Dead Until Dark Chapter 6

I STAYED AT home for three days after the funeral. It was too long;I needed to go back to work. But I kept thinking of things I just had to do, or so I told myself. I cleaned out Gran's room. Arlene happened to drop by, and I asked her for help, because I just couldn't be in there alone with my grandmother's things, all so familiar and imbued with her personal odor of Johnson's baby powder and Campho-Phenique.

So my friend Arlene helped me pack everything up to take to the disaster relief agency. There'd been tornadoes in northern Arkansas the past few days, and surely some person who had lost everything could use all the clothes. Gran had been smaller and thinner than I, and besides that her tastes were very different, so I wanted nothing of hers except the jewelry. She'd never worn much, but what she wore was real and precious to me.

It was amazing what Gran had managed to pack into her room. I didn't even want to think about what she'd stored in the attic: that would be dealt with later, in the fall, when the attic was bearably cool and I'd time to think.

I probably threw away more than I should have, but it made me feel efficient and strong to be doing this, and I did a drastic job of it. Arlene folded and packed, only putting aside papers and photographs, letters and bills and cancelled checks. My grandmother had never used a credit card in her life and never bought anything on time, God bless her, which made the winding-up much easier.

Arlene asked about Gran's car. It was five years old and had very little mileage. ’’Will you sell yours and keep hers?’’ she asked. ’’Yours is newer, but it's small.’’

’’I hadn't thought,’’ I said. And I found I couldn't think of it, that cleaning out the bedroom was the extent of what I could do that day.

At the end of the afternoon, the bedroom was empty of Gran. Arlene and I turned the mattress and I remade the bed out of habit. It was an old four-poster in the rice pattern. I had always thought her bedroom set was beautiful, and it occurred to me that now it was mine. I could move into the bigger bedroom and have a private bath instead of using the one in the hall.

Suddenly, that was exactly what I wanted to do. The furniture I'd been using in my bedroom had been moved over here from my parents'house when they'd died, and it was kid's furniture;overly feminine, sort of reminiscent of Barbies and sleepovers.

Not that I'd ever had many sleepovers, or been to many.

Nope, nope, nope, I wasn't going to fall into that old pit. I was what I was, and I had a life, and I could enjoy things;the little treats that kept me going.

’’I might move in here,’’ I told Arlene as she taped a box shut.

’’Isn't that a little soon?’’ she asked. She flushed red when she realized she'd sounded critical.

’’It would be easier to be in here than be across the hall thinking about the room being empty,’’ I said. Arlene thought that through, crouched beside the cardboard box with the roll of tape in her hand.

’’I can see that,’’ she agreed, with a nod of her flaming red head.

We loaded the cardboard boxes into Arlene's car. She had kindly agreed to drop them by the collection center on her way home, and I gratefully accepted the offer. I didn't want anyone to look at me knowingly, with pity, when I gave away my grandmother's clothes and shoes and nightgowns.

When Arlene left, I hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and she stared at me. That was outside the bounds our friendship had had up till now. She bent her head to mine and we very gently bumped foreheads.

’’You crazy girl,’’ she said, affection in her voice. ’’You come see us, now. Lisa's been wanting you to baby-sit again.’’

’’You tell her Aunt Sookie said hi to her, and to Coby, too.’’

’’I will.’’ And Arlene sauntered off to her car, her flaming hair puffing in a waving mass above her head, her full body making her waitress outfit look like one big promise.

All my energy drained away as Arlene's car bumped down the driveway through the trees. I felt a million years old, alone and lonely. This was the way it was going to be from now on.

I didn't feel hungry, but the clock told me it was time to eat. I went into the kitchen and pulled one of the many Tupperware containers from the refrigerator. It held turkey and grape salad, and I liked it, but I sat there at the table just picking at it with a fork. I gave up, returning it to the icebox and going to the bathroom for a much-needed shower. The corners of closets are always dusty, and even a housekeeper as good as my grandmother had been had not been able to defeat that dust.

The shower felt wonderful. The hot water seemed to steam out some of my misery, and I shampooed my hair and scrubbed every inch of skin, shaving my legs and armpits. After I climbed out, I plucked my eyebrows and put on skin lotion and deodorant and a spray to untangle my hair and anything else I could lay my hands on. With my hair trailing down my back in a cascade of wet snarls, I pulled on my nightshirt, a white one with Tweety Bird on the front, and I got my comb. I'd sit in front of the television to have something to watch while I got my hair combed out, always a tedious process.

My little burst of purpose expired, and I felt almost numb.

The doorbell rang just as I was trailing into the living room with my comb in one hand and a towel in the other.

I looked through the peephole. Bill was waiting patiently on the porch.

I let him in without feeling either glad or sorry to see him.

He took me in with some surprise: the nightshirt, the wet hair, the bare feet. No makeup.

’’Come in,’’ I said.

’’Are you sure?’’


And he came in, looking around him as he always did. ’’What are you doing?’’ he asked, seeing the pile of things I'd put to one side because I thought friends of Gran's might want them: Mr. Norris might be pleased to get the framed picture of his mother and Gran's mother together, for example.

’’I cleaned out the bedroom today,’’ I said. ’’I think I'll move into it.’’ Then I couldn't think of anything else to say. He turned to look at me carefully.

’’Let me comb out your hair,’’ he said.

I nodded indifferently. Bill sat on the flowered couch and indicated the old ottoman positioned in front of it. I sat down obediently, and he scooted forward a little, framing me with his thighs. Starting at the crown of my head, he began teasing the tangles out of my hair.

As always, his mental silence was a treat. Each time, it was like putting the first foot into a cool pool of water when I'd been on a long, dusty hike on a hot day.

As a bonus, Bill's long fingers seemed adept at dealing with the thick mane of my hair. I sat with my eyes closed, gradually becoming tranquil. I could feel the slight movements of his body behind me as he worked with the comb. I could almost hear his heart beating, I thought, and then realized how strange an idea that was. His heart, after all, didn't.

’’I used to do this for my sister, Sarah,’’ he murmured quietly, as if he knew how peaceful I'd gotten and was trying not to break my mood. ’’She had hair darker than yours, even longer. She'd never cut it. When we were children, and my mother was busy, she'd have me work on Sarah's hair.’’

’’Was Sarah younger than you, or older?’’ I asked in a slow, drugged voice.

’’She was younger. She was three years younger.’’

’’Did you have other brothers or sisters?’’

’’My mother lost two in childbirth,’’ he said slowly, as if he could barely remember. ’’I lost my brother, Robert, when he was twelve and I was eleven. He caught a fever, and it killed him. Now they would pump him full of penicillin, and he would be all right. But they couldn't then. Sarah survived the war, she and my mother, though my father died while I was soldiering;he had what I've learned since was a stroke. My wife was living with my family then, and my children...’’

’’Oh, Bill,’’ I said sadly, almost in a whisper, for he had lost so much.

’’Don't, Sookie,’’ he said, and his voice had regained its cold clarity.

He worked on in silence for a while, until I could tell the comb was running free through my hair. He picked up the white towel I'd tossed on the arm of the couch and began to pat my hair dry, and as it dried he ran his fingers through it to give it body.

’’Mmmm,’’ I said, and as I heard it, it was no longer the sound of someone being soothed.

I could feel his cool fingers lifting the hair away from my neck and then I felt his mouth just at the nape. I couldn't speak or move. I exhaled slowly, trying not to make another sound. His lips moved to my ear, and he caught the lobe of it between his teeth. Then his tongue darted in. His arms came around me, crossing over my chest, pulling me back against him.

And for a miracle I only heard what his body was saying, not those niggling things from minds that only foul up moments like this. His body was saying something very simple.

He lifted me as easily as I'd rotate an infant. He turned me so I was facing him on his lap, my legs on either side of his. I put my arms around him and bent a little to kiss him. It went on and on, but after a while Bill settled into a rhythm with his tongue, a rhythm even someone as inexperienced as I could identify. The nightshirt slid up to the tops of my thighs. My hands began to rub his arms helplessly. Strangely, I thought of a pan of caramels my grandmother had put on the stove for a candy recipe, and I thought of the melted, warm sweet goldenness of them.

He stood up with me still wrapped around him. ’’Where?’’ he asked.

And I pointed to my grandmother's former room. He carried me in as we were, my legs locked around him, my head on his shoulder, and he lay me on the clean bed. He stood by the bed and in the moonlight coming in the unshaded windows, I saw him undress, quickly and neatly. Though I was getting great pleasure from watching him, I knew I had to do the same;but still a little embarrassed, I just drew off the nightshirt and tossed it onto the floor.

I stared at him. I'd never seen anything so beautiful or so scary in my life.

’’Oh, Bill,’’ I said anxiously, when he was beside me in the bed, ’’I don't want to disappoint you.’’

’’That's not possible,’’ he whispered. His eyes looked at my body as if it were a drink of water on a desert dune.

’’I don't know much,’’ I confessed, my voice barely audible.

’’Don't worry. I know a lot.’’ His hands began drifting over me, touching me in places I'd never been touched. I jerked with surprise, then opened myself to him.

’’Will this be different from doing it with a regular guy?’’ I asked.

’’Oh, yes.’’

I looked up at him questioningly.

’’It'll be better,’’ he said in my ear, and I felt a twinge of pure excitement.

A little shyly, I reached down to touch him, and he made a very human sound. After a moment, the sound became deeper.

’’Now?’’ I asked, my voice ragged and shaking.

’’Oh, yes,’’ he said, and then he was on top of me.

A moment later he found out the true extent of my inexperience.

’’You should have told me,’’ he said, but very gently. He held himself still with an almost palpable effort.

’’Oh, please don't stop!’’ I begged, thinking that the top would fly off my head, something drastic would happen, if he didn't go on with it.

’’I have no intention of stopping,’’ he promised a little grimly. ’’Sookie ... this will hurt.’’

In answer, I raised myself. He made an incoherent noise and pushed into me.

I held my breath. I bit my lip. Ow, ow, ow.

’’Darling,’’ Bill said. No one had ever called me that. ’’How are you?’’ Vampire or not, he was trembling with the effort of holding back.

’’Okay,’’ I said inadequately. I was over the sting, and I'd lose my courage if we didn't proceed. ’’Now,’’ I said, and I bit him hard on the shoulder.

He gasped, and jerked, and he began moving in earnest. At first I was dazed, but I began to catch on and keep up. He found my response very exciting, and I began to feel that something was just around the corner, so to speak - something very big and good. I said, ’’Oh, please, Bill, please!’’ and dug my nails in his hips, almost there, almost there, and then a small shift in our alignment allowed him to press even more directly against me and almost before I could gather myself I was flying, flying, seeing white with gold streaks. I felt Bill's teeth against my neck, and I said, ’’Yes!’’ I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain, and as he came inside me I felt him draw on the little wound.

We lay there for a long time, from time to time trembling with little aftershocks. I would never forget his taste and smell as long as I lived, I would never forget the feel of him inside me this first time - my first time, ever - I would never forget the pleasure.

Finally Bill moved to lie beside me, propped on one elbow, and he put his hand over my stomach.

’’I am the first.’’


’’Oh, Sookie.’’ He bent to kiss me, his lips tracing the line of my throat.

’’You could tell I don't know much,’’ I said shyly. ’’But was that all right for you? I mean, about on a par with other women at least? I'll get better.’’

’’You can get more skilled, Sookie, but you can't get any better.’’ He kissed me on the cheek. ’’You're wonderful.’’

’’Will I be sore?’’

’’I know you'll think this is odd, but I don't remember. The only virgin I was ever with was my wife, and that was a century and a half ago ... yes, I recall, you will be very sore. We won't be able to make love again, for a day or two.’’

’’Your blood heals,’’ I observed after a little pause, feeling my cheeks redden.

In the moonlight, I could see him shift, to look at me more directly. ’’So it does,’’ he said. ’’Would you like that?’’

’’Sure. Wouldn't you?’’

’’Yes,’’ he breathed, and bit his own arm.

It was so sudden that I cried out, but he casually rubbed a finger in his own blood, and then before I could tense up he slid that finger up inside me. He began moving it very gently, and in a moment, sure enough, the pain was gone.

’’Thanks,’’ I said. ’’I'm better now.’’

But he didn't remove his finger.

’’Oh,’’ I said. ’’Would you like to do it again so soon? Can you do that?’’ And as his finger kept up its motion, I began to hope so.

’’Look and see,’’ he offered, a hint of amusement in his sweet dark voice.

I whispered, hardly recognizing myself, ’’Tell me what you want me to do.’’

And he did.

I WENT BACK to work the next day. No matter what Bill's healing powers were, I was a little uncomfortable, but boy, did I feel powerful. It was a totally new feeling for me. It was hard not to feel - well, cocky is surely the wrong word - maybe incredibly smug is closer.

Of course, there were the same old problems at the bar - the cacophony of voices, the buzzing of them, the persistence. But somehow I seemed better able to tone them down, to tamp them into a pocket. It was easier to keep my guard up, and I felt consequently more relaxed. Or maybe since I was more relaxed - boy, was I more relaxed - it was easier to guard? I don't know. But I felt better, and I was able to accept the condolences of the patrons with calm instead of tears.

Jason came in at lunch and had a couple of beers with his hamburger, which wasn't his normal regimen. He usually didn't drink during the work day. I knew he'd get mad if I said anything directly, so I just asked him if everything was okay.

’’The chief had me in again today,’’ he said in a low voice. He looked around to make sure no one else was listening, but the bar was sparsely filled that day since the Rotary Club was meeting at the Community Building.

’’What is he asking you?’’ My voice was equally low.

’’How often I'd seen Maudette, did I always get my gas at the place she worked... . Over and over and over, like I hadn't answered those questions seventy-five times. My boss is at the end of his patience, Sookie, and I don't blame him. I been gone from work at least two days, maybe three, with all the trips I been making down to the police station.’’

’’Maybe you better get a lawyer,’’ I said uneasily.

’’That's what Rene said.’’

Then Rene Lenier and I saw eye to eye.

’’What about Sid Matt Lancaster?’’ Sidney Matthew Lancaster, native son and a whiskey sour drinker, had the reputation of being the most aggressive trial lawyer in the parish. I liked him because he always treated me with respect when I served him in the bar.

’’He might be my best bet.’’ Jason looked as petulant and grim as a lovely person can. We exchanged a glance. We both knew Gran's lawyer was too old to handle the case if Jason was ever, God forbid, arrested.

Jason was far too self-absorbed to notice anything different about me, but I'd worn a white golf shirt (instead of my usual round-necked T-shirt) for the protection of its collar. Arlene was not as unaware as my brother. She'd been eyeing me all morning, and by the time the three o'clock lull hit, she was pretty sure she'd got me figured out.

’’Girl,’’ she said, ’’you been having fun?’’

I turned red as a beet. ’’Having fun’’ made my relationship with Bill lighter than it was, but it was accurate as far as it went. I didn't know whether to take the high road and say, ’’No, making love,’’ or keep my mouth shut, or tell Arlene it was none of her business, or just shout, ’’Yes!’’

’’Oh, Sookie, who is the man?’’

Uh-oh. ’’Um, well, he's not...’’

’’Not local? You dating one of those servicemen from Bossier City?’’

’’No,’’ I said hesitantly.

’’Sam? I've seen him looking at you.’’


’’Who, then?’’

I was acting like I was ashamed. Straighten your spine, Sookie Stackhouse, I told myself sternly. Pay the piper.

’’Bill,’’ I said, hoping against hope that she'd just say, ’’Oh, yeah.’’

’’Bill,’’ Arlene said blankly. I noticed Sam had drifted up and was listening. So was Charlsie Tooten. Even Lafayette stuck his head through the hatch.

’’Bill,’’ I said, trying to sound firm. ’’You know. Bill.’’

’’Bill Auberjunois?’’


’’Bill ... ?’’

’’Bill Compton,’’ Sam said flatly, just as I opened my mouth to say the same thing. ’’Vampire Bill.’’

Arlene was flabbergasted, Charlsie Tooten immediately gave a little shriek, and Lafayette about dropped his bottom jaw.

’’Honey, couldn't you just date a regular human fella?’’ Arlene asked when she got her voice back.

’’A regular human fella didn't ask me out.’’ I could feel the color fix in my cheeks. I stood there with my back straight, feeling defiant and looking it, I'm sure.

’’But, sweetie,’’ Charlsie Tooten fluted in her babyish voice, ’’honey ... Bill's, ah, got that virus.’’

’’I know that,’’ I said, hearing the distinct edge in my voice.

’’I thought you were going to say you were dating a black, but you've gone one better, ain't you, girl?’’ Lafayette said, picking at his fingernail polish.

Sam didn't say anything. He just stood leaning against the bar, and there was a white line around his mouth as if he were biting his cheek inside.

I stared at them all in turn, forcing them to either swallow this or spit it out.

Arlene got through it first. ’’All right, then. He better treat you good, or we'll get our stakes out!’’

They were all able to laugh at that, albeit weakly.

’’And you'll save a lot on groceries!’’ Lafayette pointed out.

But then in one step Sam ruined it all, that tentative acceptance, by suddenly moving to stand beside me and pull the collar of my shirt down.

You could have cut the silence of my friends with a knife.

’’Oh, shit,’’ Lafayette said, very softly.

I looked right into Sam's eyes, thinking I'd never forgive him for doing this to me.

’’Don't you touch my clothes,’’ I told him, stepping away from him and pulling the collar back straight. ’’Don't tend to my personal life.’’

’’I'm scared for you, I'm worried about you,’’ he said, as Arlene and Charlsie hastily found other things to do.

’’No you're not, or not entirely. You're mad as hell. Well listen, buddy. You never got in line.’’

And I stalked away to wipe down the formica on one of the tables. Then I collected all the salt shakers and refilled them. Then I checked the pepper shakers and the bottles of hot peppers on each table and booth, the Tabasco sauce, too. I just kept working and kept my eyes in front of me, and gradually, the atmosphere cooled down.

Sam was back in his office doing paperwork or something, I didn't care what, as long as he kept his opinions to himself. I still felt like he'd ripped the curtain off a private area of my life when he'd exposed my neck, and I hadn't forgiven him. But Arlene and Charlsie had found make-work, as I'd done, and by the time the after-work crowd began trickling in, we were once again fairly comfortable with one another.

Arlene came into the women's room with me. ’’Listen, Sookie, I got to ask. Are vampires all everyone says they are, in the lover department?’’

I just smiled.

Bill came into the bar that evening, just after dark. I'd worked late since one of the evening waitresses had had car trouble. One minute he wasn't there, and the next minute he was, slowing down so I could see him coming. If Bill had any doubts about making our relationship public, he didn't show them. He lifted my hand and kissed it in a gesture that performed by anyone else would have seemed phony as hell. I felt the touch of his lips on the back of my hand all the way down to my toes, and I knew he could tell that.

’’How are you this evening?’’ he whispered, and I shivered.

’’A little...’’ I found I couldn't get the words out.

’’You can tell me later,’’ he suggested. ’’When are you through?’’

’’Just as soon as Susie gets here.’’

’’Come to my house.’’

’’Okay.’’ I smiled up at him, feeling radiant and light-headed.

And Bill smiled back, though since my nearness had affected him, his fangs were showing, and maybe to anyone else but me the effect was a little - unsettling.

He bent to kiss me, just a light touch on the cheek, and he turned to leave. But just at that moment, the evening went all to hell.

Malcolm and Diane came in, flinging the door open as if they were making a grand entrance, and of course, they were. I wondered where Liam was. Probably parking the car. It was too much to hope they'd left him at home.

Folks in Bon Temps were getting accustomed to Bill, but the flamboyant Malcolm and the equally flamboyant Diane caused quite a stir. My first thought was that this wasn't going to help people get used to Bill and me.

Malcolm was wearing leather pants and a kind of chain-mail shirt. He looked like something on the cover of a rock album. Diane was wearing a one-piece lime green bodysuit spun out of Lycra or some other very thin, stretchy cloth. I was sure I could count her pubic hairs if I so desired. Blacks didn't come into Merlotte's much, but if any black was absolutely safe there, it was Diane. I saw Lafayette goggling through the hatch in open admiration, spiced by a dollop of fear.

The two vampires shrieked with feigned surprise when they saw Bill, like demented drunks. As far as I could tell, Bill was not happy about their presence, but he seemed to handle their invasion calmly, as he did almost everything.

Malcolm kissed Bill on the mouth, and so did Diane. It was hard to tell which greeting was more offensive to the customers in the bar. Bill had better show distaste, and quick, I thought, if he wanted to stay in good with the human inhabitants of Bon Temps.

Bill, who was no fool, took a step back and put his arm around me, dissociating himself from the vampires and aligning himself with the humans.

’’So your little waitress is still alive,’’ Diane said, and her clear voice was audible through the whole bar. ’’Isn't that amazing.’’

’’Her grandmother was murdered last week,’’ Bill said quietly, trying to subdue Diane's desire to make a scene.

Her gorgeous lunatic brown eyes fixed on me, and I felt cold.

’’Is that right?’’ she said and laughed.

That was it. No one would forgive her now. If Bill had been trying to find a way to entrench himself, this would be the scenario I would write. On the other hand, the disgust I could feel massing from the humans in the bar could backlash and wash over Bill as well as the renegades.

Of course ... to Diane and her friends, Bill was the renegade.

’’When's someone going to kill you, baby?’’ She ran a fingernail under my chin, and I knocked her hand away.

She would have been on me if Malcolm hadn't grabbed her hand, lazily, almost effortlessly. But I saw the strain show in the way he was standing.

’’Bill,’’ he said conversationally, as if he wasn't exerting every muscle he had to keep Diane still, ’’I hear this town is losing its unskilled service personnel at a terrible rate. And a little bird in Shreveport tells me you and your friend here were at Fangtasia asking questions about what vampire the murdered fang-bangers might have been with.’’

’’You know that's for us to know, no one else,’’ Malcolm continued, and all of a sudden his face was so serious it was truly terrifying. ’’Some of us don't want to go to - baseball - games and...’’ (here he was searching his memory for something disgustingly human, I could tell) ’’barbecues! We are Vampire!’’ He invested the word with majesty, with glamor, and I could tell a lot of the people in the bar were falling under his spell. Malcolm was intelligent enough to want to erase the bad impression he knew Diane had made, all the while showering contempt on those of us it had been made on.

I stomped on his instep with every ounce of weight I could muster. He showed his fangs at me. The people in the bar blinked and shook themselves.

’’Why don't you just get outta here, mister,’’ Rene said. He was slouched at the bar with his elbows flanking a beer.

There was moment when things hung in the balance, when the bar could have turned into a bloodbath. None of my fellow humans seemed to quite comprehend how strong vampires were, or how ruthless. Bill had moved in front of me, a fact registered by every citizen in Merlotte's.

’’Well, if we're not wanted...’’ Malcolm said. His thick-muscled masculinity warred with the fluting voice he suddenly affected. ’’These good people would like to eat meat, Diane, and do human things. By themselves. Or with our former friend Bill.’’

’’I think the little waitress would like to do a very human thing with Bill,’’ Diane began, when Malcolm caught her by the arm and propelled her from the room before she could cause more damage.

The entire bar seemed to shudder collectively when they were out the door, and I thought I better leave, even though Susie hadn't shown up yet. Bill waited for me outside;when I asked him why, he said he wanted to be sure they'd really left.

I followed Bill to his house, thinking we'd gotten off relatively lightly from the vampire visitation. I wondered why Diane and Malcolm had come;it seemed odd to me that they would be cruising so far from home and decide, on a whim, to drop in Merlotte's. Since they were making no real effort at assimilation, maybe they wanted to scotch Bill's prospects.

The Compton house was visibly different from the last time I'd been in, the sickening evening I'd met the other vampires.

The contractors were really coming through for Bill, whether because they were scared not to or because he was paying well, I didn't know. Maybe both. The living room was getting a new ceiling and the new wallpaper was white with a delicate flowered pattern. The hardwood floors had been cleaned, and they shone as they must have originally. Bill led me to the kitchen. It was sparse, naturally, but bright and cheerful and had a brand-new refrigerator full of bottled synthetic blood (yuck).

The downstairs bathroom was opulent.

As far as I knew, Bill never used the bathroom;at least for the primary human function. I stared around me in amazement.

The space for this grand bathroom had been achieved by including what had formerly been the pantry and about half the old kitchen.

’’I like to shower,’’ he said, pointing to a clear shower stall in one corner. It was big enough for two grownups and maybe a dwarf or two. ’’And I like to lie in warm water.’’ He indicated the centerpiece of the room, a huge sort of tub surrounded by an indoor deck of cedar, with steps on two sides. There were potted plants arranged all around it. The room was as close to being in the middle of a very luxurious jungle as you could get in northern Louisiana.

’’What is that?’’ I asked, awed.

’’It's a portable spa,’’ Bill said proudly. ’’It has jets you can adjust individually so each person can get the right force of water. It's a hot tub,’’ he simplified.

’’It has seats,’’ I said, looking in. The interior was decorated around the top with green and blue tiles. There were fancy controls on the outside.

Bill turned them, and water began to surge.

’’Maybe we can bathe together?’’ Bill suggested.

I felt my cheeks flame, and my heart began to pound a little faster.

’’Maybe now?’’ Bill's fingers tugging at my shirt where it was tucked into my black shorts.

’’Oh, well... maybe.’’ I couldn't seem to look at him straight when I thought of how this - okay, man - had seen more of me than I'd ever let anyone see, including my doctor.

’’Have you missed me?’’ he asked, his hands unbuttoning my shorts and peeling them down.

’’Yes,’’ I said promptly because I knew that to be true.

He laughed, even as he knelt to untie my Nikes. ’’What did you miss most, Sookie?’’

’’I missed your silence,’’ I said without thinking at all.

He looked up. His fingers paused in the act of pulling the end of the bow to loosen it.

’’My silence,’’ he said.

’’Not being able to hear your thoughts. You just can't imagine, Bill, how wonderful that is.’’

’’I was thinking you'd say something else.’’

’’Well, I missed that, too.’’

’’Tell me about it,’’ he invited, pulling my socks off and running his fingers up my thigh, tugging off the panties and shorts.

’’Bill! I'm embarrassed,’’ I protested.

’’Sookie, don't be embarrassed with me. Least of anyone, with me.’’ He was standing now, divesting me of my shirt and reaching behind me to unsnap my bra, running his hands over the marks the straps had made on my skin, turning his attention to my breasts. He toed off his sandals at some point.

’’I'll try,’’ I said, looking at my own toes.

’’Undress me.’’

Now that I could do. I unbuttoned his shirt briskly and eased it out of his pants and off his shoulders. I unbuckled his belt and began to work on the waist button of his slacks. It was stiff, and I had quite a job.

I thought I was going to cry if the button didn't cooperate more. I felt clumsy and inept.

He took my hands and led them up to his chest. ’’Slow, Sookie, slow,’’ he said, and his voice had gone soft and shivery. I could feel myself relaxing almost inch by inch, and I began to stroke his chest as he'd stroked mine, twining the curly hair around my fingers and gently pinching his flat nipples. His hand went behind my head and pressed gently. I hadn't known men liked that, but Bill sure did, so I paid equal attention to the other one. While I was doing that, my hands resumed work on the damn button, and this time it came undone with ease. I began pushing down his pants, sliding my fingers inside his Jockeys.

He helped me down into the spa, the water frothing around our legs.

’’Shall I bathe you first?’’ he asked.

’’No,’’ I said breathlessly. ’’Give me the soap.’’

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