A/N- This is a sequel to Dead Wrong/Dead Certain, Snapshots and Scenes from a Marriage 1. You'll be pretty much lost if you have not read those stories.

The Southern Vampire Mysteries and Sookie Stackhouse Series are the creation of Charlaine Harris. I hope she doesn't mind if I play with her characters for a while.

Dedicated to the lovely Lani and Kalo! Sorry it took so long. :-)

Abundant thanks to Mia for the Swedish and German translations.


Scenes from a Marriage 2

You're the deepest well I've ever fallen into… ~ Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)


I.

Late June 2011

"I'm not wearing that. Put it right back in the garment bag."

"Mrs. Northman, Ms. Flanagan really thought…"

I looked at her with a dark expression.

"Amy, I don't care what Ms. Flanagan thought. Ms. Flanagan thought I was going to cut my hair and put highlights in it. That didn't happen and neither is that dress. I don't dress like that. I will not show that amount of cleavage to anyone other than my reflection in the bathroom mirror or my husband. You can tell Ms. Flanagan I said so. She thought wrong."

The hairstylist's brush was hovering over my hair, waiting for me to stop talking before she turned the blower back on.

I was so over this photoshoot for American Vampire magazine that I felt like getting up and walking out. And I was so over the American Vampire League, Nan Flanagan and the stylist, and the entire public relations duty, that I was hovering on the verge of telling Eric I just wasn't going to do this anymore, period, thank you very much.

"But Mrs. Northman…"

"I don't want to appear vulgar. Ms. Flanagan had better finally get that idea in her head."

Amy Collins, my personal and very much unwanted stylist, looked totally caught off-guard. She was totally not Pam. Pam could do magic in my mind when it came to getting me to look fabulous but feel comfortable. Pam understood what I would wear. She understood me. The stuff that Amy, or more likely Nan, wanted me to wear made me queasy and rebellious.

"But I don't know how to tell her no," Amy said, in what was practically a whisper to herself.

"You want me to tell her? I'll tell her. Does your phone do video? I'll let you record me telling her that I refuse to wear that and you can send it to her. It looks tawdry and I won't look that way or make my husband look that way since then he'd be married to someone who looks tawdry. Seductive or kind of sexy I can do just fine. Tawdry, I won't."

"But… tawdry? You don't think it looks sexy?"

"No. It looks trashy, Amy. Wearing a halter dress with my boobs is already highly questionable, okay? But that? That low cut? You're kidding yourself if you think I'm going to be photographed in that. It's totally not happening. They better have a backup plan."

"You won't even try it with the tape holding it in place? I mean, it's just for one photo. It looks so pretty with your coloring, don't you think? She selected the dress. She's really expecting you to wear this dress. They, she and Mr. Sansone, were thinking about it for the cover," she bit her lip. "Can't we make it look more, um, conservative by taping it and pinning it?"

"I learned my lesson the last time. If I say yes for the photo, the next thing I know, I'll be asked to wear some god-awful thing to some event. No. I'm sorry Amy, but no. And I wasn't kidding. If you want me to tell her I said no, I will, so that you don't get in trouble with her."

In the past eight months I had entered an almost adversarial relationship with Nan Flanagan. There is a price for everything that most vampires do for you. Especially Nan Flanagan and the AVL. After conferring protection on me, the AVL had proceeded to act as if I was theirs. And by this I mean in the true vampire sense. Not in some quaint, 'I love you so much or you're like family to me' possessive sense, like Eric and Pam and various other vampires who seemed to think that for a human I was pretty worthwhile. No, this was rather more feudal. I had to balance my ire and lack of desire to cooperate with her and the AVL, with the very real need to at least have a veneer of being cooperative for Eric's sake. Part of me thought that Nan Flanagan was enjoying deliberately making me uncomfortable, too. Nan evidently had been quoted as saying that I made Eric look positively obliging. She was continually getting irked by my refusal to do whatever she or her PR crew wanted, just as they wanted it, when they wanted it or my even having the temerity to question why they wanted it.

Well, I was drawing a line that would not be crossed when it came to the clothing selection for this photo shoot. Being photographed in that dress constituted a loss of personal dignity in my mind and therefore it wasn't happening. The dark navy dress might be a pretty color but the plunging neckline with the halter tie was just way, way too much. Or not enough, to be more precise. Not enough covering me, supporting me, keeping me in place. As far as I was concerned and I wouldn't wear it.

But the dress selection was, of course, of little surprise coming from the Flanagan crew. After all, in March they'd wanted Eric and me to do a photo for a Vanity Fair article on American vampires in which I would be sitting naked, photographed from behind, with Eric standing front of me, also naked (at least shirtless, suggesting he was naked) leaning forward and actually (really) biting my neck while glancing toward the camera. Thankfully, I didn't even have to say no. Eric said 'no, absolutely not' for the two of us, much to my relief and without my having to even open my mouth. He'd taken one look at my face and that was all it took for him to flat out refuse. We'd posed instead with me sitting in his lap and both of us, full clothed, laughing. But then he wanted the photographer to capture that originally planned image later, privately, so we could have the photo! I had to give the photographer, or whoever in the AVL had come up with the idea of the original concept, credit for evidently being able to deeply stir the vampire mind… Eric had been practically relentless about getting me to pose with him for the photo. After everyone but the photographer had left, he cajoled, murmured in my ear and coaxed until finally I buckled. Since I'd have my back to the camera, he'd sort of sold me on the idea. I called it soft porn for vampires. He called it erotic art. Whatever it was, I still couldn't believe he talked me into it.

The evidence that he had talked me into it greeted me every day. The 32" by 40" black and white print was now framed and hung on our bedroom wall. Eric loved it. The camera's memory card, which contained the photos, was locked in his desk. I wasn't even sure how or where Eric got the image printed and framed. The photographer, poor man, took some nice regular pictures of Pam and me, too, which was what he thought he was paid for. Yeah, I didn't even bother asking if he'd been glamoured into doing what Eric wanted. It was obvious. The photos of Pam and me were wonderful images, in color and in sepia tone, though. With the exception of the occasional photo from our cell phones, the only pictures I'd had of Pam and me together up to that point were from my wedding. I had some of these new pictures framed and hanging above my desk in the dayroom. She had two in her office and one in her bedroom next to the blooming orchid of the week from her office. Of course, I was still a little shy about the large picture in my bedroom. But it sure made Eric happy.

Currently however, I was sitting in a makeshift dressing room in the still only partially renovated estate that had been Sophie-Anne's. I was being styled for photos to be taken in the gardens of the estate, which had been just been renovated within the past six months. And now Amy, the stylist visited upon me by my dear friend Nan, was flustered over what she would be able to get me to wear that would achieve the desired look in the sunset-lit gardens against the white stone pavilion and benches, peacocks and a Maxfield Parrish blue sky.

I read through my email and messages on my phone while they finished my hair. Amelia was still having morning sickness that lasted 24/7 and was struggling right now so I was doing all our business correspondence. I'd told her I thought we should just cut back on work last month but she wanted to keep on with our plans. Work was slower these days since we hadn't been doing much out of state stuff. With the notable exception of public appearances with Eric and photoshoots for magazine articles, I had been following Dr. Ludwig's stress reduction plan. I worked only five days a week, ate at least two meals a day, and tried to sleep at least six hours a day. Most days, I wasn't going in to the office until around 2 pm. I'd work only a few hours in the office, head home before sunset and then if needs be, go back to the office around 8 pm. During the day I was guarded by Jamie and Harry (Bennett's nephew on his wife's side) and at night I was guarded by Rasul and Danielle.

Things were still strained between Cadel and me. In the beginning it was mostly from my end, but in the end, I think it bothered him so much that I was still bothered that he got bothered. Back around the holidays I'd told Eric that I preferred Rasul and Danielle to watch me if I went out at night, instead of Cadel. Cadel said he was fine with that because my 'lousy attitude' might put me at even greater risk of getting hurt because he didn't think I'd listen to him. Eric was not very happy with either one of us on the matter. As the months had passed, I actually felt quite sad about the loss of the friendly rapport that Cadel and I had shared. We seldom even spoke to one another now. Once in a while when I'd read something or hear something that I knew full well that he'd like or laugh at, and I'd give it or email it to Stefan for Cadel. Stefan had tried to talk to me about the situation, but I just begged off saying I couldn't discuss it. Stefan would just look at me sadly. He felt badly for Cadel. I felt bad about it, but try as I could, I couldn't forget what I'd seen Cadel do. I still liked things about him but I was kind of uneasy with the thought of his guarding me. Jamie clearly felt odd being caught in the middle because no matter what Cadel had to say on the topic, Jamie and Cadel were really friends. Think about a Were trying to defend a vampire killing Weres… Yet Jamie never missed an opportunity to point out to me that Cadel was a vampire he genuinely liked. He thought that considering what Cadel probably could do if motivated that I ought to be thinking that he'd shown at least some restraint many other times. He pointed out how very gentle Cadel had always been with me. Finally, I'd told Jamie I didn't want to discuss it anymore. Heck, even Pam had tried to talk to me about Cadel.

"What do you think I would have done to him?" she asked me about the Were Cadel had so brutally killed.

"I don't care to hear about it Pam. You're missing the entire point."

"You're missing the entire point. Cadel, even if he kind of lost it, was probably restrained compared to what Eric or I would do to someone caught beating you up and trying to rape you. I can tell you right now the first thing to come off would not have been fingers."

I cringed and my hands flew to my eyes as if trying to block out the mental image of that idea. I rubbed my face and then peered through my fingers at the woman who was my closest friend. The things Pam said to me sometimes…

"Pam! That is so gross! What don't you understand about my not wanting to discuss it? And I'm having a hard enough time dealing with what I saw, okay? I don't need to hear any horror story predictions about how you or Eric would have done worse. Really, I don't. I have enough trouble dealing with the way all of you just casually act as if it's nothing to do great violence. I am not into the violence. I despise that element of vampire culture and you know it. You're not inuring me to it at all by talking about it flippantly. I'm trying hard to ignore the violence and look beyond it. Although, I'm not so sure that's a good idea either. I mean really, you're not helping me here. You know, there are times where I just feel as if I'm like Carmela Soprano…"

"Who is this Carmela person? Was she with you in the FBI?"

I snorted. "No, she was a character from a TV show, Pam. The Sopranos? She was married to this big Mafia boss. She lived in denial about what her husband and his family and the whole world around her were really like. Sometimes I feel like that and I hate myself for it. I don't want to be surrounded by violence. But I don't want to live in denial about how I'm living or who I'm living with."

"Cadel and Stefan are right. You are so soft-hearted. It's so very sweet." She said this with an expression that looked as if she was smelling rotten food.

I then proceeded to outshine her every shot at the shooting range that evening, much to her horror. No holds barred, I was still a better shot than she was. Revenge was mine. Nothing unsettled Pam more than thinking a human was better at something than she was.

At least she'd been quiet on the way home.

Now, sitting while they finished fussing with my hair and Amy had a meltdown, I'd been exchanging text messages with Pam. It was about five minutes still until sunset so though she was already awake, she wouldn't be leaving the compound at the edge of the quarter and coming to my aid or support here in the Garden District to tell Amy I shouldn't wear the awful dress. Yes, I was on my own in the fashion self-defense department.

what do you mean you'll look like a cheap bimbo? you're very picky for clothes. i bet it isn't as bad as you're making it out to be.

halter dress with neckline plunging to my navel. think about that with a 32 year old DD bust, pam. and it's really short too.

i'm enjoying thinking about it. i'm sure it will look fantastic.

how much are they paying you to say this?

not enough

TAWDRY.

you used to dress much trashier. it didn't bother you or eric then. it never bothered me.

whose side are you on? i was 25 and not being photographed for a magazine.

sometimes vampires like tawdry. what can i tell you? we're all very pro-sex. Looking trashy kind of goes with that.

i'm not anti-sex. i just don't want to look trashy.

prude

i am not talking to you anymore.

but you just did

you are not being supportive. :p

what does that thing at the end mean?

it means i am sticking my tongue out at you.

an invitation? hmmm. eric will probably be offended.

cut it out.

oh, well, i bet i'm more supportive than that dress. i want to see this dress on you. can you bring it home?

i'm done. i'm going to call amelia. you're *horrible*.

can we at least all see a photo of you in the dress? take a picture with the phone. slow work night and all…

I groaned and was about to reply when,

"Mrs. Northman?"

I turned to Amy, who smiled at me with a chipper smile.

"Amy, didn't I tell you like a month ago to call me Sookie?"

"Here, Sookie."

She handed me her phone. I sighed heavily.

"Hello?" I said glumly.

"Sookie! How are you this evening? I hear you're looking beautiful for the shoot. Actually Amy sent me a quick photo she just took with her phone. So this is the deal. She told me you hate the dress Claude and I chose. So I say you need options. The dress or maybe nude, wrapped in the blue velvet stole that was also sent? The choice is yours. But you have to choose one. It has to be in blue as I understand it. Most people like blue and it's a comfort color. Claude is really enthused about the image for the cover, you know. But the racier the better, I say. Remember we want to boost sales and raise our profile. You also have to remember the image that we're trying to present here. Being a vampire's long term human is an honor. But you have to look like you're attractive enough to capture Eric's interest for a while and… "

"Nan?" I said cutting her off.

"Yes, precious pet."

At that, I felt my blood pressure rise even higher… I gritted my teeth.

"I'm going to walk out now. And if you ever call me that again, so help me, I'll never cooperate with being photographed for the AVL again."

With that I rose, handed Amy her phone and walked back to the area with the jury-rigged curtain. I stripped off the robe and started pulling on my jeans.

"Mrs. Northman?" said Amy, from the other side of the curtain.

"I'm dressing Amy."

"Ms. Flanagan isn't done talking to you."

"Oh yes, she is."

I zipped up my jeans and pulled the sweatshirt over my head, undoing twenty minutes of the hair stylist's work. I stepped into my shoes, picked up my purse and walked out of the building.

"Jamie," I called out to him, as he was chatting on the phone leaning against the garden fence, "I'm leaving."

He looked a little startled, ended his call and walked toward the car with me.

"Mrs. Northman? Mrs Northman, wait!"

The stylist and the photographer and his assistant stood in the doorway. Amy chased after me, and looked totally stunned as I chirped the car alarm off, opened the door, got in, waited for Jamie to get in and then drove away.

"What happened?" asked Jamie, looking straight ahead.

"I'm totally over playing the vampire dress up doll for today."

He started to reply, thought better of it, and was just silent.

Forty-five minutes later, as I sat on the back porch of Amelia's house with Bob the Third purring in my lap, drinking a gin and tonic while Bert made small bursts of blue-green fireworks out of thin air to amuse me, Eric walked through their back gate with Markus. Markus looked amused to see Bert's little fireworks. He still talked about Bert's antics the previous spring in Tunica with great relish when Andor wasn't around.

"Bert, good evening," Eric nodded to Bert. "Sookie, why you aren't you answering your phone?" said Eric.

I regarded him with a dark look. Jamie walked out onto the porch with a Corona in his hand, and a very bilious looking Amelia followed after him. Jamie sort of bowed his head deferentially to Eric and went to talk to Markus out in the garden.

"My phone is in the house, in my purse," I said. Don't you even start with me was the vibe I was sending his way. "I guess if you were worried, you'd have called Jamie, right?" I said with a raised eyebrow.

"I wasn't worried, I knew you were just fine. However, I wasn't the only one who was trying to call you," he said with a chuckle as he walked up onto the porch, bent down and kissed me.

"Well you can tell that person trying to call me that I'm just her own little patch of sunshine and leave it at that."

"Oh, that person also called me, and I'd have to say that she was sounding rather annoyed. But the person urgently trying to get in touch with you is Hunter. He says that they can't come down until Saturday but that means he'll miss your birthday. So he wanted to know if you could come up and get him on Thursday instead. Seems like Remy wanted to know as soon as possible because Hunter called me when you didn't answer. By the way, I was rather surprised that Hunter has my cell phone number, Sookie."

I grimaced a bit. I'd be willing to bet two to one Hunter found it in my cell phone and memorized it. That's how he'd gotten Pam's back in December. He would call her and ask her facts about vampires. Pam, who I might have thought would get really bent out of shape, actually found it quite amusing. She sometimes made stuff up and then he'd call me and ask me if the things she'd told him were true. I marveled at Pam's creativity. Vampires being vulnerable to morning glory scent was quite inspired.

"I'm sorry he got your cell phone number, Eric. You know how he plays games on my phone? He memorized Pam's so I guess he did yours, too. And I'm sorry about the thing with the AVL photoshoot but I'm just not backing down. I'm not going to wear that dress they sent me to wear. It's vulgar and degrading and I just won't do it. I've got nightgowns that cover me more than that dress."

"She thinks I'm talking you into it as we speak and that you'll go back tomorrow and do it," he said with a smile. He sat down next to me and picked up my hand and kissed it with a wry smile on his face. "She's having it delivered to the compound so I can see that you're making a fuss over nothing. I'd love to see you in it, photographs or not. It must be some dress…"

"Tomorrow? You know Uri will be here in the morning, right?" I asked him.

I had been paying Uri to come to New Orleans and give me private Krav Maga lessons twice a month, since St. Louis. I'd pick up the full cost of his trip and every two weeks he'd come and knock the stuffing out of me. Even Jamie and Harry were joining in the lessons sometimes, although given Uri's age, I got a little worried that Jamie or Harry could hurt him. Most of the time though, they couldn't even touch him, however. Uri was working with me with weapons again now, too. The previous month, Stefan had come in to watch us training and I got distracted. I got myself stabbed and had to have some of Eric's blood to heal. Two weeks later I got a bruise on my cheekbone the size of an orange because of a moment's flagging attention. Uri was good for my safety in every sense to my mind. It was important to know how to fight and not to be afraid of getting hurt a bit in order to fight and survive. Some people, mainly Pam, thought I was out of my mind, however.

Eric gestured a kind of 'so be it' reply about the fact that in the late morning I'd be working out with Uri and likely end up being battered and bruised, unless I had a really top notch session. As upset as Pam had been about my sessions with Uri, I kind of got the feeling that Eric was looking at it from the point of view that my wanting to be able to fight to survive was better than what I'd planned to do in St. Louis, even though I was fighting that time. He was very much into the idea that I should try to survive no matter what. He seemed to think that I should just trust to his ability to fix anything that might happen to me, a point insisted upon to me repeatedly for the past eight months. Alive, undead, Eric didn't seem to care.

"Well, Uri should leave me in fine form for being photographed," I chuckled. "I love the idea. Wonder what she'll say when Amy is sending her pictures without my permission and I'm all banged up. Let them have fun photoshopping out the swelling and the bruises. But no matter how I'm looking, I'm not going to be in that dress or naked, wrapped in some stupid velvet shawl, or anything other than something I want to wear. And if she ever calls me 'pet' again… Wait a minute, I can't do it tomorrow at sunset, anyway, Eric. You have that guy coming down from Baton Rouge for that meeting at 8:30, right? So you said you wanted me to sit in on that and listen. That's business and it's more important than any AVL PR stuff."

"Definitely, I'd say the meeting is higher priority in my mind. We can talk about the photoshoot later, it's obvious that you're pretty upset about it. You're going to have to do something because you agreed to it. We'll see what we can come up with. You are still unwell, Amelia?" Eric asked, turning to Amelia as she sank into Bert's lap, curled up and looked uncharacteristically fragile.

She just nodded her head in mute reply.

It was Amelia's second pregnancy since she'd married. The first had ended in a miscarriage at beginning of the fourth month, after a similarly difficult first trimester. Bert, though he didn't talk of it much, seemed very concerned that her desire for a child would be a source of sorrow for Amelia. She'd told me that Bert's mother predicted that it would be very hard for her bear him children. Amelia was ignoring her on the issue and said she'd just keep trying. I could see it really worried Bert, though. Actually, I was worried for her, too. Amelia always acted like she was so resilient, but the miscarriage had clearly affected her deeply. It had also created a bit of strain with Pam, who didn't quite understand why Amelia was so keen on having a child, especially if the early months of the pregnancy were making her so ill that it was hard for her to work. In recent weeks, she'd been so ill, I'd had to learn the rudiments of how to do simple warding just in order to meet some of our deadlines. On one job, Bert himself had gone with me, because Amelia was too ill to complete her portion of the security design. I was concerned for her but hoped she'd be fine once she got past the morning sickness.

Rasul and Danielle arrived just as Eric rose to leave with Markus. Eric left and I spoke to Hunter and agreed, after consulting with Jamie, that I'd come up and get him on Thursday. I cooled off at Amelia and Bert's for a while longer, Jamie took off and I headed back to the compound with Rasul and Danielle.

Rasul and Danielle were firmly a couple now, and even talking vampire marriage. They were a very interesting pair and seemed to share many common interests and past experiences. Of course, I'd always liked Rasul. I liked Dani too, but I wasn't so sure the feeling was mutual. Although Rasul was as warm as ever with me, Dani, who was French and about 300 years old, had been cool with me in recent weeks. Pam had told me that Eric had been thinking about setting them up in the infamously unstable Area 2 as a partner Sheriffs but that he was concerned about what he'd do for my security. He'd been much happier when Cadel had been keeping an eye on me at night to begin with, but stepping back from even entrusting my care to Rasul meant going with some unknown quantity farther down the chain of command. Rasul and Dani had been largely absent from New Orleans in the months before the St. Louis summit, scoping out business interests in Baton Rouge and shoring up relations with the Baton Rouge Were pack. My situation with Cadel seemed to have put the entire Area 2 plan on hold. I was very aware of the fact that keeping me secure was important from the perspective of not having any means by which to weaken Eric's position. It was important for more than just not having harm come to me on a personal level. If anything happened to me, it made Eric look weak or ineffectual and it could be argued that it even impacted the AVL, who had decreed that I was a person to protect.

Danielle, who had an MBA earned over about five years in night classes, seemed less than thrilled that she was using her hard-won degree to guard her employer's wife, however. I couldn't say I blamed her for the sentiment. She and Rasul had met at a Summit back in 2007 and after Eric had taken over Louisiana, Rasul had convinced her to give Louisiana a try. He'd been in Louisiana for decades and thought Eric was likely to be at least as successful as Sophie-Anne had been in tenure of the state for many decades. Danielle's attitude seemed to convey that she liked Eric, and his policies, but was pretty much getting to the point where she was sick of me, and the loss of opportunity that I represented. The previous week I'd told Pam that I thought that Eric was making a mistake and that he might lose both Danielle and Rasul in his service if he didn't just go ahead with the Baton Rouge plan. The idea had been that Danielle would run the business aspects of the area while Rasul shored up the security of the Area, which had been hard hit by the steady attrition from the area after Felipe was gone. I couldn't see Rasul chancing losing Dani. If they stayed here in New Orleans, they'd likely just end up resentful or ask to leave. And then Baton Rouge would continue to be a thorn in Eric's side. I didn't want to be the cause of either of those things.

I let Rasul drive my car and just rode in back. Danielle humored me by trying to help me practice some French as we drove back to the compound. Danielle was from the ancient city of Carcasonne, though after she'd been turned she'd been led all over France, Spain and North Africa by her sire, whom she called a Romani. When she first told me about her history, I thought she meant her sire had been Roman like Eric's. Rasul corrected me, and said no, that her sire had, in fact, been a gypsy. Dani had led an interesting life and had only moved to the US after World War II. She was fluent in her native Provençal, French, Spanish, and even Arabic, along with a number of other languages including Romani. I was finding her more fascinating the more I got to know about her, but I couldn't say the reverse was true. Dani had very little patience for me currently. After making small talk for just a few minutes, I finally said,

"I guess it's awkward to broach the subject but I wanted to let you know that I was talking to Pam on the other day and told her that I feel bad if the only thing keeping you here in New Orleans is watching over me. I'm going to tell Eric that I'd feel perfectly fine with Toussaint guarding me. I'm sure I'd be safe with him."

Rasul glanced up in the rearview mirror and said, cautiously,

"Sookie, the only thing keeping us here is Eric's decision as to where we are most needed."

Dani let out a snort and looked out her window. I could see her scowl in the reflection.

Rasul glanced quickly over at Dani and then murmured in a low voice,

"Ma chère, ça ne sert à rien…Il ne faut pas dire du mal de cette femme."

All I got out of that was something about speaking badly about a woman. She turned to him and said,

"Pourquoi pas? Why not? Why do I have to walk on eggshells around her? So she doesn't think even worse of us? If she is so judgmental it is a waste of time to pretend all is light and happy, anyway. C'est un fait accomplis."

"Danielle! Du calme! Sookie, I'm sorry. Danielle is in a bad mood and she's saying things she doesn't mean."

"Ce n'est pas vrai!"

Rasul slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a stop. He pulled over to the side of the road and glared at Danielle.

I was kind of apprehensive about what to do or say, so I said nothing for a moment. They switched from arguing in French to arguing in Arabic, which as Ahmed had always told me, appeared to be a language designed with refined arguing, about almost anything, in mind. But it was very clear they were speaking some dialect of Arabic because I could hardly understand even the simplest things and while I might not be able to speak much Arabic I was certainly used to hearing enough of it. Finally, I just said,

"Rasul… Rasul! Dani is entitled to have her own opinions, okay? She doesn't have to shut up because I'm Eric's wife. It's fine."

He paused for a moment to calm down, then said,

"It isn't fine. It's disrespectful. And she will be apologizing."

"No, I will not. She has just said I can have my own opinions so I have nothing to apologize for."

"You will apologize for your rudeness in sharing them," he said with eyes glowing angrily.

I leaned forward and tentatively put my hand on Rasul's shoulder.

"Rasul, she doesn't have to apologize, okay? I guess I'd like to know what it is that makes you think I'm so judgmental, Dani. I don't understand why you think that and I want to know."

"The situation with Cadel is not being judgmental? Why do you blame Cadel if Stefan also killed Weres? What is it that is wrong about Cadel defending you, defending your honor and Eric's?"

"Ça suffit comme ça! Enough Danielle! This is not our business. Sookie, I apologize. We will head back and Danielle is going to be quiet."

He looked so angry at her. I guessed he was worried that I'd tell Eric or Pam. There was not a doubt in my mind that Eric and Pam would think that Rasul allowed her to be insubordinate or disrespectful, even though I disagreed, and even though it wasn't like Rasul was supposed to be Dani's boss. I guessed Eric and Pam would see it as reflecting on Eric's decisions or something. So clearly, they'd never hear of it from me.

"Dani," I said, "my issue wasn't with what Cadel did, it was with how Cadel did it. I actually feel a little funny even talking about it. I mean, I guess I don't think it's very fair to Cadel, to talk about something he did that upset me, with you. It's between Cadel and me. I'm sorry if you think it makes me judgmental. And Rasul, I won't say anything about this to Eric or Pam, if you're worried about that. It's okay, and I know that you both must be frustrated. That's why I even mentioned it. I told Pam that I think it's a mistake to keep you here if you could be in Baton Rouge. Maybe she can persuade Eric of that. I feel very safe with Toussaint. He's careful and I'm sure that with Cadel and Andor supervising plans I'll be fine. That's what I wanted to tell you both. That I realize how frustrating it must be and that you could do better work somewhere else. I don't want you stuck here, watching me, if you could be doing something else which you're both obviously better suited to."

Rasul steered the car back out into traffic and was silent. Leaning against the window behind Dani, I could see his jaw working angrily. He'd known Eric for several decades at this point and I was sure he didn't want to mess things up. But he had to know I wasn't going to go telling tales. It wasn't my style.

Finally, just as we got to the compound, Danielle said quietly,

"I think you are judgmental because in the time I have know you, you act as if you still think that being a vampire is a terrible thing, a terrible life. That would be just as prejudiced as my saying that your life is miserable because you are a frail, short-lived and weak human. And I'm not even addressing your evident thoughts on the moral spectrum. I find them too offensive."

Rasul turned to her and growled something in Arabic and she swept her hand through air in a gesture of disregard.

I thought about it for a moment… Maybe she was right. Maybe I did think that being a vampire was living a terrible life because of how you had to live or how many did. Not in the sense of being a terrible person, since I like many of the vampires I knew, but… well, I didn't know what I thought about her comments.

"Maybe you're right, Dani. You've given me something to think about. And there's nothing wrong with getting me to think about my perceptions, Rasul. Maybe in the end, that's being a real friend. I'd rather have the people around me make me think. Really, I would…"

She had given me food for thought. Especially because she was kind of outside the immediate 'family' circle and was probably, therefore, less biased. It wasn't exactly like I could honestly expect that Stefan or Andor wouldn't take Cadel's side. Honestly, I wondered about whether I had been unfair with Cadel. I entered the compound and thought again about that night in St. Louis, as I had many times since. I was still haunted by that night. I had baited that Were into beating me much more perhaps than he would have, certainly more than Salome would ever have desired since I lost a fair amount of blood in the process. Yes, Cadel had arrived at a scene partially of my own making, instead of it being entirely the Weres'. Maybe if I hadn't fought so hard I would have been raped and Cadel would have been just as angry or maybe even angrier, although that prospect was a bit daunting to consider. The only time I'd ever seen a vampire angrier was Eric fighting fairies. But still… was I blaming Cadel for reacting so violently to something I had a hand in? Because I was trying to get that one Were to kill me before Salome could do it and turn me. I remembered even Stefan thinking that killing the Weres, especially the ones directly involved in trying to rape me, was pretty much fair harm considering how I'd looked. And Stefan was a person who was definitely not inclined to violence. Stefan felt badly that I was still so upset. He also felt badly for Cadel being so hurt by my response to the way he defended me and had told me so, even risking Eric's wrath since they'd all been told not to talk to me about it. Stefan and Pam continued to mention it, in spite of Eric's directive.

I sighed as I climbed the stairs. About the best I could say about the entire St. Louis situation was that I had benefitted from Eric's glamouring me and improving my ability to sleep. I was still having nightmares occasionally but they were so far from being what they were and they were over so much more quickly. These days I even had and remembered pleasant dreams. I was glad that I had finally trusted Eric enough to do it. It had given me an immense inner ease compared to how I had felt the past five and a half years. And it had made Eric so very happy that I trusted him and let him help me. Eric probably also would have pointed out that I should be grateful for my official protected status with the AVL, but honestly sometimes I questioned the price of that protection.

When I got upstairs I found they had indeed delivered the blue dress for Eric to see and it was hanging on our bedroom door. Pam had attached a note:

This oversized blue handkerchief is at least pretty for your coloring. I showed it to Eric. I know it will stun you that he says it would be better if it were red. I think he doesn't see anything wrong with it at all. Neither do I. As long as you don't move too quickly or lean forward or bend over in it, I think it's fine. If you stand absolutely still, it will look utterly delicious on you. v--v

I shook my head. Well, at least she agreed with me that I shouldn't be photographed in it.

I went off to the kitchen to prepare something simple for dinner, did some correspondence for work, answered a long email from Ahmed, touched base with Uri and then read. I was reading a lot of history for some reason lately, instead of all my usual forays into fiction. I had just finished a biography about William Wilberforce and the slave trade and I was now reading about the French Revolution. So I ate and read and worked and ignored all the many messages from Nan Flanagan and from poor beleaguered Amy Collins. I dozed lightly for a bit in front of the TV, with Rosie purring in my lap. Finally around 4:15 am, Eric came back upstairs and sat on a chair he'd pulled up next to my armchair. He picked up my hand and waited a bit for me to wake up.

As I stretched and yawned he smiled watching me. Rosie left my lap and I leaned over and kissed Eric.

"So are you calmer now, about the the dress?" he asked with a smile.

"The dress is not the real problem, Eric. Nan's micromanaging and condescending attitude is totally intolerable. Why is she even so directly involved with something for the AVL magazine? Shouldn't Claude Sansone or one of his assistants be calling me about this stuff, instead? She's all over me, all the time, trying to tell me what to do and how to do it. If I question any of it she is so snide and caustic. I never knew that I was going to be expected to do all this social and media stuff in the first place. I already hated it before I became the AVL token human. But she makes it even easier to hate. I just feel like she deliberately chose that dress to make me upset."

"If you don't want to wear the dress, it's fine, Sookie. We'll both just firmly tell her no. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, or that makes you uncomfortable." He smiled at me, looking quite pleased about something. "But, I do have a request."

I looked at him and sighed heavily.

"Yes, Eric… what is the request?" I asked apprehensively. If he was going to find someway to ask me to wear the dress for the photo anyway, I guessed that we were going to have an argument.

Instead he surprised me by leaning closer to me, nuzzling against my ear and saying,

"I want to see you in the dress. But just for me. Before we send it back," in a husky voice.

I smiled and looked down at his hand, which was resting on my thigh.

"Anything else?"

"Hair pinned up," he murmured, still close to my ear. "Those sandals I like. The ones with the really high heels? No perfume. You don't need to put on makeup. You look beautiful just like this."

I looked up at him and smiled more. His eyes were glowing!

"So is this like a date?" I said leaning closer to him.

"A date, a tryst… This is whatever you want to call it, Lover," he said with a smile.

I trailed my eyes up and down him. He was looking rather… stirred. Fangs slightly down, even.

"Hmm... I take it this date is for now?"

"If possible."

I laughed. I yawned again, and rose, shaking my head.

"For you, Eric, just about anything. Let me go get the dress."

"I'll get the dress. You can put up your hair," he said, rising instantaneously.

"My, my, you're eager…"

"I have been thinking about you, in that dress, all night."

"Eric, you do realize I'll never agree to be photographed in it, right?" I said earnestly.

He smiled.

"I know you won't. But then, unlike Nan, I know you quite well, don't I?" He chuckled, kissed me on the lips and smacked me lightly on the bottom. Then he strode off to get the dress.

He hung it up on the door of my bathroom just as I'd finished brushing and pinning up my hair with a pretty clip. I turned around and he was gone, then back with a pair of sandals that had four-inch heels. He put them down and then took out his phone and started typing out a message to someone.

"Whatcha doin'?" I asked playfully as I slipped out of my jeans, t-shirt and bra, and then unzipped the back of the dress. I slipped it over my head and tied the halter portion in place. I looked at myself in the mirror as I zipped up the short zipper at the lower back and shook my head. This dress was a scandal.

"I'm telling Andor that we're going up to the roof and that if he sets foot on the roof while we are there that I will personally knock him off it."

I laughed. I had recently made a garden area on the roof. We'd put down a smooth flooring surface and installed some garden lights. Now, you could even dance there, under the stars. Given how much we usually enjoyed dancing, Eric wasn't happy when Andor showed up. It was always very obvious when Eric was starting to 'enjoy himself', a point which seemed to provide absolutely no end of amusement to Andor.

"I don't know that this dress is exactly designed for dancing or any kind of movement, Eric. It appears to barely stay in place when I'm standing still," I said, studying how it looked in the mirror while I turned from side to side.

He smiled amusedly at me and said, as he swept his eyes over me, "It looks wonderful on you. Designed for ease of removal, too," he said with a raised eyebrow as he ran a finger under one side of the halter top.

I met his eyes in the reflection and blushed.

"It's staying on while we're on the roof, though." No way was I ending up mostly naked on the roof. "Right?"

"I will not remove the dress. On the roof. You have my word."

"No sex on the roof in the dress either, Eric."

He frowned.

"It's perfectly private."

"It's not private at all! Are you nuts? It's on the open roof!" I said wide-eyed.

He burst out laughing at me.

"You are so much fun to tease, Sookie Northman! Come dance with me on the roof." Still chuckling, he tipped my chin up to his face and kissed me, then took my hand and we went upstairs.

It was quite hard climbing the steep stairs in the four-inch heels and fussing that parts of me were practically coming out of the dress. He picked me up and carried me after the first few steps. He put me down once we were in the garden. It was the almost a new moon. It was dark, with only the lights from the city around us, the dim garden lights, and the stars, sparkling faintly overhead. There was a pleasant breeze and I looked around at my stands of lilies for a minute or two. I turned to see my vampire, eyes aglow. He smiled at me, his whole face softening as our eyes met.

"We're buying the dress. But you're only wearing it when we're alone. It looks beautiful on you, with your skin. You're beautiful, min älskade, so very beautiful." He stroked my cheek. "You are not cold?"

I shook my head no, my eyes not leaving his. I loved the way he looked at me. It was beyond just simple desire. He looked like I made him happy. I felt his happiness.

He took me into his arms, and humming softly, danced with me under the stars, in the dress that now felt okay because it made him so happy to see me in it. He held me close as we moved and then twirled me around a few times. I somehow managed to stay in the dress. In the high heels, my lips could easily kiss his throat as I snuggled against him. We floated off the floor after a time and he still spun us around slowly. I rested my head on his shoulder, my nose pressed against his throat and sighed happily.

Really, Eric pointed out later, as he admired the picture on our wall yet again, we should be grateful to Nan Flanagan for some things…