorcised a few monsters from my past. The trip had done me good in a more ordinary way, too. Seeing another part of the world and making new friends had given me confidence, broadened my horizons.
I felt good. Ready to take on the world.
Wynn's parting words rang in my head. "Live well and be merry." Good advice to live by. It brought to mind part of Eric's message: Make your life your own. That was good advice too.
I would take this opportunity to break with the past, to overcome the wounds from my childhood. I would build a new life, one that suited the new confident me. Not anyone else.
1. Sookie is staying in Lynmouth, North Devon, a beautiful area. Wynn is Cornish, apologies for mangling the accent.
2. The Daphne du Maurier novel is Jamaica Inn, which still stands.
3. There really is a café called Adele's in Ilfracombe. I couldn't pass that up!
4. The village with the festival is Combe Martin and the castle is Berry Pomeroy. Not all that pretty as castles go, but it is haunted by a White Lady.
5. The beach is Newquay, lovely place. And Avebury is my favourite stone circle, setting for the deeply scary Children of the Stones, if anyone remembers that children's TV show from the 70s.