Dead in the family, p.1

  Dead in the Family, p.1

   part  #10 of  Sookie Stackhouse Series

Dead in the Family
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Dead in the Family


  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  I am only the first step in the creation of this book. Many other people helped in different capacities along the way: Anastasia Luettecke, who taught me about Roman names; Dr. Ed Uthman, who helps me with medical stuff; Victoria and Debi, my continuity mavens; Toni L. P. Kelner and Dana Cameron, whose gentle comments after their first reading keep me from committing many an error; Paula Woldan, whose help and friendship keep me going; Lisa Desimini, the cover artist; Jodi Rosoff, my wonderful publicist; Ginjer Buchanan, my long-suffering editor; and my Mod Squad: Michele, Victoria, Kerri, MariCarmen, and Lindsay (current), and Debi, Beverly, and Katie (retired).

  MARCH

  THE FIRST WEEK

  "I feel bad that I'm leaving you like this," Amelia said. Her eyes were puffy and red. They'd been that way, off and on, ever since Tray Dawson's funeral.

  "You have to do what you have to do," I said, giving her a very bright smile. I could read the guilt and shame and ever-present grief roiling around Amelia's mind in a ball of darkness. "I'm lots better," I reassured her. I could hear myself babbling cheerfully along, but I couldn't seem to stop. "I'm walking okay, and the holes are all filled in. See how much better?" I pulled down my jeans waistband to show her a spot that had been bitten out. The teeth marks were hardly perceptible, though the skin wasn't quite smooth and was visibly paler than the surrounding flesh. If I hadn't had a huge dose of vampire blood, the scar would've looked like a shark had bitten me.

  Amelia glanced down and hastily away, as if she couldn't bear to see the evidence of the attack. "It's just that Octavia keeps e-mailing me and telling me I need to come home and accept my judgment from the witches' council, or what's left of it," she said in a rush. "And I need to check all the repairs to my house. And since there are a few tourists again, and people returning and rebuilding, the magic store's reopened. I can work there part-time. Plus, as much as I love you and I love living here, since Tray died . . . "

  "Believe me, I understand. " We'd gone over this a few times.

  "It's not that I blame you," Amelia said, trying to catch my eyes.

  She really didn't blame me. Since I could read her mind, I knew she was telling me the truth.

  Even I didn't totally blame myself, somewhat to my surprise.

  It was true that Tray Dawson, Amelia's lover and a Were, had been killed while he'd been acting as my bodyguard. It was true that I'd requested a bodyguard from the Were pack nearest me because they owed me a favor and my life needed guarding. However, I'd been present at the death of Tray Dawson at the hands of a sword-wielding fairy, and I knew who was responsible.

  So I didn't feel guilty, exactly. But I felt heartsick about losing Tray, on top of all the other horrors. My cousin Claudine, a full-blooded fairy, had also died in the Fae War, and since she'd been my real, true fairy godmother, I missed her in a lot of ways. And she'd been pregnant.

  I had a lot of pain and regret of all kinds, physical and mental. While Amelia carried an armful of clothes downstairs, I stood in her bedroom, gathering myself. Then I braced my shoulders and lifted a box of bathroom odds and ends. I descended the stairs carefully and slowly, and I made my way out to her car. She turned from depositing the clothes across the boxes already stowed in her trunk. "You shouldn't be doing that!" she said, all anxious concern. "You're not healed yet. "

  "I'm fine. "

  "Not hardly. You always jump when someone comes into the room and surprises you, and I can tell your wrists hurt," she said. She grabbed the box and slid it into the backseat. "You still favor that left leg, and you still ache when it rains. Despite all that vamp blood. "

  "The jumpiness'll get better. As time passes, it won't be so fresh and at the front of my mind," I told Amelia. (If telepathy had taught me anything, it was that people could bury the most serious and painful of memories, if you gave them enough time and distraction. ) "The blood is not just any vampire's. It's Eric's blood. It's strong stuff. And my wrists are a lot better. " I didn't mention that the nerves were jumping around in them like hot snakes just at this moment, a result of their having been tied together tightly for several hours. Dr. Ludwig, physician to the supernatural, had told me the nerves - and the wrists - would be back to normal, eventually.

  "Yeah, speaking of the blood . . . " Amelia took a deep breath and steeled herself to say something she knew I wouldn't like. Since I heard it before she actually voiced it, I was able to brace myself. "Had you thought about . . . Sookie, you didn't ask me, but I think you better not have any more of Eric's blood. I mean, I know he's your man, but you got to think about the consequences. Sometimes people get flipped by accident. It's not like it's a math equation. "

  Though I appreciated Amelia's concern, she'd trespassed into private territory. "We don't swap," I said. Much. "He just has a sip from me at, you know . . . the happy moment. " These days Eric was having a lot more happy moments than I was, sadly. I kept hoping the bedroom magic would return; if any male could perform sexual healing, that male would be Eric.

  Amelia smiled, which was what I'd been aiming for. "At least . . . " She turned away without finishing the sentence, but she was thinking, At least you feel like having sex.

  I didn't so much feel like having sex as I felt like I ought to keep trying to enjoy it, but I definitely didn't want to discuss that. My ability to cast aside control, which is the key to good sex, had been pinched out of existence during the torture. I'd been absolutely helpless. I could only hope that I'd recover in that area, too. I knew Eric could feel my lack of completion. He'd asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to engage in sex. Nearly every time, I said yes, operating on the bicycle theory. Yes, I'd fallen off. But I was always willing to try to ride it again.

  "So, how's the relationship doing?" she said. "Aside from the whoopee. " Every last thing was in Amelia's car. She was stalling, dreading the moment when she actually got into her car and drove away.

  It was only pride that was keeping me from bawling all over her.

  "I think we're getting along pretty well," I said with a great effort at sounding cheerful. "I'm still not sure what I feel as opposed to what the bond is making me feel. " It was kind of nice to be able to talk about my supernatural connection to Eric, as well as my regular old man-woman attraction. Even before my injuries during the Fae War, Eric and I had established what the vampires called a blood bond, since we'd exchanged blood several times. I could sense Eric's general location and his mood, and he could feel the same things about me. He was always faintly present in the back of my mind - sort of like turning on a fan or an air filter to provide a little buzz of noise that would help you get to sleep. (It was good for me that Eric slept all day, because I could be by myself at least part of the time. Maybe he felt the same way after I went to bed at night?) It wasn't like I heard voices in my head or anything - at least no more than usual. But if I felt happy, I had to check to make sure it was me and not Eric who felt happy. Likewise for anger; Eric was big on anger, controlled and carefully banked anger, especially lately. Maybe he was getting that from me. I was pretty full of anger myself these days.

  I'd forgotten all about Amelia. I'd stepped right into my own trough of depression.

  She snapped me out of it. "That's just a big fat excuse," she said tartly. "Come on, Sookie. You love him, or you don't. Don't keep putting off thinking about it by blaming everything on your bond. Wah, wah, wah. If you hate the bond so much, why haven't you explored how you can get free of it?" She took in the expression on my face, and the irritation faded out of her own. "Do you want me to ask Octavia?" she asked in
a milder voice. "If anyone would know, she would. "

  "Yes, I'd like to find out," I said, after a moment. I took a deep breath. "You're right, I guess. I've been so depressed I've put off making any decisions, or acting on the ones I've already made. Eric's one of a kind. But I find him . . . a little overwhelming. " He was a strong personality, and he was used to being the big fish in the pond. He also knew he had infinite time ahead of him.

  I did not.

  He hadn't brought that up yet, but sooner or later, he would.

  "Overwhelming or not, I love him," I continued. I'd never said it out loud. "And I guess that's the bottom line. "

  "I guess it is. " Amelia tried to smile at me, but it was a woeful attempt. "Listen, you keep that up, the self-knowledge thing. " She stood for a moment, her expression frozen into the half smile. "Well, Sook, I better get on the road. My dad's expecting me. He'll be all up in my business the minute I get back to New Orleans. "

  Amelia's dad was rich, powerful, and had no belief in Amelia's power at all. He was very wrong not to respect her witchcraft. Amelia had been born with the potential for the power in her, as every true witch is. Once Amelia had some more training and discipline, she was going to be really scary - scary on purpose, rather than because of the drastic nature of her mistakes. I hoped her mentor, Octavia, had a program in place to develop and train Amelia's talent.

  After I waved Amelia down the driveway, the broad smile dropped from my face. I sat on the porch steps and cried. It didn't take much for me to be in tears these days, and my friend's departure was just the trigger now. There was so much to weep about.

  My sister-in-law, Crystal, had been murdered. My brother's friend Mel had been executed. Tray and Claudine and Clancy the vampire had been killed in the line of duty. Since both Crystal and Claudine had been pregnant, that added two more deaths to the list.

  Probably that should have made me long for peace above all else. But instead of turning into the Bon Temps Gandhi, in my heart I held the knowledge that there were plenty of people I wanted dead. I wasn't directly responsible for most of the deaths that were scattered in my wake, but I was haunted by the feeling that none of them would have happened if it weren't for me. In my darkest moments - and this was one of them - I wondered if my life was worth the price that had been paid for it.

  MARCH

  THE END OF THE FIRST WEEK

  My cousin Claude was sitting on the front porch when I got up on a cloudy, brisk morning a few days after Amelia's departure. Claude wasn't as skilled at masking his presence as my great-grandfather Niall was. Because Claude was fae, I couldn't read his mind - but I could tell his mind was there, if that isn't too obscure a way to put it. I carried my coffee out to the porch, though the air was nippy, because drinking that first cup on the porch had been one of my favorite things to do before I . . . before the Fae War.

  I hadn't seen my cousin in weeks. I hadn't seen him during the Fae War, and he hadn't contacted me since the death of Claudine.

  I'd brought an extra mug for Claude, and I handed it to him. He accepted it silently. I'd considered the possibility he might throw it in my face. His unexpected presence had knocked me off course. I had no idea what to expect. The breeze lifted his long black hair, tossed it around like rippling ebony ribbons. His caramel eyes were red-rimmed.

  "How did she die?" he said.

  I sat on the top step. "I didn't see it," I said, hunching over my knees. "We were in that old building Dr. Ludwig was using as a hospital. I think Claudine was trying to stop the other fairies from coming down the corridor to get into the room where I was holed up with Bill and Eric and Tray. " I looked over at Claude to make sure he knew the place, and he nodded. "I'm pretty sure that it was Breandan who killed her, because one of her knitting needles was stuck in his shoulder when he busted into our room. "

  Breandan, my great-grandfather's enemy, had also been a prince of the fae. Breandan had believed that humans and the fae should not consort. He'd believed that to the point of fanaticism. He'd wanted the fae to completely abstain from their forays into the human world, despite the fae's large financial stake in mundane commerce and the products it had produced . . . products that helped them blend into the modern world. Breandan had especially hated the occasional taking of human lovers, a fae indulgence, and he'd hated the children born as a result of such liaisons. He'd wanted the fae separate, walled away into their own world, consorting only with their own kind.

  Oddly enough, that's what my great-grandfather had decided to do after defeating the fairy who believed in this apartheid policy. After all the bloodshed, Niall concluded that peace among the fae and safety for humans could be reached only if the fae blocked themselves into their world. Breandan had achieved his ends by his own death. In my worst moments, I thought that Niall's final decision had made the whole war unnecessary.

  "She was defending you," Claude said, pulling me back into the moment. There was nothing in his voice. Not blame, not anger, not a question.

  "Yeah. " That had been part of her job, defending me, by Niall's orders.

  I took a long sip of coffee. Claude's sat untouched on the arm of the porch swing. Maybe Claude was wondering if he should kill me. Claudine had been his last surviving sibling.

  "You knew about the pregnancy," he said finally.

  "She told me right before she was killed. " I put down my mug and wrapped my arms around my knees. I waited for the blow to fall. At first I didn't mind all that much, which was even more horrible.

  Claude said, "I understand Neave and Lochlan had hold of you. Is that why you're limping?" The change of subject caught me off guard.

  "Yeah," I said. "They had me for a couple of hours. Niall and Bill Compton killed them. Just so you know - it was Bill who killed Breandan, with my grandmother's iron trowel. " Though the trowel had been in my family's toolshed for decades, I associated it with Gran.

  Claude sat, beautiful and unreadable, for a long time. He never looked at me directly nor drank his coffee. When he'd reached some inner conclusion, he rose and left, walking down the driveway toward Hummingbird Road. I don't know where his car was parked. For all I knew, he'd walked all the way from Monroe, or flown over on a magic carpet. I went into the house, sank to my knees right inside the door, and cried. My hands were shaking. My wrists ached.

  The whole time we'd been talking, I'd been waiting for him to make his move.

  I realized I wanted to live.

  MARCH

  THE SECOND WEEK

  JB said, "Raise your arm all the way up, Sookie!" His handsome face was creased with concentration. Holding the five-pound weight, I slowly lifted my left arm. Geez Louise, it hurt. Same with the right.

  "Okay, now the legs," JB said, when my arms were shaking with strain. JB wasn't a licensed physical therapist, but he was a personal trainer, so he'd had practical experience helping people get over various injuries. Maybe he'd never faced an assortment like mine, since I'd been bitten, cut, and tortured. But I hadn't had to explain the details to JB, and he wouldn't notice that my injuries were far from typical of those incurred in a car accident. I didn't want any speculation going around Bon Temps about my physical problems - so I made the occasional visits to Dr. Amy Ludwig, who looked suspiciously like a hobbit, and I enlisted the help of JB du Rone, who was a good trainer but dumb as a box of rocks.

  JB's wife, my friend Tara, was sitting on one of the weight benches. She was reading What to Expect When You're Expecting. Tara, almost five months pregnant, was determined to be the best mother she could possibly be. Since JB was willing but not bright, Tara was assuming the role of Most Responsible Parent. She'd earned her high school spending money as a babysitter, which gave her some experience in child care. She was frowning as she turned the pages, a look familiar to me from our school years.

  "Have you picked a doctor yet?" I said, after I'd finish
ed my leg lifts. My quads were screaming, particularly the damaged one in my left leg. We were in the gym where JB worked, and it was after hours, because I wasn't a member. JB's boss had okayed the temporary arrangement to keep JB happy. JB was a huge asset to the gym; since he'd started working, new female clients had increased by a noticeable percentage.

  "I think so," said Tara. "There were four choices in this area, and we interviewed all of them. I've had my first appointment with Dr. Dinwiddie, here in Clarice. I know it's a little hospital, but I'm not high risk, and it's so close. "

  Clarice was just a few miles from Bon Temps, where we all lived. You could get from my house to the gym in less than twenty minutes.

  "I hear good things about him," I said, the pain in my quads making stuff start to slide around inside my head. My forehead broke out in a clammy sweat. I was used to thinking of myself as a fit woman, and mostly I'd been a happy one. There were days now when it was all I could do to get out of bed and get in to work.

  "Sook," JB said, "look at the weight on here. " He was grinning at me.

  For the first time, I registered that I'd done ten extensions with ten more pounds than I'd been using.

  I smiled back at him. It didn't last long, but I knew I'd done something good.

  "Maybe you'll babysit for us sometime," Tara said. "We'll teach the baby to call you Aunt Sookie. "

  I'd be a courtesy aunt. I'd get to take care of a baby. They trusted me. I found myself planning on a future.

  MARCH

  THE SAME WEEK

  I spent the next night with Eric. As I did at least three or four times a week, I woke up panting, filled with terror, completely at sea. I held on to him as if the storm would sweep me away unless he was my anchor. I was already crying when I woke. It wasn't the first time this had happened, but this time he wept with me, bloody tears that streaked the whiteness of his face in a startling way.

  "Don't," I begged him. I had been trying so hard to act like my old self when I was with him. Of course, he knew differently. Tonight I could feel his resolve. Eric had something to say to me, and he was going to tell me whether I wanted to listen or not.

  "I could feel your fear and your pain that night," he said, in a choked voice. "But I couldn't come to you. "

  Finally, he was telling me something I had been waiting to learn. "Why not?" I said, trying very hard to keep my voice level. This may seem incredible, but I had been in such shaky condition I hadn't dared to ask him.

  "Victor wouldn't let me leave," he said. Victor Madden was Eric's boss; he'd been appointed by Felipe de Castro, King of Nevada, to oversee the conquered kingdom of Louisiana.

  My initial reaction to Eric's explanation was bitter disappointment. I'd heard this story before. A vampire more powerful than me made me do it: Bill's excuse for going back to his maker, Lorena, revisited. "Sure," I said. I turned over and lay with my back to him. I felt the cold, creeping misery of disillusionment. I decided to pull my clothes on, to drive back to Bon Temps, as soon as I gathered the energy. The tension, the frustration, the rage in Eric was sapping me.

  "Victor's people chained me with silver," Eric said behind me. "It burned me everywhere. "

  "Literally. " I tried not to sound as skeptical as I felt.

  "Yes, literally. I knew something was happening with you. Victor was at Fangtasia that night, as if he knew ahead of time he should be there. When Bill called to tell me you'd been taken, I managed to call Niall before three of Victor's people chained me to the wall. When I - protested - Victor said he couldn't allow me to take sides in the Fae War. He said that no matter what happened to you, I couldn't get involved. "

  Rage made Eric fall silent for a long moment. It poured through me like a burning, icy stream. He resumed his story in a choked voice.

  "Pam was also seized and isolated by Victor's people, though they didn't chain her. " Pam was Eric's second-in-command. "Since Bill was in Bon Temps, he was able to ignore Victor's phone messages. Niall met Bill at your house to track you. Bill had heard of Lochlan and Neave. We all had. We knew time would run out for you. " I still had my back to Eric, but I was listening to more than his voice. Grief, anger, desperation.

  "How did you get out of the chains?" I asked the dark.

  "I reminded Victor that Felipe had promised you protection, promised it to you personally. Victor pretended not to believe me. " I could feel the bed move as Eric threw himself back against the pillows. "Some of the vampires were strong and honorable enough to remember they were pledged to Felipe, not Victor. Though they wouldn't defy Victor to his face, behind his back they let Pam call our new king. When she had Felipe on the line, she explained to him that you and I had married. Then she demanded Victor take the telephone and talk to Felipe. Victor didn't dare to refuse. Felipe ordered Victor to let me go. " A few months ago, Felipe de Castro had become the king of Nevada, Louisiana, and Arkansas. He was powerful, old, and very crafty. And he owed me big-time.

  "Did Felipe punish Victor?" Hope springs eternal.

  "There's the rub," Eric said. Somewhere along the line, my Viking honey had read Shakespeare. "Victor claimed he'd temporarily forgotten our marriage. " Even if I sometimes tried to forget it myself, that made me angry. Victor had been sitting right there in Eric's office when I'd handed the ceremonial knife to Eric - in complete ignorance that my action constituted a marriage, vampire-style. I might have been ignorant, but Victor certainly wasn't. "Victor told our king that I was lying in an attempt to save my human lover from the fae. He said vampire lives must not be lost in the rescue of a human. He told Felipe that he hadn't believed Pam and me when we'd told him Felipe had promised you protection after you saved him from Sigebert. "

  I rolled over to face Eric, and the bit of moonlight coming in the window painted him in shades of dark and silver. In my brief experience of the powerful vampire who'd maneuvered himself into a position of great power, Felipe was absolutely no fool. "Incredible. Why didn't Felipe kill Victor?" I asked.

  "I've given that a lot of thought, of course. I think Felipe has to pretend he believes Victor. I think Felipe realizes that in making Victor his lieutenant in charge of the whole state of Louisiana, he has inflated Victor's ambitions to the point of indecency. "

  It was possible to look at Eric objectively, I discovered, while I was thinking over what he'd said. My trust had gotten me burned in the past, and I wasn't going to get too close to the fire this time without careful consideration. It was one thing to enjoy laughing with Eric or to look forward to the times when we twined together in the dark. It was another thing to trust him with more fragile emotions. I was really not into trust right now.

  "You were upset when you came to the hospital," I said indirectly. When I'd wakened in the old factory Dr. Ludwig was using as a field hospital, my injuries had been so painful I'd thought dying might prove easier than living. Bill, who had saved me, had been poisoned with a bite from Neave's silver teeth. His survival had been up in the air. The mortally wounded Tray Dawson, Amelia's werewolf lover, had hung on long enough to die by the sword when Breandan's forces stormed the hospital.

  "While you were with Neave and Lochlan, I suffered with you," he said, meeting my eyes directly. "I hurt with you. I bled with you - not only because we're bonded, but because of the love I have for you. "

  I raised a skeptical eyebrow. I couldn't help it, though I could feel that he meant what he was saying. I was just willing to believe that Eric would have come to my help much faster, if he could have. I was willing to believe that he'd heard the echo of the horror of my time with the fae torturers.

  But my pain and blood and terror had been my own. He might have felt them, but from a separate place. "I believe you would have been there if you could have," I said, knowing my voice was too calm. "I really do believe that. I know you would have killed them. " Eric leaned over on one elbow, an
d his big hand pressed my face to his chest.

  I couldn't deny that I felt better since he'd brought himself to tell me. Yet I didn't feel as much better as I'd hoped, though now I knew why he hadn't come when I'd been screaming for him. I could even understand why it had taken so long for him to tell me. Helplessness was a state Eric didn't often encounter. Eric was supernatural, and he was incredibly strong, and he was a great fighter. But he was not a superhero, and he couldn't overcome several determined members of his own race. And I realized he'd given me a lot of blood when he himself was healing from the silver chains.

  Finally, something inside me relaxed at the logic of his story. I believed him in my heart, not just in my head.

  A red tear fell on my bare shoulder and coursed down. I swept it up on my finger, putting my finger to his lips - offering his pain back to him. I had plenty of my own.

  "I think we need to kill Victor," I said, and his eyes met mine.

  I'd finally succeeded in surprising Eric.

  MARCH

  THE THIRD WEEK

  "So," my brother said. "As you can tell, me and Michele are still seeing each other. " He was standing with his back to me, turning the steaks on the grill. I was sitting in a folding chair, looking out over the large pond and its dock. It was a beautiful evening, cool and brisk. I was actually content to sit there and watch him work; I was enjoying being with Jason. Michele was in the house making a salad. I could hear her singing Travis Tritt.

  "I'm glad," I said, and I was sincere. It was the first time I'd been in a private setting with my brother in months. Jason had been through his own bad time. His estranged wife and their unborn child had died horribly. He'd discovered his best male friend had been in love with him, sick in love. But as I watched him grilling, listened to his girlfriend singing inside the house, I understood that Jason was a great survivor. Here my brother was, dating again, pleased at the prospect of eating steak and the mashed potato casserole I'd brought and the salad Michele was making. I had to admire Jason's determination to find pleasure in his life. My brother was not a very good role model in a lot of ways, but I could hardly point fingers.

  "Michele is a good woman," I said out loud.

  She was, too - though maybe not in the way our gran would have used the term. Michele Schubert was absolutely out-front about everything. You couldn't shame her, because she wouldn't do something she wouldn't own up to. Operating on the same principle of full disclosure, if Michele had a grievance with you, you knew about it. She worked in the Ford dealership's repair shop as a scheduler and clerk. It was a tribute to her efficiency that she still worked for her former father-in-law. (In fact, he'd been known to say he liked her a tad better than he liked his son, some days. )

  Michele came out on the deck. She was wearing the jeans and Ford-logo polo shirt she wore to work, and her dark hair was twisted in a knot on her head. Michele liked heavy eye makeup, big purses, and high heels. She was barefoot now. "Hey, Sookie, you like ranch dressing?" she asked. "Or we got some honey mustard. "

  "Ranch will be fine," I said. "You need any help?"

  "Nope, I'm good. " Michele's cell phone went off. "Dammit, it's Pop Schubert again. That man can't find his ass with both hands. "

  She went back in the house, the phone to her ear.

  "I worry, though, about putting her in danger," Jason said in the diffident voice he used when he was asking my opinion about something supernatural. "I mean . . . that fairy, Dermot, the one that looks like me. Do you know if he's still around?"

  He'd turned to face me. He was leaning against the railing of the deck he'd added to the house my mom and dad had built when they were expecting Jason. Mom and Dad hadn't gotten to enjoy it for much more than a decade. They'd died when I was seven, and when Jason had gotten old enough to live on his own (in his estimation), he'd moved out of Gran's and into this house. It had seen many a wild party for two or three years, but he'd become steadier. Tonight it was very clear to me that his recent losses had sobered him further.

  I took a swallow from my bottle. I wasn't much of a drinker - I saw too much overindulgence at work - but it had been impossible to turn down a cold beer on this bright evening. "I wish I knew where Dermot was, too," I said. Dermot was the fraternal twin of our half-fairy grandfather Fintan. "Niall sealed himself into Faery with all the other fairies who wanted to join him, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Dermot's in Faery with him. Claude stayed here. I saw him a couple of weeks ago. " Niall was our great-grandfather. Claude was his grandson from Niall's marriage to another full fae.

  "Claude, the male stripper. "

  "The owner of a strip club, who strips himself on ladies' night," I corrected. "Our cousin models for romance covers, too. "

  "Yeah, I bet the girls faint when he walks by. Michele's got a book with him on the cover in some genie costume. He must love every minute of it. " Jason definitely sounded envious.

  "I bet he does. You know, he's a pain in the butt," I said, and laughed, surprising myself.

  "You see him much?"

  "Just the once, since I got hurt. But when I picked up the mail yesterday, he'd sent me some free coupons for ladies' night at Hooligans. "

  "You think you'll ever take him up on it?"

  "Not yet. Maybe when I'm . . . in a better mood. "

  "You think Eric would mind you seeing another guy naked?" Jason was trying to show me how much he'd changed by his casual reference to my relationship with a vampire. Well, give my brother points for "willing. "

  "I'm not sure," I said. "But I wouldn't watch other guys take off their clothes without letting Eric know about it ahead of time. Give him a chance to put in his two cents. Would you tell Michele you were going to a club to watch women strip?"

  Jason laughed. "I'd at least mention it, just to hear what she'd say. " He put the steaks on a platter and gestured to the sliding glass doors. "We're ready," he said, and I pulled the door open for him. I'd set the table earlier, and now I poured the tea. Michele had put the salad and the hot potato casserole on the table, and she got some A-1 steak sauce from the pantry. Jason loved his A-1. With the big barbecuing fork, Jason put one steak on each plate. In a couple of minutes, we were all eating. It was kind of homey, the three of us.

  "Calvin came into the dealership today," Michele said. "He's thinking of trading in his old pickup. " Calvin Norris was a good man with a good job. He was in his forties, and he carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. He was my brother's leader, the dominant male in the werepanther community centered in the little settlement of Hotshot.

  "He still dating Tanya?" I asked. Tanya Grissom worked at Norcross, same as Calvin, but she sometimes filled in at Merlotte's when one of the other waitresses couldn't work.

  "Yeah, she's living with him," Jason said. "They fight pretty often, but I think she's staying. "

  Calvin Norris, leader of the werepanthers, did his best not to get involved in vampire affairs. He'd had a lot on his plate since the Weres had come out. He'd declared that he was two-natured the next day in the break room at work. Now that the word had gotten around, it had only earned Calvin more respect. He had a good reputation in the Bon Temps area, even if most of the people who lived out in Hotshot were regarded with some suspicion since the community was so isolated and peculiar.

  "How come you didn't come out when Calvin did?" I asked. That was a thought I'd never heard in Jason's head.

  My brother looked thoughtful, an expression that sat a little oddly on him. "I guess I just ain't ready to answer a lot of questions," he said. "It's a personal thing, the change. Michele knows, and that's all that's important. "

  Michele smiled at him. "I'm real proud of Jason," she said, and that was enough. "He manned up when he turned panther. Wasn't like he could help it. He's making the best of it. No whining. He'll tell people about it whe
n he's ready. "

  Jason and Michele were just startling me all over the place. "I haven't ever said anything to anyone," I assured him.

  "I never thought you would. Calvin says Eric is like a chief vampire," Jason said, hopping into a different topic.

  I don't talk about vampire politics at any length with nonvamps. Just not a good idea. But Jason and Michele had shared with me, and I wanted to share a little back. "Eric's got some power. But he's got a new boss, and things are touchy. "

  "You want to talk about that?" I could tell Jason was uncertain about hearing whatever I chose to tell them, but he was trying hard to be a good brother.

  "I better not," I said, and saw his relief. Even Michele was glad to turn back to her steak. "But apart from dealing with other vampires, Eric and I are doing okay. There's always some give and take in relationships, right?" Though Jason had had scores of relationships over the years, he'd learned about give and take only recently.

  "I been talking to Hoyt again," Jason said, and I understood the pertinence. Hoyt, Jason's shadow for years, had dropped off my brother's radar for a while. Hoyt's fianc¨¦e, Holly, who worked at Merlotte's with me, wasn't a big Jason fan. I was surprised Jason had his best buddy back, and I was even more surprised Holly had consented to this renewal.

  "I've changed a lot, Sookie," my brother said, as if (for once) he'd been reading my mind. "I want to be a good friend to Hoyt. I want to be a good boyfriend to Michele. " He looked at Michele seriously, putting his hand over hers. "And I want to be a better brother. We're all we got left. Except for the fairy relations, and I'd just as soon forget about them. " He looked down at his plate, embarrassed. "I can't hardly believe that Gran cheated on Grandpa. "

  "I had an idea about that," I said. I'd been struggling with the same disbelief. "Gran really wanted children, and that wasn't going to happen for her and Grandpa. I was thinking maybe she was enchanted by Fintan. Fairies can mess with your mind, like the vamps can. And you know how beautiful they are. "

  "Claudine sure was. And I guess if you're a woman, Claude looks pretty good. "

  "Claudine really toned it down since she was passing for human. " Claudine, Claude's triplet, had been a stunning six-foot-tall beauty.

  Jason said, "Grandpa wasn't any picture in the looks department. "

  "Yeah, I know. " We looked at each other, silently acknowledging the power of physical attraction. Then we said, simultaneously, "But Gran?" And we couldn't help but laugh. Michele tried hard to keep a straight face, but finally she couldn't help grinning at us. It was hard enough thinking about your parents having sex, but your grandparents? Totally wrong.

  "Now that I'm thinking about Gran, I've been meaning to ask you if I could have that table she put up in the attic," Jason said. "The pie-crust table that used to sit by the armchair in the living room?"

  "Sure, swing by and pick it up sometime," I said. "It's probably sitting right where you put it the day she asked you to take it up to the attic. "

  I left soon after with my almost-empty casserole dish, some leftover steak, and a cheerful heart.

  I certainly hadn't thought having dinner with my brother and his girlfriend was any big deal, but when I got home that night I slept all the way through until morning, for the first time in weeks.

  MARCH

  THE FOURTH WEEK

  "There," said Sam. I had to strain to hear him. Someone had put Jace Everett's "Bad Things" on, and just about everyone in the bar was singing along. "You've smiled three times tonight. "

  "You counting my facial expressions?" I put down my tray and gave him a look. Sam, my boss and friend, is a true shapeshifter; he can change into anything warm-blooded, I guess. I haven't asked him about lizards and snakes and bugs.

  "Well, it's good to see that smile again," he said. He rearranged some bottles on the shelf, just to look busy. "I missed it. "

  "It's good to feel like smiling," I told him. "I like the haircut, by the way. "

  Sam ran a self-conscious hand across his head. His hair was short, and it hugged his scalp like a red gold cap. "Summer's coming up. I thought it might feel good. "

  "Probably will. "

  "You already started sunbathing?" My tan was famous.

  "Oh, yeah. " In fact, I'd started extra early this spring. The first day I'd put on my swimsuit, all hell had broken loose. I'd killed a fairy. But that was past. I'd lain out yesterday, and not a thing had happened. Though I confess I hadn't taken the radio outside, because I'd wanted to be sure I could hear if something was sneaking up on me. But nothing had. In fact, I'd had a remarkably peaceful hour lying in the sun, watching a butterfly waft by every now and then. One of my great-great-grandmother's rosebushes was blooming, and the scent had healed something inside me. "The sun just makes me feel real good," I said. I suddenly remembered that the fae had told me that I came from sky fairies, instead of water fairies. I didn't know anything about that, but I wondered if my love of the sun was a genetic thing.

  Antoine called, "Order up!" and I hurried over to fetch the plates.

  Antoine had settled in at Merlotte's, and we all hoped he'd stick with the cooking job. Tonight he was moving around the small kitchen like he had eight arms. Merlotte's menu was the most basic - hamburgers, chicken strips, a salad with chicken strips cut up on it, chili fries, French-fried pickles - but Antoine had mastered it with amazing speed. Now in his fifties, Antoine had gotten out of New Orleans after staying in the Superdome during Katrina. I respected Antoine for his positive attitude and his determination to start over after losing everything. He was also good to D'Eriq, who helped him with food prep and bused the tables. D'Eriq was sweet but slow.

  Holly was working that night, and in between hustling drinks and plates she stood by Hoyt Fortenberry, her fianc¨¦, who was perched on a barstool. Hoyt's mom had proven to be only too glad to keep Holly's little boy on the evenings Hoyt wanted to spend time with Holly. It was hard to look at Holly and recognize her as the sullen Goth Wiccan she'd been in one phase of her life. Her hair was its natural dark brown and had grown to nearly shoulder length, her makeup was light, and she smiled all the time. Hoyt, my brother's best friend again since they'd mended their differences, seemed like a stronger man now that he had Holly to brace him up.

  I glanced over at Sam, who'd just answered his cell phone. Sam was spending a lot of time on that phone these days, and I suspected he was seeing someone, too. I could find out if I looked in his head long enough (though the two-natured are harder to read than simple basic humans), but I tried hard to stay out of Sam's thoughts. It's just rude to rummage around inside the ideas of people you care about. Sam was smiling while he talked, and it was good to see him looking - at least temporarily - carefree.

  "You see Vampire Bill much?" Sam asked when I was helping him close up an hour later.

  "No. I haven't seen him in a long time," I said. "I wonder if Bill's dodging me. I went by his house a couple of times and left him a six-pack of TrueBlood and a thank-you note for all he did when he came to rescue me, but he never called me or came over. "

  "He was in a couple of nights ago when you were off. I think you ought to pay him a visit," Sam said. "I'm not saying any more. "

  MARCH

  THE END OF THE FOURTH WEEK

  On a beautiful night later that week, I was rummaging in my closet for my biggest flashlight. Sam's suggestion that I needed to see Bill had been nagging at me, so after I got home from work, I resolved to take a walk across the cemetery to Bill's house.

  Sweet Home Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Renard Parish. There isn't much room left for the dead, so there's one of those new "burial parks" with flat headstones on the south side of town. I hate it. Even if the ground is uneven and the trees are all grown up and some of the fences around the plots are falling down, to say nothing of the earliest headstones, I
love Sweet Home. Jason and I had played there as kids, whenever we could escape Gran's attention.

  The route through the memorials and trees to Bill's house was second nature, from the time he'd been my very first boyfriend. The frogs and bugs were just starting up their summer singing. The racket would only build with the hotter weather. I remembered D'Eriq asking me wasn't I scared, living by a graveyard, and I smiled to myself. I wasn't afraid of the dead lying in the ground. The walking and talking dead were much more dangerous. I'd cut a rose to lay on my grandmother's grave. I felt sure she knew I was there and thinking of her.

  There was a dim light on at the old Compton house, which had been built about the same time my house had been. I rang the doorbell. Unless Bill was out in the woods roaming around, I was sure he was home since his car was there. But I had to wait some time until the creaking door swung open.

  He switched on the porch light, and I tried not to gasp. He looked awful.

  Bill had gotten infected with silver poisoning during the Fae War, thanks to the silver teeth of Neave. He'd had massive amounts of blood then - and since - from his fellow vampires, but I observed with some unease that his skin was still gray instead of white. His step was faltering, and his head hung a little forward like an old man's.

  "Sookie, come in," he said. Even his voice didn't seem as strong as it had been.

  Though his words were polite, I couldn't tell how he really felt about my visit. I can't read vampire minds, one of the reasons I'd initially been so attracted to Bill. You can imagine how intoxicating silence is after nonstop unwanted sharing.

  "Bill," I said, trying to sound less shocked than I felt. "Are you feeling better? This poison in your system . . . Is it going away?"

  I could swear he sighed. He gestured me to precede him into the living room. The lamps were off. Bill had lit candles. I counted eight. I wondered what he'd been doing, sitting alone in the flickering light. Listening to music? He loved his CDs, particularly Bach. Feeling distinctly worried, I sat on the couch, while Bill took his favorite chair across the low coffee table. He was as handsome as ever, but his face lacked animation. He was clearly suffering. Now I knew why Sam had wanted me to visit.

  "You are well?" he asked.

  "I'm much better," I said carefully. He'd seen the worst they'd done to me.

  "The scars, the . . . mutilation?"

  "The scars are there, but they're much fainter than I ever expected they'd be. The missing bits have filled in. I kind of have a dimple in this thigh," I said, tapping my left knee. "But I had plenty of thigh to spare. " I tried to smile, but truthfully, I was too concerned to manage it. "Are you getting better?" I asked again, hesitantly.

  "I'm not worse," he said. He shrugged, a minimal lift of the shoulders.

  "What's with the apathy?" I said.

  "I don't seem to want anything any longer," Bill told me, after a lengthy pause. "I'm not interested in my computer anymore. I'm not inclined to work on the incoming additions and subtractions to my database. Eric sends Felicia over to package up the orders and send them out. She gives me some blood while she's here. " Felicia was the bartender at Fangtasia. She hadn't been a vampire that long.

  Could vampires suffer from depression? Or was the silver poisoning responsible?

  "Isn't there anyone who can help you? I mean, help you heal?"

  He smiled in a sardonic sort of way. "My creator," he said. "If I could drink from Lorena, I would have healed completely by now. "

  "Well, that sucks. " I couldn't let him know that bothered me, but ouch. I'd killed Lorena. I shook the feeling off. She'd needed killing, and it was over and done with. "Did she make any other vampires?"

  Bill looked slightly less apathetic. "Yes, she did. She has another living child. "

  "Well, would that help? Getting blood from that vamp?"

  "I don't know. It might. But I won't . . . I can't reach out to her. "

  "You don't know if it would help or not? You-all need a Handy Hints rule book or something. "

  "Yes," he said, as if he'd never heard of such an idea. "Yes, we do indeed. "

  I wasn't going to ask Bill why he was reluctant to contact someone who could help him. Bill was a stubborn and persistent man, and I wasn't going to be able to persuade him otherwise since he'd made up his mind. We sat in silence for a moment.

  "Do you love Eric?" Bill said, all of a sudden. His deep brown eyes were fi xed on me with the total attention that had played a large part in attracting me to him when we'd met.

  Was everyone I knew fixated on my relationship with the sheriff of Area Five? "Yes," I said steadily. "I do love him. "

  "Does he say he loves you?"

  "Yes. " I didn't look away.

  "I wish he would die, some nights," Bill said.

  We were being really honest tonight. "There's a lot of that going around. There are a couple of people I wouldn't miss myself," I admitted. "I think about that when I'm grieving over the people I've cared about who've passed, like Claudine and Gran and Tray. " And they were just at the top of the list. "So I guess I know how you feel. But I - please don't wish bad stuff on Eric. " I'd lost about as much as I could stand to lose in the way of important people in my life.

  "Who do you want dead, Sookie?" There was a spark of curiosity in his eyes.

  "I'm not about to tell you. " I gave him a weak smile. "You might try to make it happen for me. Like you did with Uncle Bartlett. " When I'd discovered Bill had killed my grandmother's brother, who'd molested me - that's when I should have cut and run. Wouldn't my life have been different? But it was too late now.

  "You've changed," he said.

  "Sure, I have. I thought I was going to die for a couple of hours. I hurt like I've never hurt before. And Neave and Lochlan enjoyed it so much. That snapped something inside me. When you and Niall killed them, it was like an answer to the biggest prayer I'd ever prayed. I'm supposed to be a Christian, but most days I don't feel like I can even presume to say that about myself any longer. I have a lot of mad left over. When I can't sleep, I think about the other people who didn't care how much pain and trouble they caused me. And I think about how good I'd feel if they died. "

  That I could tell Bill about this awful secret part of me was a measure of how close I'd been to him.

  "I love you," he said. "Nothing you do or say will change that. If you asked me to bury a body for you - or to make a body - I would do it without a qualm. "

  "We've got some bad history between us, Bill, but you'll always have a special place in my heart. " I cringed inside when I heard the hackneyed phrase coming from my own mouth. But sometimes clich¨¦s are true; this was the truth. "I hardly feel worthy of being cared about that strongly," I admitted.

  He managed a smile. "As to your being worthy, I don't think falling in love has much to do with the worth of the object of love. But I'd dispute your assessment. I think you're a fine woman, and I think you always try to be the best person you can be. No one could be . . . carefree and sunny . . . after coming as close to death as you did. "

  I rose to leave. Sam had wanted me to see Bill, to understand his situation, and I'd done that. When Bill got up to see me to the door, I noticed he didn't have the lightning speed he'd once had. "You're going to live, right?" I asked him, suddenly frightened.

  "I think so," he said, as if it didn't make any difference one way or another. "But just in case, give me a kiss. "

  I put one arm around his neck, the arm that wasn't burdened with the flashlight, and I let him put his lips against mine. The feeling of him, the smell of him, triggered a lot of memories. For what seemed like a very long time, we stood pressed together, but instead of growing excited, I grew calmer. I was oddly conscious of my breathing - slow and steady, almost like the respiration of someone sleeping.

  I could see that
Bill looked better when I stepped away. My eyebrows flew up.

  "Your fairy blood helps me," he said.

  "I'm just an eighth fairy. And you didn't take any. "

  "Proximity," he said briefly. "The touch of skin on skin. " His lips quirked up in a smile. "If we made love, I would be much closer to being healed. "

  Bullshit, I thought. But I can't say that cool voice didn't make something leap south of my navel, in a momentary twinge of lust. "Bill, that's not gonna happen," I said. "But you should think about tracking down that other vampire child of Lorena's. "

  "Yes," he said. "Maybe. " His dark eyes were curiously luminous; that might have been an effect of the poisoning, or it might have been the candlelight. I knew he wouldn't make an effort to reach out to Lorena's other get. Whatever spark my visit had raised in him was already dying out.

  Feeling sad, concerned, and also just a tiny smidge pleased - you can't tell me it's not flattering to be loved so much, because it is - I went home through the graveyard. I patted Bill's tombstone by habit. As I walked carefully over the uneven ground, I thought about Bill, naturally enough. He'd been a Confederate soldier. He'd survived the war only to succumb to a vampire after his return home to his wife and children, a tragic end to a hard life.

  I was glad all over again that I'd killed Lorena.

  Here's something I didn't like about myself: I realized I didn't feel bad when I killed a vampire. Something inside me kept insisting they were dead already, and that the first death had been the one that was most important. When I'd killed a human I'd loathed, my reaction had been much more intense.

  Then I thought, You'd think I'd be glad that I was avoiding some pain instead of thinking I should feel worse about taking out Lorena. I hated trying to figure out what was best morally, because so often that didn't jibe with my gut reaction.

  The bottom line of all this self-examination was that I'd killed Lorena, who could have cured Bill. Bill had gotten wounded when he came to my rescue. Clearly, I had a responsibility. I'd try to figure out what to do.

  By the time I realized I'd been alone in the dark and should have been mortally afraid (at least according to D'Eriq), I was walking into my well-lit backyard. Maybe worrying about my spiritual life was a welcome distraction from reliving physical torture. Or maybe I felt better because I'd done someone a good turn; I'd hugged Bill, and that had made him feel better. When I went to bed that night, I was able to lie on my side in my favorite position instead of tossing and turning, and I slept with no dreams - at least, none that I could remember in the morning.

  For the next week, I enjoyed untroubled sleep, and as a result I began to feel much more like my former self. It was gradual, but perceptible. I hadn't thought of a way to help Bill, but I bought him a new CD (Beethoven) and put it where he'd find it when he got out of his daytime hiding place. Another day I sent him an e-card. Just so he knew I was thinking about him.

  Each time I saw Eric, I felt a little more cheerful. And finally, I had my very own orgasm, a moment so explosive it was like I'd been saving up for a holiday.

  "You . . . Are you all right?" Eric asked. His blue eyes looked down at me, and he was half-smiling, as if he weren't sure whether he should be clapping or calling an ambulance.

  "I am very, very all right," I whispered. Grammar be damned. "I'm so all right I might slide off the bed and lie in a puddle on the floor. "

  His smile became more secure. "So that was good for you? Better than it's been?"

  "You knew that . . . ?"

  He cocked an eyebrow.

  "Well, of course you knew. I just . . . had some issues that had to work themselves out. "

  "I knew it couldn't be my lovemaking, wife of mine," Eric said, and though the words were cocky, his expression was definitely on the relieved side.

  "Don't call me your wife. You know our so-called marriage is just strategy. To get back to your previous statement. A-one lovemaking, Eric. " I had to give credit where credit was due. "The no-orgasm problem was in my head. Now I've self-corrected. "

  "You are bullshitting me, Sookie," he murmured. "But I'll show you some A-one lovemaking. Because I think you can come again. "

  As it turned out, I could.
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