Markus came looking for me and said that Cadel wanted me to know that Ahmed was here. I was so puzzled. I'd not heard from him for several weeks, but I thought he might have just been on the road, since classes were out at NYU as of mid-May. He usually went to Riyadh to visit family in May before the heat became intolerable. It was awfully odd that he hadn't let me know he was coming, though.
"Where is he?" I asked Markus.
"Stefan has him waiting in the Great Room. He's waiting to see Eric but Stefan and Cadel said you'd want to know."
"What? He's waiting to see Eric? Why on earth? Did he have an appointment or something?"
"He had some sort of letter. He gave it to Stefan. That's all I know."
I was instantly worried that Ahmed was going to start asking Eric yet again about being turned. I took off down the stairs, passing Markus and zoomed toward the great room.
As I drew nearer it didn't register at first. He seemed to sense my approach and he rose and turned to me with a serene smile. He was nicely dressed, as always, in what was likely a Zegna suit, though he wore it rather casually, no tie, silk shirt open at the neck, cuffs long. And then I took in his face.
I froze, mid-stride.
Ahmed was a vampire.
I started moving toward him again, my heart sunken, heavy.
"Sasha," he said quietly, nodding to me. He leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. "I bring you warmest greetings."
"Greetings? From whom?" I asked puzzled.
And then, at the open neckline of his shirt, I saw the copper tracings of glyphs across his collarbone and onto his chest. I knew them all too well.
He gazed down at me with great pride.
I smiled with a big grin as my fingers made horns behind Cadel and Pam's heads. The camera flashed.
"Hey!" said Cadel, looking disgusted when he realized it. "Isn't that unprofessional or something?"
"I haven't taken the licensing exam yet. Until then, I can be just as bad as you or Pam. Worse even," I said, laughing. "It's like a loophole in the professional ethics area."
"We still can file a complaint with the Department of Professional Regulation, Cadel," said Pam dryly. "She'll never be licensed. But then we will have to find something else for her to do. That could be quite problematic, given the history."
Cadel smirked and turned to Pam.
"Let's set her on Andor, Pamela. That will finally show him, now won't it? There won't be anything left of the two of them."
"There won't be anything left of any of us," said Pam.
"Oh, cut it out already, Andor's not even here to defend himself, so no fair," I said elbowing Cadel. He looked at me with a dismayed face. I was defending Andor? I erupted in laughter and grabbed him to pull him back in for the next photo.
Eric smiled at the three of us while Hunter snapped the photos.
"One more," Hunter said.
Cadel shifted the tassel in front of my nose just as the flash flashed.
"Cadel!" I shouted. "No fair… Do another one, Hunter."
"Very candid photos," chuckled Eric, from where he stood next to Hunter. He'd glanced at the photo. "Cadel is making trouble and Pam is frowning. It's definitely photorealism."
Hunter tried to take one more but Cadel stuck his hand in front of my face exactly when the flash went off.
"Cadel!" I said in mock outrage. "You're such a pain…"
"How was it that he is so 'joyful', again?" asked Pam. "What exactly is joyful to you? I am not feeling any joy. He is infuriating and always has been."
"Did you even try?" I asked. "I didn't see you even make an effort, Pam. It doesn't count unless you try to feel the joy. So get back to me on that."
Tiny Vidalia came over and, though a little inhibited looking at Eric, Cadel and Pam, said,
"Sookie, congratulations. We did it!"
I leaned forward and hugged her and then drew back. Vida always smelled so very… tasty. I replied with a warm smile,
"We did, Vida! You remember Hunter? This is my husband, Eric, and this Cadel, and Pam," I said, pointing as I spoke.
The little werewolf just smiled, nodded nervously at them and peeped out,
"Well, I'll call you." Vida was a bit afraid of vampires. I was the first vampire friend she'd ever had. We'd had most of our classes together. I took notes for her when the moon was full and covered her patients then, too.
"Definitely. I owe you coffee, remember?"
She smiled, nodded and then turned back toward her family. As Vida walked away, Annika seemed to appear out of nowhere. She walked over and looked up at me with her broad smile. She had appeared as mysteriously as ever she did in any location. And I was sure she was not here by holding a ticket either, since I'd had only four. She was in a navy blue suit with a gorgeous pin on the jacket, looking quite stylish, actually.
"Congratulations! And I already have patients lined up for you, so you better pass that board exam the first time you sit for it, young lady."
I bent down and kissed her on her cheek. She looked slightly taken aback. I laughed softly and broke into a grin.
"Thanks for the congrats, Annika. I promise you I'll be licensed by September. Word of honor. I'm already studying, actually."
She looked up at me with a quite pleased expression and then looked at Eric, Pam, Cadel, and Hunter, gave a curt nod and departed by simply disappearing. No more soft walkaways for her these days…
I smiled as I watched her fade.
"So Ludwig is already lining up patients for you?" asked Pam, in a surprised tone.
"She's told me she could keep me busy for years. And that's not even with humans. Psychological trauma is such a big problem among supes. Or among any people, really. You really should read my dissertation sometime, Pam."
"Well, I'm traumatized by the fact that Stefan continues to refer to Cadel as his best friend, rather than me. It is extremely upsetting. Can you help me with that one?"
I shook my head. "Absolutely incurable. Sorry. Acceptance is probably your only solution on that one. But, I'll be your best friend if you want one?" I said with a smile.
I put my arm around Eric's waist and put my cap up on his head and laughed. It didn't fit because he was so big.
"You're really big-headed, you know?" I said with a wry smile and then I started laughing.
"You had to get a fancy degree to come to that conclusion? All these years of study and work, just to get that? What a waste of time and money! I could have told you he was big-headed in 2009. I could have told you that in 1905. Or 1818. Actually, I could even have told you that back in 175…" said Cadel.
Eric put the cap back on my head, crooked his arm around Cadel's neck and said close to Cadel's ear,
"Cadel, I'm really making the effort to stop roughing you up. But you're not helping me much at all."
Cadel nodded briefly, paused and then said,
"Right then… As I was saying, 1752. The spring, to be precise. And then there was that time in 1668, when Ocella was dragging me all over Northern Europe and we ran into you and Jumbo…"
I took Hunter's arm and walked away, shaking my head. Seriously, I should be grateful that there were only four tickets to the graduation per graduate. The thought of Andor, Cadel, Markus, Stefan and Eric arguing and horsing around was a little too celebratory in my mind. There'd be enough of that awaiting me at home.
"Happy?" Hunter said softly.
I looked up at him and nodded, smiling.
"I am, Mr. Savoy. Quite happy. And you? Is the first week of fatherhood suiting you?"
"It is, but it's pretty tiring. Sometimes I'm falling asleep in the middle of the day. Caitlin is too tired to do nights, too, especially since she's still trying to study. But I think we're doing fine. The twins things still throws me for a loop. What is it with in vitro and twins? I'm glad they look like her though. Otherwise this first pregnancy would have been harder, even if it was for a good cause. But now we've got two critters and we'll go with one more in another year or two. Assuming I recover and handle more." He hugged my arm closer. "You know, I'm with Dr. Ludwig. You're going to be able to help so many people who can't get better the regular way. This whole thing is just… well, it's really an awesome idea."
"Just as long as everyone remembers who was the source of inspiration here…" said Cadel from behind us. "Credit, where credit is due…"
I turned back snorted with laughter.
"I thought it was Aunt Sookie's idea? Now you're taking credit for it?," said Hunter, with a feigned look of surprise.
"Let's just remember who she zapped first, shall we? And," he said eyeing me, "now you've graduated, can we get a better car? The present car is a decade old. It's a disgrace our even driving it. It's practically a relic. I know we can do better."
"We? I dunno, Cadel. I have concerns…"
"Like what? What can you possibly be concerned about?"
"Well, if I get a new car, which I don't even really need, what are you going to do with it. I'm seeing that dent on Pam's Jaguar for one thing…"
Eric turned and looked at Cadel with narrowed eyes.
"That car was given expressly to Pam, Cadel…" Eric said in a dry tone.
Cadel turned to me and said with an unpleasant expression,
"You really need to keep out of my mind. It's highly unprofessional. And you're giving out confidential information. I'm sure it's a violation of some laws somewhere. But I do have one question for you- who's the little looker? She's a wolf, right?"
"Checking her out, eh, Cadel? Her name is Vidalia Somers, but she goes by Vida. She was the only other supe in my class. She is very pretty, isn't she? But she's also very clever. So I don't think she's going to be falling for any tricks of yours."
He smiled and his dimples grew deep. "What tricks? I've got no tricks. I've a mind to say I'm being slandered. And you don't know anything about any dents. You've no proof of anything."
Eric released Cadel from his hold and put is arm around my waist. He kissed my temple.
"If you still have a valid driver's license, you can have Sookie's old car when she gets a new one, Cadel," Eric said, chuckling at the outraged expression on Cadel's face. He turned back to me. "I'm so proud of you, min älskade," he murmured softly at me.
I looked at him with shining eyes.
"I'm happy. And proud. Are you listening Mr. Savoy?" I turned back to Hunter, who was typing a message into his phone.
Eric turned to me and softly kissed my lips.
"We're both happy, then."
"Well, I'm not happy," said Pam in an aggravated tone. "There's a dent in my car and Cadel's getting away with it." She glared at him. "Wait until I tell Stefan I was right and that it was you. He always thinks I'm too suspicious of you. I knew you'd been in the car. I just knew it! You think I can't tell but I can! Ha!"
"I didn't dent your car, Pamela. It was the guy that bumped the car when I had it out and about. I'd never dent a car…"
"You're not allowed to borrow my car."
"But you agreed, just the other day," he said leaning toward her, "that I am allowed to drive Stefan's car?"
"If Stefan is foolish enough to let you drive his car, it's his business."
"Well then, I'm glad to know it's okay that I borrowed the Jaguar. Because since it's a community property state, Pamela, I have, therefore, technically borrowed Stefan's car."
"No!" said Pam, stopping in her tracks. "No, you have not, Cadel!" Her eyes glowed red and we all tried very hard not to laugh. She looked over at me with annoyance. "You see! I told you it was going to be a problem. Where does it say marrying someone means that you have to deal with this?" she jabbed her finger at Cadel."Not even a month and he's taking advantage of it!"
I shook my head and tried not to laugh. Eric, Hunter and I kept walking while Cadel and Pam continued to trail behind us, bickering merrily with each other. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. Pam never really argued with Stefan at all. She might tease me or Eric but that was about it. Andor refused to argue with her and Markus was still a little afraid of arguing with her. She'd thrown a bowling ball at him a few years back, after all. Really, Cadel kept her going and gave her a run for the money in the safest possible sense, the way I saw it. And while bowling might be Markus's game, Cadel was far better at dodge ball.
"Are you listening to me, Mrs. Northman?"
"Yeah, yeah, give me a minute," I said as I slid the covering away from the pinhole in the East window cloth shade in the upstairs reading room. Gritting my teeth, I put my forearm into the pinhole-sized shaft of morning light.
It felt… warm.
Not searingly painful. Not like I was being flayed alive.
Eric rounded the corner and let out a short sound like a huff.
I did not see flesh on my arm vaporize or get tackled by a tall man, cursing in Norse as he pulled me away from a speck of light yet again, as he had a few too many times.
Instead I watch his jaw go slack in amazement, as he gazed at that tiny speck of light illuminating my forearm.
As I held my arm in the tiny shaft of light I felt the tattoo on my left hip tingle and then cool, while the one on my left wrist, so close to the speck of light, glowed a light blue. I found myself straightening, even as I hadn't realized that I'd hunched slightly, in anticipation of being burned yet again.
I had done it.
I turned to Eric and smiled.
He drew closer and pulled me toward him, stroked a hand across my arm and then he sniffed faintly at the spot where the light had touched my skin.
I pulled my arm away and removed the second cover and exposed a slightly larger hole that was the size of a chickpea. I put my arm back in the light beam's path. I looked at the dot of morning light on my forearm with amazement.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said in a whisper.
"I've done it," I said in a hushed voice. "It works, Eric. It really works. A little more testing and I'm going to sit on the roof and watch the sunrise."
I felt this jolt of concern from him.
"You will only do sunrise if I am with you and watching you. Agreed?"
I turned to him and smiled.
"I'll do it however it makes you most comfortable. But really, clearly," I said drawing yet another sheet away so that now I had almost a golf ball sized spot of light on my forearm, almost its entire width, "I have it. I finally found the right combination."
He had shielded his eyes, which had started tearing, and after only seconds more exposure he pulled me slightly away and tugged the cord to loosen the blackout drapes so they closed over the spot.
"Ja, ja. I'm so very impressed. And not just with the sunlight. That's a very short nightgown for you to be traipsing around in, min lilla häxa. And it's dawn, which means it is time for bed. And since you are now so immune to light, I am thinking that this entire scenario is very much to my advantage."
"Really? Hey... weren't you a pillaging Viking or something? Hmmm? Maybe not. You're looking like some sedate old bureaucrat these days. All business, no ravaging…"
I didn't even bother to look up and meet his eyes as I spun around. I could have felt the outrage at a hundred meters.
I stepped back toward the curtain and pulled it back a bit, looking at the shaft of light and I swiped my arm in front of it yet again with a smile. He caught my other arm and yanked me toward him and, in a neat, swift movement, hoisted me over his shoulder, and after swatting my butt, he stomped back toward the bedroom. We were laughing like kids as we passed Markus in the hall and I said, happily,
"Hey, Markus, how do you feel about sun..."
But Eric had unlocked the scanner, then slammed our door shut before I could continue. He headed toward the bedroom, scanned that door open then kicked it shut behind us as well. In the dark room, I was tossed on our big bed. He bent over me and put an arm on either side of me.
"Remind me again?" he said with a mischievous look. "I'm supposed to act more like a Viking? Some pillaging? Perhaps some ravaging? Hmmm? You sure about this?"
I smiled as I swished around a bit in my nightie.
"If you remember how," I said barely repressing my laughter as I tugged on his belt loop with my toe.
His eyes practically shot sparks.
"And you think you're going to get away with this because…?"
"Because we'll run out of time. It's already ten minutes past. You'll never last and I..." I flashed my forearm, "am now the one who will be unaffected. You got me too late, that's all. I can tease you as much as I like and you won't last."
"And why are we late to bed, min älskade? Taking so damn long to paint the thing on your arm?" he said as he dropped his slacks to the floor.
"If I rushed and made a mistake, you wouldn't be looking at me very happily while you call Annika because it didn't work yet again, now would you?"
He shook his head, and grabbed my legs to pull me toward the edge of the bed. I gave him my hand and he pulled me up to sitting and kissed me.
"No, I wouldn't. Because I can think of better things to do with our time."
He put his knee on the bed and kissed me again in a lingering, soft fashion, his hands slipping under my nightie., stroking my waist gently, and slowly moving up to my breasts. I scrunched my eyes awaiting the fallout as I said, quite clearly,
"I just knew you'd forgotten how to ravage, Eric."
I was sure that my very undignified and unvampire-like peals of laughter could be heard throughout the entire building if anyone else was still awake.
"But Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper."
"Rea' it 'gain… Peas?"
I sighed and shifted Emma in my lap, leaning back into the wicker chair.
"How about Jemima Puddle-Duck? You haven't heard that one yet."
One more Peta, then 'Mima. 'Kay, Ganma Sook? Peas?
"Words, Emma. Not thoughts, words. You have to practice saying what you want out loud because a lot of people don't know how to hear you otherwise. Okay?"
She pursed her lips and the soft aquamarine eyes flashed a little bit with disapproval.
We were distracted by the peacocks starting to crow in unison out on the lawn. Cadel's wife Giovi had suggested the peacocks and they really were a pleasant, exotic touch, although they were too messy according to Pam. I looked over at my bed of crocuses, which were just on the verge of blooming. It had been a warm winter. The gardens had been so lush the previous year. But then I had a very talented gardener. This year I was anticipating it would be even lovelier.
The estate, officially named Paradiso, had been completely renovated for over thirty years now. We all lived here full time and went into the Quarter only a few days a week for meetings. It had been peaceful for several decades in our state. Between Eric's hard work and leadership, and having Bert, Bronwyn, Naram-Shari and Ninshabur's protection, there was little or no unrest. The AVL kept its distance after having been informed by a liaison, shortly after my return in 2022, that they had better stop asking questions about Sookie Northman and the entire crew of the Northman administration. And so we were left blissfully alone. While decades later rumors swirled about vampires who could go out in the daylight, the AVL pooh-poohed the entire idea and eventually those rumors had died down just like all the gossip about our being resistant to silver had. All our human, Were and vampire staff were glamoured into being unable to talk about us outside the bounds of the estate. Wards kept people from snooping and frustrated photographers with telephoto lenses.
And so time had passed peacefully for us in the years since my return from that other place. I went to Tulane for my bachelor's degree and then to graduate school at LSU. I had finally found something worth flying for. Avoiding traffic on the commute to Baton Rouge or being able to return home nightly were fine reasons.
I had now been a practicing psychologist for more than four decades. Sadly, business was still far too good. But I loved my work and felt productive. It was a good feeling to be able to help others. I had not killed anyone in more than fifty years. I had seldom even been called on to fight. Perhaps I couldn't say the same of some of those I lived with and loved, but I was happy that I, myself, could just focus on healing people. It was, as Annika Ludwig liked to say, my one true gift, the one that for so many years, even as a human, I'd failed to see. I had spent years trying to fight and in the end, I had arrived at a place where I healed rather than fought. It was one of those surprising aspects that sometimes happen in a life. That you find out you can be the very opposite of what you thought you were. I was happier healing people than I had ever been fighting or doing security. And the irony was, we were more secure than we'd ever been.
About five years before, Naram-Shari had shown up and had tattooed the remaining six members of my family with his personal protection, although of course Andor balked a bit, as always. I was also allowed to tattoo a number of other people with protection against silver. I selected Bill Compton right away, Maxwell, and Dani and Rasul. Naram was surprised by my tattooing Caitlin, Adele and Alex, Peggy and Jamie's sons and their children. I'd been wanting to do my Were friends for years. Ahmed continued to work as a liaison for Naram-Shari and Cerridwen. He was the first person outside the family to be made resistant to daylight, but he really was like family to me, which seemed to amuse Naram-Shari. Ahmed was the first child Naram had created in more than five millenia. Branwen was silent in her approval of the whole business, which to my mind meant Cerridwen approved. I had never seen her again, but Branwen visited regularly. We had achieved, if not a friendship, an ease of interaction. She never apologized to me, or to Eric, for what she had done in allowing Naram and Ninsha to take me away as they had. I was quite certain that she never would and that she still probably thought that there was nothing wrong with her decrees.
The world at large remained as ever it had been. Countries on the brink of war or worse, arguments over civil rights, and government versus the will of the people. There were so many concerns about the environment, global warming and pollution. There were in short, the usual good times and bad times. Vampires seemed to take it all in stride. By the calendar, I was just a few years short of a hundred years old. It was hardly old considering those I lived with but still, age gave you a different perspective on so many things.
I sighed as I looked out over our gardens, which were on the verge of bursting into bloom. Other than Bronwyn, Stefan, Pam and I were the big gardeners in the family. I wondered about some of what Bronwyn had planted here, plants which I was quite sure was not quite native to this world. She was happy with her 'merging of worlds' as she called it. She lived on the grounds of the estate in a small stone cottage that had mysteriously appeared about thirty years before. Cadel said it was clearly Welsh, as was the heath around it, and the fresh salt breeze that seemed to surround it. I never even asked how it got there. Like Mary in A Secret Garden, she'd asked Eric for 'a bit of earth' and then planted a cottage. We had achieved such happiness, my daughter, her real mother and I. It was a happy compromise in every way. Amelia had hardly aged and Bronwyn called her mother. She still called me her Aunt Sookie, just like Hunter did. But we definitely felt an indefinable bond. She and Hunter were quite close, too, though Hunter was now a grandfather. He'd never been turned, hadn't been bitten, and intended to live a normal life span with his college sweetheart Caitlin. He'd aged well, and fairly slowly, with occasional blood. They were both healthy, happy and enjoying their retirement traveling.
Emma made a frustrated sound in my lap.
"Are you warm enough, Emma?" I asked, rubbing her little legs in their white tights. She wore a red wool sweater over her white shorts and long sleeved shirt. It looked very pretty with her dark hair and olive skin. Her blue eyes looked so striking in contrast to her coloring. Emma was two and a half years old and very, very bright.
"Yeah... Peta, Ganma Sook. Mo' Peta!" She looked at me with intensely focused eyes and then yawned.
I sighed. Hunter's granddaughter was demanding enough to clearly be Hadley's descendant. But she could be a very sweet-natured child at times. We'd have to hope to build on that aspect of her nature, I thought to myself. Though a bit of fire was really necessary to thrive in our world.
The door out onto the patio opened and Pam came out and sat down at the table with us, yawning as she slumped into her chair. She was wearing a peach terry cloth lounge set and her hair looked barely brushed. For Pam, being so disheveled was a clear statement of displeasure.
"Good afternoon. How are you, Emma?" she said, soberly.
"'Kay. Ganma Sook, read mo' Peta, please?" she said, trying to emphasize her pronunciation.
I smiled at her.
"Patience, Emma. Patience. Wow, you got up really early, Pam. It's still only 3 pm."
She gave me a very, very dark look.
"He wanted to see his garden in the daylight. It's extremely annoying, if you ask me. I'm sure it looks exactly the same by moonlight. It is what it is. A garden."
"Well, I guess the first thing I'd note is that you didn't have to get up if you didn't want to. And the second is that he says it's your garden that he's making for you. And I'm with Stefan. You see, hear and smell different things in the daylight, Pam. Bees and birds. The sun brings out different scents. It's just… different."
"If you think it is escaping my notice that you are siding with Stefan yet again on the garden issue, you are sadly mistaken."
"But it's better than when I also take his side for Cadel. You've got to admit that."
She ignored me as she waved one of the staff over with her warm bottle of blood.
"Do you have any idea why there is soot outside the fireplace in the great room? I couldn't help but notice it as I was on my way out to you and Emma."
I smiled at Zuli as she handed Pam her bottle and she nodded to me.
"Oh, Bronwyn was here earlier. She made fireworks which hopped like bunnies for Emma. I guess they hopped off onto the tile. I'm sure it's easy enough to clean up."
She shook her head disapprovingly. Pam did not approve of fireworks in the house at all.
Bronwyn was a highly regarded horticulturist at the Botanical Garden. She had earned a PhD in Botany from Cornell. She was also responsible for every exotic plant on our grounds and there were some very exotic things growing here. For instance I was really quite sure that the plant with blue leaves and fruit that made you laugh no matter what, human, vampire, Were or even demigod, you were, was really not quite native to our world… Just a smear of its juice on her lips was enough to make Pam mirthful. It was practically like fairy blood.
The French door opened and Stefan stepped out, in jeans and a butter yellow T-shirt, his hair tied back in a pony-tail, looking fresh-eyed and happy.
"Afternoon, Sookie. Hello, Emma." He bent down and kissed Pam on the lips and chuckled when she grumbled. "Ah, butter kvinna…" he said softly. "I'll be back. I want to look at the tulips and be sure nothing's been chewing on them. You're going to see, Pam. It's going to look absolutely beautiful in another couple of weeks. And then we'll have the daylilies in the summer."
Pam went on grumbling to herself as Stefan took off around the corner.
"Oh, hush, Pam. He planted the whole thing for you anyway, so I don't even know why you'd even pretend to complain," I said as Emma began swinging her legs into my calf as if she was riding a horse and trying to get it to run faster.
"Well, I don't know why we have to get up two whole hours early, okay? I mean really. Why?"
"Because you can?"
"You have no appreciation for the amount of work ahead of me tonight. Really none at all."
Emma chewed her finger and then leaned back against my chest.
Peta? She sounded sleepy, actually.
"Eric's going to be so much more rested than you, too. What will you do?"
Pam made a face at me. The fact that Eric didn't want to be in the daylight bothered her because she got tired earlier in the night now if she rose in afternoon. Tattooed over seven years before, Eric had still never seen the daylight in over eleven hundred years, other than in Rhodes in 2005 and once briefly at dawn on a humid June morning in 2067 when I went up on the roof to test my tattoo's magic. He'd insisted that I do both of us and that he'd sit with me. Just in case appearances where deceiving, the tattoo insufficient and I risked burning to a crisp. He sat near enough to the door with me so that we'd stand a chance of getting out of the light and spend the summer healing. But the tattoos worked just fine. Although a little bit of vapor rose off us, we saw the sun rise in the east uneventfully. But that was enough for Eric. The idea of being out in the day didn't make him comfortable. He was, he said, just a creature of the night. I called him a creature of habit and smiled as I pointed out that it was good to see that he was old-fashioned about some things. Especially since he teased me about being old-fashioned all the time.
I didn't mind that Eric didn't want to be up in the daytime. I enjoyed having the some quiet time to myself again, since of course I never left the bounds of the estate during the day. Eric had always found a way to accept me as I wanted to be. How could I be any different, in good conscience, with his choices? Andor never rose early either, though Cadel and Markus did. Markus even had a meetings with his security staff during the day. Andor had finally gotten to the point where he didn't check and double check every single thing that Markus did. Now it was only every other thing, as Markus acerbically remarked.
"What are you doing tomorrow night? Did you two decide?"
"Eric has plans but won't tell me much. All I know is that I have been instructed to wear something red, sexy, with high heels and to bring a wrap."
"A wrap?" she looked at me with puzzlement.
"A codeword for going in the car with the top down, so I can cover my hair or something."
"I find it incredible that you two continue to celebrate it."
I rolled my eyes.
"Why, Pam? It's Valentines Day. What don't you get?"
"How long have you been married?"
"Only sixty-five years, Pam. Why, we're practically newlyweds still according to Eric. Anyway, we haven't been married so long that we don't enjoy romantic holidays. Personally, I just want to go dancing somewhere. We haven't been dancing since that New Year's party at the Mayor's mansion and I always hate those things, so I don't think it counts. So then... really, we haven't gone dancing since our anniversary back in December."
She shook her head.
"The two of you are very… amusing. To see two people together for so long and yet still be so foolish with one another is rather…"
"Promising, no? Wait until you see what Stefan's doing. I think you'll find it wonderfully foolish. Don't even bother trying to ask me what he's planned. You will not even complain to me the next day, if you know what's good for you. If you even try, I'll ignore you. All I'll say is that you'll love it."
She looked at me with her eyebrow raised. She looked the very picture of doubt. Stefan had been steadily proving her wrong for about four decades now. She still couldn't admit she was defeated. Stefan was had tickets to take Pam to a chamber music concert and had, rather romantically, arranged to have every surface of her office covered with red roses. They were very happy together.
The gentleman in question came back around the side of the building smiling and sat down next to Pam, taking her hand and saying,
"When you're done, you have to see your garden. It's looking gorgeous. Sookie, is Cadel up yet?"
"Up and in the office. Giovi is forcing him to pay all the tickets on their car. She was rather forceful about it. I heard a lot of shouting in Italian and muttering in Welsh. I was so glad I don't speak either one, because really, I'm thinking none of it was good."
Stefan grimaced playfully, shaking his head. Giovanna was Cadel's very human and delightful wife. An Italian, she'd been a graduate student in English Literature at LSU when Cadel had met her. Married over a decade, he was so genuinely happy. She was 35 but, of course, looked younger. We wondered sometimes behind their backs if she'd let herself be turned. Memories of turning Maggie and losing Heike still haunted Cadel, but less so these days. Cadel and I had talked quite a bit about it over the past few years. He was finally at a point of greater peace with himself about many things. Of course, he was just as mischievous as ever.
"More power to Giovi, I say," said Pam, with a chortle. "How many tickets, anyway?"
"I think I heard her shout fourteen? But not all of them are for parking. I know that I saw at least one speeding ticket in the back seat of their car last week."
Stefan made a snorting sound.
"So in the end they're going with you, Eric and Andor to Amsterdam?" he asked.
I nodded, stroking Emma's hair. She'd nodded off, her plump, warm hand resting on my palm.
"If Giovi hasn't done something to him by then, yes. She's very excited," I commented. "She's never been to the Netherlands, although I think they're going to stay longer in Europe so they can go to Verona and see her folks. Anyway, I'm still making the final arrangements with Chloë and Anaïs." I sighed it would be the first time I'd been back since Mathilde had died the previous spring. Mattias had died three years before. They had been beyond the aid of vampire blood and even, it seemed, any sort of fountain of youth. It would feel odd to go there without them now. Chloë was the new librarian but her language skills were not as developed as Mattias' had been. Occasionally, Ahmed would help her, or when needed, get them translations. He'd once had a friend of the Pythoness translate something from Ancient Greek for her. Ahmed himself had expanded his knowledge of languages a great deal in the past fifty years.
Stefan murmured something to Pam, who finished her bottle and rose with a sigh, took his hand and he drew her off to see her garden. She couldn't keep herself from smiling. Stefan put his arm around her as they turned the corner and kissed her head.
I looked out again at the sun-dappled garden and sighed, thinking of Mathilde and Mattias. They had died in their sleep peacefully, as everyone could only hope to pass or seek their final rest. Seeing them age and pass away had given me a taste of what it would be like to lose Jason, and in time, Hunter, Adele and Alex, and eventually even Eden, Emma's mother. I hoped when those days came I could accept them with equanimity but it was too painful to contemplate much at present. To my surprise, Emma seemed to jolt awake at my thoughts of the pain associated with losing those I loved. Sometimes I thought she could really read me without my having to think at her. But I wasn't sure yet. It was very hard to directly read vampires. Hunter's daughter Eden couldn't, for instance.
Ganma Sook, peas… Peta! I wan' mo' Peta!
I looked at my watch. I had at least another hour and a half's leisure before sunset, and then later, my appointments for the evening would start at 7:30 pm at my office in the compound. Emma wiggled in my lap, her small hand on the book in her lap. There was plenty of time still to read to Emma, put her down for her nap, then wait for Eric to wake.
Yes, I had nothing but time.
I had been given the precious gift of time. Time was, at last, my ally.
Kissing her head and soft hair, I turned back the pages in the book to the very beginning. I pointed to the words and said,
"Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter…"