Caroline sauntered in without bothering to remove her knock off designer sunglasses. She purred a greeting my way and moved toward Eric’s office like she owned the place. I had to shake it off because I knew her day was about to get bad. The highlight would be the overpriced coffee she was carrying in her spray tanned hand. She didn’t know it yet but she was about to be on the receiving end of one of Eric’s little talks. I hoped her ego would be big enough to cushion her ass when Eric knocked her from her little pedestal.
I don’t mean to sound smug but seeing yet another girl get her dreams of being Mrs. Eric Northman ground to a pulp was almost laughable at this point. I’d been working as Eric’s assistant for five years. I had yet to see him stick to one girl for more than two days. Usually he had a slew of them on rotation. He never made promises he couldn’t keep and he never gave any of them a reason to think they were anything more than a passing fancy. It hadn’t been medically proven, but I was pretty sure my boss was allergic to commitment.
His reputation was bordering on legendary as a love ’em and leave ’em kind of guy (it had earned him the nickname “The Vampire”) but that didn’t stop silly girls from throwing themselves at him. The crazy thing was, even with the amount of tail Eric managed to rake in, he was being selective. He could afford to pick and choose who he would spend his free time with and he didn’t have much to spare. His first priority was his business, and had been since I’d met him.
He had hired me because his former assistant, a sass mouthed woman by the name of Pam, had been selected to run the second office his booming business required. Pam was essentially Eric in Prada heels. The two of them made a formidable pair. They shared the same charm and appeal and lacked the insecurity to give a flying fuck what anyone thought of them. I’d done the smart thing and researched the history of Eric’s company before coming in for my interview. Being someone’s personal assistant wasn’t exactly my dream job but when I’d seen the ad for the position, there was something about it that jumped out at me.
I won’t bother lying to try and cover up my attraction to Eric. It was immediate and it was mutual. He was every bit as gorgeous as the pictures of him on his website indicated he was. I’d thought for sure they were photoshopped within an inch of their lives and I was wrong. Eric is nothing if not a God. Almost like a Viking was plucked from history, given a good shave, a pricey haircut and a designer suit. He was smooth and suave and had the ability to get anyone’s knees knocking. His size was intimidating but his charisma prevented him from being too scary. He had just enough edge to keep him mysterious but enough charm to make it easy to imagine him sliding into your life like he always belonged there.
Poor Caroline was about to get hit by the mac truck of reality. She’d been floating around for the last three weeks on this little blissful cloud, tweeting and texting her friends about what a “fuckawesome boyfriend” she had. Her words, not mine. What made him fuckawesome? Well, Eric sublimated his lack of emotions toward her with gifts. How did I know that? Well, he’s been doing it for as long as he’s been in the business, first of all. Second of all, it was my job as his assistant to procure said gifts. The necklace she was wearing, for starters, was one I had picked out for her. She’d fawned all over it, telling anyone who would listen what a sweet man Eric was for lavishing gifts on her.
I had to restrain myself from rolling my eyes. His gifts weren’t about wanting to adorn her with the finer things in life so much as keeping her from getting suspicious about where their relationship might be headed. So long as a girl understood that she wasn’t going to be getting a key to his place or an invite to meet his family anytime soon, she was kept in rotation. But as soon as she started making demands on his time or acting like a jealous girlfriend, she was history. Caroline had made the fatal mistake of doing both things on the same day.
First she got upset when he failed to mention he was going home to Sweden for Thanksgiving. His family didn’t celebrate it since they were Swedish, but since the office would be closed for three days (Eric allotted travel time into the equation, since most of us weren’t from California), he figured he might as well head across the pond and visit the motherland. Caroline’s presence was completely unnecessary. She threw a bit of a tantrum over it. Mistake number one.
Mistake number two came when Eric greeted another one of his ‘girlfriends’ with a kiss that was definitely more than a peck. He did so right in front of Caroline, whose eyes were bugging out of her head. Honestly, I didn’t know what she expected. She stomped off to the ladies room to have a good cry and curse Eric out for a while before getting her shit together. There was a part of me that felt bad for her. She obviously had feelings for Eric and he saw her as nothing more than a fuck buddy. Even friends with benefits would be too serious a term to describe their relationship.
I went back to my desk and tried to look busy when Eric escorted Caroline from his office to the conference room. He cleared his throat to get my attention. I knew how this worked. This wouldn’t be the first “break up” of his that I’d be forced to listen to. I tapped my watch and smirked. If this one went the same as all the others, I would only have to put up with Caroline for another seven minutes before she stormed out of the office cursing the day Eric Northman was born.
Turns out Caroline was an advanced study and it only took five and three quarters. Eric leveled her with the same speech he gave every other girl who couldn’t tow the line. As expected, Caroline didn’t take it well. When she realized that pleading, whining and crocodile tears weren’t going to get him back, she started with the insults. It was laughable and highly unoriginal. No wonder Eric was bored with her.
When she stomped out of the conference room she glared right at me like I had put him up to breaking up with her. “I don’t know how you can work for such a heartless asswagon!” She screeched at me but I just shrugged. I’d never been on the receiving end of one of his talks, but then, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to have sex with Eric either. “I hope he gets dick cancer!” Caroline shouted as she blew through the frosted glass doors of the office.
Eric emerged from the conference room, mopping up the remnants of Caroline’s coffee that she’d thrown at him. I tell you, he’s ruined more good suits that way… “Dick cancer, huh?” He asked with a smirk as he stopped at my desk.
“You know, if you would stop politely inferring that they’re all whores, they might not throw their drinks at you before they go.” I suggested to him.
“But they are.” He loosened his tie and slipped off the suit jacket.
The sad part was, he wasn’t entirely wrong. No, he didn’t pay them to sleep with him, at least not with cash. But the gifts he bestowed them and the promise of fame and fortune to a young girl was reason enough to put up with his misogynistic bullshit. Caroline’s biggest flaw was that she had let the gifts go to her head. Eric’s plan had worked only too well. I wasn’t sorry to see her go.
Once his tie was hanging off the coat hook on my cubical wall, he began to unbutton his shirt. I would be making a trip to the cleaners on his behalf before heading home for the night. I tried to ignore it when Eric slipped off his shirt, leaving him standing before me all bronzed and gorgeous in a pair of perfectly tailored dress pants and a wifebeater that left little to the imagination. It didn’t help that I knew all too well what was underneath those clothes. I’d seen Eric naked more than once and it was a sight to behold. It was also permanently burned in my brain.
Eric claimed that his Scandinavian upbringing prevented him from being on a first name basis with modesty where clothes were concerned. When I asked what his excuse was for his lack of modesty in other areas, he merely shrugged and asked, “Why should I bother? It would be false modesty. I would rather be honest and arrogant than fake and humble.”
From that point on, Eric had my respect. While the flirting that bordered on sexual harassment got to me sometimes (mostly when I was seriously considering using him as my own personal scratching post), I appreciated his honesty. I never had to question where I stood with Eric. He only had too little trouble telling me how he felt. With honesty like that came intimacy that he didn’t share with many other people. I suspected Pam and I were the only ones to know him in a real way. A great deal of what people knew of Eric Northman was manufactured to further his image or reputation.
In addition to being a very good business man, he was also a P.R. Wizard, and knew precisely how to market himself. He could easily tap dance his way out of any sticky situation and leave his accuser wondering if they were the ones at fault when there was no way a jury of Eric’s peers wouldn’t convict him. He was just that smooth. Eric was living proof that a person could go far on charm and a dazzling smile.
“Oh, I almost forgot! Ocella called this morning. He wants to move Alexei’s shoot.” I handed over the email that had come in before Eric had casually strolled in just before ten.
“Motherfucker.” Eric muttered under his breath. “This is ridiculous. Every time I secure a location for this asshole he changes his mind.”
“I told you to let Pam take him.” I rolled my eyes.
Eric glared at me. “You can stop gloating anytime now, Sookie.”
“As soon as you learn to listen to me, I’ll be happy to.” I smirked at him. “I already called Victor.”
Eric grinned broadly and said, “Remind me to give you a raise.”
The fact that he didn’t leer at me was a shocker. I nearly replied with innuendo but decided that was a bad idea. If I hopped on that train we’d be in deep shit and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. I really shouldn’t find flirting with my boss to be so amusing, or tempting.
“You already did. And you’re giving me next Friday off.” I informed him.
“Next Friday? What’s next Friday?” Eric tapped his chin. He knew damn well what next Friday was.
“The day I turn twenty-nine.” I kept my eyes on my computer while Eric roared with laughter next to me.
He leaned down so his lips were dangerously close to my ear. “I call bullshit, sweetheart.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “Fine, so I’m turning twenty-nine again.”
“Pity you won’t be here. I had all sorts of plans for the day.” He straightened up and walked over to the closet where I put the dry cleaning that had just come back. He selected a crisp blue shirt that was nearly the same color as his eyes. Why he even bothered with a shirt at all was beyond me. He probably wonders the same thing about you, dum dum, I berated myself.
“Darn.” I snapped my fingers in faux disappointment.”
“Have any special plans for your twenty-nineth birthday redux?”
“I plan on spending it at the beach. I am in need of actual sun and not the bottled kind.” I looked at my fake tan and sighed. I spent too much time couped up in Eric’s office to get outside as much as I wanted to.
“I’ve told you you could work from home more often.” Eric reminded me.
“Right.” I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I’ll work from home and just keep you on speakerphone all day long so the second you can’t find your stapler or figure out how to reset the copy machine, I can talk you through it. No thanks.”
“I’m not that helpless. I did manage to get along just fine without you.” He liked to toss that in from time to time but we both knew that was bullshit, too.
I laughed and said, “Now it’s my turn to call bullshit! Before me you had Pam. Just what would you do with yourself if I up and left you one day, Northman? You’d be a wreck.”
Eric’s spine stiffened and his shoulders pulled back a little. He managed to look a few inches taller than usual, which was impressive considering his already towering six-four frame. A sadness glimmered in his eyes for a second before he snapped back to reality. The light and breezy tone of our conversation had changed. A dark cloud had settled over us.
“Eric, I’m not going anywhere.” I said to save him the embarrassment of having to ask me, though it was nice to know he cared.
In the five years I had worked for him, I was the only girl he’d been faithful to. By that, I mean I was the only one he let into his life in a real way and didn’t get sick of having me there. In fact, I think it bothered him immensely that I didn’t seem to have much interest in insinuating myself further in it. I knew all sorts of things about him that most people wouldn’t know. I knew that he liked cinnamon in his coffee. I knew that the small scar on his right side was due to a run-in with a broken TV antenna when he was a small child. I knew he hated pickles and alfalfa sprouts. I knew his first pet was a gray rabbit he named Loki because the darn thing was always causing trouble. I knew he learned to ballroom dance after losing a bet with Pam. I’d been lucky enough to reap the benefits of those lessons a time or two, and he was quite good. I knew he spoke Swedish when he was annoyed, or when he wanted to remain anonymous and didn’t feel like talking. Above all, I knew Eric’s biggest fear in life was failing, and I was sworn to secrecy that that never get out. I couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t as though that was an uncommon fear for a person to have, but we were in a business that was all about confidence.
In turn, Eric knew quite a few things about me that I wouldn’t share with just anyone. He knew about how I’d broken my college roommate’s boyfriend’s nose for trying to kiss me. He knew my biggest pet peeve was animals dressed in human clothes. And because he can be a jack ass, the minute he found that out he went on-line and ordered me a stuffed chihuahua and had it dressed in a little pink dress. Jerk. He knew I was allergic to mushrooms. He knew I hated roses and always laughed on the rare occasions they were delivered to me. I didn’t date a whole lot so it wasn’t a regular thing, but he would always laugh and shake his head at the sight of the blooms on the table in the reception area of the office. He also knew the right ratio of tea to lemonade to make me purr like a kitten laying in the sun.
We’d perfected a routine over the last five years and honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start over with someone else. I liked Eric. Hell, I loved Eric. He was charming, smart, generous, funny and generally fun to be around. I saw Eric in a way that very few people ever got the chance to. If I didn’t like my job so much, I might be willing to cave to his pressure on me to give him a chance. The problem was, I wasn’t convinced he wanted anything more than a night of really hot sex. While I could certainly use such a night, and a part of me said I was crazy for not just going for it, I didn’t want to risk my job.
I didn’t quite know how to define my relationship with Eric, but I think my friend Tara hit it right on the head when she called him my ‘work husband’. When things went wrong around the office, I knew exactly who to call. I knew how to handle the little problems that popped up and I knew the best way to approach Eric when bad news was looming. Handling him was second nature to me. We’d clicked from the start. The biggest problem in our relationship was that we both wanted to fuck each other but I was too stubborn to let it happen.
“Too bad you won’t be here. I was looking forward to giving you your birthday spanking.” Eric’s eyebrows danced.
“You didn’t get to last year, either.” I reminded him. “Or the year before that. Or any of the other years I’ve worked here.”
“And don’t think I’m not keeping track of what I owe you.”
“Well, if you’re as smart as you think you are, you won’t hold your breath waiting for me to cash in.”
“One of these days you’ll yield to me, Sookie.” Eric smiled at me like he knew something I didn’t.
I just shook my head and went back to work, but damn if I wasn’t thinking about doing just what he suggested.
I woke up on my thirtieth birthday to the sound of someone knocking on my apartment door. I pulled on my robe and went to see who was bothering me so early in the morning. Actually, it wasn’t really all that early. It was after ten but I had planned to spend as much time in bed as I wanted before hauling my bones down to the beach. I didn’t usually get the chance to sleep much past seven. Working for Eric was like being on-call and he didn’t hesitate to take advantage of it. In fact, it was because of my job that I didn’t really put much stock into relationships.
The last relationship I’d had was with a computer programmer named Bill who couldn’t accept the terms of my employment. I had been clear with him from the start about my job and my responsibilities. Bill had said he was fine with it but it became pretty obvious to me he wasn’t so okay with it. I ended up breaking things off with him when he demanded that I choose between him and my job. We’d only been dating for two months. It wasn’t really much of a choice and I sent Bill packing.
A small man who was a mix of so many races I couldn’t tell which ethnicity was the most prominent was standing at my door holding an arrangement of flowers that looked like it weighed more than he did. His accent wasn’t easily placed either when he asked if I was Sookie Stackhouse.
“Yep, that’s me.” I gave a small smile.
He somehow managed to thrust a clipboard at me so I could sign for the delivery. “Where you do want them?”
“Oh, I’ll take them.” I offered.
“Is heavy.” He laughed nervously.
I looked behind me and pointed to the ‘dining room’. The little man waddled his way past my large sectional sofa and gingerly set down the large vase full of flowers. When I went to offer him a tip he wouldn’t take it.
“Taken care of.” He gave me a big, toothy grin. “Have lovely day.”
“Likewise.” I escorted him to the door and bolted it behind him.
I had a pretty good idea who the flowers were from. There was only one person I knew who would send me an arrangement that ridiculously large. If I didn’t do his shopping for him, Eric had a tendency to go over-the-top. Why I didn’t think to send myself an arrangement on his behalf was beyond me. Still, I drifted over to the table to see if there was a card somewhere in the small jungle’s worth of flowers that had taken up residence on my glass table. I found a card nestled in between a fragrant orchid and a cluster of stargazer lillies. It was a beautiful bouquet of flowers, no doubt about it. Eric had done well, even if it was a bit overwhelming. And there wasn’t a single rose in the bunch.
I trust that you’re having a lovely day so far. You should know that I’ve only had one fight with the copy machine so far. I would very much like it if you would allow me to take you to dinner later. If this is acceptable, be ready at 8.
Dinner. With Eric. On my birthday. Huh.
I had to think about that for a moment. Was it a date he was asking me on or was he just trying to be nice because it was a special occasion? It’s not like Eric and I had never gone to dinner before. We’d eaten together many times. Usually it was takeout in the conference room while we were going over contracts and things, but there were plenty of instances where we’d gone out to dinner as well. I decided it didn’t have to be a big deal. It was just dinner.
But since it was dinner with Eric, I couldn’t just throw on a pair of jeans and expect to take a walk to a nearby hole-in-the-wall type place. No, Eric would have made reservations. I made a note to make sure I was back at my apartment no later than five to give myself ample time to get ready. Eric was a stickler for punctuality which was a bit hypocritical considering how late he often was. I made myself an egg white omlette and some turkey bacon (I really hated the LA diet but eating like I was back home wouldn’t do me much good in a city where beautiful women were everywhere I looked) before throwing myself in the shower.
When I got out I called Tara to see if she was ready to hit the beach with me. “Have you looked outside in the last ten minutes?”
“Just take a look and then you tell me.” Tara’s tone didn’t inspire hope in me.
I walked over to my bedroom window and pulled back my curtains. Well fuck me twice on Sunday. “Rain? Seriously?” I flopped down on my bed.
“I know, doll, I was looking forward to the beach today, too.” Tara was pouting along with me, though I don’t know why. Ever since she took up with a personal trainer to the stars by the name of JB, she had become somewhat of a lady of leisure. She was designing jewelry in her spare time, which had become abundant. “We could still do lunch. We haven’t been to Geisha House in a while.”
“I just ate breakfast.” I sighed and rolled onto my side.
“We could shop?”
I really didn’t want to spend the day in a mall but then I remembered my dinner plans with Eric. I didn’t need a new dress but Eric had seen just about everything in my closet. It would be nice to wear something new. I agreed to Tara’s plan and told her I’d meet up with her at Fred Segal’s in two hours. I was hoping that would be enough time for the cloudy skies to pass so we could still change plans and head to the beach.
Turns out that was a wasted hope.
Tara and I ended up meeting for lunch and then cruising Fred Segal’s for as long as we could drag it out. I found a pretty white dress with yellow flowers on it. It accentuated what was left of my tan and the yellow of the dress coordinated nicely with my hair. I got home just before five but had plenty of time to get ready for dinner. My brother left me a message on my machine at home, claiming he lost my cell phone number when one of his buddies dropped his last phone in a pitcher of beer. And people wonder why I was aching to get out of Bon Temps?
Jason was the only family I had left anymore. Our parents had died when we were young. We’d been raised by our Gran as a result with a little help from our Aunt Linda, our father’s sister. Aunt Linda died of cancer shortly after her daughter, our cousin Hadley, graduated from high school. Hadley was three years older than Jason, which made her six years older than me. The year after Aunt Linda died, Hadley got hooked up with the wrong crowd and disappeared from Bon Temps. She came back just one time to beg Gran for money so she could get cleaned up. We never saw her again after that, and we presumed she had died of an overdose, though I don’t think I’ll ever find out for sure.
Gran died when I was in college. She’d had a massive heart attack in her sleep. I’d gone in to wake her in the morning but she was already gone. That left just Jason and me and we’d never been all that close. For some siblings, losing your parents so young bonds you closer together. Knowing that you’re all the family you have in the world brings out that primal connection a person has to blood of their own. That didn’t happen for Jason and me. We were just too different. Jason would always be a good ole boy. He was always ready to knock back a few at Merlotte’s, chase some skirts and recount his glory days as the star football player for the Bon Temps Rebels.
Me? I had much bigger plans and they started with getting the hell out of Bon Temps. I sort of felt a little bit like Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama, now that I think about it. I don’t know that I necessarily felt ashamed of where I came from, so much as I wanted more than the flat bed of a pickup truck on a Saturday night could provide me. I wanted to see what else was out in the rest of the world. I didn’t want to marry Alcide Herveaux just because he was the first boy I ever kissed and my Gran said we’d make pretty babies together. That wasn’t enough for me.
I decided not to call Jason back because all he would do is nag me about when I was going to come home and get settled already. It was perfectly acceptable for him to run around and do as he pleased but he had some crazy notion in his head that I should be married, barefoot and pregnant already. Somehow my brother had gotten himself stuck in a 1950s mindset when it came to women. Odd, considering the last thing he wanted was for a single one he was interested in to turn him down. He was a conundrum of a man.
I waited until six to get back in the shower so I could do my hair. I hadn’t done anything fancy with it earlier since I’d been planning for a day in the sun. When I got out of the shower I lotioned up and went about drying my hair. I figured I’d pin half of it up so it was away from my face and I wouldn’t be fiddling with it every couple of minutes. The rest I’d leave hanging down my back in waves. I got my curling iron out and set it to warm up while I took my blow drier to my hair. My iPod played just loud enough for me to hear it all the way in my bathroom. I hummed along with Ryan Adams while I skillfully applied my makeup. I didn’t wear much but I maximized what I did. I’d wait until after I brushed my teeth to slick on my lipstain.
I pinned up my hair and then went about curling it. By the time I was ready to go it was a few minutes until eight. I found a pair of sandals in my closet that would go nicely with my dress and slipped them on my feet. I was just transferring the necessary items into a buttery yellow clutch when the bellman ran my apartment to alert me to my guest. My heart unexpectedly leapt into my throat. What was that about? I never got nervous around Eric.
You don’t normally go on dates with Eric, I reminded myself. “This is not a date.” I said out loud.
Then why are you nervous, Stackhouse? You never gave a flying fig what he thought of you before. What’s changed?
I wanted to reach inside my own head and strangle the little voice that seemed content to ruin my night. I shook the voice from my head and gathered up my things. I locked up my apartment behind me and went down the hall to the elevator. When the doors opened in the lobby I was surprised to find Eric standing before me in a pair of designer jeans and a fitted t-shirt that immediately had me wondering if I’d remembered to wear panties. If I had, I was pretty sure they’d run for the hills. My breath caught my in throat and my heart lodged right there with it before plummeting down to my toes and sling shotting into my stomach.
Eric flashed one of his million dollar smiles at me, his bright blue eyes sparkling at me. “I’m glad you decided to come.”
“Who says I’m here to meet you?” I snarked at him.
“You raise an excellent point.” Eric looked slightly wounded for just a second. “I guess I’ll be going, then.” He even turned on his heel as if he planned to go.
“Thank you for the flowers.” I called out to him, stopping him in his tracks. He didn’t turn back to face me. “My entire apartment smells like the botanic gardens.”
“I’m glad you like them.” His back was still to me.
I was stuck in an awkward moment. There was always tension between us but it was usually charged. I wasn’t prepared for awkward. That little voice in my head was screaming, “I told you so!” and I realized I had two choices. I could either run back to the elevator and lock myself in the apartment for the rest of the night and spend the remainder of my birthday alone, or I could swallow whatever pride was gathering in my throat and tell Eric I wanted to have dinner with him.
Thankfully, he swallowed his pride first. “So, are you coming or not?”
I didn’t say anything, I just started walking. When I was standing next to him I looked over and smiled. He returned my smile and then lead me from the building with one of his large hands on the small of my back. We walked to his car where he opened the passenger’s side door for me and then closed it once I was inside. If there was one thing I could appreciate about Eric, it was that he had manners. That counted for a lot with me and I wondered why he wasn’t as polite with everyone else as he was when we were alone. Maybe he thought being too nice would put him at a disadvantage.
He got into the car beside me- a sparkling silver Audi- and headed into traffic. “So where are we going?” I asked.
“I thought something a little more low key was in order, seeing as how this is a special birthday.” Eric smiled over at me. “Not everyone gets to turn twenty-nine twice.”
I laughed and watched all of the lights and people on the street as we drove past them. “How many times have you turned twenty-nine?”
“Just once, but I’ve had five birthdays since.”
So Eric was thirty-four. I didn’t know that. I knew when his birthday was, January 17th, but I didn’t know the year he was born. The tension from the lobby had disappeared the second Eric had extended his offer to me and we rode in comfortable silence. He got on the 101 and headed north. Eric had a led foot but it was hampered by all of the Friday night traffic heading away from Los Angeles. He took the Gower street exit and started into the Hollywood Hills. We had to be going to a house. There were no restaurants out where we were.
A few minutes later he stopped at a gate, entered a security code and then pulled into a driveway. He parked in the driveway and got out of the car to get my door for me. The house was white and had a welcoming glow to it thanks to all of the floor to ceiling windows. Since the house was set back from the street it was fairly secluded. There was thick brush surrounding the perimeter that kept too many prying eyes from getting a look at what was going on. It smelled like freesia in his front yard. I was a little surprised when Eric took my hand and pulled me toward the front door.
“Eric, is this your house?” I’d never been to his house before.
“I hope you don’t mind. I just didn’t feel like dealing with people tonight and you know if we go out somewhere…” He trailed off.
I knew all too well what would happen if we went out. Having dinner alone with Eric was next to impossible. Inevitably someone who knew him, or wanted to know him, would pull up a chair at our table or invite themselves to join us at the bar. Or even better, one of his ex-girlfriends would show up to go another round with him. It really was ridiculous and next to impossible for us to hold a conversation about anything other than business.
The main entrance to the house was a set of stainless steel double doors. Eric opened one side and gestured for me to go ahead of him. The entryway had marble floors and walls. The ceiling was glass. There was a small leather bench and bamboo shooting up from a little garden of lava rocks. Paintings were hung on the wall to my right. The archway that lead into the house was divided. On the left was a sliding glass door that lead to the kitchen. On the right was wide open space that turned out to be the living room.
The house was very open and full of clean lines and neutral colors. It was sophisticated and comfortable, much like Eric himself. He showed me around the house, giving me the room by room tour. It had five bedrooms and three baths. The kitchen was enormous and I couldn’t imagine Eric cooking anything bigger than toast or a frozen pizza in it. He paused at a panel in the kitchen that he explained was a remote that controlled just about everything in his house. He pushed a few buttons and music started playing.
“Speakers are wired all over.” He pointed up to the corner. If he hadn’t pointed the speaker out to me, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.
“Fancy.” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Come on, let me show you the outside.” Eric’s hand found its way to the small of my back again and he lead me out through one of the many sliding doors out onto a large patio that, along with an in-ground pool, took up whatever space might have been his backyard. The view was amazing. I could clearly see the lights of the city from where I was standing and I stopped to take it all in. If this was what he came home to each night, I couldn’t fathom why he was so reluctant to get back to it.
“Eric, it’s beautiful.” I breathed, reaching for his arm when he started to walk away from me.
He shrugged beside, jaded by what he was seeing. “You get used to it.”
I snorted and looked up at his handsome face. “Well since it’s my first time do you mind if I just bask for a minute?”
“Not at all.”
Eric dutifully stood beside me, watching me watch the lights below us. After I’d had my fill of the view, he took me over to the outdoor kitchen portion of the patio. There was a large grill, a small refrigerator, a wet bar, a sink and a two burner cook top. He reached into the fridge and pulled out a slew of ingredients.
“You like swordfish, right? I couldn’t remember if it was swordfish or salmon.”
“Both.” I liked seafood, which was a good thing considering the city I was living in. I was a big fan of sushi, too.
“Good.” Eric nodded and began to unwrap a white paper bundle.
Inside were two rather large swordfish fillets. I watched, completely blown away, as he rubbed them down with a little bit of oil and a couple of different seasonings. He explained what he was doing as he did it and I found myself completely perplexed that he knew how to cook. How had I not known that tidbit of information? Once he had the fish on the grill he started preparing what he said would be ginger rice and a citrus glaze for the fish. I tried to help him but he insisted my only job was to make sure our wine glasses stayed full.
I would never accuse Eric of being lazy but something about seeing him working in a kitchen- even an outdoor one- had me seeing him differently. Of all the sides I’d seen to him in the five years we’d known one another, the domestic one was one I didn’t think existed. It was unexpected that I felt so at ease in his house. Almost like I felt as if I belonged there. We talked while he cooked and he told me that he’d learned while dating a chef more than a decade ago. He’d first moved to LA at that point and he was just starting out as a male model.
That’s right, my boss is a former male model. Underwear, to be exact. Marky Mark eat your heart out. But Eric quickly realized he would rather put someone else in the spotlight. He liked the idea of being the puppeteer instead of the puppet. Truthfully, Eric really did suck at taking orders, so starting his own agency was probably the smartest thing he ever could have done. Not to mention, if he hadn’t, we never would have met.
He left me on the patio to go inside for plates and silverware. I walked around to the other side of the pool to look out at the view some more. I sipped my wine and reminded myself to take it easy or I would end up with one hell of a headache in the morning. Wine and I didn’t generally get along too well with one another. I got so caught up in my thoughts that I didn’t hear Eric’s return to the patio until he called out to announce that dinner was ready.
I turned toward the table to see that he’d not only plated up our dinner but that he’d also started a fire in the giant fire pit not too far away. I patted myself on the back for wearing a light dress that wouldn’t have me all sweaty in a matter of minutes, thanks to the added heat from the fire. Eric pulled out a chair for me and I took my seat. Dinner looked delicious and I wondered when he’d put asparagus on the grill, too. How had I missed that? Was I really that distracted?
“Are you okay, Sookie? You seem a bit off.” Eric said once we were sitting down. Apparently, I was that distracted.
“Would you say that we’re friends, Eric?” It was obvious my question had caught him off guard. He considered his answer for a moment before giving it.
“Honestly, I don’t know if a word has been invented yet to describe what we are.” I nodded, knowing how he felt. “But I think friendship is definitely a component of that.” He eyed me curiously, trying to figure out where I was going with my question.
“I only bring it up because…” I trailed off, feeling a big blush rising from my chest to my cheeks. I hoped he would just assume it was because of the fire. “Well, when I saw your invitation on the card this morning I just assumed we’d be going out somewhere. It’s not that I don’t like it here because I do. You have a beautiful house. It’s just…well, it’s really personal. We don’t usually share personal things on purpose, they just sort of slip out.”
Eric looked confused and I couldn’t blame him. I was doing a horrible job of explaining what was going on in my head. I was dancing around the real issue. Somehow, some way, my feelings toward Eric had shifted. Or maybe they’d always been something more than I was willing to admit. When the shift happened didn’t really matter. The problem was, I didn’t think Eric’s feelings for me went beyond a wild curiosity as to what it would be like for us to finally sleep together and I still wasn’t okay with that.
“You realize that’s your own fault, right?” Eric looked at me with total sincerity in his eyes.
“Sookie, I think I’ve been pretty clear about how I feel about you since before I even hired you.” Eric leaned back in his chair, his long legs stretching out under the table.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You want to have sex with me. I got the memo. In fact, I think you might have even framed it and hung it in my cube.” I rolled my eyes at him.
Eric set down his fork and pushed back from the table. He stood and strode over to my chair. He pulled my seat back and turned it before crouching down in front of me. “Did you never stop to wonder why, for the last five years, I haven’t had a steady girlfriend?”
Now it was my turn to look surprised and confused. “Because you’re busy.”
Eric exhaled through his nose and shook his head at me. “That’s very true. I am busy, but that’s not the reason.”
His eyes searched mine, doing their best to communicate something to me that my brain just wasn’t willing to receive. If he had something to tell me he was going to have to man up and use his words because looking in his eyes was too intense at the moment. My brain wouldn’t let me stay there for too long.
“Eric, if there’s something you’re trying to say-”
Apparently his mouth wouldn’t let him say the words anymore than my brain wanted to hear them. The next thing I knew his lips were crashing down on mine and it felt like everything else in the world just completely disappeared. He tasted like the citrus glaze he’d made for the fish. His lips were soft but clearly in control of the kiss that was currently curling my toes, weakening my knees and making my heart flutter around my chest. I felt a moment of panic when I realized it didn’t feel wrong to be kissing Eric. It felt all sorts of right and that was a damn scary concept.
His tongue traced my bottom lip, wanting entrance to my mouth. I wanted to give it to him but I was afraid to do it. I knew a kiss would just be the tip of the iceberg. A kiss I could chock up to turning twenty-nine again and maybe a slight buzz from the wine. But if anything more than that happened, it was because I wanted it. The problem was, I wanted it. I’d been wanting it for five years. As much as it pained me to do, I pushed back at Eric’s shoulders gently and removed my mouth from his.
“Eric, we can’t. I can’t be just another girl to you.” I looked away from him because looking at him would probably turn me to stone or make me disappear altogether.
His large hands reached up and turned my face back to his. “I want you to listen to me, Sookie. If you never believe another word I say, believe this. You will never, I repeat never, be just another girl to me. And whatever happens between you and me, it will mean something. I care too much about you to just throw you away. You got me?”
I nodded, taking his words to heart. Okay, so if we slept together, it would mean something to him. Good to know. But what about after that? I would freely admit that I wasn’t the most experienced girl when it came to relationships, and even less so when it came to sexual ones. But I knew myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t be able to look at him the same way after it happened. I would want something more.
“Can we just finish dinner now?” I looked at him through my lashes, unable to completely raise my eyes to his.
“Of course.” He stood up and put my chair back where it belonged. He returned to his seat across from me and went back to his meal as if we hadn’t just kissed and he hadn’t just declared that I meant something to him.
After a few minutes of silence I asked, “Eric, why haven’t you had a girlfriend in the last five years?” I was pretty sure I knew the answer but I needed to hear him say it.
He finished chewing his mouthful of ginger rice and chased it with a large sip of his wine. His eyes locked on mine and he leaned forward, making sure he had my attention. As if I could look anywhere else just then? He cleared his throat as if to free himself to be able to say the words that were stuck there.
His eyes left mine with a hint of sadness to them. “Because for the first time in my life, the girl I want doesn’t want me.”