I'm back, ladies!

As promised, here is the next installment of Dead Ahead. I cannot wait to catch up on your emails and reviews – it's my favorite part of all this, and I sincerely apologize for being months behind! I am excited to catch up on reading all the great fanfic out there, from my old favorites to the new ones (if anyone has a recommendation, please email me!)

Enjoy!

AM


I woke in complete darkness.

The room was silent.

I lay in bed, nestled against the king of Spain. His arms were wrapped around me, folding me against his chest. I was disconcertingly comfortable. He was motionless, dead to the world.

Tonight was our supposed wedding.

Tonight was the ceremony announcing new rule of Louisiana, Arkansas, Nevada, and Texas. Stan, Felipe, and Armando had their individual agendas. Eric, Bill, and Mark had diverging allegiances.

Tonight was war.

I lifted my head and untangled from Armando's arms. Stumbling through the dark, I made my way to the bathroom. On the counter was a large ornate box. The note read:

My beautiful queen,

Whatever your desire, my daytime personnel are at your disposal.

Enjoy,

AM

Inside was everything I'd accumulated the last week on the run, toiletries, cosmetics, ginger scented lotion, even the Essential Bob Dylan CD from Mark. The first time I met Mark, he resolved to stay and get to know me. That same night he gave me a gift, made me hot cocoa, and kissed me on the cheek. After that, Eric and Mark formed a pact for my protection, and for some reason Eric slowly drifted away. If Eric truly wanted to let me go, he wouldn't have said, "Come back to me when it ends, lover." I wondered what their pact entailed, and I wondered why Eric was so adamantly opposed to Mark telling me.

The door slid open. Armando entered, wearing only boxers.

"You fell asleep in my arms." He said, his voice part reprimand, part accusation, part astonishment.

"Oh." I sputtered, lacking something more profound to say.

"With one touch I could have willed you to succumb to me. Why did you trust that I wouldn't?"

"I just knew."

He grinned naughtily, "You overestimate my morality, my beautiful."

I retorted, "Why did you trust that I wouldn't stake you in your sleep?" And, perhaps, I had passed up this golden opportunity.

"I didn't," he chuckled, "I took precautions."

His eyes narrowed on me attentively. He stepped closer and said, "While you slept I considered finding out if your body would taste as sweet as it did in our dream. I considered exploring every inch of your silky skin. I considered how it would feel to enter you, to have you wrap around me, to hear you cry out my name in ecstasy."

His boxers dropped to the floor. He stood before me in all his glory.

I froze. My heart pounded, and not in a good way.

He continued, "I warned you once that I had a large appetite. I did not speak of blood. I am accustomed to having my needs met when I wake. Do you understand what I tell you?"

He didn't need to explain further, his "evidence" was standing at attention, practically waving at me.

I offered, "I'll call the concierge, she…"

"I do not want her."

I gulped, uncertain of what was about to happen. It would take only one touch. I felt behind me and grabbed the sharpest object I could find, tweezers.

Stepping even closer, he declared, "I want you, my beautiful Sookie."

I backed up into the shower door and protested, "Well, too bad. You can't have me."

He inched closer and touched his fingers to my cheek. Towering over me, his eyes lustful, he reached past me and turned on the shower. Steam tumbled out, fogging up the room. He pressed his lips against my ear and ordered, "I must have at least one need met. Perhaps you could call room service and order a bottle of Royalty?"

He stepped past me and entered the shower.

He turned back, his hazel eyes beaming radiantly. He leered, "Or you can join me. The choice is yours, my beautiful queen."

I ordered room service.

I sat, wondering what the night had in store for the new Sookie Stackhouse. I had to find Doc and explain. Hal didn't know that our last room service indulgence would be his last, his last caviar, last wine. I missed human Hal. When vampire Hal rose, I would buy him a Happy Vampire gift, perhaps a bottle warmer.

And I would buy it at Target.

Armando walked in, proudly naked, of course. He sifted through his closet. Unexpectedly, he asked, "Why bond to Northman?"

The question threw me off guard, or perhaps it was his brazen nudity. I replied, "I was forced into it. Sophie-Anne's minion tried making me take his blood so he could control me. Eric got there just in time. He talked Andre into letting me take his blood instead. Eric did it to protect me. He's always been there to protect me."

"Who performed the ceremony?"

I thought this an odd question. I answered anyway, "We were in the back service corridor of a hotel. It was hardly ceremonial"

"What ceremonial artifact did he use for the blood exchange?"

"He cut his chest with the knife from the Indiana-Mississippi wedding. Why?" I narrowed my eyes on him, wondering what he was getting at.

He looked at me cautiously, as if carefully selecting his next words. He asked, "My beautiful, why do you think Northman used that knife?"

"He knew I didn't wanna bite him."

He looked at me with pity in his eyes, as if thinking, "Poor little human." From the look on his face, I knew he thought the use of this knife was significant. It wasn't.

I scowled.

After a moment, he asked, "There are ways to weaken such a tie. Do you want to be bonded to Northman?"

He said it as casually as if he were asking if I wanted sugar in my tea.

It was an easy question. I never wanted a blood bond, ever, to anyone. For the rest of my life Eric would feel me, he would know my moods, know where I was. If he wanted, he could control me. I didn't want anyone to have control over me. While at the surface, answering "no" sounded anti-Eric, in truth, not having the bond would help me know my true feelings for him.

I answered ambiguously, "I don't wanna be bonded to anyone, and I don't wanna discuss this with you." It was clear he wanted to discuss the issue further. In an effort to redirect conversation, I asked, "Are you doing all this just to avenge Eric?"

"He wouldn't be worth the trouble."

"Then why am I here tonight?"

He simply smiled and turned away. He dressed in expensive dark charcoal pants and white shirt. After pulling on the coordinating jacket, he turned to me and held up two ties. He asked, "Which one?"

I snorted out a laugh. The master manipulator, the master schemer, the master of deception was asking me which tie he should wear. Priceless.

He said, "I will wait to see which one best matches your wedding dress."

I stopped laughing.

Walking for the door, he directed, "A crew will be here to primp you for the ceremony. Go shower." Turning back, he clarified, "Unless you prefer that I bathe you."

He scanned the length of my body, making it clear what parts he most wanted to bathe.

I showered.

After wrapping in an oversized robe and lathered in sugary ginger lotion. I opened the door to find two women standing on the other side. I wondered if Armando managed to find himself new lady friends already. I wouldn't be surprised. Without wasting a moment, they took my measurements and introduced themselves, simultaneously. Suddenly my robe was off, and I was donning a corset and slip. A third lady pushed a rolling rack into the bedroom.

It was loaded with wedding dresses.

I was suddenly dizzy, and perturbed, and looking for an escape route.

They looked from me, to the rack, and back to me, then began selectively yanking dressed from hangers. A minute later I was standing in front of the mirror, wearing a strapless white gown. I felt nauseous. Not only was this dress not the perfect dress, but I had yet to find a perfect groom. Was Armando really going through with this? Was this part of his master plan? I was not ready to get married to anyone, let alone Armando. Where was Mark? Where were Bill and Eric? Certainly they had a plan. Certainly they would stop this wedding, right?

In a wave of fury, I tugged off the dress. I clutched my fists, feeling short of breath.

I sat down and rested my head in my hands.

The women thought I was simply having wedding day jitters. They gave me some time alone and rummaged through the dresses.

"What's this?" one woman gasped, pulling a dress from the rack.

The other two joined her and commented, "I've never seen anything like it."

"They're gorgeous!"

"The petals look like butterflies."

Butterflies.

I stood and walked over to join them. Affixed to the front of the garment bag was a long-stemmed spray of flowers. They were not merely flowers. These exotic white blooms looked like butterflies gracefully dancing along the leaves.

The flowers from gran's grave.

A sign, but from who I wondered.

I slipped into the dress. I could tell from their faces that they were delighted. They pinned it to fit and spun me to face the mirror. I caught my own reflection.

It was simply perfect.

The dress was pristine, unworn, but had a distinct vintage look. It was made of a smooth shimmery silk that flowed to the floor like fluid. A wide swath of raw silk gathered to form an empire waist. The front V-neck plunged down to the empire waste. The cut was mirrored in the back. The dress was simple, classic, and elegant. It was absolutely stunning. It was exactly what I would want, had I actually been getting married. The color was as close to white as possible, without being white.

"It's gorgeous," one said.

The other two remained speechless, nodding in concurrence.

I had the ring, the dress, the wedding date. I seemed to be missing only one crucial part of my wedding… a groom… a true love…

And whoever was behind the flowers.

Reluctantly, I let them pull me out of my dress. While they skillfully began hand-alterations, three more ladies entered and began my hair, makeup, and nails. The room felt awfully small and crowded. I felt like Dress Me Up Barbie. I suddenly missed Amanda.

The bedroom door opened. I wondered who else could possible join my circus.

Armando and Sebastián entered.

A young girl followed, pushing a cart containing four bottles of Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Champagne. The label meant nothing to me, but a great deal to the ladies of the room. They swooned. Sebastián eyed them like they were chocolates and he was fasting. He settled on a woman that assisted me with my dress. She nearly melted in response to his smile and followed him from the room, giggling. I rolled my eyes. Ick.

As the young girl served champagne, the remaining ladies doubled their efforts in an attempt to garner Armando's attention. I thought it vile that they were fighting over my supposed fiancé on my wedding day. Ignoring the entire lot, he turned his gaze to me and nodded towards the serving cart. My stomach growled as I spotted the flaky-crusted chicken pot pie. I smiled. Armando looked impressed with himself. With his eyes on me, he said to the ladies, "I expect that my beautiful fiancé is having her every need met. If she is not happy, I am not happy."

They hastily scurried back to their designated duties.

He grinned and turned to leave the room, an empty bottle of Royalty in his hand.

After every lock of hair was curled into place in a cascading mass atop my head, and after every eyelash was properly charcoaled, they slipped me back into the dress for final alterations. Everything appeared to be perfect, absolutely perfect.

They packed up, wished me their best, and left.

If it were actually my wedding day, I would have been exuberant. Instead, I was uneasy.

I sat in the bedroom, slowly sipping a glass of champagne. Alone.

After mustering sufficient courage, I walked out into the foyer in full costume. Hugh, Armando, and Sebastián were sitting in the main room, strategizing. Hugh was the first to spot me. His eyes widened.

Armando looked up, following Hugh's gaze. He smiled with delight, or perhaps lust, and stood to greet me. Recognition suddenly flashed across his eyes, causing him to freeze, mid-step.

Sebastián glanced at me, uninterested at first, then abruptly leapt to his feet, facing me.

All three men stood gaping at me in utter displeasure. Sebastián began sputtering in Spanish. I was certain he was offering top-shelf profanities.

My smile faded. Out of fright, I began backing up, aiming for the bedroom. Clearly I shouldn't have entered their little caucus.

Sebastián flew over and gripped my arm. Baring fangs, he growled, "You think this is funny, little human?"

I wasn't laughing. I tried to back away, but he held firmly.

He barked, "Why are you wearing this?" His grip tightened.

I yelped from the pain.

"Take it off!" He roared.

Armando glided over and detached Sebastián's hand from my arm. Folded me against him, he said, "How did you get this dress?"

"Those women brought it to the room."

"This dress! who gave you this dress?"

"They did!"

Armando looked down at me and explained, "Someone has sent a message, my beautiful. The last woman to select this dress died before wearing it."

I had no idea what to say in response.

They continued in Spanish, faces and body language impartial. I was certain they were talking about me.

Turning to me as if contemplating something momentous, Sebastián said, "Who sent this dress to you?"

They watched me, as if willing the truth from my lips. Thankfully, the truth was uninformative. I answered, "I don't know." It was the truth. I had no idea who was behind the flowers.

Speaking in Spanish, Armando directed Hugh, who began barking orders into his phone.

Armando asked, "If you and Manolo fell in love, would you move to Spain?"

"No, my home Bon Temps."

"Would you turn for him?"

"No," I answered with utmost certainty.

They exchanged a fleeting look. These answers were clearly significant. Armando nodded in resolve, and instructed, "This will go no further. Do you understand?"

I blinked, not sure I was following their train of thought, and feeling like this conversation was about to take a turn for the worse. If, indeed, it could be worse.

Armando continued, "Tonight you will reject Manolo. You will tell him that you do not want him. You will direct him to collect Harold and return to Spain. Will you do this for me?"

Sebastián roared, "You allow her too many liberties. Take control now, or I will."

I wasn't sure exactly what Sebastián was implying, but I knew I didn't like it one bit. What was more menacing was the look of resolve on Armando's face. He directed, "My beautiful, this is not a request. You will do exactly as I tell you, or Sebastián will control you in ways that would make Andre appear a saint."

"And if you disobey, I will kill your former mate." Sebastián hissed.

Flipping on the television, he displayed a room containing only a chair and a coffin, but otherwise vacant. Silver ankle and wrist cuffs weighted down the empty chair. The coffin was covered in silver netting, making it undistinguishable from any other coffin. Confusion must have been evident on my face because Armando pulled a folded note from his breast pocket, the same note Eric tucked into my front pocket the night Clara was poisoned. Opening it I found myself staring blankly at a travel itinerary for one Mr. William Compton, from Barcelona to Shreveport, with a layover in Austin. Armando assumed his daytime monkeys intercepted Bill's coffin during daylight hours in Austin. His only oversight was that Bill was with me when he should have been boarding the flight in Spain. I wasn't sure who was in that coffin, but it certainly wasn't Bill.

Eric must have slipped me the note right in front of Armando because he knew Armando would intercept it. He knew Bill wouldn't be on the flight.

And just like that, the tables turned.

"Jesus, Sheppard of Judea!" I proclaimed in astonishment.

Sebastián grinned. He wouldn't be grinning if he knew the true cause of my astonishment. "First you will make Manolo and Dominic leave. We cannot have them at the ceremony."

"And then?"

"And then you will devotedly stand by Armando's side throughout the ritual."

"I'd be more use to you if I knew your objective."

"Perhaps," he agreed pensively after considerable thought.

"So, tell me what you want. If I betray you, you can burn his coffin." I pointed to the television.

He snickered, "If you don't do exactly as we command, I will make you burn his coffin. Do you understand?"

"Understood."

Sebastián looked down at me, "Months ago I was thought to have died my final death. On this night new rule is declared for four states. I will be the new king."

"You've been working with Joseph and Stan?"

He sneered, "Yes."

Looking to Armando, I asked, "Then why did you make sure Felipe survived? Why not let him die? He plans to avenge tonight."

"We needed him to lead his loyal followers here tonight. We want war, my beautiful. Once the highest echelon is taken out in the bombing, we step in. By appearing to be on both sides, we have gained fealty from all parties."

"But Joseph knows about the bombings."

"I gave him false information."

"I gave the briefcase to the FBI."

They glanced at each other. Sebastián raised his eyebrow, as if somehow impressed. He said, "Even better."

Armando explained, "The information I gave you was not from the briefcase, my beautiful. All the information I gave you was a setup to implicate the zealots in the bombing tonight. I expected you to go to the police. I was counting on your conscious."

"So… whose gonna blow up the building?"

'I am." Hugh spoke out proudly.

"And the zealots will take the blame?"

"Yes."

"And Sebastián will take over those states and gain the sympathy of the public for his losses?"

They all stared at me.

I added, "You don't need me for any of this. Felipe traded me. Stan could care less. I gain you nothing."

"You gain Sebastián nothing, my beautiful, but my mission is quite different."

"Enough of this." Sebastián waved his hand in the air, "Brother, you know what needs to be done. Don't disappoint me."

Armando lifted me and glided in the bedroom faster than I could open my mouth to protest. He turned me to face the mirror. My back pressed to his chest, he stood watching my reflection. He gently trailed his fingertips across the faint scars on my back, his eyes on mine in the mirror. He whispered in my ear, "Tell me about these scars."

"I ran across a maenad. That was her message for Eric."

He slid his fingers up to my shoulder and down my arm to my fingertips. He traced back up my arm and slid a hand around my hip. He traced circles around the scar tissue on my side. "Tell me about this."

"I was trying to stop a zealot from staking a vampire. He staked me instead."

His eyes widened in surprise. "Are all your scars due to the vampires of your life?"

"That's not fair, I…"

"If you were mine, no one would ever harm you again."

"I'll never be yours."

"I would give you anything you desired."

"Money can't buy the things I want."

"You could live like a queen."

"I don't wanna live like a queen."

Releasing a long, intentional breath of disappointment, he sighed, "Then you leave me no choice."

He grinned, fangs extended.

"You said you wouldn't bite me or have sex with me!"

"And you agreed to not flee. You gave your word, and you broke your word, my beautiful."

He pulled his arm tighter around my hip and moved his body against mine. Brushing his hand down my arm, he whispered the last words I wanted to hear from his lips, "Succumb to me, my beautiful."

He slid his hand down my back, unzipping the dress as he did. The dress slid off my shoulders, pooling around my feet, leaving me standing in nothing but a full slip. A rumble seeped from deep within his chest. His eyes swirled with a hunger blood couldn't deliver. He circled around me predatorily and said, "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?"

These were words from our dream.

Terrified, I was frozen in place from his touch. While internally struggling to regain control, I felt his desire pulse through me. He slid his fingers up and down my arm as his eyes devoured my body. He kissed the flesh at the base of my neck, inhaling my scent. His lips traced from my neck to my jaw line, and up to my ear.

He slid his hand down as he ran his tongue along the length of my earlobe. He breathed, "Relax, my beautiful, I will be gentle." His fingers wrapped around mine. He inhaled deeply and whispered, "You smell good enough to eat."

Towering over me, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and placed it in my hand. He bit into his wrist, and lowered it to me, insisting, "Make me bleed, Sookie." His voice was urgent, commanding. I pressed the hankie over the wound and squeezed his arm. Thick blood seeped from the bite marks, gradually saturating the crisp white fabric as he rocked his hips against me, pressing against my stomach. As the minutes wore on, I futilely fought to struggle against him. Trembling, urging my body to fight against him, I tried to scream. My mouth opened, but there was no accompanying sound. It was like a horror movie on mute. I managed to squeak out a protest.

Abruptly he stopped and looked down the length of my body. Our eyes met. He shook his head then looked away, cursing under his breath, "Forgive me, brother."

Releasing a guttural growl, he leaned forward and licked along the length of my neck.

And then he bit.