Page 1

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.