When he pulled into the parking lot, she was sitting in the bed of a beat up pickup truck, finger picking a complicated melody on her guitar. He had to park right next to her—it was the only open space. As he got his papers organized for his meeting and started to get out of his car, he realized she was softly crooning words as she played: " ...and I drive the main road, searching in the sun for another overload... "
The song was familiar, but not immediately identifiable, and he turned to look at her. She was wearing a battered cowboy hat that cast a shadow over her face, but the glorious line of her jaw was highlighted in the glow of the parking lot lights. As she sang the next lines—"I hear you singing through the wires, I can hear you through the whine,"—she lifted her face to him and looked right into his eyes. Her eyes were emerald green.
He felt the jolt right down to his groin. Rarely in his thousand year old existence had he been so shocked. The surprise of it made him grab his papers and stride away. As he entered the dark bar, the glow of her eyes danced in his vision.
In the darkened bar, his eyes immediately found the small curvaceous vampire he was looking for, and he stepped toward her. "Sandy," he greeted her matter-of-factly. "Eric," she responded with a nod.
"How is the King?" Eric asked.
Sandy responded, "He is well, although busy," then motioned for him to follow her. "Let's go into the office."
As Eric followed the petite vampire toward the back of the large room, he had time to observe her tailored business suit and collar length silver hair. She was relatively young—maybe 70 or so—but moved with purpose. As the King's rep, she had great power, and therefore Eric did not like her.
Inside the wood-paneled office, Sandy stepped aside, and Eric got the impression of papers, mugs and glasses, books, computer disks, and general clutter—it almost made his nose wrinkle (his own desk at home was clean and typically clear of anything but that which required his immediate attention). The human behind it stood and wiped his hand on his pants before extending it. Eric merely looked at the proffered hand.
Sandy introduced them: "Eric Northman, this is Al Ailling. He owns Diablo's."
Al dropped his hand and nodded at Eric. "Take a seat," he said sourly, then added, "please." Eric looked at the chair seat, half expecting to see food crumbs, although the chair appeared clean. He sat and studied Ailling; he saw an older man, weathered and ruddy, with a large belly stretching the placket of his cowboy shirt. His hair was thinning, lank, and less than clean, and there was grime under his nails. Ailling saw Eric studying his hands and curled his fingers under, muttering something about working on his truck.
Sandy reached into an exquisite leather briefcase, withdrawing a thumb drive and handing it to Ailling. He popped it into the computer on his desk and turned the screen so Eric could see it. Sandy said to Eric, "As you have seen in the report I sent you, the King is not pleased with Diablo's revenues. Since his newest hotel… " and here she interrupted herself to ask, "Are your accommodations satisfactory?" Eric nodded, and she continued, "Since the King's newest property caters specifically to the undead community"—Eric noted Ailling flinch—"Filipe would like Diablo's to be more, ah… attractive to that clientele." Ailling shifted uneasily in his chair.
Sandy fixed him with her laser glare. "Al, you have something to say?"
"No offense meant, Mz. Seacrest, but I don't want them kind in my bar."
Eric's fangs ran out a bit at the man's gall, and he shot a glance at Sandy, before speaking to Ailling, "What 'kind' would that be?"
"No offense to you neither, Mr. Northman. But the fangbangers are mostly trash. They don't spend much money, take up space, and bleed all over everything."
Eric almost smiled at that; in the early days of operating his bar Fangtasia, in northern Louisiana, he had felt the same way. But the human fascination with vampires was unceasing, and where there were cities that never sleep—Las Vegas was one—there were vampires. And where there were vampires, there was money to be made from those gawking cows known as humans.
He chuckled, leaning forward in his chair. He hit Ailling with the full force of his blue eyes, letting them show amusement and something close to warmth. "I know just what you mean, Al. May I call you Al?" He felt Sandy's eyebrows go up at this most un-Eric question, but Ailling visibly relaxed. Eric thought, This is going to be easier than I expected. I will be home in a week.
Sandy motioned to the spreadsheet on the monitor, and began outlining the bar's monthly take vs. expenditures. Eric was only partly listening, his ear caught by the sound of a female voice singing out in the bar. He snapped back to attention when he heard Sandy say, "Why don't you get a drink while we wait for Frederick?"
"Frederick? Frederick Lander?" Eric asked, and Sandy nodded. "I was not aware he owed the King fealty."
"He was sent here by Virginia"—here Sandy was referencing the Queen of the central Atlantic states (Eric was well versed in the vampires' attractions to puns and low humor—it was not for nothing that he had chosen Fangtasia as the name of his bar—but Virginia took the name Regina Betta when she became Queen, as a bad play on Virginia's original namesake; he allowed himself a moment of remembering Sophie-Anne's sophistication and elegance. He had admired his late Queen greatly.)—"when he, ah… caused some difficulties there.
Eric had heard about those "difficulties." When vampires kill other vampires, the news travels fast. Usually there are stiff monetary penalties to be paid, and often, reparations must be made to the killed vampire's maker. Eric had heard that Frederick Lander made a habit of staking vampires who crossed him, and he speculated that Lander was pledged to Felipe to work off the massive fines levied against his crimes. Eric wondered briefly if there had been a tribunal to pass judgment on Lander, and why he had not himself been sacrificed as a trouble maker. He also wondered at the wisdom of the King employing an out-of-control murderer.
The silence had stretched too long, and Sandy was staring at Eric through her entirely unnecessary glasses. "Why is Lander coming?" Eric interjected into the silence.
"He will be taking over Diablo's operations once your consultation ends." She did not register Ailling's unhappy face, but Eric did; he generally disdained humans, but when they were happy, they worked hard and were useful—and it was so easy to make them happy. Eric stood up and stretched, more to show his height and physic to Ailling, who looked duly impressed and predictably frightened. Eric turned his electric gaze to the man once again, and extended his hand—Ailling took it without thinking, almost drawing away at Eric's coolness. Ailling's hand was unpleasantly moist, but Eric refrained from wiping his on his jeans as he said with studied sincerity, "I look forward to working with you, Al." Sandy looked at him carefully, then nodded once toward the bar.
When Eric emerged from the office, he realized the voice to which he had been half listening during the meeting was the performer onstage. It was the girl from the pickup truck. She sat alone on a tall stool in the middle of the low platform, her face still in shadow from the brim of her hat; the stage lights were glinting off bits of metal on a leather thong wrapped around the crown of her hat. From this distance, they looked like small bronze figures. Eric's curiosity was piqued. He leaned on the bar, taking her in, the thought of her eyes swimming through his mind.
Even though she was seated, he could see she was tall. She was slender, with legs that went on forever, encased in worn, skinny jeans. Under her battered suede jacket, he got a sense of natural bounty—as she moved, the stage lights shone down the open collar of her denim work shirt, numerous jewelry chains glimmered in her generous cleavage. He could feel the urge to lick her there rising in him like a summer storm. What was going on? Normally, Eric didn't even notice human women. Something in the smoky husk of her voice went right under his skin.
Just as he was about to turn to the bartender to order a blood, she started the intricate fingering for the song he'd heard her playing in the parking lot, and he could not turn away. He found himself watching her impossibly full lower lip, revealed just under the edge of the shadow obscuring her face. Her lip, as she sang, was moist and pink—Eric could not tear his eyes away. She reached the second chorus—"...and I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time..."—and her face lifted to him, her eyes pouring directly into his.
Eric's knees actually caved and he sat on the bar stool behind him—he was glad it was there, or he would have stumbled. Eric was not the stumbling kind. He was cool, collected, and in full possession of himself. A tremble went through his body. How had she known he was standing there? Who was she? Eric had existed entirely too long to believe this girl was a coincidence.
Before he could completely gather his thoughts, the girl stopped playing, and the announcer spoke, "Gals and pals, please give a round of applause for Rio Brigant; Rio is gonna take a break and she'll be back in a while with more songs for you. I hope you'll join us during the break while we spin some of your favorite line dancing tunes!" At the mention of her name, Eric felt his eyes widen and he stared at her as she left the stage, making her way over to the bar. "Brigant," he thought," I know only one Brigant." And again, totally counter to his nature, Eric found himself wondering what was going on.
He watched the girl stop at a table to talk with the couple sitting there; she rested a long-fingered, graceful hand on the man's shoulder as she talked to them. Even at that distance, his heightened hearing could tell her voice was low and sweet, with the same husky quality of her singing voice. As she continued to the bar, he could feel his eyes consuming her, but his confusion was overcome by his growing curiosity. Just as she was about to order a drink, he stepped up to the bartender and said," I'd like an O Negative, warmed, and the lady will have a... " as he turned to give her a questioning look.
The girl looked him up and down, her eyes taking several seconds to travel up and up his length. She raised one blonde eyebrow, and without looking at the bartender, she said," A bourbon and ginger ale, no ice." As she held Eric's eyes, she raised her hand to her hat and lifted it off, releasing a torrent of gold hair. She closed her eyes and swung her head to shake her hair down her back, where it tumbled to her waist, flashing red highlights in the waves of it.
Eric's mouth didn't water so much as his entire body did, and without planning it, he took a step in her direction. She didn't seem to mind how close he was, placing her hat on the bar without shifting her gaze from his. She inclined her head to him, rather than hold out her hand for the typical human handshake, and introduced herself, "I am Loriola Brigant; my friends call me Rio." Her voice caressed the word "friends." Eric's eyes bored into hers. By not offering her hand, and by inclining her head, she was indicating her recognition of him as a vampire; most humans took a while to realize that he was other. He collected his thoughts and responded, "I am Eric Northman."
She studied his pale, handsome face. "I don't recognize you," and here she took in his creased jeans, crisp white shirt, and suit jacket, "and you aren't from around here." It was a statement, not a question. Eric merely raised an eyebrow at her astuteness. He replied, "I am assisting Sandy," and here he nodded toward the office, "in improving the bar's operations."
"Ah," was all the girl said, and she swung around to face the bar, lifting her booted foot to the bar rail with a move so graceful it was like she was a lioness in human skin. The bartender sat down her drink, and showed Eric the warmed bottle of blood, asking if he wanted a glass. Eric shook his head, aware that the girl watched his long blonde hair move across his shoulders.
"I live in Louisiana," Eric said, watching her closely. Did she tense up a tiny bit at that? She sipped her drink and he was again riveted by her mouth. Her upper lip was shorter than her lower, pulling into a classic cupid's bow. Her lip on the rim of her glass was plump. She turned to face him, licking a droplet of liquid from her lower lip with a pointed tongue. Eric felt a rumble low in his throat, and before it could escape, he forced out the words, "I know a Brigant in Louisiana." It sounded more strangled than he would have liked.
At that, she merely smiled, a small, amused lifting of the corners of her delectable mouth. She turned her back to him, shrugging her jacket off her shoulders for him to take. It felt warm and her heat rose off her, registering on his skin. She lifted her hands into the soft waves of her hair, raising it up off her neck like silken threads of spun fire, exposing her nape covered with short golden curls damp from her sweat. Eric groaned, then coughed to cover the sound. In his confusion he turned to his blood, leaning his elbows on the polished wood of the bar.
The DJ was spinning a Texas two-step, and the girl slid her hand into his, pulling. "Dance with me," she said. Again, not a question.
"Rio," Eric started, but she interrupted, "See? Already a friend," and pulled him out onto the dance floor in front of the bar. There were several couples already dancing in a two-stepping circle, men holding women by one hand as the pairs moved in time. Eric was suddenly reluctant to touch this girl. It wasn't that she was repellant—exactly the opposite—he thought if he put his hand on her waist, he might... what, exactly? Eric's confusion was troubling him.
Rio spun inside his arm, still holding his hand, and grabbed his other to place on her waist. He couldn't remember ever performing this dance, but it seemed fairly simple and he had always been comfortable with physical things. He followed her easily. She was supple and warm under his hand—for all her willowy grace, he could tell she was muscular. She was shorter than he was—most people were—but not by a lot—kissing her would be easy. Eric shook his head to clear it. He craved this girl in a way that was rare for him, something he had experienced only three times in his long, long life. The last time had been about twenty or so years ago, and it had not gone well. This girl made him feel exactly like that: he wanted her from the moment he laid eyes on her and he wanted her more than blood. She smelled warm and salty, like the beach when he was a boy; he had not thought of being human for a long while. Suddenly, he had to know.
He pulled her closer into his embrace and murmured toward her ear, "The Brigant I know is called Niall. I haven't seen him for a very long time."
She didn't miss a step. Without turning her head, she replied very softly, "He is my great-grandfather. I have not seen him for a while either."
Eric's steps did not falter, but his mind reeled. The magnificent creature he held in his grasp was Sookie Stackhouse's daughter.
The music ended and the DJ announced, "Folks, give us a few minutes and Rio Brigant will be back on stage to sing for you." At that, Rio slipped from his grasp, snagged her hat and jacket off the bar, and turned to face him; he noticed a faint spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose, and wondered where else on her body they appeared. She bent over from the waist and bundled her hair in her hands, twisting the silken length of it several times into a rope; as she stood up, she twined the rope of hair around her head, and shoved the hat on her head to douse its fire underneath.
Rio cast her deep green eyes across his face, lingering on his mouth. "I'll be seeing you, Northman. But for now, I need to get back to the stage."