By the time I was shown to our table at the fancy, ground floor restaurant, there weren't many other guests still eating. Felipe was already there waiting for me, a full glass of blood in front of him, and he stood to kiss my hand. While I'd been getting ready, my anger with the king had been increasing with every shoe box and lingerie bag I'd opened. If he thought that all it would take to have my complete subservience was a fancy wardrobe, then he'd never realized what he was dealing with taking on this little human.
"You look... quite a picture," he said, taking in my new dress. "Of loveliness."
It took a lot of willpower not to punch him in the face. The way he looked at me made me feel like I was going to be on the menu, rather than eating from it. I didn't ask whether or not I had chosen wisely when it came to my outfit. What did he know about ladies fashion, anyway?
The fit of the dress was tighter than I would usually be comfortable wearing, and I was particularly worried that my butt looked huge and stuck out a mile, with the material clinging so closely, but I just hadn't had time to change, and it couldn't be helped. I hoped the strappy heels I'd picked out from the selection made my bare legs look longer, and maybe that would take attention away from my rear. I was glad I'd taken the time to shave my legs earlier. I reminded myself that I was not here to look good for Felipe, so it really didn't matter.
I took the seat opposite the king, and popped the little sequined clutch purse I'd found in one of the shopping bags down on the chair beside me. Sure, I didn't care about looking good for him, and I was angry at how he thought I could be won over so easily, but when there's a cute purse there and you need somewhere to stash your room key card, what are you gonna do? I had also popped a lipstick, compact and a little cash in there. The guard stationed outside my room had insisted on rummaging through it, before accompanying me down to the restaurant. Thankfully, there'd been no more frisking. He'd probably realized there was no room for weapons anywhere on my person in such a dress.
A waiter handed me a menu and took my order for a diet coke.
"I hope that you are feeling better, after your accident?" Felipe said once I was settled.
"Much better," I responded. I took a deep breath, and tried to remember my manners. "Thanks for sending the doctor, and the clothes."
"It's no problem at all," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Now that you are to be working for me, you will find there are many special perks."
I stared hard at the menu.
"Doesn't Ms. Weatherspoon mind you having dinner with your employees?" I asked, not daring to look up.
"Not at all. She would have joined us, I am sure, but she is still taking care of her new progeny, and anyway, she never was one to enjoy sitting and watching humans eat. I can't say that it ever really bothered me, and I thought it would be a good opportunity for us to talk less formally. I did not want you dining alone. It is such a sad, lonely thing to do, don't you agree?"
"I guess I could've asked my guard to tag along."
I glanced at him, and saw that he was smiling.
"They are for your protection, Miss Stackhouse. I take my personal security team with me everywhere. Please be assured that no one will harm you, or keep you here against your will."
"Who am I being protected from?" I asked.
"With Eric gone and your position as my employee not yet formalized, and your insistence that you do not wish to belong to any vampire, you are certainly still at risk. I'm sure I am not the only one who wants to enjoy the fruits of your many talents."
Oh yeah, I'll bet they were just lining up around the block. Felipe must have read exactly what I was thinking by the face I pulled, because he laughed.
"You would be surprised," he said. "But there is no need for you to be concerned. While you are under my protection your safety will be assured."
He smiled at me charmingly, and all I could think about was that this douchebag tried to have Eric killed. He had turned a blind eye when Victor had harassed and threatened us, fooled a queen into believing him to be a trusted ally and then murdered her, and was most probably the reason why I had a nasty lump on my head. Now he thought he could charm me and get exactly what he wanted, and it was all just going to fall into his lap, so easily.
Boy, was he wrong.
"You must be finding it tricky, ruling over three states, especially since the loss of Victor," I said, surprising even myself. I knew I was being stupid, bringing up that particular topic, but I just couldn't seem to help myself. "How do you manage it?"
"Victor was indeed a great loss," the king responded, not missing a beat, "but my strength grows every day. I have some very powerful allies, and a number of quite able underlings. You will meet many of them, very soon. But let's not talk of this now." He took a sip of his blood. For once, I wished I could know what was really going on inside the mind of a vampire. Reading his thoughts would save me a whole lot of time and frustration. "Have you been here before?" he asked.
I couldn't be certain as to whether Felipe knew that Bill and I had been the ones to rescue Colton from the hotel, not long before.
"Yes," I said.
"And did you come out on top?"
I narrowed my eyes at him.
"At the casino. Did you win?"
I let out the breath I was holding.
"I'm pretty sure the house always wins."
"Ah yes, thankfully for me, that is true. It may surprise you to know, but I am not a fan of gambling myself. I much prefer to have the odds stacked well in my favor, and keep it that way."
The waiter chose that moment to come and take my order, and since pointy wooden sticks were on my mind, I went for the steak, well done.
"As the proud owner of a number of casinos, I would be extremely wary of a telepath entering my premises."
"Oh, I would never cheat like that," I said seriously. "I'm too honest."
"Of course you wouldn't," Felipe said. "Though I am sure you could easily catch those who were trying to cheat. That could be extremely useful. I would very much like to know more about your abilities, since you will soon be assisting me."
"Sure," I said. "What do you want to know?"
"You can read all minds?"
"Of everything but vampires. Humans pretty much all, no problem. Shifters and weres, they're usually okay, but some are harder to read than others, and sometimes I get more feelings and images rather than hearing words and thoughts. Vampires, I get nothing."
He leaned forward, seeming genuinely intrigued to know more about my powers. I had no reason to hide my abilities from him, since he probably knew most of what I could do anyway. It made sense that he would want to know what he was hiring.
"Who knows?" I shrugged. "No live brainwaves? There's no explanation I know of, that's just the way it is."
"You have always been telepathic? You were born this way?"
The Lady Gaga song should have been my anthem.
"Yes Sir." Almost. He didn't need to know the ins and outs of how and when I had acquired my gift.
"And right now, around you, do you hear people's thoughts?"
"Yes. I've learned to block and filter, and it makes it easier than it used to be when I was younger. It's not such a barrage of noise now, and I can control it better. I hear some pretty weird stuff, sometimes personal things I really don't want to know. I guess you could say in many ways it's been both a blessing and a curse."
"Is it amplified, the sound of a person's thoughts, the closer you are to them?"
"Yes, and even more so if I touch them."
"So if I was, say, asking you to speak with three humans, to ascertain which one of them intended to betray me, you would be able to know this? What if one of them was trying to cover for another?"
"I can't force them to think a certain thing, or even to think the truth, but I've come to understand how it works so well that I can usually tell if someone is falsifying their thoughts purposefully, to throw me off. Usually, of course, they're not aware of the fact I'm telepathic, so they don't even know they should be thinking lies as well as speaking them. If there were three suspects, I would probably speak to each one alone in turn, and ask them the same questions, outright. I would be pretty confident in my ability to find your man."
I nodded. "Sure."
Pretty soon my meal arrived, and since he was watching me eat and I felt sort of awkward about that, I ate as daintily as I possibly could, and encouraged him to talk.
"Do you think you'll have any particular jobs in mind for me soon?" I asked him between mouthfuls.
"Oh yes, don't worry, Miss Stackhouse, there will be plenty of work for you to do. Your position may involve some traveling, but I'm sure you expected that. I wonder why you did not do more work for Eric, or Sophie-Ann?" he asked, letting the question hang in the air.
"Well, I already had a full-time job, and I really didn't want to be a paid employee of the person I was, um, seeing romantically." That was an awkward way to describe our relationship, but it never had been easy to categorize. "Things were complicated enough without that. The queen, well, I suppose she didn't have much opportunity to hire me to use my skill before she passed."
'Before you had her killed' might have been a more accurate, but much less tactful, way of putting it.
"Hmm. But now you are ready to give up your other work, and try something... shall we say, a little more challenging."
"I guess you could say that, yes. I wouldn't be here offering to work for you if Eric were still alive, but now that he's gone..." I put down my knife and fork, and blotted my lips with my napkin. "I'm not an idiot, Your Majesty. I know this is a good opportunity for me. You need my assistance, and I need your protection. I'm a hard worker, and I'm good at what I do. I just want to put the past behind me, and move forward, on to better things."
He looked at me for a moment, staring at me in such a way that I wondered if he were trying to figure out whether I really was an ambitious opportunist, or a desperate phony. In the end, he picked up his glass of blood by the stem, and raised it in toast.
"Well, here's to many, many years of successful and fruitful business, Miss Stackhouse."
I pushed my empty plate to the side, raised my glass of coke and we both drank.
"So, what's next?" I said. "When do we start? You said you were going away for a while, to Oklahoma."
"Ah yes. I cannot be sure, but it may be as early as tomorrow, all being well. I hope to have a contract ready for you to sign by tomorrow evening. When I return, I will arrange for your flight to Las Vegas. Then your work can begin."
"And when you return, will you come back with another state to rule over?"
A dazzling grin slowly crept across his face.
"Perhaps. Do you think me cowardly, for wanting to take a dead queen's state, before her corpse has hardly had the chance to disintegrate?"
Frankly, I was shocked that he would even use the term cowardly when speaking about himself, like he really cared what I thought about him anyway.
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I don't really see it as cowardly. It's a good opportunity. One of the things I've learned is that you've got to take your chances while they're there, instead of waiting around for things to come to you. The people who take the initiative and don't hesitate, they're the ones who get ahead in life. I don't blame you for seeing an easy opportunity and taking it, like you did after Sophie-Ann died. I'd probably do the same. Nobody lives as long as you have by taking too many unnecessary risks, right?"
He leaned forward.
"Exactly. Why fight for something, taking great risk, when, with a little patience, it comes right to you without any trouble at all?"
I leaned forward too.
"That's not cowardly, I'd say that was smart."
"Freyda was smart."
I flinched, and he smiled when he saw my reaction.
"She's dead," I said. "She can't have been that smart. If you're taking over her state, then good for you. Sooner you than her."
He stared at me again, and I wondered if I'd said the wrong thing.
"This has been a very enlightening evening," Felipe said. "Truly, you are very entertaining company, Miss Stackhouse. However, it is with regret that I must leave you. I have much work to do before dawn, and I'm sure you have had a long day." He stood, and I stood too. "Please, please," he said, urging me to sit back down. "At least stay for dessert, or coffee, wine. The staff will bring whatever you ask for." He stepped toward me and kissed my hand again. "Until tomorrow evening. I hope it will not inconvenience you too much to stay? You will be free to leave, of course, if you really must, but if you could be back before sundown, it would be greatly appreciated."
Something about the tone of his voice made me shiver. It was as though all the politeness was becoming a strain for him, and what he really wanted to do was just bark orders at me.
"Sure," I said.
He nodded, and left.
Once he'd gone, I realized how exhausted I was, playing dangerous mind games with an old, sly and wily vampire, and how I desperately needed to rest. For a while I just sat there, wondering what the amiable charm act was really all about. Did he actually care about impressing me with all the compliments, the dinner, the polite conversation? What was his true motive? Did he just want me to hang around long enough for me to sign my life away, before he would show his true colors?
I said no thank you to dessert, and headed back to my room.
I was happy to see there was no guard on my door when I got there. Perhaps Felipe had been sufficiently impressed by my behavior at dinner that he no longer worried about me causing any sort of trouble, and had dismissed the security. If he really had been worried about other vampires taking me, then he surely wouldn't have said I was fine to leave during the daytime, when they could hire people like the Potato Brothers to snatch me up.
The room was still a whirlwind of scattered clothing and bags, and the idea of clearing up the mess was not something I was keen on thinking about, in my sleepy state. I locked the door, and reached for the painkillers, heading to the bathroom to get a glass of water.
I stopped still, my hand resting on the door handle, as I sensed the void brain beyond the curtains. I went over and pulled them open, to reveal Eric's face staring back at me.
"You idiot!" I said through gritted teeth. Even though I was sort of expecting it, it had still been a shock.
"What?" I heard him say, his voice muffled through the glass.
"I can't believe you!" I was doing the half-whisper, half-shout thing again. "Creeping up on me again, giving me a heart attack." I took a couple of deep breaths before letting him inside. I jabbed him in the ribs. "You shouldn't even be here. They'll know you were with me."
"How? Nobody has seen me. Everyone thinks I'm dead for good, anyway. There would be no reason for them to worry about any vampi-" He stopped mid-sentence to look me up and down, very thoroughly.
"Sookie, where did you get that dress?"
I put my hands on my hips, and fixed him with a seriously pissed off stare. If he thought he could give me shit about dressing like this for the king...
"I was invited to dinner. I had nothing to wear. This is one of the dresses that arrived, courtesy of my new employer."
Eric looked at the bags and boxes scattered around the room, along with the garment bags and dresses hung up here and there.
"Someone has been shopping." He stepped over to the table and opened one of the boxes. He pulled out some itty bitty pink silk panties, and held them up, dangling on the end of his finger. "Our king is obviously very careful to ensure all his telepaths are appropriately attired. It would be such a tragedy if you were forced to read minds wearing plain, cotton underpants."
I rolled my eyes at him.
"Can we talk about the fact you're in my room again? You're supposed to be dead. Dead for good-type dead. They'll kill you if they see you."
He tossed the panties back in the box.
"You let me in. They will have no idea I have been here, anyway. I've been very cautious. Bubba would be proud of my stealthy tactics."
"They'll smell you."
"They'll smell vampire. You had one in here earlier, some staff of Felipe's, if I overheard correctly. It's only shifters and expert trackers like Heidi who can distinguish different scents, and even then only if they have a sample to compare with. Someone like Pam or Indira, who know me well, they might, being very familiar with me. I doubt very much Felipe would recognize my scent, should he have any reason to visit you in your room." He raised an eyebrow. "Alone. Unannounced," he added.
"Hmm." That knowledge made me feel fractionally better, but still edgy.
He stepped forward, until he was standing right in front of me, and leaned his head down.
"Are you not happy to see me again?"
"Of course I'm happy to see you," I said, taking his hand in mine and squeezing it. "I'm always happy to see you, I just don't want you getting caught. The guard who was outside left, but he might come back."
"There was a problem on the king's floor. Something to do with a rather limp, close to death human donor in his suite, along with an enormous number of helium balloons being delivered to his room. Oh, and an issue with some flooding. His people may have been kept busy with all the traffic."
I raised an eyebrow at him.
"And I don't suppose you had anything to do with those things?"
"It may surprise you to hear this, but no, I didn't."
"Hmm, you're right, I am surprised to hear that. How do you even know about it then?"
"It is amazing what you overhear, hovering outside people's hotel windows."
I shook my head at him.
"Creepy vampire creeper."
He laughed and looked me over again. He took my hand and raised it, urging me to twirl around, and reluctantly I did so.
"My favorite color," he said. "It's very tight."
He didn't sound completely happy about that fact, but then not totally unhappy, either. In fact, he had that 'bite me, fuck me, rub himself all over me' look on his face.
"Tell me about it. I've been breathing in for the last hour. You know how tricky that is? Probably not, since you don't breathe, and you have a set of abs hard enough to crack nuts on, so you wouldn't care about your belly sticking out in a tight dress. You probably never had to breathe in when you were a breather, either. Well, take it from me, honey, it's not easy, especially when you've just eaten a slab of steak."
While I was babbling on, Eric's arms were snaking around my body, and I felt his hands take in all my curves, firmly and thoroughly.
"You look wonderful. You would look breath-taking, if I had any breath to take."
"Thanks." One compliment from Eric was worth a million from Felipe. I sighed and leaned against his chest, happy to rest my weight on him for a moment. I hoped that some of his strength and energy would somehow flow into me. Even without our bond, being around Eric still made me feel more alive, even when I felt like death warmed up, as I did in that moment. It was much like when the fairies were around one another, feeding off each others energy.
"Did the king approve of your choice of apparel?" Eric asked.
"Well, I guess so." I thought it was probably wiser not to mention the come-to-bed eyes and charming smiles the king had been flashing at me.
"I'm sure he did," Eric grumbled. He sounded like he was just itching to shove a stake into something. I wouldn't have been against such a thing, of course, but I was too exhausted for jealous, possessive vampire crap. There were more important things to worry about, after all. After having my fill of getting my ass fondled, I let go of him and flopped down onto one of the chairs. I took off my heels, which were beginning to hurt, and Eric sat on the bed, ready to hear my news. I told him all about the conversation I'd just had with Felipe.
"Do not sign anything," Eric said when I mentioned the contract the king hoped to have ready for me the following night. "Just in case. We will need to go over it very carefully. You never know what type of clauses he might have in there."
"Okay. You're right." I sat back in the chair, and for the first time in hours, I felt myself relax. "What do you think his daytime security's like in a place like this? Do you think he'll have humans guarding him?"
"If I were him, I'd hire a couple of those Britlingens. Wouldn't you?"
"They're very expensive. Felipe can probably afford it, but I don't think he has them. If he were really in fear for his life, then perhaps he would, but such high level security would make him seem scared and weak to outsiders. It sends the wrong message, as far as Felipe is concerned. Plus, there is so much trouble to go through, having them transported here from their other dimension. The paperwork alone takes months."
"How does that even-" I stopped myself. "Forget it, I don't want to know right now. I'm too sleepy for parallel universes and all that weird stuff." Most couples talked about normal, mundane topics. I longed for the days when Eric and I just talked about our jobs, and stupid stuff fangbangers had said to him, and the little things that only really mattered to me. I sighed. "Are you staying for a while?"
"I think it is safe, for a bit. How do you feel?" he asked.
"Like my head hates me. It gets beaten, and then I have to force it to work twice as hard as usual all day long."
"Luckily for you, your head is extra intelligent and resourceful. Plus incomparably beautiful, of course. I could heal you, though, if you wanted me to."
"No. That'll look suspicious, if for some reason that doctor checks up on me again. It's fine, anyway. I just need to get some rest."
"Well then, perhaps since you are so sleepy I could assist you in taking off your dress?"
I didn't fight him on that one. He held his hand out to me, and I took it. I settled in between his parted legs on the edge of the bed, and leaned back against him. He brushed my hair to the side and slipped a couple of fingers under the collar of my dress, pulling it to the side, kissing my exposed shoulder and neck. The touch of his lips made me shiver all over. I closed my eyes and leaned my head to the side, urging him on with his kisses. His hand reached around my body, cupping and lightly squeezing my breast, before he gripped me around the waist and pulled me closer to him. There was an urgency in the way his hands touched me, but his lips stayed slow and careful. I knew his fangs would be out, though.
"You probably shouldn't bite there," I said, stating the obvious.
"I'm not biting," Eric said, his voice deep. I felt his hips shifting, rubbing against me. His fingers had found the hem of my dress, pulling it up. "Who said I was biting?"
"Well, I thought maybe you might want to, maybe..." I realized that there'd been something which had been floating around in my head since I'd been out in that desert, wondering where Eric might be and hoping he was safe. "I'm kind of surprised we haven't already had this conversation, but should we exchange blood again? Reform the bond?"
His grip on me loosened and he pulled his lips back an inch or two.
"The blood bond? I thought you didn't want that."
"Well, I didn't at first, and then I got more used to it, and then, well, I was confused by it. It made me feel, I don't know, smothered, tethered to you, and I didn't always trust my own emotions. Sometimes I liked it, other times..." I realized I wasn't articulating myself very well, and I hadn't intended on having a serious conversation about what had happened before. Eric let me go and pulled back, and I turned to look at him. "You know how it made me feel. It was kind of overwhelming sometimes."
"So why would you want to do it now?"
Frankly, I hadn't expected such a reaction from him. I had already assumed he'd wanted us to exchange blood again.
"Don't you think it would be a good idea, given our current situation? If we'd still had it, I would've known where you were after the crash, I would've been able to find you and know you were okay."
"Well, you already know I'm still here," he said, standing up. "I made it. If we were to bond again, you would be tethered to me, as you put it, once more. Is that what you want?"
"I just thought..." What was I thinking? Would it even be useful now? I'd broken the bond before, with Amelia's help, so did I really want to reform it? Was I just being practical about our safety, or was I trying to feel closer to Eric again, after all we'd been through? I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead. This was not a topic of conversation I could handle at such a time. I wanted to kick myself for bringing it up. "I don't know," I whined. I stretched back and lay down on the bed.
"In order to re-form our blood bond, we would have to exchange on multiple occasions once again, over a period of time," he explained. "If we were to exchange tonight, and you were to take my blood, your cut would heal, and you do not want to rouse suspicion."
"Where are you going?"
"You need to rest." He pulled something out of one of his pockets, and put it down on the table beside the bed. "According to Pam your phone is broken. I brought you a new one. The charger is there, too. I programmed in some numbers. I have a new number myself, and I saved it to your contact list under the name Delores."
"You spoke to Pam?" I sat up on my elbows. "Is she okay?"
"I didn't speak with her directly, but as I understand it, she is handling everything and so far there have been no problems. She had a visit from the king yesterday evening and though he questioned her at length, he left satisfied with her assertions that her maker was dead."
He went over to the window, preparing to make his exit.
"Can't you stay, just another five minutes?"
I hated the thought of him leaving like that, so coldly, with such a conversation half-finished. I wanted to hold him. I wanted to be able to drift off into sleep knowing he was with me. I wanted to wind back the clock, just to the point where his hands were roaming my body, his lips kissing my neck, and keep my mouth shut this time around.
He undid the lock on the window, and opened it as wide as it would go.
"There are footsteps," he said quietly. "Heading this way."
I used my sense, reaching out with my eyes closed, and felt the void moving towards my door. My guard was returning to his post.
"Be careful," I whispered, but Eric had already gone when I opened my eyes. I got up and closed the window. I stared out for a moment, looking for him. Then I closed the drapes and shuffled to the bathroom, determined to remove my makeup and brush my teeth. I changed into a silk nightgown that had been delivered with all the rest of the clothes, and collapsed into bed.