Dead as a Doornail
Randall came back to where I was standing quite a bit faster than he'd wandered away. "Sorry," he apologized. "We were talking shop. What did you have in mind, Sookie?"
"I want the same dimensions for the kitchen as before," I said, having dropped visions of a larger room after seeing the estimate. "But I want the new back porch to be just as wide as the kitchen, and I want to enclose it."
Randall produced a tablet, and I sketched what I wanted.
"You want the sinks where they were? You want all the appliances where they were?"
After some discussion, I drew everything I wanted, and Randall said he'd call me when it was time to pick out the cabinets and the sinks and all the other incidentals.
"One thing I wish you'd do for me today or tomorrow is fix the door from the hall into the kitchen," I said. "I want to be able to lock the house."
Randall rummaged around in the back of his pickup for a minute or two and came up with a brand-new doorknob with a lock, still in its package. "This won't keep out anyone really determined," he said, still in the apologetic vein, "but it's better'n nothing." He had it installed within fifteen minutes, and I was able to lock the sound part of the house away from the burned part. I felt much better, though I knew this lock wasn't worth much. I needed to put a dead bolt on the inside of the door; that would be even better. I wondered if I could do it myself, but I recalled that would entail cutting away some of the door frame, and I wasn't anything of a carpenter. Surely I could find someone who'd help me with that task.
Randall and Delia left with many assurances that I would be next on the list, and Terry resumed work. Alcide said, "You're never alone," in mildly exasperated tones.
"What did you want to talk about? Terry can't hear us over here." I led the way over to where my aluminum chair was sitting under a tree. Its companion was leaning up against the rough bark of the oak, and Alcide unfolded it. It creaked a little under his weight as he settled into it. I assumed he was going to tell me about the arrest of Connie Babcock.
"I upset you the last time I talked to you," he said directly.
I had to change mental gears at the unexpected opening. Okay, I liked a man who could apologize. "Yes, you did."
"You didn't want me to tell you I knew about Debbie?"
"I just hate that the whole thing happened. I hate that her family is taking it so hard. I hate that they don't know, that they're suffering. But I'm glad to be alive, and I'm not going to jail for defending myself."
"If it'll make you feel any better, Debbie wasn't that close to her family. Her parents always preferred Debbie's little sister, though she didn't inherit any shifter characteristics. Sandra is the apple of their eye, and the only reason they're pursuing this with such vigor is that Sandra expected it."
"You think they'll give up?"
"They think I did it," Alcide said. "The Pelts think that because Debbie got engaged to another man, I killed her. I got an e-mail from Sandra in response to mine about the private eyes."
I could only gape at him. I had a horrible vista of the future in which I saw myself going down to the police station and confessing to save Alcide from a jail term. Even to be suspected of a murder he hadn't committed was an awful thing, and I couldn't permit it. It just hadn't occurred to me that someone else would be blamed for what I'd done.
"But," Alcide continued, "I can prove I didn't. Four pack members have sworn I was at Pam's house after Debbie left, and one female will swear I spent the night with her."
He had been with the pack members, just somewhere else. I slumped with relief. I was not going to have a jealous spasm about the female. He wouldn't have called her that if he'd actually had sex with her.
"So the Pelts will just have to suspect someone else. That's not what I wanted to talk to you about, anyway."
Alcide took my hand. His were big, and hard, and enclosed mine like he was holding something wild that would fly away if he relaxed his grip. "I want you to think about seeing me on a steady basis," Alcide said. "As in, every day."
Once again, the world seemed to rearrange itself around me. "Huh?" I said.
"I like you very much," he said. "I think you like me, too. We want each other." He leaned over to kiss me once on the cheek and then, when I didn't move, on the mouth. I was too surprised to get into it and unsure whether I wanted to anyway. It's not often a mind reader gets taken by surprise, but Alcide had achieved it.
He took a deep breath and continued. "We enjoy each other's company. I want to see you in my bed so much it makes me ache. I wouldn't have spoken this soon, without us being together more, but you need a place to live right now. I have a condo in Shreveport. I want you to think about staying with me."
If he'd whomped me upside the head with a two-by-four, I couldn't have been more stunned. Instead of trying so hard to stay out of people's heads, I should consider getting back into them. I started several sentences in my head, discarded them all. The warmth of him, the attraction of his big body, was something I had to fight as I struggled to sort my thoughts.
"Alcide," I began at last, speaking over the background noise of Terry's sledgehammer knocking down the boards of my burned kitchen, "you're right that I like you. In fact, I more than like you." I couldn't even look at his face. I looked instead at his big hands, with their dusting of dark hair across the backs. If I looked down past his hands, I could see his muscular thighs and his... Well, back to the hands. "But the timing seems all wrong. I think you need more time to get over your relationship with Debbie, since you seemed so enslaved to her. You may feel that just saying the words 'I abjure you' got rid of all your feelings for Debbie, but I'm not convinced that's so."
"It's a powerful ritual of my people," Alcide said stiffly, and I risked a quick glance at his face.
"I could tell it was a powerful ritual," I assured him, "and it had a big effect on everyone there. But I can't believe that, quick as a flash, every single feeling you had for Debbie was uprooted when you said the words. That's just not how people work."
"That's how werewolves work." He looked stubborn. And determined.
I thought very hard about what I wanted to say.
"I'd love for someone to step in and solve all my problems," I told him. "But I don't want to accept your offer because I need a place to live and we're hot for each other. When my house is rebuilt, then we'll talk, if you still feel the same."
"This is when you need me the most," he protested, the words spilling out of his mouth in his haste to persuade me. "You need me now. I need you now. We're right for each other. You know it."
"No, I don't. I know that you're worried about a lot of things right now. You lost your lover, however it happened. I don't think it's sunk into you yet that you'll never see her again."
"I shot her, Alcide. With a shotgun."
His whole face clenched.
"See? Alcide, I've seen you rip into a person's flesh when you were being a wolf. And it didn't make me scared of you. Because I'm on your side. But you loved Debbie, at least for a time. We get into a relationship now, at some point you're going to look up and say, 'Here's the one who ended her life.' "
Alcide opened his mouth to protest, but I held up a hand. I wanted to finish.
"Plus, Alcide, your dad's in this succession struggle. He wants to win the election. Maybe you being in a settled relationship would help his ambitions. I don't know. But I don't want any part of Were politics. I didn't appreciate you dragging me into it cold last week at the funeral. You should have let me decide."
"I wanted them to get used to the sight of you by my side," Alcide said, his face stiffening with offense. "I meant it as an honor to you."
"I might have appreciated that honor more if I'd known about it," I snapped. It was a relief to hear another vehicle approaching, to see Andy Bellefleur get out of his Ford and watch his cousin knocking down my kitchen. For the first time in months, I was glad to see Andy.
I introduced Andy to Alcide, of course, and watched them size each other up. I like men in general, and some men in specific, but when I saw them practically circle each other as they sniffed each other's butts - excuse me, exchanged greetings - I just had to shake my head. Alcide was the taller by a good four inches, but Andy Bellefleur had been on his college wrestling team, and he was still a block of muscle. They were about the same age. I would put even money on them in a fight, providing that Alcide kept his human form.
"Sookie, you asked me to keep you posted on the man who died here," Andy said.
Sure, but it had never occurred to me he'd actually do it. Andy did not have any very high opinion of me, though he'd always been a big fan of my rear end. It's wonderful being telepathic, huh?
"He has no prior record," Andy said, looking down at the little notebook he'd produced. "He has no known association with the Fellowship of the Sun."
"But that doesn't make sense," I said into the little silence that followed. "Why would he set the fire otherwise?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that," Andy said, his clear gray eyes meeting mine.
I'd had it with Andy, abruptly and finally. In our dealings over the years, he'd insulted me and wounded me, and now I'd encountered that last straw.
"Listen to me, Andy," I said, and I looked right back into his eyes. "I never did anything to you that I know of. I've never been arrested. I've never even jaywalked, or been late paying my taxes, or sold a drink to an underage teen. I've never even had a speeding ticket. Now someone tried to barbecue me inside my own home. Where do you get off, making me feel like I've done something wrong?" Other than shoot Debbie Pelt, a voice whispered in my head. It was the voice of my conscience.
"I don't think there's anything in this guy's past that would indicate he'd do this to you."
"Fine! Then find out who did! Because someone burned my house, and it sure wasn't me!" I was yelling when I got to the last part, partly to drown the voice. My only recourse was to turn and walk away, striding around the house until I was out of Andy's sight. Terry gave me a sidelong look, but he didn't stop swinging his sledgehammer.
After a minute, I heard someone picking his way through the debris behind me. "He's gone," Alcide said, his deep voice just a tiny bit amused. "I guess you're not interested in going any further with our conversation."
"You're right," I said briefly.
"Then I'll go back to Shreveport. Call me if you need me."
"Sure." I made myself be more polite. "Thanks for your offer of help."
" 'Help'? I asked you to live with me!"
"Then thank you for asking me to live with you." I couldn't help it if I didn't sound completely sincere. I said the right words. Then my grandmother's voice sounded in my head, telling me that I was acting like I was seven years old. I made myself turn around.
"I do appreciate your... affection," I said, looking up into Alcide's face. Even this early in the spring, he had a tan line from wearing a hard hat. His olive complexion would be shades darker in a few weeks. "I do appreciate..." I trailed off, not sure how to put it. I appreciated his willingness to consider me as an eligible woman to mate with, which so many men didn't, as well as his assumption that I would make a good mate and a good ally. This was as close as I could get to phrasing what I meant.
"But you're not having any." The green eyes regarded me steadily.
"I'm not saying that." I drew a breath. "I'm saying now is not the time to work on a relationship with you." Though I wouldn't mind jumping your bones, I added to myself wistfully.
But I wasn't going to do that on a whim, and certainly not with a man like Alcide. The new Sookie, the rebound Sookie, wasn't going to make the same mistake twice in a row. I was double rebounding. (If you rebound from the two men you've had so far, do you end up a virgin again? To what state are you rebounding?) Alcide gave me a hard hug and dropped a kiss on my cheek. He left while I was still mulling that over. Soon after Alcide left, Terry knocked off for the day. I changed from the jumpsuit into my work clothes. The afternoon had chilled, so I pulled on the jacket I'd borrowed from Jason's closet. It smelled faintly of Jason.
I detoured on the way to work to drop off the pink and black suit at Tara's house. Her car wasn't there, so I figured she was still at the shop. I let myself in and went back to her bedroom to put the plastic bag in her closet. The house was dusky and deep shadowed. It was almost dark outside. Suddenly my nerves thrummed with alarm. I shouldn't be here. I turned away from the closet and stared around the room. When my eyes got to the doorway, it was filled with a slim figure. I gasped before I could stop myself. Showing them you're scared is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
I couldn't see Mickey's face to read his expression, if he had any.
"Where did that new bartender at Merlotte's come from?" he asked.
If I'd expected anything, it wasn't that.
"When Sam got shot, we needed another bartender in a hurry. We borrowed him from Shreveport," I said. "From the vampire bar."
"Had he been there long?"
"No," I said, managing to feel surprised even through my creeping fear. "He hadn't been there long at all."