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Though they'll probably never read it, this book is dedicated to all the coaches - baseball, football, volleyball, soccer - who've worked through so many years, often for no monetary reward, to coax athletic performances out of my children and to instill in them an understanding of The Game. God bless you all, and thanks from one of the moms who crowds the stands through rain, cold, heat, and mosquitoes.
However, this mom always wonders who else might be watching the night games.
My thanks to Wiccans who answered my call for knowledge with more information than I could use - Maria Lima, Sandilee Lloyd, Holly Nelson, Jean Hontz, and M. R. "Murv" Sellars. I owe further thanks to other experts in different fields: Kevin Ryer, who knows more about feral hogs than most people do about their own pets; Dr. D. P. Lyle, who is so gracious about answering medical questions; and, of course, Doris Ann Norris, reference librarian to the stars.
If I have made mistakes in the use of the knowledge these kind people imparted, I'll do my best to somehow blame it on them.
I found the note taped to my door when I got home from work. I'd had the lunch-to-early-evening shift at Merlotte's, but since we were at the tail end of December, the day darkened early. So Bill, my former boyfriend - that's Bill Compton, or Vampire Bill, as most of the regulars at Merlotte's call him - must have left his message within the previous hour. He can't get up until dark.
I hadn't seen Bill in over a week, and our parting hadn't been a happy one. But touching the envelope with my name written on it made me feel miserable. You'd think - though I'm twenty-six - I'd never had, and lost, a boyfriend before.
You'd be right.
Normal guys don't want to date someone as strange as I am. People have been saying I'm messed up in the head since I started school.
That's not to say I don't get groped at the bar occasionally. Guys get drunk. I look good. They forget their misgivings about my reputation for strangeness and my ever-present smile.
But only Bill has ever gotten close to me in an intimate way. Parting from him had hurt me bad.
I waited to open the envelope until I was sitting at the old, scarred kitchen table. I still had my coat on, though I'd shucked my gloves.
Dearest Sookie - I wanted to come over to talk to you when you had somewhat recovered from the unfortunate events of earlier this month.
"Unfortunate events," my round rear end. The bruises had finally faded, but I had a knee that still ached in the cold, and I suspected that it always would. Every injury I had incurred had been in the course of rescuing my cheating boyfriend from his imprisonment by a group of vampires that included his former flame, Lorena. I had yet to figure out why Bill had been so infatuated with Lorena that he'd answered her summons to Mississippi.
Probably, you have a lot of questions about what happened.
If you'll talk to me face-to-face, come to the front door and let me in.
Yikes. I hadn't seen that one coming. I pondered for a minute. Deciding that while I didn't trust Bill anymore, I didn't believe that he would physically harm me, I went back through the house to the front door. I opened it and called, "Okay, come on in."
He emerged from the woods surrounding the clearing in which my old house stood. I ached at the sight of him. Bill was broad-shouldered and lean from his life of farming the land next to mine. He was hard and tough from his years as a Confederate soldier, before his death in 1867. Bill's nose was straight off a Greek vase. His hair was dark brown and clipped close to his head, and his eyes were just as dark. He looked exactly the same as he had while we were dating, and he always would.
He hesitated before he crossed the threshold, but I'd given him permission, and I moved aside so he could step past me into the living room filled with old, comfortable furniture and neat as a pin.
"Thank you," he said in his cold, smooth voice, a voice that still gave me a twinge of sheer lust. Many things had gone wrong between us, but they hadn't started in bed. "I wanted to talk to you before I left."
"Where are you going?" I tried to sound as calm as he.
"To Peru. The queen's orders."
"Still working on your, ah, database?" I knew almost nothing about computers, but Bill had studied hard to make himself computer literate.
"Yes. I've got a little more research to do. A very old vampire in Lima has a great fund of knowledge about those of our race on his continent, and I have an appointment to confer with him. I'll do some sight-seeing while I'm down there."
I fought the urge to offer Bill a bottle of synthetic blood, which would have been the hospitable thing to do. "Have a seat," I said curtly, and nodded at the sofa. I sat on the edge of the old recliner catty-cornered to it. Then a silence fell, a silence that made me even more conscious of how unhappy I was.
"How's Bubba?" I asked finally.
"He's in New Orleans right now," Bill said. "The queen likes to keep him around from time to time, and he was so visible here over the last month that it seemed like a good idea to take him elsewhere. He'll be back soon."
You'd recognize Bubba if you saw him; everyone knows his face. But he hadn't been "brought over" too successfully. Probably the morgue attendant, who happened to be a vampire, should have ignored the tiny spark of life. But since he was a great fan, he hadn't been able to resist the attempt, and now the entire southern vampire community shuffled Bubba around and tried to keep him from public view.
Another silence fell. I'd planned on taking off my shoes and uniform, putting on a cuddly robe, and watching television with a Freschetta pizza by my side. It was a humble plan, but it was my own. Instead, here I was, suffering.
"If you have something to say, you better go on and say it," I told him.
He nodded, almost to himself. "I have to explain," he said. His white hands arranged themselves in his lap. "Lorena and I - "
I flinched involuntarily. I never wanted to hear that name again. He'd dumped me for Lorena.
"I have to tell you," he said, almost angrily. He'd seen me twitch. "Give me this chance." After a second, I waved a hand to tell him to continue.
"The reason I went to Jackson when she called me is that I couldn't help myself," he said.
My eyebrows flew up. I'd heard that before. It means, "I have no self-control," or, "It seemed worth it at the time, and I wasn't thinking north of my belt."
"We were lovers long ago. As Eric says he told you, vampire liaisons don't tend to last long, though they're very intense while they are ongoing. However, what Eric did not tell you was that Lorena was the vampire who brought me over."
"To the Dark Side?" I asked, and then I bit my lip. This was no subject for levity.
"Yes," Bill agreed seriously. "And we were together after that, as lovers, which is not always the case."
"But you had broken up..."
"Yes, about eighty years ago, we came to the point where we couldn't tolerate each other any longer. I hadn't seen Lorena since, though I'd heard of her doings, of course."
"Oh, sure," I said expressionlessly.
"But I had to obey her summons. This is absolutely imperative. When your maker calls, you must respond." His voice was urgent.
I nodded, trying to look understanding. I guess I didn't do too good a job.
"She ordered me to leave you," he said. His dark eyes were peering into mine. "She said she would kill you if I didn't."
I was losing my temper. I bit the inside of my cheek, real hard, to make myself focus. "So, without explanation or discussion with me, you decided what was best for me and for you."
"I had to," he said. "I had to do her bidding. And I knew she was capable of harming you."
"Well, you got that right." In fact, Lorena had done her dead level best to harm me right into the grave. But I'd gotten her first - okay, by a fluke, but it had worked.
"And now you no longer love me," Bill said, with the slightest of questions in his voice.
I didn't have any clear answer.
"I don't know," I said. "I wouldn't think you'd want to come back to me. After all, I killed your mom." And there was the slightest of questions in my voice, too, but mostly I was bitter.
"Then we need more time apart. When I return, if you consent, we'll talk again. A kiss good-bye?"
To my shame, I would love to kiss Bill again. But it was such a bad idea, even wanting it seemed wrong. We stood, and I gave him a quick brush of lips to the cheek. His white skin shone with a little glow that distinguished vampires from humans. It had surprised me to learn that not everyone saw them like I did.
"Are you seeing the Were?" he asked, when he was nearly out the door. He sounded as though the words had been pulled out of him by their roots.
"Which one?" I asked, resisting the temptation to bat my eyelashes. He deserved no answer, and he knew it. "How long will you be gone?" I asked more briskly, and he looked at me with some speculation.
"It's not a sure thing. Maybe two weeks," he answered.
"We might talk then," I said, turning my face away. "Let me return your key." I fished my keys out of my purse.
"No, please, keep it on your key ring," he said. "You might need it while I am gone. Go in the house as you will. My mail's getting held at the post office until I give them notice, and I think all my other loose ends are taken care of."
So I was his last loose end. I damned up the trickle of anger that was all too ready to bubble out these days.
"I hope you have a safe trip," I said coldly, and shut the door behind him. I headed back to my bedroom. I had a robe to put on and some television to watch. By golly, I was sticking to my plan.
But while I was putting my pizza in the oven, I had to blot my cheeks a few times.