Tangerine

When it was first suggested to me that I enter a cooking contest, I was a bit skeptical whether I stood much of a chance at winning. After a lot of goading from friends, and lots of taste testing that earned me rave reviews, I decided it was worth a shot. What did I have to lose, anyway? It’s not like I was a chef. This was just something fun to do in my spare time. I liked cooking. Why not see if I had the stones to go up against people trained in the culinary field?

I’d made Red Cooked Tangerine Chicken. The contest was themed toward citrus fruits, and I was surprised at the creativity. I didn’t know enough about the food industry to know which chefs I should be afraid of. I heard whispers of who’s who, and what’s what, but I didn’t really have any expectations. For me, it really was just a hobby.

So imagine my surprise when my dish won. It wasn’t until later that I found out I had beaten the top chef in the Shreveport area with my little platter of tangerine chicken, and he was none too thrilled about it. He ran a more upscale restaurant in downtown Shreveport by the name of Odin’s. I’d never been there myself, but I’d read reviews in the local paper. It was apparently the place to be if you were anyone in the state of Louisiana.

Personally, I was just fine with the local fare and my own brand of home cooking. I’d learned from my Gran, who was a master at making southern staples. My friend, Lafayette, who was a chef at a local restaurant, had even started teaching me how to make Soul Food. I made it sparingly since it tended to be high in fat and sodium. I wasn’t a health nut- I did love my pecan pie, after all- but I didn’t see the need to drown myself in bacon grease and enough salt to make the Atlantic jealous.

So when a year had passed and I was invited back to the competition to defend my title, I couldn’t wait to get back into it. I had been surprised by how much I had enjoyed the experience, and I went on the hunt for a new recipe to wow the judges. I heard through the grapevine of a few friends I’d made since the previous year’s competition that Eric Northman, owner of Odin’s, was looking to take back his spot as top dog. He was gunning for me, and to my knowledge, we’d never even met.

I decided not to let him get the better of me. I worked with Lafayette to develop a recipe we were both sure was a winner. It took a lot of trial and error, and a few atrocities before we found the right combination. We did a taste test at the restaurant where he worked, and the reviews had been positive. We took all critiques seriously, and after one final tweak, we ran another taste test. It turned out that adding a little bit of blood orange was all we needed to get the desired effect.

I was making the rounds at the restaurant, talking with the people who had come solely for the purpose of trying the dish. When I got to a table set for just one person, I was a bit surprised. Most people in Bon Temps didn’t dine alone unless it was lunchtime. This was definitely a dinner setting, and the man sitting at the table was the last man in the world who should ever be eating alone.

He was dressed remarkably well, and since I didn’t recognize him, I knew he wasn’t a Bon Temps native. His blond hair- almost the same color as my own- was tied back at the nape of his neck. He was wearing designer jeans the color of ink, and a v-neck aqua sweater that seemed to make his eyes glow. He had broad shoulders and the material of his sweater wasn’t thick enough to conceal how well-sculpted his chest was. I found myself biting my lip as I slowly approached his table.

He sat back and sipped the glass of white wine he was holding. His eyes darted up to mine when I got within a few feet of him. He set down the glass, and motioned for me to join him. With a small smile I rested my hands on the back of the chair.

“How’s your meal tonight?”

“Very good. I was hoping I might get the chance to speak to the chef.” His eyes sparkled.

“You’re looking at her.”

“Really? Well, then you must sit.” He stood up and pulled out a chair for me.

“Thank you…”

“Eric.” He supplied for me.

“Eric?” I felt myself freeze up, wondering if this was the man who was looking to dismantle me at the competition the following week.

“And you are?” He asked once he was seated beside me again.

I looked deep into those pretty blue eyes of his, and something flared in them, suggesting he knew precisely who I was. “You wouldn’t happen to be Eric Northman, would you?”

“Depends on who’s asking.” He winked at me.

At that point I was positive he knew who I was, he was just waiting for me to confirm it for him. “I think you know who I am.”

“If I knew, I wouldn’t ask. But you certainly seem to know who I am.”

“I didn’t until you told me your name.” Which was sort of true.

“Can I get you a glass of wine?” Eric offered me.

“Uh, no, thank you.”

“So, Sookie,” He smirked at me before continuing. “How did you end up on the competition circuit?”

“On a whim.” I sat back in my chair, deciding I was going to be as removed from the whole thing as I possibly could be. “Now let me ask you something. You’re a professional chef. You run your own very successful restaurant, from what I’ve read in the papers. Yet you’re entering small town cooking contests. Is that because you need to feel superior to others, or because you need constant validation of your skills?”

Eric actually laughed at my question before leaning forward. “I’m quite confident in all of my skills.”

“I should get back to making my rounds.” I started to get up before I said something I would regret.

“Do I make you uncomfortable, Sookie?” Eric took another sip of his wine.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer . I knew I should be nervous about his skills where cooking was concerned, but I was too turned off by his arrogance to have much sympathy for him. Unfortunately, he had an extremely handsome face- not to mention what I imagined to be an amazing body- attached to that ego. Wasn’t that always the way, though?

“Actually, I find you boring.” I shrugged, and Eric laughed.

“Boring?”

“Yes, boring. I mean, you have nothing better to do with your spare time than to come to some little backwater town to inspect the competition when you’re so confident in your skills? Please.” I snickered and slowly stood up. “I hope you enjoy the rest of your dinner.”

Eric reached out and grabbed my hand. “You should try adding a little sesame to your glaze.”

“Excuse me?”

“Sesame seeds. Surely even a small town backwater cook like yourself has heard of them.” His eyes locked onto mine, using my own choice of words against me.

“Yes, I know what sesame seeds are.” Jerk.

“Well, you might try adding some to your glaze. They’ll add a woody flavor to the pork that will make this nearly impossible to beat.” Eric advised.

“And why would I listen to you?”

“Because, Miss Stackhouse,” He finished off the rest of his wine before standing up and tossing his napkin down onto his plate. “I like knowing that if I lose, it’s because I’ve lost to the best there is.”

“I’m guessing you’re the sort that doesn’t like to lose.” I stared up at him, impressed with how tall he was, but refusing to let him intimidate me.

“Who does?” Eric gave a casual shrug. “The point is, I want to make sure we have a level playing field.”

“So I guess you’ve gone around to all of the other contestants to offer them cooking tips?” I smirked at him.

“Nope, just you. You’re the only one who’s ever beaten me.” He admitted, although I could see it pained him to do so.

“Why is this so important to you, Eric, really?” I genuinely wanted to know why a talented chef of his caliber was lowering himself to a contest for small time meal makers.

“Trust me on the sesame seeds. See you next week, Sookie.” Eric dropped some cash on the table, and then he was gone.


ERIC

I’d wanted to run my own restaurant since I was a little kid. I about drove my mother crazy with all of the “inventions” I came up with in her kitchen. I’d learned how to cook from her. When she’d passed away while I was still in culinary school, she’d left everything she had to me and my sister, Pam. After paying for Mom’s funeral and any bills left behind, there was enough money left over to convince a bank to give us a loan.

Naturally, Pam was the only person I trusted enough to go into business with. I managed the kitchen while she managed the floor. She’d been touched when I first told her that I was going to enter the same contest Mom had participated in year after year. Considering how I turned out, it was shocking how not good our mother was in the kitchen. For the life of her, Mom couldn’t make pancakes that didn’t have uncooked batter in the middle, or mashed potatoes that didn’t have lumps in them. There had been more than one unfortunate incident with the broiler that left our food charbroiled, and nearly set the house on fire.

So when I say I learned how to cook from my Mom, what I mean is, I learned what not to do. Over the years I tried to help her, but it was to no avail. Mom just wasn’t destined for culinary greatness. So when I entered the contest, it wasn’t so much for me, but for her. I chose recipes Mom had always tried at, and tweaked them enough so they would work better. I liked to think she was proud of me for carrying on her tradition, but there was no way of knowing it.

For nearly ten years, I had been a force to be reckoned with. A few jealous folks had appealed to the contest sponsors to make it against the rules for professional chefs to compete with the laymen, but the sponsors refused. Having bigger names associated with their contest brought in more money, and without the draw of a crowd, there were no prizes to give to the winners. It was a vicious cycle, but I liked to think it separated the men from the boys, so to speak.

The cliché, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” applied only too well.

So when I was blown out of the water by some unknown woman named Sookie Stackhouse, my curiosity was piqued, to say the least. I was also a bit miffed. I suppose I had just gotten over-confident, or maybe arrogant, about my abilities. Still, losing to another chef in the business would have been easier to take than a woman who probably only made dinner for her husband and kids. I was curious about her, but didn’t quite know how to approach her.

I’d gotten a glimpse of her while she was being photographed after the results had been announced. To say she was beautiful would be an understatement. She had a radiant smile and long blonde hair that was held away from her face in an intricate braid. Her big blue eyes sparkled when she smiled, along with two rows of perfectly straight, and pearly white teeth. She had curves in all the right places, and it was nice to see a woman who wore them well. Too many girls were walking stick figures. Not Sookie.

What chapped my ass was finding out it was her first competition. I had craned my head in hopes of catching sight of her left hand. I felt my eyebrow arch when I noticed she wasn’t wearing any expensive jewelry on her ring finger. Did that mean she was single, or just that she didn’t cook with her rings on? I stopped and shook my head. What the hell did it matter if she was single or not?

As the first place winner, she was guaranteed a bid to the competition the next year, assuming she wanted it. I learned she was from Bon Temps, about an hour east of Shreveport. I thought about going to look her up, but decided it would be a waste of my time. I wanted to show I could be a good sport about the loss, but decided it was probably better to just leave her to her victory. I sure as shit didn’t want pity. That wasn’t my style.

So I let Pam drag me off with her staring daggers at Sookie for both of us. “She’s got a nice rack.” Pam commented as we headed out of the convention center.

“I hadn’t noticed.” Lies. I’d definitely noticed.

“Bullshit.” Pam saw right through me just like she always did. “I’ve got wood.”

“Ugh, Pam!” I didn’t want to hear about that. It was bad enough I was forced to endure watching her flirt with various customers at the restaurant.

“She was hot.” Pam shrugged, completely devoid of shame.

It’s not that Pam was wrong, so much as I had no desire to talk about it with my sister. I considered, briefly, that maybe Sookie was a lesbian. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. But I had to stop thinking about that because the last thing I needed was the imagine of that sexy blonde woman in bed with another woman equally as curvy as the first. No, no good could come from that whatsoever.

Almost a whole year went by before I got my invitation in the mail for the competition. I’d already been on the hunt for a new recipe, and I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to do. I made it a special at Odin’s to test it out, and it had gone over well. I was beyond pleased with the way things were going. Then I overheard some of my customers talking about a similar tasting that was going on in Bon Temps for a tangerine glazed pork roast.

My instincts told me to stay the hell away and just let Sookie do what she was going to do, but I wanted to see her again. I flirted the information out of the customers, and to thank them for unknowingly helping me, I comped their meal. It seemed I had a date in Bon Temps in four days.

I showed up at the restaurant I’d been told about. It was called Merlotte’s and it was set back in a woodsy area where I never would have expected a restaurant to be. As far as I was concerned, the place looked like a large hunting shack, both inside and out. A rather tacky neon sign was mounted on the roof, and I had to shake my head as I approached. It looked like a landing strip for UFOs. The dual front doors of the bar weren’t as heavy as they looked, and I nearly ripped one off the hinges when I pulled it open.

There wasn’t a hostess to seat anyone, and after standing there at the door for a good five minutes, I decided to take a seat at one of three tables that were still open. A quick glance to my right proved I was in the right place. Through the hatch into the kitchen, I could see Sookie Stackhouse. She was wearing a red dress that clung to those dangerously sexy curves of hers. Her hair was hanging down her back in loose waves that I wanted to run my fingers through just so I would know for sure if they were as soft as I imagined they were. I couldn’t hear her laughter over all of the other noise in the restaurant, but I wanted to. I hated the guy she was touching, even if it was just his forearm, and then a playful slap to the shoulder.

I took a seat and tried not to stare over at the kitchen. It seemed to take forever, but finally, a waitress with firebomb red hair made her way over to my table. Whoever owned this place was lucky I wasn’t a critic, or I’d be putting them out of business. I placed my order for the evening’s special, along with a glass of white wine I was worried would come out of a box or a jug.

I realized that if Merlotte’s was the pinnacle of a person’s dining experience in Bon Temps, there was a reason its citizens were flocking to Shreveport for something else. I sincerely hoped the food didn’t match the ambiance. I found myself thankful I’d experienced Sookie’s cooking before, if only through competition. I hadn’t actually tasted the dish myself, but I had been able to locate a similar recipe on the internet, and it was delicious.

On the upside, the only one I’d found so far, the food arrived quickly. I found myself staring down into a plate of Asian Tangerine Pork Roast with a side of jasmine rice and steamed broccoli. Color me surprised when the broccoli wasn’t the frozen kind. I cut the pork, and looked closely at the glaze on it. It smelled incredible, and I hated to admit that Sookie may have bested me yet again. When I tasted it, I was tempted to throw down my fork and leave. Just where the hell did this girl come from?

She was obviously talented, even if she didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t know what she did for a living, or whether or not she was aware of her talent at all, but she would make one hell of a chef. I knew that without ever having met her face to face. Yet, as good as her offering was, there was something missing. It took me a while to think of what it was. I was pondering that very thing when Sookie approached my table. I nearly choked on my wine.

I invited her to take a seat, while taking in the full effect of the dress she was wearing. My earlier assessment of her beauty seemed like a weak explanation. Bombshell, was more like it. She had an almost Marilyn Monroe appeal to her, minus the ditz factor. I didn’t get any sort of impression that Sookie Stackhouse was stuck on stupid. I found myself straddling the line between charming and arrogant, and I decided to play at both of them. I’d found in the past that the right combination of the two seemed to work rather well for me.

Only Sookie wasn’t buying any of it, and when her face lit up with recognition as to who I was, I didn’t know if I should be pleased or incensed. Hearing her call me boring was actually a little refreshing, even if it was a small blow to my ego. No woman had ever called me boring besides my sister. I couldn’t help but feel like the ante had been upped between us, and the competition had just become somewhat of a personal vendetta.

Sookie had asked repeatedly why the competition was so important to me, but I didn’t really want to get into an emotional discussion about my mother. So rather than answer her, I changed the subject. When that failed, told her what I thought was missing from her recipe. She seemed shocked I was offering her tips, but I wanted to know that if I won, it was because I really was the best of the best. Sookie glared at me with disbelief on her face, like she thought I was intentionally trying to sabotage her.

I couldn’t blame her for that, even if that wasn’t my intention at all. I ended up leaving her at the table with more questions than answers. Never had I looked forward to the competition more than I did that night. The next week couldn’t go by fast enough.


SOOKIE

I got to the convention center early the day of the competition. I wanted plenty of time to check in and set up my station before we had to get started. Not only was I making the Asian Tangerine Pork Roast, but I had also entered a Coconut Crème Key Lime Torte into the desert division. I had to make both recipes twice. I needed one for judging and the other for display. I was confident in my abilities to make both recipes in my sleep, I’d made them so many times in the last couple of weeks.

When I told Lafayette about my encounter with Eric, I casually mentioned the suggestion of adding sesame seeds to the glaze for the pork. Laff’s eyes had dilated big time, just as my own had done, before a huge grin broke out on his face.

“That’s it! I knew we was missing something.” He shook his head.

“What? Are you serious?” I nearly shrieked at him.

“Look, Sook, the recipe is good without them, but I think Chef Dreamboat was right. The sesame seeds will put it over the top. You don’t have to add them, but I think just that little bit of flavor will go a long way with the judges. It’s your call.” Lafayette shrugged.

So, as much as I hated it, we made the recipe again with the sesame seeds added just to try it out for ourselves. Damn it if Eric Northman wasn’t right. The debate was whether or not I wanted to take his advice. I could be a spiteful bitch, but that would mean potentially shooting myself in the foot. I never thought of myself with an ego I needed to worry about, but something about Eric Northman rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to win the competition on my own, and not because I had him helping me.

In the end, I was still undecided as to what I was going to do. I had the seeds with me in case I wanted to use them, but I had no idea if I was going to do it. I off loaded all of the ingredients and equipment I brought along with me. The contest provided us with little kitchen stations to work in, along with all of the appliances and necessities needed to get the job done. We cooks were responsible for bringing our grocery list. I’d triple checked everything (and maybe had Lafayette do the same) before I’d loaded it up in the car. I was far more nervous this time around than I had been a year prior.

I got myself checked in with the contest officials, and I was shown to my station. I started to stock the fridge, and put pans where I would need them when it was time to get cooking. I couldn’t actually start on any food prep yet, but I could ready everything else. I had my measuring cups, cutting boards and roasting pans all set up and ready to go. After that, all I could do was take a seat in my little kitchen and wait to see who my neighbor was going to be.

I was reading a trashy romance novel (one of my few guilty pleasures), when my neighbor was shown into the next kitchen. Without even looking up, I knew who I had been assigned to work alongside. I groaned and tried not to look up from my book. To my right was Eric Northman. Great. Just what I needed. As if he wasn’t a big enough distraction already, he was dressed in a pair of perfectly tailored black pants and a tight, white t-shirt that left about as much to the imagination as that pretty aqua sweater he’d been wearing the week before at Merlotte’s.

“Howdy, neighbor.” He winked at me when I made the mistake of looking up from my book.

“Mr. Northman.” I said in an icy tone.

“So, did you try the sesame seeds?” He sure didn’t waste any time getting my dander up in a fluff.

“I did.” I confessed.

“And?”

“Eh.” I shrugged. “I could take it or leave it, personally.”

Eric gave me a scrutinizing stare before taking a step closer to the “wall” that separated our two kitchens. You know, I was thinking, since this contest seems to have become somewhat of a personal grudge match for the two of us, how about we make a bet?”

“Are you serious?” I laughed.

“As a heart attack.” Eric said in that charming tone of his that would have been disarming if it weren’t for the circumstances.

“Okay, what are the terms?” I crossed my legs and folded my arms over my chest.

“If I win, I get to put your recipe on my menu at Odin’s.” Eric looked me up and down.

Well that certainly wasn’t the prize I would have expected him to claim. “And when I win?”

Eric chuckled quietly and said, “If you win, you get an offer to come work for me in my kitchen.”

Huh. “And what makes you think I want to be a professional chef? Or that I have the training for it, for that matter?”

“I’ve tasted your food. It’s obviously something you feel passionate about, or you wouldn’t be holding taste tests to make sure you’ve got a recipe just right. And personally, I don’t care about what sort of training you have. If you can make food that tastes good, I couldn’t care less whether you know the difference between a julienne and a Julius.” Eric leaned on the wall, his large hands curling around the metal bar. “So, do we have a bet?”

I stood up from my chair and closed the distance between us. There was definitely tension in the air, and for a second when I looked into his eyes, I had the mental image of tackling him right there on the floor. Part of me wanted to kick his ass, while the other part wanted to shred his clothes and have my way with him. For all of his arrogance and ego tripping, he was dead sexy. I nibbled my bottom lip while I considered my options.

“Deal.” I shrugged.

Eric held out his hand so we could seal the deal properly, and I offered mine in return. When our hands met, it was like a bolt of lightning ran through me, and from the flare in Eric’s eyes, I could tell he felt it, too. Shit. What was I doing? I wasn’t supposed to be “making nice” with the enemy. We probably held onto each other’s hand for a little longer than necessary, but I could at least take comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone in the attraction I was feeling.

Not to mention, what I was doing potentially accepting a job offer from Eric. And why the hell would he want me to come work for him anyway? I wasn’t a professional. Regardless of what he said about formal training not being a necessity, I would be lost in some big commercial kitchen. I was used to my little set up in my Gran’s old farmhouse. I was used to a stove that I knew all of its quirks. I knew how off the temperature was, and I knew just how to set the burners to get the effects I wanted. Okay, so I could probably learn all of those things in a bigger kitchen, but did I want to?

I was pretty happy with my regular day job at Sid Matt Lancaster’s law office. It wasn’t always the most exciting job, but even the monotonous routine I went through was made interesting by being able to read the documents I saw. In fact, the whole thing could be rather fascinating, when I gave it more thought. It wasn’t glamorous or something I would say I felt especially passionate about, but it paid the bills and I liked what I did. I liked knowing I helped make a difference in someone else’s life, even if it was in a very small way.

It wasn’t long before the convention center filled up with contestants. Some of the folks I’d met the year before came around to wish me luck, and cast smug glances over in Eric’s area. He kept his head down, playing with the cell phone that was dwarfed in his enormous hands. Part of the fun of this contest was the interaction with the other chefs, as well as the supporters who came out to watch us work. A small crowd had gathered around my station, which only made me nervous. I wasn’t used to an audience watching me cook.

It didn’t take long for a sense of panic to kick in, and I ended up hiding behind my refrigerator. A smooth cool voice reached my ears, and I knew it was Eric whispering to me.

“Don’t let them get to you. Just go about it like there’s no one there.” He instructed.

“Maybe this is no big deal for you, Mr. Show Off, but I’m not good with crowds.” I snapped back at him in a whispered shout.

“Then how about you pretend it’s just me watching you?” Eric’s voice had way too much sex appeal, and I’m ashamed to say it made my knees weak.

“Fat chance.” I said glibly.

“Suit yourself. I know I’ll be pretending it’s just you watching me.” Eric said, and then he was gone.

Damn him.


ERIC

I’m not sure if Sookie caught on to it, but the bet I proposed was sort of tipped in my favor. Not because I was sure I had the upper hand on her, because frankly, I was counting on her winning. It turns out a few of my regular customers had also attending one of the tastings held at Merlotte’s, and I was able to get some information out of them. Not surprisingly, Sookie had been more friendly and open with them than she had been with me.

I was able to learn she was, in fact, a single woman. She worked for a lawyer in Monroe. Her talent had been discovered originally by her grandmother, who had passed away several years prior. Sookie had gotten a little training from a friend of hers who was a chef, but she had no desire to take on her hobby as a profession. I figured that last bit wasn’t entirely true. Sookie lacked confidence in her ability. I saw the passion in her eyes, but she was convinced that because she’d never been to culinary school there was no way she could have a future in the industry.

I decided I could help her figure out she wasn’t a “lost cause” where the kitchen was concerned. Did I want her for other reasons? You bet your ass I did. Mostly, I wanted to see her excel because it seemed like she’d be doing herself- and the food industry- a big disservice by sitting on her talent. After having been through culinary school myself, I was convinced the best way to learn was on the job. There wasn’t much you could learn about cooking by reading a textbook. You just had to get in there and explore.

When I arrived at the convention center the morning of the competition, I was beyond ecstatic to find out that Sookie and I had been assigned to neighboring stations. She looked about as thrilled to see me setting up shop next to her as I had anticipated she would. When I extended the bet to her, she looked suspicious, which was wise of her. Frankly, if I were in her position, I’d feel the exact same way.

Ultimately she accepted the bet, and went back to sulking in her seat. I pulled out my Blackberry to email Pam and tell her to get the new hire paperwork pulled for a new chef. I hadn’t let Pam in on what I was doing since the kitchen staff was up to me to manage, but I knew she was going to have things to say about this particular decision. She was already convinced I was obsessed with Sookie, which I argued against. Obsessed was such a strong word. I was curious, and maybe a little infatuated, but I wouldn’t say obsessed.

Besides, I genuinely saw Sookie as a good investment. Even if things didn’t work out on a personal level between us- which I doubted was the case when we shook hands and I felt like I’d been struck my lightning- she would be good for my business. Even if Sookie doubted herself, I knew a good thing when I saw it, and Sookie Stackhouse was remarkable. I was determined to help her see it, too.

As if her foot stomping Tinkerbell-type tantrums weren’t adorable enough, I couldn’t help but stifle a laugh when I noticed she was starting to panic at the crowd that had gathered around our stations. I didn’t mind being the center of attention. I wouldn’t say I craved it, but I was used to it. I was used to reporters popping in, wanting to make a fuss over the restaurant. I was used to making appearances in my dining room to accept praise from patrons. To me, it was all just part of the job. To Sookie, it was obviously a nightmare.

I watched her disappear behind the scenes, and when she didn’t come back after five minutes, I went back to find her. She was huddled behind her refrigerator, breathing hard and mumbling something under her breath I couldn’t understand. I stood there for a minute, taking in the smell of her hair so close to my nose. If she knew I was there, she didn’t show it. She smelled amazing, and my brain automatically went to wondering what she tasted like. I wanted to imagine it had to be something like the citrus she was obviously so comfortable working with.

I wanted to distract her from her nerves, and by flirting with her, I could kill two birds with one two. I figured either she would be charmed by it- win- or she would be pissed off at me enough to forget about the crowd. Either way, I considered it a victory. I could admit I was being sneaky, or high handed, but I was acting in what I considered to be her best interests. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why I cared so much.

Sookie offered snappy retorts that made me smile. I liked a challenge, and Sookie definitely brought me those in spades. I got the feeling that nothing with her was ever easy, but I was okay with that. I had always been willing to fight for what I wanted, and for whatever reason, I wanted her. Still, I walked away before my mouth ruined everything for me, since I sometimes didn’t know to quit while I was ahead.

When Sookie emerged from her hiding place a few minutes later, she looked a bit calmer. She glanced over at me, but I didn’t let my expression change. A short time later, the contest was officially started. Just like I said I would, I imagined she was the only one watching me. A glance over in her direction told me she had settled down, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was doing the same thing I was doing.

We had four hours to complete the recipes we were making. Time went by quickly, but I’d made the Almond & Orange Crusted Chicken so many times that I could have done it in a coma, if need be. I ended up having quite the lot to choose from, since I would be sending half of the eight breasts I had prepared up to the judges for tasting. I selected the best four of the bunch, and plated them up for the judges. The remaining four were plated the same way with their orange and arugula salad, and set out for the spectators to oooh and ahh over.

My chicken was ready long before Sookie’s pork roasts, and I watched as she expertly sliced the better of the two roasts into medallions for plating. She waited until the last possible second before slicing so she wouldn’t be serving dried out meet to a group of local “foodies”. For not being a professional, she certainly had picked up a few of the insider tidbits on cooking.

In some ways, I considered this contest to be her job interview. I’d paid enough attention to what she was doing to know that while she was obviously feeling a bit disoriented with her surroundings, it was only because she took such good care to get to know what she had available to her. She studied her environment, and made sure she could use every advantage she could find. She was quick on her feet, and improvised well when things didn’t go right.

I heard her clear her throat a little too loudly, and I looked over at her in time to see her sprinkle sesame seeds over the medallions. She stared right at me, challenging me to say something. I said absolutely nothing. I don’t know if that was her way of thanking me for what I said to her earlier, or what. While I’d meant what I said about the seeds adding an extra layer of flavor, I hadn’t expected her to take me seriously. I got the impression I would always be left wondering what was next where Sookie was concerned. She certainly was unlike anyone else I’d ever met.

Together we walked over to the judges’ table to submit our entries. Sookie glanced over at the platter I was carrying, and I was surprised when she asked what I’d made. “It’s an almond and orange crusted chicken on an orange and arugula salad with a lemon vinaigrette.”

“Wow.” Sookie looked at little closer at the chicken. “Well, it looks delicious.”

“I’ll make it for you when you come work for me.” I wiggled my eyebrows at her, and I was shocked when she laughed. Was this the same Sookie? “Are you feeling okay?”

Sookie just smiled up at me in response. We turned in our food, and then I was surprised when she asked me if I wanted to go get coffee with her. We had about two hours to kill before the judges announced the winners. We walked over to the coffee station that had been set up, and each fixed ourselves a cup of coffee before finding a place to sit that was out of the way so we could actually have a conversation.

“Listen, I’m sorry for being a bitch. You were trying to help me earlier, and you didn’t have to do that. Actually, I don’t know why you would even bother.” Sookie blushed into her coffee.

“You’re apologizing to me?” I was starting to wonder if there had been a gas leak, and I was actually unconscious on account of the fumes.

“It doesn’t happen often.” Sookie kept her face down, but her eyes swung over to mine.

“Well, then, I guess I have no choice but to accept.” I smiled at her before sipping my coffee.

“So really, Eric, what’s the angle you’re working to get me to come work for you. Why is that important?” She really had no idea at all, did she?

“It’s like I said, I see talent in you. I’d be a fool not to at least try to get you to expand on it.” I shrugged.

“So then it’s nothing personal?” Sookie looked over at me.

“Oh, it’s personal.” I set down my coffee.

“How personal, exactly?” There was a heat in her eyes that hadn’t been there before, and it definitely brought up every dirty mental image of her I had entertained in the last year.

“Very personal.” I looked her up and down.

She bit her lower lip and then stood up. “Let’s go for a walk.”

She abandoned her coffee cup and grabbed my hand. That same spark that had shot through me earlier came back full force as she pulled me through the convention center, and into an area that had been blocked off from the public. It wasn’t exactly private, but she pulled me behind the curtain anyway.

“Sookie, what are you doing?” I asked her when she backed herself up against the wall so we were hidden by a stack of crates.

“Getting personal.” She said, and then pulled my face to hers to kiss me.


SOOKIE

I don’t know what came over me. All I knew is that even with all of the bluster I was getting from Eric, my instincts were screaming at me that he was a good guy. He’d been nice to me, even if I got the feeling he was interested in finding out what talents I had outside of the kitchen. It didn’t escape me that he’d hung back to wait for me to finish my recipes so we could walk to the judges’ table together. I’d felt his eyes on me from time to time while I was cooking, and it was oddly sexy to know he was watching me.

When he told me his offer was personal, that just cemented whatever feelings I had for him. Truthfully, I didn’t know much of anything about him outside of what he did for a living, but I liked that. I liked that there was mystery between us. The dating pool in Bon Temps was essentially non-existent, as far as I was concerned. Every single boy in town was single for a reason, and there wasn’t one of them I was interested in. Eric was not only interesting; he was gorgeous. And on top of that, he liked me. Or, at least, he was intrigued by me.

We had some time to kill, and since I knew I was still a little wound up, there was only one thing I could think of that might get me to relax. So when I suggested we take a walk, I had a very distinct plan in mind. When I’d walked around the convention center earlier in the day, I’d noticed a vacant area that was blocked off from the public. It appeared to be a storage area of sorts, and I didn’t see a single person go back there at any point during the competition.

I pulled Eric in behind me, and settled myself against the back wall behind a stack of boxes and crates that would give us some cover if we were found. There was this little thrill at the idea of being caught, or overheard, but I silenced whatever little voice was protesting. The rest of me clobbered that voice and locked it in a closet when Eric’s lips met mine. They were soft and sweet, and tasted of the coffee we’d been drinking a few minutes before.

As first times go, this wasn’t exactly what I would have envisioned, but I wanted Eric too much just then to say no. Based on how quickly his attention drifted to other parts of my body, I would say the feeling was mutual. I was thankful I’d opted to wear a skirt, since sex on the fly wasn’t easily done in pants, and the less naked I had to get for this, the better off I’d be. The shirt I was wearing wrapped around me, and Eric simply pulled the material to the sides to expose my bra. He pulled the cups down and then his mouth was teasing one nipple while his fingers went to work mimicking the movements of his mouth on the other.

My hips rocketed toward his, and one of my legs slid up to wrap around his waist to hold him closer to me. I wasn’t the most experienced filly in the stable, but I’d had enough sex to know that what Eric was packing was a big deal. I rubbed against him, wanting more friction. His mouth moved to the other breast while my hands managed to get between us so I could open his pants. I reached inside and stroked the hard length that had been nudging my center.

Eric growled against my skin and moved his mouth to mine to kiss me hard. When his hand found its way under my skirt and into my panties, I gasped in his mouth. Him touching me was a reminder of how long it had been since the last time I’d had sex, and it had been quite a while. He trailed kisses along my jaw until he got to my ear.

“So wet for me, lover.” He breathed against the shell of my ear as one of his fingers slid inside me.

A choked noised escaped me as my hips bucked toward his hand. A second finger joined the first while his thumb stroked my clit. His mouth met mine while the hand that was stroking him adjusted to match the strokes of his fingers inside me. Our kisses muffled the noises we were making, and we kept on that way until neither of us could take anymore.

I pulled back and looked into his starry eyes and said, “Condom.”

“Back pocket.” He smiled at me, and I wondered if he had planned this from the start.

I shut down that line of thinking since it’s not like I was an unwilling participant in all of this. In fact, I was the instigator. I didn’t give myself the chance to wonder what he might think of me for being what I would generally consider to be easy. I reached behind Eric, and got a hold of his ass for the first time when I pulled him closer to me. What an ass it was, too. I reached into his back pocket and let my hands roam for a minute, smiling at him the whole time, before fishing out his wallet. In perhaps the only typical thing about Eric, I found the condom tucked inside.

“You know, I read somewhere it’s not a good idea to keep these in your wallet. Something about heat.” I said as I ripped open the foil, and dropped the leather on the floor.

“It’s worked so far.” Eric curled his fingers inside me, and I moaned loudly.

“God, Eric, I’m so-” I didn’t get a chance to finish my thought.

He removed his fingers from inside me and slowly brought them to his mouth to lick them clean while I rolled the condom on him. I had no idea how much time had passed by, but it seemed like forever ago that we’d walked back into our little secluded area.

“Wrap your arms around my neck.” Eric nudged my throat with his nose before nibbling at my collarbone.

I did as he asked and his hands slid down my body to grip my backside. I didn’t even notice he’d picked me up until I felt him moving my panties aside, and his tip at my entrance. My legs slid around him, pushing his pants down just a little so my calves were resting on his bare ass. He lowered me onto him slowly, his mouth joined with mine. I’d known he was bigger than most, but I hadn’t really understood just how big until I felt him inside me. My body stretched to take him, and it left me feeling deliciously full.

“Oh, sweet Jesus.” I muttered when I turned my head.

“You okay?” He looked concerned.

“Better than.” I gave him a smile.

“I’m too big for some.” He winked at me in that arrogant way that made me want to slap him and kiss him at the same time.

“Bring it on.” I challenged, before lunging forward to capture his lips with mine.

He pulled almost all the way out before thrusting hard into me again. I grunted at the force of it, and found my hands clamping onto his shoulders as he pounded himself against me. I thought I knew good sex, and maybe I did, but this was a million times better. It was hard and fast, and had more passion than all of my previous sexual encounters combined.

My first orgasm found me quickly, and I buried my face in Eric’s neck to keep from screaming. I’d never screamed from an orgasm before. I’d cried out, shuddered, panted and moaned, but never screamed. And Eric wasn’t done yet. Then, all of a sudden, he just stopped. He put his hand over my mouth and jerked his head to the left. I felt myself pale at the idea of getting caught. There was shuffling of feet and the sound of a man talking into what I assumed was one of the headsets I’d seen contest officials wearing. I barely even breathed, I was so afraid of whoever was on the other side of the stack of boxes and crates hearing us.

“I got it. Yeah, I’ll bring it right over to the judges’ room.” The man said. The sound of footsteps receded, and then Eric and I were alone again.

Slowly, Eric pulled his hand away from my mouth. We looked at each other for a minute, but he didn’t move. “Eric, are you okay?”

“Fine.” He snapped out of whatever trance he had been in.

“Good.” I gave him a nervous smile, then leaned forward to kiss him.

We picked up where we left off, but it didn’t feel quite the same. Not that it hadn’t been a choice before, but the urgency was gone. Eric kept his eyes on mine, his thrusts slower and a bit more deliberate in their force. It wasn’t frenzied and chaotic. I didn’t think it was possible, but the sex was even better. The way he looked at me showed all of the emotions he was feeling, and I wondered if my eyes mirrored his.

I gasped when I felt the familiar warmth radiate from deep in my belly that I associated with orgasms, and my walls spasmed around the length working its way in and out of me. Eric changed the angle of my hips, and with every thrust he stroked against a spot inside me that triggered my orgasm. I was biting my lip to keep from screaming again, when I felt him swell inside me and then fall over the same cliff I did. I wrapped my arms around his neck when one of his hands slammed against the wall to brace himself.

I lifted my face toward his, and our mouths met again. He kissed me deeply, his free hand tangling in my hair, shifting my head one way and then the other while his lips slanted over mine. It was, without a doubt, the best sex I’d ever had. I didn’t feel the slightest bit of tension anymore. Slowly, I unwrapped myself from around Eric’s body. He helped me slide to the floor, and my knees almost immediately gave way under me. My legs were numb from being wrapped around his waist for so long.

Eric tucked himself back into his pants while I fixed my panties. I had no idea what he did with the condom, and I didn’t ask. We sat side by side on the floor, both of us still breathing heavy and feeling little aftershocks. His fingers laced with mine, and I let my head droop over onto his shoulder. I felt the gentle scruff of his five o’clock shadow scratching against the top of my head. Before I knew it, my eyes were closed, and I was in a deep sleep.


ERIC

My eyes snapped open and it took a minute to remember where I was. I looked down to see Sookie still next to me, only she’d curled herself against my side and put her legs over my thighs. It didn’t look like the most comfortable position to me, but she was deep asleep. I rubbed my eyes and looked at my watch.

“Shit! Sookie, wake up.” I shook her gently.

Her eyes opened slowly before she turned her face up toward mine and smiled. “Hi.”

“We’re late.” I tapped my watch.

“Shit.” Her reaction mirrored my own. She moved her legs and took my hand when I offered it to help her up.

I went to the curtain that blocked off the area we’d been nestled in for the last two hours, and stuck my head out to see who was around. Thankfully, no one was back in that area. I motioned for Sookie to follow me. Her hair was wild, and her shirt was askew. It was obvious we’d been up to something, but hearing the judges announce they had come to a decision on the winners meant we didn’t have time to fix ourselves up appropriately.

I held her hand as we dashed across the convention center to where the awards were being handed out. I tried to tuck my shirt in while Sookie did her best to tame her hair. Lipstick was smeared on her face, and I had to wonder how much of it had found its way onto my own skin. We stood at the back of the crowd, our hands clasped together.

“You know, I’m actually hoping we both lose.” I leaned over and whispered to her.

“I was thinking the same thing.” She giggled, but kept her eyes straight ahead on the dais in front of us.

The head of the committee responsible for this Citrus Contest was giving a rundown of all the prizes on the line for the winning chef. Last year Sookie had won a five thousand dollar gift certificate to The Pampered Chef. This year the prize was an industrial stove with a six burner cook top and dual ovens. It was a very nice stove, and similar to the one I had in my own house. I glanced at the way Sookie’s eyes lit up at the sight of the stove.

“I take it back. I hope you win.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted all along?” Sookie arched an eyebrow at me.

“What makes you say that?”

“Oh come on, Eric. If you win you get to put my recipe on your menu, but if I win, I get to come work for you? You think I didn’t catch on to what you were doing? I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, you know.” Sookie elbowed me playfully.

“Miss Stackhouse, were you playing me?”

“Maybe.” Sookie shrugged. “I guess you’ll never know.”

“I bet I could get it out of you.” I leaned down and kissed my way up her neck.

“Eric, stop it.” She weakly pushed at me.

Our fit of giggles and playtime came to a screeching halt when the head of the committee announced for the first time in the history of the contest, there was a tie. “Ladies and gentlemen, this has never happened before, but the judges simply couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict today. Therefore, the winners of this year’s Citrus Contest are Sookie Stackhouse and Eric Northman.”

The crowd erupted in applause, catching Sookie and I completely unaware. A spotlight shined down on us, and I can only imagine what we must have looked like based on the collective gasp of everyone around us. Sookie’s grip on my hand tightened considerably, and slowly we made our way to the dais to claim our prizes. Sookie stopped short when she caught her reflection on a platter.

“Oh my god!” She buried her face in my shoulder as I pulled her up onto the small platform.

“Congratulations, Eric and Sookie on a job well done.” The committee member handed each of us an envelope and shook our hands.

“Thanks.” Sookie squeaked out before practically hiding behind me.

“I guess you didn’t see this coming.” I said over my shoulder to the mortified woman cowering behind me.

“Did you?”

I shrugged and said, “You played me. I guess this makes us even.” Sookie pinched my ass, which only made me laugh. I waited until we were off stage before I asked, “So, who won the bet?”

Sookie reached up to wipe away some of the smeared lipstick on my face. I smoothed back some of her wild hair. She pulled me down to kiss her before she said, “I don’t know about you, Eric, but I definitely feel like a winner.”

-FIN-

 

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