Part One

I couldn’t believe it was Emma’s first day of preschool. How was my baby big enough to go to school? It seemed like just last week she was learning to walk. Yet there she was, strapped into her booster seat behind me, watching out the window as I drove her to school. The same school I went to when I was her age. She was even going to have the same teacher I did in preschool.

 

“Are you excited to meet Ms. Broadway?” I asked as I drove.

 

“Yeah! And I’m ready to meet the bunny.” They had a class pet named Roger. With Emma’s love of animals, I knew she was going to try to talk me into getting her one. Since I was a sucker for animals too, I’d probably go along with it.

 

“Just remember to be gentle, okay? Bunnies are little. They don’t want to play like Satchmo.” Satchmo was my dad’s Catahoula hound dog was a big, goofy ball of energy who even gave Emma a run for her money.

 

“Maybe I could bring Satchmo and he can be friends with the bunny,” she suggested.

 

“We’ll have to ask Ms. Broadway about that.” Satchmo would probably think the bunny would make a good ‘present’ for Dad more than he would a friend.

 

I was surprised to see Bill standing outside of the school when I pulled into the parking lot. Emma’s father hadn’t been too involved in her life. I was nineteen and Bill was twenty when I got pregnant. It wasn’t an easy adjustment to make, going from carefree teenager to single mom, but I loved Emma. Before she was even born I knew she was the most important thing to me. I had to make changes in my life just to carry her to term. Bill didn’t bother.

 

He wasn’t ready to be a father. The proof of it was how little time he spent with Emma. We tried to make it work as a couple, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us. I’d tried to make it work, sacrificing my own happiness so that Emma could have her daddy in the picture, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. I was pretty sure Bill resented that I didn’t have an abortion like he wanted me to. If Emma ever found out that was her dad’s initial reaction to the news I was pregnant, I’d die. It broke my heart knowing he felt that way at any point, because it never crossed my mind as a possibility.

 

“Daddy’s here!” Emma said with excitement as I pulled into a parking space.

 

“I see.” I wasn’t as excited as she was, but then again she hadn’t seen him since Easter. I had offered to let him have her for father’s day, but he was going fishing with his dad. On the fourth of July he was going to the Keys with his new girlfriend Selah. He’d called three weeks ago wanting to see her on some random Tuesday but we were at my dad’s fishing cabin on the Missouri River. Bill wasn’t welcome there.

 

I barely had my Jeep in park when Bill opened the back door on Emma’s side.

 

“Daddy!”

 

“Hi, peanut.” He helped her unbuckle her car seat and then lifted her out.

 

I hated that I was a little mad he’d shown up. This was what he always did. He showed up for the stuff like this so he could post pictures online showing what a ‘good dad’ he was, and then he’d disappear for a few months until the next big thing came along. He was a dad when it suited him or when it made him look good. It had nothing to do with Emma’s needs or emotional well-being.

 

I grabbed Emma’s backpack from the backseat since she was talking a million words a minute. She had to cram everything in because it had been so long since she saw him last. Meanwhile, I was chopped liver because she saw me every day. She showed Bill off because he rarely came around.

 

“Emma, come here. Let me take a picture of you by your cubby so I can show Papa,” I requested once Bill put her down.

 

“Send it to Uncle Jay, too,” she replied.

 

“I will. Uncle Jay is going to be so proud of you.” I knelt down to take a picture of my little ham in front of her cubby. Her name was spelled out in sparkly purple letters on a handcrafted bumblebee that was fixed to the top of her cubby.

 

Bill took a few pictures too, and then had Emma come to take a few selfies with her. The hard part was biting my tongue over how fake he was. I wanted to punch him in the neck. Honestly, I had no idea what I ever saw in him.

 

All the good he had to offer me was heading off to where some other kids were playing in a little kitchen area. I had already met Ms. Broadway at the parent orientation meeting the week before. I’d sent Bill a text to invite him, but of course he didn’t show up for it.

 

I hung up Emma’s jacket and backpack on her cubby, and then turned to leave. It was best to slip out instead of making a big scene. Of course Bill had to go over and say goodbye. I had no idea what he said to her, but whatever it was, it caused a meltdown.

 

You son of a bitch…

 

It was just like Bill to say something to cause a meltdown just so he could fix it. Then later on when he told the story he’d be sure to mention that I was nowhere in sight, and if it wasn’t for him, Emma would have been a mess. He’d leave out the part where she was just fine before he went over there and fucked everything up for her. Bill just had to be the hero.

 

I stood out in the hallway and watched Emma have her freak out. Bill was completely failing at getting her to calm down. He had no idea how to get her to chill out. Ms. Broadway went over to try and sooth Emma. Distraction by bunny rabbit seemed to do the trick. Bill came out of the classroom a minute later.

 

“What the hell did you say to her?” I asked him.

 

“I just told her I had to go. She wanted me to stay.”

 

Uh huh.

 

I shook my head and turned to walk away from him.

 

“You know, if you would let me have her over a weekend I’d see her more often,” he pointed out as I walked down the hall toward the door.

 

“Somehow I doubt that. She goes to your parents’ house every other weekend and you hardly ever show up there.” I could count on one hand the number of times Emma said Bill was around to spend time with her.

 

It all depended in whether or not he had a girlfriend, to be honest. Bill let the girls he dated call the shots in his life. If ever there was a guy who was easily pussy whipped, it was my ex.

 

“I have a life too, Sookie,” he argued.

 

“Well no one’s asking you to give it up. You go have your life, Bill. Emma’s never been a priority to you. Why should that change now?”

 

“Oh here we go again. I swear to God, Sook, every time we talk it’s about how you’re the best mom ever and I’m just a shithead, right?”

 

If the shoe fits…

 

“You don’t do anything for her, Bill. You show up when it makes you look good. You’re not here for her right now, you’re here for you.”

 

“I pay child support,” he weakly argued.

 

“When?” I snickered. He was supposed to pay me $485 a month, but I hadn’t seen a check from him in seven months.

 

“I’ve been out of work,” he shrugged.

 

“You mean you don’t bother keeping a job because your parents are willing to pay for you,” I corrected him.

 

He was living in an apartment over his parents’ garage, but his parents had to be paying the bills for him. He was also driving a nice new truck, so I had to assume that his parents were paying for that, too.

 

“Like your parents never helped you out?” he countered.

 

“They’ve never paid all my bills for months at a time.” Arguing with someone who refused to take personal responsibility for their actions was pointless.

 

“Whatever. I’m going to file for fifty-fifty custody, Sookie,” he threatened.

 

He’d made the same threat a few times before and it never happened.

 

“Good. My lawyer will be in touch with yours,” I said as I walked away from him. I wasn’t afraid of the empty threats anymore.

 

I used to be. Bill used to be able to intimidate me into doing things his way. Back then I still had hope that the three of us were going to be a family. I had a great relationship with my dad, and I wanted Emma to have that. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t a priority to Bill.

 

I got into my Jeep and headed for the salon I worked at. Going to school, working and taking care of a toddler wasn’t easy, but I made it work. I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Bill’s financial assistance was sporadic, so I always deposited the money into a savings account for a drought season. I was lucky my parents helped me out like they did. They had divorced when I was eleven, and being the daddy’s girl I was, I lived with my dad after the divorce.

 

Mom worked odd hours as a surgical nurse, so she could get called into work at three a.m., not exactly a good time with two kids at home. Dad was an orthodontist who worked normal banker’s hours. He was a big part of Emma’s life. My parents weren’t thrilled when I told them I was pregnant, but they were supportive. Neither of them wanted to see my life completely go to shit because I had a baby when I was twenty.

 

It took time for me to finish school and find a job, but I did it. It wasn’t until six months ago that I could finally afford to be out on my own, supporting Emma and our Shih Tzu-Terrier mix, Sloth. Our little house wasn’t the fanciest place but we had a nice yard for Emma and the dog to run around in. Dad and Mom weren’t too far away from us, and my brother was a regular visitor. Emma adored Jason. He had really stepped up and he had taken to doing the dad stuff with her that Bill couldn’t be bothered with.

 

Bill, meanwhile, was getting involved with women who were jealous of me, and didn’t like that he had a kid. He was more interested in getting into fights at the local watering hole and spending time in the drunk tank. On Emma’s second birthday he got arrested for possession of methamphetamine when the cops raided Mack Rattray’s trailer on the outskirts of town. While he was out on bail Bill was drag racing his buddy’s Camaro, and lost control of the car. It ended up rolling over three times and Bill didn’t have a seatbelt on. He was thrown from the car, and ended up with two collapsed lungs.

 

He was in the hospital for almost a month before he was released to the county jail. His drug charge caught him a sentence of six months, plus the charge of reckless driving. Bill spent almost a year in jail. Emma knew he was in there, too. I didn’t lie to her. She knew that if she broke rules there were consequences for it. I wanted her to know it was the same for grownups who broke the rules. I didn’t take her to the jail to visit him. Bill never asked for it and I didn’t want her to see him like that.

 

It was almost two months after he was released before Bill finally called to see her.

 

Emma was going to be five on December 13. Not once had Bill had her overnight by himself. If he thought he was going to get 50/50 custody of her, he was high.

 

The salon I worked at was located in one of three strip malls in the small town I lived in. The Beauty Saloon was owned by Janice Boudreaux. She was a few years older than me and a single mom in her own right. Her husband was a Marine, and was killed in action in Afghanistan. I had dated her brother Alcide for a period of time when Bill and I were on one of our breaks. Al was a good guy, but he wasn’t really ready to do the dad thing. He liked Emma, of course, but the responsibility was a little too much for a guy in his mid-twenties. I understood that. I couldn’t hold it against him.

 

When I walked in Janice was already working on her first client of the day. Mrs. Fortenberry was there every Monday morning without fail. She was even dependable enough to come when she had pneumonia last winter. It got everyone sick and she had the gall to show up at Janice’s – uninvited – for her regular rinse and set.

 

“Good morning, ladies,” I said as I took off my jacket. The Bill gossip was going to have to wait until Motormouth Maxine was out of earshot.

 

“Morning, Sook.” Janice replied to me at least. Maxine was too busy looking down her nose at me to be bothered with pleasantries. She liked to act all pious and self-righteous, all in the name of Jesus, but she had no trouble breaking that commandment about not bearing false witness.

 

If a story wasn’t juicy enough on its own, Maxine would fix it with her own salacious add-ons.

 

I didn’t care much what people said about me, but Emma would. She didn’t need to hear nasty rumors about her parents.

 

“Can you take the walk-ins this morning? Fanny Prince called to make an emergency appointment for ten o’clock,” Janice said.

 

“Of course I can. I don’t have anything on the books until eleven,” I replied. I headed for the back to get myself a cup of coffee.

 

The shop opened six days a week at nine o’clock. During the week we were open until seven. Saturday we closed at five. I did side jobs for weddings, proms and other formal events. It was nice having a day off during the week. I was able to get chores and errands done that didn’t include little arms reaching out to grab everything they saw.

 

I went around to the different stations to make sure they had what they needed. There was almost always a load of towels waiting to be washed. I found a load in the dryer waiting to be folded, so I collected those and took the basket up front with me so I could get the towels folded without leaving the front desk abandoned. Claudine, another stylist, breezed through the door a few minutes later.

 

“Morning,” I said as she took off her jacket.

 

“Morning. My first client isn’t here yet, is she?”

 

“Nope. So far it’s just Motormouth Max.”

 

Claudine cringed. No one liked Maxine very much.

 

“Last week she took it upon herself to grope my belly and said that my swollen nose means it’s a girl.” Claudine was six months pregnant with her first child.

 

“Well, she’s got a 50/50 shot at being right. If she would have grabbed me I would have stepped on her sausage toes.” I couldn’t understand people who thought because a woman was pregnant her belly was suddenly community property. I wouldn’t let just anyone hold my baby. Why would I let them grab my stomach?

 

“Trust me, I thought about it,” she sighed. “Were you this exhausted all the time? I swear this kid never sleeps.”

 

“It does, but it’s usually when you’re moving so you don’t notice it. They wait until you’re trying to sleep to get your attention.”

 

“Cheeky shits,” she snickered.

 

“No kidding. That’s okay, you’ll get your payback when he or she is a teenager,” I smiled.

 

“Thank goodness.” Claudine headed for her station.

 

I went back to folding towels. Claudine turned on the overhead music. Jennifer Nettles’ voice was immediately blaring through the speakers, making everyone jump. The volume lowered, but it was too late.

 

“Janice, my hair!” Maxine shrieked. I looked over to see that the shock had caused Janice to make a cut way off target.

 

“Maxine, I am so, so sorry,” Janice apologized.

 

I didn’t need to ask who was working last. Adilyn, the shampoo girl, was the one to lock up on Saturday. She had a tendency to crank up the tunes and then forget to turn them down. Last time this happened Janice nearly poured hot coffee on a customer. Adilyn had been warned. This time she was most likely losing her job.

 

While Janice tried to soothe the raging beast who was ranting on and on about how she was never going to catch the mailman’s eye now that Janice had balded her – as if her hairstyle was going to be the repellent that kept Calvin Norris away – a tall blonde man walked into the shop. I knew most folks in town. Between my job, the church, and the fact that Longshadow wasn’t a very big town, it was rare that I didn’t know the person walking through the door, especially if they were around my age.

 

“Uh, good morning,” he said, looking curiously over at Janice and Maxine.

 

“Good morning. Can I help you?” He was cute. I was trying hard to place him, but I couldn’t. I had a pretty good memory when it came to names and faces, and his just wasn’t ringing any bells.

 

“Yeah, I was looking to get this mop cut off,” he said, reaching up to gesture to the long hair hanging off his head.

 

“Sure,” I nodded. “Do you have a cut in mind?”

 

“Not really,” he replied. His eyes finally swung over to me, and wouldn’t you know those pretty blue orbs started to sparkle like freshly polished sapphires.

 

“Did you have an appointment?” I asked after studying his handsome face for a minute.

 

“Nope. Is that a problem?”

 

“Not at all. Lucky for you, I’m handling the walk-ins right now.”

 

“It must be fate then that I decided to stop in here.”

 

Oooh that was a line but I didn’t even care. It was smooth as silk on a newborn baby’s butt.

 

“Must be.” We were both smiling at each other. “I’m Sookie.”

 

“Eric.” He extended his hand to me. “I remember you. You look really good.”

 

“You remember me?” My eyebrow arched.

 

“I was a senior when you were a freshman,” he explained.

 

“Ah, gotcha,” I nodded. “I don’t remember you.”

 

He clutched his chest like I’d wounded him.

 

“Sorry,” I apologized with a little giggle that didn’t sound like me at all.

 

“Well hopefully you’ll remember me after today.”

 

Oh I would.

 

“I’m sure I will. Follow me.” I slipped out from behind the counter and led him to my station.

 

Maxine was still fuming over the unexpected loss of two extra inches of hair at the crown of her head. While I sympathized on some level, it wasn’t like her hair wouldn’t grow back. Maybe if she didn’t insist on weekly trims she could have avoided this. Her hair was fried from the constant coloring that was done to it. She didn’t want anyone to know she wasn’t a natural blonde, as if her dark ass eyebrows didn’t give it away.

 

I had Eric take a seat at my station. I pulled out a cape to drape over his chest and broad shoulders. He was muscled in all the right places. I could see calluses on his hands, suggesting he did manual labor for a living. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that his family ranched or farmed. If I could place him in my memory I may have had a better shot at figuring it out.

 

“So, how short do you want to go?” I asked as I played with the long, thick strands of hair.

 

“Not Marine Corps short, but shorter than grunge band,” he said.

 

I laughed and said, “I can do that. When’s the last time you took a comb to this squirrel’s nest?”

 

“It’s been a while,” he laughed.

 

It wasn’t quite matted, but it was pretty tangled.

 

I opened the drawer on my station, and grabbed a pair of scissors.

 

“Brace yourself, handsome.” I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted to do for him. I lifted the mess of tangles and started cutting them off. A good seven inches of hair hit the deck.

 

Eric sat quietly while I worked. He watched me in the mirror as I combed through his hair.

 

“You know, we should probably wash this mess,” I said.

 

“Can’t hurt,” he smiled.

 

I had Eric follow me over to the sinks and take a seat. Of course he was watching my chest as I leaned over him to wash his hair. That didn’t bother me. I was used to guys checking out my rack.

 

Once I got his hair washed and completely untangled, I got to work on the cut.

 

“So, Eric, what do you do for a living?” I asked as I snipped away.

 

“I’m a lieutenant correctional officer over at Holt County Corrections,” he told me.

 

“Really? That must be interesting.” And scary.

 

“It’s definitely interesting,” he agreed. “It’s a very different culture than what we’re used to on the outside.”

 

“Oh I bet it is. What made you want to get into that?”

 

“I didn’t want to work on the farm,” he admitted. “Don’t get me wrong, farming is an honorable profession, but it’s not for me. I spent four years in the Marines after high school since I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. The military wasn’t really for me either, but I liked the structure of it. I thought about being a cop, but I found a job posting for correctional officers, and decided to try that on. Now I work in the intelligence unit, mostly as a code breaker.”

 

“That’s pretty impressive. I didn’t know jails had code-breakers.”

 

“Oh yeah. Those guys don’t want the officers knowing what’s going on. I’m sure there’s a whole team of them over in California or New York, but I have been able to intercept a few things,” he told me.

 

“Sounds like the CIA could use a guy like you.”

 

“Probably,” he chuckled. “It’s just not my style. I like it here. Longshadow is as good as anyplace else in the world. Plus, you’re here, so already it’s got a big bonus.”

 

“You’re smooth, Lieutenant,” I winked at his reflection.

 

“If you like that you should see me over dinner,” he said without missing a beat.

 

“Are you asking me on a date?”

 

“Yes, ma’am, I am.”

 

I hadn’t been asked on a date in a long time. There were plenty of guys who hit on me on my rare nights out with my girlfriends, thinking a single mom would be looking to catch a dick on her kid-free night. It wasn’t worth it to me. I had a big enough dick already waiting to cause me trouble. With my luck I’d end up with a clinger who couldn’t accept that he was worth the one night stand only.

 

Eric seemed genuinely interested in me. Being the mom of a sneaky little monkey, I was pretty good at spotting bullshit. I wasn’t getting the bullshit alarms going off in my head. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life thinking every guy was going to turn out like Bill. I still wanted a family of my own. That meant dating and taking a chance on a guy who seemed genuine.

 

“In that case, I’d love to see your dinner material,” I replied.

 

“Excellent,” he smiled. He had a great smile.

 

I couldn’t believe I had a date. It was a simple thing, but it definitely made my day.

 

♥ ♥ ♥

 

Emma was at Bill’s parents’ house for the weekend. I didn’t hold it against them that their son was irresponsible and not as interested as he should have been in being in Emma’s life. Caroline and Jesse were good people, and they adored Emma. I knew they tried to talk some sense into Bill, but that was easier said than done. In his mind it was all my fault he was a shitty dad.

 

I never gave him a chance.

 

I was a control freak.

 

I didn’t let him do anything fun with Emma.

 

I wanted to be the boss of everything.

 

I held our daughter hostage to get back at him for breaking up with me.

 

It couldn’t have been because he had been arrested twice for driving under the influence.

 

Or because he let his girlfriends dictate the amount of time he spent with Emma.

 

Or because those same girlfriends liked to talk shit about me and what a “shitty mom” I am on social media.

 

Or because he had more speeding tickets than brain cells.

 

Or because of that car wreck he got into.

 

Or because he didn’t make Emma sit in a booster seat in the car.

 

Or because he was offensive and mean to me in front of our child.

 

Or because he had a tendency to just not show up when he promised he would come to see her.

 

All those things were somehow my fault. How? I had no idea. Then again, I was an adult. I was used to owning up to my mistakes and getting on with my life.

 

It was nice to know I was going on a date with a fellow adult, and not some silly manchild with no concept of personal responsibility. Eric was picking me up at my house. I was dressed up, and by that I didn’t mean clean yoga pants and a shirt without stains. I actually put on a dress, heels, and full makeup for a change.

 

The doorbell rang three minutes before Eric was supposed to arrive at 6:45.

 

He’s early!

 

I was impressed by it, if only because I was used to a guy who was never on time. I told myself I couldn’t keep comparing apples to oranges, that it wasn’t fair to either guy. My future wouldn’t be great if I kept dragging the worst of my past into it.

 

When I got to the door Eric was nicely dressed in pressed, dark gray pants and black button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hair looked great, not to pat myself on the back too much, and he was holding a lovely arrangement of flowers.

 

Zinnias!

 

“Those are my favorite flower!” I said in lieu of a hello.

 

“Really?”

 

“Really. Come in. Excuse the Barbie mass casualty in the living room.” I didn’t clean up on purpose.

 

“Aren’t you a little old for dolls?” he asked as he stepped inside.

 

“They’re my daughter’s,” I revealed. I hadn’t told him about Emma yet. Most guys either already knew I had a kid or they weren’t planning on sticking around long enough to meet her anyway.

 

“You have a daughter? How old is she?”

 

“She’s four. Her birthday is actually coming up pretty soon.” I closed the door behind him. “She’s at her dad’s parents’ house for the weekend. I don’t like introducing her to guys unless I know they’re going to be around for a while.”

 

“That’s fair. Kids aren’t a deal breaker for me. I come from a big family myself,” he told me. “My youngest sister was born when I was a senior in high school.”

 

“Wow. Well, bless your mom for having that much patience,” I said.

 

Eric laughed and said, “I don’t know how she did it, to be honest. I was in kindergarten when the first set of twins was born. She had six under six.”

 

“I think I got Bipolar Disorder just hearing that.” I couldn’t imagine having that many at once. Some days just Emma was enough to test my patience.

 

“There was a break after the twins,” he smiled.

 

“How many siblings do you have?”

 

“I am the oldest of fourteen.”

 

Fourteen?!

 

“Are you part of a Christian fundamentalist sect or something?”

 

Again he laughed and said, “No. My parents just really like sex, apparently.” I laughed as well. “Must be the Scandinavian blood.”

 

“Ah, yes, the vikings were fond of a good pillaging.”

 

“That’s what I hear.” Eric followed me to the kitchen, where I put the flowers in some water. My dad was the last person to get me flowers for my birthday. I used the same vase those flowers had come in to hold Eric’s.

 

“These are beautiful, Eric. Thank you.” I put the crimson red zinnias on the kitchen table.

 

My fridge was covered in Emma’s art projects and pictures of the people we loved. Sloth finally decided to show himself. He came out of my room all sassy and barked at Eric.

 

“Is that his intimidating bark?”

 

Sloth wasn’t very intimidating.

 

“It’s trying to be. Cool it, Sloth.” I knelt down to pick him up. “Be nice or I’ll feed you to the field mice.”

 

“You can’t do that. This is a tough guy. He’s just trying to protect you.” Eric reached out to pet him. “I have a Great Dane-Boxer at home named Heidi. I found her under some bushes when I was on my way home from work. I stopped to change a flat tire and I heard something whimpering. It took a minute to find her, but there she was, shivering and starving.”

 

So long, ovaries… It was nice knowing you.

 

“That’s so sweet.”

 

“Honestly, I wasn’t planning on keeping her, but I couldn’t get myself to take her to the county shelter once I found out they’d probably just put her to sleep in a few days if no one claimed her.”

 

“I love doing hair, but if I won the lottery I’d start an animal rescue or sanctuary,” I confessed. “Emma is trying to talk me into letting her have a pig.”

 

“Pigs aren’t bad pets if you know what you’re doing,” he told me. “They’re actually very intelligent animals.”

 

“Is that so?” I didn’t know much about pigs, except the ones I dated.

 

I led Eric back to the front door. My house needed a good cleaning, but I left it as-is for a reason. The place wasn’t a disaster, but it was more important to me to spend time with my daughter than it was to spend time with the vacuum cleaner. Emma did little chores to help me around the house. She knew how to load the dishwasher and put silverware away in the drawer it lived in. Her room was her responsibility, from picking up toys to putting dirty clothes in the hamper to making her bed.

 

“We had pigs on the farm. My sister closest to my age cried for days when she found out where bacon came from.”

 

“Awww poor thing,” I said sympathetically. “I haven’t had that talk with Emma yet. I’m not sure how she’s going to take it when she finds out.”

 

“Well, my dad tried to teach us to respect animals like the Native Americans do. We didn’t hunt for trophies and we always said some kind of prayer for any animal we killed.” Eric waited patiently for me to lock up the house.

 

“I like that. I wish I could go vegetarian, but I like cheeseburgers and breakfast sausage too much,” I admitted.

 

When I turned around I was blown away by the car that was parked next to my dusty Jeep.

 

“A ‘55 Chevy Bel Air convertible? That’s sexy,” I said.

 

“So is a girl who knows her cars,” he replied.

 

“Daddy always said a uterus was no excuse not to know automotive trivia,” I told him as we walked over to the car. It was black on black with shiny chrome finishes.

 

“I like your dad’s style.”

 

“Me too. Original engine?” I asked.

 

“No, unfortunately. I never would have been able to afford her if she had her original engine.”

 

“Do you mind if I take a picture and send it to my dad?”

 

“Of course not. Elizabeth loves cameras.”

 

“Elizabeth, huh?”

 

“A classy lady needs a classy name.”

 

I agreed with that.

 

I got my phone out and took a few pictures from different angles to send my dad later.

 

“Daddy inherited a 1960 Chevy Impala from my grandpa. He didn’t do the work himself to restore it, but it’s a beauty. He’ll love this.” Dad wasn’t a mechanic, not that he hadn’t tried. He could do the basic stuff, changing tires, swapping batteries, oil changes or replacing fluids, but anything more complicated wasn’t his thing.

 

“Maybe I’ll get to see it someday,” Eric said as he opened the passenger’s side door for me.

 

“Maybe.” I smiled as I got into the car.

 

We hadn’t even left the driveway yet and already it was the best date I’d ever been on.

 

♥ ♥ ♥

 

Dinner was great. Eric took me to a nice restaurant in Sioux City just over the border in Iowa. The ambiance was nice and out there we didn’t have to worry about the wagging tongues in Longshadow spreading the word that we were spotted out somewhere together. Eric was a great conversationalist, and it was nice to talk about something other than My Little Pony or Taylor Swift for a change.

 

“So tell me about your daughter,” he said while we were waiting for our desserts to come. He’d ordered an ice cream sundae and I got a slice of New York cheesecake with blackberry compote.

 

“Emma is… she’s really my mini-me. Looks wise she’s a blend of her dad and me, but she’s got my personality. She can be a big goofball a lot of the time, but she’s also stubborn as a mule when she wants to be. I love her to pieces even when she’s driving me nuts,” I told him.

 

“You light up when you talk about her. That’s a good thing.”

 

That made me smile.

 

“It really doesn’t bother you that I have a kid?” I wanted to be sure.

 

“No, not at all. We all have a family. Mine is huge and they’re still a big part of my life. I want a big family of my own someday,” Eric said.

 

“Me too,” I admitted. “I love being a mom. When I first found out I was pregnant I was scared to death. I had no idea how I was going to be able to handle it, and for the first few months I was terrified I was going to break my baby, but now… I miss it. Of course Emma is still learning things, but I miss watching that look babies get when they discover something new, you know? Like whoa, how’d I get on my belly?”

 

“I know that look,” he chuckled. I loved that he knew the look I was referring to, even if it was because he’d only seen it on his siblings.

 

Wanting a family was a huge plus in my book. Not wanting one would have been a deal breaker for me.

 

It almost seemed too good to be true, being there with Eric. For so long I had been convinced I was never going to find the dream guy. I was sure I’d been too specific in my must haves. Maybe I wanted too much or I was too picky about the kind of man I wanted for the rest of my life. Yes, it was possible he was just saying what I wanted to hear, but I didn’t think that was the case. He seemed genuine.

 

“Can I ask about Emma’s dad, or is that more like a third date conversation?” Eric asked as our desserts were delivered to us.

 

The cheesecake looked amazing.

 

Of course all I really heard was “third date”.

 

“You want a third date?” I smiled.

 

“Absolutely,” he answered without hesitation.

 

Inside I was doing cartwheels. It was more than fair to say I was smitten with the handsome, amazing man sitting across from me… Who now had whipped cream on his nose. If he knew it was there, he wasn’t wiping it off.

 

“You have a little something.” I tapped the end of my nose.

 

“Thanks.” Eric grabbed a napkin to wipe it off.

 

“So Emma’s dad… Well, we don’t have a great relationship. Bill wasn’t ready for the responsibility of a kid and he’s still not.”

 

“That’s too bad. It’s nice that you let Emma go by his parents’ house.”

 

I took a bite of the cheesecake and moaned in appreciation. The blackberry compote was perfect. Not too sweet but not too tart.

 

“Emma loves them and they’ve always been very good to her, so I wouldn’t feel right cutting them out of her life. It also gives her dad a chance to see her twice a month, but he rarely shows up.” I didn’t want to get too deep into my baby daddy issues on the first date.

 

Eventually I was going to have to tell Eric everything if things worked out, but I didn’t want to scare him off or make him think I was looking for someone to take Bill’s place. As much as I despised my ex, he was always going to be Emma’s dad. Until he straight up told me he didn’t want to be in her life anymore, I was going to have to deal with his coming and going. All I could do was protect her. The fact that I felt like I had to protect her from her dad made me so sad. She deserved so much better than that.

 

“It takes a strong person to do what you’re doing, Sookie,” he told me.

 

I never really gave it that much thought.

 

“She’s my girl. I’d do anything for her,” was the only response I had to that.

 

We finished our desserts and then the bill came. I offered to pay my half, but Eric wouldn’t hear of it. We left the restaurant with me floating on air. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so good or happy about a guy I was seeing.

 

Eric put the top up on the Bel Air since the sun was gone and the temperature had dropped. If I was in jeans and a sweater it would have been a great night to go for a drive. It turned out we went for a drive anyway, which was just fine with me. It turned out Eric had a goofy streak of his own, and the two of us ended up singing along horribly with the radio.

 

When he pulled into my driveway I didn’t want to get out.

 

“Do you want to come inside for a while?” I offered.

 

“I’d like that,” he agreed.

 

I didn’t get the feeling like he was expecting us to sleep together that night or anything like that. We got out of the car – well, I waited for him to come open my door for me – and Eric followed me to the door. Sloth was waiting for us when we got inside.

 

“I need to let him out to potty.” Sloth was pretty good about not going in the house, but he was used to having someone let him out whenever he wanted to go.

 

“I’ll go out with you,” Eric offered.

 

“I’m going to change out of this dress really quick. It’s a little chilly out there.”

 

“Okay. I’ll wait here.”

 

I nodded, and quickly headed for my bedroom. I swapped out my dress and heels for skinny jeans and a button down flannel instead. I put the heels away and replaced them with a comfy pair of Ugg boots instead. My hair still looked good. I brushed my teeth just in case there was kissing in the near future. I hoped there was. I really, really wanted to kiss him.

 

Eric was waiting in the entryway where I had a few family photos hung. There was a picture of Emma and me from her first trip to Disneyland. It was her birthday present from Papa. We went over spring break just a few months before.

 

“She got to meet Princess Jasmine that day,” I told Eric.

 

“She’s friends with royalty? Fancy kid.”

 

“She’s got friends all over the place,” I chuckled.

 

“That’s pretty cool.”

 

Sloth whimpered at the door.

 

“Yeah, yeah, you’re so bossy,” I told him. I grabbed his leash and clipped it onto the harness he wore. “Normally I don’t leash him but we’ve had coyotes out here lately and as tough as Sloth thinks he is, he’s no match for a coyote.”

 

“Little dogs always think they’re tough. My brother Robby has two pitbulls and his girlfriend has a miniature Doberman, who is a complete asshole. The pitbulls stay away from it. Meanwhile the Terrier next door to them will fight back,” he told me.

 

I held the button on the leash to give Sloth room to run. He weighed a grand total of eleven pounds, so he was easy to scoop up or pull back if I had to.

 

“Sounds about right. My dad has a big Catahoula named Satchmo that isn’t bothered by much of anything. He’s content to lay in the sunny spot and be lazy.”

 

“Sounds like Heidi,” he smiled. “Although she freaks out if I have the surround sound on while I watch a movie with airplanes. She hid in my bedroom the first time I watched Top Gun with her around.”

 

“You know, I’ve never seen that?”

 

“Really? It’s so good. I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise, but Anthony Edwards is the best part,” he said.

 

“We’ll have to watch it sometime.” He was already talking about third dates so why not?

 

“Maybe for our third date,” he said like he reading my mind.

 

I felt his hand reach for mine, and I let him take it. It was such a simple thing, but I liked the way it felt. So far Eric was checking all the right boxes.

 

I was a little afraid he was too good to be true.

 

♥ ♥ ♥

 

A month and several dates later I was ready to introduce Eric to Emma. I told her I was going on dates and I had shown her a picture I had taken of Eric and me while we were on a haunted hayride the weekend before. Of course Emma wanted to meet him and decide for herself if he was good enough to be my boyfriend. It didn’t seem to bother her that her daddy wasn’t my boyfriend. If word had gotten back to Bill that I was dating someone he hadn’t called or texted to comment on it, not that I cared what he thought.

 

I was happy. Like sick, diabetic coma inducing happy.

 

Eric was exactly what I had always wanted. He didn’t care about the toys that sometimes got left around the house. He listened to my Emma stories, and I knew he was excited to meet her too. The week before he met my dad at a car show in the next town over. Getting my dad’s approval after the shit I’d been through with Bill wasn’t easy, but I could tell my dad even liked him.

 

It was important to me to have his approval. Dad never liked Bill, even when I was still naïvely following Bill around like a lovesick teenager. Back then I thought I was happy. Maybe my definition of the word had just changed since then. Whatever it was, things with Eric were different.

 

He respected me as a person. He was accepting of Emma, but wasn’t expecting to be thrust into the position of being her dad. Contrary to how little he deserved it, Eric actually respected that Emma already had a father, even if he chose to take a passive role in her life.

 

For our first date with Emma we had decided to go to Poppy’s Pumpkin Patch about a half hour away. There was all kinds of stuff for Emma to do there, and I knew she’d have fun picking out her pumpkin. Well, she’d probably try to pick everyone’s pumpkin, but that was okay.

 

“Mama, I need pigtails please,” Emma requested once she was dressed in her jeans and little flannel shirt.

 

“Do you want braids or tails?”

 

“Oooh, braids!” She was still young enough to be wowed by the things I could do with her hair. Getting her to sit still was much easier if I let her play with her Leap Frog tablet.

 

“Braids it is.” I needed to curl my hair but it could wait. I was an old pro at it, so it didn’t take long anymore.

 

Emma found two purple elastics to match her shirt, and then she climbed up on the pub chair in the kitchen where I always did her hair.

 

“Are you excited to meet Eric?” I asked as I parted her hair down the middle.

 

“Yeah. How come he doesn’t have any kids?”

 

“I guess he’s not as lucky as me,” I answered.

 

“What if he doesn’t like kids?”

 

“He does. He has a little sister that’s only a little older than you. Eric has thirteen brothers and sisters.”

 

“Whoa! That’s too many.”

 

I laughed because I tended to agree with her. Knowing that Eric had so many siblings explained why his dad wasn’t more upset that he decided not to get into the family business of farming. There were plenty of other siblings who were interested in taking that path in his stead.

 

“That’s a lot,” I agreed.

 

“Are you and Eric going to have a baby?”

 

“I don’t know. Maybe someday if we fall in love and get married,” I said. After Emma was born I’d had an IUD implanted so I didn’t have to worry about a slip up in regards to birth control. Bill had always complained about using condoms, but then he never wanted more kids. I should have known then that he had unrealistic expectations for life.

 

“I think we should get a baby,” Emma said. “But don’t gobble it up.”

 

I used to tell her she was so cute I wanted to gobble her up as a baby.

 

“I can’t make any promises. If the baby’s as cute as you I might not be able to help it.” I wrapped the first elastic around the tail of the first braid. “In fact, you look pretty cute right now…” I leaned over to nibble on her neck, making her squeal and squirm.

 

“Mama!” Emma laughed as I tickled her.

 

“Oooh, baby ribs!” I said, and went after those next, lifting her off the chair to nom on her sides. I loved it when she laughed until she couldn’t breathe. Her face was deep red when I finally let her go. I wiped my mouth like I had sauce on it and said, “That was tasty.”

 

I was going to have to fix her hair, but it was worth it.

 

“You’re silly, Mama,” she told me.

 

I was, but I was also fun, and I made sure my baby knew she was loved and beautiful. If I had to make a fool of myself in the process, I was okay with that.

 

Emma sat still while I quickly fixed her hair. She went to go watch The Flintstones while I went to my bathroom to curl my hair. I wasn’t quite done when the doorbell rang.

 

“I’ll get it,” Emma hollered, even though she knew better.

 

“Wait for me!” I yelled back.

 

Odds were it was just Eric, but on the chance it was some pedophile, kidnapper type, I didn’t want my four-year-old going to the door alone. I still had my hair sectioned off, but I knew Emma didn’t have much patience. That was a work in progress.

 

“Okay, you can open the door.”

 

Emma did as I said, and there was Eric. Only he wasn’t standing; he was knelt down so he was on Emma’s level.

 

“Hi,” Eric said. He held out a little five flower bouquet of calla lilies to Emma. They were dark purple, her favorite color. “You must be Emma.”

 

“Emma Grace Compton,” she corrected.

 

“That’s a beautiful name,” he told her. “It’s very nice to meet you, Emma Grace Compton.”

 

“Thank you. You’re Eric, right?”

 

He smiled and said, “Eric Steven Northman.”

 

Emma shook his big hand, and smiled up at me.

 

“Mama, can we put these in my room?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Eric got up off his knees and leaned forward to kiss me hello. He definitely scored points with both of us by bringing Emma flowers. It meant a lot to me that he listened and remembered that Emma loved purple.

 

“You did good,” I whispered to him.

 

He smiled and said, “I want her to like me.”

 

“She will,” I assured him. Eric stepped inside and I hugged him once the door was closed.

 

“Your hair looks interesting,” he teased.

 

“I’m not done yet,” I laughed. “But I’m sure Emma can keep you entertained while I finish up.”

 

“Oh I’m sure she can.”

 

Eric went to the kitchen to help Emma with her flowers while I went to my bathroom to finish my hair. I sent a text to my mom to tell her Eric brought Emma flowers. It really was the sweetest thing.

 

While I finished my hair I heard Emma showing Eric around the house. She answered Eric’s questions and asked a few of her own. Emma wasn’t terribly shy. She liked making new friends, so meeting Eric was just a chance for her to charm someone new. When I was done with my hair I went to my closet for a pair of boots, and grabbed a lined jean jacket just in case it got chilly.

 

I had a bag packed for Emma with a jacket and some toys to keep her occupied in the car on the way out. On the way home she was probably going to conk out in the backseat. I let Sloth outside to potty before I put him in his kennel in the laundry room. If he had an accident I wanted it contained and not a little on the couch and a little on the carpet.

 

I found Eric and Emma in her room. She was showing him her chalkboard wall where she liked to draw and play school, now that she knew what school was. I loved her imagination and creativity.

 

“Are you two ready to go?” I asked.

 

“Yeah!” Emma jumped up off the floor and put her chalk away in its container.

 

“Your flowers look pretty on your dresser,” I told her.

 

Emma’s bedroom was painted a light shade of purple. Her bedding was purple leopard print, and her lampshades were black with purple boa trim going around the bottom of the shade. My kid had her own style, even at the age of four. I liked that she knew what she liked and didn’t like. She was vocal about those things, and I loved that. Just because she was a kid it didn’t mean she had to settle. That’s not to say she always got her way, but I didn’t try to stifle her opinion or talk her out of it.

 

The three of us left the house together. I locked up while Emma ran toward the Jeep. Eric left the Bel Air at home, instead opting for his usual Chevy pickup truck. It had a backseat but getting the booster seat in there was a pain in the butt. Emma already had herself strapped in when we got to the Jeep.

 

“You want to drive?” I offered. He was a good driver. I wasn’t worried about him doing donuts or burning out my tires.

 

“Sure, if you don’t want to.” Eric took the keys I offered him.

 

“I don’t mind but if you drive I can keep Emma entertained if she gets antsy.”

 

“Good point.” He leaned down to give me a kiss. “She’s a great kid, Sookie.”

 

“Yeah, she is,” I agreed.

 

He was making it really easy for me to fall in love with him. I didn’t want to go too fast and let all the silly fantasies take over, but it was hard not to sink into the good feelings I had. It was crazy to have that fear in the back of my mind that at any moment the rug might be pulled out from under me. I hated that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

Eric didn’t deserve to be paying for the shit Bill had done. He deserved a perfectly clean slate, and I was doing my best to make sure he got it from me.

 

I sat in the passenger’s seat while Eric did the driving. It was a pretty straight shot going west on the Highway 275. Emma immediately got into playing with her tablet. I liked that Eric held my hand as we drove. The feeling that settled over me was so… domestic. We felt good together, the three of us.

 

Don’t get ahead of yourself, Sookie.

 

I was careful about the balance of it all. On one hand I was so tempted to plunge headlong into all the things I was feeling, and maybe if I didn’t have Emma I would have done exactly that. For her sake, though, I had to be smarter. I had to take my time and really get to know Eric. He was right on our first date when he said it was a shame that Emma already had been let down by her dad. Hearing him say that let me know that he got it, that by meeting my daughter he was really in this thing with me.

 

The concept of ‘us’ didn’t just include him and me, but Emma too. I was a package deal, and Eric was embracing it.

 

We arrived at the pumpkin patch and found a parking spot toward the back end of the lot. I’d loaded Emma’s wagon into the back so we had a place for the pumpkins and a spot where a tired or crabby four-year-old could sit. Eric was kind enough to pull the wagon over the gravel while I held Emma’s hand. The three of us walked up to the gate, and I paid the admission fee for the three of us to get in. I also bought us tickets for the hayride at two o’clock, thinking that would give us time for pumpkin picking and then lunch.

 

“Mommy, can we do the slide?” Emma asked when she spotted the 100 foot slide that was built into a hillside off to the north.

 

“Sure, but let’s get our pumpkins first, okay? There’s lots of fun stuff here to do.”

 

There was a corn maze, a race track, train rides, a bunny hutch, a ferry ride on the duck pond, a caterpillar for climbing on and of course, the petting zoo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Emma left wanting a goat to keep her piggy company. She was really laying it on thick about wanting a pig for her birthday.

 

We walked toward the pumpkin patch, and I wasn’t at all surprised when Emma ran ahead. I didn’t mind as long as I could still see her. I took out my phone and took a few pictures of her. The paranoid mom in me always took pictures when we went to a crowded place just in case the unthinkable happened and police needed current photos. I’d be too much of a mess to be able to remember what she was wearing, but knowing me I’d tell them she had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner last Tuesday.

 

Yeah, I was that mom.

 

“She’s full of energy.”

 

“This is her low key. You should see her after she gets a little sugar in her. My brother gave her Mountain Dew once…”

 

Eric laughed and asked, “How long did it take to scrape her off the ceiling?”

 

“Oh I let her stay at his house overnight. I wasn’t dealing with that,” I laughed. It was the last time Jason did that.

 

Eric squeezed my hand as we walked. He slowed his stride so we were side by side. Emma was having a great time, going from pumpkin to pumpkin to inspect each one closely to see if it was The One.

 

“She’s so cute sometimes I can’t stand it,” I told him.

 

Eric let go of my hand to put an arm around my shoulders. It was nice to just stand still for a minute and take it all in. I couldn’t help feeling like that was how it should have been all along, and yet I felt like maybe I had to go through the bad with Bill in order to really appreciate the good with Eric.

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Part Two →

14 thoughts on “Part One

  1. This story is so good! It’s kinda funny though; have you met my ex-husband? Seems as if you’ve designed Bill to be the very model of him! As I was reading all the things Sookie had to say about Bill, I was doing a mental checklist, and then nodding my head at all of her comments! Now I’m on pins & needles right along with her, hoping that Eric’s for real! You’ll probably get many comments like this. Off to Part 2 since the suspense is killing me! 🙂

      • I actually just pulled that name out of thin air because it sounded like an old lady name. I can’t stand Austen, much to the dismay of my English lit major sister.

    • The sad thing is, I think there are way more guys out there. I suppose this story can kind of double as a mother’s day story. It also helps that I have a rather dysfunctional relationship with my own father so I know all too well what it feels like to be Emma.

      • I guess it could be. I feel so bad for those like you that have those kind of relationships with their fathers. My daughter does as well, and it was her decision. I did the best I could to not speak negatively of him, but as she got older, she could see what an idiot he was for herself. She has a terrific stepdad though, and that’s what she calls him, stepdad, not stepfather. We were fortunate to have found someone as wonderful as the Eric character in your story when she had just started her teen years. It made all the difference. Now as I watch my other daughter with her kids and no fathers sticking around, it really is sad that there so many guys like that out there. Takes two to make a baby!

  2. The describing Bill part was hard for me to read. Waaaay to close to home with my ex, but thankfully without the jail part.
    All the Eric stuff is amazing! But I feel like I’m sitting on needles waiting for the angst lol.
    Hmm love that pic of Alex.
    *sigh*
    Ok. Happy Birthday kjwrit!!!
    Thanks thanks Meg for sharing the birthday gift 🙂

  3. Talk about a fairy tale story! Eric must have some shortcomings –picks his nose, farts frequently, leaves his dirty clothes laying around –something! But…a wonderful story.

    Happy Birthday kjwrit! Hope it was wonderful!

  4. Pingback: Updates 5-8-16 | Fanfiction Minions

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