"Won’t you give me a hug, too?" Eric looked down at me, one eyebrow hiked up.
"Before I start giving out hugs to you I need to know what our situation is," I said. I sat down on the back steps, setting my presents carefully to the side. Eric sat down, too.
I wasn’t happy anymore, of course, but I was much calmer than I’d thought I’d be when I’d realized we had to have this conversation. "I think you owe it to me to level with me," I began. "For weeks, it seems like we haven’t really been a couple, though you still tell everyone I’m your wife. Lately, that’s just meant we have sex. I know it’s a tradition that guys don’t like relationship talks. I don’t think I do, either. But we have to have one."
"Let’s go inside."
"No. That might end up with us in bed. Before we do that again, we need to have an understanding between us."
"I love you." The security light glinted off his blond hair and was swallowed in his all-black getup. He’d dressed for a funeral tonight.
"I love you, too, Eric. But that’s not what we’re talking about, is it?"
Eric looked away. "I think not," he said reluctantly. "Sookie … it’s not just a straightforward decision, you over Freyda. If it were only one woman over another … it’s you I love. That’s a given, not a choice at all. But it’s not that simple."
"It’s not that simple?" I repeated. I felt too many things to select one emotion, to say, That’s the way I feel; I’m in dread. Or I’m angry. Or I’m numb with fear. I had all those feelings, and more. Since I couldn’t bear to look at Eric’s face any more than he could bear to look at mine, I looked up at the starlit sky. After another moment’s silence, I said, "But it is, isn’t it. That simple."
The night swelled with magic; not the beneficent kind of love-magic that sweeps couples away, but the kind of magic that rips and tears, the enchantment that creeps out of the woods and pounces.
"My maker gave this to me as his last order," Eric said.
"I would never have believed you’d try this argument," I said. "’I’m just obeying orders.’ Come on! You can’t hide behind Appius’s wishes, Eric. He’s gone."
"He signed a contract, and it’s legally binding," Eric said, still keeping his composure.
"You’re giving yourself an excuse for doing something painful and wrong," I said.
"I’m locked into it," he said, his expression savage.
I looked down at my feet for a minute. I was wearing my happy sandals again, high-heeled and with little flowers on the strap across my toes. They looked ridiculously frivolous, appropriate for a single woman’s twenty-eighth birthday. They weren’t kiss-your-lover-good-bye shoes.
"Eric, you’re a strong vampire," I said. I took his cool hand. "You’ve always been the boldest, baddest guy around. If your maker were alive, I’d believe you couldn’t help this. But I watched Appius die, right here in my yard. So here’s my bottom line; here’s what I really believe. I think you could get out of this if you hated Freyda. But you don’t. She’s beautiful. She’s rich. She’s powerful. She needs you to watch her back, and the reward will be lots of the stuff you love." I took a deep, shuddering breath. "All I got is me. And I guess that’s not enough." I waited, praying to hear a rebuttal. I looked up at him. I saw no shame. I saw no weakness. I saw instead a laserlike intensity in his blue eyes, so like my own.
He said, "Sookie, if I turn down this opportunity, Felipe will punish both of us. Our lives will not be worth living."
"Then we’ll leave," I said quietly. "We’ll go somewhere else. You’ll work for some other king or queen. I’ll find a job."
But even as I spoke the words, I knew he would not opt for this. In fact, I found myself wondering if I would have said it if I’d believed there was any chance he’d say yes. On the whole, I thought I would, though it would have meant leaving everything I found dear.
"If only there were some way to prevent this," Eric said. "But I don’t know of any way, and I can’t tear you away from your life."
I didn’t know whether my heart was ripped in two, whether I felt anguish or relief. I’d been sure he’d say that.
But he didn’t say anything else.
He was waiting for me to speak.
The apprehension was so strong in me that I felt my eyebrows draw together in a question. "What?" I asked. "What?" I couldn’t imagine where he wanted me to go in this terrible conversation.
Eric seemed almost angry, as if I weren’t picking up my cue.
I continued to be bewildered; he continued to try to force some statement from me.
When he was sure I genuinely didn’t have a clue, Eric said, "You could stop this if you chose." Each word came clear and distinct.
"How?" I dropped his hands, spread my own to show my ignorance. "Tell me how." I rummaged through my mind as fast as I could, trying frantically to understand what Eric could mean.
"You say you love me," he said angrily. "You could stop this."
He turned to walk away.
"Just tell me how," I asked, hearing and hating the desperation in my voice. "Goddammit, just TELL ME HOW."
He cast a look over his shoulder. I hadn’t seen that expression on his face since we’d met, when he’d regarded me as just another disposable human.
And then he was in the air. And then he was lost in the night sky.
I stood staring up for a minute or two. Maybe I expected blazing letters to appear in the sky to explain his words. Maybe I thought Bill would pop out of the woods like a deus ex machina to tell me what Eric had been so sure I would understand.
I went back into the house and automatically locked the door behind me. I stood in the middle of the kitchen, cudgeling my tired brain into activity.
Okay, I said. Let’s figure this out. Eric said I could stop him from leaving with Freyda. "But it can’t be just that I love him, because I told him that, and he knows it," I whispered. "So, it’s not how I feel, it’s some act I need to perform."
What act? How could I prevent their marriage?
I could kill Freyda; however, not only would that be a horrible thing to do, since she’d done nothing more than desire the man I loved, but any attempt to kill the powerful vampire would be simply suicidal.
And killing Eric would hardly produce a happy ending, and that was the only other way I could imagine stopping him.
I guess I could go to Felipe and beg him to keep Eric, I thought. Though Eric had said Felipe would punish both of us if Eric remained in Louisiana, disobliging Freyda, I seriously considered how I would go about appealing to the king. What response would he have? He knew I’d saved his life once upon a time, but though he’d made me big promises, he hadn’t exactly come through with them. No, Felipe would laugh when I went down on my knees. And then he’d tell me he thought he ought to honor Appius’s wishes and let Appius’s child make such an advantageous match.