Sookie kicked at the gravel in her driveway as she walked toward the house from where the school bus had dropped her, Jason and Jason’s best friend off. Jason and Hoyt ran ahead to drop their backpacks off on the mud porch before disappearing into the woods to do whatever it was they did until dusk brought them in for the night. A strange car was parked in front of the house with the words ‘Department of Children and Family Services’ printed on the side of it.
Oh, right, the foster kid, Sookie thought to herself as she climbed the creaky front steps of the old farmhouse that had been in her family since before Bon Temps was even a real town. Inside she could hear her mother speaking quietly with a woman who had a thick southern accent. Sookie opened the door and stepped inside. She immediately took off her shoes and put them on the mat by the door. She shrugged off her backpack and set it at the bottom of the stairs.
That was when she saw him for the first time. Sitting at the dining room table was a dirty blond boy with his head down. He was wearing blue jeans that appeared to be a size or two too small, and a Michael Jordan t-shirt that barely reached the waistline of the pants he was wearing. She saw bruises on the back of his neck, and a few scars on his arms. He didn’t move a muscle at first.
It had only been a few months before when Sookie’s parents announced they were going to start taking in foster children. They felt it would be good for Sookie- and especially Jason- to see the importance of giving back to those who were less fortunate. The Stackhouses certainly weren’t the richest of families in Renard Parish, but they were comfortable. Sookie’s father worked for the Parish as a road crew foreman. Sookie’s mother had stayed home with the children until they were both in school full-time before returning to her job as a nurse for the local doctor, Amy Ludwig.
There had been lots of visits from strangers to make sure that Michelle and Corbett Stackhouse were suitable parents, capable of taking on other children. Michelle had warned before school that morning that their first foster child would be dropped off by the time Sookie and Jason came home from school. She wasn’t able to give any further detail than that. All she asked was that her children be kind to the new kid and help him get acquainted with the other kids in school.
Sookie stood in the entryway of her house, staring at the back of the blond boy’s head. His hair was the same color hers, and hung down to his chin. It was wild, suggesting it hadn’t been brushed or washed in a while. Slowly, Sookie stepped toward him, wanting to introduce herself as her manners dictated she should. Her light footsteps caused the boy to flinch before he whipped around to see who was coming at him. Sookie froze in her tracks and smiled gently.
“Hello. I’m Suzanne. Everybody calls me Suz, unless I’m in trouble.” Sookie offered her hand politely when she was close enough.
She took in the small scar at the corner of the boy’s right eye and the swelling of his lip. He was most definitely recovering from some sort of violence and it made Sookie’s nine-year-old heart break a little. She’d overheard her parents talking about some of the awful situations these foster kids grew up in and she said a silent prayer to whoever was listening, thanking them her own mom and dad weren’t mean to her like some parents could be. She’d never been hit in her life and it made her sad to think this scrawny blond boy with pretty blue eyes may have been hit every day of his.
“What’s your name?” Sookie asked gently as she pulled out the chair next to him at the table. He just stayed silent, his head returning to its downward position. “You look kinda like a Viking. We’re learning about them in school.” Still, there was no reaction from the boy whatsoever. “They built these big ships with huge oars in them that they rowed all the way to wherever they were going. They were warriors.”
Nothing. The only other voices came from the kitchen. Sookie looked over at the boy and noticed he was crying. She wanted to hold his hand but she knew from having a big brother, it was best to ignore it if a boy cried. They didn’t want to think they were sissies for shedding a few tears, although Sookie saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, it seemed like a natural reaction.
Quietly, she slipped off her chair and went to the living room to get Eric a tissue. She put it in his hand under the table and didn’t say another word to him. He didn’t use the tissue, but he did wipe his face with the back of his hand. She saw more burn marks on the inside of his forearm. She wanted badly to ask what had happened to him but knew it wasn’t her place to go poking in his business.
Finally, and without warning, the boy mumbled, “Eric.”
Sookie took a big chance my reaching over and squeezing his small hand with her own. “It’s nice to meet you, Eric.”
“Where are you going?” Pam asked when Eric stood abruptly.
“I have to see her.”
“No.” Pam jumped up. “Eric, you can’t do that. Do you have any idea how unsafe it is for you to be with her?”
“Pam, there’s a lot between us that you don’t know. If she got into it with Madden…” Eric trailed off.
“She’s safe now, Eric, you have my word. I have the best people available handling her.”
It should be me, he thought to himself. “I need to see it with my own eyes.”
Pam rolled her eyes and said, “You’re going to get her killed if you aren’t careful. You know how easy it is for someone to catch wind of where she is. You also know how easy it would be for someone to put a slug between her eyes.”
Eric stared hard at Pam. “I appreciate your concern, Pam, but not now.” Eric dropped a bill on the table and buttoned his jacket.
“At least have an escort follow you,” Pam insisted as they walked out of the bar.
“There’s a guard posted outside her door, right?” Eric dug for his car keys on his pocket.
“Of course there is.”
“Good. Tell him I’m coming.” Eric paused as he hit the button on the key ring to disarm the alarm system. “Use the code name Viking.”
Pam actually laughed, which was something she rarely did. “Viking?”
“She’ll know it’s me.” Eric opened the car door and tossed his briefcase inside.
“Hmph.” Pam pulled her cell phone from her purse. “I don’t like this, Eric. It can’t become a habit.”
“I’m sorry, Pam, but who’s the boss here?” Eric tossed his jacket in after the expensive leather case.
“Thinking with your dick isn’t going to help any of us,” Pam retorted.
Eric’s eyes narrowed, prepared to go off on Pam for being wildly inappropriate, but he stopped when he wondered if maybe she was right. At least a little.
“That’s not what this is about.” Eric got in the car. “Call the guard. I’ll be there in less than ten minutes.”
“You don’t even know where she is.” Pam folded her arms over her chest.
“Sure I do. I read it in your file.” Eric winked and then peeled out of the parking garage.
Eric made a series of turns, trying to decide what, exactly, he was going to say to Sookie. It had been so long since he’d seen her last. Things between them… well, complicated would be putting it mildly. Clusterfuck would be more adequate, but even that didn’t quite cover it. The thought of her endangering herself with scum like Madden didn’t make any sense. While it was true Sookie was notorious for doing what was right, rather than what was smart, this was way beyond anything she’d done in the past. This could have gotten her killed and she wasn’t out of harm’s way just yet.
He didn’t know if he wanted to yell at her for being a fool, or kiss her for being able to do what he couldn’t. If she had just a little more discipline and a little less passion, she would have made a great spy. She had always been able to play both sides of an argument and get inside someone’s head. It was almost like she could read minds sometimes.
He parked the car in the underground garage of the building Sookie had been stashed in. It wasn’t really an apartment building. She was in a loft above a tile manufacturer in an industrial neighborhood. Oddly enough, the location of the safe house Pam had chosen to put Sookie in was only three blocks away from Eric’s own condo. Only the accommodations at Eric’s place were much nicer than what Sookie was living with.
Sookie’s guard, a burly man with green eyes and curly dark hair, was waiting at the elevator when the doors opened. “Alcide Herveaux.”
“Viking,” Eric said with a smug grin on his face.
“Yeah, I tried to tell her you were coming, but I don’t know if she heard me or not. Maybe she was in the shower,” Alcide shrugged.
“How’s she been?” Eric stuffed his hands in his pockets.
Alcide took a deep breath, carefully choosing his words before answering. “I think she’ll be happy to see you.”
That stopped Eric in his tracks. “Why do you think that?”
“She’s asked about you more than once, from what I understand. I’ll give you two some space.” Alcide headed toward the elevator. “She’s got my cell number if anything goes wrong. There’s also a gun strapped under the coffee table, and another behind the toilet tank. She knows how to use them. Sophie-Anne trained her. She’s a good mark.”
Eric nodded his head in understanding. He wasn’t surprised to hear Sookie was a good shooter. He’d seen her with a BB gun when they were younger. Jason himself had been the victim once or twice after one nasty prank or another. He always complained it was all in good fun and Sookie was overreacting, but he could be downright mean to her sometimes. It was either she shot him in the calf, or she let Eric at him. Either way, Jason was going to be walking with a limp for a while.
He braced himself with his hands pressed to either side of the large door. He knocked firmly and quickly, and then waited to hear movement inside the loft. It took a few seconds before he heard anything. There was the sound of a chain being slid into place and he smiled to himself. At least she was attempting to be cautious. The deadbolt flipped over and his heart stopped. It had been years since he’d been face to face with her. Too long.
But then nothing happened. The door didn’t open and she didn’t speak. He pressed his ear to the door and he could hear her gasping for air on the other side. He knew what that meant. She was feeling the same anxiety he was. There was so much between them, so many things they needed to say.
“Sookie, I can hear you breathing.” Eric could barely get the words out. The voice echoing in the hall didn’t sound like his own. “Let me in.”
It was another few seconds before he noticed the doorknob starting to turn. The chain was taken out of its track and slowly, almost painfully so, the door creaked open. Inch by inch, Sookie was revealed to him. She was dressed in a pair of dark gray slacks and a fuzzy red sweater. It was obvious the curves he’d once fallen in love with were still very much a part of her. It wasn’t until Eric saw her face that the reality of it all hit home.
Appropriate or not, he gathered her into his arms and held her tightly. She smelled exactly the same as he remembered. The scent was almost hypnotic and slammed him backward in time. She sobbed quietly against his chest, her arms wrapped just as tightly around him as his were around her. He wanted to scoop her up, carry her inside and lock himself in there with her until he knew every moment of the time they’d been apart but he knew he couldn’t do that.
It was a few minutes before they were able to pull apart from each other. When she looked up at him with watery blue eyes he wiped away her tears with his thumbs. It didn’t seem possible she should still be so beautiful after all the time that had passed. Her left eye and cheek were bruised, suggesting she’d taken a hit from Madden recently, which only renewed the rage festering inside of Eric.
“He’s going to die, Sookie.” Those weren’t the first words he’d planned on saying but it somehow seemed fitting.
“I like to think he’s already dead,” she answered with just a hint of a smile.
Before he could stop himself he bent down and kissed her forehead. He lingered longer than he should have, taking in the smell of her hair. Cinnamon. She smelled like cinnamon. She gasped and pushed back from him.
“Your shirt! Oh my gosh, Eric, I’m so sorry!” She hurried to the sink to wet down a paper towel.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing the dry cleaners can’t get out,” Eric shrugged as he closed and locked the door behind himself.
He remained facing the door for a moment to gather his wits before turning around to face her. Seeing her shouldn’t cause such a mass of contradictions to swirl up in him. It was over. It had been over for years. He reasoned that as his first love, it was only natural that he would still care for her on some level, but the rest of it… well he had to take Pam’s advice and not think with his dick.
Sookie was standing just a hair too close and when he turned around, his arm brushed against the swell of her breast. Both of them sucked in air and Sookie thrust the damp napkin at him. It was good that she did because if she had touched him again at that moment, he wouldn’t have been able to stop himself from throwing her up against the wall and kissing her senseless. His initial agitation with Pam for not telling him she’d been working with Sookie vanished. He understood now why she’d kept it to herself.
“So, I have to say, I’m a little surprised to see you here. Pam said you were going to call.” Sookie held up the cell phone Pam had given to her.
“I’m probably breaking about a dozen rules by being here right now,” Eric admitted.
“Look, it’s not that I’m not happy to see you,” Sookie padded back to the living room area and sat on the sofa with her knees neatly folded underneath her in a familiar pose that had Eric thinking about how he used to lay on her parents’ couch with his head in her lap for hours and hours when they were younger. She would finger comb his hair or lightly scratch at his chest or shoulders while they watched TV after school. “It’s been a long time coming, I think. I wish it were under better circumstances than these.”
“So do I.” Eric sat in the arm chair opposite the sofa.
“I think we should make an agreement right here, right now, that we’re going to be professional about all of this.” Sookie’s voice was strained.
Eric nodded and said, “You’re right, I think we should. But before we do, I think there’s some things we need to get out in the open. Things we should have said a long time ago.”
Sookie bit her bottom lip, more tears coming to her eyes. “Okay. So, where do you want to start?” She tried her best to smile in order to hide her tears.
Eric thought for a moment. He’d had this conversation with her a million times in his head. He’d dreamed about it for years. There were times when he’d see a curvy blonde woman on the street, and he’d pick up his pace in the hopes that it was her. They would go for coffee or a drink, and they would talk until they were forced back out onto the street. They would completely clear the air with each other, and when all was said and done, they would promise to keep in touch. Even better was, they would actually follow through on this promise. There were too many broken ones in the past already.
He inhaled sharply before leaning forward just a bit, shifting uncomfortably in his seat under the weight of Sookie’s stare. He’d know her eyes on him anywhere. It still gave him goosebumps. He cleared his throat and ran his fingers through his hair, an old habit he’d broken himself of years before after cutting his shoulder length hair much shorter.
“I think saying I’m sorry is a good place to start.” He wanted to look her in the eyes. He should look her in the eyes. He heard her make a small noise and his gaze traveled to her face. Her eyes were closed and tears were sliding down her cheeks. “I should have said that a long time ago but I am sorry, Sookie. I always was.”
She nodded, her eyes still closed as she cried silently. She sniffled once or twice before finally letting her eyes open. “Good.” She nodded, sniffling again and wiping her face. “Then let me start out by saying I missed you. Every day.”
Fuck. This wasn’t going to be easy.