Best Laid Plans

A Let Love In companion story

By Terri Botta

Disclaimer: I don't own the Southern Vampires. Sole copyright belongs to Charlaine Harris. I'm poor so don't sue.

Rating: M

Timeframe: Post-From Dead to Worse

Pairing: Eric/Sookie

Summary: The Wednesday night announcement.

A/N: This is the final chapter of Best Laid Plans. Look for the next installment in the Let Love In universe, "Life and Death in New Orleans," coming soon.

Also, I will be on the Loving True Blood in Dallas blogtalk radio show on Monday, January 5th at 9pm CST. Call in or log on: lovingtruebloodindallas . blogspot . com (remove spaces)

Chapter Five

The room grew much quieter as she followed Pam back into the bar, and she tried not to blush as she felt all eyes turn to her as she made her entrance. She gathered her poise and held herself straight with her shoulders back and her head high. She remembered all of Gran's lessons on the bearing of a proper lady, and she was pretty sure she could have balanced two books on her head with the way she was holding herself so erect and proper.

She paused at the edge of the counter, getting her bearings and taking in the room. She noticed that all of the human waitstaff were conspicuously absent, and she figured someone had sent them home when the furniture started flying. She lowered her shields enough to take a sample of the overall mood, and she was pleased by what she heard. Where her latex dress had incited lust and jealousy, her new red and gold gown inspired awe and respect – even from the vampires. They were all thinking that she looked like a highborn lady, stunning and deserving of their admiration, and that she finally looked worthy of a vampire as powerful and old as Eric Northman.

Speaking of her bonded, she turned her head and scanned the room until she found him. He was standing about fifteen feet away, next to the bar, and Sandy was beside him looking decidedly surprised. He'd changed his shirt and retied his bowtie, and his hair was a golden mane that fell loose over his shoulders. He was looking at her with such love and need that it almost made her knees buckle.

'If it would not be sacrilege, I would say that you rival Helen herself for your beauty. You are magnificent, my lover,' he sent as he extended his hand to her.

She smiled at him and moved to his side, keeping her steps small and light because the dress made her feel regal, and princesses did not stomp around like barmaids. Her hand slid into his and he drew her close as she tipped up her head for a kiss.

"You look amazing, my lover," he whispered.

She fingered his bowtie. "You changed your shirt."

"I had the spare Bobby picked up from the cleaners in my car."

"How fortunate of you to have been so prepared," she teased.

He grinned, his eyes bright with humor and desire. "I'm always prepared."

He turned and presented her to Sandy, and she bowed to the female vampire in a way she hoped was formal enough for vampire protocol.

"I am glad to see that your brush with the tiger did not ruin your mood for the night," Sandy commented, smiling at her appreciatively.

She gave the other woman one of her signature grins, the one she got when she was stressed and just wanted to bolt or slap someone silly. "Well, yes, it takes more than a few scratches to keep me down. Last time it took a stake."

Eric's hand on hers tightened in warning, and she leaned closer to him for support. He took the hint and slid his arm around her.

"My bonded is referring to an incident in a night club in Jackson where she was injured while trying to prevent one of those zealots from the Fellowship of the Sun from killing Russell Eddington's second in command. The bastard staked her instead," he explained with no small pride.

Sandy looked impressed. "Betty Jo?"

Eric nodded, and Sandy looked even more impressed. "So that's why she favors you so much."

She shrugged. She had seen very little of Betty Jo since the last time she'd been in Jackson so she had no idea what the female vampire thought of her.

"Dear One, Sandy will be leaving soon and taking Mr. Quinn with her. I thought perhaps you might speak to him and find out why he came here tonight in such a rage as to hurt you and wreck my bar," Eric said to her reasonably.

There were so many things she wanted to say in response, but none of them were the least bit appropriate for the company. She was acutely aware that Sandy was listening to every word they were saying with intense interest, and it could not appear that Eric was subdued by her in any way. Regardless of what she would have said to him if they were alone, she had to uphold the image of her submission to him as her bonded.

'It's the best I can do for you, my lover. She wanted to take him out of here before you even had a chance to see him, but I asked her to wait on your behalf.'

"Thank you. That was very kind of you to allow me to speak to him. I will do what I can to get the information from him," she replied.

Eric gave her an indulgent smile, but his eyes were (slightly) apologetic as he led her over to the dais where Quinn was being kept under guard by Rasul, who grinned appreciatively at her as he watched her approach. She noticed Victor standing off to one side, discretely out of the way, but intensely interested in the proceedings. She caught a glimpse of her former boyfriend as the crowd parted to let them pass, and she swallowed the cry of dismay that rose in her throat.

Quinn was on his knees, trussed with a heavy chain that looped around his neck, wound down around his forearms, through his legs and around his waist. He was battered and bruised, and his right shoulder was obviously dislocated, but he looked up at her as she approached, and she saw that, while he might have been beaten, he wasn't broken.

She stopped at the edge of the dais, holding herself stiff and calm as she looked down at him. She knew she would have to play a delicate game. If she looked too concerned for Quinn's welfare, she could force Eric to have to retaliate in order to recover his honor, but she desperately wanted to know that he was all right. She gave him what she hoped was a sympathetic look, but one that was also a warning that he'd better play ball or else. Unfortunately, John Quinn wasn't one to play well with vampires.

"Well, at least he dressed you as the lady you are, and not his banger whore," Quinn spat, giving her gown a once over.

He was actually pleased with the dress, and he thought she looked wonderful in it, but the memory of the latex was too fresh in his mind, and he was very much a sore loser. She wanted to reply that Eric hadn't dressed her as a whore, but her bonded moved before she could open her mouth, and he slapped Quinn across the face hard enough to knock the big man over.

"You will not address my bonded in such a manner," Eric stated coldly.

Quinn growled and spat blood on the dais, further staining the dark red carpeting. Rasul grabbed Quinn under the arms and yanked him back up to his knees, ignoring Quinn's grunt of pain. She tried not to wince, and lightly fisted her hands into the folds of her gown.

'Since when have you gotten so deep into bed with vamps that you don't care about their controlling shit?' Quinn's mental voice lanced into her brain. 'Is he that good of a fuck?'

She wished Quinn was telepathic because then she could answer him silently and rip him a new one, but instead she had to stand there and take it as his thoughts grew decidedly more graphic and cruel. She understood that he was angry at her, at Eric, at the Nevada vamps, and mostly at himself, because he was realizing now that he'd been played, but there was no excuse for the horrible images and thoughts coming from his mind, spearing her right through the heart.

She'd thought she'd known him, might even have been able to love him, but now he was showing a side of himself that was ugly and vindictive. It wasn't her fault he'd been lied to or that Victor had tried to use him as a weapon against her and Eric. She'd already gleaned enough from him and Victor to realize that Victor was hoping to sow the seeds of dissent in her bond with Eric, to force her into a position where she would have to beg Eric for Quinn's life. Victor had wanted to pigeonhole her bonded into either appearing weak by sparing Quinn or jealous and hateful by killing him despite her pleas. She was so grateful that Eric was too smart for games like that or else the plan would have worked. Victor was also grossly underestimating her bond with Eric, as was Quinn.

While she could hide her growing upset and insult from most of the crowd, she couldn't keep Eric from feeling her pain (or hearing what Quinn was sending through their connection.) Once Quinn had graduated to much more personal attacks, mostly focused on her intelligence and soundness of judgment, Eric could no longer hold himself in check, and he slapped Quinn again, harder this time.

"I do not know what you are saying to my bonded, but whatever it is, it is upsetting her. You will cease," her Viking ordered.

Pretty much everyone knew she was a telepath, and that she and Eric could feel each other, so they would just assume that Eric had been sensing her distress through their blood bond.

Quinn snarled again and spit out more blood, making sure to spew some of it on the new plush chairs as Rasul plopped him back on his knees. His eyes glared pure hatred at them.

"I'd do as he says or he will break your jaw like he broke my brother's," she said coolly.

Inwardly, she was mortified and disgusted, but there was nothing she could do as long as they were all out in public. Eric had to respond, but the fact that he hadn't already smashed Quinn's jaw or snapped his neck was proof that her vampire was pulling his blows.

"And you let him do that?" Quinn accused.

"He insulted me in the middle of Merlotte's, just like you are insulting me here in Fangtasia. I would expect no less from him in defending my honor."

Quinn scoffed. "As if that dress offered you any honor. You looked like a hooker at a wedding reception."

The use of the words "wedding reception" was deliberate. Quinn knew as well as she did that she and Eric were now mates according to vampire society, and the announcement/party was basically the vampire equivalent of a reception. The barb stung and Eric growled low in his throat, showing full fang. Quinn raised his head in defiance, expecting the blow and welcoming it even. She saw her Viking raise his hand, but she rested her fingers on his wrist, stopping him. The crowd gasped, but she smiled sweetly up at Eric, her face a picture of perfect calm.

"Eric, he is trying to force you to kill him. That way you will have to pay a large fine to our king for the loss of his revenue," she explained.

She felt Eric's relief at having an excuse not to strike. He hadn't wanted to kill Quinn, mostly because he didn't want to have to pay Nevada the sum they would claim the tiger was worth, but there was at least a little consideration for her feelings in there too… somewhere. Eric didn't care if Quinn died, but he certainly didn't want to be the one to do it – especially not in front of her.

He gave her an indulgent and proud smile. "As always you prove your value to me, my lover," he commented, placing his hand upon hers on his wrist, then told her comfortingly, knowing his patronizing tone had upset her, 'Just play along, Dear One. I know you hate this, but we must. Victor and Sandy are watching.'

'You owe me. You owe me big time for swallowing this crap instead of throwing a fit,' she sent back furiously.

'Your prudence will save both of our lives.'

'Yeah, yeah, yeah.'

Quinn barked a mirthless laugh. "See, he admits he only wants you for your value to him. Really, Sookie, I thought you were better than that."

Eric growled again, but she squeezed her hand on his arm, silently begging him to be calm.

"I know my bonded's worth, which is more than I can say for you, shifter," he replied.

"It's obviously less than I thought it was if she was willing to go back to you," Quinne shot back.

She gasped and held back the tears that threatened, squeezing Eric's arm so tight she would have left bruises if he'd been a normal man. Eric's rage burned hot again, and she didn't think she could hold him back anymore as Quinn glared at them, daring Eric to do something.

"Go ahead, bloodsucker," the tiger taunted.

Eric snarled, but stayed where he was. "I won't kill you. I won't give you that satisfaction or pay you that mercy. What lies in store for you is far more unpleasant than any pain I could inflict upon you with my hands."

"No, but he doesn't need his jaw to fight in the Pits," Sandy interrupted coldly. "It would just mean that he wouldn't be able to bite, which would lower his odds, but gain us more money when others bet against him."

Quinn looked at Sandy with fury, but Sookie caught the brief moment of terror that flashed in his eyes. He hated the Pits, and he desperately did not want to go back to them. So far Nevada hadn't been forcing him to fight in order to pay off his debt, but after tonight's fiasco…

'Eric, they're going to make him fight again…'

He gave her a questioning look and her heart sank, but she tried again, 'They'll put him up against stronger and stronger opponents, and he'll die before he repays his debt. He's Victor's pawn in this. Victor knows I care about Quinn. He knows it'll hurt me if something bad happens to him, and I think it's my fault.'

'But it isn't your fault. You had nothing to do with this. He was the stupid asshole who crashed our party and started swinging.'

'Please, Eric. Isn't there anything you can do?' It was as close to pleading with him as she could get.

'I have asked for compensation in money and labors,' her Viking replied with a mental sigh. 'It is possible that I can claim that I need him to perform some tasks for me.'

'Thank you.'

'But it will take some time to set things up. He will be on his own for a couple of months.' "That may be so, but I will need him alive to perform the services I have planned for him, so I would request that our king be careful with him until he can be of use to me."

Sandy smirked, a knowing look in her eyes, and Sookie didn't like it. It was as if Sandy knew that Eric was trying to spare Quinn on her behalf, and the knowledge was a weapon Sandy (or Victor or Felipe) could use against them at a later date. All at once she understood the true depth of what Victor had done, and she didn't know how they would be able to get out of it.

'You let me play this game, my lover. I am very good at it, and what Sandy thinks is a weakness now, she will soon learn is anything but,' Eric soothed.

'I hate this part of your world.'

'There are nights when I hate it, too. Tonight is proving to be a particular… challenge.'

"I will pass on your requests to our king. It will be his discretion to choose whether or not to honor them," Sandy answered.

Eric bowed. "Of course."

Sandy turned to her and looked at her expectantly. "Were you able to determine who told Mr. Quinn about tonight and urged him to come here and cause trouble?" Felipe's spokesperson asked her.

She made her face go blank and stony, and lied. "No. He doesn't know himself. It was an anonymous message."

'So that's how you were able to lie to me when I asked you what you knew about Bill's project when he went missing,' her lover said with some admiration.

'Why you lyin' for me there, Babe?' Quinn asked, his mindvoice confused and chagrined. She winced at his use of the old pet name, but did not answer him. Maybe he was finally starting to understand what a huge jerk he'd been. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.

"Hmm, that's too bad. Well, hopefully, the mystery will solve itself in time," Sandy commented in a voice that said no one was fooling her.

"Hopefully," Eric confirmed.

"I'll be in touch regarding the Misconduct hearing," the female vamp informed.

"Thank you."

Sandy nodded then looked at Rasul, giving him a silent signal. Rasul picked Quinn up from under his armpits and yanked him to his feet. Quinn stumbled, but regained his balance quickly as the guard dragged him off the dais. Eric raised his hand in a halt motion and Rasul stopped.

'Forgive me, my lover, but this is expected of me, and Sandy has all but laid it out as a test of my authority,' he sent to her.

She swallowed hard and looked away as Eric smashed Quinn's jaw with a heavy blow. Luckily for Quinn, the punch also knocked him out, so he wasn't awake to feel the pain, and both Sandy and Victor gave her Viking approving looks as Quinn was hoisted like a bag of trash over Rasul's shoulder and carted out of the bar. Sandy followed, but Victor lagged behind for a moment.

"It was wonderful to see you again, Miss Stackhouse. You must come to New Orleans for a visit sometime soon," Victor said smoothly, a sly smile on his lips.

Eric put his hands on her shoulders and let out a low growl over her head, but Victor just laughed and sauntered out.

'Oh we'll go to New Orleans all right, but he won't like what happens to him when we get there,' he sent with a murderous edge to his mindvoice that made her shudder.

Once Sandy, Victor and Rasul were gone, taking the unconscious Quinn with them, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed. She hadn't realized how stressed and worried the Area Five vamps were when the Nevada vamps were around.

Although the evening was essentially ruined for her, and she wanted nothing more than to get out of there and have a good cry, she knew she couldn't. The party wasn't over, and there were appearances to uphold, so she sucked it up, swallowed the urge to scream and sob, and put on a brave face. Eric bolstered her with his strength as he put one arm around her and began barking orders to his staff. She found that she was too emotionally exhausted to fight and just let him do whatever it was he was going to do. In short order, the bloodstained carpet on the dais was ripped off and replaced with a section taken from the leftover remnants, and the soiled chair was draped with a clean tablecloth for a temporary fix.

When the dais was ready, he ushered her onto it and sat her down in the seat that hadn't been stained. The action was deliberate, sparing her the mortification of knowing she was sitting on Quinn's blood, and for that she was grateful. Eric sat beside her and waved a hand, indicating that the party should continue as if nothing had happened, and the DJ struck up a peppy dance tune. Pam brought her a plate of food – which was saying something because the vampess disliked the smell of cooked meat – and a gin and tonic, and the whole scene felt like she was being placated and "handled."

Now that the "outsiders" were gone, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, and Eric felt more comfortable loosening up a little bit and coddling her a little more overtly. He held her hand and nuzzled her often, being overtly caring and affectionate towards her, and even the other Area Five vamps seemed to be more friendly as they came around to offer their fealty to her and Eric. She appreciated the effort, even if most of them were only doing it to curry Eric's favor. She didn't mind being a bit coddled and fussed over because she was feeling raw and exposed. Exposed. Hah. She'd almost forgotten that nearly everyone in the bar had seen her naked less than an hour ago.

'Pam covered you quickly so they got a brief peek at most, and they certainly didn't see anything they haven't seen before,' her Viking consoled.

'Is that supposed to make me feel better?'

He gave her a sheepish look. 'Yes? Besides, now everyone will know how magnificent your breasts are, and they will be jealous.'

She rolled her eyes and laughed in spite of herself. Trust Eric to distract her with a wholly inappropriate comment involving sex. He smiled in that dashing way of his that told her that he'd done it on purpose, and some of her misery lifted.

"Mistress Sookie?" Indira said hesitantly, and both her and Eric turned their heads to see the small Indian vampire holding a shiny red box with a bow on it.

"Yes, Indira," Eric replied, one eyebrow raised.

Indira hesitantly offered her the box, and she saw that it was an assortment of gourmet chocolates. Where had the vampire gotten a box of chocolates at this hour of the night?

"I got these for you. I've been told that this candy makes human women feel better," Indira explained.

She reached forward and accepted the box, surprised and humbled. "Thank you, Indria. That was very thoughtful of you."

The Indian vampire bowed, but not before giving Eric a questioning look and getting a nod of approval from him. She smiled at her master and happily returned to her position by the bar, giving Felicia a beaming grin. Sookie held in the laugh as she watched Felicia give her friend a discrete thumbs-up.

"If I didn't know better, my lover, I would think those two were trying to curry your favor," Eric commented with amusement.

She opened the box and plucked out one of the small pieces, popping it into her mouth.

"Is it good?" her Viking asked.

"Vanilla Crème. Yum. Consider my favor curried."

"I'll be sure to tell those two conspirators since they seem so interested in it."

She was going to reply when Calvin Norris appeared at the edge of the dais. He inclined his head to Eric and then to her.

"Calvin," she said.

"Miss Sookie. I'll be heading out. I must admit, Northman, you throw the most… eventful parties," the werepanther replied.

Eric gave the shifter an indulgent smile. "One of these nights, you will attend one of my parties where nothing gets broken and no one dies."

Calvin tipped his hat to her bonded and smiled. "That might be something to see."

"Thank you for coming," Eric said.

Calvin nodded then tipped his hat to her. "Be seein' you Miss Sookie. Take care."

"You too, Calvin. Be safe."

With a final nod and smile, Calvin made his exit, and several other shifters and Weres left shortly thereafter, each coming to offer their congratulations and good-byes. Eric treated each one with the deference that a king would offer to his subjects, thanking them for coming and wishing them well. His antics were lifting her mood a little more, although she was still feeling very down and rattled. Discrete peeks to the clock behind the bar told her that Last Call would be in ten minutes, and she really couldn't wait for two am so she and Eric could go home.

'Yes, my lover, I cannot wait to get you back to our Ruston nest,' he sent, his thoughts laced with love and desire.

'If you think I'll be in the mood after the disaster that was tonight, you are truly delusional.' Delusional. It had been a Word of the Day.

He huffed and looked sulky, but she was already seeing the flitting thoughts going through his head as he tried to figure out ways to improve his chances of getting laid. His whirling mind made her smile a little, but that only made him look hopefully at her.

"I think it would acceptable for us to leave early if that was what you desired," he told her gently.

She gave him a pleading look. "Please?"

He smiled at her and rose to his feet, never letting go of her hand, and raising it to his lips to kiss the back of her palm as she stood up as well, then he slipped her arm in his and led her off the dais. He didn't speak to anyone or offer any explanation as to why they were leaving, but he did give a nod to Pam as they passed. They breezed by his office to pick up her purse and bag of clothes (including the tablecloth she'd worn – she'd bled on it and wanted to wash it clean despite Eric's protests,) and they were in his car before the clock on the dashboard read 1:42.

Since they never took the Corvette to the Ruston nest, they went to his house in the affluent South Highlands neighborhood to drop off his car. There she waited for him to retrieve the Taurus from the Shreveport garage where it was stored when they weren't in Ruston, and he picked her up out front a few minutes later. She had no fear of anyone seeing the car or following them because Eric always did a very thorough sweep of the street before he brought the car around.

She was quiet on the way to Ruston. The Ford had a more comfortable ride than the Corvette with plusher seats and a better suspension, and it had a quieter engine. Eric left the stereo off, and the silence allowed her to clear her head and try to deal with all that had happened. Slowly, she allowed herself to relax, releasing the tension that had been holding her upright and smiling, and her shoulders sagged with fatigue. With the release of her carefully cultivated mask came the tears, finally able to make their way down her face in silent rivers as Eric drove through the dark streets of Shreveport to the interstate. To his credit, he didn't question why she was crying or try to stop her. He only reached out to hold her hand and rubbed her palm in comforting little circles with his thumb.

She sighed and enjoyed the silence, both physical and mental because he'd been kind and put up some shields to keep his thoughts from leaking out. The effort was so small but so appreciated.

"Thank you," she whispered, closing her eyes and letting her head roll back to the head restraint on the seat.

"Anything for you, my lover."

She wasn't feeling quite as battered or worn out as she had after the Witch War or the St. Catherine Were War, or even the bombing in Rhodes, but she was feeling the need to detach from everything, and she needed Eric to be the strong one because right now she was out of Supergirl powers as everything hit her. In hindsight she was amazed that she'd managed to hold it together for as long as she did after everything she'd been through.

The exploding dress would almost have been funny if Quinn hadn't been the one who broke it, and even that wouldn't have been so bad if Quinn and Eric hadn't gotten into a huge fight afterwards. At least Eric hadn't killed Quinn; she didn't know what she would have done if he had, but that was a small consolation all things considered.

"Quinn made his choices," Eric said softly.

She closed her eyes and shook her head, more tears falling.

"He was a stupid asshole to believe the things Victor told him. He should have known better," he continued a little more firmly.

"I know, but that doesn't change anything."

"In a way it does. If you understand that, you can move on and focus your energies on the real problem, which is Victor. Tonight's entire fiasco was one big distraction orchestrated by Victor to sow dissention and strife between us. He set all of us up, including the tiger."

"Well it worked. I'm pretty dissented and Quinn took the brunt of everything," she snapped peevishly. "Who knows if he'll even be alive in six months?"

"I am sorry about the tiger. I will do what I can for him."

"Why? It isn't like you care about what happens to him." It was an ungracious thing to say, but at the moment she didn't care.

Eric shrugged, but didn't take the bait. "Overall, you're right. I don't care, but you care, and, because it is important to you, that makes it important to me. Besides, weretigers are rare and getting rarer. I don't necessarily want Quinn dead, but I do think he should focus more on finding a tigress to pass on his genes rather than chasing after you."

She snorted. "Somehow I doubt he'll be chasing after me ever again."

"I heard some of the things he sent to you. They were despicable, even for him. He was trying to hurt you."

"I know."

"You should not believe anything he said. You are beautiful, and brave, and smart, and deserving of respect. I would not hold you in such high regard or love you so much if you were not worthy of me."

There was very little she could say to that so she kept her mouth shut.

"I got three addresses out of Victor," she finally said, changing the subject.

Eric nodded. "We should get a map of New Orleans and pinpoint their locations. It is not unusual for a vampire to have a secret hiding place somewhere near the center of his territory. I doubt you got all of his nests, but we'll try to get more every time we see him, and I will correspond the addresses with likely hiding places."

She grimaced at the thought of going into Victor's head, but agreed, "Okay."

She knew it was necessary, but the vamp was a cesspool, and she was fast growing to hate him. His scheming had almost gotten her and Eric killed twice, and now Quinn was going to suffer the agony of the Pits because of him. Eric could barely wait to kill him, and she was discovering that she felt the same way.

They were almost to Ruston, and her heart started beating a little faster as Eric turned the Ford onto the long driveway. She was surprised when he stopped the car on the lane, turning it off, and looked at her.

'Do you trust me?' he asked suddenly.

The question seemed odd for him, and she was taken back for a moment.

"Of course I trust you. You know I do," she replied, looking at him.

He looked pleased with her answer and leaned over to kiss her tenderly. "Then I want you to do as I ask. Please?"

His tone of voice, and the expression on his face, told her that all of his masks had come off as well, and she was seeing the essential Eric, the Eric who was very close to the one she had known and loved when he was under Hallow's curse. She'd noticed that that had been happening more and more often when they came to the Ruston nest. It was as if he treated the house as a place where he could drop the persona of the master vampire (mostly) and just be Eric, and it was this Eric who was speaking to her now.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked, looking deep into his blue eyes. He was so beautiful when he was like this, and it thrilled her to know that he trusted her enough to show her this side of himself.

"I want you to leave it all here. Don't bring it into our Ruston nest," he replied.

"What?" she said, not having any idea what he was talking about."

He seemed frustrated and he gripped the steering wheel tightly.

"This place is our secret sanctuary. It is the one place in all of Louisiana where we can be safe and escape the insanity that is our lives," he explained gently with a touch of sorrow in his voice. "I don't want it tainted with the bad things that happened tonight. I want us to leave all of it here on the lane, and we can pick it back up when we leave if you want to."

She stared at him for a good twenty seconds, speechless, before she found her voice. "So you want me to just forget about all the badness that went down tonight?"

"No. I want you to leave it here."

She shook her head, completely confused. "I don't know how we can do that."

"I do," he answered.

He popped the trunk and got out of the car, walking around to the rear of the Taurus. She waited, uncertain, as he took something out of the trunk, and, when he came around to her side, she saw that he was carrying a large jar full of something red.

"Get out of the car, Dear One," he said and she obeyed, standing with him in the darkness on the gravel lane. His eyes were bright in the blackness, but there was no anger or fear in them, only quiet determination.

"What is that?" she asked, indicating the jar.

He unscrewed the lid, and she reached in to feel the contents. She gasped when she realized what it was.

"The latex dress…" she breathed.

"What's left of it," he confirmed.

"Did you get the piece that was in Calvin's beer?" she blurted.

He chuckled and shook his head. "I have no idea. Indira collected the scraps for me."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"Right now? Right now I am going to bury it here on the edge of the driveway," he answered.

She blinked at him. "Why?"

"Because I am not going to bring it, and the embarrassment and pain it caused you, into our sanctuary. This nest is our hov. It is our sacred place. I am going to leave the things that would soil it here. I'll unbury them and take them with us when we go, but I am not tainting our nest with it," he explained.

"Oh," she said as she watched him screw the lid onto the jar and go to a spot near the base of a large loblolly pine, then he dug a hole deep enough to bury the jar and dropped it in.

"Is there anything you'd like me to bury with it?" he asked her, still crouched down by the hole.

"Eric… doing that won't make it all go away, and it isn't like we haven't brought the situation with Victor here before. I don't understand what purpose doing this will serve. It isn't going to make me forget all the terrible things that happened tonight," she argued.

"I know," he stated simply, his voice resigned. "But it's never cut so close before. Even the assassins that tried to kill us… we didn't know them. Tonight Victor tried to use someone you knew and cared about against you, against us, and that makes it personal."

"It was personal before."

He shook his head. "Not like this. You know as well as I do what would have happened to us if I'd killed Quinn tonight. It would have cut a wound across both of our souls that might never have healed. That was what Victor was hoping to do to us."

He was right, and she stood there, her arms hanging limp at her sides as she looked down at him. Fresh tears started anew, and she felt the weight of everything bearing down upon her shoulders. The danger, the death, the conniving of the master vampires, the horror of believing someone she loved would die…

"Please," he whispered. "You wanted me to be the strong one. That's what I'm trying to do."

She looked at him, trying to understand why he was doing what appeared to be a stupid and pointless exercise.

"You are trying to protect me, to shield me from your world," she said finally, having a bit of a revelation.

"I would be a bad mate if I did not try to protect you from the things that I know you hate," he answered. "I know it hurts you to have to do some of the things you must do in order to ensure our safety. Can you blame me for wanting to take you away from all of that, if only for a short time?"

She sighed. It was close to freezing in the middle of a November night, she was dressed in a satin gown that did nothing to keep out the cold, she'd been run through the emotional wringer more than once in the past two hours, she was exhausted, and she really did not want to deal.

"Eric… It's late and I'm tired. I was paraded around like a prize cow, my dress exploded, I was left alone with a vampire who wants me as his possession and you dead, and you almost had to kill my ex-boyfriend," she said to him, her voice weary. "I really don't think…"

"Remember how we promised to make this bonding easy for us as much as possible, because the rest of the world was going to make it so hard?" he interrupted, reminding her of the conversation they'd had on the flight back from Isle Elena. "If we bring this with us to our sacred nest, we allow the world, and all of its ugliness, to damage our safe place."


"It's the place where we are easy," he said. "Where there are no enemies lurking in the dark, no scheming, no political maneuvering. It's the place we are just us. Do you really want to desecrate our hov by bringing all of this shit into it with you?"

As he spoke, his eyes getting wider and whiter (she hadn't seen soulful puppy dog eyes on him since Hallow's curse, but it still looked just as wrong), she was reminded of an old story she'd read about a run down man who used to put all of his worries on the Worry Tree outside his house, so he wouldn't burden his family with his anxieties. He'd just brush the branches as he passed to leave them, and then brushed the branches again to pick them back up on the way out.

Eric was essentially asking her to do the same thing – to put all the horrors and awful trouble they'd had that night into the hole with the wreckage of the dress. He wanted to guard the only place where they could be themselves. How could she fault him for wanting to protect their little sanctuary? It wasn't like he was thinking that they could just bury all the crap and forget about it. He just wanted them to keep from polluting their special place, like calling a time out or leaving shoes at the door to keep the dirt from getting in.

When she looked at it that way, how could she blame him for asking her to bury her anger and hate and upset with what was left of the dress? The answer was, she couldn't.

Nodding and wiping her eyes, she went over to the trunk and pulled out the tablecloth from the bag of clothes she'd transferred from the Corvette. She brought it over to Eric, crouched down beside her mate and shoved the bloodstained material into the hole. He closed his eyes in gratitude and kissed her forehead.

"Thank you, my lover. Now we will bury them and leave all of their insanity and danger behind us," he said as he began to cover the jar and the cloth with handfuls of loose soil. "They will still be here waiting for us, but we will unbury them when we are ready to deal with them. Until then, they will stay here, and we will not be troubled by them in our private place."

The way he said "private" made her shiver, but she was still not in the mood.

"Eric… I'm still not going to want to have sex tonight. The only thing I want is a shower to get the talcum and Vaseline off of me, and then I want to go to bed," she warned. "I'll even sleep in my room if you want me to."

She really didn't want to sleep alone, but if he couldn't keep his hands off of her, it might be for the best. She heard him snort just before he put his arms around her and brought them both back into a standing position.

"Then I will run you a bath and bathe you clean of all the dried sweat and blood and caked powder," he whispered, holding her and stroking her hair tenderly. "Then I will lave those scratches on your sides with my blood until they are healed. And if, after all of that, all you still want to do is sleep, then I will gather you close to me and hold you while you dream."

He kissed her hair as she trembled, and she felt loved and cherished.

"Thank you."

"You are most welcome, my lover."

She pulled back and kissed him, trying to express her gratitude and love all in one gesture, and he returned the kiss with zeal.

'I love you,' she told him, sighing into his mouth.

'I love you too, my lover,' he replied. 'So very much.'

She smiled, feeling better already, and stepped away in order to look up at him. Eric smiled back at her, his blue eyes warm and happy.

"Let's go home," she said, earning her an even wider smile from her mate.

"Yes, let's."

He took her hand and guided her back to the Ford, holding the door for her as she lowered herself into the seat, then he got back into the car and started the engine, taking them the rest of the way down the lane to their little secret hideaway from the crazy world of Supe politics. Neither of them looked back.