(Ninety minutes after Chapter 12 & just after Sookie’s lunch with Alcide has ended)
Sookie closed her eyes tightly and leaned against her steering wheel. The disappointment was clear on her face.
Maria-Star gave her a few minutes of silence—patient as she scanned the area, using all of her honed senses. In truth, her instincts told her to get out of the vehicle and to track a disturbingly familiar scent she’d thought she’d picked up on earlier; however, she stayed in place with her charge, even as Mustapha kept watch from outside, and Willow flew in circles above them.
“Would you like for me to cancel your appointments, Miss Stackhouse?” the Were finally asked.
“No. That won’t be necessary, Maria-Star,” Sookie sighed. “I’m okay—just disappointed in Alcide and pissed off.” She sat up a little straighter and started the engine of her new Chevrolet Suburban. “The Beast” (as she had nicknamed the vehicle) roared to life. It had been modified by Eric’s friend, Kenshin. Kenshin, whom she’d met when he’d personally delivered the vehicle on December 30, lived in Manhattan and owned a good amount of the Chevrolet company. Apparently, he had been designing vehicles with vampires’ needs in mind for decades!
The good news for Sookie was that he’d sold her the vehicle at cost. And a lot of the vampire “bells and whistles,” including the built-in, virtually indestructible emergency coffin and the light-tight shades that could be lowered, were prototypes, which Kenshin wanted Eric to help to test. So they hadn’t cost extra.
Neither had the bullet-proofing and the fire-retardant system. Sookie figured that Kenshin had taken a loss on the vehicle, considering all that he’d done to modify it, but—when she’d tried to talk him into taking more money for the Suburban—he’d insisted that he felt bad even asking her for the small amount that he had. However, when Sookie insisted that she would be reading his employees at a discount when she and Eric visited Manhattan in June, she’d felt less guilty about taking the vehicle for so little.
She smiled a little as she thought of the training sessions that she and Eric had done to develop her defensive—and offensive—driving skills. That training had always ended up with them near a little secluded pond, finding new ways to christen the vehicle—taking advantage of all of its cargo room! Trying to hide her blush, she typed in the address of the office building where she was meeting Eric’s attorneys and their team into the Beast’s fancy GPS system.
“You do not remember how to get there from last week?” Maria-Star asked with surprise.
“I do. I just don’t want to think about it right now,” Sookie said wearily, her thoughts returning to her disastrous lunch.
A few blocks into their trip, Maria-Star spoke. “I am not your counselor, Dr. Smith, but you can speak to me if you feel that it would do you some good.”
Surprised and pleased that Maria-Star was becoming more sociable—or at least cordial—Sookie smiled to herself a little. “Thanks. But I don’t think talking would do much good. And—for the record—I had prepared myself mentally for the possibility that Alcide was just meeting me so that he could try to talk me out of being with Eric.”
“Well—that clearly didn’t work,” Maria-Star intoned.
“No, it didn’t,” Sookie smirked.
“Out of curiosity, who taught you how to punch like that? The sheriff?” Maria-Star asked.
“No,” Sookie chuckled, even as she recalled the surprised look on Alcide’s face when she’d hit him as hard as she (and Eric’s blood in her system) could manage. That look had been priceless, though Sookie still regretted that there’d been a need for the punch.
“My brother taught me,” the telepath shared.
Maria-Star smirked. “It was an excellent punch. But—in the future—you do know that you have guards to conduct any physical adjustments that might be needed for the people you interact with.”
“Physical adjustments,” Sookie giggled at the phrasing. “I’ll keep that in mind, especially with someone that has such a hard, damned head!” She flexed her sore hand a little.
“You are sure that’s okay?” Maria-Star asked, gesturing toward Sookie’s right fist, which had taken the force of her perfectly executed right hook.
Sookie chuckled and shook her head. “If I didn’t have Eric’s blood in me, I probably would have broken it. But it’s fine. And if it’s still sore tonight, Eric will want to heal it.”
“Surely,” Maria-Star agreed. “You will be so kind as to tell him that you could have—should have—safely waited for me to take care of Mr. Herveaux?”
“I will,” Sookie said with a grin. She knew that Maria-Star wasn’t trying to cover her own ass; indeed, she was certain from the Were’s thoughts that she was trying to tease Sookie for taking matters into her own hands—at least, her right fist.
In her way, Maria-Star was being her friend—though the Were would not have admitted that.
“Eric won’t be mad at you. He’ll be more likely to be mad at me for not giving you the signal. But I just couldn’t let one more comment slide. And when he threatened that he would find a way to break the blood bond?” Sookie practically growled. “Well—that was the line, apparently.”
“It clearly was,” Maria-Star agreed about the abrupt ending of Sookie and Alcide’s lunch interaction.
And their friendship.
Sookie sighed. The lunch had begun pleasantly enough. She and Alcide had chatted about the renovations to the farmhouse, though she’d purposely held back any details that dealt specifically with security. They’d also talked about whether Sookie had suffered any fall-out from King Russell Edgington in Jackson, Mississippi. Alcide had even shared about how proud he was of his father’s sobriety and renewed commitment to both his work and his family.
But eventually, the Were showed that his true agenda was to try to talk her into leaving Eric. She managed to shut him down for a while by bringing up her new business and focusing the conversation on some of the potential work Colonel Flood had for her. She’d thought that discussing the Were-related work would be a safer topic. It turned out that she was incorrect.
After listening to her excitedly paint the broad strokes of her new company, Sunset Consulting, Alcide had tried to counsel her to put the company on hold until he could help her to understand how to run a business.
As if her thousand-year-old vampire business partner, who’d had countless successful business ventures, wasn’t up to the task!
Though Sookie had felt like slapping Alcide right then, she’d held back. And summoning up all the lessons in “etiquette when you are dealing with idiots” (Gran’s phrasing, not hers) that she’d learned during her upbringing, Sookie had thanked Alcide for his offer of help and had told him that she’d certainly “keep it in mind.”
Bless your heart—the Southern woman’s ultimate “curse”—had been raging through her mind the whole time she’d been placating him.
Indeed, Sookie had already begun to acknowledge to herself that a friendship between Alcide and herself just wasn’t in the cards. Clearly sensing her lack of movement at his words, the Were had “upped his game” in trying to get her to turn away for Eric and turn toward him.
By then, they were done with lunch and were just waiting for the check to be brought, and Sookie really—really—just wanted to get through the remaining portion of the encounter as civilly as possible. Frankly, she’d already been planning the words that she was going to use in order to tell Alcide that—though she appreciated him being her friend throughout much of the Jackson situation (until he’d run off after she was staked, of course)—she didn’t see a friendship for them working out since he clearly couldn’t accept her choices or her relationship.
Indeed, she felt very confident in how she intended to leave things between herself and the Were, though she’d regretted that he had never intended to truly make an effort to be her friend that day. But that was on him—not her.
Yes—she’d been hoping to be magnanimous (that day’s word from her calendar) about the whole thing—to part amicably (a word from last week) with him. She’d just been congratulating herself for both her attitude and her new vocabulary when Alcide had leaned toward her to say that he’d heard tell of witches that could break blood bonds and would be arranging for it to be done for her.
Her fist had connected with his chin before she’d registered that it was moving.
“The look on his face was pretty hilarious when I hit him,” she remarked to Maria-Star.
The Were next to her chuckled. “You should have followed it up with a kick to the balls—as you and Dr. Smith discussed.”
Sookie giggled. “Aphra and I were joking about that!”
Maria-Star shrugged. “Humor almost always carries a bit of truth in it.”
Sookie looked over at her guard/friend. Of course, Maria-Star still called her Miss Stackhouse, and she behaved as professionally as always. However, the telepath knew from the Were’s mind that she thought of her as “Sookie” and that she had some warm regard for her.
The telepath was happy about that, but knew better than to push things with her Head of Daytime Security. Thus, she’d stopped trying to compel Maria-Star to call her by her first name and had opted to simply enjoy her company when given the chance.
Of course, most of their time together found the Were in full work mode as she was even then, for Sookie was pulling up to the first guard station that led into the parking garage for the building where Eric’s attorneys and their team would be meeting them. Eric had rented an office suite for Sunset Consulting in the extremely well-guarded (Were-guarded) and secure building just the week before when Sookie had begun doing day-time screenings of the people that he worked with.
So far—she’d used the office only once—to do an initial screening of Eric’s attorneys’ overall loyalty. Today’s meeting would be a follow-up with the defense team that Eric kept on retainer. She had a list of more pointed topics to take the lawyers—as well as their team of paralegals—through. She’d caught no issues with them at the initial screening; however, she and Eric both thought it would be good for her to practice trying to garner more detailed reports. Though they didn’t expect to find anything untoward with the attorneys or the others on their team, the practice—in a safe situation—was quite useful to Sookie, who was feeling more and more confident about her skill by the day.
Once waved past the first layer of security, Sookie drove up to the second. She smiled as she saw the German shepherd that she’d “met” the week before, Scout. The appropriately-named dog (a real dog, not a Were) was led by his handler, Scott (a real Were, not a dog). Together, they would be making sure her car had no bombs or anything like that.
Sookie had learned the week before that Scout had been one of Colonel Flood’s dogs. Indeed, he was Shadow’s daddy, a thought that put a smile onto the telepath’s face. Sookie’s little puppy had been an amazing addition to her life. And she liked “meeting” his father.
“Hello, Miss Stackhouse,” Scott greeted in a friendly manner.
Sookie exchanged greetings with him as he and Scout did their work—both for her vehicle and the one that Mustapha was driving, which had pulled into the garage behind them. Willow had flown between the restaurant and the office building. When Scout and Scott were done, Sookie asked if she could give the dog a treat. Getting permission, Sookie opened her car door and petted Scout for a moment before offering him a milk bone. Happily, the dog took his treat.
“See you later,” Sookie said to both the dog and his handler, before closing the car door and proceeding toward the ramp that would take her to the next level, the location of her assigned parking area.
Of course, during the whole process through the guard station, Maria-Star was looking around the garage carefully, her entire body taut and at the ready.
From the restaurant, the Were had already texted Colonel Flood to send extra security, for she’d thought that she’d picked up a scent as she’d been walking into Bob’s Diner—a familiar one. As soon as she’d recognized it, however, it had been gone—taken away on a breeze.
She had not been expecting the Colonel himself to be waiting in the garage. But he was there, along with a few others, as Sookie pulled into her parking space.
“What’s all this?” the telepath asked Maria-Star even after she’d waved at Colonel Flood.
“I want to investigate a scent I picked up back at the diner,” the guard explained.
“Scent?” Sookie asked.
Maria-Star nodded. “You are aware that I went to school with Debbie Pelt, so I am familiar with her scent.”
“Yes,” Sookie responded with a bit of trepidation. She’d hoped that Debbie had moved on—preferably to Timbuktu—by then.
“I thought I scented her—just for a moment—at Bob’s Diner. It was so fleeting that I cannot be sure. However, it is worth following up. Plus—did you notice that Mr. Herveaux had very newly showered?” Maria-Star asked.
Sookie shook her head. “No.”
“He could have been trying to cover up a scent,” the Were observed.
“You think he and Debbie are somehow working together?” Sookie asked with a frown.
“I doubt it, but she might be following him. Did he think of her at all during your lunch?” Maria-Star asked.
Sookie shook her head. “Not really. He had a fleeting thought about how she got entangled in ‘vampire shit’ and with vampire blood; he blames vampires for her addiction—to a certain extent, at least. He worries that I’ll turn out like her. And he wished for a moment that Debbie was ‘innocent’—like me.” The telepath rolled her eyes. “Alcide has a very mistaken impression of me.”
Maria-Star lifted an eyebrow.
Sookie blushed, but then shrugged. “So—what do you think the scent means?”
“Maybe absolutely nothing,” Maria-Star answered honestly. “The scent could have been lingering in Mr. Herveaux’s truck or on clothing that is normally not washed much—like his coat. It was so fleeting, and I did not pick it up again while we were at the diner, or I would have removed you from the area immediately.” The guard paused for a moment. “Still—I want to further investigate. Like I said, it is possible that Debbie is tracking Alcide without his knowledge—stalking him.”
“That sounds like something she might do,” Sookie said sourly.
Maria-Star nodded in agreement. “Yes. So it is worth a look.”
Sookie nodded in agreement and then got out of the vehicle as Maria-Star did. Mustapha was already speaking with the Colonel. And Willow was coming toward them from the side of the garage, having put on clothing that had been left for her on the roof of the building. Indeed, Maria-Star had made sure that bundles of clothing were left in a variety of strategic places for the two-natured beings on her staff.
“Colonel, I was not expecting you,” Maria-Star greeted her godfather warmly, but also professionally, given that she was on the job.
“I wanted to make sure nothing was amiss,” Colonel Flood said with a hint of concern. “Your text cited a possible scenting of Debbie Pelt, and we don’t need the kind of trouble she’d bring with her.”
“Agreed,” Maria-Star said, even as she looked at Willow. “Anyone follow? Did you see anything out of the ordinary?”
Willow shook her head. “No. And I didn’t spot Debbie Pelt either, though I did continuous sweeps around the diner while we were there. And no one trailed you from there to here; of that, I am certain.”
Maria-Star took in that information with a nod. “Very well.” She looked at her godfather. “If you wouldn’t mind accompanying Miss Stackhouse and Mustapha to her offices while I’m away, that would be appreciated.” She looked at the others with the Colonel. They were Weres that she knew and that had been in the rotation at Sookie’s farmhouse before. “And you two, do continuous sweeps of the garage and Sookie’s floor.” Finally, she looked at Willow. “Shift again and keep an eye on the outside. The building guards have Debbie’s picture already and have been briefed that she might try to sneak in, but your eyes are better than theirs, and you can spot her if she is trying to surveil us from outside.
Willow winked at Sookie, nodded, and then turned to go back toward the door she’d entered a few minutes before. Actually, it was more like she skipped to the door.
Maria-Star looked at Sookie. “I’ll be back before you have to leave.”
The telepath gave her a little smile. “I’d tell you to be careful, but I wouldn’t want you to know that I care.”
Maria-Star smirked as Mustapha threw her the keys to the vehicle he’d been driving. “Thanks for refraining then.” And—with that—she was off to track.
THIRTY MINUTES EARLIER
Debbie Pelt hit the table next to her with enough force that the dust on the forgotten object seemed to jump up and down.
Everything had been going so perfectly before Sookie arrived at the diner!
She’d managed to get through her dinner with Alcide the previous night without letting her anger show. She’d even been sincere that morning when she’d told him goodbye and that she would miss him.
She would—after all.
Then she’d gone straight to Bob’s Diner, thankful that the morning was windy so that her scent would scatter faster.
As she’d hoped, the office building across from the diner was still abandoned, and she’d found the perfect place on the second floor to watch the diner and still remain concealed from the outside. And then she’d simply waited, imagining the many ways that she wished she could kill Sookie Stackhouse, who had become the symbol of all that had gone wrong in her life.
Oh—in her more reasonable moments—Debbie knew that Sookie didn’t have much to do with her problems at all. However, Debbie just couldn’t shake her hatred for her, nor did reason rule her for long periods of time.
“Why couldn’t you just die in the trunk, you cunt,” the werefox muttered with ire.
Unfortunately, Debbie’s fantasies had come to a screeching halt an hour before when Alcide had pulled up to the diner only seconds before Sookie did. Debbie watched as Alcide excitedly exited his vehicle. Meanwhile, Maria-Star Cooper exited Sookie’s vehicle first and looked around.
Indeed, Debbie had to crouch down in order to make sure that the sharp eyes of her one-time friend missed her.
Debbie growled to herself. Sookie seemed to be taking everything from her, even the allegiance of people that should have been Debbie’s friends! Moreover, Debbie knew that she couldn’t best Maria-Star on her own.
But—then again—she had V to help her. She hated the thought of killing Maria-Star to get to Sookie, but she would do whatever it took to erase the blight of her existence from the earth.
Having waited long enough to know that Maria-Star would have completed her visual assessment of the surrounding buildings, Debbie had leaned up so that she could look out the window again, being even more careful to use a tarp she’d found to all but completely conceal her from any prying eyes, even if they were looking right at “her” window.
She watched Maria-Star give Sookie a signal to exit the vehicle. And then she cringed as she watched Alcide and Sookie embrace in greeting before hurrying into the diner. Debbie’s heart—and courage—sank a bit as she noticed the car that had parked behind Sookie’s. Out of it emerged a Were and some other kind of two-natured creature, though Debbie wasn’t initially sure what kind. They were clearly part of Sookie’s guard team, however.
Debbie had cursed out her frustration as she watched the female look around with sharp eyes before all but disappearing into an alley between Bob’s Diner and the auto parts story next to it. Though the woman did well trying to conceal herself, she had no idea that Debbie was watching from a second-story vantage point. The werefox saw the woman shift into a hawk, and then the Were with her collected her clothing before putting it into their vehicle and going into the diner. Meanwhile, the werehawk began to circle.
Debbie sat back on her heels and closed her eyes tightly. How could she follow Sookie from the diner and figure out a way to ambush her when she had three fucking guards with her, especially when one of them would be able to spot her from the air if she came within fifty feet of the goddamned cunt!?
The werefox continued to fume, even as she kept an eye on the diner, making sure that the werehawk couldn’t spot her. It didn’t even help Debbie’s mood when Alcide left the diner in a huff—and alone. Sookie had come out with Maria-Star and her other Were guard minutes later. The owner of the diner, Bob Brown, had trailed them and was speaking with Sookie warmly. Maria-Star and the other Were were both in protective mode.
And Debbie was left with a dilemma as the werehawk circled from above.
“Fuck it!” Debbie growled. She took the V from her pocket and contemplated it for a few seconds. Something primal within her—whatever it was that made her more fox than human—seemed unable to let go of the desire to kill Sookie Stackhouse!
“I’ll take my fucking chances and kill them all!” she raged, as she uncapped the bottle and drank it down quickly.
Immediately, her body reacted to the drug in her system.
Debbie felt good—strong!
She rose to her feet and hurried toward the stairs that would take her to the ground floor. She’d shift and go right for Sookie’s neck, hopefully catching all of those around her by surprise and striking an immediate death blow.
Yes! Debbie would kill her—even if that meant that she would have to die in the ensuing fight.
No wait! The V would protect her! Of that she was certain.
However, when she was about ten feet away from the door of the office building, an invisible barrier stopped her, and a male voice spoke.
“Hello, little foxy. Aren’t you an interesting find?”
Debbie growled and then shifted. She turned, ready to pounce upon and destroy the person who had spoken to her. However, when she tried to attack him, she found herself stopped by another barrier. Indeed, there were barriers all around her, seemingly closing in on her. Still—she ran into each one, fueled by animalistic rage and V.
“Try not to hurt yourself,” a Were said, stepping forward. “I’d hate it if you did permanent damage to yourself.”
Debbie noted that he was of slight build for a Were, and there was something more to him as well. In her shifted form, her mind was not as fluid, but she registered that he was a witch as well as a Were.
He smiled at her, but it wasn’t a smile of derision. It was a smile of interest—curiosity.
“I would very much like to speak with you, for you seem to be in the same quandary as I am. Perhaps, we could help each other to find out Miss Stackhouse’s vulnerabilities.” He smiled a little wider, the expression becoming a bit more sinister. “Plus, I’m sure that I could use you to amuse my sister for a while. She’s becoming impatient and bored. And she is not,” he paused, “safe to be around when she is like that.”
Debbie yelped as the barrier seemed to be suffocating her.
“Just let yourself go to sleep, little foxy. I promise you’ll wake up right as rain. I understand fully what a waste that will make of that yummy V you just took. But I’m sure I can find you some more.”
Debbie fought to stay awake and continued to try to paw through the barrier.
The Were moved closer and closer, his expression placid.
“Sleep,” he said in an eerily powerful voice. The barrier became even more powerful, and—suddenly—Debbie couldn’t stay upon her feet.
And then she couldn’t keep her fox form either.
“You are very pretty,” the Were said as he took in her naked “human” form. “But don’t worry. I won’t take advantage of you.”
Debbie shook her head, which felt as if it were in a fog. However, she had one momentary, clear image—a fantasy, really. She was up north in Idaho sitting next to her friend, Tonya, and in the company of other women she knew to be her friends. She felt safe and loved as she watched over a child that she knew to be her son. And then the image faded, and she could do nothing but sleep.
A/N: Thanks for the continued support of this story! I appreciated your comments about the short interlude/outtake from last week. I’m glad that you enjoyed the fluff. I hope you liked this latest chapter. What do you think about Debbie being taken by Mark Stonebrook? Surprised? Are you as glad as I am that Sookie punched Alcide and finally gave up on that friendship?
Please comment if you have the time and inclination.
Just FYI: I hope I don’t have to hit “pause” on this story again, but this was my last “banked” chapter. I have another almost completed for Kleannhouse to beta, so I’m hoping not to miss next week. Plus, I have another two chapters after that in rough draft form. However, there is a possibility that I will have to take a week off from this story either next week or the one after that. But keep your fingers crossed. A lot depends on how quickly I can get through several reports I have to do for work. And my house is sorely in need of cleaning. So—yeah—we’ll see, but I hope not to have another pause. Send good thoughts my way—if you don’t mind. This coming work week is going to be a bear!