Chapter 3: Opening

Sookie

“Christ, Northman, what did you two do in here last night?” Pam asked once we were back in the kitchen.

I looked at Eric and smiled. He was already smiling back at me. “We were hungry.”

“Obviously.” Pam looked around with disdain.

The kitchen was a bit of a disaster. It hadn’t been when we’d arrived. Eric’s house was surprisingly neat. I suppose, however, that I used my brother as the benchmark for the way the homes of all bachelor houses looked. The house had lovely hardwood floors throughout most of it, which I loved. There were rugs laid out in all the right places. The walls were painted a light mocha color that gave the house warmth without making it feel boxy. The furniture was heavy but comfortable.

When the kitchen was clean, it looked like it belonged like it belonged in a magazine. The appliances were all stainless steel. There was a cooktop embedded in the granite counters. There were two ovens built into the walls. The fixtures on the drawers and in the sink were silver. Big windows brought in the morning sun. Sheer white curtains billowed softly in the breeze. The room was light and airy.

Pam plopped down on a bar stool at the island in the middle of the kitchen and began to pull items from the large shopping bag she’d brought in with her. Container after container appeared, along with a box of a dozen bagels. Before long, there was a mammoth buffet of food set out in front of us. There was enough there to feed at least eight people.

“So, Sookie, tell me about yourself.” Pam said as she spread vegetable cream cheese on her multi-grain bagel.

“What do you want to know, Pam?” I slapped on my emergency smile and noticed the look of warning Eric was shooting her.

“Do you live around here?”

“I do, as a matter of fact.” I nodded and took a sip of the coffee she’d brought me. It was super strong but it was just what I needed. “I have a townhouse in Itasca.”

Pam nodded her approval, causing Eric to roll his eyes. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a teacher.” I said and both Pam and Eric made choking noises. I looked back and forth between them. “Is that a problem?”

“No, not at all.” Eric grinned at me. Pam flashed a grin as well but it disappeared just as quickly as it lit up her pale face.

“I like it. I teach history at the high school a few blocks from here.” I told them, watching Pam’s face closely for a reaction, but she just nodded along.

“How long have you been teaching there?”

“Well, I did my student teaching there so I was lucky enough to get hired on when one of the teachers retired. So this will be my third year. I can’t believe summer vacation is over already.”

“A friend of mine is a teacher.” Pam volunteered, her eyes cheating over to Eric with a slight smile. “He teaches PE.”

“Oh?” I sipped at my coffee some more.

“Yep. He’s also going to be coaching basketball this year, if I remember right. Do you coach anything?”

“Poms.” I confessed with a proud smile.

“Poms? As in cheerleading?” Pam’s face lit up again and Eric made another choking sound that I assumed came from the mental image of me in a cheerleading uniform. I smiled over my shoulder at him.

“Were you a cheerleader in high school, Pam?” I couldn’t get that image in my head.

Both Eric and Pam burst out laughing. “God no.” Pam looked at me like I should be shot for suggesting such a thing.

“Got something against cheerleaders?” I asked in mock offense.

“Not at all. I think they’re delicious.” Pam leered at me. Oh. Oh.

“Pam…” Eric warned.

“Don’t tell me the image of Sookie in a cheerleading uniform isn’t giving you wood. You don’t lie very well.” Pam looked pointedly at Eric’s boxers. I kept my eyes forward.

We drifted through conversation easily. Pam told me about her bar and her partnership with Eric. They’d met in college while she was studying business at Duke. She and Eric had become partners because he had good instincts and she trusted him implicitly.

“If I weren’t so into women, Mr. Northman would be off the market.” Pam told me.

“Pam!” Eric glared at her.

“Oh, get over it, Northman.” She rolled her eyes.

“I think you should go before I fire bomb your shoe closet.” Eric threatened in the tone of a big brother who’d had enough of his younger sister’s needling.

Apparently that was a threat Pam took seriously, because she couldn’t seem to get out of Eric’s house fast enough after that. The two of them were worse than my brother and I. I couldn’t help but laugh at her hasty exit. She practically ran out the kitchen door with me chuckling behind her. I stopped laughing when I felt Eric step up behind me and put his hands on my hips. I froze for a moment before feeling his lips on my neck.

“What are you doing?” I was a bit breathless, a little coil of anticipation making itself known in my belly.

“You look beautiful.” He whispered. It wasn’t an answer to my question, but somehow, I didn’t mind.

I turned my head and his lips met mine. If I’d thought he was a good kisser the night before, he was even better when I was experiencing it sober. I kicked myself for ever thinking of leaving. I turned on the stool so we were face to face and his hands slipped into my hair. He tried to gently work his long fingers through the knots and tangles our romping around the night before had created. His mouth had just moved to my neck when Jeter made his presence known. He whimpered and nudged at Eric’s legs.

Eric let out a breath of frustration. “Damn dog.” He muttered. “Wait right here.” He looked me deep in my eyes and I nodded.

I watched him move to the kitchen door to let the dog out. Jeter ran and barked happily in the sunshine. Eric checked to make sure Pam hadn’t left the gate open before he returned to the house. Our eyes met as he walked toward me. He had that look on his face like he was going to kiss me again. I wanted him to. I really, really did, but I also knew there were things that I needed to say before it happened.

“Hold on.” I held up a hand to stop him before he got too close.

“Is something wrong?” Eric braced his hands on either side of me on the island.

I took a deep breath and then said, “I need you to know that last night- as great as it was- it wasn’t really me. I went to your bar because my friend thought it would be a good idea. I’m not normally the bar type. It’s too loud and crowded and it’s just sensory overload for me. So I wasn’t all that psyched about being there. But then we walked in and I saw you and just…wow.” I paused there to catch the look of amusement and confusion on his face. “I wasn’t expecting there to be a you. I said, and did, a lot of things last night that I wouldn’t normally do. I mean, body shots with a stranger? Who does that after they graduate from college, right? And I’m a teacher! I wasn’t even thinking about what I would do if a parent saw me.” I hung me head as this occurred to me. Good God, what if a parent saw me? How was I going to look them in the face at open house in a few days?

“Sookie…” Eric lifted my chin. I gathered my courage and continued.

“What I’m trying to say is that I do like you, Eric. I’m just not sure if I’m in a relationship kind of place and I don’t believe in friends with benefits. So I don’t know where that leave us, but I just wanted you to know.” I watched his face nervously, waiting for some sort of reaction.

He backed away from me and I felt myself deflate. Stupid word vomit. Why couldn’t I just keep my big mouth shut and let him kiss me?

“For what it’s worth, I don’t do what we did last night either.” Eric leaned against the island, his hand settled on me knee. “When you walked into the bar … I don’t know… I saw you and I couldn’t look away. I was ready to walk out on Pam last night but then I saw you and I couldn’t leave.”

Grinning. I was definitely grinning. I was also back to feeling like I was sixteen again. I felt my heart flutter in my chest. What the hell was going on? I never felt like this about anyone. Ever. Not even Quinn, and I’d been in love with him. How had I fallen in love with Quinn without ever feeling the butterflies I was feeling in that moment?

“We don’t have to figure things out right away, Sookie. I don’t regret that we slept together last night.”

“Me either.” I volunteered quickly. Mornings after could be so damn awkward. He smiled at my confession which put me at ease just a little.

The familiar heat of a blush crept up my neck and I had to look away from him. That was a mistake, because the next thing I knew he was turning my face back to his to kiss me again. I felt myself melting against him. It was like time stopped and we were only yanked back into reality by Jeter, who was barking up a storm out in the yard. Eric pulled away reluctantly, pressing his forehead to mine.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” I touched his cheek.

“I’ll be right back.” He promised and then went out to investigate.

He came back a few minutes later with Jeter making a beeline for the basement. “Everything okay?”

“He had a disagreement with a squirrel.” Eric looked a bit grim and then went to wash his hands.

“Ew.” I cringed and hopped off the stool. I watched Eric wash up and when he was drying his hands I’d come to a decision. It was time to go. “I think I should get going now.”

Eric looked disappointed, to say the least. “You don’t have to.”

“Yeah, I do. Monday’s going to be a big day for me and I have a whole list of things I need to get done before that.” I pulled my cell phone from my bag with the intention of calling a cab to take me home.

“Do you need a ride?” Eric asked, remembering that he’d been the one to bring me back to his place the night before.

“Oh, I can call someone.” I didn’t want to put him out.

He laughed quietly and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll take you home. Just let me go get dressed.” He paused to kiss my hair and then moved on to his bedroom.

I paced nervously at the front door while I waited for him. When he came out of his bedroom a few minutes later in a pair of jeans, a white t-shirt and flip flops I started to question whether or not I really wanted to leave him. As good as he looked undressed, he looked just about as good with clothes on. He smiled at me and reached for his keys that he’d dropped on the coffee table the night before.

“Are you sure you don’t mind? I don’t-”

“Sookie, relax. It’s not like I’m taking you to Missouri.” He winked at me.

I opened my mouth to answer him but decided to just keep it to myself. He opened the front door for me and gestured for me to go ahead of him. Jeter came upstairs just in time to see we were leaving. He barked and tried to wiggle his way out the door.

“Sorry, buddy, you have to stay here. Not enough room for you in the car.” Eric apologized to the dog, who was whimpering pathetically at the door.

“Aww.” I pouted at Eric.

“Trust me, you don’t want him sitting in your lap.” Eric laughed.

Before he got the door closed I leaned in under his arm and scratched Jeter’s head. “I’ll see you another time, puppy.” I made kissy noises at him and then backed away so Eric could close the door.

He locked up the house and then led the way back to his car. He opened my door for me and then closed it once I was inside. I was just fastening my seatbelt when he got in beside me and did the same. The car roared to life and we headed out.

“So, where to?” Eric asked as we headed down one of many one way streets in town.

“Uh, turn right on Grand.” I smiled over at him and then dug into my purse for my sunglasses.

As if he were thinking the same thing I was, he reached over me and opened the glove box to retrieve a pair of his own. Aviators. And he looked amazing in them. My heart fluttered again. He turned on the radio and I smiled to myself when it was classic rock that came out. I located my sunglasses and leaned my head back against the seat.

“Do you mind if I open the windows?” Eric looked over at me.

“Of course not. Why would I mind?”

“It gets pretty windy in here with both of them open all the way.”

“I think I’ll be fine.” I sat up a little and began to gather my hair into a ponytail to keep it from becoming any more of a tangled mess than it already was. I directed Eric where to go while I drummed my fingers against my thigh in time with the rhythm of “Purple Haze”. Eric looked over at me while we were stopped at a red light not far from my house.

“You’re a Hendrix fan?” He seemed surprised.

“Who isn’t?” I retorted.

“I never would have guessed.”

“I’m just full of surprises.” I quipped before extending my arm out the window to let the sun fall on it.

“I’m starting to get that.” Eric smiled at me again.

We pulled into my driveway a short time later. Amelia was my next door neighbor, but I considered her more like a roommate with how often she was over at my house. She sometimes joked about knocking out part of the wall in my living room to put a door in like a hotel suite. Good thing she wasn’t serious, because I would veto that in a heartbeat. I like Amelia, but I like my privacy, too. She was also a teacher at the same high school as me as a chemistry teacher. I’d never been good with all that stuff and had taken it in college first thing to get it out of the way. I was much better at remembering dates and events than I was formulas and properties. While our homes were mirror images of each other, our yards were vastly different.

I had flowers and tall grasses growing where Amelia preferred a cleaner yard with bushes growing under her windows and at her property line. As a tribute to my southern roots, there was a swing mounted on my porch. I loved sitting out there on the weekends with a cup of coffee and my laptop while I graded papers and things. I would be sorry when it got to be too cold to do that anymore.

“So this is your house?” Eric asked as he took it all in.

“Yep, this is it.” I smiled at him.

“Do you mind me asking how long you’ve lived here? You don’t sound like a native.”

“I don’t mind.” I smiled at him and pushed my sunglasses up on my head. “I moved to Illinois when I got a scholarship to U of I. They have one of the best teaching programs in the country, so I couldn’t very well turn it down. Not to mention my hometown is sort of like a death trap for teenage girls without a plan. It’s too easy to end up married to the first boy who invites you into the back of his pickup truck.”

“Where are you from?”

“Bon Temps, Louisiana. It’s a small town about an hour away from Shreveport.”

“So you’re not from New Orleans?”

“Nope. I’ve actually only been there a handful of times in my whole life. It’s about a five hour drive from where I grew up.”

“How’d you end up this far north?”

That was a harder question to answer because it involved Quinn. When I hesitated Eric started to back pedal a little bit for being nosy. “It’s okay, Eric.” I turned in my seat so I was facing him. “I was dating someone and we were pretty serious about it. He was a few years older than me. Once he graduated he moved up here to start his business and I followed him. I finished my last year of college at Elmhurst. So I have an associates degree from U of I and a bachelor’s from Elmhurst. I was just thankful my credits all transferred.”

“And the boyfriend?”

I looked away from him for a moment and then said, “The credits transferred better than Quinn did.”

“Sorry.” He tried to look pained for me but I could see a hint of a gloat in his eyes.

“Nothing to be sorry for. Quinn just wasn’t the one for me.” I gave him a hopeful smile and he seemed to relax. “You want a tour of the house?”

That got him to lighten up real quick. “Sure.”

“Good.” I nodded and then got out of the car.

Eric followed me up to the front porch and I caught Amelia looking out her front window with a curious look on her face. I knew she’d be stopping by the second Eric’s car vanished from my driveway. Amelia was nothing if not a busy body. Honestly, she was sometimes worse than the little old ladies who used to call my Gran at all hours with their gossip. I could feel Eric standing behind me, though he wasn’t touching me. There was this energy coming off of him that made me nervous and excited at the same time.

I fumbled with the keys for a moment before I finally got the deadbolt flipped over and the door open. Eric walked in behind me and followed suit when I kicked off my little slippers near the door. The entryway was covered in linoleum and there was a small bench near the door where I kept my shoes underneath. A small table stood next to the coat closet with a little basket perched on top to collect my mail when I brought it in each day. To the right was the garage door and the stairs that led up to the second floor. To the left was a set of open french doors that led into the ‘formal’ living room.

I felt bad since I hardly ever used the room. There was a sofa, coffee table and a single wingback chair in there. In the wintertime, that was where I set up my Christmas tree since there was so much room to spare. I had a few bookshelves that lined one wall. I had a lot of biographies and quite a few books about pop culture in the 1960s and 70s. I found that particular time in history to be rather fascinating and Eric caught on to that pretty quick as he browsed my books.

“Don’t tell me you’re a hippie?” He smiled over his shoulder at me.

“This coming from a guy who looks like a surfer?” I shot right back before I could stop myself. As if on cue, some of his hair slipped forward to cover one of his eyes.

Eric smirked at me as his body turned toward mine. “A surfer, huh?”

“What would you call it?” I leaned against the wingback chair in front of me. I didn’t see him do it, but he swiped my copy of Journals by Kurt Cobain off the shelf.

“I think it’s a bit more grungy than surfer.”

I looked him up and down, sucking in my cheek as if I really had to think about it. “I could see that.” I nodded and stepped around the chair. “But do you own any flannel?”

His eyes flashed something a bit predatory as he stepped closer to me. “I will answer that question if you’ll have dinner with me.”

Jaw, meet floor.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I’ve never been bribed into a date before.” He was nothing if not creative.

“Well, you did promise to visit Jeter again.” He reminded me with a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh, so you’re asking me to dinner to spare Jeter from feeling the sting of rejection?”

“I do love my dog.” He stepped closer to me.

“I wouldn’t want to hurt Jeter. He was very kind to me, affectionate.” I acknowledged.

“I noticed. He’s not usually like that with new people.” Eric and I were dangerously close to one another and I got the feeling that Eric wasn’t just talking about his dog.

“Really? So what’s he usually like?” My breath caught when his fingers grazed mine. Slowly, almost painfully so, our fingers laced together.

“Usually he’s the kind that really likes to sniff out new territory and be sure before making a declaration or showing any real affection.” Eric squeezed my hand and I looked down to see where we were joined.

“And once he does?” My eyes met his again.

“Once he does he’s extremely loyal and very closely guards what’s his.” His face got closer to mine and his free hand came up to brush a loose strand of hair behind my ear.

Totally on impulse I leaned into his hand. “So it sounds to me like he’s a really reliable sort.”

“You could say that.” I could feel Eric’s breath on my face.

“What would you say?” I pursed my lips just a little bit.

Eric answered my question by kissing me, which was way better than any words he might have strung together. I completely lost myself in that kiss and I once again found myself wondering how in the hell I ever could have contemplated bolting earlier that morning. I felt my toes curl just a little and my hand definitely squeezed his. The kiss broke mutually and I stood there trying to catch my breath while we just looked at each other. My eyes searched his before traveling to his lips again.

He kissed my forehead and then turned toward the dining room that adjoined the living room. I stood there smiling like a goon for a second before copying his movement. He didn’t let go of my hand. From the dining room we walked into the kitchen. It was nowhere near as big or fancy as Eric’s, but I had a big butcher block on wheels that moved easily around the room that was very convenient when making bigger meals. Not that I had the chance to make too many of them. Attached to the kitchen was what my Mom called the family room. There was a fireplace and a high vaulted ceiling. There was also a skylight. A set of french doors led out onto the deck where I had patio table and chairs set up. Flower boxes lined the deck and there was a small shed in the back for my gardening tools.

We walked down the short hallway that led back toward the front door. There was a powder room, a linen closet and a larger closet under the staircase that housed my laundry machines. I debated about whether or not to take him upstairs, but reasoned that we were adults and completely capable of controlling ourselves. Just because I showed him where I slept, it didn’t mean we would fall into bed together. I told myself to get a grip when I realized I was secretly hoping we would.

Last night was one thing. It was a wild and reckless moment that I thought was going to be a one time thing. It was different now because he’d asked me out on a date. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to say yes. I liked Eric, no doubt about it. He was easy to talk to and he seemed to like me back just as much as I liked him. I paused at the top of the stairs for just a second and decided I had to give him my answer about dinner before I took him up there.

“So about this dinner…” I stood on the bottom step. He was still a good four inches taller than me at least. Damn.

“What about it?” He squeezed my hand again.

“I’ll have dinner with you.” I agreed and he beamed at me. I couldn’t help but smile back. “But on one condition.”

Eric arched an eyebrow at me. “I’m intrigued.”

“I want to cook.” I swung our hands back and forth.

“Done.” He leaned forward and kissed me to seal the deal.

“Okay, then.” I breathed a sigh of relief as quietly as possible. I turned and started up the stairs but Eric didn’t budge. I turned back to face him. “Something wrong?”

“If we go up there, I won’t want to come back down.” He confessed and I blushed, I know I did.

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I want to know you, Sookie.” He rubbed the inside of my wrist with his thumb. Just that simple touch alone had my insides fluttering.

“I want to know you, too.” I smiled at him, even though I was a bit disappointed we weren’t going upstairs.

“Good. Then we’ll have dinner.” He tugged me back down the steps.

“Bring Jeter if you want. There’s plenty of room for him to run in the yard if you think he needs to get out of the house for a while.”

“Whoa, whoa, are you dating me, or my dog?” He teased.

“Well, unlike you, Jeter snores.” I scrunched up my nose.

“That he does.” Eric laughed and then pulled me close.

I grabbed the banister to keep my balance. Our foreheads touched for a moment before he kissed me again. He was certainly every bit as affectionate as his pet. I can’t say I minded one bit, especially since Eric wasn’t at all sloppy about it. We didn’t kiss for long, and it was Eric who broke it off. We traded phone numbers and he promised to call me. I had no doubt that he would.

“Just so you know, the only day I can’t get together is Thursday. We have open house that night and I have to be there until almost ten.” I cringed at the thought of how long the day was going to be.

“So noted.” Eric opened the front door and stepped outside with my hand still attached to his.

“Do you know how to get back?” I asked just to be sure.

“Yep, I’ll be fine.” He rose my hand to his mouth and kissed hit gently. “I’ll see you soon, Sookie.”

He let go of my hand and I waved to him when he stopped to look at me before getting in his car. I watched him drive away and then closed my door. I leaned against it and let a great big grin spread across my face. Just like I thought, as soon as his car disappeared, Amelia was knocking at my patio door looking for the dirt.

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