BILL BROUGHT A date into Merlotte's that night. I assumed this was payback for my kissing Sam, or maybe I was just being proud. This possible payback was in the form of a woman from Clarice. I'd seen her in the bar before every once in a while. She was a slim brunette with shoulder-length hair, and Danielle could hardly wait to tell me she was Selah Pumphrey, a real estate saleswoman who'd gotten the million-dollar sales award the year before.
I hated her instantly, utterly, and passionately.
So I smiled as brightly as a thousand-watt bulb and brought them Bill's warm TrueBlood and her cold screwdriver quick as a wink. I didn't spit in the screwdriver, either. That was beneath me, I told myself. Also, I didn't have enough privacy.
Not only was the bar crowded, but Charles was eyeing me watchfully. The pirate was in fine form tonight, wearing a white shirt with billowing sleeves and navy blue Dockers, a bright scarf pulled through the belt loops for a dash of color. His eye patch matched the Dockers, and it was embroidered with a gold star. This was as exotic as Bon Temps could get.
Sam beckoned me over to his tiny table, which we'd wedged into a corner. He had his bad leg propped up on another chair. "Are you all right, Sookie?" Sam murmured, turning away from the crowd at the bar so no one could even read his lips.
"Sure, Sam!" I gave him an amazed expression. "Why not?" At that moment, I hated him for kissing me, and I hated me for responding.
He rolled his eyes and smiled for a fleeting second. "I think I've solved your housing problem," he said to distract me. "I'll tell you later." I hurried off to take an order. We were swamped that night. The warming weather and the attraction of a new bartender had combined to fill Merlotte's with the optimistic and the curious.
I'd left Bill, I reminded myself proudly. Though he'd cheated on me, he hadn't wanted us to break up. I had to keep telling myself that, so I wouldn't hate everyone present who was witnessing my humiliation. Of course, none of the people knew any of the circumstances, so they were free to imagine that Bill had dropped me for this brunette bitch. Which was so not the case.
I stiffened my back, broadened my smile, and hustled drinks. After the first ten minutes, I began to relax and see that I was behaving like a fool. Like millions of couples, Bill and I had broken up. Naturally, he'd begun dating someone else. If I'd had the normal run of boyfriends, starting when I was thirteen or fourteen, my relationship with Bill would just be another in a long line of relationships that hadn't panned out. I'd be able to take this in stride, or at least in perspective.
I had no perspective. Bill was my first love, in every sense.
The second time I brought drinks to their table, Selah Pumphrey looked at me uneasily when I beamed at her. "Thanks," she said uncertainly.
"Don't mention it," I advised her through clenched teeth, and she blanched.
Bill turned away. I hoped he wasn't hiding a smile. I went back to the bar.
Charles said, "Shall I give her a good scare, if she spends the night with him?"
I'd been standing behind the bar with him, staring into the glass-fronted refrigerator we kept back there. It held soft drinks, bottled blood, and sliced lemons and limes. I'd come to get a slice of lemon and a cherry to put on a Tom Collins, and I'd just stayed. He was entirely too perceptive.
"Yes, please," I said gratefully. The vampire pirate was turning into an ally. He'd saved me from burning, he'd killed the man who'd set fire to my house, and now he was offering to scare Bill's date. You had to like that.
"Consider her terrified," he said in a courtly way, bowing with a florid sweep of his arm, his other hand on his heart.
"Oh, you," I said with a more natural smile, and got out the bowl of sliced lemons.
It took every ounce of self-control I had to stay out of Selah Pumphrey's head. I was proud of myself for making the effort.
To my horror, the next time the door opened, Eric came in. My heart rate picked up immediately, and I felt almost faint. I was going to have to stop reacting like this. I wished I could forget our "time together" (as one of my favorite romance novels might term it) as thoroughly as Eric had. Maybe I should track down a witch, or a hypnotherapist, and give myself a dose of amnesia. I bit down on the inside of my cheek, hard, and carried two pitchers of beer over to a table of young couples who were celebrating the promotion of one of the men to supervisor - of someone, somewhere.
Eric was talking to Charles when I turned around, and though vampires can be pretty stone-faced when they're dealing with each other, it seemed apparent to me that Eric wasn't happy with his loaned-out bartender. Charles was nearly a foot shorter than his boss, and his head was tilted up as they talked. But his back was stiff, his fangs protruded a bit, and his eyes were glowing. Eric was pretty scary when he was mad, too. He was now definitely looking toothy. The humans around the bar were tending to find something to do somewhere else in the room, and any minute they'd start finding something to do at some other bar.
I saw Sam grabbing at a cane - an improvement over the crutches - so he could get up and go over to the pair, and I sped over to his table in the corner. "You stay put," I told him in a very firm low voice. "Don't you think about intervening."
I heel and toed it over to the bar. "Hi, Eric! How you doing? Is there anything I can help you with?" I smiled up at him.
"Yes. I need to talk to you, too," he growled.
"Then why don't you come with me? I was just going to step out back to take a break," I offered.
I took hold of his arm and towed him through the door and down the hall to the employees' entrance. We were outside in the night-cold air before you could say Jack Robinson.
"You better not be about to tell me what to do," I said instantly. "I've had enough of that for one day, and Bill's in here with a woman, and I lost my kitchen. I'm in a bad mood." I underlined this by squeezing Eric's arm, which was like gripping a small tree trunk.
"I care nothing about your mood," he said instantly, and he was showing fang. "I pay Charles Twining to watch you and keep you safe, and who hauls you out of the fire? A fairy. While Charles is out in the yard, killing the fire setter rather than saving his hostess's life. Stupid Englishman!"
"He's supposed to be here as a favor to Sam. He's supposed to be here helping Sam out." I peered at Eric doubtfully.
"Like I give a damn about a shifter," the vampire said impatiently.
I stared up at him.
"There's something about you," Eric said. His voice was cold, but his eyes were not. "There is something I am almost on the verge of knowing about you, and it's under my skin, this feeling that something happened while I was cursed, something I should know about. Did we have sex, Sookie? But I can't think that was it, or it alone. Something happened. Your coat was ruined with brain tissue. Did I kill someone, Sookie? Is that it? You're protecting me from what I did while I was cursed?" His eyes were glowing like lamps in the darkness.
I'd never thought he might be wondering whom he'd killed. But frankly, if it had occurred to me, I wouldn't have thought Eric would care; what difference would one human life make to a vampire as old as this one? But he seemed mighty upset. Now that I understood what he was worried about, I said, "Eric, you did not kill anyone at my house that night." I stopped short.
"You have to tell me what happened." He bent a little to look into my face. "I hate not knowing what I did. I've had a life longer than you can even imagine, and I remember every second of it, except for those days I spent with you."
"I can't make you remember," I said as calmly as I could. "I can only tell you that you stayed with me for several days, and then Pam came to get you."
Eric stared into my eyes a little longer. "I wish I could get in your head and get the truth out of you," he said, which alarmed me more than I wanted to show. "You've had my blood. I can tell you're concealing things from me." After a moment's silence, he said, "I wish I knew who's trying to kill you. And I hear you had a visit from some private detectives. What did they want of you?"
"Who told you that?" Now I had something else to worry about. Someone was informing on me. I could feel my blood pressure rise. I wondered if Charles was reporting to Eric every night.
"Is this something to do with the woman who's missing, that bitch the Were loved so much? Are you protecting him? If I didn't kill her, did he? Did she die in front of us?"
Eric had gripped my shoulders, and the pressure was excruciating.
"Listen, you're hurting me! Let go."
Eric's grip loosened, but he didn't remove his hands.
My breath began to come faster and shallower, and the air was full of the crackling of danger. I was sick to death of being threatened.
"Tell me now," he demanded.
He would have power over me for the rest of my life if I told him he'd seen me kill someone. Eric already knew more about me than I wanted him to, because I'd had his blood, and he'd had mine. Now I rued our blood exchange more than ever. Eric was sure I was concealing something important.
"You were so sweet when you didn't know who you were," I said, and whatever he'd been expecting me to say, it wasn't that. Astonishment played tag with outrage across his handsome face. Finally, he was amused.
"Sweet?" he said, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile.
"Very," I said, trying to smile back. "We gossiped like old buddies." My shoulders ached. Probably everyone in the bar needed a new drink. But I couldn't go back in just yet. "You were scared and alone, and you liked to talk to me. It was fun having you around."
"Fun," he said thoughtfully. "I'm not fun now?"
"No, Eric. You're too busy being... yourself." Head boss vampire, political animal, budding tycoon.
He shrugged. "Is myself so bad? Many women seem to think not."
"I'm sure they do." I was tired to the bone.
The back door opened. "Sookie, are you all right?" Sam had hobbled to my rescue. His face was stiff with pain.
"Shifter, she doesn't need your assistance," Eric said.
Sam didn't say anything. He just kept Eric's attention.
"I was rude," Eric said, not exactly apologetically, but civilly enough. "I'm on your premises. I'll be gone. Sookie," he said to me, "we haven't finished this conversation, but I see this isn't the time or place."
"I'll see you," I said, since I knew I had no choice.
Eric melted into the darkness, a neat trick that I'd love to master someday.
"What is he so upset about?" Sam asked. He hobbled out of the doorway and leaned against the wall.
"He doesn't remember what happened while he was cursed," I said, speaking slowly out of sheer weariness. "That makes him feel like he's lost control. Vampires are big on having control. I guess you noticed."
Sam smiled - a small smile, but genuine. "Yes, that had come to my attention," he admitted. "I'd also noticed they're pretty possessive."
"You're referring to Bill's reaction when he walked in on us?" Sam nodded. "Well, he seems to have gotten over it."
"I think he's just repaying you in kind."
I felt awkward. Last night, I'd been on the verge of going to bed with Sam. But I was far from feeling passionate at this moment, and Sam's leg had been hurt badly in his fall. He didn't look as if he could romance a rag doll, much less a robust woman like me. I knew it was wrong to think of indulging in some sex play with my boss, though Sam and I had been teetering on a fine edge for months. Coming down on the "no" side was the safest, sanest thing to do. Tonight, particularly after the emotionally jangling events of the past hour, I wanted to be safe.
"He stopped us in time," I said.
Sam raised a fine red-gold eyebrow. "Did you want to be stopped?"
"Not at that moment," I admitted. "But I guess it was for the best."
Sam just looked at me for a moment. "What I was going to tell you, though I was going to wait until after the bar closed, is that one of my rental houses is empty right now. It's the one next to - well, you remember, the one where Dawn..."
"Died," I finished.
"Right. I had that one redone, and it's rented out now. So you'd have a neighbor, and you're not used to that. But the empty side is furnished. You'd only have to bring a few linens, your clothes, and some pots and pans." Sam smiled. "You could get that in a car. By the way, where'd you get this?" He nodded at the Malibu.
I told him how generous Tara had been, and I also told him I was worried about her. I repeated the warning Eric had given me about Mickey.
When I saw how anxious Sam looked, I felt like a selfish creep for burdening him with all this. Sam had enough to worry about. I said, "I'm sorry. You don't need to hear more troubles. Come on, let's go back inside."
Sam stared at me. "I do need to sit down," he said after a moment.
"Thanks for the rental. Of course I'll pay you. I'm so glad to have a place to live where I can come and go without bothering anyone! How much is it? I think my insurance will pay for me renting a place to live while my house is being fixed."
Sam gave me a hard look, and then named a price that I was sure was well below his usual rate. I slid my arm around him because his limp was so bad. He accepted the help without a struggle, which made me think even better of him. He hobbled down the hall with my help and settled in the rolling chair behind his desk with a sigh. I pushed over one of the visitor chairs so he could put his leg up on it if he wanted, and he used it immediately. Under the strong fluorescent light in his office, my boss looked haggard.
"Get back to work," he said mock-threateningly. "I'll bet they're mobbing Charles."
The bar was just as chaotic as I'd feared, and I began tending to my tables immediately. Danielle shot me a dirty look, and even Charles looked less than happy. But gradually, moving as fast as I could, I served fresh drinks, took away empty glasses, dumped the occasional ashtray, wiped the sticky tables, and smiled at and spoke to as many people as I could. I could kiss my tips good-bye, but at least peace was restored.
Bit by bit, the pulse of the bar slowed and returned to normal. Bill and his date were deep in conversation, I noticed... though I made a great effort not to keep glancing their way. To my dismay, every single time I saw them as a couple, I felt a wave of rage that did not speak well for my character. For another thing, though my feelings were a matter of indifference to almost ninety percent of the bar's patrons, the other ten percent were watching like hawks to see if Bill's date was making me suffer. Some of them would be glad to see it, and some wouldn't - but it was no one's business, either way.
As I was cleaning off a table that had just been vacated, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I picked up a foreshadowing just as I turned, and that enabled me to keep my smile in place. Selah Pumphrey was waiting for my attention, her own smile bright and armor plated.
She was taller than I, and perhaps ten pounds lighter. Her makeup was expensive and expert, and she smelled like a million bucks. I reached out and touched her brain without even thinking twice.
Selah was thinking she had it all over me, unless I was fantastic in bed. Selah thought that lower-class women must always be better in bed, because they were less inhibited. She knew she was slimmer, was smarter, made more money, and was far more educated and better read than the waitress she was looking at. But Selah Pumphrey doubted her own sexual skill and had a terror of making herself vulnerable. I blinked. This was more than I wanted to know.
It was interesting to discover that (in Selah's mind) since I was poor and uneducated, I was more in touch with my nature as a sexual being. I'd have to tell all the other poor people in Bon Temps. Here we'd been having a wonderful time screwing one another, having much better sex than smart upper-class people, and we hadn't even appreciated it.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Where is the ladies' room?" she asked.
"Through that door there. The one with 'Restrooms' on the sign above it." I should be grateful I was clever enough to read signs.
"Oh! Sorry, I didn't notice."
I just waited.
"So, um, you got any tips for me? About dating a vampire?" She waited, looking nervous and defiant all at once.
"Sure," I said. "Don't eat any garlic." And I turned away from her to wipe down the table.
Once I was certain she was out of the room, I swung around to carry two empty beer mugs to the bar, and when I turned back, Bill was standing there. I gave a gasp of surprise. Bill has dark brown hair and of course the whitest skin you can imagine. His eyes are as dark as his hair. Right at the moment, those eyes were fixed on mine.
"Why did she talk to you?" he asked.
"Wanted to know the way to the bathroom."
He cocked an eyebrow, glancing up at the sign.
"She just wanted to take my measure," I said. "At least, that's my guess." I felt oddly comfortable with Bill at that moment, no matter what had passed between us.
"Did you scare her?"
"I didn't try to."
"Did you scare her?" he asked again in a sterner voice. But he smiled at me.
"No," I said. "Did you want me to?"
He shook his head in mock disgust. "Are you jealous?"
"Yes." Honesty was always safest. "I hate her skinny thighs and her elitist attitude. I hope she's a dreadful bitch who makes you so miserable that you howl when you remember me."
"Good," said Bill. "That's good to hear." He gave me a brush of lips on my cheek. At the touch of his cool flesh, I shivered, remembering. He did, too. I saw the heat flare in his eyes, the fangs begin to run out. Then Catfish Hunter yelled to me to stir my stumps and bring him another bourbon and Coke, and I walked away from my first lover.
It had been a long, long day, not only from a physical-energy-expended measurement, but also from an emotional-depths-plumbed point of view. When I let myself into my brother's house, there were giggles and squeakings coming from his bedroom, and I deduced Jason was consoling himself in the usual way. Jason might be upset that his new community suspected him of a foul crime, but he was not so upset that it affected his libido.
I spent as brief a time in the bathroom as I could and went into the guest room, shutting the door firmly behind me. Tonight the couch looked a lot more inviting than it had the evening before. As I curled up on my side and pulled the quilt over me, I realized that the woman spending the night with my brother was a shifter; I could feel it in the faint pulsing redness of her brain.
I hoped she was Crystal Norris. I hoped Jason had somehow persuaded the girl that he had nothing to do with the shootings. If Jason wanted to compound his troubles, the best way possible would be to cheat on Crystal, the woman he'd chosen from the werepanther community. And surely even Jason wasn't that stupid. Surely.
He wasn't. I met Crystal in the kitchen the next morning after ten o'clock. Jason was long gone, since he had to be at work by seven forty-five. I was drinking my first mug of coffee when Crystal stumbled in, wearing one of Jason's shirts, her face blurry with sleep.
Crystal was not my favorite person, and I was not hers, but she said, "Morning" civilly enough. I agreed that it was morning, and I got out a mug for her. She grimaced and got out a glass, filling it with ice and then Coca-Cola. I shuddered.
"How's your uncle?" I asked, when she seemed conscious.
"He's doing better," she said. "You ought to go see him. He liked having you visit."
"I guess you're sure Jason didn't shoot him."
"I am," she said briefly. "I didn't want to talk to him at first, but once he got me on the phone, he just talked his way out of me suspecting him."
I wanted to ask her if the other inhabitants of Hotshot were willing to give Jason the benefit of the doubt, but I hated to bring up a touchy subject.
I thought of what I had to do today: I had to go get enough clothes, some sheets and blankets, and some kitchen gear from the house, and get those things installed in Sam's duplex.
Moving into a small, furnished place was a perfect solution to my housing problem. I had forgotten Sam owned several small houses on Berry Street, three of them duplexes. He worked on them himself, though sometimes he hired JB du Rone, a high school friend of mine, to do simple repairs and maintenance chores. Simple was the best way to keep it, with JB.
After I retrieved my things, I might have time to go see Calvin. I showered and dressed, and Crystal was sitting in the living room watching TV when I left. I assumed that was okay with Jason.
Terry was hard at work when I pulled into the clearing. I walked around back to check his progress, and I was delighted to see he'd done more than I'd have thought possible. He smiled when I said so, and paused in loading broken boards into his truck. "Tearing down is always easier than building up," he said. This was no big philosophical statement, but a builder's summary. "I should be done in two more days, if nothing happens to slow me down. There's no rain in the forecast."
"Great. How much will I owe you?"
"Oh," he muttered, shrugging and looking embarrassed. "A hundred? Fifty?"
"No, not enough." I ran a quick estimate of his hours in my head, multiplied. "More like three."
"Sookie, I'm not charging you that much." Terry got his stubborn face on. "I wouldn't charge you anything, but I got to get a new dog."
Terry bought a very expensive Catahoula hunting dog about every four years. He wasn't turning in the old models for new ones. Something always seemed to happen to Terry's dogs, though he took great care of them. After he'd had thefirst hound about three years, a truck had hit him. Someone had fed poisoned meat to the second. The third one, the one he'd named Molly, had gotten snake-bit, and the bite had turned septic. For months now, Terry had been on the list for one in the next litter born at the kennel in Clarice that bred Catahoulas.
"You bring that puppy around for me to hug," I suggested, and he smiled. Terry was at his best in the outdoors, I realized for the first time. He always seemed more comfortable mentally and physically when he was not under a roof, and when he was outside with a dog, he seemed quite normal.
I unlocked the house and went in to gather what I might need. It was a sunny day, so the absence of electric light wasn't a problem. I filled a big plastic laundry basket with two sets of sheets and an old chenille bedspread, some more clothes, and a few pots and pans. I would have to get a new coffeepot. My old one had melted.
And then, standing there looking out the window at the coffeemaker, which I'd pitched to the top of the trash heap, I understood how close I'd come to dying. The realization hit me broadside.
One minute I was standing at my bedroom window, looking out at the misshaped bit of plastic; the next I was sitting on the floor, staring at the painted boards and trying to breathe.
Why did it hit me now, after three days? I don't know. Maybe there was something about the way the Mr. Coffee looked: cord charred, plastic warped with the heat. The plastic had literally bubbled. I looked at the skin of my hands and shuddered. I stayed on the floor, shivering and shaking, for an unmeasured bit of time. For the first minute or two after that, I had no thoughts at all. The closeness of my brush with death simply overwhelmed me.
Claudine had not only most probably saved my life; she had certainly saved me from pain so excruciating that I would have wanted to be dead. I owed her a debt I would never be able to repay.
Maybe she really was my fairy godmother.
I got up, shook myself. Grabbing up the plastic basket, I left to go move into my new home.
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