The characters aren't mine. They belong to Charlaine Harris.

Many thanks and hugs to my lovely beta, Kristin Elizabeth. Any remaining mistakes in this are all mine.

Chapter 16

Sookie POV

"Do you want me to drive around the block again?" Eric asked.

We had found the address on the card Felipe had given me, and Eric circled the block in Sam's old van, giving me some time to look the place over. We were a few blocks from the French quarter, and the ground floor of the building looked like business offices, from what I could see.

"No, let's park over there." I pointed down the street, away from our destination. When we were about two blocks away, Eric parked the van in the first open spot he saw. He turned the key to stop the engine, and then looked at me.

"Are you sure this is going to be okay? Maybe we should just get the hell out of town, and try to make it on our own."

It wasn't fear that made him say that—I could feel his concern for my safety as it flowed through our burgeoning bond. I took his hand in mine, and let him feel that I was not afraid, and that I was glad he was with me. We sat like that for a few minutes, until the heat of our emotions started to spark other feelings in us. We didn't have time for that.

We walked down the dark street to the office building, and found the service door we had scoped out in our drive-by. There was a bell there, and I rang it. The sound was barely gone from my ears when the door opened quickly and we stepped inside. A slim, dark-haired, male vampire sat at a desk at one end of the service area, and he stood up as we approached.

"What is your business here?" he asked.

"I was given this card and told to be here at this time." I handed him the card Felipe de Castro had given me. He looked it over, flipping it back and forth between his long, thin fingers before he looked up at me. I tried not to cringe at the leering smile he gave me after he gave Eric the once-over. After a long moment, he picked up the phone on the desk, pressing a single button. Someone answered immediately.

"Visitors for upstairs. Two. Female vampire, human male. Okay." He hung up the phone. "You can wait here. Someone will be down for you."

Eric and I looked at each other, and I let him feel my emotions again. Vampires didn't become blood bound very often—most were too private to share something as personal and dangerous as emotions with someone else, especially a human. But I found I liked it, knowing he could feel me, and I could feel him. Just the thought of it made me happy, and as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I felt Eric squeeze my hand. We didn't need to speak a word, to say volumes to each other.

We waited like that until our escort arrived in the service area. Six vampires, completely decked out in weapons, entered the service area, making a tight circle around us. The desk vampire handed one of them my card, and he signaled to us to follow. We didn't see much in the dim light, nor was there time to linger as the vampires shuffled us along and into an elevator. Eric stayed right by my side, and I didn't feel or smell a hint of fear in him. I looked at him in amazement, since I harbored a dose of growing apprehension. I had no idea what we were doing here, or where we were going, but the number of armed vampire guards roaming the halls, guarding doors, and generally making their presence known, told me this was no ordinary vampire we were meeting.

As we walked down the hallway, I couldn't help but think how different this all was from Battle Mountain. Just two weeks ago, the cold, dirty and desolate Nevada desert was my home, and my solitary life had nearly bored me to early death. Yet tonight, I was in the warmth of the south, with a new human boyfriend in tow. Bonded boyfriend, no less. I was so far out on a limb here, and yet, it all felt so very right. To say things moved quickly for us was an understatement, and on top of all of this, we were both waiting for an audience with some unknown high-ranking vampire, or so it appeared.

Eric brushed my hand with his finger as we walked along and brought me back to the present. He smiled at me, not just with his beautiful mouth, but with his sparkling blue eyes, and that simple gesture made me forget the vampire guards all around us, and the feeling of imminent danger that had been with me since we walked through the door. His genuine happiness coursed through our newly formed bond, and the threads of nervousness snaking through me changed to something else. Protectiveness, pride, and maybe something deeper, that I couldn't distract myself with now.

He never wavered from helping me, and he had almost lost his life more than once because of it. His acceptance of me and my state of being was remarkable.

There was never any question I would have him come here with me tonight. I smiled, thinking about how he had expected an argument about that, and had almost been disappointed when he didn't get one. He had laid out his case for coming along with me while we dressed in the hotel room, so sure I was going to make him stay back at the hotel. We had been on this crazy journey together since the fateful night he stopped in Battle Mountain, and it was only right we rode it out together. With Eric's skills, and the newly formed bond between us, it just made practical sense for Eric to come along to help me "read" the vampires in attendance tonight. I told him there could be trouble, but whatever happened, I didn't think Felipe had sent us here for final death.

The six vampires that escorted us from the ground floor took us to a beautiful sitting room on the topmost floor of the building. From what I could see, the rooms around us were decorated like a residence, rather than a place of business. Dark, handcrafted tables with ornate chairs replaced the steel desks found downstairs. Artwork covered the walls and finely woven rugs protected the highly-polished hardwood floors.

One of our escorts handed the business card to one of the two old, huge, and very scary-looking vampires guarding an inner door, and then he gestured for us to sit down on a couch across from the door. We waited in the receiving room for thirty minutes. No one said a word. The sound of Eric's breathing seemed to echo in every corner. If not for the fact I had seen those old vampires move into their stock-still positions when we entered the room, I would have wondered if they were statues. They were downright scary and would have no trouble from me. I wondered what Eric heard from their heads. I'd have to ask him later.

After another long five minutes, the heavy inner door opened, and a short vampire appeared.

One of the behemoth vampires handed him the card, and spoke, "The queen will see you now."

The Queen of Louisiana. What sort of deal had Felipe de Castro made? I flashed Eric a quick look, and mentally asked him to follow my lead. He brushed up against me to signal he had heard me.

I stood, eager to get this meeting started. I didn't know what I had agreed to when I took that card from Felipe, but I was about to find out. Felipe's motives in sending me here were not altruistic—that much I knew. Just how far he sold us down the river I had yet to discover.

Eric followed me into the room, walking a few steps behind me. Somehow, he knew the protocol, and did not challenge it by doing something…human. But I couldn't think about Eric now. I focused on the short, male vampire walking in front of me. When he was almost to the center of the room, he stopped and turned.

To his left, sitting on a lovely, ornate settee was a tiny, impeccably dressed, female vampire.,There was no doubt of her title. The Queen.

"Sookie Stackhouse, may I present Sophie-Anne Leclerq, Queen of Louisiana."

I turned to face the queen, and lowered my head, waiting for her to speak.

"Good evening, Miss Stackhouse. Please introduce your human."

"Your majesty, this is my bonded, Eric Northman."

"Your bonded? How lovely. Please, come sit." She patted the empty seat next to her. "Miss Stackhouse, this is Andre, my lieutenant. Andre, please get a chair for Mr. Northman."

The male vampire brought over a high back chair and placed it behind the settee. When he shot a glaring look at Eric, I stiffened. The queen placed her hand on mine.

"Pay no mind to Andre, Miss Stackhouse. Mr. Northman is safe here, as are you. Now we do have some business to discuss." She turned to her lieutenant. "Andre, you may leave us."

"As you wish, my queen." He bowed low to the queen, and then gave me a threatening look as he left the room.

The door clicked closed, and Sophie-Ann turned to me.

"Felipe will be pleased you arrived safely—all his little dominos falling into place just so. Tell me, Miss Stackhouse, how much do you know of your former king's plan?"

"I was given a card, with this address, and told I would find protection for me and my human here, if I arrived within the allotted time. That is all I know." I answered.

"Excellent!" The queen bounced a little in her seat, and I took my first, good look at her. Probably a teenager when she was turned, Sophie-Ann might have seemed young, but her youthful looks and her current exuberance were misleading. She had a reputation of being a ruthless killer, like all of the regents. You didn't get that position by being nice.

"Mr. Northman, move your chair closer to us. I think you are going to enjoy this as well."

Eric stood and slid his chair next to the sofa. His leg brushed against mine, and even though he didn't look at me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the hint of a smile cross his face. He seemed to be enjoying this.

Sophie-Ann picked up a remote from the table, pointed it at the wall, and pressed a button. A recessed television screen came to life, and the queen adjusted the volume.

A newscaster announced a special news report.

The image on the screen changed and showed a different setting, with a national news anchor sitting at a table with two other people. The news anchor introduced the person sitting closest to him as Mr. Baldwin, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. The person, or more accurately, the vampire, sitting next to him needed no introduction.

It was Felipe de Castro.

I thought I heard a snicker from the queen.

The lawyer spoke of the long-standing existence of vampires, how we lived among the humans, for years. He was very skilled, making our existence sound so natural…and benign. He glossed over our feeding habits, making a quick remark about how synthetic blood made it possible for us to exist without drinking from humans. Synthetic blood? I had no idea it even existed, but it sounded downright awful. The bagged blood I had served in the Silver Dollar barely cut it, and no self-respecting vampire would give up the pleasure of piercing warm flesh with their fangs in favor of drinking fake blood out of a bottle.

Next, he made a compelling argument for laws guaranteeing the rights of vampires, for our right to exist among humans, and for protection against hate crimes. When Mr. Baldwin asked Felipe to speak of recent injustices, I started to see all the events of the last two weeks falling into place, just like the dominoes my new queen had mentioned earlier. I cast a quick glance at Eric, whose eyes were riveted to the television screen. I looked back in amazement at my former king, and shook my head. Felipe had planned this all along, and now he was sitting on national television, exuding charm, and grace and looking devilishly handsome. Human girls were probably starting Felipe de Castro fan clubs already.

Behind Felipe's head, a video played. The sight of my bar, completely engulfed in flames, shocked me senseless. Eric's astonishment flowed through our bond, joining with mine. Was Felipe behind the bombing? I contemplated that while I listened to his words.

"This was one of my establishments, bombed and burned to the ground, by the people of the town that had no tolerance for vampires. At least four vampires and one human died in the blast and ensuing fire. We cannot idly stand by and let this hateful behavior continue. This particular restaurant operated for years without issue with the town. These types of heinous hate crimes should not be tolerated, no matter the victim…human or supernatural."

The lawyer touched Felipe's arm in a sympathetic gesture and then spouted more rhetoric about vampire rights. The news anchor tried to ask questions about the existence of vampires, but the lawyer glossed over them, focusing on the rights issue. Vampires living openly among humans? It was a great revelation, indeed, as much for the vampires as it was for the humans. I was just starting to appreciate the wide-ranging implications of the last twenty minutes, when I looked over at the queen of Louisiana.

Sophie-Ann had a small, but triumphant smile on her face, as she watched me, watching Felipe.

"Felipe is quite the politician, isn't he?" She asked, and I could only nod, not wanting to confirm any of that statement with words. "I believe I will need to keep my eye on him."

"This is all so…unexpected." I said.

In spite of Sophie-Ann's friendly demeanor, I wondered if she was going to let us live. We were a threat to her as former minions of Felipe de Castro, and she had to know about Eric, too. She could easily kill me, imprison Eric, and use him for her own purposes. With Felipe announcing all of our death's, on national television, it would be the smart thing to do. Eric felt my apprehension, and moved closer to me. Even so, I wouldn't be able to do much if Sophie-Ann decided he was hers. Had I walked right into Felipe de Castro's trap?

"No need to worry, Miss Stackhouse. Tonight is merely the beginning of much larger efforts. Revealing the existence of our race has been in the planning stages for some time, and the unfortunate incident at your bar provided the proper impetus for its execution."

Sophie-Ann turned off the TV with a click of the remote and walked over to her desk. She opened the center drawer and removed a large yellow envelope.

"Felipe spoke very highly of you, and of your loyalty to him. He was most impressed with your ability to thrive among the humans in that…location, until recently that is. He suggested you would be a good choice for Sheriff."

"Thank you, your majesty."

"The area I have in mind for you is in the northern part of the state. I have a bar in Shreveport that needs management, and it would be a perfect location for you to perform your duties as Sheriff. This envelope holds the deed to the establishment, made out in your name."

She held out the envelope to me, that same little smile on her face. I hesitated.

"I do not mean any disrespect, but what other expectations do you have, beyond Sheriff, that is?"

Sophie-Ann laughed, a little giggle that increased the tension I already felt. She was very adept at making the serious seem trivial. She placed the envelope on the edge of the desk.

"Felipe told me you would understand. I may require the services of your human, from time to time. Is that an acceptable arrangement, Miss Stackhouse?"

I resisted the urge to look over at Eric, and mentally ask him if it this arrangement was all right with him. I couldn't risk anyone knowing he could read vampire minds, in addition to reading human minds. If that secret became known, we would both be targets, and Eric would surely be dead, or worse, before I could do anything about it. Between his abilities and our bond, we were able to communicate with each other in ways that most people, vampire and human, could not understand, and I wanted to keep it that way.

"You majesty, your offer is very generous. I would be most pleased to serve as your Sheriff. However, I do have a small request of my own, considering the current climate."

"Go on."

"I will be happy to provide my bonded in service to you, as needed, but I must accompany him on any and all such requests. I may also require more security measures to insure his protection, and I would also ask that my bonded's skills be kept secret. Would that be acceptable?"

She gave me a hard look before she answered.

"Under normal circumstances, I might refuse and compel you to do as I say, yet, it is a momentous date, is it not? For that reason, I will agree to your request."

Sophie-Ann walked around and sat at her desk. "Anything else, Miss Stackhouse? I do have other guests to see this evening."

"No my queen, we have an arrangement." I picked up the envelope from the desk.

"Good, that will be all then. Andre will be in touch when I need you."

As if by magic, the door opened and Andre stood in the open doorway.

"Rasul will see you out," he said, gesturing with his hand we were to leave. Eric followed me out and still hadn't said a word.

Once back in the sitting room, a single guard waited for us. The two huge vampires still stood like stanchions beside the door. I waited for the inner door to close, and Andre to be out of site before looking at Eric. He reached for my hand and gave it a little squeeze.

"Follow me," said Rasul, the vampire who had taken my card from me earlier, and led the other escorts upstairs with us. I had a feeling I would be seeing more of him. We walked in silence back down to the service area, and out the door. It slammed shut behind us, and I heard a lock slide into place. I didn't breathe, but being outside in the open air was a relief.

We walked to the van in silence, and it wasn't until we got in that Eric had anything to say.

"That was a little intense, Sookie. I didn't know if she was going to kill us there for a moment. She thought about it—I heard her."

I looked at him. A chill went through me.

"Why are you worried now? We are through with that, right?" He said quietly, before reaching over and taking my hand. He placed a kiss on the back of my hand, and then held it firmly in his. "Tell me."

"Because if anyone finds out you can do what you just did, we will both be in serious danger. Let's get moving, okay?"

Eric kissed my hand again, and then reached into his pocket for the keys to the van.

"Well, it was all very interesting, I must say. I think I should tell you, that under normal circumstances, Sookie, I might be upset to be bartered over like a piece of meat. It just didn't seem like the time to argue with you about it. But for future reference, I'd like to avoid being treated like your food, okay?" He smiled at me, and there was no anger in his voice, but I knew there was a grain of truth in what he was saying.

"That's a deal, Eric. Things could have turned out much worse, you know."

"Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. So I guess we're moving to Shreveport, then."

"Do you know of it? How far is it from New Orleans?"

"About six hours from here." He looked at his watch. "We can just make it there before you go to rest. Are we leaving tonight?"

We had just pulled up to the hotel, and Eric sat there, waiting for my answer. I wanted to say we would leave tomorrow, so we could have another night alone together, in that dingy, but private little hotel room.

"Sookie, I don't know what you're thinking about, but whatever it is, keep it up. I'm enjoying it immensely." His voice was soft and low.

I licked my lips and leaned into him, placing my hand on his neck. Then we were kissing, forgetting about everything else that had happened tonight. We melted into each other's mouths, and our lips and tongues explored and ignited our passion. A kiss so wonderful, that nothing else mattered at that moment. I don't know how long we went at it, but when I caressed Eric's lips with my tongue, I could feel the blood pulsating just under the warm skin, and I knew his lips had to be swollen from our kissing.

Oh, it was tempting to stay one more night in New Orleans. I pulled back from him, stroking his face. If I was going to protect Eric, I needed to keep thinking like a vampire Sheriff. I couldn't go back on all I had learned through the years as Sheriff. As hard as it was to say it, leaving tonight for Shreveport was the smart, and safe thing to do.

"We better go. I think it's best we get out of here, before the queen changes her mind."

"She can do that?"

"Of course." I laughed. "I think we'll be safe for a little while at least. We don't have much to pack."

We had everything out of the hotel room in a half hour. Eric paid the bill, and we were on the way.

Destination—Shreveport, Louisiana.

Well, only one more chapter to go. Thanks to everyone reading, reviewing, making this story your favorite, and putting it on alert!