“What time is it?” I asked groggily as I sat up in a bed that I could smell was Eric’s. I’d shared a home with him for a week, after all, and he had a very distinctive scent—crisp like a winter morning, but gentle like cotton.
So beautiful. Stay with me, min kära. Stay. Stay. Stay. Or I could make you stay. No! Just, please, stay. Please choose to stay. Choose me—not the imbecile with my face—goddammit!
I tensed as I heard wisps of Eric’s thoughts. I quickly grabbed his hand, ironically using his own silence to help my shields construct themselves.
His body used against his blood.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” he asked, his concern clear.
“Nothing. Is Quinn okay?” I asked trying to deflect.
“You are lying to me,” Eric said evenly. “But,” he added with a sigh that I didn’t realize a vampire could produce, “I will allow you to keep secrets from me.”
“Allow?” I asked. He’d said that word as if I needed his permission to have secrets, and my indignation immediately rose.
“I hate you, Sookie Stackhouse,” he said in return.
I felt a ping right next to my heart.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Our bond—informing you that I lied,” Eric informed calmly. “Here,” he said, handing me a cup of water. “Drink.”
“I’m not thirsty,” I insisted.
He raised an eyebrow. “Liar,” he smirked, pushing the cup into my hand.
I scowled at him, but drank nonetheless.
“Sometimes you will choose to lie to me; however, I will always know—as you will always know if I am lying to you. I am simply saying that I will not force the truth from you,” the vampire said, before getting up from the bed and moving to a chair across the room.
I gulped down the water, having no immediate response to his words.
“So many things should be said,” he sighed, sounding very tired, “and it’s best if I am not so close to you when I say them.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because when I am close to you, I want only to touch. I forget the things I wish to say,” he admitted.
“Why?” I asked, suddenly wishing that I had more water as my throat went dry.
He gestured toward a half-full bottle on the bedside table.
I blinked once. Twice. Who knows how many times? And I forgot I was thirsty.
“Are you reading my mind?” I squeaked out.
“No,” he responded. “I am reading our bond.”
I felt my body wanting to run, and I backed up against the headboard.
“There are bombs in the hotel!” I yelled out, trying to distract him from any discussion of the now even more substantive connection between us.
Eric looked momentarily surprised, but then he let out a loud laugh—almost a snort. “I know. And it doesn’t surprise me that you learned of this too.” He nodded as if coming to a conclusion. “Indeed, you and I will be excellent partners.”
“Wait!” I cried out insistently. “How do you know about the bombs?”
“A spy I have in the Fellowship. Gus.”
“Do you know that they are in suitcases?” I asked, trying to supply information he didn’t have. Why—I didn’t know, but I really wanted to one-up him.
And keep him distracted from ‘us.’
And, yes, I will admit to being a coward in that moment, but I was a coward with information about explosives!
“Yes,” he responded matter-of-factly. “Suitcases that are identified only by state names and which are to be systematically taken to the quarters of all the royals.”
“Do you know how many there are?” I followed-up.
“Do you know where most of them are right now?” I asked triumphantly.
“I imagine that—other than the few that have already found their way to their targets—the bombs are in the delivery dock.”
I deflated a bit. “Do you know where the one for Louisiana is?” I asked, knowing I would stump him on that question—at least.
“Let me guess,” he smirked. “You were the human who was bid to pick up that one?”
I nodded in affirmation.
“And you went for the suitcase after we’d bonded?” His smirked deepened. “To distract yourself?”
Glaring at him, I nodded again.
“And you heard a suspicious brain while you did this?”
“Yes,” I said gruffly, vocalizing my affirmation this time.
“Then I bet the Louisiana bomb is somewhere near the loading dock—perhaps in a supply closet?” He grinned as I scoffed. “Do you know the when of the attack?” he asked.
“No,” I admitted.
“Day after next,” he said, cool as a cucumber. A gigantic, annoying cucumber!
“How can you be sure?” I asked, with challenge in my tone.
“You doubt Gus?”
“Your Fellowship spy? Oh no,” I said sarcastically, “why would anyone question Gus?”
Eric chuckled. “No reason at all. But—if there are still many suitcases in the area where you picked up the one for Louisiana, then I think we are relatively safe for the time-being.”
I rolled my eyes. “Relatively.”
“Indeed—so, where is Louisiana’s rogue suitcase?” he asked with a smirk.
“A storage closet on the ground level,” I replied sullenly, confirming his supposition. “Behind a bunch of dirty mops.”
He grinned even wider than before. He was showing some fang.
“So you stowed a bomb just to pick up another one minutes later?”
“Hey,” I defended. “I was trying to find you and tell you all about the Fellowship’s plans! I didn’t know you had Gus.” I rolled my eyes. “I tried your room, and then I went to the queen’s suite.”
Eric nodded. “While you were asleep, I got a call from Andre. The device you were holding was rudimentary. We think Jennifer Cater planted it. It’s probably not one of the Fellowship’s devices.”
“Makes sense,” I agreed. “That’s what I was thinking too.”
Eric smiled. “You know—you would make an excellent vampire.”
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“But,” he quickly added, “I won’t turn you or allow you to be turned unless you ask me to.” His eyebrow rose. “There. Happy?”
“Happy that you agreed not to kill me?” I challenged.
“No,” he returned somewhat sternly. “Happy that I agreed that I will likely meet the sun when you insist upon dying of old age!”
“The bond we made,” he said flatly—enigmatically. “Anyway,” he changed the direction of the conversation with a wave of his hand, “will you let me tell you about our bond? Or will you try to distract me with another bomb story?”
“Bombs!” I cried out. “Plural! It’s important that people know about them!”
Eric nodded, and his features relaxed a little. “Yes. You did well, min kära. Ég hefði ekkert annað fyrir konuna mína.” [“You did well, my dearest. I would have no other for my wife.”]
“What did you say?” I asked, suspicious of both his speaking in a foreign language and his using such a soft tone.
He merely smiled. “I was simply agreeing with you.”
“There’s nothing simple about you,” I returned doubtfully.
“Except when I was him—the me that you loved,” he returned.
I thought for a moment. “You weren’t simple then.”
“But I was,” he retorted. “You said so yourself. I was uncomplicated.”
I rolled my eyes. “You were no simpleton,” I corrected him—about himself.
He smiled and nodded, though neither the smile nor the motion of agreement reached his eyes.
“You weren’t!” I insisted.
“I wouldn’t know,” he answered stubbornly—sullenly.
“You can sense if I’m telling the truth, so you do know!” I challenged.
His features softened. “Will you tell me about him—about me.”
I sighed and I bit the bullet—a second bullet-biting situation with Eric (though not so literal as the first—which had occurred in Dallas). “He was unsure of himself at first, but it didn’t take him long to find his strength. He wanted to protect me. He was kind to me. He,” I stopped and choked up a little, “cared about my days.”
I nodded. “He asked about them and listened when I talked about them. He made me feel,” I shrugged, “like I mattered. I did matter to him.” I could feel my shoulders slumping. “But—then again—I was all he knew. And I realized—even as I was living through those days—that it wouldn’t last.”
“He offered to give me up though,” Eric reminded. “At least, that’s what you told me in the shifter’s shitty little apartment.”
I shook my head and then lowered it so that Eric wouldn’t see the moisture in my eyes. Damned vampire eyesight.
“I couldn’t do that to you, Eric. I’d had him for almost a week.” I steeled myself and straightened my back; with my quickly-imposed stalwart expression, I would have been the envy of any so-called Southern Steel Magnolia. “I’d already been pretty damned selfish with you.” I chuckled, though there was little mirth in it. “Just ask Pam.”
“That is what I was waiting to hear,” he sighed, as if I’d just given him the key a treasure.
“What?” I asked with confusion. “That you should ask Pam?”
“No,” he chuckled. “That you were willing to sacrifice him—and, therefore, your happiness—for me.”
I stiffened, not liking the direction of the conversation. So, of course, I tried to distract him again. “So—that proves what? That I’m a masochist?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No. It proves,” he paused, “so much more.”
I didn’t ask what he meant.
“So—um—the bonding?” I asked. Suddenly that felt like the easier topic.
He looked at me knowingly.
“Yes. The topic of the night,” he replied.
I rolled my eyes. “Along with the bombs.”
The vampire smirked. “I gave Quinn five hours. He still has three. I think we should tell everything to Sophie-Anne near dawn—both about the bombs and about de Castro. I have no desire to meet with her twice tonight,” he said somewhat sourly.
“We’re stayin’ here today?” I asked. “With the fucking bombs in the building?”
He chuckled. “Hell no! I’m into self-preservation—remember? After we tell Sophie-Anne, we are getting the hell out of Dodge—or Rhodes, as it were. An Anubis jet is scheduled to depart at 5:30 a.m. Pam, you, and I already have confirmed tickets.”
“Bill?” I asked.
“On standby,” Eric smirked. “But—regardless—he’ll be at the airport in a very secure coffin in a very secure area if the shit goes down early.”
I felt my eyes burning again—this time with tears of gratefulness.
“You still love Bill?” Eric asked, his voice betraying the tiniest hint of jealousy.
I looked up at the Viking and let a tear drop. “I did love him, and Gran once told me that love—when it’s real—never goes away.” I took a breath and pushed the tear away mid-cheek. “But the Bill I loved was an illusion in most ways, and—even before Lorena called him—I wasn’t happy with him. He romanticizes what we were, but I don’t. Not anymore.”
“But you do still love him,” the vampire repeated, stating his words this time, instead of asking them.
How well he knew me sometimes!
I sighed. “I love the Bill that I first met,” I responded, closing my eyes and remembering. “But I tend to romanticize the details too.”
“That is how love works,” Eric commented.
“Puppy love,” I commented dryly. “But—yeah—I think I’ll always have a place in my heart for Bill.”
“Despite what he did?” Eric asked.
“Maybe because of it?” I said as a question. “I need to remember.”
“So that I will always recall the difference between what is true and what is false. So that I’ll remember how fast everything I believe in can go away,” I added, my voice becoming quieter and quieter as the sentence went along.
It didn’t matter. Eric had vampire hearing.
“I see,” he commented. “You think that I will go away too.”
“You already did,” I reminded.
“Ask me to stay with you, Sookie Stackhouse. Ask just once,” the vampire challenged.
“Stay where?” I gulped.
“Stay with you; the where does not matter,” he said passionately, his blue orbs powerfully compelling even from across the room.
“I can’t,” I whimpered.
He nodded. “Not yet.”
I blinked. He didn’t remember us. How could I ask him to stay with me? After all, he’d left as soon as he’d remembered who he was.
I was cautious. Frightened.
Who could blame me?
“We can’t lie to each other?” I asked, changing the subject again.
“No. And you should be able to feel my emotions too, though I think you are blocking them.”
“Hmm. Like your shields.”
I closed my eyes and lowered my shields. I heard the echoes of nearby humans, but nothing else.
“Like you shields. Not exactly them,” Eric clarified.
I nodded and then stumbled across a mind-wall I’d not seen before. I peered around it.
“There,” Eric said with a sigh. “What do you feel?”
“Excitement, anxiety,” I reported. “Hope.” The third emotion surprised me, and I was sure my face showed it.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “All of those.”
“Can you read my emotions?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
“Very well,” he responded.
“You can track me, too—right?”
“Yes. And either you can track me right now, or you could learn to do it,” he affirmed.
I nodded, remembering that I’d felt him coming closer and closer as I’d held the bomb.
“What else? What’s the difference between the kind of thing I had with Bill and with you—before—and what we have now?”
“You already know the differences,” he said with certainty, “at least the biggest one.”
“It’s a two-way street now,” I half-asked and half-stated.
Eric nodded. “Yes. You now feel me as I have felt you. You now sense my presence as I have sensed yours.”
“Okay—that’s the practical day-to-day stuff,” I said. “But what does it mean beyond all that? Can you,” I felt myself gulp, “control me?”
“I doubt anyone could,” he mumbled sarcastically.
I glared at him.
“Nor would I want to,” he said louder.
“So? What else is there?” I asked impatiently. “I can feel that you are holding things back,” I added, latching on to his emotions, through the bond-thingy.
He looked momentarily proud of me for accessing his emotions, and then he responded to my question, effectually taking all the air out of the room—at least for me: “We are bonded permanently.”
“Permanently?” I gasped, hearing the trepidation in my voice. “Uh—won’t it wear off?”
He shook his head. “No.”
I wanted to run from him. I looked at the door.
“I could find you no matter where you went,” he said somewhat sadly. “And I would need to. If we are too far apart, we will live in misery.”
“Earlier,” I breathed out, “the comfort—the strength—that I felt? Can you make me feel things?”
“Make? No,” he responded. “But I can send you emotions. And you can accept what I send. You could also choose to send me emotions, too.”
I looked at him and glared. I thought of the moment I’d staked Lorena and channeled the rage I’d felt then into my very soul.
His fangs popped down, and I immediately stopped my sending.
“Would you have me go on a killing spree?” he chuckled.
“No,” I whispered, freaked out that I’d been able to send him my rage.
I looked at him again and mustered up every ounce of lust I could, thinking of the moments I’d spent with the memoryless man who looked just like him.
His fangs grew impossibly longer.
He spoke to me in a long-dead language—though in such a low tone that I couldn’t clearly make out a single syllable—not that I could have understood him anyway. And then he closed his eyes and put his fangs away.
When he reopened those blue orbs, they were placid. “It is difficult to resist the promptings of a bonded one,” he said, “but it is not impossible.” He paused, leering at me. “Even though I wanted to accept and then double your lust.”
“But you knew I was testing you,” I said.
“Yes. You always do.”
Somewhat reluctantly, I nodded in agreement. “What else should I know about this bond?”
His expression sobered. “It is more sacred than a human marriage—at least to the supernatural. When Quinn tried to claim you again, he was basically attempting to make me a cuckold.”
Thanks to one of my word-of–the day calendars, I knew what that meant.
“And me an adulteress,” I added bitterly. “Is that how I would have been seen? By other Supes?”
Eric nodded. “Yes. But that didn’t happen.”
I shook my head. “Quinn wouldn’t have told me any of this,” I said bitingly.
“I would have,” he promised. “I was coming to you even when I felt your fear.”
“What else is there?” I asked, my voice wavering. And then I asked the question I’d been dreading since he’d introduced the idea. “When I die, what will happen to you?”
“If we become a true bonded pair—partners, lovers, friends, confidants—then we will exchange blood often. My blood is strong and could keep you young for many years. I am well aware or your dislike for the idea of becoming like me. But I will try to convince you otherwise.” He shrugged. “Regardless, if I do my duty and keep you safe, then you will live a very long time. However—if you stay obstinate and stubborn—you will eventually die.”
“Vampires die too,” I reminded. I’d seen my fair share explode, after all.
“That they do,” he agreed with a dark chuckle. “And when you or I go . . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Suicide?” I gasped.
He shrugged. “Many human partners die of what is called a broken heart after a long relationship. A diluted version of the same magic that now binds us is responsible for their bonds too. If you have no affection for me, I perceive that you will survive if I meet the true death, though you will be in physical pain for a while.”
“What about you?” I asked. “Can your heart break?”
I hadn’t meant for the question to sound harsh, but it had.
“Only one being on this earth could cause that,” he whispered.
“And has she?” I panted.
“No—not yet,” he responded, his face impassive.
“You don’t even remember us,” I said, agony rising into my tone.
He nodded. “I don’t, but—given what you have told me and what I feel from you now—I can guess many things.”
I nodded, though I couldn’t say how I’d felt about the other “him” out loud.
He closed his startling blue eyes. “Do you know what the witch’s spell book told me?”
“No idea,” I whispered, looking for him to open his eyes. He didn’t oblige.
“The curse was to take me to my heart’s desire—though I would not know it.”
“Heart’s desire?” I whimpered.
“I am a Viking, Sookie,” he said, opening his eyes—finally. “And Vikings were not misogynistic assholes. We wanted our women to be strong and bold. After all, they needed to be able to rule the roost while we were gone a ‘Viking for nearly half the year. In truth, they did most of the hard work: the overseeing of crops, the raising of children, and the growing of culture.” He chuckled. “Take it from me: my mother was twice the man my father was—by today’s societal standards. But she was all woman. And—unapologetic about that too! She was soft and welcoming to my father. And all the stronger because of that mixture of soft and strong.”
“Are you comparing me to your mother?” I asked with a gasp.
“No,” he said, his gaze steady. “I held her in the highest esteem. I still do. All others have been measured by her, and they have been found lacking.”
“Oh,” I sighed.
“You surpass her!” he continued forcefully.
“Don’t,” I said—just as forcefully.
“Don’t what?” he snarled. “Don’t tell you that I’ve wanted you for a long time? Don’t tell you that I envy the me that got to have you? Don’t tell you that I fucking celebrate the bond we formed tonight? Don’t tell you that you are my heart’s desire?”
He scoffed. “Don’t ask me to lie, Sookie Stackhouse!”
“Eric,” I sighed. “I don’t know how to trust that you could . . . .”
“Love you!” he finished.
“Something close to love,” I said, my chin raised up. “That’s all you—or he—and I ever reached.
He laughed heartily, a reaction I’d not expected.
“I said before that I couldn’t lie to you.”
“And what are you saying now?” I pushed.
“That I am a violent predator of the night. And I don’t give a fuck if I deserve a creature of the light—a woman like you. What matters is that I want you—love you.”
“Love?” I gasped out.
“You wanted to know what the bond meant?” he asked. “Love. Love is what the bond means—to me. I chose to love you fully—unapologetically—the moment I interfered with Andre’s plans.”
“That simple?” I choked out.
He chuckled. “Love is the least simple of things. If it were simple, I would have done it before I was a thousand years old.”
“I’m scared of it—of you,” I admitted.
“Yes—I am aware.”
“I’m scared of everything. I mean—bombs are gonna go off soon!”
He chuckled. “Only figurative ones—when you yield to me again.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I sighed.
“I know.” He nodded toward the clock by the bed. “As I said, in two and a half hours, you and I will go to the queen’s room. We will tell her about Felipe. We will tell her that Quinn was a spy. We will let her know that—through our combined efforts—we have discovered a threat against this hotel. We will leave and then stand back as Sophie-Anne and Andre thwart the plan and are made heroes. Meanwhile, you and I will return to the relative anonymity of Northern Louisiana. The Queen and Andre—who will become the new King of Arkansas, thanks to your advice—will be beholden to us. We will watch them both—her to the south and him to the north. One day, one of them will attack—probably Andre—but we will thwart him.”
“You’re talking about all this so calmly,” I sassed.
“Live a thousand years and you will too,” he returned.
A part of me wanted to tell him that I’d never live that long. Another part told me to stay silent.
“Progress,” he grinned as if reading my mind.
“Don’t meet the sun!” I said suddenly. “If I die—promise me.”
He looked down and then shook his head. “You would know the lie if I told you I wouldn’t.”
“Eric. . . .” I started.
“Today? If you died?” he contemplated. “I think it would be fifty-fifty. Who knows what tomorrow’s chances might be.” He grinned. “And who fucking cares? I have lived with only the next night in mind for a thousand years.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe that. I think you are already planning for many, many nights ahead.”
He rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I mean. Yes—I plan. I plan for all angles I can imagine. But I don’t let that planning ruin a moment. And,” he added, “I’m never too stubborn to change a plan when the need arises.”
I considered those words for a moment. “Was your bonding with me tonight a change of plans you’d already made—for me?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “But not just for you. For us.”
“Did you plan to bond with me all along?” I asked, feeling my fear rise a little.
“Of course I did,” he said unapologetically.
He sighed loudly, even as my fear spiked.
“Why are you feeling fear?” he demanded, his anger coming to life. “I didn’t intend to force you! I was trying to figure out ways to woo you, stubborn woman!”
“Huh? Woo? Me?”