“I’m pretty sure I never deserved Sookie as a friend,” Tara Thornton said, her eyes taking in the variegated colors of the darkening sky. The sun would be setting in another hour or so.
“Don’t say that,” Alcide Herveaux sighed, wrapping his arms around the woman whose safety had become more important than his own. She leaned back a little, enjoying the warmth he brought to her—the comfort.
“You tried to do right by Sookie; you tried to warn her to stay away from those bloodsuckers,” Alcide soothed.
Tara sighed. “Maybe. But did I ever even try to give her what she really needed—my support? Did I ever really try to understand why Bill was so damned alluring to her? Maybe if I had, she wouldn’t have become so wrapped up in him. Being with him made her lose herself a little. I know in my heart that he was bad for her, but she was just trying to be happy.”
Tara turned around in Alcide’s arms and looked up into his warm chocolate eyes. She nestled against his strong chest and let the beauty of the moment wrap around them like a blanket. She could hear leaves rustling. She could hear birds chatting. She could feel the gentle breeze whispering against her cheeks and causing them to flush from the chilliness.
“I never realized before that Sookie couldn’t do this,” she said, looking up at Alcide again.
“Be held by someone like this—without either hearing all of his thoughts or having to struggle to keep up her shields. I mean—I knew that touch made others’ thoughts stronger to her. But I guess I never let myself think about what that really meant for her. I never considered the price she might have to pay for every hug she gave to me or Jason—or even Gran. I didn’t appreciate the fact that—despite that cost—she never failed to offer me a hug when I needed one, even before she’d learned to shield herself at all. And now it’s too late; she’s dead,” she finished in little more than a whisper.
Alcide sighed. “We don’t know that she’s gone.”
A tear fell from Tara’s eye, though she held others back. “I can’t imagine a scenario where she’s still alive. If Eric hasn’t killed her, I’m sure Bill has—or Russell.”
Alcide frowned. “I’m not a fan of vamps—and I’m definitely no fan of Northman’s—but it is possible that he came to the hospital to help Sookie, beyond just healing her. It’s possible that he wanted to protect her from Compton.”
Tara shook her head a little. “Sam once told me that Eric was ten times worse than Bill, and—if that’s true—then Sookie really is gone.” She reached up to swipe away more tears before they fell down her cheeks.
Alcide was contemplative for a moment. “Northman is ten times more powerful than Compton. And there’s no glossing over the fact that he’s a stone-cold killer. But, from what I’ve heard, it’s not a pleasure sport for him, though I’m sure he takes pleasure in it. He’s known for being a fair sheriff—brutal to people who break vampire law, but not an indiscriminate murderer. And—whatever his motives—he seemed to want to make sure Sookie was safe. The marker he held against my father was for over twenty thousand dollars, and he was willing to call us even if I protected Sookie in Jackson. I don’t know why he cared about her, Tara, but I really think he did.”
“I want to hold out hope that she’s still alive,” Tara whispered, “but hope is a hard thing to hold on to.”
“I know,” Alcide said, pulling her tighter against his body.
In truth, he didn’t know what else to say to make Tara feel any better. She’d had such a hard life. She’d lost so much. She’d been so hurt. It wasn’t a wonder that “hope” was a hard thing for her to marshal.
At the hospital in Rustin, after Northman had taken Sookie, the group that had been holding vigil over what they’d feared was going to be her deathbed had dispersed. Sookie’s brother and Lafayette had returned to Bon Temps. Alcide had figured that—since Northman knew a lot about his own dealings and he didn’t trust the bastard—he’d get the hell out of Dodge for a while.
At first, the Were hadn’t wanted to take Tara with him.
But one look into her fear-filled eyes, and he’d caved.
It comforted Sookie’s friends and family not a bit that Alcide had also picked up Compton’s scent in Sookie’s empty hospital room after they’d returned to it. Obviously, Northman and Compton had fought. There was a Compton-sized imprint in the fucking wall to prove it! Alcide had tracked Sookie and both vampires up to the roof, where Northman’s and Sookie’s scents had disappeared.
Then, Alcide had followed Bill’s scent back down to the parking garage. He figured that Jason, Lafayette, Tara, and he were lucky that Bill had left—probably to pursue Sookie and Northman. Whatever the reason, Bill hadn’t come after the group to question them, which meant that they had a chance to get away clear.
So Alcide had taken off with Tara, whom he’d known for less than a day. Maybe it was because Alcide liked Sookie and wanted to do something to make up for the fact that he’d failed to keep the vampires from hurting her.
Whatever the reason, a second person made hiding just that much harder. Moreover, Tara had had the blood of a vampire—one who, by all accounts, was a crazed sociopath with an obsession for her. It wasn’t exactly the equation for an easy getaway.
Still, Alcide didn’t leave her behind, though—the first time that they’d stopped for gas—he’d thought about it.
The Were ditched his work vehicle as soon as he could. A buddy of his who lived about thirty miles outside of Texarkana had owed him a favor. He let Alcide hide his truck on his property, and he also gave Alcide a rickety old truck of his—but it did the job to get Alcide and Tara into Texarkana. By that time, it was 9:00 a.m. In survival mode and needing cash, Alcide went to the nearest branch of his bank and withdrew every cent he had.
Then Alcide went to an ATM and took out the maximum amount for cash advances that he could on his two credit cards. Next, he pawned the tools that had been in his work truck. With a good amount of cash in hand, Tara and he got another vehicle.
It was Tara who saved him five hundred dollars on the used 2009 Ford Focus that he bought. Because the vehicle didn’t stand out and because of its good gas mileage, the car had been Alcide’s first choice, but the used car salesmen had seemed determined to meet—and surpass—every stereotype about his ilk. But he was no match for Tara, who spouted off an incredible amount of knowledge about automobiles and then accusations about the man being prejudiced against interracial couples. In no time at all, Tara had “convinced” the salesman to let the car go for a fair price.
Alcide knew that it was almost impossible not to leave behind a paper trail, but he’d also learned that if a trail had to be left, it should be designed to run cold very quickly. In his opinion, Texarkana was the perfect place to start and end a trail. The city was basically at the intersection of four states: Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. There were two major interstates running through it. And several other highways too.
After they’d gotten their car and a few provisions, they took Highway 82 west. At Paris, Texas, they turned north onto Highway 271. They drove through the night until they got to Antlers, Oklahoma.
There—they stayed with another friend of Alcide’s—another person who owed him a favor. Of course, upon hearing why they needed a hideout, the “friend” took a vacation of his own. He wasn’t fool enough to stay somewhere that a human with a blood tie to a vampire was staying.
After that, Tara tried to convince Alcide to take off too, but—for some reason that he couldn’t fully understand or explain at the time—he didn’t. Instead, he and Tara gathered weapons and prayed that when Franklin Mott came, he would come alone.
As it turned out, he did come alone. Franklin was as arrogant as he was unhinged. He sped to the house Tara and Alcide were staying in at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, just five days after Tara had almost taken off his head.
Alcide shook his head a little at the memory, even as he pulled Tara closer against him.
Fucking vampires and their fucking fast healing time.
Mott had been crazed, spewing ridiculous nonsense about how he and Tara were meant to be. That was the moment Alcide had realized that he’d begun to care for Tara. She’d turned out to be surprisingly good company. And she was as funny as hell. In fact, Alcide had almost pissed his pants with laughter when she’d told him about Jason Stackhouse’s V-induced swollen pecker. She called the episode “cockamamie”—emphasis on the “cock.”
Yes—as soon as Alcide had heard the vampire who had brutalized Tara yelling out that she was “his,” he’d felt something in him snap.
And then it had snapped firmly into place.
He truly cared for Tara, and there was no fucking way he was going to let Franklin Mott get his fangs into her again.
And the vampire didn’t. Alcide, his resolution causing him to shift, ran out of the house and attacked Mott. The vampire, obviously enamored by the sound of his own demented ranting, had been surprised by the brutal nature of the Were’s attack. However—as he’d thrown Alcide off of him—he’d gotten an even bigger surprise.
A wooden bullet in his chest fired from a gun Tara was holding with steady hands.
“Goodbye, asshole,” Tara had said calmly just before the vampire burst apart.
Had Alcide not been falling in love with her already, he would have started in that moment.
He’d shifted back into a man, and Tara had taken a moment to take him in. And—given the fight and his bloodlust—there had been a lot of Alcide to take in. Tara had given him a little smirk before her hands finally started shaking and her emotions began to ricochet through her. Alcide had made it to her side just before she’d fainted.
Killing someone—killing a vampire who’d raped you—was an experience that would have caused even the strongest to topple over.
Alcide had lifted her gently into his arms; she’d felt “right” in them.
Since the two had never really unpacked their few belongings, Alcide took Tara to their vehicle, dressed, and then drove away from Antlers as fast as he could.
As soon as Tara had woken up, he’d taken her hand in his. As Alcide had driven on rural roads in the early hours of dawn, Tara had cried—until she had no more tears left. And then she’d slept again.
Over the next several days, they’d kept driving. Except for short breaks at country stores to get food or gasoline, they didn’t stop. They took turns driving and stayed off the interstate when they could, sticking to roads that bypassed major cities. It was slow-going, but they made their way north and then into Canada, crossing the border at Coutts, Alberta. Alcide had already arranged—through another contact—for a Were border patrol agent to meet Tara and him. The agent let them through without question—for a price.
During their long drive, Alcide and Tara had talked a lot—sometimes with great humor and sometimes seriously. Alcide told her about how his mom’s death had affected his father. In turn, Tara told him about her abuse at her mother’s hands. And—right before they reached their destination near Ponoka in Alberta, Canada, where Alcide hoped they could settle safely for a while—she’d told him everything about Franklin and what he’d done to her.
She’d trusted him, and that had meant the world to him.
An hour or so south of Edmonton, Ponoka was known to be a sanctuary of sorts for Weres without a pack. Of course, the only people who were in the “know” about this haven were certain Weres from certain packs. Alcide’s father had known one of the founders of the community in Ponoka, an honorable man named Hank Jiles. Alcide remembered Hank a little—but mostly he remembered hanging out with Hank’s son, Henry, a few times; Henry was only a few years older than Alcide.
Alcide was hopeful that Edgington’s Weres had no idea that Ponoka even existed; he’d learned about the community when he’d overheard his father telling a teenager named Tray Dawson about the place. That had been almost twenty years before. Tray had been in trouble with the law, having started several fights after his parents died. The last one had seriously injured a human, and Tray had been arrested. Alcide’s dad had bailed Tray out; being arrested and endangering the secrecy of Weres was an unforgiveable offense, so Tray was given a choice: he could either go to Ponoka and take advantage of a new start or face pack justice, which would have been severe.
In truth, Alcide had been somewhat worried about showing up in Ponoka without a “reference”—as it were. But he shouldn’t have been. A Were’s nose had a long fucking memory, and Henry Jiles had remembered him right away. And he’d welcomed Alcide and Tara.
After hearing their story, Henry had suggested that they go by pseudonyms. And they came up with a Tara-labeled “cockamamie” story to explain why they’d made their way to Ponoka. Alcide—or, rather, Jim—would say that he’d been exiled from his pack because he refused to give up the woman he loved in order to marry a woman in his pack.
But—despite Tara’s making fun of what she called the story’s “Romeo and Juliet idiocy,” the cover story had worked out just fine so far. Within a couple of days of being in Ponoka, Henry, who had been selected as packmaster of the group after his father had died, found Alcide a job in construction. And Tara, who was going by the name Rae, had begun working as a school custodian—of all things.
After arriving in Ponoka and taking up residence in a little cabin secured by Henry, it had taken only twenty-four hours for the sexual tension that had been growing between Alcide and Tara to overwhelm them both.
And neither of them had been sorry in the least.
Henry Jiles had seldom found himself surprised. He couldn’t afford to be.
He’d been only twelve years old when his father had sat him down to tell him about the threats that their pack was facing. Henry’s father, whom he was named for, had been the packmaster of the second largest Were group in the deep South. Headquartered in Gulfport, Mississippi, the Gulf-Range pack boasted members from as far west as the Louisiana border and as far east as Mobile, Alabama. The pack had originally settled in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1820s and had thrived ever since.
From what his father, Hank, had told him, things had begun to change when Henry was about ten years old. A Were group from the Jackson, Mississippi area began to encroach upon Gulf-Range pack-lands. After almost two years of small skirmishes between Hank’s people and members from the other pack, Hank decided that the best thing to do would be to call his people together and to have an open discussion about what had been going on with the encroaching pack. It was at that meeting that Hank had been confronted with troubling news: many of his own people had already defected to the other pack! Moreover, most of the younger Weres, whom Hank had seen as most promising, had become aggressive—even violent—at the meeting, starting fights with their own elder family members.
It had later been found out that V was involved.
After that, Hank had tried to hold his pack together, but he faced a foe he couldn’t defeat—the draw of V and the menace of a stronger pack that threatened to crush anyone that didn’t “fall in line.” In the end, Hank had had little choice but to leave the land his ancestors had hunted on for nine generations. Hank and his family, along with several other families who didn’t want to become absorbed into the invading pack, moved north to Canada.
They’d settled in Ponoka in Alberta. Over the years, others had joined them—most of them disaffected Weres who’d left their packs for personal reasons. But a few, like his right-hand man, Tray Dawson, had left their previous lives because of trouble with the law. They’d come to Ponoka for a second chance.
Henry had followed in his father’s footsteps in that he’d always allowed this chance, but the young packmaster had quickly learned that some people would refuse to accept his authority, and Henry wasn’t about to let a few malcontents hurt his pack. Thus, he always remained wary when new Weres sought to join the Ponoka pack. And there was always a probationary period.
Indeed, if disfranchised Alpha-wannabes came sniffing around his pack, Henry made sure they were dealt with quickly and decisively. Needless to say, they didn’t last long in the pack—or in the world, for that matter.
A second chance? Henry would make sure that they got that. A third? No fucking way.
And Henry wouldn’t apologize for that policy. He’d learned from his father that decisive action was the only way to prevent a pack from being overrun. In fact, Hank Jiles’s biggest regret had been not acting more summarily as soon as he’d sensed a threat against the Gulf-Range pack.
Not surprisingly, the Ponoka pack had grown over the years, from only seventeen Weres when it had been formed to over a hundred and fifty. And Henry was proud of his pack. In the middle of Canada and well-away from other Were groups, the Ponoka pack thrived.
In the spirit of increasing his numbers with good people, Henry had been happy to welcome Alcide Herveaux and his woman into the group. From what they’d told him, it seemed as if they’d had issues with the same group that had once caused the end of the Gulf-Range pack. And—as it turned out—that rogue Were pack was under the ultimate control of a vampire, Russell Edgington, King of Mississippi and now Louisiana too.
Henry hadn’t been too surprised to hear this. His father had always suspected as much. Henry hated the thought of Weres allowing themselves to be “service animals” to vampires, but the young packmaster didn’t hate vampires in general. He’d worked with several over the years, and as long as they treated him with respect, he’d given it back.
However, that still hadn’t stopped him from being surprised a few days before—when he’d gotten a visit from a vampiress he’d never met. She’d introduced herself as Klymene.
Generally, if Henry was to meet with a vampire, he’d be contacted by the sheriff of the area. He’d never had a vampire just show up at his residence.
The vampiress had radiated power, and Henry had sensed that she was ancient. She’d not attempted glamour, but she had asked for an invitation into his home. Henry had been cautious at first, but then the vampiress had handed him a letter from the Ancient Pythoness herself.
Those surprises kept coming after he’d invited her inside and listened to her “request.”
“What do you think we should do?” Alcide asked, hugging Tara a little closer when she shivered because of the cool breeze.
“I don’t like the idea of helping any vampires,” Tara said, “not after what they did to Sookie. Not after Franklin,” she added in a whisper.
Alcide sighed. “Then we don’t have to. We can just stay here—stay out of it.”
“But you are the one who told me that this Ancient Pythoness was the shit,” Tara reminded.
Alcide chuckled at her turn of phrase. They hadn’t yet defined what they were to each other—or what they might become. But she made him laugh, and—once he’d gotten past her hard outer persona—she had shown herself to be tender and kind.
“Tell me about her?” Tara asked.
“I don’t know a lot. No one does.”
She looked up at him and rolled her eyes. “Well—tell me what you do know.”
He chuckled and kissed the end of her nose playfully. “Yes ma’am. Well—she’s ancient, thus the name. Legend has it that the Ancient Pythoness was an oracle—a future-teller—in Greece or Rome. Somewhere like that,” Alcide added with a shrug. He’d never been one for history.
He continued, “Most supernaturals have heard of her, but she’s really reclusive. Still, even bringing up her name causes most of us to sit up and take notice—on account of the fact that she supposedly really does know the future.”
“And she contacted Henry?” Tara asked.
“One of her people did,” Alcide raked his hand through his hair. “She’s the one who gave Henry the list.”
Tara let out a somewhat shaky breath. The list had apparently included the names of about fifty members of the Ponoka pack. Tara and Alcide—their real names—had been on the list too, though they were not official packmembers yet.
Tara shivered. “How did this Pythoness person know our names?” She shook her head and answered her own question: “Because she knows the fuckin’ future.”
Alcide nodded. “Yes. And, according to Henry, the list included only the people he could trust absolutely. He was instructed to include no others from the pack in the meeting last night. But, remember, we all have been given the choice of whether or not to help.”
“And we have a week to decide,” Tara said.
“Yeah. But . . . .”
“But if we help to fight Russell and his Weres—and we win—we could go back home if we wanted,” Alcide said.
“Or we could make this our home—together,” Tara said softly, even as she leaned upward to kiss him. It didn’t take long for the kiss to become heated, and soon Alcide lifted her up and took her inside to their bedroom.
With as much patience as he could muster, Alcide brought her to one release with his fingers and mouth before sinking into her warmth. No one had ever felt so good to him—not even Debbie.
Later, as they lay in bed, Tara asked Alcide about something she’d been wondering about for several days. “You told me once that you liked being a part of a pack, but you also said that you’d left your own. Why did you leave?” she asked, playing with the hair on his broad chest.
Alcide sighed and linked one of his hands with hers. “My dad was the packmaster of the pack I grew up in—the Longtooth pack. He was a strong leader—and fair. But, after my mom died, he took to the bottle—like I told you.”
Tara nodded. In one of their previous conversations, they’d commiserated over alcohol’s effects on their parents.
“Not long after he started drinking heavily, my dad began to half-ass his pack commitments. I was too young at the time to know how to do everything, but I tried to help.” Alcide scoffed. “And for my trouble, I got punched in the face by him. I was fifteen at the time. Once he’d sobered up and had seen what he’d done, he tried to apologize.”
“What did you do?”
Alcide chuckled. “I was a testosterone-driven teenage boy, and it was near the full moon. What do you think I did?”
“Something dumb,” Tara offered with a smirk.
“Yeah,” the Were confirmed. “I hit my dad as hard as I fuckin’ could and took off, going to live with my aunt for a while. I eventually went back home when I was eighteen; by then, Dad had practically run the family business into the ground. I took it over, only to find us horribly in debt because of Dad’s gambling.” He shook his head. “Not long after that, Dad was challenged for packmaster. Why he hadn’t been before is a testament to the fact that he had been well-respected when my mom was alive, and people had hoped that he’d come out of his drunken depression. But, eventually, one of the newer members of the pack challenged him. Of course, my dad showed up to the fight drunk,” Alcide said bitterly. “And the other guy kicked his ass so easily that it was an embarrassment.”
Once again, Alcide ran his free hand roughly through his hair, though his hold on Tara’s hand stayed gentle. “My dad ran off after that humiliation. Now he lives in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. The really shitty part is that the man who challenged him is a fuckin’ asshole. But none of the better men in the pack would challenge my dad because they’d respected him. The new guy drove away most of the decent folks with his new rules. Those rules drove me away as well.”
“What rules?” Tara asked.
Alcide sighed. “Believe it or not—Debbie was once a decent person. And I loved her. We were gonna get married, but the new packmaster demanded jus primae noctis.”
“Huh?” Tara asked inelegantly.
Alcide chuckled, though there was no mirth in it. “It’s Latin. It means ‘the right of the first night.’ I’m not much of a scholar, but I learned all about jus primae noctis,” he said bitterly. “Back in the day, a king or nobleman could take the virginity of a peasant girl on the night of her wedding. Some packs used to allow the same fuckin’ thing, hoping that the line of the Alpha-male would increase. But most packs stopped that tradition centuries ago.” He sighed. “Basically speaking, it would have given the new packmaster the right to sleep with Debbie on our wedding night. Now—Debbie definitely wasn’t a virgin by the time I asked her to marry me, but I still couldn’t imagine her having to do what the packmaster was askin’, so I quit the pack. Debbie didn’t. She slept with the packmaster anyway and came to me as if that had fixed everything.” He scoffed. “She actually believe that she’d done her duty to me and the pack. She’d also talked the packmaster into taking me back into the pack.”
Alcide looked stricken for a moment. “I shouldn’t have gone back, but I loved Debbie. And I thought that the whole thing was over. It was only later that I realized that Debbie had continued to fuck the packmaster behind my back. I also learned that the packmaster planned to make Debbie and me into a “source couple” after we married.
“What’s that?” Tara asked.
“Another fucked up, outdated tradition. You see, when two Weres mate, it’s usually only their firstborn together that inherits the ability to shift. Subsequent kids don’t inherit the ability, though if they mate with a full-bloodied Were, they could pass on the shifting gene.”
“What if we had a kid?” Tara asked suddenly. “Would he or she shift?”
Alcide sighed. “Probably not, though there’s a slim chance—maybe one out of a hundred. We’d be more likely to have Were grandchildren.”
“How’s that?” Tara asked, biting her lower lip almost nervously.
“If we had a child, he or she would be half-blooded. But if he or she had a child with a full-blooded Were, their firstborn would likely shift.”
“Oh,” Tara said. “So—uh—what’s a ‘source couple?'”
Alcide scoffed. “Debbie and I would have been allowed to have a firstborn. However, after that, we would have been punished if we had other children together. Instead, we would have been required to mate with other Weres—to produce firstborns with them. I would have been expected to act as a father to any other children Debbie had. And, after donating the sperm and impregnating other women, I would have been forbidden to have anything to do with other children I’d fathered.”
“Geez! What did you do?”
“I told Debbie about the packmaster’s plans. It turned out that she’d already known about them. She was all for it, it seemed! She told me that I should see it as a great honor.”
“That’s fucked up,” Tara observed.
“Yeah. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that uncommon for some Weres to breed with others to produce more Were children. There were even a few such cases when my dad was packmaster, but it was voluntary and initiated by the couples who did it. It definitely wasn’t regimented or forced!” He took a deep breath. “After I’d confronted Debbie about everything and told her that I was leaving the pack for good, she told me that if I did, we’d be through.”
He was quiet for a moment.
“And you left the pack,” Tara supplied.
“Yeah. After that, Debbie turned wild, and—before long—she was hanging out with members of a pack that was known for doing V.”
“Russell Edgington’s pack,” Tara said, shaking a little, “the same pack that this Pythoness person wants us to help fight.”
“Yeah,” Alcide said. “The same one.”
A/N: Hello! I hope you enjoyed the chapter. This is the first longer section that isn’t from the perspective of Eric/Sookie or Russell/Bill, but I needed to set up a few things. My own feelings about Tara will likely always be incredibly mixed. One of the people I used to watch the show with LOVED her, and I have tried to keep in mind that this is the Tara we find right after she’s been violated by Mott (which comes on the heels of the Maenad episode and Eggs dying). Back then, Tara hadn’t begun to annoy me all the time, so I’m trying to keep that in mind.
Here are some pics from the Ponoka area. Alberta is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit!