Wal-Mart was an adventure.
Of course, I’d never set foot in one… and Sookie decided to help me fit in.
She mussed my hair and rolled up the cuffs of my jeans.
I wanted to call Pam and tell her that no one noticed. No one. Not a single fucking person looked twice at my bare feet even though I was in public.
And to push the point that ‘Wal-Mart customers didn’t give a fig as long as lil’uns were in check’, our cart included a sleeping bag, a box of condoms and a large bottle of baby oil with the clothing items I needed.
The cashier didn’t seem to notice the implication, but he did complain about needing approval before he could accept a hundred-dollar bill.
I wasn’t sure anything else could be so hilarious and frightening.
Of course my reward was information… Sookie finally told me (while we were waiting for a manager to approve of the large denomination) why Jason preferred a sample of salt. Massages needed masseuses, and he didn’t need to worry about being ‘too relaxed’ by the salt because he could enjoy that in private.
I’d managed to keep a straight face when I overheard a woman’s fashionable plans for a curtain panel… and when the customer in line ahead of us bought several bottles of Metabolife for his wife’s anniversary gift… but seeing how quickly Sookie turned red when I mentioned that ‘too relaxed’ hadn’t been a problem for me, made me laugh hard enough that she left me standing at the checkout and practically ran to her car.
She was still blushing when I reached her little rattling death trap…
While I stood next to the car to pull on my new Fruit Of The Loom socks and Brahma boots, I chuckled, “You really are very shy, aren’t you?”
I donned my reversible hunter-orange/camouflage sweatshirt (bought as my souvenir of Louisiana because I was sure I’d never seen anything so hideous), and when I sat in the front seat, Sookie was covering her face. Her ears were glowing.
“What? I’m not sure I understand the contrast between you and the other Sookie.”
She groaned into her hands, “Other than the telepathy thing?”
“No. I didn’t rise knowing everything about being a Vampire. I didn’t know what I was capable of until I was pushed. I understand that aspect very well. It’s the contrast between your personalities that confuses me. She’s very blasé about sexual matters, but you’re very reserved.”
“I don’t know… It might have to do with the fact that her first boyfriend, first real boyfriend, had his own shields, so she didn’t have to deal with interference.”
“Shields? Another telepath?”
She shrugged as she backed out of the parking space. “Yeah. She met him at a college I didn’t go to.”
“And your shields have a direct bearing on your modesty somehow? Do you see how I’m confused?”
She took a deep breath and sighed… and seemed to be completely concentrated on the red light that was keeping us from turning onto the relatively deserted road.
Once the light turned green, she finally offered, “I’m sure you’ve heard of guys thinking about something to distract them… baseball or something trivial…”
“The inane tantric exercise that supposedly delays cumming.”
Her blush flared up again.
She choked, “Yeah… and… there’s a difference between what people think and how they say what’s on their mind. Dates don’t really… I mean when a guy is trying to…”
“Are you struggling because of the topic or because of your audience?”
She whimpered without looking in my direction. “Ummmm… like… I mean, would you rather hear, ‘those jeans look great on you,’ or ‘what kind of underwear are you wearing?’ It’s…”
“I don’t wear underwear with jeans. I only ever wear any when I’m wearing something lightweight like a silk suit…” I knew what she meant, but it was still fun to see her struggling with my answer. “What kind of underwear are you wearing?”
“I’m wear- That’s not what I meant.”
“Really? I think those jeans look great on you.”
“Damn it, Eric! I mean… On my last date, I listened to an hour of dirty-brain-soup. Tan lines and panties and nipple color- Why do guys spend so much time thinking about nipples? And which rumors about me are true and… and the prideful swaggering crap is absolutely insane… and who the hell would be attracted to anyone who would say things like that? But I don’t have the luxury of hearing how they put things. I have to hear it in the raw… I actually have fun being on the outside of it. It makes me feel better to eavesdrop on first dates just because I know it’s not just me, that it happens on both sides of a date and I’m not inspiring the weirdness… but…”
She was preaching to the wrong choir if she wanted sympathy.
“If it makes you feel better, my last ‘date’ was to a formal affair, and I glamoured her to stop speaking to me before we were out of the limo… I want to hear about the prideful swaggering.”
She glanced at me briefly before she sighed, “You probably don’t.”
“I really do. When we’re finished with your brother, we can find a movie theater, and you can offer inside information about any dates we come across. It could be fun.”
She giggled, “You’re a people-watcher?”
“No. I’m a reader, but Pam and I occasionally meet for ‘drinks’ as spectators… Edward and Richard like to cause yawn epidemics on trains. We find little ways to amuse ourselves. Tell me about the prideful swaggering.”
She scoffed, “Stuff like… gross overestimations of anatomy. I don’t exactly have a big frame, so… compatibility is called into question.”
I chuckled, “That was probably the most eloquent sugarcoating I’ve ever heard, but to be clear, you mean men usually wonder if their gargantuan cocks will cause permanent damage to your body, yes?”
She cringed enough to close her eyes for a moment. “Yeah. That.”
“You need to adjust your perspective then. I’d date more often if I could amuse myself with what they’re thinking.”
“I’m sure you’d get sick of it after a while.”
“I doubt that. It would actually save me a lot of time if I knew which ones want to fuck me versus the ones who want to domesticate me.”
She cut her eyes in my direction and shook her head. “I’m willing to admit that I need a fresh perspective, but can you think of anything more comfortable to talk about?”
“I’m sure I could, but you should do something about the fact that you’re uncomfortable talking about something that will most likely relax you.”
“A backrub might relax me.”
“Are you asking for one?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed, “No. I was just… Nevermind.”
“So back to the dates…”
“I was just wondering, if you know that it isn’t just you, why is it a hindrance to hear the inner workings of your dates? Does it really matter if he’s wondering if your nipples are pink when he’s already staring at them as though he has x-ray vision?”
“You’re really persistent.”
She huffed, “It’s not the small talk that’s so bad… but… It’s hard to get into anything when the person you’re with is trying to coach themselves and trying to distract themselves and trying to sugarcoat…”
“Give me an example.”
“I’m sure you’re just too bashful to say it in spite of the fact that you admitted to needing a change of perspective. I’m helping you.”
She giggled, “Liar… You’re so full of crap… I’m sure you’ve thought the same exact things every other guy has.”
“Are you comparing me to a first date you wouldn’t fuck?”
“No. Ever think, ‘what’s the best way to get her to fill-in-the-blank?’ when you’re with a ‘date’?”
“Of course. Anal usually takes-”
She suddenly swung her arm around to slap my shoulder, and shrieked, “Eric!”
I finished, “Convincing… Why did you slap me?”
“Because now you’re trying to embarrass me for fun.”
“Actually, I was responding to your honesty with a candid answer. Should I not?”
“Why in God’s name did you have to go there?”
“Because assholes are usually tight and aren’t naturally lubricated…”
“NO! Not that! That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean then?”
“I meant that there has to be something else you’ve convinced a date to…”
“That time was on purpose.”
I chuckled, “That time… So you’ve covered the self-coaching. You mentioned that they distract themselves… and sugarcoating…”
“Right, and the distractions are usually pretty disgusting…”
“Sometimes, like scary movie bloodbaths and stuff… or naked fat people… or…” She snickered, “a dog eating its own sick.”
“Delightful… And the sugarcoating?”
“Stuff like offering to go to Mimosa Lake for the peace and quiet because they know I live with my grandmother… when they’re checking off a mental list of stuff they have in the back of the truck. Blanket, six-pack, condoms.”
She reached over again, but instead of slapping me, she covered my mouth and giggled, “I trust you. I’m sure you got it…”
I licked her palm, and when she snatched her hand away, she swatted my shoulder.
She laughed, “How mature!”
“Were you under the impression that I’m rated for all audiences?”
“Stop being a pervert so I can get my game-face on… I can’t exactly confront Sam while I’m so red I look like I should be served with melted butter.”
“Did you do that intentionally?”
“Draw a direct line to you being served oiled up? The imagery is spectacular.”
She gasped, “I. Did. Not. Do. That!”
“So it was accidental.”
“You should probably stop talking. The strain in your voice just then…”
“Really. I warned you.”
She glanced in my direction and opened her mouth to say something, but then thought better of it.
After several more glances, she mumbled, “Nevermind that I told you to shut up first. Turd.”
I was still picturing it… just Sookie and my little bottle of massage oil… when she slowed down and turned on the turn signal.
Once she parked, she leaned back in her seat and took a deep breath before closing her eyes…
I watched her facial expressions change in small increments for a minute or two before I asked, “What are you doing?”
She sighed, “Trying to figure out how the hell the other Me can do this… I’m looking for Sam so I don’t waltz into Merlotte’s with a Vampire, probably the first Vampire most of the locals have ever seen, if I don’t have to.”
“You’re tapping the minds of the customers… checking for the last time they noticed him?”
“More like a frog bouncing from lily pad to lily pad. I’m looking for the one- Got him. He’s in his office. We’ll go through the back door.”
“A lily pad?”
“Yeah… I bounced from one mind to the next, looking for the Shifter. Their minds aren’t like Humans’.”
“So you were sifting?”
She nodded. “I could have found a specific Human too, but that might have taken a while… Are you going to behave?”
I followed her from the car and answered, “Probably not.”
She glanced over her shoulder and shook her head. “I don’t even know why I bothered asking.”
“I behave once in a while.”
She was giggling when she heaved open the back door, and we were immediately met by a redheaded waitress with a milkshake in her hand.
“Hey Sook. What are you doing here?”
“I just came by to talk to Sam. Is he around?”
The waitress held the milkshake out to Sookie and nodded. “Yeah, and he’s got his monster in the office with him… This is the third milkshake I made. The others were wrong. Maybe you can get her to take this one.”
Sookie narrowed her eyes and snorted, “My ass,” and left me standing in the hallway as she charged into the kitchen.
The waitress clenched her jaw and showed her teeth anxiously. “I think Sook’s the only one that our boss’s little girl doesn’t control like a puppet. It’s a wonder that little girl isn’t as wide as she is tall with all the ice cream and treats she cons everyone to give her…”
Sookie shouted from wherever she’d gone, “I just know how to push the right buttons. Arlene, that’s my friend Eric… Eric, I’ve known Arlene for years. She trained me to wait tables when I started here.”
A pusher? I couldn’t help but wonder if Sookie had known all along or if our meeting had helped her piece together the puzzle. She’d only mentioned that Della Merlotte’s mind was like her father’s when she’d talked to Adele and Jason.
While I shook Arlene’s hand, I heard someone ask Sookie if he should make fries or onion rings.
I offered, “She sounds like an insufferable brat,” just hoping for more details.
Arlene widened her eyes and nodded. “Every time I see her, I go home and give my babies an extra kiss. Sookie’s the only one who can tell her no… She’s like that little turd from the Twilight Zone movie. The one everyone’s afraid to say no to.”
Sookie huffed, “Don’t be like that, Arlene. It’s not like she’s ever thrown a tantrum. Y’all are just suckers for her dimples.”
Sookie emerged from the kitchen with a plate… a sandwich, a cup of fruit, and a glass of milk… she handed the items to Arlene and tilted her head to have me follow them…
Sookie winked at me, waiting at the office door while Arlene walked in with the food.
The first thing to be heard was a little voice. “Fanx Miss Ah’wene, but were’s m’millsake?”
Arlene answered, “I thought you should have a real meal before you put all that sugar in your tummy.”
The little girl replied, “But now you’ll make m’millsake, white?”
“Right. I’ll be right back.”
Sookie took my hand and stepped into the office, snorting, “I don’t think so, boss lady… Tell Arlene not to worry about it because you probably won’t have room after you eat from the other food groups.”
The little girl gave Sookie a playfully thwarted look and relieved Arlene of the milkshake errand without argument… she didn’t seem like a brat at all… just a little girl who was taking advantage of her ability.
Meanwhile, Papa Bear looked like he was going to need fresh panties because of the Vampire in his office. He probably didn’t notice that his daughter was waving at me like she knew me.
Arlene shook her head and mumbled, “I don’t know how the heck she does it,” as she left the office, and Sookie closed the door behind her, introducing me matter-of-factly. She joined the little girl at the coffee table and moved the Barbies and horses out of the way to pull the girl’s dinner closer to her.
Della had already taken several bites of her sandwich when Merlotte finally asked, “Sookie, what’s this about?”
Sookie offered, “I got an anonymous message on my answering machine… Does she know?”
Merlotte looked back and forth between Sookie and his daughter several times before turning to me, “Did Mata send you as backup or something?”
Cute. Mata’utia, issuing orders to me?
Sookie scoffed, “Thanks a lot, Sam. Why didn’t you say something?”
“I tried… It’s not like I could come right out… Look…”
The little girl offered, “My name’s Della… shore fer Delhoosay.”
Sookie raised an eyebrow at Merlotte, making him fidget uncomfortably. “Sookie…”
“Just tell the story, Sam.”
He took several deep breaths before starting, “Hadley called me when Della was born… She said there was a problem, and she couldn’t keep Della with her. She asked me to take her, asked me to figure out a way to make sure y’all knew her without telling y’all why because it wouldn’t be permanent… Of course I’m pissed as hell that her Master was making her get rid of her kid… Turns out, he’d lined up that stupid-ass reality show before he met Hadley, and they didn’t want her in the thick of things with popularity and all… And she… well, they were bonded by the time Della was born, so when she tried to just sneak out of the limelight, she didn’t do so well…”
Knowing Hadley was empathic, that made sense… As long as Pam and I had been together, long distances weren’t something we endured often. If Hadley was bonded to a Vampire, they’d most likely spiral into uselessness the longer they were apart. It probably didn’t have as much to do with how well Hadley reacted to the distance, as it did with how distracted Mata’utia was.
Merlotte puffed out his cheeks and leaned back in his chair. “Della goes to see Hadley all the time. During those ‘Vampire business’ meetings he goes to when the cameras aren’t allowed to follow him, they fly through a little airfield and then disappear to some quiet place near Natchez… They spoil her rotten and then bring her back to me.”
Della argued, “Dey don’ ‘poil me! Uncle Mata takes us ridin’ an’ Mommy craps wiff me.”
Sam corrected, “Crafts.”
“Nope. Uncle Mata sez arts an’ craps. Is funny.”
Sookie giggled, but Merlotte snorted, “It’s not that funny…”
Someone was jealous.
Merlotte continued, “So… I took egg drop soup to Linda when she was sick as an excuse for Della to see her. I use every excuse I can think of so Mrs. Stackhouse and you can babysit her… I’ve been doing my best. Hadley said Mata’utia is planning to hire a Sheriff for New Orleans once the show runs its course, and they’re going to settle up here. She didn’t want anyone to be strangers.”
Sookie sighed, “And you’re going to give Della back to her mom once they move?”
His lip turned up when he answered, “When she’s bonded to a guy like Mata, I don’t really have much choice.”
“Gran knows. Jason knows…”
“Shit! Mata will flip his lid! The only reason that asshole lets me have anything to do with her is because he’s worried about her being used as leverage. That’s why no one in town was supposed to know until he moved up here. He doesn’t trust damage control to anyone else.”
If he was that pragmatic, why the fuck was he letting Nevada rot?
Della corrected, “Him wuzza orphan… Him sez famlee’s portn’t.”
Merlotte rolled his eyes.
Sookie kissed the top of Della’s head and offered, “And he probably knows you’re going to need your daddy’s help when you start shifting.”
Della gasped, “NO WAY! You can tell!”
Sookie nodded. “Yup. Boss lady, your mind is like your daddy’s… and judging from what I’ve heard, your little affinity for horses might be a clue.”
Merlotte’s eyes were dangerously close to falling out of their sockets.
I asked, “Scandinavian roots, Merlotte?”
He choked, “French… One of my great-grandparents was a Horse but- Sookie?”
She gave him the most innocently inquisitive look… As though she didn’t know what was going through his mind… Even I knew he was trying to figure out how long she’d known he was a Shifter.
“Gran and Jason are dying for news. Since you’re working, mind if I take her back to the house with us?”
He glanced at me for a moment before asking, “Us? You want me to let you…”
Before he could finish suggesting I’d harm his daughter, Sookie grabbed one of Della’s horses and rifled it through the air… leaving two miniature hoof prints on his forehead.
“Yeah. I want you to let me take boss lady over to my house… Since I’m off tonight… And I’m quitting, so you need to write an ad for new waitresses in the paper…”
“I think I’ve hit the glass ceiling as a waitress.”
He narrowed his eyes and shook his head slightly as he turned for his phone.
Sookie didn’t show any reaction as Merlotte dialed… Instead, she urged Della to eat her sandwich because Adele was making pie, and began tidying up the girl’s toys.
A man’s voice answered, “Merlotte.”
“Mata’utia, I have a problem… company… A Vampire…”
“Did he identify himself?”
“Sookie said his name is Eric Northman.”
“Eric the North Man is there? With Sookie?”
“And they know.”
After a pause, Mata’utia ordered, “Put him on.”
For some reason, Merlotte looked like a proud little tattletale as he held the phone out to me… as though Mata’utia could do anything from New Orleans.
I took the phone and greeted, “Your Majesty.”
He chuckled, “I usually hate hearing that… but coming from you, it’s actually flattering. It’s an honor to speak to you.”
That wasn’t anything close to what I expected. I expected anxious posturing. I was in the room with his bonded pet’s child.
I lied, “Likewise.”
“Am I to assume you found yourself in Bon Temps under strange circumstances?”
He was familiar with the braid… all the more reason to hide Della.
Sookie’s eyes widened.
“You could say that. I’m wearing hunter-orange.”
He chuckled, “I’m very sorry to hear that… Are you visiting Della with safety concerns?”
“Sookie wished to confirm the information she received. What measures have been taken?”
“It might take a few nights, but if you feel as though she’s been exposed, I can have her extracted and Merlotte can be… altered to comply.”
It was a shame he was already a king… at his age, he might be ripe for Knighthood given how tactical he was.
“We don’t have any reason to believe that right now. Merlotte called you when Sookie suggested she take the girl to the Stackhouse home to have a more honest meeting with her family.”
“We’re concerned about the perception in Bon Temps, given the gossip about Hadley and me.”
“I’m sure the Stackhouses will appreciate the reasons for the secrecy once they’ve heard more information. When we left Adele, she was quite hurt that Hadley hadn’t notified the family.”
“That’s understandable. We’ve been prepared for that… If you… Perhaps I should let you get on with your plans. You can call me back while everyone visits. We can discuss specifics then.”
“I’ll do that. Do you want to speak to Merlotte again?”
He chuckled again, “I never want to talk to him, but I should. Thank you.”
I held the phone out for Merlotte (who’d heard every word of my conversation with Mata’utia), and he snatched it from my hand to snarl, “Yeah?”
“Let Della visit her grandmother, asshole. Della couldn’t be safer with anyone than she will be with the North Man watching over her.”
“You want me to let my daughter go off with a strange Vampire?”
“He’s not just a Vampire, you fool. If he was, I’d already have a cleaner in Bon Temps to take care of the problem. Eric Northman is a fucking legend. Get over yourself.”
And with that, Mata’utia ended the call, leaving Merlotte to stare at the phone.
Della giggled, “Leggen,” with a mouthful of her sandwich. “Like Clossus a’ Woades. Hims big too.”
Sookie beamed, “Let’s hope not. All it took to knock down the Colossus was an earthquake. Where did you hear about him?”
“Mommy an’ Uncle Mata took me a’ New Yerk. Stashoo a’ Leberdy’s like Clossus’s’s lil’sisser.”
I asked, “When were you in New York?”
“Dot back lass night… Uncle Mata took us to’a castle, an’ fer a carriage ride, an’ skatin’. Long weeken’.”
Nice little coincidence. Liberated had just returned to Louisiana from a vacation too… with Hadley’s children, no less.
It might have been more amusing that a Vampire seemed to enjoy the child so much if Liberated hadn’t teased Pussy-Whipped and Atum about being wrapped around the smallest Stackhouse’s finger, a child named Arianna… And neither of them denied it.
Sookie offered, “That sounds like fun… Sam, you know I wouldn’t let anything happen to her. I didn’t come here to cause a stink. We just want to get to know her better.”
He huffed, “Sook, I’m worried somebody will slip, or-”
“Sam, nearly every woman in Bon Temps has babysat for you. You know damn good and well that no one’s going to think twice if Gran starts watching Della more often.”
“It’s not that easy, Sookie. Your grandmother can’t keep up with a three-year old… and you’re the only one who’s ever been able to tell Della no.”
“That’s because I can’t be glamoured.”
“She’s not glamour-”
“She’s pushing. She doesn’t need eye contact. She can do it over the phone. She can do it to Weres and most Shifters… The only people she can’t control are Vampires, Daemons and telepaths.”
“No… If she’s going to shift…”
“Her father’s a Shifter. Her mother’s part Faerie… The boss lady is a horse of a different color.”
“Part Faerie? That’s why you read minds?”
“She’s not just too adorable to deny, Sam. Think about it. Can you think of another bar and grill that has a separate ice cream menu?”
The Shifter gave me a dirty look when I chuckled. “Yeah. It’s hilarious. The only reason I put up with Mata’utia being part of her visits with Hadley is because he’s so protective of her… It turns out he’s just tending to an investment.”
Della scowled at her father. “Hims not! Don’ be a jerk, Daddy! If him wanted help, he’da hired Sookie! Him doesn’t want anyone sniffin’ round tha famly! Him dot duys cwose dat can get here quick. Him says Airk’s da only Fampire dat’s ‘loud ta come near us! Him even showed me pishures.”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “Baby girl, you aren’t old enough to know how things work yet. I’m sure you think he’s being nice to you, but-”
“Nope. Stop talkin’.” Della pushed herself from her seat on the floor and announced, “I’ma go wiff Sookie ta see Gran.”
She took a section of her sandwich from her plate and walked through the door of the office… and her father was left nodding as though he didn’t have a complaint.
He might begrudge Mata’utia now, but eventually he was going to be grateful there was someone in Della’s life that she couldn’t control… a rebellious teen who could push would be a nightmare.