Sookie didn’t let go of my hand until we were at the bottom of the staircase and she giggled just before opening the door.
The man waiting did nothing more than smile at her before she hugged him.
Blond hair, blue eyes, medium height, and a wiry build.
I assumed they were related until he slid his hands down her back to grab her ass. She didn’t resist, but her mood didn’t offer a positive reaction either.
If it hadn’t been for the conversation we had the night before, I would have made a joke about it being one of her brothers.
He cut his eyes in my direction, but he didn’t seem anxious…
I was left to wait for ‘the big reveal’ until he was finished groping her.
She stepped back and offered, “King Eric Northman, this is Ian Cohen. He’ll be your butler for the night.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “And whose snuggle buddy when we’re done working?”
Sookie snorted, “Keep it up. I am not above messing with people in their sleep.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at her.
Sookie continued, “You asked who was following you… It was Ian.”
His reaction to being revealed as a spy was to lift his chin proudly and offer a childishly overconfident grin. “I’m going to throw out a disclaimer now. I’m a free agent. I don’t have any interest in being contracted. I have no political loyalties. I’m a ‘freelance corporate analyst’. I’m a lot more comfortable working from home… Greed based jobs are preferred over this life and death shit. Sookie’s the only reason I’m sticking my neck out this time.”
“How did you follow me?”
When Ian smirked, it was no small gesture. The corner of his mouth pulled nearly to his ear.
“You used electronics?”
He shook his head. “Mentally. Every bit of information I got about you was gathered while I was sitting in my house. Sookie didn’t want too many specifics, so I set the timer on my microwave. I checked on you every hour on the hour and made a few notes.”
Sookie offered, “Anyway, as it pertains to tonight, Ian’s going to watch things in your office as you talk to your Lords. As long as you’re fine with that. I wanted him here so we can combine our abilities… I’ll be in his head watching and paying close attention to the minds of your company. If you keep a chat window open on your computer, I’ll be able to tell you when you’re getting fed a line of bullshit from the kitchen while we pretend to be your staff… unless you say otherwise.”
I was less shocked when she stabbed the fork into my thigh.
Sookie’s ability was still a curiosity as it was, but… remote viewing?
All I could muster was, “What does your ability consist of?”
He looked at Sookie for a moment before she offered, “Lord Jaro.”
He nodded and focused on the floor for a moment. “Tall, gangly, dark hair and eyes, really narrow face… He’s standing in a foyer… four women lined up… he’s shopping for donors… He just told a redhead to go shower and get ready to leave… He’s keeping a brunette and complaining that he doesn’t have time to ‘play’ because he was summoned… Damn that accent is so thick I can barely tell he’s speaking French. Polish?”
Sookie nodded and asked, “What about Lord Willem?”
After a moment, Ian’s eyebrows went up. “Black, shaved head, hard to tell his build because he’s sitting… back of a limo… reading… paperwork, not a book… driver’s on a beefcake diet… bimbo passenger freezing to death in a short skirt and isn’t smart enough to figure out the heater…”
Sookie shook her head and took my hand to lead the way into the kitchen.
I was too shocked by Ian’s ability to resist being led around like a child.
While Sookie went to the refrigerator to remove a pitcher, she explained, “Without Ian, I can tell you if your Lords lie, but not what they were lying about…”
He offered, “And since you’re going to be in the room with them, my ability would be redundant without combining it with Sookie’s.”
I finally managed to think of a question to ask. “Can you locate anyone no matter where they are?”
“Sort of. I can’t tell you where they are unless I know their surroundings…”
Sookie interrupted, “I know of a guy who can do that though. He does get a scene, but it’s just like… I guess you could call it a situational glimpse. He uses Google Maps and can tell you exactly where anything is within a few feet. I learned about him last night. He paid for school with reward money from recovering stolen property. He can’t focus on a place for long though…”
Ian blurted, “Damn… Are you looking for a threesome, Sookie?”
She shook her head and snorted, “You looking for an excuse to be with a man?”
Her timing was perfect and the look on his face was priceless.
Yes, I laughed.
He volleyed, “I can make concessions if you really want our third to be another girl.”
Sookie fired back with, “I don’t know… I kinda burnt out on girl/guy/girl three-ways.”
I could tell she was lying, at least in part, but she might as well have tossed a wrench into actual gears given how quickly her friend froze. From his gaping mouth to the way he forgot to breathe…
After a moment, she let herself laugh and patted my arm. “Promise I won’t do that while we’re on the clock… I know I overstepped a lot today… If you’re against him being here…”
I shook my head. I was too impressed with the possible uses for Ian… If nothing else, Sookie helping me ‘to death’ would be the perfect way for Ian to audition for more freelance work.
“I’m… pleasantly surprised. Will he accept a wire transfer?”
“Oh, this is a freebie. We wanted to check out one another’s abilities because I’m writing a similar one into a story. You’re our research lab, so we’re square.” Unfuckingbelievable.
“Thank you… How useful will your friend be now that he’s catatonic?”
She giggled, “He’ll be fine… I’ve got three brothers and grew up in a tight-knit pack. I know how to talk smack better than he does and it throws him off.”
“How many times have you stabbed him?”
She pulled her lips over her teeth and bit down as her face turned red.
Ian snapped out of his daze and blurted, “You STABBED him!?”
Sookie practically ignored him to answer me. “I met him alone and quickly decided he didn’t need to be anywhere near the girls. Ian didn’t become part of the plan for tonight until Allecks called about staying in Charlois.”
Ian sang, “Offended.”
Sookie answered, “You’re picturing me naked right now. The kids don’t need to see that.”
“Take your clothes off so my imagination will take a break.”
“No. And you’re missing a scar, a tattoo and stretch marks.”
“What stretch marks?” I slipped… and Sookie immediately backhanded my ribs for it.
Ian’s jaw dropped and he pointed at me with a locked elbow. “He’s seen you naked!?”
I ignored him. “You say stretch marks as though they’re grotesque. They’re subtle. They don’t stand out.” It was her scar that was more obvious.
Ian repeated, “He’s seen you naked!?”
Still ignoring him, I asked, “Does he imagine your nipples the correct color? That guessing game is always difficult.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lips… Her arms were folded… Outwardly, she was pouting, but she was close to laughing.
Ian narrowed his eyes and probed, “Landing strip, V or natural?”
He wanted a detail I wouldn’t know by seeing a photo of Sookie in a bathing suit. I was being challenged.
Before I could answer, Sookie lunged to cover my mouth with her hand. “Don’t encourage him.”
“Why not? It could be fun.”
“Because he doesn’t need anything extra to imagine…”
“Like fanaticizing about a shaving scene?”
Sookie’s face puckered as she growled at me and her friend shouted, “Completely!?”
I continued, “He might as well have a more accurate mental image. I’m sure he isn’t picturing the right shade of pink.” She still hadn’t moved her hand.
“They’re pink? The way she tans?”
She hissed, “I know where you die for the day.”
I chuckled at her empty threat. “One has to wonder why Mr. Observant hasn’t been watching you shower all along.”
She gasped, “I’m sooooooo going to get you for that!”
I lifted my chin to pull away from the futile gag and turned her around. “I think the most remarkable landmark on her body is the scar that crosses her abdomen from hip to hip. The one she earned as a result of an accident she barely survived and the birth of the child she tries to shield from deviants who can’t realize there’s more to her than a bright smile and silver-dollar nipples.”
Sookie turned to scowl at me over her shoulder and her elbow shot back into my ribs. “I think you like being hugged.”
I shook my head. “I do not. He’s completely overlooking that you’re a pain in the ass. He should be fully informed.”
She giggled, “Nice try, Majesty. You’re going to have to come up with an acceptable exchange rate if you don’t like hugs… not blow jobs.”
“As big as your mouth is…”
“Not blow jobs…” She narrowed her eyes and pulled her hair over one shoulder. “Sunshine?”
“Be warned… I’ll kiss your cheek, while you’re down here, but at least it isn’t a complete invasion of your personal space since… you enjoy it.”
I growled as I leaned over and sampled her scent… enjoying it enough that the peck she placed on my cheek was completely forgiven.
As I stepped back, she grinned and offered, “There we go. Middle ground we can deal with… Alright, Ian, you’re in here with me. We’ll keep the donors distracted with food and beverages while Eric meets with his Lords… Eric, I’ll be able to keep a bead on your Lords and the blut huren as long as you don’t get too backed up. More than four at a time will probably get dicey, but at least they’re trickling into town from all over…”
Ian groaned, “Do you have a military background or are you just a bossy bitch?”
He took the words out of my mouth.
Sookie raised an eyebrow and offered, “My mother was a lush who couldn’t tell you what time of day it was if she had a watch sewn to her arm. My father is so flaky he dumps drinks in his lap every fucking time he checks his watch… Then there’s my stepfather- the Packmaster who could organize a pack of drunken Panthers at the drop of a hat. Organization helped keep me sane. Any questions?” Not a one. Hearing the pathology of why she cleaned and itemized to keep herself busy almost made it tolerable.
Ian shook his head. “You could have just said you’re a bossy bitch. Much easier.”
“I prefer that you think of me as damaged as opposed to the fem-dom dungeon scene you’d have pictured if I oversimplified it.”
He shrugged. “Yeah. Got me… You looked amazing in that body stocking though. The Brazilian and pink nipples really helped with that too.”
He shook his head and droned, “Dirty… dirty… girl…”
For once, I was actually entertained.
Sookie huffed and turned to the refrigerator to begin removing food items, trying to ignore him.
Even though she was somewhat amused, I was sure she was trying to avoid encouraging his lechery.
In an effort to bring the meeting back on track, she quickly named my Lords to be sure she’d contacted them all, but she’d missed two. Even though I was sure I could trust them, she gave me a pleading look to encourage me to allow her to call Edward and Richard.
Richard was less than amused. He demanded to know who the fuck she was and why I wasn’t calling them myself. She never faltered. She never apologized or showed any shred of submissive behavior… In fact, she threatened him, daring him to refuse a summons from his King…
And called him a piss-ant when he hung up on her.
After she declared that employees had been easier to deal with than uppity Lords, I was interviewed while Sookie worked at the stove. Sookie knew how to behave as a hostess, but not hired help. Playing the role of a society wife and prize-winning author at fundraisers wasn’t the same as being the housekeeper for a Vampire King. I didn’t receive guests often enough for my Lords to ‘know the drill’, so she needed details because she didn’t want to ‘screw the pooch’…
Should she escort my Lords to my office? Where should she have them wait if I was with another Lord when the next arrived? Would I ‘snack’ from all of the donors or would it be, as she called it, a pageant?
The only thing she knew for certain was that behaving like hired help was the role she needed to play. It was to equalize her in the eyes of the donors. If she was of higher station, the donor might have been preoccupied by their manners instead of idly thinking about something we needed to worry about.
Even if the questions occasionally felt akin to a biopsy, I had to appreciate that she was meticulous enough to have thought of so many specifics.
While we discussed details, Sookie arranged food on platters… Ian sampled everything and seemingly took mental notes. I was sent for my laptop so Sookie could make sure we had the same instant messenger and explained that she’d probably use emoticons as shorthand. Not only would the three or four characters needed for them be faster to type than most words, but Sookie explained that I’d be getting the gist just as she did. A mood without much other help.
It had been almost an hour since sunset when Sookie excused herself to change her clothing. Her jeans and T-shirt weren’t a problem as far as I was concerned, but Sookie explained that even Humans had their help dress formally when they were expecting guests…
I used to know that… There was a time when I would have gone to her room to choose her clothing for her.
In fact… there was a time when I would have offered her millions to execute the performance she’d planned, but it would have been my scheme. My design. My safety measures.
I would have courted her for the use of her ability…
She never would have had the chance to feel contrite for ‘helping me to death’… She would have been annoyed by my persistence.
I wasn’t slipping.
I’d slipped, who knew how far, but the fact that I wasn’t bothering myself with details was painfully clear.
I stood in the kitchen, waiting for Sookie to give Ian a tour of the first floor to keep him from seeming lost, and made a list, a long miserable list of potentially terminal mistakes and oversights I’d made.
The longer I thought about the situation I’d created, the more I realized the list completely substantiated Sookie’s suggestions that I was suicidal.
If Liz made any one of the same oversights, I would have reneged her release to keep her close to me… I would have doubted her survival instincts.
I’d long since lost track of where Sookie’s tour had taken them by the time her phone began playing a techno song from where she’d left it on the counter. The display showed her ex-husband’s name.
She ran back into the room as quickly as her pencil skirt and high heels would allow, nearly bouncing out of her fitted white blouse. She’d even thought to remove her Rolex and channel-set birthstone bands she wore.
She snatched the phone from the counter before it could vibrate to the floor and gave me a curious look as she answered, “Who’s making you crazier, Lisia and your eight cousins or our girls?”
“Sookie, have you heard from Misty?”
Sookie had given a cheerful greeting, but Allecks answered her with a much more grave tone.
“Uh oh… Is she being difficult?”
I quietly joked, “Even when she’s at her most compliant, she’s difficult.”
Sookie wrinkled her nose as she smiled and waited for Allecks’s reply… but he paused long enough for Sookie’s humor to completely fade.
“Allecks, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
“Sookie… calm yourself…”
“Just. Fucking. Say. It. What happened?”
“Everything was fine. We went to dinner at a restaurant. She excused herself to use the restroom… Sookie, she didn’t return.”
“WHAT!? You lost her? How could you lose her!?”
“Lindy and Jenny said she seemed upset. They suggested she ran away… We looked for her, but… Sookie, she’s vanished. The police think she’s hiding nearby, but I didn’t want to exclude you…”
Sookie took a deep breath in a useless effort to calm down. “Did she take her passport from you? Does she have her cell phone?”
After a moment filled with the background noises of searching for the items in question, he huffed, “She left her cell phone in the glove box and her passport isn’t with Jenny’s.”
Sookie’s face contorted, drawing in on itself…
While she became a pillar of frustration and fear, Allecks asked, “Does that matter? How far could she get she doesn’t speak the language or have…”
I was already searching for her.
“She’s been learning the language from a local boy. She has a few hundred Euros in case of an emergency. And that little turd left her cell phone behind because she knows it has a GPS in it…”
I whispered, “She’s close and getting closer. She’s comfortable. Her mood is only mild irritation, but that could be anything. Ian will be able to tell how she’s traveling too, keep that in mind.”
Sookie relaxed so quickly my chest felt hollow.
She breathed that I was ‘better than Low-Jack’ and blew a kiss before turning her attention back to Allecks. “She’s probably on her way back to me. I can’t think of anywhere else she’d go. You should let the police know about her passport. I’ll call you the second I hear anything.”
“Sookie… I’m sorry. I didn’t think for a second she’d run off… The police really have me worried. They said Der Butzemann has… there’s local victims. Two kids in the last month.” And one child last night, but there wasn’t any way for him to know that Der Butzemann wasn’t a threat any longer.
Sookie sighed, “Allecks… she’s going to be fine… UNTIL she gets here safe and sound. Then I’m going to rip her a new one. Don’t worry…”
“Don’t be harsh, Sookie… You know what she’s been through… Because what the case worker told us wasn’t enough, we saw her medical records…”
When he trailed off he sounded like he was on the verge of crying. At least he seemed to actually care for her… when the other Sookie was suffering an obsessed, jilted Shifter with complete apathy for his own children. The other Sookie should have stayed in Bern too.
“I know, hon… don’t worry. She’ll be fine. If she comes here, I’ll have her call you.”
He cleared his throat and struggled to thank Sookie and explain that he was going to take Jenny and Lindy back to his aunt’s home before searching for Misty.
As soon as Sookie disconnected the call, she pitched her phone towards the wall… I hadn’t had the chance to laugh at her before I caught it.
“If it’s broken, Misty can’t call you.”
“I doubt she would anyway…”
“How will you instant message me with those ridiculous faces?” It was worth a try.
She huffed, “Good point… Eric, I can totally picture her waltzing up to the fist Vampire she sees and declaring that she belongs to King Northman so she’s given a fucking ride back to Eijsden. What the fuck was she thinking!? I don’t know what crawled up her ass, but… Little turd! How the fuck do I punish a child who’s been abused? This isn’t like when she convinced Junior ‘fuckwitz’ is Swiss for teacher!”
She scowled at me when I started to chuckle.
“That’s funny… I can almost picture the look on your brother’s face when the headmaster calls… Are you yelling because you’re hoping Misty will hear you?”
“Maybe… When you said she’s close, can you guess how close?”
Misty had more of my blood than Sookie, so it wasn’t exactly a guess. “Maybe fifteen minutes.”
“Thank God! Poor Allecks is having a heart attack… You know… as soon as divorce came up, I promised not to keep Lindy from him. He made me include Jenny and Misty in the promise. He held up the divorce until WE had legal custody of the girls in both countries so they’d be included in our arrangement… He loves her. Doing this to him was fucking cruel.”
“You’re operating under the belief she doesn’t have an excusable reason, yes?”
“What reason could justify running away? I know they wouldn’t hurt her. Not that she’s ever run away before…” She put he hands to her face and shouted, “What the fuck!?”
“When you say she’s never run before…”
She growled, “She’s jumped into beatings meant for Jenny… one of them put her in a hospital for a week… running, hiding– not her style. Not by a long shot.”
Sookie nodded bitterly. “I’ve been hoping she had more sense than cojones….” When she trailed off, her face puckered again and she shook her head slowly. “Damn it… Now I can’t decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I’ll have something other than worrying to do. We’ve got our first customer.”
“I’ll monitor Misty’s condition. You’ll focus on your project. If something happens and I have to go after her, my Lords will just wait.”
She nodded and took a deep breath… That one actually did help her mood and seemed to shift her focus. She offered, “Vampire and donor. Both females. The Vampire is very pretty… Asian… between six and seven hundred years old… and curious… She doesn’t seem put out or paranoid.”
I nodded. “That would be Mee. Her English is laughable so speak German. If she smiles, panic. It’s usually a sign someone’s going to need a mop.”
Sookie’s eyes widened as she continued, “The donor’s hoping you have Human servants so the castle is warm. She’s freezing, needs to pee, and she’s pissed about being ordered to wait for a cigarette until you’ve fed. She’s AB-negative.”
“That’s what I’m usually offered.”
She shrugged, “Bored with it?”
“Honestly? I’m getting to that point, yes.”
She snorted as she turned for the door. “Spoiled brat.”
“I never demanded rare blood… Out of curiosity, where is your friend?”
“Changing into a suit and considering going through my lingerie drawer… Since we’re settling curiosities, why isn’t Lord Mee, ‘Lady’ Mee?”
“Even in Human terms Ladyships are placating titles indicating nothing more than a ruling Lord deemed them suitable breeding stock. The title only signifies respect to the Lord as her spouse.”
“Oh… Even if she already had a title before they married?”
“Her rank would only have been based on her father or previous husband’s accomplishments.”
“So… since you gave Mee the position based on her own strengths, calling her Lady Mee would be an insult…”
I nodded. “Ladies earn their titles on their backs. Lords, be it Human or Vampire, earn theirs on the battlefield…”
“That’s kind of… It’s really weird that you made sexism sound rational, but at the same time you’re defeating sexism by actually recognizing Vampires based on merit…”
“We all rise for the first time with exactly nothing. It’s an amazing equalizer. The quality of our children is based on our efforts to train and guide them.”
She smiled and nodded. “Instead of the pretentious bullshit about stations… being born poor and being expected to stay that way by the ones who were born wealthy…”
I teased, “Is there something appealing about that to the woman with gold-digger wounds?”
She nodded, “Bet your ass, there is. I might see the differences now that I’m ‘of worth’ more than I did when I was ‘nothing’. It galls me that there are assholes who think they’re better than others based on their fathers’ wills.”
“You think you’re better than them?”
She nodded unapologetically. “I do. I wait to know someone before I treat them like shit. Character is what I look for in people… not assets. There are gems in trailer parks and mauks in mansions… I enjoy the irony in that it’s only the ‘betters’ who don’t see that.”
I chuckled, but there was a sudden, loud snapping sound upstairs, quickly followed by a yelp… well, the yelp was more of an emasculated screech.
Rather than worrying about her friend’s well-being, her eyebrows drew up into wicked little points and a salacious grin stretched across her face.
Before I could ask, Sookie quietly offered, “Mouse traps.”
I snorted, “With your underthings?”
She gave a wink and whispered, “If he isn’t going to dial it back, I should at least be able to get some fun out of it… Mee told the donor if she misbehaves, she’ll be caged and used as a cask for the rest of her life.”
“It sounds promising that Mee is more concerned with manners than secrets.”
She nodded. “We’ll see. I’ll IM you… Misty?”
“Ten minutes away. Try not to focus on Misty. I’ll IM you if I detect any change to her mood…”
As I turned to go to my office, Sookie straightened her blouse and sighed, “It’s show time.”