Eric looked at Miranda, who scented the vampire king a few seconds after he had.
He spoke to her in a low tone. “Keep the boy inside and occupied. Keep him safe, Miranda.”
The Werelioness’s eyes became momentarily yellow, and she nodded fiercely. “Do not worry. The young cub will be safe.”
Eric nodded as Miranda started inside. “Jesus, you should go with her. Keep everyone inside.”
Miranda had just closed the back door as Bill came into sight around the side of the house. Bubba was following at a distance of about fifteen feet behind the vampire king.
“Good evening, Eric,” Bill said, his Southern accent making Eric’s skin crawl.
Bill looked around and inhaled. “Where is Sookie? She is not at the shifter’s bar this evening, and I don’t hear or smell her inside the house.”
“Sookie no longer works for the shifter,” Eric said, trying to sound casual. “And you are right. She is not in the house, but her whereabouts are none of your concern.”
Bill snarled a bit and inhaled deeply. “There has been a child here today,” the vampire king remarked. “The smell is,” he paused, “quite lovely. Tell me, Eric,” Bill sneered, “have you gone back to the old ways of feeding on small children?”
Eric cursed himself for allowing Bill to get close enough to pick up Hunter’s scent. While the boy didn’t smell as strongly of fairy as Sookie did, he did have a supernatural odor about him. Again, Eric’s tone was casual, “No, Bill. The practice of feeding on small children was frowned upon by our kind even in the dark ages, and I only participated in it once during my 17th year as vampire—when ordered by my maker to do so as a test of my discipline.” Eric looked sharply at Bill. “I passed that test, and the child lived.”
Now that he was older, Eric disapproved of that particular trial by Godric and had never given a similar one to Pam. It had been difficult for him to stop at only half a pint of the child’s blood. Over the years, it had become an unwritten rule among vampires that children were to be left untouched by the undead.
Eric glared at Bill. “I have heard stories about you and Lorena feeding from and killing children, however.”
Bill shifted uncomfortably. “Lorena’s tastes were barbaric, and I was forced to obey her until I was released.”
Eric stared heavily at Bill. “Then―the fact that there was a child here will not matter to you in the least. If you must know, however, I believe Miranda allowed for a small relative of one of the Were workers to spend the day here.” Eric continued sarcastically, “Should I require that all children be out of your range by dark, King Bill—just to make sure that you don’t revert to your maker’s ways?”
Bill sneered, “I am not here to speak of the past, Eric. I am here to inform you about Sookie’s obligations to me. I require her to read the minds of my human staff on Saturday evening.”
“That will be quite impossible,” Eric said.
“Well―make it possible,” Bill returned. “The task will be of little effort or inconvenience as it can be done at the mansion, and it will take no more than a couple of hours.”
Eric shook his head slowly. “Sookie will not be available for the foreseeable future, Bill.”
Bill growled. “She promised that as a member of this realm, she would agree to work for me from time to time. You cannot just summarily decide that she will not! She would never agree to that anyway. You obviously don’t know Sookie at all; she would not break her word!”
In the next moment, Eric’s emotions spilled over, and Bill was three feet off the ground being held by the neck—tightly. Bill was powerless against the older vampire’s grip, and his legs thrashed uselessly as Eric squeezed his throat.
“You know nothing of Sookie―nothing!” the Viking yelled menacingly. His voice lowered and became steel, “I know everything that makes my wife who she is. I know how much she hates lies, Billy boy, and how much she hates liars like you. I know what it is like to bond with her―to form a true union with her body and soul. I imagine that you think that I will waver―that I will look to another for sex or for blood, but I could not. All other blood is of nothing to me. All other women are as nothing! You cannot understand the kind of love I have for my bonded and pledged mate, Bill, because you are deficient in every way. You just want Sookie’s blood―‘sunshine in a pretty blonde bottle’―but you don’t know her!” Eric squeezed tighter, and Jarod thought that he might literally tear Bill’s head from his body.
Instead, Eric kept speaking, “My Sookie―yes MY Sookie―is not some blood source to be controlled by antiquated notions of blood ties or patriarchal values. My Sookie is my partner, my lover, my friend, and my life mate for the rest of my days.” Eric moved so that his mouth was right next to Bill’s ear. “And even if you possessed her, Billy boy, you would never have that. That is for us only.”
Eric threw Bill across the yard and began to stalk toward him even as Bill tried to rise. The younger vampire looked frightened as Eric’s power crashed off of him in waves. “I could kill you in seconds Bill. Hell,” Eric laughed savagely, “it would take me less time than that. But I will grace you with your life one last time in honor of my wife and the affection she once thought she felt for you.”
Bill stood and dusted off his suit. He had the presence of mind not to speak as he looked up at Eric.
The Viking spoke coldly, “The official paperwork will be on your desk tomorrow, but the telepath, Sookie Stackhouse, will be unavailable for the foreseeable future because she has been taken to the fairy realm once again. If you are still alive and still king when she returns to me from that realm, I will inform you―as is my duty as your loyal subject.” Eric bowed in an exaggerated manner.
“What?” Bill spoke, unable to stop himself. “Sookie was taken again?”
“Yes,” Eric answered evenly. “Now―if you want to keep your miserable existence,” his voice was back to steel, “you will do three things. First, you will return to your house now and never step foot onto our property again. The next time you do, I will kill you, Bill, even if you just come to borrow a cup of sugar—so to speak. If you need me for area business, you may call me―or better yet―you can contact me through Pam. Second, you will never say Sookie’s name in my presence again, and you will never insinuate that you somehow know my wife better than I do, or I will separate that little head of yours from your shoulders. One flick of my wrist, and it would have been mine just now. You know that as well as I do. And third, you will let me run my fucking area in peace without your fucking interference! If you do that, the money will flow in, and if you can pull your head out of your ass long enough to act like a fucking king, you can have a successful state. So pull it out, Bill―or I will take it off!”
Bill tried to puff himself up a bit and was obviously collecting his courage. “I am king,” he stammered.
Eric shook his head. “You are not king, Bill; what you are―is irrelevant. In fact, if you were more relevant in my life, you would already be dead. You would do well to remember that!”
Bill shrunk back at the fury that was raging in Eric’s voice.
“Don’t become more relevant, Bill. I warn you. Now go!” Eric’s voice boomed.
Bill turned and sped away as fast as he could go, knowing that if he lingered for even a few moments, he would be no more.
Once he was gone, Eric walked over to a tree at the edge of the yard and literally ripped it out of the ground. He threw it down, bent over it, and closed his eyes. Eric gave himself one minute—sixty seconds exactly—to think of the words he’d spoken to Bill, the words that described his love for Sookie. He thought of her sitting on his lap, her hair bathed in firelight. And he felt his hand rising, as if to luxuriate in the feel of her soft hair; however, his hand grasped only empty air. After that minute, he banished those thoughts and his anger so that he could return to the boy inside. He stretched his neck and turned around.
“Bubba,” Eric said, “should Compton step foot onto this property when I am not here, you are to call me immediately and attempt to hold him here. If he ever approaches Hunter, you are to kill him immediately.”
Eric turned toward Jarod and gestured toward the tree. “This oak will make a good desk for Hunter; however, you may cut some of the smaller branches and roots off for firewood, if you wish.
The shifter nodded.
Having regained his composure completely, Eric strode toward the house, brushing the dirt from his encounter with the tree from his clothing as he went.
Eric pushed in his code—the number that represented the first day he’d seen his Sookie—and entered the house quietly, giving himself thirty seconds to think of the way she had looked the first moment he’d seen her. He had spotted her immediately. She was wearing white in a sea of black. Her hair had been pushed back primly—innocently—in what Pam had later told him was called a headband. He’d inconspicuously trailed her with his eyes from the moment she’d walked into Fangtasia. He’d monitored her interaction with Longshadow. His dead heart had leapt when she’d inquired about him to Compton. Her voice had caught when she’d asked who he was; even Compton had noticed. Eric had needed to muster his self-control in order to wait a few more minutes to summon her and Compton. Even then—in those first moments—he’d wanted to be near her, and now she was a world away from him.
He shook himself out of his memory and pushed those thoughts to the side, relying on all of his self-control to keep himself steady. Sookie needed for him to be strong. Hunter needed for him to be strong.
Eric went into the living room and found the group watching a movie. When Hunter saw him, the boy rushed to the vampire’s side, “Uncle Eric, Uncle Jason brought over Nemo for me to watch!”
Eric looked at the television screen and saw that an animated movie was playing. He remembered Hunter saying something about Nemo before that had upset him, but the child seemed happy to be watching the film now. “That’s excellent, Hunter. You should continue watching it with your Uncle Jason and Jesus. Your Uncle Lafayette, Miranda, and I will speak about your schedule for eating, sleeping and schooling, and then I will join you to watch the rest―okay, smár rekkr? Later, you and I will speak to make sure the schedule we come up with is okay with you.”
“Cool,” Hunter said, quickly hugging Eric’s leg. Then he hurried back to the couch, where Jason was also sitting, and became captivated by the movie again.
Miranda, Eric and Lafayette moved off to the dining room.
“I will return in a moment,” Eric said. He zipped upstairs and returned with his laptop.
Eric noticed and was grateful for the fact that they had left Sookie’s customary chair vacant. Eric quickly turned on the laptop and checked some information on the Internet. After a few minutes, he spoke, “According to several websites, children Hunter’s age should get ten to twelve hours of sleep a day. I suggest that his bedtime be midnight and that he rise between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. Then, he may take a nap after his lunch meal.”
“Okay,” Lafayette said, doing some quick calculations. “That’ll mean, breakfast at around 11:00 or 11:30, lunch at around 3:30 and dinner at around 9: 00. That way, his food can be digested by the time he sleeps.”
“Excellent,” Eric said as he checked his email quickly. He looked at Lafayette. “Mr. Cataliades has emailed me a copy of your employment contract. I will print it and give it to you tonight for you to read over. I would like for you to work here and help with Hunter during the days—from 10:00 to 6:00 p.m. You need not stay late into the nights. If you can pre-make things for Hunter’s dinner that I can easily warm, I will take care of his latest meal of the day. And between Hunter’s daytime meals, you may come and go as you wish. I would prefer if you would give notice at Merlotte’s and work for me six days a week—at least at first—if you are amenable to that. As for the seventh, I would ask only that you leave food that can be easily warmed. The compensation package I will offer should be more than satisfactory.”
Lafayette smiled, “I gave my notice to Sam earlier today. He’ll be needin’ me the rest of the week to handle the bar ‘til he finds someone else, but he’s agreed to give me only night shifts as I finish out the week. So this week, I can make Hunter breakfast and lunch before I goes to work and make sure there’s always a casserole or soup to warm for his dinner.”
“Good,” Eric said. He turned back to the laptop. He quickly read something and then turned to Miranda. “I am emailing you information about homeschooling 5-year olds. If you are not able to do all these items with Hunter, perhaps Lafayette or Jesus could help. I have decided to avoid bringing in a new teacher for the time being if I can—though after Hunter is in control of his telepathy, we can revisit that idea. And I will teach Hunter Swedish in the evenings. Children are apparently very good at picking up languages. Mostly, however, the curriculum for a 5-year-old stresses phonics, reading, and alphabet writing―along with basic mathematics.” He read a bit more. “Hunter is currently confusing his ‘r’ and ‘w’ sounds, which is common for children his age.” He read more. “Do not overcorrect him on things such as this. He will eventually be able to make the sounds correctly himself through listening and repeating.” Eric continued reading and then spoke again, “It is best to break the schooling into several smaller blocks of time and give plenty of play time in between.”
Miranda smiled. “We can definitely do that. Don’t worry,” she said, looking over the email on her phone. “All of this looks doable, but Hunter is actually more advanced than a lot of these materials. I learned that today when we did a little reading together. If it is okay, I would like to consult with Luna and perhaps get her help in determining what materials we should use. And we will need supplies for arts and crafts.”
Eric nodded. “Good idea. Talk to Ms. Garza and get whatever you need. I will begin working on a desk for Hunter as soon as my workshop is completed. And I will teach Hunter something of woodcraft if he shows interest.”
“Oh, he’ll show interest if you’s the one doin’ it,” Lafayette said.
Eric smiled at Lafayette’s statement, hoping that Hunter would indeed be interested. Working with wood would also help him to pass time as he waited for Sookie to return; when she’d been in the fairy realm during the previous year, repairing the furnishings in the farmhouse had been like a salve to him. He also hoped to use the instruction to help Hunter develop mental shields. He figured that though the work, the child could visualize building ‘boxes’ around the thoughts of others―just as he might build a box with wood.
Eric looked at Miranda. “I also want you to work with Hunter on shielding the thoughts of people. Start with yourself. If he is like Sookie, then Were thoughts will seep into his mind less potently than human ones, so shielding himself from you should be comparatively less taxing for him, but have him practice with Lafayette and Jesus too when you deem it appropriate. Make sure that he is not overwhelmed by this instruction, however. If he becomes upset or tired from it, bring him to me in my day rest, and allow him to nap at my side. Sookie said that being around vampires always soothed her mental exertions.”
Miranda nodded. “We’ll start tomorrow, and I will make sure his practices are short.”
Next, Eric pulled up Lafayette’s work contract and hit the button to print it. He zipped over to the extra bedroom where he’d set up his wireless printer and brought back the document for Lafayette to read.
Then Eric went quietly into the living room. He sat in the rocking chair off to the side and watched Hunter for a moment before turning his attention to the movie. A couple of minutes later, Hunter noticed that Eric was back and crawled up into his lap before looking again at the television screen. Before long, Hunter was resting his head on Eric’s chest and the vampire had laid his hand softly on the boy’s arm. Eric rocked them gently as the fish Nemo and his father Marlin attempted to find their way back to each other through the vast ocean. Both vampire and boy were enthralled by the story, but neither one of them acknowledged his connection to the story consciously.