Recap of Chapter 52: Sookie prepares to host her first formal dinner party. Just before her guests arrive, she realizes Quinn is the one who has been stalking her. In a fit of anger, she rushes to the garden in the pouring rain, and proceeds to uproot the tiger lilies the WereTiger had sent her anonymously months earlier. Eric and Sir Robert go after her. Although also extremely angry about Quinn, they decide to table the issue until after the party. They all three return to the house drenched and muddy.

Of course, the Fairies arrive early, including Rhys, whom Eric had invited without Sookie's knowledge. Sookie is furious, but by acting the good host, Eric is able to win his way back into her good graces. Faeryn the half-Fairy (Sookie's magic tutor from the Virgin Islands) has come to the party. Having been captured and severely tortured during the recent Fae war, she has not recovered her voice or the use of her magic, and is suffering from a severe case of PTSD. Sir Robert offers to heal her, but, for reasons known only to her, she declines.

After a rough start, the party progresses well. Niall finally gives Sookie and Eric their wedding gifts, including a mysterious Faberge box which is enchanted to stay locked until their first anniversary. Knowing that Niall and Eric are counting on her to teach Sookie to "control her appearance," Faeryn decides to stay for a few days. As soon as the others leave, she goes to bed, leaving Sookie free to have an after-party with her nestmates. She shares a bottle of the highly-intoxicating Fairy liqueur Perianth with them. Just before dawn, she and Eric have a very intense sexual encounter. (Did I really need to mention that?! They always do!)

Just a reminder: Sookie ad Eric can share dreams. He has the ability to supply the content, so sometimes he sends her dreams of their son Alexander (who does not really exist.)

Sookie's POV: Valhalla, the day after the dinner party

After a very eventful day topped off by too much Perianth and an intense round of love-making, I fell asleep practically mid-sentence. Eventually, even without Eric's help, I dreamed of our son Alexander. As always, my part-Fae child was a total delight to behold, full of joy and laughter and magic; but he was also the Viking's son, which meant he was both brilliant and full of mischief. As much as they adored him, the King and Queen definitely had their hands full trying to stay one step ahead of their little prince.

In this particular dream, although he knew very well it was forbidden, our enterprising offspring managed to smuggle some woodsprites back from the Portal. A male and two females, to be exact, and soon the woods of Valhalla were overrun with the pesky things. Naturally they caused everyone in the vicinity no end of trouble, including me... but even so, some of the resulting chaos was downright hilarious. Near the end of the dream, a swarm of the tiny fairies was chasing Pam through the woods near the lake, trying to pluck strands of her long, golden hair to weave into tiny jewelry. Even at vampire speed, she couldn't seem to outrun them. Every so often she would skid to a halt and attempt to snatch some out of the air, but they were remarkably elusive. Faster than lightening, they darted away, emitting extremely annoying high-pitched giggles. Entirely by luck, she finally managed to capture one, but it immediately clamped down on her thumb with its razor-sharp little teeth. The bite must have been quite painful, because the enraged vampiress flung it away with a loud screech.

She took off running again, yelling for Alexander to control his pets before she bit their little heads off. Clearly, this was an empty threat, since she couldn't manage to catch even one! Dream-Me was laughing so hard I woke myself up. Blearily, I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was still too early to be up, so I gave the Vampire King sleeping next to me a little pat on his world-class rump, shifted myself into a slightly more comfortable position, and promptly went back to sleep. Within seconds I was dreaming again:

This time around, I found myself in the middle of a long, curving hallway. Having no idea where I was, I studied the space for clues. The finishing trim, paint, and flooring was identical to Valhalla's, and it certainly felt like home... but I knew it couldn't be. My Fae instincts told me I was underground, and as far as I knew, the only room under our house was Eric's and my chamber.

Thoroughly puzzled, I decided some exploration was in order. I tried to open the door closest to me but found it locked. The next door was locked, too. Frustrated, I decided to give a few on the other side of the hall a try, but before I could, the sound of a deep, rich voice came drifting from around the bend in the hall. The Viking! Consulting our Bond (which I should have done in the first place) I knew he was somewhere to my right, so I headed in that direction. As I reached the bend in the hallway, I saw a partially open door up ahead. Knowing I had found the right room, I started to "pop" myself to him, but then it occurred to me Eric wasn't in the habit of talking to himself. I had best figure out who was with him before barging in like a Fairy. Instead, I slowed down and tried to make like a vampire, hoping that Eric's many lessons on stealth had done me some good. As slowly and silently as I could, I drifted towards the open doorway, pausing just outside to listen. I figured the content of his speech might tell me who was with him. He was speaking in his old language, which wasn't particularly surprising. What was surprising was the fact that I could understand most of what he was saying! He was telling the story of an epic battle between Thor and a snake. To anyone else that might sound a bit bizarre, but not to Dream Sookie, who had heard that story so many times she could tell it herself.

Now knowing exactly who was in the room with the Viking, I started to smile. It was safe for me to pop in, but instead, I poked my head around the door jam and peered inside. I saw the perfect little boy's room, cheerfully furnished in bright colors and chock-full of books and toys. A large aquarium filled with unusual fish burbled in one corner, and a couple of cages containing Portal birds hung in another. Centered on the opposite wall was a bed piled high with pillows and stuffed animals. The tall wooden headboard was intricately carved with strange symbols. I couldn't read them, but Dream-Me knew they were potent magical safeguards for Alexander's protection. Next to the bed was Gran's old rocking chair. My huge, thousand-year-old Viking warrior was squeezed into it, with Alexander comfortably draped across his lap. The golden retriever Beau was sprawled at their feet, snoozing.

Our son appeared much younger than he had been in my last dream, perhaps no more than three or four years old. From the look of things, his extremely patient father was attempting to get the energetic little boy to sleep by telling him a story. Both father and son were so caught up in the too-exciting-for-bedtime tale that they never noticed me... but the dog certainly did. The instant I appeared in the doorway, the retriever's big head shot up and rotated in my direction. His dark brown eyes were filled with such keen intelligence I suddenly wondered if he really was a dog. Maybe good old Beau was really some sort of Supernatural creature, commissioned by Niall to be his great-great-grandson's full-time companion and bodyguard. If so, I must have passed muster, because after giving me a quick once-over, Beau merely sighed heavily and resumed his nap.

Meanwhile, the Viking's story finally came to a rousing conclusion. The instant it was over, Alexander began campaigning for another—in the same ancient language as his father! Craning his head back, the boy met Eric's fond but exasperated gaze. "Please, Daddy! Just one more!" he begged. When his father did not reply immediately, Alex flashed him the world's most adorable smile, adding in English, "Aunt Amelia says my lucky number is three, you know."

In spite of himself, one corner of the Viking's mouth twitched upward. "Very well, young man, but this will be the last. What would you like to hear this time?"

"Read me one of my books, Daddy, the one about the woodsprites. It's my favorite."

"Alexander, you have heard that story a million times. Besides, you are perfectly capable of reading it yourself."

"But it's better when you read it."

Affectionately ruffling his son's golden hair, Eric sighed. "All right. Get it for me."

Instead of climbing off his father's lap to fetch it, the boy stretched one tiny hand toward the crowded bookshelf on the other side of the room. In his reed-thin little voice, he commanded "Here, book." Instantly, the first of a several-volume set separated itself from its companions, floated across the room and settled gently onto the boy's open palm. Even from where I stood, I could see the title. In big, easy-to-read letters was printed Alexander and the Woodsprites... by Sookie Stackhouse! Shocked right down to my boots, Dream-Me let out a startled gasp, causing two golden-haired heads to swivel in my direction. Two identical pairs of sapphire-blue eyes lit up in welcome.

"Mommy! You're just in time! Daddy's about to read me one of my books!" my son informed me enthusiastically.

Still totally dumbfounded, I continued to stand there with my mouth hanging open. With a look of concern, Eric asked, "Beloved? Are you all right?"

Instead of answering, my eyes shifted back to the bookcase. I quickly counted at least seven more of the thin volumes. Was it really possible I had written all of them? Quite suddenly, I knew I had written them, and each one was a story about Alexander. Holy cow! I must be a published author! "Apparently I'm doing better than I thought," I muttered to myself.

Father and son looked at each other. "I think Mommy needs to sit down, Daddy," Alexander said seriously.

"Yes, she does," agreed Eric. Eyes twinkling, he added, "I don't have room on my lap for both of you, though. Your mother will have to sit on your lap."

Giggling, the little boy exclaimed, "Daddy, you are so silly! Mommy would squish me! Besides, this chair is too small to hold all three of us. We need to sit on my bed like we always do."

"Ah! Good thinking, my son," his father replied with a totally straight face. He rose to his feet in one fluid motion and carried both boy and book to the bed. Shoving the menagerie out of the way, Eric rearranged the pillows and propped himself comfortably against the headboard. He motioned for me to join him, and soon I was leaning against one broad shoulder. Our little boy quickly snuggled into his customary spot between us, then opened his book with a happy sigh.

Of course, I was absolutely burning to ask a million questions. Before I could even decide where to start, Alexander the Impatient turned to the first page of the story, and Eric began to read about the exciting adventures of a magical boy named Alexander and his faithful dog, Beau. After the first few sentences, I already knew what was going to happen... because I had just dreamed the same story! The major elements of my first dream had merely been simplified (and slightly sanitized) and turned into an enchanting fairy tale, brought to life by utterly charming illustrations. As I lay there snuggling with my wonderful husband and my beautiful little boy, listening to a story that I myself had written, my heart nearly burst with happiness. In that perfect, shining moment, I knew I was the luckiest woman on earth. I wasn't sure what I had done to deserve it, but I said a silent prayer to God, letting him know how grateful I was for my good fortune.

Unfortunately, both fairy tales and dreams have to end sooner or later. As soon as Dream Eric read "The End," I woke up. As always, after dreaming about Alexander I was filled with equal parts of joy and yearning. Even though my head knew perfectly well that he was nothing but a product of my own wishful thinking, my crazy heart loved him just as much as if he were real. No matter how grateful I was to have these marvelous dreams, it was becoming harder and harder for me to let him go when they ended. Sometimes I found myself wishing that I could find a way to stay in my dream world with my baby.

I had been very careful not to share any of this with the Viking, for fear he would stop initiating these dreams altogether. Discovering I didn't necessarily need Eric to provide them for me was a relief, but independence came at a price. Without my Bonded, the dreams were not as intensely real and apparently not as easy to remember. Within moments of waking, the finer details had already begun to fade. Afraid they might disappear entirely if I didn't record them right away, I quickly kissed my vampire, rolled out of bed, and went to fetch my fancy new journal.

After first taking care of a little personal business, I retrieved the beautiful notebook from one of the few places in the house the Viking was certain not to look: the bottom of the dirty clothes hamper. Smiling to myself, I threw on a bath robe, tucked the book under my arm and headed upstairs. It wasn't all that early—at least, by Northman household standards—but I expected to have the place to myself. Rhiannon had given Faeryn a sleeping potion that should last another couple of hours, and since Juanita had worked through the weekend, she had the day off. Wilson wouldn't be on duty until just before dark, so for once the Queen was going to have to brew her own coffee. Oh, poor me.

In the kitchen, I headed straight for the coffee maker, but just as I reached for the pot, I heard strange noises coming from inside the pantry. Huh. Either we had a rat the size of a pony, or Wilson had gotten up extra early. Fully expecting to see my new butler, I went over and poked my head through the door. Instead, I found Juanita standing atop a small folding ladder, straining to reach a large soup pot on the very top shelf. She was muttering to herself in Spanish, and although I didn't understand a word of it, I was pretty sure there was some pretty serious cursing going on. Looking around, I didn't blame her. The normally orderly pantry was a total wreck! Pots, dishes, small appliances and canned goods had been removed from the shelves and stacked on every available surface, including the floor.

Instead of hello, I blurted out, "Holy cats! What the heck happened in here?"

Although I had entered the room in the human way, I still managed to scare the bejeezus out of her. Letting out a yelp, she jerked and started to teeter. Terrified she was going to fall clean off the ladder, I dashed across the room to catch her, but she managed to regain her balance on her own.

"Good golly, Juanita!" I gasped, "That was close! I am so sorry I startled you."

"It wasn't your fault, Senora Sookie. I just wasn't expecting you to be up so early."

Putting a hand over my pounding heart, I said, "Honestly, I wasn't expecting to see you either. I thought you were taking the day off."

"But Miss Faeryn is here! I couldn't leave you with no help when you have a guest."

"Juanita, you are a jewel. You take such good care of us! Still, now that Wilson is here—"

Instantly, her dark brown eyes turned stormy. "Wilson!" She spat out the name as if it tasted bad. "I'm sorry, Señora, but that man is a menace!"

"A menace! I thought you two had buried the hatchet."

"I'd like to bury the hatchet, all right—in his hard head!" she declared. Gesturing at the disaster around us, she added, "The minute my back was turned, look what he did!"

"Wilson made this mess?"

"Well... not exactly."

"Huh. Maybe you'd better tell me what happened. Come down off that ladder. I'll get the pot for you."

While she climbed down, I levitated the pot down from its shelf. It was a little larger and heavier than the objects I usually used for magic practice, but luckily it came to me with only a slight wobble. With a grateful look, Juanita took it from me and returned it to its usual place on the bottom shelf. "Most everything had been cleaned and put away by the time your guests left last night," she explained, "I had already decided to come in to work today, so Wilson offered to finish the last few things so I could get home at a decent hour. When I got here this morning, everything in the pantry had been completely rearranged."

"Rearranged! It looks like a bomb went off in here!"

Looking sheepish, she admitted, "Actually, I did this. Starting from scratch makes it easier to put everything back the way it goes."

"So... in reality, all Wilson did was move some things around. That doesn't sound so bad."

"But he put things in stupid places! I ask you... who puts a big, heavy soup pot on the top shelf?"

"Uh... a tall man who doesn't cook much?"

"Exactly! He is a butler, not a cook! Who does he think he is, reorganizing my kitchen?" she asked heatedly.

Technically speaking, it was my kitchen... but since I hardly ever lifted a finger in it, I figured she did have the superior claim. Trying not to smile, I said soothingly, "It's possible Wilson was just trying to be helpful. I'll make sure he understands that the kitchen is strictly your territory, okay?"

"What about the rest of the house? When I go home tonight, what else is he going to 'organize'?"

Seeing an opportunity, I said slyly, "Now that you mention it, I did see him eyeing the laundry room yesterday... but you know, if you lived here, too, he wouldn't have the chance to do anything behind your back."

Juanita opened her mouth as if she was going to object, but slowly shut it again. She blinked a couple of times, then said, "To be honest, my family has been worried about me living alone since my husband died. The house is much too big for me, but my husband loved it so much I just couldn't stand the thought of selling it... but one of our nephews just got out of the Navy. He's been living with his parents until he finds a job, but I'll bet he would love to have his own place, especially if he could do some repairs instead of paying rent. He doesn't have any furniture, so I wouldn't have worry about what to do with mine."

"So all you would have to do is pack a few bags," I said encouragingly, "You don't even have to tote anything. Just say the word, and I'll send a couple of the guards to help you."

Juanita was silent for a few minutes, working through the details in her mind. Even without listening to her thoughts, I could tell she was going to say yes. Sure enough, it wasn't much longer until she broke into a smile. "All right, I'll call my nephew this afternoon. If he's interested, I'll start packing my things." Almost to herself, she added, "Just think! I'll never have to mow that huge yard again!"

I don't know why I found the idea of Juanita living at Valhalla to be so comforting, but I did. Grinning from ear to ear, I exclaimed, "Wonderful! See, this is going to work out well for everybody!"

Returning my grin, Juanita said, "Everyone but Mr. Wilson. He might not be too happy about it."

"He's a big boy," I said without a shred of pity, "He'll just have to adjust. Now, would you like some help in here? I can wipe down the shelves and you can go behind me and put everything back where you want it."

"Thank you, Senora, but Wilson already cleaned the shelves. I can have all this put back in no time."

"Okay, then. I'll go start some coffee. Would you like a cup?"

"Oh, dear. I meant to make coffee earlier, but when I saw the pantry I forgot all about it. I'll make some right away."

"Juanita, I am perfectly capable of making a pot of coffee! Finish your project, and when Faeryn gets up, you can make us something to eat, okay?"

Leaving the housekeeper to her work, I went back to the kitchen and finally got the coffee started. While it was brewing, I sat on a bar stool and opened my journal. Both of my dreams were pretty hazy by then, so I took a few minutes trying to recall them. When I got to the part about Alexander's book, I squeezed my eyes shut and wished like crazy that I could remember every detail. Almost immediately, an image of the book appeared in my head. It was so realistic, I could mentally flip the pages and read every word.

Forgetting all about coffee or anything else, I turned to a clean page of my journal and began to write. The words poured out of my head in such a torrent that my pen had to scramble to keep up. I wrote and wrote and wrote, never pausing until I scribbled "The End." After that, I even took a stab at duplicating some of the illustrations. Unfortunately, I had never been too good at drawing, especially in ink. Frustrated, I sat back and frowned down at my efforts. A moment later, my fierce concentration was interrupted by a steaming coffee cup sliding alongside my journal. Startled, I looked up to find Juanita staring at me from the other side of the island. "Please forgive me for interrupting you, Senora," she apologized, "You looked like you needed some coffee."

Dragging my mind back to reality was an effort. "It's okay," I said, closing the cover of the journal, "I was just jotting some things down. How's the pantry coming along?"

"I'm happy to say that I'm finally finished. It certainly took a lot longer than I expected. "

"Finished! Already? Do you have magical powers and forgot to mention them?"

With a rueful smile, she replied, "If I did, it wouldn't have taken me over an hour to finish."

"Over an hour?" I repeated stupidly. "Are you sure? I could swear I've only been out here ten minutes at the most."

Looking at me a little strangely, Juanita pointed to the kitchen clock. Sure enough, I had been at it for more than an hour and a half! Still unable to believe that much time had passed, I shook my head. "Wow. I guess I was really caught up in the story."

"You are writing a story, Senora? That's wonderful! What is it about?"

Suddenly embarrassed, I stammered, "Um... it's just something I dreamed up. It's kind of a fairy tale."

The little housekeeper chuckled. "A fairy tale, written by a real Fairy Princess! Too bad you can't use that in your marketing campaign. Your book would be an instant success."

"Except that humans don't know that Fairies exist and probably never will. It doesn't matter, though. I'm not going to try to get it published or anything. I doubt anyone would like it but me."

"I think it is quite common for new authors to feel that way. Maybe you should let someone else read it, someone whose opinion you trust."

A new author? As hard as it was to think of myself in those terms, I had in fact written a book... or at least, Dream Sookie had, and in spite of my words to Juanita, I actually thought the story was good. Even so, I found the idea of someone else reading it strangely alarming; but my housekeeper was right. I needed to let someone else read it, and who better than Juanita herself? I knew she was honest enough to tell me the truth if she didn't like it, but also diplomatic enough to tell me so in a way that wouldn't hurt my feelings.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the journal to the right page and slid it across the counter. Juanita's dark eyes met mine, and I could see how much my gesture of trust meant to her. Without a word, she pulled a pair of reading glasses from her pocket, picked up the book, and began to read. I watched her face like a hawk, waiting for the slightest change in expression. After a moment, she began to smile, then she chuckled... and soon, she was laughing out loud! By the time she got to "The End," her eyes were a little misty, but she was still smiling. With a happy sigh, she closed the journal and handed it back to me. "Senora... that was a wonderful story. I absolutely loved it."

Grinning like a fool, I said, "I'm really glad you liked it."

"How could I not? It is so charming! I never had any children of my own, but I had plenty of nieces and nephews. When they were little, I read to them all the time... and now, I read to their children. Believe me when I tell you, Senora, any child would love this story. It will be a terrible shame if you don't publish it."

Even though I knew I shouldn't, I couldn't stop myself from tuning into her thoughts. To my delight, they were every bit as enthusiastic as her spoken really, truly thought I should and could get it published. Honestly, I had written the story for myself, without the slightest idea that anyone (other than a nosy Viking) might read it... but in strange way, publishing it would bring Alexander to life in the only way I could. No one but Eric and I had to know that the character in the book was based on our dream child. There was only one problem... even if the story itself was good, the book was not really complete. Giving Juanita a grateful smile, I replied, "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but children's books need illustrations to get published, and as you can see, I can't draw a lick."

"Isn't Miss Faeryn an artist?" Juanita asked, "Maybe she could do them for you."

Faeryn! Of course! Why on earth hadn't I thought of her myself? Even if she couldn't reproduce the exact illustrations from my dream, I was positive she could come up with something equally charming. With Faeryn's artwork to bring my story to life, I might actually have a shot at getting it published! Excitement sizzled through my body—until I remembered what bad shape my friend was in. With a disappointed sigh, I said, "Faeryn's recovering from a very traumatic event. She's not doing any artwork right now."

Juanita said wisely, "Perhaps a project like this to focus on is just what she needs to get her mind off her troubles."

"Do you really think so? I don't want to push her into anything she's not ready for."

"Why don't you play it by ear? I think you will know when the time is right to mention it."

"Juanita, as always, you give good advice." Glancing at the clock again, I said, "Speaking of Faeryn, it's nearly time for her sleeping medicine to wear off. If I hurry, I still have time for a shower before she gets up."

"In the meantime, I will fix you both something to eat. What would you like, breakfast or lunch?"

"Definitely breakfast. Can we have blueberry pancakes? Faeryn loves them. Oh, and she also prefers tea instead of coffee."

"Yes, ma'am. I'll have everything ready to go whenever you are ready."

Giving Juanita a little wave, I popped myself down to my bathroom. While showering, I couldn't get my mind off my story. Juanita had convinced me that it was good enough to publish, but I didn't have the slightest idea how to go about it. Eric or Robert might, but for a variety of reasons, the last thing I wanted to do was ask them for help. For starters, there was not a chance in h-e-double-l either of my ancient vampire warriors would "get" a story meant for children. Really, why would they? Nevertheless, if they knew I had my heart set on getting it published, they would find a way to make it happen... which was a really great reason to keep the whole thing on the down-low. I wanted my book to be published on its own merits, not through bribery or intimidation or worse. Plus, if I could manage to pull it off all on my own, I would finally, finally feel like a successful person in my own right.

The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced it really might be possible... if I could somehow convince Faeryn to do the illustrations. Although I was burning to talk to her about it, I made myself a solemn vow not to bring it up until I was sure she was well enough to tackle such an involved project. Her mother and the Prince seemed to think a few days at Valhalla would speed her recovery. Now more than ever I hoped they were right.

Stepping from the shower, I glanced at the clock. Rats! I had been so lost in thought, I had let time get away from me again! Faeryn might already be awake and needing help to get out of bed. I hurriedly dried off, threw on some clothes, and pulled my hair into a ponytail. As anxious as I was to get upstairs, I stopped long enough to kiss and pet the Viking and re-arrange his covers before popping up to Faeryn's room.

Politely materializing in the hallway, I tapped lightly on her bedroom door. After a getting no response, I decided my guest must still must be sleeping. Being a well-raised Southern girl, ordinarily I would have gone back downstairs and waited patiently for her to awaken, but my time in the Portal had taught me Fairies had different ideas about that sort of thing. Faeryn wouldn't mind in the least if I waited in her room, so with a silent apology to Gran, I popped myself to the far side of the bolted door. Knowing the light-tight shutters were closed, I was prepared to materialize into pitch-black, but I found the room positively ablaze. After I left, the poor thing had turned on every light she could find, including the ones in the adjoining bath.

I stole over to the bed and peered down at the small figure huddled under the blankets. Leaning down, I gently brushed a mass of auburn hair out of my friend's battered face. I thought her color looked a tad bit better, but it was hard to tell in artificial light. Grabbing the remote control for the shutters from the night stand, I pressed the button labeled "RETRACT" and the heavy metal panels slid silently upward. I quickly made my way around the room, turning off lamps and pulling back drapes. Once the room was filled with soft, tree-filtered natural light, I went back to the bed and took another look at my friend. Sure enough, her color was better, but the nasty wounds on her face hadn't improved one bit.

Shuddering, I tried to imagine the kind of Fairy it would take to do such awful things. Eric had warned me that the Fae could be just as vicious and brutal as vampires, but I had never really believed it until now. I wished like crazy I could do something to help my friend recover from her terrible ordeal, but with so little experience in healing, I wasn't sure how much I could do. Still, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try. It seemed too invasive to attempt a deep healing without permission, though, so I decided I'd better wait until she was awake.

Unfortunately, it seemed my body wasn't nearly as polite as my mind. My hands were literally tingling with the need to touch her. Finally unable to withstand the strong compulsion, I lightly stroked her forehead with my fingertips. The instant my skin made contact with hers, my magic surged to the surface, swirling inside me with such force it made me slightly dizzy. If I had stopped to think about it, I might have realized that in a drug-induced sleep, Faeryn's normal boundaries would be easily breached; but as usual, I acted on impulse. My only real intention was to share my energy with her in the Fae manner... but the next thing I knew, my essence had slipped out of my body and into hers.

Thoroughly discombobulated, it took me a moment to gather my wits. I had never been "inside" a half-Fairy before. Even though I knew Faeryn had a human father, she always seemed so completely magical that I thought of her as fully-Fae; but after my experience with my full-blooded cousin Claude, I could definitely tell the difference. Oddly enough, the human part of her actually added several layers of complexity; however, I was soon able to acclimate to her particular set of energies and felt ready to proceed. I picked an energy pathway and began to follow it, seeking out areas that needed my attention.

As I drifted along, I learned all sorts of things about my friend. Fully aware of the difficulties faced by half-Fairies, her mother had done her best to give her daughter a happy, relatively safe life by sheltering her in the vampire-free magical islands. Faeryn was truly content living on her Island and rarely left it, except to visit the other "sacred spots" or the Portal. Her peaceful, blessed existence was well-deserved, though, because she was truly a wonderful person, just as lovely on the inside as out. It was her nature to be sweet and trusting and giving, and in my opinion, she was lots closer to being an angel than Claudine ever would be. Nevertheless, Faeryn was partly human, which meant she was bound to have at least a few troublesome issues; but so far, there were none in sight. It finally dawned on me that Niall must have taken care of most of them already. What I was looking for was something much larger, something even the Prince himself hadn't been able to fix. I knew the chance of me doing any better was near zero, but still, I was determined to try.

I had just picked another energy path when BLAM! I ran smack up against a huge, red-and-black pulsing mass. Considering what Faeryn had been through, I was expecting the area to be sizable, but I was totally unprepared by the ugliness of it. I had absolutely no clue how to handle such a monstrosity. I hastily tried to back away and regroup, but to my horror, I found myself being sucked into the nasty thing. Terror and despair began to seep into me. Horrible images of torture flooded my mind, accompanied by bursts of excruciating pain. Not knowing what else to do, I quickly severed the connection and fled back to the safety of my own body.

Thoroughly rattled by what I had seen and felt, it took me a while to pull myself together. Once I quit shaking, I glanced down at Faeryn. She was awake, and for a long time we stared at each other in total silence. Swallowing the Texas-sized lump in my throat, I finally managed to whisper, "Oh, honey. How did you ever survive?"

Sighing heavily, she shrugged. In a low voice, I began to apologize. "I'm really sorry for invading your privacy without asking first. I only intended to give you a little energy, but it got out of hand. Obviously I need more practice with the whole healing thing."

Eyes bright with tears, Faeryn gave me a little smile and shrugged again, letting me know I was forgiven.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, "Now that I know what to expect, I want to try again."

With a deep frown, she shook her head violently. Putting her hand on my cheek, she painfully rasped out, "No! Hurt... you."

Unbelievable! This gentle, loving creature had been tortured practically to death, her soul nearly crushed, and yet, she was worried about me. I covered her hand with mine. It felt small and fragile, like a child's. "Faeryn," I said, "Haven't you always told me I need to practice my gifts? Well, being able to pop from place to place is cool and all, and being able to get a drink from the fridge without getting up is real handy, but in my opinion, this healing thing is lots more important. Obviously I've still got a lot to learn, and I may not have the skill to do you much good, but I really, really want to try."

In spite of my words, the worry never left her eyes. The last thing I wanted to do was give her something else to fret about, so I decided to give the subject a rest. "Look, we don't have to talk about this now. I don't know about you, but I'm starving! Would you like some breakfast? Juanita's making blueberry pancakes."

That earned me a real smile and an enthusiastic nod. Throwing back the covers, she slowly swung her legs over the edge of the mattress. She was obviously still in a fair amount of physical pain, and for good reason. I caught a glimpse of her bare legs, and if the rest of her body looked that bad, it was a miracle she could get up at all. Trying not to wince, I helped her with her robe. As cheerfully as I could, I said, "After breakfast, you can take a nice hot bath, and then I'll rub in the creams your mom left."

She nodded again and hobbled towards the bathroom, because even half-Fairies have to pee when they wake up. In the meantime, my mind was once again whirring. This time it had nothing to do with my book, but with something even more challenging. I was absolutely determined to get my friend back on her feet, which meant I had to a) talk her into giving me another shot at healing her and b) convince her to drink vampire blood and as soon as possible. I had the feeling getting my book published was going to be much, much easier than either of those tasks.

Faeryn's POV:

When Mother first mentioned the dinner party at Sookie's, I thought she was joking. Weeks had passed since I had been kidnapped and tortured, but I was still a physical, magical, and emotional wreck. Even leaving the safety of my room at the palace was difficult. Braving a houseful of vampires was simply out of the question. I flatly refused to go, until by chance I overheard the Prince and Claudine discussing Sookie's current dilemma, her inability to control her appearance after using magic. The Prince seemed confident I could help his beloved great-granddaughter, but Claudine was equally sure I was too damaged to be useful at anything, ever.

I was stunned to hear it put so bluntly, but I could hardly be angry with her since I agreed with her assessment. Oh, I suspected my body might heal eventually, and I (mostly) believed the Prince when he assured me my magic would someday return, but I was quite positive I would never feel like myself again. It was as if my captors had cut out chunks of my essence right along with my skin. Prolonged pain, terror, and despair had turned me into someone I hardly recognized and didn't like at all. Being such a sniveling, un-magical, all-too-human mess was deeply humiliating, and the agony in my mother's eyes every time she looked at me only made things worse.

Sometimes, just taking the next breath seemed like too much effort, and, in my very darkest moments, pointless. On one such occasion, it finally occurred to me that I did, in fact, have a choice. A dark pendulum was set in motion, swinging in erratic arcs between two points: Life... Death... Life... Death. Overhearing Claudine's uncharacteristically harsh words suddenly made that choice seem vastly easier. If I wasn't any use to myself or others, what was the point in struggling any longer?

It was at that very moment, however, that my Prince stepped into the hallway and gave me one of his penetrating looks. Although telepathy is not a Fae trait, I had the distinct impression he knew exactly what was on my mind. Instead of chastising me, though, he said, "Faeryn, your mother tells me you refused to go to Sookie's party. I must say I am very disappointed. I know you feel you are not up to it, but I am certain it will be good for you. Besides, I have given it a great deal of thought and have decided it is time to give Sookie her wedding gift. You don't want to miss that, do you?"

I had known Niall all my life and had learned long ago to really listen to his words. The way he said things often revealed more than the words themselves. By the careful phrasing of his last statement, he was implying I already knew what this gift was... but the only gift I knew anything about was the one he had shown me while Sookie was in the Portal, an exquisite Faberge box filled with enchanted vials of his blood. That box contained the means for my prophetic dreams about Sookie and her vampire to become reality!

For the first time in weeks, I felt a tiny fluttering of excitement, followed by a deep sense of admiration for our Prince's cleverness. He had laid his trap very neatly, baiting it with the one thing that could possibly arouse my interest. I knew it was a waste of breath to ask if I was right about the gift. The only way I would ever know the answer was to go to Sookie's and see for myself. Still, it was extremely difficult for me to willingly expose myself to such danger. From our first meeting, I had liked Sookie's vampire a great deal and even had the strangest feeling I could trust him; but since then, my "trusted" list had been radically revised. I knew I would be under Niall's protection as well as my mother's, but the thought of being surrounded by vampires was utterly terrifying.

After much internal debate, I finally agreed to go, not because I wasn't afraid, or because I thought the visit would do me any good, but because I simply had to see if I was right about the wedding gift. I spent the rest of the week scraping together the courage to follow through on my promise. Unfortunately, when it came time to actually leave the safety of the palace, my resolve deserted me and I went into a full-blown panic attack; but by then it was too late. The Prince had already whisked all of us into the ether.

Our Prince was so magical he did not need to stop after passing through a portal like everyone else. Practically before I could draw my next breath, I found myself standing on Sookie's driveway. While the others exchanged greetings, I struggled to get my shattered nerves under control. I was gradually making progress, too, until Claudine jokingly mentioned torture. My absurd reaction to her casually spoken words caused Sir Robert to lunge towards me, which proved to be the proverbial last straw. My mind and my body shut down completely. Instead of taking a single evasive measure, all I could do was stand frozen in place, shivering and shaking like a cowardly fool.

Imagine my surprise when, instead of the certain death I was expecting (and to a certain extent, welcoming) I received an apology and an offer of vampire blood to heal me! Sir Robert's words were so unexpected, it took my poor addled brain a moment to catch up. In the end I said no to the Knight's offer, not just because I found the idea of drinking blood to be revolting (I did) or because of the danger (once a vampire's blood is in you, he can track you at will), but because I was still unsure if I wanted to live. There was little point in healing my body if I wasn't going to be around to use it.

Thankfully, Rhys arrived and diverted everyone's attention, giving me a few precious moments to gather what was left of my wits. By the time Sookie took us into the house, I had more or less managed to regain my composure. Even so, I found it difficult to concentrate on the tour of the Royal Residence. My thoughts kept drifting to Sir Robert. I simply could not fathom why he had made such an astonishing offer. Shouldn't such a magnificent, fearsome vampire be revolted by my cowardly reaction, not to mention my disgusting appearance? By all accounts, the undead are incapable of pity, but what else could it be?

I could only conclude my first impression of Robert had been correct. As with Eric, I felt quite strongly that the Knight was somehow different than the "Evil Vampire" of legend. Of course, the overwhelming physical attraction I felt for him might have had something to do with that impression. Robert did not possess the ethereal beauty of a Fae male; nevertheless, he was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen—and what female could possibly resist that incredible French accent? Also, his display of self-discipline that night had been thoroughly impressive. After spending so many weeks in the Portal, Sookie had looked and smelled fully-Fae, yet Robert had actually held her in his arms and never once tried to bite her. I would have sworn such a feat was impossible had I not witnessed it myself.

In fact, the Knight had been the consummate gentleman in every respect. Even after the newly reunited couple had departed, he stayed an appropriate distance away from me without being asked. As we sat in the moonlight talking, I literally could not take my eyes off him. Intellectually I knew a sexual relationship with him was out of the question, but my body seemed to have other ideas on the subject. Long after I returned to the Portal, I could not stop thinking about the Knight... and talking about him... and dreaming about having wild, mind-blowing sex with him. Unfortunately, being severely tortured is not particularly good for one's libido. While I still found the vampire as breathtakingly handsome as ever, the feverish sexual desire I once felt for him had disappeared. It was the vampire's unexpected kindness that appealed to me now.

Oddly enough, Sir Robert's offer to heal me was not the most remarkable event of the evening. Even more astonishing was the "conversation" I had with Eric while viewing the portait of Sookie that I painted. I can truly state that brief but all-important encounter was what truly started me on the road to recovery. My creativity had always been the most important thing in my life, and its loss, the most devastating. My mother had done her best to convince me it would come back, but mothers will say anything to make their children feel better. Spouting platitudes was simply not in the Viking's make-up. When he assured me my creativity would someday return, I actually believed him. In a moment of blinding clarity, I knew that I truly wanted to live.

The relief that followed that realization was so sudden and so intense, I immediately burst into tears. I had been unable to cry since my rescue, but once started, it seemed my tears would never stop. No doubt disgusted by such an emotional display, the Viking quickly turned to leave, but I stopped him before he could make his escape. No matter how painful it was to speak, I simply had to thank him. I managed to croak a few syllables, but that hardly seemed adequate. Intentionally or not, Eric had given me the greatest gift imaginable—a reason to live. Besides a few whispered words of thanks, all I really had to give him in return was my trust; so when he offered his arm to escort me into the next room, I took it without the slightest hesitation.

Yes, for the first time in my life, I actually touched a vampire. As my hand slid around his bare, muscular forearm, I was shocked to find his skin only marginally cooler than my own. Standing next to such an enormous male made me feel tiny, but also amazingly safe. Feeling as though a huge weight had been lifted from my heart, I allowed the Vampire King to lead me to the others, and as the evening progressed, I continued to relax by slow degrees.

In spite of the strong undercurrents, both Vampire and Fae were on their best behavior at dinner. The conversation was both interesting and amusing, so much so that I actually found myself smiling a time or two! As we sat on the terrace playing games afterward, it occurred to me that I should have had more faith in my Prince. As usual, he had been right. Coming to the party had been good for me, but probably not for the reasons he had envisioned. If I had told him it was mainly due to the kindness of two of the world's most formidable vampires, I doubted he would have believed me.

By the time the evening came to a close, I felt so much better that when Sookie invited me to stay for a few days, I actually considered it. During our talk, Eric promised no harm would come to me from vampires or anyone else while I was in his care. Ironically, it was the "or anyone else" part that worried me. The King was obviously more than capable of keeping his vampires in line, but some of my Fae kidnappers were still on the loose. The only time I felt truly safe was with my mother or the Prince. Rationally, I knew they would never leave me if they had the slightest doubt about my safety, but I could not overcome my fear of being recaptured. It was only when Eric himself asked me to stay that I found the courage to say yes. After the incredible gift he had given me, how could I possibly refuse to help his Bonded?

So... I agreed their invitation, but not without serious misgivings. While the others said their goodbyes, I tried to convince myself that no harm would befall me as long as I stayed inside the Royal Residence. I was making some progress, too, until Eric and Rhys nearly came to blows. Instantly, my heart began to pound and my stomach did a slow roll. I was well aware of the Viking's reputation as a warrior, but I had known Rhys all my life. Not only was he considerably stronger than he appeared, he was also extremely tricky. I absolutely could not bear it if either of my friends was killed or even seriously injured!

Totally disregarding the serious danger to herself, Sookie immediately inserted herself between the two males. As terrified as I was for my friend, I still marveled at her bravery. Even before my abduction, I would have never attempted to do such a crazy thing! Thank goodness for our Prince! He averted certain disaster by ordering Rhys to leave. I found myself shaking with relief; then, only a few moments later, smiling with joy! Just before leaving, Niall finally presented Sookie with the all-important Faberge box.

I was disappointed to learn it would not open for several more months, but after thinking it over, I thought I understood the Prince's reasons. Sookie and her vampire had been through too many life-altering changes already. By next February, Eric would have his new kingdom firmly under control, and Sookie would have mastered her magic. At that point, they would be able to focus on the results of Niall's present. No matter how welcome, The Gift was bound to present some serious challenges.

I was so preoccupied with thinking about what lay ahead of us all, I barely registered the other guests departing. It was only after they had gone that it occurred to me that I no longer had the Prince's protection; however, the whipsawing of violent emotions over the course of the long evening had left me too exhausted to care. Still, when Sookie took me to my room, I was glad to see the heavy steel shutters on the windows. When I requested they be shut, Sookie looked surprised but willingly complied. "Sure, sweetie. Let me show you how they work."

Once the last shutter had rolled into place and the locks fully engaged, I went around the room closing the draperies over them for good measure. Sookie watched me with a puzzled look on her face, no doubt wondering if I had lost my mind. "Faeryn, are you worried about vampires getting in? I promise, none of them would even think about disobeying a direct order from Eric."

I shook my head "no." Sookie frowned. "Who, then? Oh... is it the bad Fairies? The ones that took you?"

With a heavy sigh, I nodded.

"I don't blame you for being nervous, but you really are safe here," Sookie was quick to reassure me, "First off, very few people know of my connection to Niall or you, so why would anybody look for you here? Even if they did, what Fairy in his right mind would deliberately enter a Vampire King's house? Even the Prince waited until he was invited. Let me tell you, this place has more security than Fort Knox, even during the day. Especially during the day."

As the logic of her words sunk in, the tension began to seep out of me. My friend was right, the very last place anyone would look for me was in the Royal Residence of a Vampire King. Sookie added, "Look, if you're still worried about it tomorrow, I have a friend who is a witch. I can get her to come over and cast some magical safeguards. She did my house in Bon Temps, so I know they work."

Reaching for the notepad on the bedside table, I wrote Thanks, Little Sister. Sorry to be so much trouble. Thank you for inviting me here. Your party was wonderful.

After reading the note, Sookie sighed. "The evening had a few rough spots, but overall it turned out okay. I'm just glad Rhys and Eric didn't end up fighting. Having a guest killed at your very first dinner party is probably bad luck, don't you think?" She was so utterly confident her vampire would have won, I had to smile.

"Let's get you ready for bed," she said, "Would you like a bath first? I'm afraid we don't have any house elves, but I'll be glad to help."

My body was still covered with bandages which had to be removed before bathing. The process was both painful and messy, and I was too tired to face it, so I shook my head no. Crossing the room, Sookie opened the door of a large oak armoire. After looking through the clothing my mother had left, she selected a nightgown and held it up for my approval. Happily, it was opaque. Being raised Fae, I had none of the usual human concerns about nudity, but I suspected if Sookie got a look at the condition of my body, I would not be the only one in need of a sleeping potion. So far my friend had treated me with a refreshing lack of pity, and I wanted it to stay that way.

Taking the nightgown from her hand, I shook my head and pointed to the bathroom. Thinking I needed a private moment, Sookie said, "Oh! Go ahead, then. I'll round up your sleeping medicine in the meantime."

Unlike the bathrooms in the Portal, this one was sure to have mirrors. I already knew how bad I looked; I had no desire to actually see it, so I carefully kept my eyes to the ground. By the time I finished changing, Sookie had my "nightcap" ready. She sat on the end of my bed and waited patiently while I sipped it, but I could tell her mind was elsewhere. She sat very still with a look of intense concentration on her face, as if listening to some far-away sound that I could not hear. Not wanting to interrupt her thoughts, I quietly finished my drink. After a moment, she blinked a couple of times and was suddenly back with me. "Sorry! I zoned out there for a minute," she apologized, "I was just checking on Eric."

I made a question mark with my finger. "You know, through our Bond," she replied. Seeing my puzzled look, she chuckled. "I guess you don't know, do you? Eric and I can feel each other's emotions, especially at this short distance. If I had to guess, I'd say he's thinking about Rhys right about now."

Ha! I could well imagine what those thoughts would be! I quickly made another question mark. Correctly interpreting my expression, she replied, "Do I find it too invasive? Well... honestly, it took some getting used to, but now I love it. I can't imagine it being any other way. I—" She stopped mid-sentence, clearly tuning in to her Bonded again.

Suddenly anxious, I tapped on her hand. Sookie said, "Don't worry, there's nothing wrong. Eric's just wanting me. I've been at his beck and call all week, and he's gotten spoiled. Well, His Royal Highness will just have to be patient. It certainly won't kill him to wait a few more minutes."

She chuckled at her own little joke. Despite her sassy words, though, I could tell she was anxious to go to him. Knowing the sleeping potion would be taking effect quite soon, I made a shooing motion. Trying not to look relieved, Sookie gave me a fond kiss, bid me goodnight, then popped off to see her vampire.

The minute she disappeared, I crawled out of bed and locked the door, then hobbled around the room turning on every light I could find. I knew it was childish, but it made me feel better anyway. I was also happy to find a familiar velvet bag among the personal items Mother had left on the dresser. Inside was a small but deadly dagger wrought from Fairy silver. Removing it from its dragon skin sheath, I carried it back to bed with me and carefully tucked the bare blade under my pillow before climbing back into bed.

While waiting for the sleeping draught to take effect, my thoughts drifted to Sookie and Eric. Against all odds, the Vampire King and the Fae Princess were deeply in love and quite literally inseparable. Like two halves of the same whole, they completed each other. I had been proud of my role in bringing them back together, but now I realized all Robert and I did was speed things up a bit. Sookie could never have stayed away from her Bonded forever, no matter what she thought.

What would it be like to have a man love you so deeply? I honestly could not imagine it. Fairies did fall in love on occasion, but because of the fertility issue, monogamous relationships were generally frowned upon. The idea of spending a lifetime with one mate had always seemed absurd to me, but now I saw firsthand that it was possible. Maybe even... desirable. Luckily, Mother's potion took effect before I could have any more of those disturbingly human thoughts.

The sleeping medicine must have been stronger than usual, because I slept for hours without a single nightmare. As I gradually came to consciousness the next day, it was with the startling realization that I wasn't the only one inhabiting my body. However unexpected, the sensation wasn't unpleasant or unwelcome in the least. I knew right away it was Sookie. Her energy signature was surprisingly similar to the Prince's, except that his was so powerful, a healing session with him always left me feeling quite breathless. His great-granddaughter's essence was much gentler and altogether soothing, and it flowed through my body like warm honey.

For a moment, I laid very still and enjoyed the sensation, marveling that my mostly-human friend had inherited such a great gift. Idly, I wondered when her great-grandfather had found the time to instruct her in its use. Suddenly, the answer to that question popped into my head: obviously, Niall hadn't had time to teach her, and no one else could! I was instantly terrified, this time not for myself but for Sookie. Without the proper safeguards, deep healing could be extremely dangerous! The healer ran the risk of absorbing the subject's "spiritual poison" into their own soul. The very idea that Sookie might be contaminated by what was inside me was horrifying.

I desperately wanted to stop my friend before that could happen, but I knew disturbing her at the wrong moment might prove equally disastrous. Before I could decide what to do, I felt a horrible pulsing sensation and memories of my torture began flashing through my mind. The images were so vivid, it was as if I was reliving it—except now, poor Sookie was trapped in my nightmare with me. Fortunately for both of us, a split-second later, I felt my friend's energy blaze out of me and the visions ceased.

As soon as her essence returned to her own body, her eyes opened wide and began to fill with tears. The horror and pity on her sweet face was almost more than I could bear. I was filled with sadness that my friend had been forced to endure even a fraction of what had been done to me, but before I could find pen and paper to tell her so, Sookie began apologizing to me! Even more astonishing, she insisted she wanted to try again. That notion was so alarming I actually managed to croak out my objections. Knowing Sookie, I fully expected an argument; instead, she merely changed the subject by offering me breakfast. I wasn't fooled, though. The stubborn look in her eye (also exactly like her great-grandfather's) told me she was not going to give up so easily. Every Fairy knows when a Brigant gets that look, it is pointless to waste time arguing about the issue, so I decided to take her up on her offer of breakfast instead.

Now that my depression had loosened its deadly grip, it seemed my appetite had returned. The mere mention of blueberry pancakes had my stomach growling in anticipation. Throwing back the covers, I tried to spring out of bed, but immediately discovered that even though my spirits had taken a turn for the better, my body was still a mess. Getting to my feet was still extremely painful, and I was so stiff I could barely make it to the bathroom unaided. Fortunately, by the time we made it downstairs, my muscles had warmed up enough for me to walk without limping too badly.

The delectable smell of frying bacon wafted from the kitchen, eliciting more growls from my empty stomach. Sookie's cheerful housekeeper was bustling around the kitchen, singing to herself in Spanish. She gave me a welcoming smile and soon provided me with a steaming cup of tea. Sookie gestured to the bar stools lining one side of the big granite island. "Let's sit in here," she suggested, "It's cozier to eat breakfast in the kitchen, don't you think?"

Obviously my visit to Louisiana was going to provide plenty of "firsts." I had never eaten breakfast in a kitchen before, nor any other meal. To be perfectly honest, I had never cooked anything, either. Even on my Island, I had several house elves. I could not imagine how Sookie made do with only two servants, and human ones at that. I had to admit, this one was remarkably efficient. I watched in fascination as Juanita deftly flipped pancakes, crisped the bacon, poured glasses of juice, and ladled fruit into small bowls, all seemingly at the same time... and without any magic!

By the time she set my plate in front of me, I was practically drooling. I took the time to scribble a quick thank you, this looks wonderful on my notepad before picking up my fork. The housekeeper read it and positively beamed, then watched with obvious satisfaction as I ate every scrap. I honestly couldn't remember the last time food had tasted so good. Sookie ate just as heartily as I did. Once the last stray blueberry had been consumed, we both sat back with contented sighs.

After thanking Juanita again, Sookie and I went back upstairs so I could dress. Since I couldn't manage by myself without magic, I had no choice but to allow her to help me with my bath. She blanched when she removed my bandages but made no comment. Her lips were pressed together in a grim line, but her hands were remarkably gentle. Every time she touched my skin, she sent me soothing energy. By the time I was bathed, re-bandaged, and dressed, I felt more energetic than I had in weeks. I could tell Sookie was less than thrilled with the dress I chose, which had been designed to cover as much skin as possible, but she kept her opinions to herself. Just before leaving the room, I retrieved the silver dagger from under my pillow. Sookie's eyebrows shot upwards, and she watched in silent surprise as I sheathed it and slid it into a deep pocket of my skirt. I was not entirely sure I could ever bring myself to use it, but I felt better carrying it anyway.

A few minutes later, we stepped out the back door into a gloriously warm, cloudless afternoon. I turned my face up to the sky, glad to feel the sunlight on my face. Oh, how I had missed the sun! After weeks in the Portal, my normal golden tan had faded to pasty white. I glanced longingly at Sookie's swimming pool. I would have loved to slip into a bikini and spend the afternoon sunbathing, but exposing my tattered body to open view was out of the question.

With an internal sigh, I turned my eyes away from the sparkling blue water and glanced around the yard. Although the grounds looked lovely at night, they were absolutely breathtaking in daylight. Clearly Sookie shared her great grandfather's love of gardening. Blooming plants were tucked everywhere, the bright bursts of color providing a visual feast for the eye. A brown-skinned man was kneeling in the herb garden, tucking sprigs of mint into the soil. Upon seeing us, he jumped to his feet and politely tipped his straw hat, then quickly turned and hurried around the side of the house.

Sookie looked taken aback at his abrupt departure. "Wow. I don't think I've ever seen Carlos move that fast before. Maybe it's time for his break or something." Linking her arm through mine, she said, "It's a beautiful day, isn't it? I'd like to show you the lake, but it's a pretty good hike. There's a couple of benches along the path, though, so you can stop and rest if you get tired. Think you're up to it?"

Other than the brief trip to Sookie's old farmhouse, I had never been to Louisiana before. Hopeful that the unfamiliar landscape might help spark my creativity, I eagerly nodded my assent. Sookie linked her arm through mine, and we set off towards the woods to the east of the house. Before we had taken more than a few steps, a tawny-haired Werewolf came bounding into view. Niall had informed me there was a descendant of the legendary Royal Weres on the premises, and I knew right away this was he. True to his ancestry, he was tall and handsome and in absolutely perfect physical condition. And, of course, there was no mistaking those signature golden eyes. When he finally came to a halt a few feet from us, his breathing was exactly the same as if he had strolled. "Good morning, Your Majesty," he said, bowing to her, then me. His only reaction to the condition of my face was a nearly imperceptible wince, further proof of his lineage.

"Jeez, Cooper!" exclaimed Sookie, "Everybody is in such a hurry today! Is there a fire or something?"

Flashing his Princess an even, white smile, he responded, "No, ma'am. I just didn't want you ladies to have to wait."

"Wait for what?"

"For me. I was waiting for you on the front porch, but I had Carlos keeping an eye on the back."

"Oh," said Sookie, "Well, you didn't have to rush. In fact, we don't really need you right now. We're just going for a walk around the grounds."

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I have strict orders to keep an eye on the two of you anytime you leave the house."

Sookie frowned. "Eric didn't say anything to me about that."

"My orders came from Sir Robert. He called just before dawn and said both you and your guest were in need of extra security until further notice."

"Just before dawn, huh? Well, that explains it. I'll bet Robert sounded strange, didn't he?"

"To be honest, he sounded smashed out of his gourd! I was worried one of your dinner guests might have been turned into dessert, but Sir Robert assured me everyone had survived the evening. Since all the Fairies were accounted for, I knew I must be imagining things. Vampires can't get intoxicated any other way."

"Believe it or not, they can. Trust me, you can forget anything Robert said."

Cooper shook his head. "Drunk or not, Sookie, the Knight was very specific. Neither one of you are to set foot outside the house without a bodyguard."

"Faeryn came here for some peace and quiet," Sookie said irritably, "The last thing she needs is a pack of guards draped over her."

At first, I thought she must be joking, but apparently she was not. I had no idea why my friend thought I would dislike being protected, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Furthermore I was touched that Sir Robert had gone to such trouble on my account. While Sookie and her Were continued to argue, I pulled out my pad and wrote I will feel safer if we have a guard. I reached out and tugged on Sookie's shirt to get her attention.

After reading my note, she said, "Well, I guess that settles it. Faeryn says it's okay with her if you come with us."

The Were gave me a relieved grin. "Thank goodness! You just saved me from getting my butt kicked by an irate French vampire. My name is Cooper, by the way."

Scraping up my courage, I timidly offered him my hand, but he didn't take it. Giving me a rueful smile, he said, "Sorry, ma'am. Sir Robert also made it abundantly clear that no one should touch you unless strictly necessary." To his mistress, he said, "I'll hang back enough to give you ladies some privacy, okay?"

With a dramatic sigh, Sookie took my arm. We again set off towards the woods, the Royal Were following an appropriate distance behind us. In time we came to an ornate, freshly painted wrought-iron fence, which seemed to act as a boundary between the manicured part of the grounds and the more natural landscape on the far side. Sookie pointed to the arched opening. "There used to be a really beautiful gate here, but it was rusty and I was stupid enough to get some on my hands," she said casually, "It gave me a roaring case of iron poisoning."

My mother had mentioned Sookie's horrifying brush with death but had not provided any details. Frowning, I laid my hand on her cheek.

"Oh, I'm perfectly fine now," she said, "but Eric was so upset over the whole thing, he came down here a couple of days later and tore the gate right off its hinges. He crumpled it up like it was tinfoil! He started to pull up the rest of the fence, too, but I stopped him before he got very far. It's original to the estate and I love it. Besides, we couldn't agree on a suitable replacement. Eric isn't too crazy about wooden fences—too much like stakes, I guess—and I couldn't bear to use some horrible plastic replica. Luckily, Niall sent some special paint that seals in the iron and prevents it from rusting. Even so, Eric didn't want to take any chances with the part I actually touch. He ordered a titanium copy of the gate, but it won't be ready for weeks."

I stared up at the tall archway in wonder. Given the size of the opening, the original gate must have been massive and incredibly heavy. I knew vampires were supposedly quite strong, but surely no one could crumple such heavy wrought iron bare-handed! Accurately reading my expression, my friend said, "Yes, Eric is that strong... and in case you're wondering, I'm pretty sure Robert is, too."

I was still shaking my head in disbelief as we passed through the opening and into the shade of the forest. Under the thick canopy of leaves it was several degrees cooler. I was unfamiliar with most of the species of plants and trees and would have liked to know something about them, but it seemed too much trouble to write out so many questions, so I decided to just enjoy the scenery. As for Sookie, she was abnormally quiet. Occasionally the corners of her mouth would turn up, and I wondered if she was thinking about her vampire. I wondered if she could still feel him when he was dead for the day, or, as she would say, "at rest."

I had always found the euphemistic phrase rather amusing. I supposed it must be easier for her to think of her husband as sleeping instead of the grim reality. With an internal snort, I realized I was just as guilty of mentally skirting the issue as everyone else. I, too, preferred to think of the vibrant Viking as merely sleeping. The thought of that beautiful man mouldering in the ground was just too gruesome to contemplate.

Truth be told, I had developed an uncommon dread of dead bodies in early childhood and had never been able to overcome it. It took me years to realize it was because they reminded me of something I worked very hard to forget: as much as I wanted to deny it, I was indeed half-human, and someday I would die. Full-Fairies never worry much about death, because when they "die" their essence merely passes on to another plane. With half-Fairies, that outcome is possible, but not at all certain. At nearly 400 years old, I was now "over the hill," for a half-Fae and up until recently, not at all fond of being reminded of my potential mortality. The one positive outcome of being tortured was that I no longer feared my own death... nevertheless, I still couldn't think of Eric or Robert "at rest" without shuddering.

Noticing this, Sookie asked, "Faeryn, you've got goose bumps! Are you okay?"

Not wanting to admit to such a childish phobia, I pretended I was fine, and we continued on our way. I was thoroughly enjoying our walk, but it wasn't long before my limited energy soon began to wane. I was about to "ask" Sookie how far it was to the next garden bench, when the ringing of her cell phone startled us both. Shoulders tense, she pulled it from her pocket and glanced at the screen. A smile quickly replaced the frown. "Amelia! How are you? Has Octavia's potion kicked in yet?"

We continued to walk as Sookie chatted with her friend. Happily, I spied another bench just around the next curve. I hobbled over and sank down with a grateful sigh. As full of energy as ever, my friend paced back and forth while carrying on her conversation. While she was focused on her call, I took the opportunity to study her. I could scarcely believe this was the same mostly-human, insecure girl I first met in the islands, much less the anguished creature I had seen in the Portal. Clearly Sookie had emerged from her trials a much happier and self-confident woman. I was quite proud of how far she had come in learning to use her magic, which had increased at least tenfold since our first lessons... but now I understood why the Prince and Eric were so worried. Not only did Sookie look more Fae than human now, she was also unmistakably a Brigant.

Ordinarily, she could remain sequestered for however long it took for her to learn control. However, Eric's coronation was only days away, and nothing short of being chained in iron would keep his Bonded from attending. Sookie simply had to learn to manage her appearance before then! The Prince and Eric were relying on me to help her, and I was determined to try. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure how to go about it. Although I was only half-Fae, I had been born magical and never had the slightest difficulty appearing fully human at will; consequently, I was not entirely sure how to explain it to her, even if I could speak.

I turned the problem over in my mind and at last came up with a few ideas. When Sookie's call finally ended, I motioned for her to join me on the bench. I handed her my notepad, on which I had written We should work on your appearance, but it will be very difficult to explain my ideas in writing. You are a telepath. Can you pull them out of my head?

"Usually, all I get from Fairies is a light show," she replied, "But since you're part human, we can give it a try. Really concentrate on sending me one idea at a time, okay?"

Sookie took both of my hands in hers and closed her eyes. I tried to project my thoughts to her as instructed, but it turned out to be surprisingly difficult. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and shook her head. "Sorry. You think like a Fairy."

Normally, I would have been delighted to find my thought patterns were more Fae than human, but now the reverse was true. Sensing my disappointment, Sookie said, "Look, I do get a few images between flashes of light. Between that and your notes, maybe we can muddle through."

We really had little choice, so I nodded. "The lake isn't much further," my friend informed me, "We can try again when we get there."

As promised, it wasn't long until we emerged from the forest. Just beyond the rim of trees lay a shimmering lake, and not far from water's edge stood the most charming little cottage imaginable. Wicker furniture graced the front porch, one sturdy chair occupied by yet another over-sized Were-wolf. I could tell at a glance he wasn't a Royal Were, but he was certainly above-average in looks, and he seemed to be well-trained. As soon as we came into view, he jumped to his feet and jogged out to meet us. Bowing formally, he greeted Sookie, "Good afternoon, Your Majesty,"

"Hi, George. How are you today? Faeryn, this is one of Sir Robert's personal bodyguards from New York, George."

Someone must have warned him about my appearance, because he showed no sign of surprise. Giving me a half-bow, he said gravely, "Glad to make your acquaintance, ma'am. I hope you enjoy your stay." He then acknowledged Cooper by giving him a two-finger salute. Turning back to his Queen, he said, "I found some items on the porch this morning, Ma'am. I wasn't sure what to do with them, so I put everything inside the cabin." His face held no expression, but his eyes were definitely twinkling.

Sookie's cheeks flushed red. "Oh, crap! I forgot we left such a mess. I bet Eric left his phone here. Is it okay if I go inside and get it?"

I thought that was a very strange question for a Queen to ask until I heard his reply. "Absolutely. Sir Robert was quite emphatic that you have full access to him at any time."

When the full meaning of his words sank in, my mouth dropped open. This must be "the cabin by the lake" where Robert was staying! When Eric had described it, I had envisioned something a great deal more... well, crypt-like. Once I realized the Knight must be "resting" somewhere inside, my imagination immediately began to run wild. In spite of the cottage's warm, welcoming exterior, I pictured a dark, dank space littered with mouldering coffins, one of them containing Sir Robert's decomposing body. The image was so vivid, a cold chill crept up my spine.

Giving me a penetrating look remarkably like her great grandfather's, Sookie said, "Let's go inside. I think we could both use a cold drink."

She grasped me by the elbow and propelled me onto the porch. Once we reached the front door, she fingered a code into a sophisticated electronic lock, then opened the door and attempted to steer me inside. Holding my ground, I shook my head and pointed toward the chairs on the porch. Couldn't I just wait outside? Completely ignoring my obvious reluctance, Sookie said firmly, "Faeryn, you really need to see the inside of the cabin. Come on."

Not giving me time to protest, she pulled me through the door with one strong yank. To my vast relief, not a single coffin or dead body was in sight. Slipping her arm around my shoulders, my friend gave me a reassuring squeeze. "See, there's nothing to be afraid of in here."

I mouthed the words, "How did you know?"

"Believe me, you projected that awful image of Robert loud and clear." She gestured towards the large, uncovered windows. "You do realize vampires can't take sunlight, right?"

Oh, for goodness sake! How had I missed such a critical detail? Now it was my cheeks that were red. My friend patted my arm comfortingly. "Honey, you really don't know much about vampires, do you?"

Shaking my head, I shrugged helplessly.

"Nowadays, nearly all of them sleep in clean, light-tight rooms," she explained patiently, "Right now, Robert is upstairs, sleeping in a bed just like everybody else. I promise you, he's not decomposing even a little. His body temperature is slightly cooler during the day, and he won't move around much, but otherwise, he just looks like he's asleep." She laughed at the sheer relief on my face. "Faeryn, how is it you don't already know all this stuff?"

On my pad I wrote Until quite recently, vampires were not allowed in my Islands. The only other place I went was the Portal, and of course they aren't allowed there either. After reading this, Sookie said thoughtfully, "Huh. I guess you never really needed to know much about them. Poor thing, you're certainly getting a crash course now, aren't you?"

The truth was, to make up for me being half-human, my mother had done her best to shield me from any type of unpleasantness, which of course included anything to do with vampires. The sum of my knowledge about them, which I now realized was shockingly small, came mostly from Claude (who never followed orders if he could help it) and some snippets of overheard conversations here and there. I shrugged ruefully and wrote At least what I'm learning is the truth.

"Don't feel too bad. Vampires don't know much about Fairies, either. Maybe y'all would get along better if you'd take the time to get to know each other."

It's difficult to get to know someone when they are trying to eat you.

She grimaced. "Point taken. You know what? I think you've heard enough of my home-spun philosophy for one day. Why don't you sit down and I'll rustle up those drinks."

She waved me toward the seating area near the huge stone fireplace. While she rummaged in the kitchen, I took a seat on a slip-covered sofa and glanced around. The cabin was simply but elegantly furnished. There was a refreshing lack of clutter, except for an odd collection of items atop the coffee table: three neatly folded bath towels, a red cell phone, an empty bottle of Perianth, and if I was not very much mistaken, every last stitch of Robert, Eric, and Sookie's clothing from the prior evening. The tattered remains of a delicate set of fairy-cloth underwear graced the top of the pile.

Well, well, well. Quite obviously, the real party had begun after I had gone to bed! A vision of those three spectacularly beautiful creatures frolicking naked in the moonlight popped into my head. The images were so highly erotic that for the first time in weeks, I felt vague stirrings of arousal, accompanied by a fair amount of disappointment that I hadn't been included in the festivities.

"Holy crap, Faeryn!" Sookie exclaimed from across the room, "I got that image, too! I promise you, the three of us have never... well, you know."

I stared at her as if she had lost her mind. Seeing my expression, she grinned. "Okay. I'll admit I might have thought about it a time or two... but when it comes right down to it, I'm a one-vampire kind of woman." She hesitated a moment, then asked, "Faeryn... If I was having sex with Robert, wouldn't it bug you? I kinda thought you were attracted to him."

Robert would enjoy having sex with you. Why would I deny him that pleasure?

She came from the kitchen with two glass of iced tea and exchanged one of them for my notepad. Sitting down next to me, she read my note. "Huh. I guess Fairies don't think of sex the same way as humans, either. Don't y'all get jealous?"

I shrugged and wrote I have never felt jealousy, but some do. Rhys was certainly burning with it last night. He was ready to fight Eric for you.

Sookie rolled her eyes. "Rhys wasn't really jealous. That was just an old-fashioned pissing contest between two alpha-males."

I snorted. Ha! Are you sure you know what jealousy looks like?

"Trust me. I'm an authority on the subject. Eric has a jealous streak a mile wide. In fact, most vampires do. I've never met one that wasn't extremely possessive." After a pause, she added, "Why do you think Robert made such a point of telling the guards not to touch you?"

Because in my condition, he knew I might not like it?

"Nope. It's because he wouldn't like it. Robert is really attracted to you, Faeryn. Otherwise, he would never have offered to give you his blood."

I suddenly found myself smiling. With a pleased smile of her own, Sookie said, "See, you do like him. So... why wouldn't you let him heal you?"

I thought about her question. I had definitely decided that I wanted to live, so that was no longer an excuse. Obviously, I had never known anybody "healed" by vampire blood, and had always assumed its powers were greatly exaggerated. My wounds were so serious, I doubted it would do more than a little surface healing. It seemed like way too much risk for too little benefit. I wrote Too dangerous. The vampire could track me then, couldn't he?

"Yes, but that's not always a bad thing. You see, Robert would also be able to feel it if you ever got in trouble again. I know Robert. He would come after you, and heaven help whoever was causing you grief."

I had to admit, the idea of having such a fearsome protector was not altogether unpleasant.

"Wouldn't it be nice not to hurt all the time?" she asked persuasively, "Plus, you could talk again."

Hmm. Clearly Sookie had more faith in the healing power of their blood than I did. To be without pain would be nothing short of a miracle! More to the point, if I regained my speech, helping Sookie would be infinitely easier. I wrote Do you think vampire blood could really heal me?

She looked mildly shocked by the question, but she gave me a serious answer. "Yes, I'm pretty sure it will. What do you think saved me from the iron poisoning? Robert and Eric replaced nearly all my blood with theirs."

No one had told me the details of her illness. I naturally assumed Dr. Ludwig had cured her. If vampire blood was strong enough to reverse iron poisoning, perhaps it really could help me. Hesitantly, I picked up my pen again. What is it like to drink blood?

"I'm not going to lie. It grossed me out at first, until I realized it was only because I had been programmed to think it should be disgusting. The trick is to shove aside all your preconceived ideas and really taste it. It's actually quite good. Every vampire tastes different, and the older they are, the better it gets. Eric's blood is totally amazing." Her eyes gleamed a little, just thinking about it.

Although I still wasn't convinced I would find any type of blood anything but disgusting, it did occur to me that Eric's could heal me just as well as Robert's, if not better. I was very fond of the Viking and trusted him completely. In my mind's eye, I pictured him handing me one of Sookie's delicate crystal wine glasses filled with his blood.

"Uh, I saw that image, too," Sookie said a bit too quickly, "I'm really sorry, but Eric can't give you any blood without damaging our Bond."

Please forgive me, I did not know.

"Don't be silly! Even most vampires don't know diddly-squat about Second Bonds! To be perfectly honest, even if Eric could give you some, he probably wouldn't. Robert wouldn't like it one bit, and Eric would never deliberately do anything to disrespect him. You see, they are nestmates, and not just the ceremonial kind. They actually shared the same Maker."

Nestmates! Claude had told me terrible things about nests, but maybe that information was wrong, too. By now it was clear that most of what I knew about vampires was either overstated or totally inaccurate, so I wrote Tell me about nests?

"Well... since vampires don't have real families anymore, they form nests for companionship and protection. Joining one is entirely voluntary, but—like everything else in the vampire world—it requires an elaborate ritual. Usually the members of the nest live together and share everything. If it doesn't work out, the nest can be dissolved, but I'm not sure how." She paused. "Oh! I nearly forgot! Nests are generally run by the oldest vampire, or in the case of Royal Nests, by the monarch. Since he's both, Eric is the Elder of the Royal Nest."

My goodness! That meant I was living with a Royal Nest! Talk about a walk on the wild side! I was pondering if it was polite to ask about the identity of the other members of Eric's nest, when Sookie supplied the answer without prompting. "Right now, it's just Eric, Robert, and me, but I think Pam and Bill will join eventually."

She said it so serenely, the full meaning of her words almost slid past me. When they finally did sink in, I gasped in astonishment.

"That's right," Sookie said with obvious pride, "I really am a full-fledged member of a vampire's nest. The transfusion Robert and Eric gave me made it possible. Cool, huh?"

A Royal Fairy, a member of a vampire's nest... cool?! The very idea was so bizarre... so utterly ludicrous!... and yet, so Sookie-esque, all I could do was chuckle. Taking no offense, my friend said, "Leave it to me, right? Besides Pam and Bill, you're the only one who knows, so keep it to yourself for now, okay?"

I nodded, thinking to myself that I would love to be a fly on the wall when she broke the news to her great-grandfather.

"Anyhow, I tasted Robert's blood during the nest ceremony," Sookie continued, "Just between you and me, it's nearly as amazing as Eric's."

As if merely thinking about vampire blood had made her thirsty, Sookie took a long drink from her glass, then set it on the coffee table next to the pile of clothes. Fingering one of the scraps of lingerie, she muttered to herself, "Darn that vampire! I really liked these."

The smile hovering on her lips told me she wasn't as displeased as her words implied. I thought for a moment, then wrote Are there any other side effects I should know about?

"Well... we already talked about the tracking issue, and I think you know about blood bonds. Everything else is pretty minor. For example, having the vampire's blood in you will give you some pretty racy dreams about him."

Ha! Little did she know I used to have those sorts of dreams about Robert without having a drop of his blood! Sookie must have read something of this on my face. She grinned. "I knew it! You've already had dreams of Robert, haven't you? You are attracted to him!"

She was clearly so pleased, I found myself smiling back. I didn't want to give her any false hope, though, so I wrote It was before my capture. No interest in sex now. Anyway, my body isn't very appealing anymore.

After reading my note, her smile faded. Taking my hand, she asked quietly, "Faeryn... Isn't that just one more huge reason to let Robert heal you?"

Even if he does heal my body, it won't heal my mind, or my heart. Even our Prince couldn't do that.

She said gently, "But if your body is whole, maybe your head and heart will follow suit."

For the very first time, I truly allowed myself to entertain the possibility. Sookie wisely remained quiet, letting me work through the issues in my mind. Eventually, I wrote I need more time to decide.

Once again, my friend surprised me by not arguing. Patting my arm, she said, "Take your time. Robert isn't going anywhere." Then she added wryly, "Well, not until sunset, anyhow."

I knew she was joking, trying to lighten the mood... but still, another grim image of Robert lying dead in his coffin rose in my mind. I must have projected the frightening image to Sookie, who said rather crossly, "Jeez, Faeryn. I already told you it isn't like that at all. You really have a bee in your bonnet about the corpse thing, don't you?"

Thoroughly embarrassed by such an un-Fae-like weakness, I hung my head in shame. Sitting back, Sookie studied my face for a moment. "Don't worry about it, honey," she said in a much kinder tone, "Nearly everyone on the planet has some sort of irrational fear. I can't stand thunderstorms, and walking alone through the woods at night doesn't thrill me, either. I wish I could convince you that vampires really don't look much different during the day. If you could only see for yourself, I..." She stopped in mid-sentence, a small frown of concentration creasing her brow. I had gotten to know my friend's expressions rather well, and knew this wasn't the "I'm feeling my vampire" look. I was very much afraid it was the "I'm hatching an impulsive, Sookie-like solution to a problem" look.

Sure enough, after a moment or two of fierce internal debate, she muttered, "After all, he did say full access." She then jumped up, grabbed my hand, and hauled me to my feet. "Come with me," she commanded, pulling me toward the staircase.

Immediately guessing her intentions, I considered protesting, but knew arguing with her to be a complete waste of breath—or in my case, paper. I permitted myself to be dragged up the steps as fast as my physical limitations allowed. At the top of the steps was an impressively solid door fitted with another digital lock. Before entering the code, Sookie looked me squarely in the eye. "For obvious reasons, vampires don't care much for daytime visitors," she said seriously, "Allowing anyone to be around them when they are so vulnerable is extremely rare. I have access to Robert because I am his Queen and also his nestmate. Ordinarily, I would never betray his trust by bringing someone else with me... but because he went out of his way to tell his daytime guard to give me full access, I think he was hoping I'd bring you here. Still, I'm going to ask you to close your eyes for a second."

Suitably impressed by her words, I complied. I heard faint beeping sounds as she fingered in the code. "Okay. We're good to go."

Not at all certain that I wanted to see what was on the other side, I opened my eyes slowly, but all I saw was a small vestibule and yet another closed door. Pulling me inside, Sookie carefully shut the outer door before opening the next. "Light-tight double-door system," she explained briefly, "Stay here for a sec while I turn on some lights."

Not willing to let go of the comfort of her hand even for a second, I held tight. "Okay, then," Sookie said patiently, "Follow me."

Drawing in a deep breath, I followed my friend into total darkness. Once inside, she guided us a few steps to the left. A moment later, the space was flooded with soft light, revealing a beautifully furnished but otherwise ordinary bedroom. Like the downstairs, the decor had obviously been chosen to foster a sense of peace and tranquility. The oversized room was dominated by an enormous canopy bed, its gauzy floor-length draperies pulled shut. Sookie said, "See? Nothing scary here."

After giving me a moment to collect myself, she squeezed my hand reassuringly then started toward the bed. I forced myself to follow without resistance, but when she let go of me to pull back the bed curtains, I could not stop myself from covering my eyes with both hands. Instead of reprimanding me for such childish behavior, she laughed. "Honey, open your eyes. I promise, you really don't want to miss this."

Heart pounding, I counted to ten before peeking through my fingers... and was instantly and forever glad I did. The Knight lay propped against a mountain of pillows, and except for being abnormally still, he looked as breathtakingly handsome and un-corpselike as ever. His lovely dark hair was freed from its usual leather thong, the long dark locks fanning out over broad shoulders. Soft light fell across his gloriously bare upper body, creating shadows that emphasized every perfectly developed muscle. Sadly, he was covered to the waist with a silk sheet.

Perching on the edge of the mattress, Sookie ran one finger down the vampire's cheek. "Isn't he beautiful?" she asked softly.

In truth, I had never seen a more beautiful male in all my life. I let out a happy sigh of total agreement. Looking up, Sookie said, "Come closer, Faeryn. I want you to touch him."

Me? Touch a dead body? Shocked by the mere suggestion, I took a step backwards and vigorously shook my head "no." In her most persuasive voice, Sookie said, "Come on. You know you want to. I promise, he really isn't going to bite."

To my own surprise, I realized I did want to touch him, so much so that my fingers were twitching in anticipation. I inched forward until my knees bumped the edge of the mattress. Knowing my courage might desert me at any moment, I quickly leaned forward and laid my palm on the Knight's forearm. To my delight, the skin was firm and silky and only marginally cooler than Eric's had been the prior evening. As if it had a mind of its own, my hand began to move, traveling up the vampire's muscular arm, across one deliciously smooth shoulder, and over his broad, marble-like chest. My fingertips danced though the smattering of oh-so-masculine hair, then traced the dark downy-soft trail over ridges of rock-hard abdominal muscles, stopping only when they encountered the hem of the sheet.

I gave a little growl of frustration. Fairies have a fine appreciation of the nude figure, but only if it is freely offered. Although I longed to continue my explorations, I could not bring myself to be so ill-mannered. Fortunately, the ultra-soft fabric had molded itself to the more-than-generous contours of his manhood. I was seriously contemplating throwing good manners out the window and peeling back the sheet, when a silvery peel of laughter brought me to my senses.

"No interest in sex, huh?" Sookie asked with smirk.

I shrugged guiltily. She grinned. "Hey, I think it's great. It proves you're getting better. Maybe now that you've seen... ah, a little more of Robert (she wiggled her eyebrows suggestively) maybe you'll reconsider letting him heal you."

Quite honestly, if the vampire were to awaken that very moment, I probably would have let him drain me dry, as long as we got in a few rounds of sex first... except why would a male as physically perfect as he want to have sex with a female who looked as though she had been run over by the proverbial train? Certainly no Fae male would touch me in my present condition. But... if what Sookie said about vampire blood was true, I didn't have to continue looking this way, did I? Salvation lay right in front of me.

Sookie was looking at me expectantly, but I was momentarily saved from further discussion by the ringing of her cell phone. With an annoyed frown, she pulled the phone out of her pocket. Once again, she carefully checked the screen before answering. "Hey, Jim. What's up?... Oh, she's already here? Great!" She thought for a moment, then added, "Can you get someone to bring her down to the lake? Thanks!"

Returning her phone to her pocket, she said, "I asked my friend Amelia to stop by and put some safeguards on the house. I figure as long as she's at it, she might as well do the cabin, too. She'll be here pretty soon, so we'd better get going."

I nodded reluctantly. I couldn't help running my hand over the Knight's fantastic body one last time before moving away from the bed. Sookie pulled the vampire's covers up to his chest, then leaned in and dropped a kiss on his brow. Getting to her feet, she asked, "Can I borrow your pad and pen? I want to leave a note for Robert."

Shaking my head vehemently, I wrote: Please don't tell him we were here.

"Honey, trust me. He would know we were here whether anyone tells him or not. Our scent is in the room."

Oh, dear! Our scent wasn't just in the room, it was all over his skin! He would know I had been pawing him! Flushing with embarrassment, I had intense desire to find a washcloth and scrub away the evidence. Instead, I handed over the requested items and watched Sookie scribble a note. After carefully propping it on the nightstand, she returned my pad then escorted me out of the room, pausing briefly to turn out the light and re-set the locks. Once downstairs, she said, "Take a seat for a minute. I want to straighten up a bit."

Sitting at the small dining table, I watched her gather up our glasses and take them back to the kitchen. She washed them and put them away, then searched through the cabinets until she found a folded shopping bag. She took one over to the coffee table and shoved the pile of folded clothes into it. Eric's phone went into her pocket. I was just about to ask her why on earth she insisted on doing menial tasks by hand instead of using her magic, when I heard the electric whir of a golf cart approaching. Sookie rushed out the door to greet her guest. I slowly rose to my feet and followed her.

Like an oversized pair of live bookends, the guards had positioned themselves on either side of the front door. As a golf cart emblazoned with Eric's crest rolled out of the woods, George moved to the base of the steps, while the Royal Were hovered protectively at his Queen's side. Sookie rolled her eyes and sighed, but said nothing. She gave a friendly wave to the passengers of the cart, a uniformed guard and a petite dark-haired girl in an attractive floral sundress and neon pink flip-flops. The girl's pretty features were partially obscured by a pair of saucer-sized pink and rhinestone sunglasses. As soon as the vehicle came to a stop, the girl climbed out, dragged an enormous tapestry handbag off the seat, and hefted it over her shoulder. As she moved towards us, George quietly asked Sookie, "Would you like me to search her bag, ma'am?"

"No, of course not," was his Queen's irritated reply. Moving to the top of the steps, she called out a greeting. "Hey, girl! You look tons better than the last time I saw you."

As soon as Sookie stepped out of the shade of the porch, Amelia stopped dead in her tracks. She slowly removed her sunglasses and gaped at her friend. "Sookie? What the hell? You look so... so..."

Sookie sighed again. "Yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that."

"You looked really good when you got back from the Portal, but now... Well, all I can say is "Wow."

"A lot has happened since then. We can talk about that later. Right now, come on up here and say hello."

"Uh. Right." Absentmindedly shoving the glasses into the huge purse, the girl climbed the steps and joined us on the porch.

Ever the polite hostess, Sookie said formally, "Amelia, I'd like you to meet my friend Faeryn."

The girl had been so fascinated by her friend's altered appearance that she had barely glanced in my direction. With an effort, she pulled her gaze away from Sookie and actually looked at me. She stared openly at my ravaged face for a moment before blurting out, "Oh, man. Sookie told me you had run into a little trouble, but obviously that was an understatement. That looks just awful. I'll bet it hurts like a son of a bitch."

Giving her friend a sour look, Sookie completed the introduction. "Faeryn, this incredibly tactless person is Amelia."

Actually, I found the girl's directness refreshing. I smiled at her, letting her know I took no offense. "Sorry, I guess that was pretty rude," she said, "Let me try again. It's a pleasure to meet you. Sookie told me how much you've helped her."

"I forgot to mention her throat is damaged," Sookie explained, "It's really hard for her to talk."

"Well, that just sucks! Sookie, can't you get one of your vamps to give her some blood? Or doesn't that work on half-Fairies?"

"Robert offered. She's thinking about it."

Amelia stared at me as if I was mentally deficient. "Listen, Faeryn, Sookie will tell you I'm not a huge fan of vampires... but they do have their uses. Plus, we're talking about Robert. If I wasn't head-over-heels in love with Tray, I'd be all over that vamp like a cheap suit."

Surprisingly, Sookie came to my rescue. "I've been beating her up about this all afternoon. Let's give her a break and talk about something else."

"All right. I really don't have much time anyway. Tray said he'd be back to pick me up in an hour and a half. I'm feeling tons better, but he's worried I'm going to tire myself out."

Giving her a look of concern, I scribbled Are you ill?

"No, just pregnant. My fiance is just being overprotective."

Sookie grinned. "Image that! A full-blooded Werewolf, being overprotective of his pregnant mate. No kidding, Amelia, I'll bet he's going to drive you nuts for the next few months."

I smiled, too, thinking to myself If Sookie thinks Werewolves are overprotective, wait until she sees a Vampire King with a pregnant Bonded! A vivid image of a sword-bearing Viking hovering over a heavily pregnant Sookie sprang into my head. Quickly realizing my mistake, I banished the vision. I glanced at Sookie, fearful I had inadvertently given away the Prince's secret. Seeing that she was still fully engaged in conversation, I breathed an internal sigh of relief. After sternly warning myself to be more careful in future, I tried to catch up with the conversation, which had progressed to Amelia's rapidly approaching nuptials. She was complaining, "... and he says he wants to come with me to try on wedding dresses! I told him absolutely not, but he's making a huge deal out of it. The only way I could get him to agree to let me go without him is if you come along and bring Cooper."

"I would love to go," said Sookie, "But Eric won't let me leave Valhalla until I get my appearance under control."

"Why? You haven't sprouted horns or anything. You just look gorgeous... and kind of other-worldly. A floppy hat and a big pair of sunglasses, and you'd be good to go."

"That's true, as long as I don't use any serious magic. When I do... well, let's just say a hat and sunglasses isn't going to cut it."

Amelia looked a bit skeptical, but instead of arguing about it, she asked, "Can't Faeryn teach you to control it?"

"She's going to try, but until she can talk it might be slow going. I hate to say this, but since you don't have much time to find a dress, you may just have to live with Tray going with you."

Amelia appealed to me for help. "Faeryn. Have you ever been dress shopping with a Were? It's like dragging around a dead mule. Plus, it's bad luck for the groom to see the dress before the ceremony. I'm begging you. Take the vampire blood!"

Her tone was intentionally light, but I knew the request was real. Sensing that I was still unwilling to commit myself, Sookie changed the subject, "We'll do the best we can, okay? Now, since you have a limited amount of time before Tray comes to get you, maybe we should get started."

"Probably so. This isn't going to be as easy as warding your house in Bon Temps. For obvious reasons, we're going to have to be pretty specific about who we ban. Plus, the area is much larger. I think we'll have to concentrate on this cabin and the house."

After a great deal of discussion, they finally came up with a viable plan. Amelia fished in the tapestry bag and removed a large ziploc bag filled with a grainy yellow powder. Starting near the base of the steps, she began muttering incantations while scattering the cornmeal-like substance on the ground. As instructed, Sookie and I held hands and followed closely behind her, tamping the golden grains firmly into the dirt. Mindful of his orders not to let us out of his sight, the Royal Were brought up the rear.

As our little procession rounded the third corner of the cabin, Sookie came to an abrupt halt and growled out a loud, "GRRRR!" Following her furious gaze, I saw the cause of her distress. Someone had uprooted an enormous mass of blooming tiger lilies and dumped them near the water's edge. Knowing how much Sookie loved flowers, I naturally assumed she was upset that someone had destroyed the beautiful plants... until she cried, "FUCKING QUINN! GRRR!" She thrust out her hands and send a searing burst of energy hurtling toward the broken stalks. The resulting fire was so intense, every last stalk was consumed in seconds, leaving nothing but a large pile of glowing embers.

By that time, Sookie's anger seemed to have subsided. Looking slightly sheepish, she said, "Oops! That one got away from me."

To prevent the light breeze from carrying a spark to the cabin or surrounding forest, Cooper ran over to the fire and began kicking sand over the glowing remains, while yelling for George to bring a fire extinguisher. A few seconds later, George bolted around the side of the house with a long red cylinder in his hands. After a quick glance in Sookie's direction, he ran over to lend his assistance. Using such intense magic had brought her Fae essence straight to the surface, to the point that she no longer looked even remotely human. Since neither guard seemed in the least surprised by the transformation, I assumed that they were familiar with their mistress' enhanced appearance, Amelia, on the other hand, looked totally gobsmacked.

While the two guards worked to put out the fire, Sookie held up one hand and wiggled the glowing fingers at her friend. "See?" she said rather sadly, "I told you a hat and sunglasses wouldn't cut it."

Apparently rendered speechless, Amelia stared at Sookie for a long time. When she finally managed to regain her voice, the words poured out of her in an angry stream. "Christ on a cracker, Sookie! You told me you had developed 'a little magic!" She stabbed a finger toward the ashes. "You call that 'a little?"

Sookie opened her mouth to speak, but before she get out a single word, Amelia continued her tirade. "We've talked several times since you've been back, and yet you forgot to mention this? Really?!...So, is this what Fairies really look like? Damn! No wonder Eric won't let you leave the house!... and what in the blue blazes does Quinn have to do with this?"

"I figured it could wait until you felt better," Sookie said a bit defensively, "I really didn't intend to do it this way, but when I saw those stupid lilies again, I just lost it. I'm sorry if I scared you. Are you okay?" She started toward her friend, but the witch held up a warning hand. "Stop right there. If you move out of position, we'll have to start completely over. I'm perfectly fine. Let's finish the spell first, then we can talk. And I mean really talk."

Without waiting for a reply, she turned around and resumed her spell. Sookie took my hand again. As we performed our part of the ritual, her beautiful warm magic flowed freely into my system and gave my flagging energy a much-needed boost. Since we were already three-quarters of the way around the cabin, it did not take us long to complete the circuit. By the time we arrived back at the starting point, it seemed the little witch had regained her good humor. She carefully zipped the bag shut and returned it to the depths of her purse. Dusting her hands on her skirt, she said, "In spite of the interruption, I think that went pretty well."

Mindful of her guest's delicate condition, Sookie said, "Maybe you'd better rest before we tackle the big house. Why don't we sit down and have some iced tea?"

Glancing at her wristwatch, Amelia said, "No, I'm okay. I'd like to get finished. If we take the golf cart instead of walking, we should still have time for iced tea and a chat afterward... unless you're planning on setting something else on fire. That might slow us down."

"No, I pretty sure I'm done burning stuff for the day. Let's go."

She started towards the golf cart, which was still parked in front of the cabin, but then realized the driver was nowhere in sight. "Hey, where's Jim? We need a lift back to the house."

George said, "I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but we're a man short today, so Jim needed to get back to the front gate. He left the cart so Cooper could take you ladies back to the house."

The Royal Were frowned. "Did Jim say who didn't show up?"

"Lane called in sick again. Jim's called in a replacement, but he isn't here yet." Nothing else was said verbally, but the two men stared at each other for a long moment, no doubt exchanging information in their mysterious Were way.

Cooper nodded, then turned to us. With a courtly bow, he said, "Ladies, your chariot awaits."

The Were helped Amelia and I onto the rearward facing bench seat, while Sookie climbed into the forward compartment. Cooper slid into the driver's seat and off we went. Amelia's protests to the contrary, I sensed she was glad to get off her feet for a few minutes, as was I; plus, I had never been on a golf cart before, and enjoyed the experience very much. Zipping along through the trees was quite fun!

We were nearly back to the house when I heard Sookie murmur to Cooper, "What's the deal with Lane?"

"This isn't the first time he's been out," he answered just as quietly, "We may need to let him go."

"You shouldn't fire him just for taking a couple of sick days."

"In general, Werewolves don't get sick much... but they can and do get hangovers. If Lane has a drinking problem, I need to know about it."

"Isn't he a member of your pack?"

"Yes, but he hasn't lived here very long. No one knows him very well." The big Were hesitated for a beat. "Look, I'm going to talk this over with Alcede. In the meantime, please don't worry about it anymore."

"Well... all right."

"Now may I ask you something? What was it about those lilies that upset you? ... and what does Quinn have to do with it?"

Amelia had obviously been following this private conversation, too. Twisting her body to face forward, she said, "Yeah, Sookie. What about Quinn?"

Sookie suddenly looked angry again. "To make a long story short, Quinn is the one who's been making the creepy calls I've been getting. He sent me some presents, too, like those tiger lilies. Remember, Cooper? They came the same day we found the dead deer at the back gate. I can't believe it took me so long to figure it out."

I could see the Royal Were's profile, and for once his cool, professional mask had slipped. He looked positively furious. "Tiger! That was the smell I couldn't identify! I can't believe I missed that!"

Sookie patted his arm. "How were you supposed to know what a tiger smells like? They aren't exactly plentiful in this neck of the woods."

Tactless as ever, Amelia said, "Except for the ones in the zoo. What's the matter, Coop? Your mama never took you to the zoo when you were a kid?"

"Weres don't take their kids to the zoo," Cooper fired back, "Seeing animals locked in cages gives them nightmares. Considering your condition, you should probably know that."

Stung, the witch's eyes filled with tears. Without saying another word, she turned her body back to face rearward and began rummaging in her bag for tissues.

Clearly surprised, Sookie said, "Cooper! That was just mean. You know Amelia's baby isn't going to be a Were."

"Actually, I don't know that for sure, and neither does anybody else."

"But Amelia's human! I thought only the first-born child of two full-blooded parents would become a Were."

"Not always. Once in a blue moon, the same couple will have a second cub capable of changing. Even more rarely, a human-Were mating will produce a cub that can change."

Amelia whipped around. "What! Are you sure? Tray never told me that!"

"Probably because it is so rare. Maybe... one in ten thousand births. No one is really sure why it happens. Personally, I think it's due to a recessive gene that the human possesses, handed down from a Were ancestor."

Sookie said, "Huh. It sounds like the Were version of the Essential Spark."

Dabbing the moisture from her eyes, Amelia said, "You know, the same thing happens with witches. A witch born of a witch is always more powerful than a regular human who is only taught magic, like me... but Octavia says that every so often, a very powerful witch is produced from non-magical parents."

Supernatural beings rarely share such intimate information, so I found this exchange fascinating. I wondered if the phenomenon occurred in all magical species, and if so, why. Perhaps the answer did lie in a recessive gene inherited from some long-dead ancestor... or maybe it occurred entirely at random, the universe's way of keeping things interesting.

Before we could discuss the topic at greater length, we arrived at the front door of the mansion. Mindful of the time, Amelia went straight to work on her spell. Due to the size of the house, it took us considerably longer to make the circuit. By the time we reached the front door again, I was totally exhausted and the little witch was, too. Dusting her hands on her skirt, she said, "I hate to admit it, but that tired me out more than I thought it would."

Immediately concerned, Sookie said, "Let's get you inside. You can lay down and rest for awhile."

She started towards her friend with her hand outstretched. Amelia took one look at Sookie's still-glowing hand and quickly took a step backwards. "No offense, Sook, but maybe you shouldn't touch me," she said, "It might be bad for the baby."

Looking stricken, her friend drew back. "Oh! I didn't think of that."

I quickly scribbled a note and thrust it into Amelia's hand. A fairy's touch is very beneficial for a pregnancy.

"Are you absolutely, positively sure?"

I nodded emphatically. She took a moment to think it over, then asked Sookie, "Care to help a pregnant lady up the stairs?"

"Of course! Cooper, give Faeryn a hand, please... and don't worry about Robert kicking up a fuss because you touched her. I'll tell him I insisted." Linking their arms together, the two friends went up the steps. The Royal Were came forward and gazed down at me with his lovely golden eyes. "Miss Faeryn, you seem very tired," he said gently, "Will you allow me to assist you?" I nodded, and without further ado he swept me up in his arms and carried me into the house. Following his mistress into the "family room," he carefully deposited me into a comfortable chair. At Sookie's request, he then went to ask the housekeeper to bring refreshments.

With an exhausted sigh, Amelia settled into a corner of the over-sized sofa. "You're starting to look a little green around the gills again," Sookie observed, "Do you need to take some more of Octavia's potion?"

Glancing at her watch, Amelia replied, "I can't take any more for at least another hour. I'll just have to tough it out."

Taking a seat next to her friend, Sookie said hesitantly, "Ah... I have this thing I do that might make you feel a little better. It's not invasive or anything." Glancing over at me, she asked, "It won't hurt the baby, will it?"

I indicated that it would not. Amelia said, "Okay then. Bring it on."

Taking the little witch's hand, Sookie turned it palm up. She brushed her fingertips back and forth across the delicate skin of the wrist, each stroke producing a lovely shimmer of golden energy. As the soothing magic flowed into her system, Amelia's color began to improve. "That feels awesome," she said dreamily, "Honestly, Sookie. I haven't felt this good in weeks."

Sookie smiled. "I'm glad. Of all the magical things I've learned, I like this one best."

"I can't believe you have magic like this and haven't told me about it until now! I want to hear all about it right now, and don't you dare leave anything out!"

Her hostess sighed. "So much has happened, I don't even know where to start."

She launched into a description of recent events, only pausing when the housekeeper brought in a tray of iced tea and cookies. Amelia listened with avid attention, interrupting frequently to ask for more detail or to provide humorous commentary. When Sookie finally got to the subject of Quinn, the witch fumed, "And to think I actually wanted you to marry that crazy asshole! That bald-headed bastard better steer clear of me, or I'll kick his butt myself!"

"No, you won't!" Sookie exclaimed in alarm, "If you ever run across Quinn, you get as far away from him as you can just as fast as you can. Let the vampires handle this."

Amelia stared at her friend incredulously. "Excuse me. Did you just say 'Let the vampires handle this'?! Who the hell are you and what have you done with my friend Sookie?"

Ignoring the sarcasm, Sookie replied, "I'm serious, 'Melie. Promise me you'll stay away from Quinn. He's extremely dangerous. Only a vampire like Eric or Robert is strong enough and tricky enough to deal with him."

Amelia snorted. "Ha! Never underestimate the fury of a cranky, hormone-laden witch. Come to think of it, what about a pissed-off Fairy who can hurl fireballs? Why don't you just fry his striped ass into a big ol' tiger fritter?"

Sookie looked faintly surprised, as if the idea had never occurred to her. "I'm just learning to control my magic. What if I missed him? He's too fast for me to get a second shot. If he ever got his hands on me..." She shivered.

"What about Faeryn? Can't she fry him for you?"

"I'm sure she could, but I doubt she would. Faeryn is way too gentle to harm anyone." It was nice to learn that my friend had such a high opinion of me, but she was giving me too much credit. Like healing, that particular talent was quite rare, even among full-Blooded Fae. The largest mass of heat energy I could summon and control was only big enough to light a candle.

"Besides, her magic is on the fritz right now," Sookie continued, "Face it, Amelia. Right now, none of us is up to the task of chasing down an insane Were-Tiger... which is why I'm going to let Eric handle it."

Amelia immediately pointed out that the vampires had been hunting for Quinn for weeks without success. Of course, Sookie felt it necessary to defend her vampires... and so on. The former roommates were obviously used to bickering and even seemed to enjoy it. Their good-natured squabbling continued until Cooper came in to announce that Amelia's husband had arrived.

The short rest combined with a good dose of fairy magic had refreshed the young witch, and she bounced to her feet with no problem. Unfortunately, I had stiffened up to the point that getting to my feet was a struggle. Noticing this, Amelia said, "Please don't get up, Faeryn. Sookie can walk me out."

She came to my chair and gave me a hug, which I was glad to return. From the moment I met her, I had felt an instant kinship with the brash young witch and was truly sorry to see her go. She seemed to feel the same. Taking my hand, she said, "I hope you get well soon, Faeryn, and not just because Sookie needs help. You are way too sweet to be in so much pain."

Smiling, I squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, said one final goodbye, then followed Sookie out of the room. I leaned my head back and sighed with exhaustion. As much as I had enjoyed the visit, I had seriously over-exerted myself and was longing for a nap. I was just contemplating whether I could make it up the stairs unaided when the Royal Were appeared in the doorway.

"Sookie said you might like to go to your room to rest. May I assist you?"

I gratefully accepted his aid. Once again lifting me into his arms, he carried me up to my bed. After fetching a soft blanket and tucking it around me, he asked if there was anything else he could do for me, then took his leave. Although I hadn't specifically requested it, he made sure to set the door lock on his way out. I found the remote control and closed the steel shutters, then settled back into my pillows. I considered taking some sleeping potion to ward off potential nightmares, but decided I was simply too tired to bother. I closed my eyes and was asleep in seconds.

Even without the potion, I slept soundly. Instead of nightmares, I had a very pleasant dream of Amelia's baby grown to adulthood. Just as her mother believed, the girl would not become a Werewolf, but she would grow to be a very powerful witch. As the lifelong friend and adviser to the next Prince of the Fae, she would hold a very important position in the supernatural world. Her younger brother, on the other hand, would be a Werewolf, and in due time would become a respected Packmaster.

I awoke with a smile on my lips, thoroughly pleased that Amelia's children would have such bright futures. As a rule, I never shared my prophetic dreams with anyone except Mother, but in this case I was sorely tempted. I had no way of proving the events would come to pass, of course, but I had the feeling the little witch would believe every word. However, I also knew that knowledge of future events could prove dangerous and in the long run, it would be best for all concerned if I kept my visions to myself. After all, the important thing was the outcome. In a few short months, Amelia would have a healthy, magical daughter to hold in her arms.

I had never given much thought to having children, but as I lay in bed drowsing, my mind played out a fantasy in which I did have a little girl of my very own. I named her Rivena, and she was extraordinary in every way (of course!). My over-active imagination even provided a father for this amazing dream-child. However, instead of some well-born Fairy like Rhys, it traveled even deeper into the land of make-believe by using Sir Robert. As far-fetched as it was, my daydream was so satisfying that I lay in bed replaying it in my mind until the call of nature finally forced me to abandon it.

A quick glance at the bedside clock told me I had been asleep for much longer than I had planned. The deep sleep had done me a world of good, but getting out of bed was still a chore. I hobbled to the bathroom, took care of the necessities, then stopped to wash my hands and face. Even though I knew very well how awful I looked, I forced myself to look into the mirror above the sink. I stared at my reflection for a long, long time. Eventually, the sad, tattered Fairy in the mirror seemed to come to a decision. With a glint of resolution in her eyes, she raised her chin and squared her shoulders. Eyeing her colorless, disheveled dress with distaste, she turned away from the mirror and went in search of something more attractive to wear.

Opening the wardrobe, I examined my choices. Thankfully, my ever-optimistic mother had included one dress that was considerably less dowdy than the others. It was a struggle, but I actually changed my gown and fixed my hair all by myself (all the while wondering how on earth non-magical women without servants ever managed to do so on a daily basis.) When I sensed I was as presentable as I was likely to get, I retrieved my notepad and sat down at the small antique desk. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but ended up writing at least three drafts, each one more convoluted and less satisfactory than the last. Frustrated, I ripped them all up, deciding that short and to the point was best. After giving it a great deal of thought, I carefully printed a single line and signed it. I tore the note from the pad, folded it neatly, then tucked it into my bodice.

Leaving the notepad on the desk, I rose and headed for the door, anxious to get my plan under way before I had a change of heart. I was making my way down the stairs at a pretty fair pace, when the butler appeared in the foyer carrying an enormous vase of fresh flowers. Catching sight of me, he said, "Good evening, Miss Faeryn. The King and Queen are on the back patio. May I escort you to them?"

I indicated I could find my own way. "Very well, ma'am," he said, "I will be out with some refreshments shortly."

I found my way to the french doors with no trouble, but hard experience had taught me not to go through exterior doors without knowing what was on the other side. I cautiously peered through the glass panes, but saw no one near the pool. I couldn't see much else from that vantage point, so I moved to a nearby window which gave me a larger view of the grounds. Sure enough, I spied my hosts on the flagstone patio by the koi pond. The Vampire King was seated on a cushioned chair, wife on lap. Tonight he was wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, well-worn blue-jeans, and a pair of flip flops. In such casual attire, he certainly looked more like a rock star than royalty. He also looked more relaxed and happy than I had ever seen him. He was listening to Sookie chatter away, an amused smile playing on his lips.

Reassured that all was well, I decided it was time to join them, but just then, Eric pulled his wife closer and began whispering in her ear. A large Viking hand roamed up her body, promptly located one well-rounded breast, and began to knead it. Oh my! It certainly didn't take a telepath to know what was on his mind! Unless I moved, I was about to find out if the rumors about the Viking's prowess in lovemaking were true. Clearly, there was only one thing to do. I stepped closer to the window and angled my head to get a better view.

To my disappointment, Sookie responded to her vampire's advances by slapping his hand and pushing away from him. With a saucy grin, she wagged her finger in his face. In return, the Viking scowled and flashed an enormous pair of fangs at her. One glimpse of those gleaming instruments of death brought my Fae instincts bounding to the surface. My heart began to pound in fear for my friend... until I realized Sookie herself was not the least bit intimidated. Instead of popping herself to safety, she just rolled her eyes and giggled. Undeterred, the Viking simply changed tactics. His frown vanished and was replaced by a sizzling smile, hot enough to vaporize every drop of water in the nearby pond.

This indeed produced different results, but not the one I was expecting. His wife gave him a chaste kiss on the tip of his nose, then swept her hair aside and boldly offered him her throat. Intellectually, I knew Sookie must provide blood for her Bonded all the time, but I had never actually seen her do it. With a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, I forced myself to watch. The vampire was staring at her with such unconcealed hunger in his eyes, I expected him to strike immediately. Instead, he slowly lowered his head to Sookie's neck and inhaled, clearly savoring her delicious fairy-scent. He ran his tongue along the curve of her neck, then scraped his razor-sharp fangs along the same path.

Sookie shivered, but from the expression on her face, not from pain or fear. It looked as though she was positively aching for his bite. Now that the tide had turned, however, it was the vampire's turn to laugh. He took his time licking and nibbling and generally driving her wild. Squirming with impatience, she finally wound her fingers through his hair and tugged-hard. Her tormentor barked out a laugh, repositioned her on his lap, then struck so quickly all I saw was a blur. I naturally assumed a vampire's bite would be horribly painful, messy, and altogether disgusting, but I soon discovered it was none of those things.

The instant Eric's fangs penetrated Sookie's skin, her body stiffened, then went limp with pleasure. He gathered her closer, cradling her more securely in his arms. His wife cupped his face in her palm and stroked his cheek with her thumb while he fed. Clearly, this was a loving, intimate ritual between soul-mates, thoroughly enjoyed by both. It was strangely beautiful and wildly erotic to watch, but unaccountably, it also filled me with sadness and yearning. Although I had enjoyed many lovers over the years, I had never experienced such a profound connection with any of them. Being raised Fae, I had never expected or even desired true love or devotion or real intimacy... but somehow, that had changed. Now I was longing for things that were not only unlikely but downright impossible. Before I knew it, tears of self-pity had welled up in my eyes.

Furious with myself for succumbing to such unwanted human emotions, I forced myself to look away. Entirely by chance, my gaze settled on the nearby path that led to the lake... and, with a slight shock, discovered I was not the only witness to this loving scene. Still as a statue, Robert stood on the path, waiting politely for his monarch to finish his dinner. Once again the neat immaculately groomed vampire, he looked much as he always did: powerful, wealthy, unbelievably gorgeous. What really struck me, though, was the expression on his handsome face, which was a complicated blend of love, and admiration, and intense yearning. I recognized those emotions, because they were exactly the same as mine. Robert and I could not be more different, and yet, I felt a sudden kinship with this fearsome creature who yearned for the same crazy, unattainable things as I did.

A fraction of a second later and that hint of vulnerability was gone from the Knight's face, once again tucked away under his customary ultra-confident exterior. Although I hadn't seen him move so much as a muscle, Eric had either heard or perhaps sensed his nestmate. Without raising his head from Sookie's neck, he stuck out a hand and waved Robert over. Smiling, the Knight sauntered over to the patio, and by the time he arrived, Eric had finished taking his nourishment. When he lifted his head, I was quite surprised that the only evidence of his feeding was a small smear of blood at the corner of his mouth.

The three nestmates exchanged affectionate greetings, and Sookie tilted her head back for a kiss. Robert bent down to give her a brotherly peck on the lips. Before rising, he hooked one finger under her chin and tilted her head to one side. Even from this distance, I could see the two large punctures on her neck. Although they were not bleeding, they did look swollen and painful. After examining the wounds for a moment, Robert frowned and made a comment to Eric. Of course, I couldn't hear what he said, but it got a big grin from Sookie. His King just rolled his eyes and shrugged. The Knight's fangs flashed down. He leaned over Sookie again, and for a moment I thought that he was going to feed from her, too. Instead, he pricked his index finger and applied the resulting drop of blood to the punctures. Within mere seconds, the angry-looking wounds had completely vanished, leaving nothing but soft, blemish-free skin.

Until that very moment, in my heart of hearts, I hadn't truly believed that Robert's blood was powerful enough to heal my awful wounds... but seeing is believing. Feeling slightly dizzy, I closed my eyes and leaned my forehead against the cool glass.

From close behind me, a voice said, "Oh, dear! Miss Faeryn, are you ill?"

It was only the butler, bringing the refreshments, but I had been so far inside my own head, I hadn't heard him coming. It startled me so badlythat I let out a scream... at least, it should have been a scream. What came out of my damaged throat was more of a terrified croak... but apparently, even that pitiful sound was loud enough. The next thing I knew, the french doors burst open and two enormous vampires rushed inside, fangs flashing and ready for battle. A nanosecond later came a flash of brilliant white light, and Sookie appeared, in full-out Fairy-mode. Poor Wilson was so startled, he dropped his tray. This time, no one bothered to catch it, and it crashed to the ground. Glasses shattered, spilling blood and Perianth across the hardwood floor.

The vampires whirled around, trying to assess the threat. Part of me knew they were there to protect me, but my instinctive need to get away from vampires in motion was overpowering. My body tried to summon the energy necessary to pop away, but the effort was too much for my battered system. My vision went gray, then faded to black, and I fell to the floor in a boneless heap.

When I came back to my senses, I was laying on the same sofa Amelia had occupied earlier in the day. Sookie was dabbing a cold cloth on my face. The two vampires were standing side by side on the opposite side of the room, arms folded across massive chests. My eyes went straight to Robert's face, which was completely expressionless.

Misinterpreting my look, Sookie said, "Boys, I think Faeryn might need a vampire-free zone just now. Would y'all mind going somewhere else for a few minutes?"

Before she could even finish her sentence, I shook my head and rasped out a firm, "No!"

I sat up, then tried to get to my feet, but found I was still a bit wobbly. A thoroughly puzzled Sookie helped me up. "Would you like to go to your room?" she asked.

Shaking my head, I patted her hand then gently but firmly removed it from my arm. I slowly crossed the room, stopping directly in front of Robert. His expression was still impassive, giving me no clue at all to what he was thinking. For my purposes, it really didn't matter. With trembling fingers, I pulled the pre-written note from my bodice and held it out. For a moment, he did nothing but stare down at the note, then he slowly raised his eyes to mine. After searching my eyes for what seemed like forever, he finally reached out and took the note from my hand. He unfolded it and read it... and then read it again. His eyes met mine again, and although he did not smile, this time I fancied I could see happiness there. "The answer is yes, Mademoiselle Faeryn," he said gravely, "It would be my great honor to provide the blood to heal you."

******Author's notes: First, let me apologize for my long absence. Over the last couple of years, my real life has taken some incredible twists and turns. It has changed profoundly, in ways I never expected. Some were wonderful welcome changes, some were not so great, some were downright heartbreaking. In any event, too many changes in too short a time left me with a terrible case of writer's block. I don't mean the "I can't think of what topic to write for my term paper" kind of block, either. I mean the serious kind, where you literally can't string two words together. I didn't lack for plot, I knew what came next... I just couldn't make the freaking words come out. Even more dire, I had lost the ability to access the "zone" where the story happens. My connection to the Viking and my other characters was just... gone.

I can't tell you how awful this was. Although I came to it late, writing is my passion. It gives my life color and purpose, in a way nothing else ever has. I desperately wanted to finish my story, so I read every book or blog about writer's block I could find. I tried every "recipe" in the world. My progress was agonizingly slow, and some days I felt like giving up entirely. But... almost every time I was ready to throw in the towel for good, I would get a PM from one of my extremely patient, dedicated readers, which was always just enough encouragement to keep me crawling forward. I was in such a sad state that often I couldn't even form a reply (sorry about that, guys.) I thought about posting the (already written) outline of the rest of the story so you all would know what happens, but I knew in my heart if I did, I would never, ever finish the story.

So, I kept crawling forward. Gradually, I began to see little flashes of progress. One sentence at a time, I was finally able to finish this chapter. I don't feel it is up to my usual standards, but it is a HUGE step in the right direction. I was quite serious when I promised to finish this story. I have no idea how long it will take, but I do intend to keep going. BUT... if at some point I decide I just can't do it, I will post the outline (or my best friend will, who has instructions to do so in case I get hit by a bus or something.)

Thanks again for all the wonderful support and encouragement. I love you guys! I tried to post this chapter on Christmas as a gift to you all, but the site was having problems. However, better late than never, right?

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!


P.S. I have moved from Texas to Maryland (yes, that was one of the Big Changes!) I live in the "southern" part of the state, but go to D.C. and Annapolis fairly frequently. If anybody living in the area wants to get together for coffee sometime, PM me.