SEVENTY MINUTES BEFORE SUNRISE
“Mmmm,” Sookie sighed as I caressed her arm gently. She’d slung it possessively—incandescently possessively—over my chest after we’d made love, and her fingers were swirling lazily around my pecs as they unconsciously told the story of her contentment.
I, too, was content.
More than I thought would have ever been possible for me.
But, despite the surprise of that feeling, there was nothing I would not do to keep hold of it—to keep hold of the woman next to me.
Which reminded me.
“Mustapha,” I said.
“Mustapha?” she asked.
“And Warren,” I responded.
“Who’s that?” she queried, raising her head slightly to catch my eye.
“He’s Mustapha’s boyfriend.”
“Mustapha’s gay?” she asked with surprise, though there was no judgment in her tone. One of the things that set Sookie apart from other humans, especially in our region of the country, was that she did not seem to have any foundational prejudices.
“I truly would have liked to have met your grandmother,” I remarked tangentially.
“Huh?” Sookie asked, not quite following my train of thought. I suppose I couldn’t blame her.
I tried to explain my non-sequitur. “You are surprised to hear my day-man is gay, but you do not think any less of him for being so. Similarly, when you saw that he was black, your metabolic rates didn’t change either.”
“Why would they?” she asked, somewhat offended.
“Ahhh. Your heartbeat and respiration rates changed because of my words just now,” I smirked.
“Well—that’s because you said something asinine—as if Mustapha’s bein’ black would have bugged me.”
I chuckled. “Even humans without overt racist tendencies often have involuntary metabolic reactions.”
“Huh?” she asked.
I shrugged as I began my explanation. “Say a white woman sees a group of young black men at a convenient store at night; she might inadvertently experience a moment of fear before she reigns in her baser reaction. Then, she might struggle between the practical idea that she should remain vigilant about her own security and the guilt she experiences because she knows she wouldn’t have viewed a group of white young men as being as dangerous—despite the fact that she is statistically more likely to be harmed by one of her own race.”
Sookie frowned, so I continued. “Vampires are too—you know.”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Statistically more likely to be harmed by one of their own kind than by—say—a Fellowship member.
Sookie’s frown deepened, so I offered another “human” example. “Say a progressive person truly believes in gay rights. Despite that, he or she still might have a momentary cringe when seeing two men kissing on the sidewalk.”
“Maybe,” Sookie said, her frown still apparent as she processed my words and their underlying meaning. “But I think it’s admirable when people are willing to fight off the biases that sneak into their heads. People can’t help what they think sometimes, but they can choose what they do with those thoughts. They can choose to overcome them.”
I smiled at her. “You see things in amazing ways, my lover. And that is why I mentioned your grandmother earlier. As your primary teacher, she clearly had a great effect upon you.”
Sookie’s eyebrows furrowed and her eyes brightened. I hurried my caresses, trying to stop her threatening tears.
I hated them.
“Yeah. Gran didn’t have a prejudiced bone in her body—except for against people with bad manners,” she chuckled, thankfully stifling her tears. “Plus, being so different myself, it would’ve been hypocritical for me to judge other folks just because they were different. And I got to ‘hear’ a lot of other people working to overcome their prejudices.” She grinned. “You should have ‘heard’ what people used to think about my friend Lafayette. You never got to meet him, but he was black and flamboyantly gay! But quite a lot of people—even in Bon Temps—fought to show him acceptance or, at least, begrudging politeness. And every time they made the effort to change their attitude or behavior toward him, they evolved as people. Telepathically verified,” she smiled. “That kind of thing made my telepathy survivable, especially before my shields got strong.”
I smiled at my bonded. “You don’t give yourself enough credit for how good you are, min kära.”
She shrugged and—unsurprisingly—changed the subject. I vowed that—very soon—I would make sure that my bonded fully understood her worth.
And—even if I had to praise her every minute of every day—she would get used to compliments!
Now that she’d agreed to stay with me as a vampire—though I hoped it would be many years before I’d have to make her one—I could be patient.
And I’d enjoy the task.
“So—uh—Mustapha has a boyfriend named Warren?” she asked, returning us to our original topic.
“Yes. Warren Rodriguez. I intend for him to become my new day-man.”
“What about Mustapha?” she asked with a frown. “Isn’t he working out?”
“Yes. He’s fine. More than fine—actually. Unbeknownst to him, Mustapha will be getting a promotion and a pay raise if he agrees to become head of my day security team once I am king—if I become king. Warren, despite having a business degree and being a decorated ex-Army Special Forces soldier, has had trouble finding full-time, permanent work. And he is human, which makes him even more qualified—in my opinion—to be my day-man since the person in that role spends most of his or her time dealing with humans.”
“Warren was Army Special Forces!” Sookie exclaimed, clearly impressed.
I nodded. “Yes. He was a sniper, so it would be handy to have him around for just that reason. The fact that he is qualified for much more than that is an immeasurable windfall.”
“But will—uh—Warren even want the job? I mean—with a business degree and his military background—isn’t he,” she paused, “a lot overqualified to be an errand boy?”
I chuckled. Clearly, she was thinking about Bobby and his apparent limitations; however, the role of day-person was changing now that vampires were out of the coffin. Before the Great Revelation, such humans were chosen partially because they were nondescript, and they were tasked—except in cases of emergency—with conducting only errands that vampires could not complete because of their “solar limitations.” Day-people had been merely a necessary evil in many ways.
Indeed, Bobby Burnham had been just that in my eyes—a necessary evil that I’d been loath to deal with, though Pam had often amused herself with her minute tortures of him. Indeed, I’d spared no thoughts of grief over the loss of him or most of the others who’d “served” me over the years. Of course, in Bobby’s case, my apathy over his slaying had a lot to do with his being an insufferable ass.
Moreover, he was rude to my bonded on more than one occasion. And—in truth—I had already been contemplating a replacement for him because he’d been glamoured to the point that he could no longer remember his tasks without writing them down.
Indeed, nowadays, vampires had started to look for much more in a day-person than innocuous expendability.
“Of course, Mustapha seems overqualified too,” Sookie commented, breaking me from my thoughts.
“Yes. And I am certain that he will appreciate the promotion. I am also certain that Warren will accept the position.”
“How can you be so sure?” she asked curiously.
“I will make it worth his while monetarily,” I told my bonded. “Plus, as king, I’ll have plenty of people to run the menial kinds of errands that Bobby used to run for me. Warren will find great challenge and, therefore, reward in his work—I think. In actuality, he will be second-in-charge of my day-time operations.”
“Who’ll be first-in-charge?” she asked.
“You, of course,” I responded.
“Me? What? Uh—wait! What?” she stammered.
“Do not worry, my lover,” I purred. “I am hoping that our existence will be peaceful enough that you can spend your days next to me in bed or lie out in the sun as you so love doing. But I trust no one so much as you to handle an emergency should it arise during the day.”
She looked shocked for a moment. “Thanks,” she said after a moment, a slight smile forming on her lips. “Thanks for trusting me.”
I simply nodded. The days and nights of mistrust between us were gone forever.
“So—uh—why did Warren decide to leave the army? I mean—I guess I’ve always sort of assumed that Special Forces people stayed in the army until they retired. Was he hurt in Afghanistan? Or Iraq?” she asked with worry.
Leave it to my bonded to be concerned about someone she’d yet to meet.
“No,” I responded. “He was not injured, and he did not quit either. He was kicked out because of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”
“Really?” Sookie asked, apparently horrified by the thought.
“Yes. An asinine policy—in my opinion,” I shared. “Why a nation always in need of soldiers doesn’t hold onto the ones who volunteer and prove themselves worthy is beyond me. And—from my research on Warren—I know that he was highly-skilled and instrumental to the success of over a dozen missions in Afghanistan. His one mistake was that he couldn’t stomach lying to his friends. It didn’t matter that his brothers-in-arms didn’t have a problem with his sexuality. What mattered was that his superior officer got wind of the fact that Warren had ‘told’ others that he was gay, and—for that—he was unceremoniously kicked out.”
“That’s horrible!” Sookie cried.
I nodded my agreement. “Mustapha, too, has faced much prejudice—violence even—because of his sexual orientation.”
Recognition dawned on Sookie’s face. “Was that why he was kicked out of his pack?”
“Yes. And why he changed his name. His pack-mates abjured him—and then beat him almost to death—when they found out why he didn’t want to marry a woman and breed.”
Sookie frowned and shook her head.
“How did Bubba meet Mustapha?” she asked, recalling that it had been Bubba who’d suggested that I hire Mustapha after Bobby was killed.
“On the night his former pack-mates beat him, Mustapha was dumped in the woods—left to die. Bubba was hunting in the area and smelled Were blood.”
Sookie cringed. I was not sure whether it was because she was thinking about Mustapha’s injuries or Bubba’s hunting practices.
“Bubba could tell that Mustapha had been beaten by many people and that he was about to die. He gave Mustapha enough blood to keep him alive.”
“Wow!” Sookie exclaimed. “I can’t imagine Bubba giving a stranger his blood. I wasn’t even sure that Bubba would know how to do that.”
I shrugged. “I stopped trying to decipher what Bubba knows and what he does not years ago. That being said, his loyalty—once given—is immeasurable. And his instincts as a vampire—blood-preference notwithstanding—are good.”
“And—as long as fairies aren’t involved—he makes a good guard,” she added.
“Ah—yes! We should get back to the subject of guards,” I segued. “Mustapha is going to be at your house in Bon Temps shortly after dawn. Warren will be there too, but watching from a distance with his rifle at the ready. However, I want at least one other of the two-natured variety there in case de Castro sends Weres to try to enter your home during the day.”
“But wouldn’t Amelia’s magic stop them?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yes. It should. But I have used enough torches in my day to know that they can be thrown,” I emphasized. “And a magic spell cannot stop your house from burning.”
Sookie trembled a bit, and I held her a little tighter. “I just want to cover all the bases, min kära,” I assured gently.
“I no longer trust Alcide enough to go to him for guards,” I observed.
She sighed, but nodded in agreement. “So who will you get?”
“It is too late to arrange for guards from an out-of-state pack at this point. And the remaining lone-wolves in the area aren’t trustworthy enough. Would you find Calvin Norris and those he deems acceptable from his pack to be agreeable?” I asked my bonded, knowing that there had been some strain between her and Norris since Jason and Crystal’s actions had led to Sookie having to break the elder werepanther’s hand with a brick.
“You’re asking me? Not just deciding on your own?” she asked, a little surprised.
I chuckled. “I know that I have been a little high-handed in such matters in the past, but . . . .”
“A little!” she interrupted.
“But,” I continued, ignoring her playful jab, “you and I are now true partners in the life we are carving for ourselves. And, since Norris and his people could very well become a fixture in that life as permanent guards, I want your input before decisions are made.”
She looked at me with a little surprise before a smile formed on her delectable lips. “True partners—huh? I like the sound of that very much.”
“Pledged partners,” I growled, even as I bent down to kiss her.
“I like the sound of that even better,” she panted when I regretfully broke the kiss before another round of lovemaking began. Unfortunately, there were still matters to deal with that didn’t involve my having my way with my wife.
“So—Norris?” I asked her.
It took Sookie a moment to focus on my eyes and what I was saying, as opposed to my lips and what she clearly wanted them to do to her. I was smirking by the time she finally accomplished this task and offered me a mock-glare for my expression.
“Well,” she began her response contemplatively, “I know that Calvin has always respected me. There was a time when he even viewed me as a . . . .”
She stopped midsentence.
“Potential mate,” she said, gauging my reaction. “But don’t kill him for that.”
I chuckled. “If I killed everyone interested in claiming you, I would have had to kill Pam years ago. And, for the record, I couldn’t blame anyone for wanting you,” I added with a leer.
“Anyway,” she said, rolling her eyes, “a lot of the werepanthers I’ve met are kind of scary; I mean—Calvin has done his best in Hotshot, and God knows that town was messed up long before he took its twisty reigns. Plus—according to Jason—Calvin’s been trying to add new blood where his predecessors strongly advocated inbreeding.”
“Yes,” I agreed with her assessment. It was taking Norris a while to change the culture of his community, but things were getting better in Hotshot.
“And—despite the ‘complications’ between Jason and Crystal—and the fact that Calvin was the one left with a shattered hand because of them—he has worked hard to do right by my brother,” Sookie added.
“Yes,” I concurred again. “As a made-werepanther, Jason would have been executed by most two-natured communities.”
Sookie shuddered. Despite her current estrangement from Jason Stackhouse, her love for him had not abated.
“I trust Calvin,” she said with surety. “I wouldn’t have a problem with him being my guard or working for us at all. The only issue I can think of would be whether or not there are enough reliable members of his pack to help out.”
I nodded. “I have considered that, too, and have something in mind,” I said enigmatically. “For now, as long as Calvin and a few others can be counted on, that will be enough. We can reassess the arrangement as needed.”
Sookie looked at me with questions in her eyes, but nodded. “Okay. You should call Calvin now, though—to see if he’s even available for tomorrow.”
“There is one other thing to consider: Norris’s wife? Will she be a problem?”
Sookie sighed, and I could tell that she was heavily weighing my query.
Norris’s mate and new wife, Tanya Grissom Norris, was related to Debbie Pelt by blood and had once spied on Sookie for Sandra Pelt.
In truth, I did not view the hiring of Norris and his pack as optimal because of the deficits with his pack and his choice of wife. However, there simply wasn’t a better option than the werepanthers at this time. Under Colonel Flood, Long Tooth had been a strong, reliable group, and—on the rare occasions when I’d needed Were help—I’d trusted the packmaster to ensure the quality of his Weres’ work. Now, Long Tooth was useless. During Flood’s tenure, no other pack would have dared to encroach upon his pack’s territories; however, I’d heard rumors that Long Tooth was no longer seen as untouchable. However, quickly displacing Long Tooth and establishing a better pack in its place was not something that I had the power to do within the timeframe I needed.
But I had set a few wheels in motion.
Still—for the time being—the werepanthers of Hotshot were the only other large group of two-natured beings in Area 5. Though officially residing on Long Tooth territory, the panthers had been left alone for several reasons. First, they were established before the Long Tooths settled in the area. Also, they weren’t Weres. Had they been, a war for the territory would have been waged. Finally—and most importantly—the Long Tooths had always considered the werepanthers to be weak.
In other words, not a threat to them at all. I was rather hoping that I could do something to change that.
Sookie sighed deeply, drawing my attention back to hear her response about Tanya Norris.
“When you take the Pelts out of the equation,” she said meditatively, “Tanya’s not really a bad person. In fact, her worst crime was naivety because she believed Sandra’s version of what happened to Debbie. But, even then, Tanya didn’t agree to do anything beyond a little spying—until Sandra had her put under the magic spell.”
“Magic spell?” I asked, not having heard anything about Tanya Norris and a spell before. I forced down my frustration that Sookie had not told me of the event, reminding myself that there had been times when I’d not been 100% forthcoming with her.
And reminding myself that I wasn’t going to allow such past errors to taint Sookie and my current and future lives.
“Yeah. Uh—sorry I didn’t tell you about it. We were—uh—having issues at the time, and it was taken care of almost as soon as it became a problem.”
I nodded. “Will you tell me what happened now?”
“Sure,” she said before placing a tender kiss to my chest as an added apology. I could feel her guilt and contrition through our bond.
“There is no need to waste energy on our regrets,” I said gently.
She nodded and took a deep breath, exhaling it onto my chest. I luxuriated in the warmth of it and of her entire body resting next to mine as she began her story.
“Sandra got Tanya to spy on me when we were both working at Merlotte’s. I told you that part—right?”
I nodded. “And you indicated that the spying stopped when Tanya became involved with Norris.”
“Yeah. But, apparently, Sandra got mad when Tanya was no longer willing to do what she wanted since, by then, Tanya knew that I wasn’t the Wicked Witch of the West like Sandra had told her I was. So—um—when Tanya stopped cooperating, Sandra had her placed under some kind of spell so that she could keep influencing her. Sandra used the spell to make Tanya cause trouble between Crystal and Jason. Of course, there were already plenty of rifts in their marriage, but Tanya added fuel to the fire.”
“Why target your brother?” I asked.
Sookie shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, but it seems logical that Sandra wanted to hurt anyone connected to me, and Jason was an easy target.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “Calvin somehow found out about the spell and begged Octavia and Amelia to break it. After that, Tanya cut all ties with Sandra.”
“You are certain?” I asked.
“Telepathically verified.” She tapped her head and took a deep breath, once again warming me with her exhalation. “Despite what Tanya did—why she started working at Merlotte’s—she’s good for Calvin. I don’t know if she and I will ever be friends, but I do know that she’s not our enemy. And she wouldn’t interfere with Calvin and his people guarding us.”
“That’s good enough for me,” I said as I grabbed a disposable phone from the nightstand without displacing my bonded from her comfortable position.
Long arms came in very handy at times.
As I dialed, Sookie looked at me warningly. “Remember to be polite. You’re probably gonna be waking him up.”
I chuckled, but nodded at my insistent mate. In truth, if she were given free reign, I figured that Sookie could find a way to solve most problems between Supernaturals—if only by making us all be polite to one another.
“Norris,” a gruff, groggy voice answered the phone. I activated the speaker so that Sookie could hear the call.
“I have been ordered to apologize for the time of my call,” I opened, eliciting a slap on my chest from Sookie.
And a glare.
I leaned down slightly to kiss my mate’s forehead.
“Northman?” Calvin asked. “Is that you?”
“Indeed,” I confirmed.
“What do you want?” he demanded—impolitely I might add. I looked at Sookie with a raised eyebrow, challenging her to chastise the werepanther. Instead, she stuck out her tongue at me.
Oh—the things I wanted to do with that tongue! I had to forcefully stop myself from doing them—business be damned.
Instead, I responded to Norris’s question. “I am calling to request your services,” I relayed—politely, I might add.
I could hear sounds indicating that Calvin was getting out of bed and walking to another room, probably so that he would not wake up his wife, whom I could hear softly snoring in the background until a door had opened and closed. Once another door had opened and closed, Calvin spoke. “What services?”
A/N: Hello all: thanks for all the comments for the previous chapter. I considered for a long time whether to include the “devil” part. That whole plot-point in the CH books just seemed crazy! But-since this story has a larger-than-normal Amelia component-I wanted to make sure that I dealt with her father since he turned out to be such a problem in the books. I am glad that many of you preferred my version of Lucifer (even if you pictured a different actor for him-LOL).
Anyway, thanks so much for reading!