Dusty rose sunlight streamed in through the French doors that opened onto her balcony. Sookie snuggled further under the covers, her toes curling in response to the memories of her night with Eric while her body hummed in happiness. Sex. She’d had sex after years of the inability to carry on any kind of relationship with anyone because of her telepathy.
Imagine trying to stay in the mood when you knew your date only thought about how long it’d be before he could get into your pants. She’d been much younger when she let Ralph walk her out to her car after their date and he kissed her behind the garbage can at Merlotte’s. He hadn’t cared that they stood surrounded by flies and the sickeningly sweet smell of rotting food.
Sookie’d thought he was a nice guy who went to Bon Temps High with her. They didn’t share any classes, but he was cute and there weren’t many boys asking her out since they all knew about her “curse.” So when the handsome baseball player invited her on a date, she’d accepted. She suggested they meet at Merlotte’s and agreed that if things went well they’d go to the movies afterwards.
Sookie sighed remembering how uncomfortable she was hearing Ralph’s thoughts. He hid them well, at first. That is until he wrapped his arms around her body and pulled her close. Then the truth erupted in surround sound. He only wanted her for her “tits and ass.” He didn’t care about her at all, and that had hurt. Her next two kisses hadn’t gone any better, but at least they didn’t happen behind a garbage can.
Sookie squirmed pleasantly in recollection. Even though Eric’s brain was blessedly silent, the two of them felt different. Good different, the butterflies racing through her veins insisted. They connected, literally and metaphysically. And there wasn’t a damn thing that her uncle or anyone else could do about it. They could just suck it. She’d embraced her sexuality and she couldn’t think of even one regret. Nope, she was pleasantly relaxed and—a light knock interrupted her naughty musings.
Arlene’s tentative voice wafted in, “Miss Stackhouse…”
Sookie pulled the white fluffy duvet covered in tiny pink flowers over her head, groaning. If she ignored her maid, Arlene would just keep knocking.
Sookie pulled the edge back down and called out, “Yeah, Arlene, come on in. Tell me you have coffee.”
The blazingly red-haired woman tiptoed into the room; the scent of dark roast preceded her. “Hey Sookie, I’m so sorry to wake you, but I come bearing an offering.”
“You didn’t wake me actually. Just feeling lazy this afternoon, I guess.” She scooched up against the massive pile of pillows and accepted the warm mug of bliss, watching Arlene head into her walk-in closet.
“What are you doing?” The sound of hangers scraping against the wooden bar floated out to her. “I’ve told you a hundred times: I am utterly capable of picking out my own outfit. Heaven in liquid form is one thing, but I don’t need you to wait on me for real.”
Arlene never stopped searching through her clothing. “I know, but…well, I just thought I might be able to help you.”
Sookie gave up the fight, a constant battle between the two women. Sometimes it was just easier to go along with whatever the chatty woman wanted.
Niall arranged a job for the ex-Merlotte’s waitress a few years after Sookie moved over to the mansion. She’d never wanted a maid, let alone Arlene—the woman gossiped too much for her taste, which ended up being a benefit here at court actually—but the skinny woman tried too hard to please for Sookie to treat her poorly. They’d barely known each other before Sookie moved over to the court. Over the two years they’d spent together afterwards, she’d become a kind of friend, hard to come by amongst the political maneuverings of everyone else who resided there.
“How’s everybody back home?” Arlene exited the closet arms loaded down with options. She’d been eager to leave Bon Temps after her husband, a veteran, died. As with many soldiers, he had a hard time readjusting after the war. He went looking for trouble and it’d found him. But she still tried to monitor the happenings in her hometown.
“Real good, Arlene, I gave them your love,” she replied, watching the woman cross the room to lay her burdens down on the antique dresser in front of the bed.
“Whaddya want to wear today, Sookie?” The redhead smiled and held up a yellow gingham sundress as well as a periwinkle 40s style dress with cap sleeves and pockets. Pants and tops littered the top of the dresser behind Arlene, but she only ever suggested those as a last resort.
Sookie sipped her coffee. “I don’t care, Arlene. Choose whatever.”
She sat up and threw her legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing her eyes and wishing she could lie there for at least three more hours basking in the afterglow of last night. But it was already almost sundown, and she had to face her uncle at some point. Hiding from the world would be perceived as being ashamed of her actions. She preferred to face her detractors head on.
Arlene kept up a steady stream of chatter while the blonde mentally accepted the armor of a knee length dress and high ponytail: pretending to be no one other than Sookie Stackhouse. Once the redhead deemed her presentable, she knelt down lacing her fingers through the straps of her wedge heels, slipping them on, and after adding a dash of lip-gloss, touched the Síorghrá on her wrist for reassurance. She refused to reveal Eric Northman as her Mate; what he meant to her would remain a secret. The existence of feelings didn’t equal automatic commitment.
Satisfied her loins were as girded as they were gonna get, Sookie put one foot in front of the other, striding down the hallway past the portraits of ancestors and antagonists. Every face of every family member of the last three hundred years, however distantly related, was directly responsible for putting her in this position. Stopping in front of the painting of her great-grandfather Sookie stared at his blue eyes, almost identical to hers, and wondered exactly what the fuck he was thinking. Certainly, Niall was much better suited to this kind of fine-line walking.
No, now was not the time for doubts. Grandpa Dumbledore and Sookie would have words soon enough about throwing her into the middle of the insanity of the courts. The royal Princess focused on surviving the next hour. Standing in front of his office she inhaled deeply, wishing she were weeding her grandmother’s garden, or scrubbing her kitchen floors.
Desmond knew before she spoke that his niece awaited entrance. “Come in, Sookie.”
Stiffening her resolve, she pushed through the doors. “Good afternoon.”
Her uncle tapped away at his keyboard without even glancing in her direction. She settled herself in the leather chair in front of his desk and waited, knowing it wouldn’t be long until he acknowledged her.
A breeze from the window behind her blew across her back. Desmond froze. The icicles of his tone assaulted her. “What have you done?”
“Whatever do you mean, Uncle Des?” Sookie played it cool, showing only strength and none of her terror.
Slamming his hands down on the thick mahogany wood, he arose and glared at her. “You are no longer a virgin!”
“No. I am not,” she replied evenly, imitating a vampire’s calm exterior. “Though, I’m not sure why that should concern you.”
The dark-haired force of anger stormed around the desk, stopping directly in front of her. “Why it should concern me? ME? Your Uncle, who has sheltered and fed you for the last five years, is this how I am repaid? Should I lose my only niece? I loved your grandmother, and happily took you in when the Prince requested it of me. Have I not treated you with every kindness and allowed you freedoms that other women only dream of?”
Her ponytail whipped around as she stood to face him. “They shouldn’t have to dream of those freedoms, or fear for their lives when they grasp a little happiness for themselves. I have done nothing wrong. I know the laws, Desmond. I read the Constitution from cover to cover, remember?” She paused, turning over her left wrist. “I have found my Mate. There is nothing further you can question me about.”
She held the Síorghrá up so that he could examine the mark. “Who is this man? I will have him before me right now to answer for his actions.”
Do or die time. “I will not tell you. Our time together is just that, ours. No one else’s.”
“How dare you.” Her uncle turned a darker shade of red, his eyes narrowing to slits. “No Mated couple has ever refused to marry, it is not done. I will have this man’s name from you and he will claim you in front of the Court. It is the only way to overcome this disgrace.”
Trying to bury her fury wasn’t working. She’d known what faced her, but standing there listening to her uncle berating her, pushed her over the edge.
She shoved her wrist in his face. “This means you get to say nothing. And I will not marry the man. Nowhere in that dusty tome did it say I had to marry my Mate. The narrow-minded men who wrote it centuries ago thought it a foregone conclusion that a woman would automatically want to tie herself to one man for the rest of her life, however long that might be. I am not that woman. What he and I shared is between us, and it will go no further than that.”
Desmond crumpled against the edge of his desk. “Why? Why wouldn’t you want someone to take care of you? To love you?”
Sookie reached out to him, but he turned away. Gentling her voice, she replied, “I don’t see what one has to do with the other. He can love me without owning me, without ‘taking care of me.’ Can’t you understand that I’m still my own person? I haven’t changed in the last twenty-four hours. It is ridiculous to punish a woman simply for pursuing pleasure. It isn’t only men that desire intimacy without attachment.”
His hand sliced the air between them. “Enough. Sookie, you cannot change several generations of supernatural communities simply by wishing it.” The man paced away from her, muttering, “At least there’s a Mate. Much worse…could be much worse. If we hide her away until he can be found—”
“No. Absolutely not. Let me reiterate, I have done nothing wrong. At all. I stuck to your stupid fairy laws. There’s nothing you can do and if any of you even think of raising a hand to me, I will not be held accountable for my actions in response.”
Desmond stumbled backwards, falling into his chair. “Do you really think that I would harm you? For all our disagreements, you are my family.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Whether I agree with the law or not doesn’t matter. I am King. My family must be above reproach. What would you have me do?”
“Change the fucking law. Get off your ass and do something about it.” Sookie reined in her temper. “Don’t you understand? I am above reproach and the law backs me on this. Show the Court that you will not be cowed by small minds,” she pleaded with him.
He leaned forward across the expanse between them. “Please, Sookie. Don’t do this now. We are about to go to war and need to present a unified front.” He clasped her hands. “Tell me who this man is. Let me call him here.”
She squeezed his hands, knowing what she was about to say would hurt him, but had to do it anyway. The one thing Niall had gotten right was her desire to change the system once she was aware of it. It wouldn’t be easy, but this was the first step.
“I will not. Even if the law were not on my side, I am not ashamed of my actions, and I won’t be bullied into revealing something that will be used to trap me into a relationship I’m not even sure I want. Can’t you understand that?”
His entire body seemed to shrivel in on itself. “Then there is nothing to be done, but to send you away. There are courts in Scotland that would take you. The question being, how many guards should I send with you? I need to keep you safe. With no Mate to protect you, your body will be at risk. And if you were harmed but there was no proof, I would have no way to protect you from being labeled Fallen.”
She stalked away from him. “Fuck what? Lemme get this straight, since I had sex with my Mate, which, by the way, is completely acceptable according to the fucking law, because of that? Because I liked it once, I have to worry about the sanctity of my own body? Proof?” Sookie found herself on the verge of completely losing her temper. “So what kind of bullshit proof do they need? Claw marks? Blood? A black eye? What? Tell me, Uncle. Tell me about this system you’re so keen on protecting.”
Stopping, she fisted her hands and waited for his defense. He came around to her, grasping her upper arms, not harshly, but with a desperate begging.
“If you tell me the name of your Mate, no one can touch you since any crime against you will be avenged by him.”
Her eyes bore into his, searching for the truth. “And without the name…what then? If some man overpowers me, what happens then?”
He hung his head and sighed. “It is your word against his. Granted, you are a Princess of the Royal Court, but that clout will only get you so far. As your uncle and regent, I would have to recuse myself. There is little I could do to help you. ”
Sookie fumed, yanking her arms out of his hands. “How have none of you done anything about this yet? I don’t even get it.”
“My hands are tied. Please—” his voice broke. “Please…tell me and I promise, when the war is ended, I will do everything I can to change this. I swear it. But help me protect you now.”
“That will not be necessary, your Majesty.” Eric entered the room and executed a perfectly timed bow, coming up right behind her and slipping his arm around her waist. “I will protect my Mate and future wife.”
“Oh, fuck me.” This just went from bad to worse, she thought, taking in Eric’s grey Armani suit, white shirt, and blue tie that just so happened to match her dress. He looked really good, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on that.
Leaning down to whisper in her ear, Eric let his lips linger for an instant. “I already did, my love, and I intend to do it again.”
She glanced up at his waggling eyebrows. “You really think now is the time for this? Get your hands off of me,” she commanded, twisting her way out of his hold. Her heart fluttered at his arrival, but she tamped down the flames he stoked. “I have absolutely no intention of becoming your wife. Mate you might be, but husband—that’s never going to happen.”
“So you think,” promised the Viking.
“So I know.” Sookie crossed the room, removing herself from whatever voodoo his libido practiced on her hormones.
The clicking of Pam’s heels put the capper on her day.
“Does this mean I get to fight instead of stay home and babysit the breather?” Perfectly styled in a pink twin-set, Pam tapped her toe and crossed her arms. Sookie couldn’t imagine her on the battlefield, but she didn’t doubt the vampire dressed like an upper-crust debutante would be vicious and merciless.
“Silence!” The fae King ordered. When even Pam’s tapping stopped, he continued. “Sheriff Northman, am I to understand that you are my niece’s Mate?”
Eric extended his wrist. “And I am here to claim what’s mine.”
“I am not yours, Eric Northman. Get that through your thick skull. I belong to myself and no one else.” She moved so she could lay her fingertips lightly on her uncle’s arm. “Please. You know who he is now, send him away.”
Desmond noticed only her fleeting look at Eric, seeing more there than she intended. He turned back to her unwanted soon-to-be fiancé—something she was trying desperately to avoid getting.
“What are your intentions? You are to lead Sophie Ann’s northern division into battle, am I correct? Which means you will be leaving for the length of the war.” He relocated himself behind his desk. Eric took the seat in front of him that Sookie had vacated in her anger.
“This is correct. I am bound in duty to my Queen. My second, Pamela Ravenscroft will stay to protect my Mate.”
Pam didn’t bother to hide the scowl on her face.
“Seems the assignment doesn’t agree with Chief Deputy Ravenscroft.” Desmond leaned back in his chair, crossing his left ankle over his knee, eyeing the blonde-haired soccer mom.
“She will obey.” Pam rolled her eyes; Eric leveled a glare at her. “Despite her attitude, she is the only one I would trust with this besides myself.”
“You will marry my niece then.” Eric nodded, grasping her uncle’s proffered hand. “Good. Then it’s settled. We will work out the appropriate dowry when you return from the war since it’s too late to begin before. A simple contract will have to do until then. We’ll announce it to the Courts tonight at the send-off banquet.”
They both stood, while Sookie just gawked.
“Excuse me?” She cleared her throat to gain their attention. Heaven forbid they should include her in their negotiations. “How dare you.”
“How dare we what, my dearest niece?” Desmond sounded satisfied, as if canary yellow feathers fluffed out of his mouth, dancing on his exhaled breath.
What the fuck was wrong with these people? “Your dearest niece? The one you just sold to the first man who came along to claim me?” In Eric’s eyes, Sookie saw a flicker of hurt that his body language refused to admit.
“He is not the first man,” her uncle interrupted, “but he is the one who’ll make you happy.”
“And you know that how?” Sookie demanded to know, crossing her arms over her chest.
Eric response made it sound so simple. “We are Mates. This is how it is for those chosen to bear the Síorghrá. What is there to debate?”
Furious, she lost control of her temper. “First of all? My agreement to the actual engagement might be nice. It might also have been kinda awesome if we’d talked about this before you came storming in here all caveman-like and declaring to one and all that I was taken. I mean, sheesh, did you leave your club in the car? Or did you think you’d grab me by my ponytail and I’d just acquiesce without a word? I don’t want to get married and I most certainly don’t want you.”
“Think about this rationally, Sookie—” her uncle, who at the moment was acting far more like her King than her relative, began, but Pam held up her hand to stop him.
Eric’s second came to sit next to her on the matching leather couch where the suddenly exhausted blonde collapsed, her head in her hands.
“Think of it this way. You have until the end of the war to find a way out of this marriage if you want it.” Sookie lifted her head to study the woman’s face. Pam seemed sincere. Eric appeared pissed. Good. “I will help you search the old texts. The one thing you have going for you right now is that he is your Mate, there’s no denying that. Nor, do I think, you’d want to,” the woman added conspiratorially.
Sookie almost disagreed, but then thought better of it. Whether she liked it or not, given the laws as they were written now, the only thing keeping an angry mob from battering down her door, was the mark binding her to Eric. And you do have feelings for him, a small part of her whispered.
“The old texts are the only ones that deal with Mates. If there is an out, you will find it there.”
“Pamela…” Eric threatened.
“She’s right, Eric, and you know it.” Pam smoothed her skirt and stood, facing him.
He never stopped scowling, but he nodded back at her.
Desmond clapped his hands. “I will draw up a short document indicating the commencement of an agreement between us.” He turned to face his niece. “Sookie, you will need a dress.”
“And that is an area in which I am unbelievably qualified to give guidance. I’ll meet you downstairs in a half an hour.” She winked at Sookie and after bowing to Desmond, walked into the hallway.
Eric knelt in front of her, taking her smaller hands in his. “Sookie, I promise you, I will care for you and love you like no other man you will ever encounter. You will never have cause to regret our joining.” He brought his forehead to her fingertips and then brushed his lips across her knuckles.
His heart in his eyes, he seemed so earnest, but Sookie couldn’t believe it. He’d taken away her choice, and no matter what she felt blossoming between them, she refused to be anything less than an equal partner in a relationship.
“I already do.”
What is it they say? That sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war? Sookie really hoped so as she watched her Mate and her uncle shake hands and part.
“You know this isn’t the way to go about wooing her, right?” His second walked beside him down the grandiose hallway, telling him the one thing he already knew.
Eric’s posture deflated in front of the one person he trusted without reservation. “I know of no other way to go about it. I love the frustrating woman and I will not leave her unprotected. She means too much to me.”
“You’ve spent one night with the woman, Eric,” Pam smirked, teasing him. His eyes pleaded with hers, begging for understanding. She reined in her sarcasm. “I told you that you should have spoken to her first. You even admitted that she didn’t want to marry. How did you expect her to react?”
“There wasn’t time. What if something would’ve happened to her before I could get her alone to explain? What if—” He shoved down the emotions threatening to overwhelm him, “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if she’d been harmed. I am trusting you, Pamela, with the gift I never thought I’d find.”
“You know I never can resist you when you give me your puppy dog eyes…”
Eric growled, “I am a thousand year old vampire, I do not make puppy dog eyes.”
The small blonde laughed at him. “So you say, but I’m the one looking at your face right now.”
Pam stifled her laughter. “She’ll be a handful…”
Laying a hand on her delicate shoulder, Eric nodded in agreement. “Yes, but she needs you. Though she is not a child, she is headstrong and I sense she’s on some kind of a mission.” He stopped and faced her. “You can guide her, especially given that since we’ve joined she will begin to come into her powers.”
“If the myths are to be believed.”
“They are not myths, Pam, I’ve seen the powers awaken in Mated couples before.”
Placing her hands on her hips, her lips quirked up into a smile, “I’m gonna need the black Visa. Retail therapy is the only thing that will see me through this assignment. You’ll probably have to add another room just for my shoes alone.”
A real smile crept across his face. “I think you two will actually learn to like each other.”
Pam looked aghast. “Me? Friends with a fae Princess?” She scoffed. “Doubtful at best.”
He laid a hand on her cheek, pulling her forward to kiss her forehead. “Thank you. This means more to me than I can properly express.”
The rest of the day and night passed without incident. When Eric saw the radiance of his Mate in a red full-length Vera Wang gown, her golden shoulders bare, he was glad he wore his best black tux. Sookie played the part of a happy Mate, but he could tell her reservations of him never left her.
But when he took her in his arms and they circled the dance floor together, he knew he’d done the right thing. She was resplendent and gracious, graceful and kind, a whole lot of sass and incredibly smart. He’d always had a thing for a woman with intelligence. He never wanted to let her go.
The announcement that they were the first Mated couple in three hundred years was met with wild applause. Both of the Courts needed this. As he glanced around at the mingling vampires and fae, he saw hope: hope that had been missing in their communities for far too long. Tomorrow they would leave and some would never return. He might never return from the battlefront.
Eric squeezed the hand she’d allowed him to hold under the table. Her big blue eyes caught his, and he smiled, knowing he would do anything in his power to return to her. If only to figure out how they could possibly navigate the storm-tossed seas that surrounded them. Pam’s help would be crucial in understanding this fiery woman he already loved fiercely.
He didn’t understand the feelings surging inside him, but now that he had them, he never wanted to be without them.
They left the party late and he walked her to her suite, never letting go of her. He could feel her shutting down, blocking him out, and he didn’t want to part with her. Not like this.
“Sookie I…” Eric gathered his wits about him. She needed to hear him. “I know this is not the way you would have gone about things. “
Her lips pressed into a thin line he wanted to kiss away.
“Eric—” her voice came out resigned, her hand came up to rest upon his chest, paused in the act of pushing him away.
“Please, just listen.” He waited, patient. He felt the moment she opened herself, if only slightly, to what he had to say. “I don’t know how or why this is happening between us, but I want it; I want what might be between us. I love you whether I can explain it or not. Tomorrow I leave and I have no idea when I’ll be back, but every day I live without you, you will be the thought that drives me. I will come home to prove to you that I am not the man you think I am.”
His left hand raised up to cradle her face, his thumb tracing the curve of her cheekbone. Behind the confusion in her eyes lived the same hope he saw written across the faces he’d witnessed earlier in the night.
“I want to believe you, Eric, I really do, but I don’t know you. And now you’re leaving just as we’re beginning.” She blinked back unshed tears.
“If I could change that, I would. After waiting so long to find you, I find the delay unbearable.”
He gave up on words then, inching slowly towards her, wanting her to want his kiss. Only when her eyelids fluttered closed and her chin tilted up, seeking out his lips, did he close the distance between them. Pressing goodbye into her soul, he gave his heart into her keeping.