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Charlaine Harris

  Chapter 1

  It was hot as the six shades of Hell even this late in the evening, and I'd had a busy day at work. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit in a crowded bar to watch my cousin get naked. But it was Ladies Only night at Hooligans, we'd planned this excursion for days, and the bar was full of hooting and hollering women determined to have a good time.

  My very pregnant friend Tara sat to my right, and Holly, who worked at Sam Merlotte's bar like me and Kennedy Keyes, sat on my left. Kennedy and Michele, my brother's girlfriend, sat on the other side of the table.

  "The Sook-ee," Kennedy called, and grinned at me. Kennedy had been first runner-up to Miss Louisiana a few years ago, and despite her stint in prison she'd retained her spectacular looks and grooming, including teeth that could blind an oncoming bus.

  "I'm glad you decided to come, Kennedy," I said. "Danny doesn't mind?" She'd been waffling the very afternoon before. I'd been sure she'd stay at home.

  "Hey, I want to see some cute guys naked, don't you?" Kennedy said.

  I glanced around at the other women. "Unless I missed a page, we all get to see guys naked, on a regular basis," I said. Though I hadn't been trying to be funny, my friends shrieked with laughter. They were just that giddy.

  I'd only spoken the truth: I'd been dating Eric Northman for a while; Kennedy and Danny Prideaux had gotten pretty intense; Michele and Jason were practically living together; Tara was married and pregnant, for gosh sakes; and Holly was engaged to Hoyt Fortenberry, who barely stopped in at his own apartment any longer.

  "You gotta at least be curious," Michele said, raising her voice to be heard over the clamor. "Even if you get to see Claude around the house all the time. With his clothes on, but still . . . "

  "Yeah, when's his place gonna be ready for him to move back?" Tara asked. "How long can it take to put in new plumbing?"

  Claude's Monroe house's plumbing was in fine shape as far as I knew. The plumbing fiction was simply better than saying, "My cousin's a fairy, and he needs the company of other fairies, since he's in exile. Also, my half-fairy great-uncle Dermot, a carbon copy of my brother, came along for the heck of it. " The fae, unlike the vampires and the werewolves, wanted to keep their existence a deep secret.

  Also, Michele's assumption that I'd never seen Claude naked was incorrect. Though the spectacularly handsome Claude was my cousin-and I certainly kept my clothes on around the house-the fairy attitude about nudity was totally casual. Claude, with his long black hair, brooding face, and rippling abs, was absolutely mouthwatering . . . until he opened his mouth. Dermot lived with me, too, but Dermot was more modest in his habits . . . maybe because I'd told him how I felt about bare-assed relatives.

  I liked Dermot a lot better than I liked Claude. I had mixed feelings about Claude. None of those feelings were sexual. I'd very recently and reluctantly allowed him back into my house after we'd had an argument, in fact.

  "I don't mind having him and Dermot around the house. They've helped me out a lot," I said weakly.

  "What about Dermot? Does Dermot strip, too?" Kennedy asked hopefully.

  "He does managerial stuff here. Him stripping would be weird for you, huh, Michele?" I said. Dermot's a ringer for my brother, who'd been tight with Michele for a long time-a long time in Jason terms.

  "Yeah, I couldn't watch that," she said. "Except maybe for comparison purposes!" We all laughed.

  While they continued to talk about men, I looked around the club. I'd never been in Hooligans when it was this busy, and I'd never been to a Ladies Only night. There was a lot to think about-the staff, for example.

  We'd paid our cover charge to a very buxom young woman with webs between her fingers. She'd flashed me a smile when she caught me staring, but my friends hadn't given her a second glance. After we'd passed through the inner door, we were ushered to our seats by an elf named Bellenos, whom I'd last seen offering me the head of my enemy. Literally.

  None of my friends seemed to notice anything different about Bellenos, either-but he didn't look like a regular man to me. His head of auburn hair was smooth and peltlike, his far-apart eyes were slanting and dark, his freckles were larger than human freckles, and the points of his needle-sharp inch-long teeth gleamed in the dim house lights. When I'd first met Bellenos, he'd been unable to mask himself as human. Now he could.

  "Enjoy, ladies," Bellenos had told us in his deep voice. "We've had this table reserved for you. " He'd given me a particular smile as he turned to go back to the entrance.

  We were seated right by the stage. A hand-lettered sign in the middle of the tablecloth read, "Bon Temps Party. "

  "I hope I get to thank Claude real personally," Kennedy said, with a sultry leer. She was definitely fighting with Danny; I could tell. Michele giggled and poked Tara's shoulder.

  Finally, knowing Claude was a perk.

  "That redhead who showed us to the table thought you were cute, Sookie," Tara said uneasily. I could tell she was thinking of my full-time boyfriend and vampire husband, Eric Northman. She figured he wouldn't be too happy about a stranger ogling me.

  "He was just being polite because I'm Claude's cousin," I said.

  "Like hell! He was looking at you like you were chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream," she said. "He wanted to eat you up. "

  I was pretty sure she was right, but maybe not in the sense she meant; not that I could read Bellenos's mind, any more than that of any other supernatural creature . . . but elves are what you'd call unrestricted in their diet. I hoped Claude was keeping a close watch on the mixed bag of fae he'd accumulated here at Hooligans.

  Meanwhile, Tara was complaining that her hair had lost all its body during her pregnancy, and Kennedy said, "Have a conditioning session at Death by Fashion in Shreveport. Immanuel's the best. "

  "He cut my hair once," I said, and they all looked at me in astonishment. "You remember? When my hair got singed?"

  "When the bar was bombed," Kennedy said. "That was Immanuel? Wow, Sookie, I didn't know you knew him. "

  "A little," I said. "I thought about getting some highlights, but he left town. The shop's still open. " I shrugged.

  "All the big talent leaves the state," Holly said, and while they talked that over, I tried to arrange my rump in a comfortable position on the folding metal chair wedged between Holly and Tara. I carefully bent down to tuck my purse between my feet.

  As I looked around me at all the excited customers, I began to relax. Surely I could enjoy this a little bit? I'd known the club was full of displaced fae since my last visit here, after all. I was with my friends, and they were all ready to have a good time. Surely I could allow myself to have a good time with them? Claude and Dermot were my kin, and they wouldn't let anything bad happen to me. Right? I managed to smile at Bellenos when he came around to light the candle on our table, and I was laughing at a dirty joke of Michele's when a waitress hustled over to take our drink orders. My smile faded. I remembered her from my previous visit.

  "I'm Gift, and I'll be your server tonight," she said, just as perky as you please. Her hair was a bright blond, and she was very pretty. But since I was part fae (due to a massive indiscretion of my grandmother's), I could see past the blonde's cute exterior. Her skin wasn't the honey tan everyone else was seeing. It was a pale, pale green. Her eyes had no pupils . . . or perhaps the pupils and irises were the same black? She fluttered her eyelids at me when no one else was looking. She might have two. Eyelids, that is. On each eye. I had time to notice because she bent so close to me.

  "Welcome, Sister," she murmured in my ear, an
d then straightened to beam at the others. "What y'all having tonight?" she asked with a perfect Louisiana accent.

  "Well, Gift, I want you to know up front that most of us are in the serving business, too, so we're not going to give you a hard time," Holly said.

  Gift twinkled back at her. "I'm so glad to hear that! Not that you gals look like a hard time, anyway. I love Ladies Only night. "

  While my friends ordered their drinks and baskets of fried pickles or tortilla chips, I glanced around the club to confirm my impression. None of the servers were human. The only humans here were the customers.

  When it was my turn, I told Gift I wanted a Bud Light. She bent closer again to say, "How's the vampire cutie, girlfriend?"

  "He's fine," I said stiffly, though that was far from true.

  Gift said, "You're so cute!" and tapped me on the shoulder as if I'd said something witty. "Ladies, you doing all right? I'm going to go put your food orders in and get your drinks. " Her bright head gleamed like a lighthouse as she maneuvered expertly through the crowd.

  "I didn't know you knew all the staff here. How is Eric? I haven't seen him since the fire at Merlotte's," Kennedy said. She'd clearly overheard Gift's query. "Eric is one fine hunk of man. " She nodded wisely.

  There was a chorus of agreement from my friends. Truly, Eric's hunkiness was undeniable. The fact that he was dead weighed against him, especially in Tara's eyes. She'd met Claude, and she hadn't picked up on the fact that there was something different about him; but Eric, who never tried to pass for human, would always be on her blacklist. Tara had had a bad experience with a vampire, and it had left an indelible mark on her.

  "He has a hard time getting away from Shreveport. He's pretty busy with work," I said. I stopped there. Talking about Eric's business was always unwise.

  "He's not mad you're going to watch another guy take off his clothes? You sure you told him?" Kennedy asked, her smile hard and bright. There was definitely trouble in Kennedy-and-Danny land. Oh, I didn't want to know about it.

  "I think Eric is so confident he looks good naked that he doesn't worry about me seeing someone else that way," I said. I'd told Eric I was going to Hooligans. I hadn't asked his permission; as Kennedy had said about Danny, he was not the boss of me. But I had sort of floated the idea by him to see how he reacted. Things between us hadn't been comfortable for a few weeks. I didn't want to upset our fragile boat-not for such a frivolous reason.

  As I'd expected, Eric had not taken our proposed girls' night out very seriously. For one thing, he thought modern American attitudes about nudity were amusing. He'd seen a thousand years of long nights, and he'd lost his own inhibitions somewhere along the way. I suspected he'd never had that many.

  My honey not only was calm about my viewing other men's naked bodies; he wasn't concerned about our destination. He didn't seem to imagine there'd be any danger in the Monroe strip club. Even Pam, his second-in-command, had only shrugged when Eric had told her what we human females were going to do for entertainment. "Won't be any vampires there," she'd said, and after a token jab at Eric about my wanting to see other men in the buff, she'd dismissed the subject.

  My cousin Claude had been welcoming all sorts of displaced fae to Hooligans since the portals to Faery had been shut by my great-grandfather Niall. He'd shut the portals on an impulse, a sudden reversal of his previous policy that human and fae should mix freely. Not all the fairies and other fae living in our world had had time to get on the Faery side before the portals closed. A very small one, located in the woods behind my house, remained open a crack. From time to time, news passed through.

  When they'd thought they were alone, Claude and my great-uncle Dermot had come to my house to take comfort in my company because of my dab of fairy blood. Being in exile was terrible for them. As much as they had previously enjoyed the human world, they now yearned for home.

  Gradually, other fae had begun showing up at Hooligans. Dermot and Claude, especially Claude, didn't stay with me as regularly. That solved a lot of problems for me-Eric couldn't stay over if the two fairies were in the house because the smell of fairy is simply intoxicating to vampires-but I did occasionally miss Great-Uncle Dermot, who'd always been comfortable company for me.

  As I was thinking of him, I spotted Dermot behind the bar. Though he was my fairy grandfather's brother, he looked no older than his late twenties.

  "Sookie, there's your cousin," Holly said. "I haven't seen him since Tara's shower. Oh my God, he looks so much like Jason!"

  "The family resemblance is real strong," I agreed. I glanced over at Jason's girlfriend, who was not any kind of pleased at seeing Dermot. She'd met Dermot before when he'd been cursed with insanity. Though she knew he was in his right mind these days, she wasn't going to warm up to him in any kind of hurry.

  "I never have figured out how you're kin to them," Holly said. In Bon Temps everybody knew who your people were and who you were connected to.

  "Someone was illegitimate," I said delicately. "Not saying any more. I didn't find out until after Gran passed, from some old family papers. "

  Holly looked wise, which was kind of a stretch for her.

  "Does having an 'in' with the management mean we're going to get a freebie drink or something?" Kennedy asked. "Maybe a lap dance on the house?"

  "Girl, you don't want a lap dance from a stripper!" Tara said. "You don't know where that thing has been!"

  "You're just all sour-grapey because you don't have a lap anymore," Kennedy muttered, and I gave her a meaningful glare. Tara was super-sensitive about losing her figure.

  I said, "Hey, we already got a reserved table right by the stage. Let's not push it by asking for anything else. "