The look on Sookie’s face worried me. She looked a little heartbroken all of a sudden and it took me a minute to figure out the reason why. Or, at least I thought I knew the reason why. But rather than try and push for something more than what she might be comfortable with, I thought I’d put the ball back in her court.
“Sookie, are you okay?” I asked gently, pulling her back from her thoughts.
“Oh, yeah, sorry.” She shook my head and gave me a faint smile.
I was so tempted to explain my reasons for not telling the Red Menace what Sookie’s roll was in my life, but decided maybe I was being ridiculous. Maybe she just needed some space. “I can handle this out here if you need to do stuff inside.”
What little smile there was on her face completely disappeared. “That would be great, thanks.” Sookie recovered quickly, pasting on a smile that was anything but genuine. When she was really smiling, it reached her eyes, and at that moment her eyes were still sad.
“Sookie,” I called out to her before she could get back in the house. “I didn’t call you my girlfriend because we haven’t talked about it yet, not because I don’t want you to be.”
Her head whipped around to see the smile on my face. “Okay.” Her real smile appeared and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d just had ‘the girlfriend’ talk. Sookie left me outside to tend to the chicken while she finished up whatever she was making inside. She leaned over the sink inside and called to me from the window. “You should turn the chicken in two minutes.”
“Yes, boss.” I smiled at her, causing yet another signature flush to rise on her face.
I did as I was told and six minutes after that Sookie appeared with a bottle of barbecue sauce and a brush. I watched her baste the chicken and turn down the heat just a little before moving the chicken up to the higher rack on the grill. I was impressed by how comfortable she seemed cooking over the fire. Most girls I’d met in the past didn’t really seem to know what they were doing.
“So, how much longer, Pit Master?” I asked.
“Depends on how long it takes the sauce to caramelize a little. As soon as that happens, it’s done.” Sookie winked at me. “Just keep the lid on it. I have to go mash the potatoes.”
I watched from the deck as she got out a handheld mixer to finish her potatoes. She pulled a small jar from the fridge and added a spoonful of something I couldn’t see, along with a handful of shredded cheese. I smiled to myself at noticing she wasn’t a girl who was afraid to eat. I’d gotten that impression the night before when she’d dug into the cheeseburger I’d made her without complaint, but she could have just been showcasing her manners. Her choice of menu for our first date showed that her appetite wasn’t at all connected to the etiquette she’d been raised with.
“How’s the chicken look?” Sookie asked through the kitchen window.
I lifted the lid of the grill and smiled. “If smell is any indication, it’s ready.”
“Sweet!” Sookie grabbed two plates and brought them outside.
I put one piece of chicken on each plate and then followed her back into the house after turning off the grill. “So, what do we have here?” I asked once I was standing next to her in front of the stove.
“Steamed green beans and cheesy garlic mashed potatoes.” She smiled up at him as she dipped a spoon into the pan of potatoes.
“Well, you got me with onions last night.”
“So this is my punishment then?”
Sookie laughed and said, “Hardly. I have big plans for you, Mr. Northman.” There was that blush again.
“I hope that’s a promise and not a threat.” I bent and kissed the top of her head.
She froze where she stood and took a deep breath to steady herself. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”
We took our food outside and sat at the table on her deck. Sookie lit some tiki torches that were mounted around the perimeter, as well as a big candle that was at the center of the table. With my first bite, I found out that Sookie Stackhouse was one hell of a cook.
“This is amazing.” I smiled at her.
“Thank you.” She gave me a shy smile of her own.
“Where did you learn how to cook?”
“I grew up in the south. It’s almost a religion.” She wiped her mouth on a napkin before I could lick the barbecue sauce off of her like I wanted to. “My Dad is really good with a grill, and since my brother is easily the most domestically challenged man I’ve ever met, Daddy named me his sioux chef.”
“Do you have any other siblings?”
“Just Jason. He got married this summer, so I guess I have a sister now, too, but I don’t really know Crystal all that well. I’ve been away from home for too long and keeping up with someone like Jason isn’t easy.”
“What’s he like?” I found myself curious, but then I wanted to know everything about her. Her family was certainly a big part of the reason she was who she was.
Sookie’s brows furrowed together in thought as she tried to figure out how to describe her brother to me. “Well, Jason is an interesting study, I suppose. He’s a bit of a good ole boy and a homebody. He likes his little plot of land with his pond out back he can go fish in if he wants. I guess you could say he’s a redneck in a lot of ways. He never went to college, skated through high school on his looks, charm and athletic abilities. He’s a bit of a womanizer, so when he called me up to tell me he was getting married I was pretty surprised. I figured the only way I was gonna be Auntie Sookie was if the condom broke or Amelia had a baby. Jason may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s got a good heart. If anyone ever actually required him to think he might find out he’s actually really smart. He’s just never had a good reason to use his brain.”
“Sounds like an interesting person.”
“He has his moments, trust me.” Sookie rolled her eyes.
She told me about her parents and how they’d met when they were in high school. They’d had a shotgun wedding when her mother found out she was pregnant with Jason. They’d been happily married for the last twenty-nine years. She told me she also had an aunt, her father’s sister, a cousin- who was married with a child of her own- and her Gran.
“I don’t have a lot of family, but the family I have is important to me. Leaving them was the hardest part of going away to college. I thought about moving back after things fell apart with Quinn.” She confessed to me, and then looked ashamed of herself for mentioning her ex.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad you decided to stay.”
“So am I. Don’t get me wrong, meeting you has been…” She trailed off while searching for the right word. “Mmmm, I guess I’ll say unexpected- but in a good way. But I stayed because of my job. I love my kids and I like working in this area. If I would have gone back to Bon Temps I’m not sure I would have been any happier.”
She told me about the town she’d grown up in and some of the people she knew growing up. It sounded like a typical small town to me. “So Bon Temps is the kind of place where people still sleep with their doors unlocked?”
“And wide open in the summertime.” Sookie smiled at me before sipping her wine. “It took me a while to get used to not doing that here. Once in a while I’ll leave the patio door open at night, but not usually. Air conditioning has become a bigger necessity than it ever was before.”
“I prefer open windows to air conditioning myself.” I agreed with her. “Which makes it really difficult to live here sometimes.”
“Did you grow up around here?”
“Nope. I’m a military brat. My father was in the Marines, so I’ve been around.”
“Lucky.” Sookie sat back in her chair and crossed her legs. “So what was it like, moving from place to place?”
I thought about it for a moment before answering. “I hated it when we were kids. All three of us did.”
“Three of you? I thought you just had a brother?”
“I have an older sister as well.” I set down my fork. “Her name is Annika. She wasn’t in that picture you saw at my house because she died when she was seventeen.”
“Oh, Eric, I’m sorry.” Sookie’s face darkened. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t mind.” That wasn’t always the case. In fact, talking about Annika’s death had been very painful for a very long time. “She was out with some friends the night it happened. We’d been in California for three years, which was a record for us. Dad was stationed at Camp Pendleton after a two year stint in San Diego. Annika never had any trouble fitting in wherever she went. I think it was harder for Johan and I because we had gotten so used to being one another’s best friend that we didn’t really feel the need to include anyone else. Annika was also five years older than us, so to her, we were just annoying little brothers who lived to torment her.”
“Did you?” Sookie grinned at me like she already knew.
“Of course.” I laughed. “Although, to be fair, Johan was the mastermind behind every single prank we pulled on her.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that if I ever meet him.”
I wanted to say something about taking a trip to Sweden that I was planning to visit him. Since we had two weeks off for the holidays I was planning to spend them overseas. Dad was long since retired from the Corps and Mom had been complaining about not seeing Johan for so long. His schedule didn’t really allow him time for vacations. Besides, it would be nice to see the snow, not that Chicago didn’t get its fair share.
“I’m sorry, continue with your story.” Sookie said when I got lost in my thoughts.
“The night she died, Johan and I were at some camp out at a friend’s house down the road. Annika had gone out for a friend’s birthday. They ended up partying on the beach and apparently, the friend who was celebrating his twenty-first birthday decided it would be okay if he liquored up my sister. I knew Annika liked to party pretty hard. She was never into drugs. In fact, she was firmly against that. She’d never used once and any of her friends would tell you that. She was always trying to get the ones who did to clean up. She said she didn’t like what the drugs did to her friends. After a while, a friend that was on drugs would disappear. Their body would still be there, but the spark that made them who they were would be snuffed out by whatever they were taking.
“The big thing at that point was heroin. Smoking weed was for squares, according to some of the people she knew. So the night of the party on the beach she got really, really drunk with a bunch of her friends. Someone had the brilliant idea to go skinny dipping off the edge of a pier. Annika was trying to talk them out of it when someone grabbed her around her waist and jumped over the side of the pier. It was supposed to be a joke, but Annika hit her head on a rock and fractured her skull.”
Sookie looked positively horrified by what I was telling her. It was a sad story. “Eric, I’m so sorry. That’s awful.” She looked like she was going to cry.
“It took a long time to get over. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever be over it.” I told her.
“Of course not.” Sookie pulled her chair closer to mine and grabbed my hand. “I know it’s not the same, but my Grandad died when I was fourteen. Yes, he was an old man and lived a full life so the tragic factor is a less than it is for your sister, but I still miss him every day. I don’t think that every goes away. You just learn to accept it and make a space in your heart for the person you lost.”
“You know, the strange part is that I’m not sure if it’s worse for us- Annika’s family- or the kid that grabbed her that night. He tried to kill himself on the first anniversary of her death.”
Sookie cringed and looked away. “That’s terrible.”
I remembered the look on my parents’ faces when they heard the news. The boy who’d pulled Annika off the pier had suffered his own injuries as a result of the accident. No one thought he’d hurt her on purpose but he blamed himself for it all the same. My parents had liked the kid. He was well-mannered and respectful. His father was also a Marine. Annika’s death understandably changed my parents. My mother went into a pretty severe depression and my father, who was already a little withdrawn because of the job, only became more distant in the immediate aftermath of Annika’s death.
“I don’t know how your parents survived it.” Sookie shook her head like she was reading my mind. “I don’t know how a mother buries her child.”
“Mom had a hard time with it. That’s part of the reason my parents weren’t thrilled with Johan for leaving the country. They’d already lost one child they would never have back. They thought they were failures as parents to lose the other.”
“But they haven’t lost him.” Sookie argued sweetly. “He’s just following his heart, isn’t he?”
“He is, but it’s harder to see that when you’ve buried one of your babies, I guess.” I really couldn’t blame my parents for being upset with Johan for leaving. I was a little pissed at him too, even if I knew he was living the life he wanted to live.
We switched gears from there and lightened the topic since talking about death wasn’t all that much fun. Sookie and I carried in our plates from dinner and I helped her clean up, overriding her insistence that I take a seat somewhere.
“You helped me last night. I’m just returning the favor.”
“Somewhere your mother is proud of you.” Sookie teased as she handed me a plate to put in the dishwasher. “How do your parents feel about you living here?”
“They’d prefer it if I would have moved back to California after I graduated from Duke, but I never really had much of a desire to stay there forever. Don’t get me wrong, I love it there. I love surfing and spending time on the beach. There’s nothing like a sunset at Laguna.”
Sookie giggled at the mention of the town. “Laguna Beach, huh?”
“Yeah, yeah, joke all you want but it’s beautiful.”
“I’ve never been there. I’ve been to Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Well, and I went to Washington D.C. one time on a class trip back in high school, but I’ve never been farther west than Dallas.”
“We should go sometime.” I figured I had nothing to lose by suggesting it.
“I’d like that.” She smiled over at me. “I think you’d make an excellent tour guide.”
We finished up the dishes and then Sookie forced me to sit on the couch in her family room. The Smashing Pumpkins filled the house. We’ll try and ease the pain, but somehow we’ll feel the same. Well, no one knows where our secrets go. The lyrics weren’t lost on me and it made me smile. I heard the clattering of dishes and turned to see Sookie pulling ice cream from her freezer.
She had her back to me when I walked up behind her silently. She froze when I pulled her hair away from her neck and leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I’m not going to lie. When you said dessert would melt in my mouth, I was hoping for something else.” I planted a kiss on her neck and felt her shiver.
Her breathing became a little jagged but she didn’t pull away from me as she opened the ice cream lids. She picked up one of the spoons that was resting on the counter and turned her head toward me. “I’ve got chocolate mint chip and rocky road.”
“Surprise me.” Turns out that was the best thing I could have said at that particular moment.
Sookie spun around and kissed me. Hard. It seemed to go on forever and I didn’t mind it one bit. Of course, the kiss ended all too soon. Without taking her eyes off mine, she dipped one of the spoons into the container of mint ice cream and held it out for me. I took it and then kissed her again. Best. Ice cream. Ever.
We went on like that until the ice cream was dangerously close to becoming a couple of puddles on her counter. At some point she’d gotten up on the counter but I couldn’t remember if I’d lifted her, or if she’d done it herself. Either way, I was grateful for it since the height difference between us could be a little rough on the neck after a while.
“Who is this singing?” I asked her, listening closely to the words I was hearing in the background.
Sookie giggled and pressed her forehead to my chest. “Sarah McLachlan.”
The song sounded vaguely familiar but it was perfect given the fact that Sookie had just attacked me in her kitchen and with ice cream, of all things. Sookie cleaned up the mess on her kitchen counter and when I looked at the clock, I realized it was after ten. I didn’t realize that much time had gone by. Where did it all go?
“Damn.” Sookie muttered, pulling me from my thoughts. I really needed to stop zoning out on her. It was becoming a bad habit.
“My shirt.” She looked down to point out a smudge of chocolate ice cream.
I figured she’d wipe it off with a wet paper towel, but instead she just peeled the shirt right off. I determined then that there was a distinct possibility this was the punishment she’d eluded to earlier. I sincerely hoped it wasn’t. I watched her walk toward the hallway and open the sliding closet doors to reveal her washer. She left the shirt on top of it and closed the doors.
She started further down the hall before looking over her shoulder at me. “You coming?”
Not yet, I thought but kept my mouth shut. “Where are we going?”
“You’re getting the rest of the tour.” She held out her hand to me and waited for me to catch up to her.
“Sookie, I meant what I said when I was here on Saturday. If I go up there, I can’t promise I’ll be able to come back down, or behave myself while we’re up there.”
“Then I guess it’s lucky for you that we’re not on school grounds and the rules don’t apply.” She tugged me up the stairs behind her.
There was a grandfather clock on the landing. The first door on the right led into a bathroom. The door on the left hid a spare bedroom. Further down the hall on the left was her office and across the hall was her bedroom. Her bed was perfectly made- something my own rarely was unless I was having company- and covered over with a white comforter that had little purple flowers on it. The room was every bit as feminine as I would expect from Sookie. Sheer white curtains hung in front of side by side windows that offered a nice view of her backyard and the deck below.
There was a second bathroom attached to her room and there was another door that I assumed belonged to a closet. The furniture in her room looked heavy and solid. She surprised me when she told me her headboard had belonged to her grandparents and that he’d built it himself.
“It was a wedding present for Gran.” Sookie lovingly ran her fingers over the hand-carved piece.
“It’s beautiful. Was he a carpenter?”
“Not by trade. It was just a hobby for him, but he was always working on something. You should see the china hutch he built. It’s amazing.”
Sookie standing there in a pair of tight jeans and a bra was beyond distracting. My mind was rapidly losing the ability to consider polite conversation as an option. She looked amazing standing there. I tried to think of something to say that had nothing to do with sex or how much I wanted her in that moment, but she beat me to it.
“I need to ask you something.” Sookie climbed up on her bed and sat on her knees, her hands resting on her thighs.
I did my best to keep my eyes on hers instead of her breasts, which were damn close to being on full display. “Shoot.”
She gestured for me to sit down across from her. “Did you mean what you said earlier before dinner, or were you just trying to make me feel better?”
Ah, the girlfriend thing. “Well, I guess that depends on you. I like you, Sookie. I like you a lot and that doesn’t happen for me. Ever.” She looked shocked but I continued. “I can honestly say that I have never been in a serious relationship. I’ve never lived with another woman and I’ve never met one that I could see in my future in a significant way. But I can see those things with you.”
Sookie opened her mouth to speak but then closed it, taking a moment to consider her response. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I told you about Quinn and how things didn’t work out, but I didn’t really tell you why. I’m only telling you this now because I want you to understand where I’m coming from.” I nodded my understanding and she continued. “I met Quinn when I was in college. He was a few years older than me and it was one of those love at first sight sort of things. Looking back on it now, I know that I only saw the things I wanted to see. The signs were there all along that it wasn’t going to work but I ignored them because I loved him. I think he knew before I did that we were headed for disaster but rather than pulling the plug himself, he strung me along for a few years and let me think we were going to get married and have our own happily ever after.
“I did the stupid girl thing that a lot of girls do when they see their relationship is in trouble and I changed who I was to try and fix things. In the end, it didn’t work out anyway. We were together for three years before I finally broke up with him. I stayed with him for so long because he promised me that one day we would move onto the next level. If he was really the one for me, he wouldn’t have needed to wait for that perfect day. We would have just done it, you know? No questions asked. We would have sealed the deal.
“But that didn’t happen. Getting out of that relationship wasn’t easy for me. I haven’t spoken to Quinn since we broke up last spring. I spent the first few weeks wondering if I made a huge mistake. I missed him a lot. If nothing else, we were really good friends. But I think by the end that’s all we were to each other. That spark I’d felt for him in the beginning was gone. It’d been gone for a really long time. I know this probably bad first date juju, or something, to be talking about my last failed relationship like this but the thing is… as happy as I was with Quinn- at least in the beginning- it didn’t feel like it does when I’m with you.” Her hand snaked out to take mine. “Every time I see you I get this little rush. I don’t want to make the mistake of taking on too much too fast but I want to move forward, and I want to move forward with you.”
I didn’t say anything at first. Mostly, I was wondering how far this Quinn guy had his head up his ass to let her get away. But his loss was my gain. If he couldn’t give her what she wanted, I was damn sure going to try. Sookie was waiting for me to say something and my silence was only making her feel more uncomfortable than she already was.
“So I guess we’re on the same page, then?” I smiled at her and it looked like the weight of the world was lifted off her shoulders.
Sookie moved across the bed and stretched forward to kiss me. She ended up pulling me down on top of her. We rolled around, jockeying for position until she was on top of me. She put my hands on her chest when our eyes met. Having a mind of their own, so it seemed, they moved around to her back to get rid of the lace contraption that was preventing us from being skin to skin. She bit her lower lip before lowering her mouth to mine. I could still taste the chocolate on her from the ice cream we’d only slightly indulged on between kisses in the kitchen.
I could have stayed like that forever, but then Sookie pulled back. “Where are you going?”
“It’s getting late.” She hopped off her bed. Hopping while topless. Not fair. I gave her a look of pure disbelief. She couldn’t be serious. We’d been making out and fooling around for almost two hours. I would happily skip my morning jog if it meant waking up next to her. “I don’t know about you, but I need my beauty sleep.”
“You’re already beautiful.”
She smiled over her shoulder at me as she opened one of her dresser drawers. “That’s sweet of you but it doesn’t make time move any slower.” She was serious.
“How am I supposed to sit across from you in study hall tomorrow?” I pouted at her.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” She pulled an oversized t-shirt down over her head. Funtime was officially over.
“Be careful what you wish for, Sookie.” I was already forming a plan in my head.
“Is that a promise or a threat?” She used my words against me before reaching under her t-shirt to remove her jeans.
She made the mistake of turning her back to me to put her jeans in the hamper and that was when I pounced on her. She squealed and laughed as I dragged her back to her bed. I had her pinned underneath me and her arms over her head. She wrapped her legs around me and arched her back when I kissed a special spot on her neck that always seemed to get her going.
“Eric, we have to stop.” She breathed against me.
“No, we don’t.” My lips moved around her neck, cursing the t-shirt she’d put on to sleep in. I moved my hips against hers, the fly of my jeans hitting her at just the right spot. She moaned loudly and arched her back in response.
“Eric,” She whispered again a few minutes later, pushing lightly at my shoulders.
I sighed and pulled back. When she started to apologize for putting the brakes on, I felt like an ass. “Sookie, you don’t have to apologize. I’m not going anywhere. This isn’t a deal breaker.”
“I just don’t want too much too fast.” She explained with a sheepish look on her face. “I know that sounds stupid since we already slept together.”
“No, it doesn’t. And I can actually say with 100 percent certainty that you are worth waiting for. I’ve never met anyone like you.” I kissed the back of her hand.
The best part of spouting off that particularly cheesy line I’d just thrown at her was that it was all true. The sex had been amazing the night we met and I definitely wanted more of it, but I wouldn’t try to talk her into something she wasn’t ready for. If we were going to make this work and evolve into something more than just a one night stand then I was going to have to be patient. I would give her all the time she needed, as painful as it might be in the process.
“I never met anyone like you before either.” She linked her hand with mine.
I laid down next to her and pulled her close. “Just ten minutes, and then I’ll go. I promise.” I wrapped my arm around her when her head settled on my chest.
“Ten minutes.” She snuggled against me.
Five minutes later we were both asleep.