It was nothing I ever planned for. I took my class on the usual spring field trip to the courthouse as part of studying the judicial branch of the government. It was something they had done every single year before I was even hired. When the class voted on where to go for lunch, I was surprised that the usual fast food joints weren’t suggested. Instead, almost every single kid wanted to go to a little bakery that had opened downtown, just a few blocks from our destination.
I did an internet search in my downtime for “Sookie’s Sweet Dough”. There was a menu listing just about anything someone could want and a picture of the little brick building. I called the number listed for a contact.
“Sookie’s Sweet Dough, this is Amelia. How can I help you?” answered the perky voice that picked up the phone.
“Uh, hi. My name is Eric Northman. Is there any way I can speak to a manager?” I wasn’t sure how to do this, but I figured I would go about it the same way as I had in Texas when the kids wanted to go by McDonald’s or something.
“I’m a manager, Mr. Northman. Is there a problem?”
I breathed out a small laugh. “No, nothing at all like that. I’m a teacher at Bon Temps High and my government class will be taking a field trip downtown in two weeks to the courthouse. My students voted a preference for lunch at your restaurant and I was calling to see if there could be accommodations for about twenty high school students on Thursday the nineteenth?”
I could hear the smile in her voice as she responded. “Well, lunches are our busiest time, just like any other restaurant around here. Let me talk with my co-owner and see what we can do for you. Is there a number where I can reach you or leave a message?” I gave her my cell phone number and thanked her for her time.
I was still getting used to the area. I moved to Louisiana from Corpus Christi to help care for my godfather Godric when his cancer became too advanced for him to care for himself. Outside of the hospitals and doctor’s offices in Shreveport, I didn’t know the area well because there just hadn’t been free time to explore.
When Godric passed the following spring, I discovered that I wasn’t anxious to get back to Texas. He left me his home and the rest of his estate as he had been a childless bachelor for as long as I had known him. I was a history and civics teacher in Corpus and realized I was anxious to get back to teaching. I prepared my resume and sent it out to every parish and private school in commuting distance. The only school that responded was in Bon Temps, a small town about half an hour outside of Shreveport. Their government teacher was retiring and they needed a permanent replacement. I went to the interview and was surprised by the size of the school. I was used to big cities and mammoth schools that required GPS to navigate. The single two story structure that held not only the administrative offices but all the classrooms as well would have only held half the freshman class of my old school.
We went over the curriculum and what classes I would be covering. The pay was understandably smaller than I would have been offered in Texas, or even Shreveport, but I no longer had to pay rent thanks to my generous late godfather. I could accept the job, pay my utilities, and have disposable income left over. Once the position was offered, I accepted immediately.
I loved teaching. Seeing young minds open to the possibilities that were available to them with an education was always satisfying. I always made myself available to the kids and assisted them in any way possible to get them to where they wanted to be. It was no surprise that I was one of the favorite teachers in the school after only a semester, especially considering the dour frowns and disapproving scowls the elderly teachers gave the students looking to leave Bon Temps for greener pastures.
I was surprised that evening by having my call from the bakery returned. “Mr. Northman, this is Amelia Carmichael from Sookie’s Sweet Dough. We spoke earlier today?”
“Yes, thank you for returning my call, Ms. Carmichael.”
“I spoke with Sookie and we decided to close the restaurant on that Thursday for your class’ visit downtown. Field trips for the students are few and far between for this area and they shouldn’t have to compete with the lawyers and administrative assistants that come in every day. Also, as a treat, print out copies of the menus for your class so we can have your orders ready when you get here. Sookie wants to make this on the house, so don’t even worry about the cost of what your kids want.”
I was speechless. I had hoped to maybe negotiate a group discount and get everything to go for a picnic in the park. Having the owner offer to close the restaurant for my class as well as comp our food was beyond generous. I stuttered with gratitude.
The perky voice laughed. “Mr. Northman, both Sookie and I grew up here and went to Bon Temps High. We know that the majority of the students or their parents are not likely to have extra money for field trip lunches, especially downtown. She likes doing things for kids that weren’t offered to her as a student. Don’t worry about thanking us; just keep it in mind for the future.”
I did as she suggested and handed out copies of the menus to the kids during the next class. I explained that the owner would be covering the costs, so to order whatever they wanted. Nothing on the menu was extravagant or expensive, so I didn’t have to worry about anyone going overboard. I was still stunned by the goodness some people had in their hearts.
The day of the field trip we took our guided tours of the different courtrooms, the holding cells for the prisoners in the tiny jail, and had a Q&A session with one of the judges. Once the educational part of the trip was done, we traveled the short two blocks away to the tiny brick building that was pictured on the website.
The students filed in and started taking seats at the little round tables scattered throughout the dining room. One of the guys on the baseball team called me over to sit at the table with him and some of his teammates to discuss the season about to end. I pulled the list of orders out of my pocket and headed to the counter. A tall brunette was lounging against the counter and looking over everything calmly. I smiled in her direction until my vision tunneled. Coming out of the swinging doors to what I assumed was the kitchen was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.
Her blond hair was twisted in a messy bun on top of her head with little tendrils flying away around her face, framing it. Her dark blue eyes reminded me of the ocean after a storm. It didn’t escape my notice that when she saw me, her eyes immediately went down and the crests of her cheeks turned bright pink under the smudges of white that decorated her face and apron.
“I’m Eric,” I introduced myself to her and slid the sheet of orders across to her. I noticed the brunette looking me over, but I didn’t want to look away from the blond.
“I’m Sookie,” she responded, just slightly louder than a whisper. She looked up quickly before flicking her eyes back down again. Her cheeks were still bright pink and her lips tilted up in a small smile. “Let me head back to the kitchen and I’ll get you guys taken care of.” She took the list of orders and slipped back through the swinging doors.
I watched until she disappeared and headed to take a seat with the baseball players. Before I could sit though, the brunette tugged me off to the side and handed me a card with a number hastily scribbled on the back. “She’s shy, so she’ll never do this. Come in whenever you can and let her get to know you. It’ll be worth it,” she told me, telling me that it wasn’t her own information that she was passing on. I looked down at the information and smiled, wondering if my sudden attraction to the tiny blond had been as obvious to my students.
A few minutes later, she returned to the dining room balancing a huge tray filled with baskets on each shoulder. After asking the brunette to grab the other two from the kitchen, she balanced her two on the lone empty table. She called out each order to pair it with the correct student. When she delivered my turkey club on honey wheat, she gave me another blushing shy smile and asked if my iced tea needed a refill.
After the baskets were all handed out, she seemingly danced around the tables, she was so graceful. She made sure that no one ever needed to ask for anything, anticipating needs before they were vocalized. I could see that the brunette was not exaggerating Sookie’s shyness. She rarely made eye contact without blushing and always spoke very softly when she spoke at all.
Once the meals were finished, I jumped up to help collect the empty baskets from the tables. Reaching for one at the same time, my hand grazed hers and she jumped. “I wanted to thank you for the way you helped out with our field trip today. Not many businesses would have been so kind as to give my students free lunches as well as the entire restaurant to themselves.”
“Really, it was nothing,” she said softly. “I remember very well what it was like growing up and not having extra for special occasions. It was my pleasure to treat them for a day.”
I gave her one last smile before she carried the trays back into the kitchen and the brunette approached again. “By the way, I’m Amelia that spoke to you and helped set everything up a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been watching you and I want to say this while I can. If you intend on pursuing anything with her, be sure you have the patience to wait her out. It may not seem like it, but she’s made it a point to interact more with you than she has with almost anyone besides me in the past three years. Believe me when I tell you that that is impressive.”
Not knowing what else to say, I thanked her for the hospitality and the way my class was treated before I made my way back to the school bus with my students. But the tiny blond stayed locked in my brain for the rest of the day.
When I got home that night, I ran another search, only this time for Sookie Stackhouse. Most of what came up were recent articles dealing with the opening of her business and the following success. A partial match for her name came up further down the list. A short story about a Sookie Compton being questioned and released after the disappearance of her husband Bill. The article was dated a little more than three years earlier. There was no picture to go along with the story, so I had no idea if they were the same woman.
Over the weekend, I made it a point to go in to the bakery on my own, at a time when things would be slow. A bell over the door jingled as I pushed open the door and an unseen voice called out, “I’ll be there in just a second!”
I sat at the counter and watched the doors to the kitchen. When they swung open, the blonde I was hoping for popped out and jumped a little when she saw me. “Eric, right?” she asked.
“Mmmhmm. How’s business today, Sookie?” I asked, trying to seem as unintimidating as possible; not an easy feat for a guy my size.
“Weekends are slow around here since the businesses are closed. I only open since I’m usually here playing in the kitchen anyway. What can I get you?”
I didn’t even look at the menu. “You’re playing in the kitchen? Do you have anything that needs a taste tester?”
The adorable pink blush crept up her neck to her cheeks. “I’m just trying out some different combinations for muffins that may or may not work. It’s more for my own curiosity. But a second opinion is always appreciated. Amelia stopped volunteering when she wasn’t able to fit into her old prom dress anymore.” She giggled a little and the blush seemed to fade.
“I’d be happy to volunteer my services as taste tester. I won’t bother you; I’ll just sit over here and grade essays while you cook.” I pulled out a stack of blue composition books as proof. “It was a little too quiet at my house to concentrate and I’d end up reading the same paragraph over and over.”
The smile widened as the blush faded further. “I hate when that happens! If I didn’t have a radio in the back, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
“So what do you like to listen to?” I asked, settling at one of the tables and grabbing a dreaded red pen.
She shrugged. “Oh, a little of everything, I guess. Amelia calls my iPod a train wreck. She complains that my kitchen is the only place where you can hear Beethoven after Guns N Roses or Tim McGraw and before ABBA or Enigma.”
My mind reeled a little at the spectrum of genres that covered. “So I guess you like a little of everything, huh?”
“I try to give everything a chance. Just because I haven’t heard of it before doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.” Her smile faded just a little before adding, “I was kind of sheltered for a while and didn’t really get to explore my own tastes. Now that I can, I try to keep an open mind.”
“Well, if you don’t mind, I’d love a sweet iced tea to sip on while I grade,” I mentioned and she jumped to fill the order. I chuckled. “Sookie, there’s no rush. Just whenever you get the chance.”
The blush returned full force. “Sorry. I guess I’m just used to jumping to complete any request. Good customer service and all that. Let me get your tea and I’ll leave you to grade those papers.”
She silently dropped off the glass already glistening with condensation before heading into the kitchen. She stuck her head back out. “I won’t be able to hear you back here, so if you need something, just come back and let me know.”
I put on the glasses that I hated but were necessary and opened the first composition book, pen in hand. It took a little patience to get through the muddled thoughts of high school seniors and their views on the evolution of the American justice system. I was lost in my own little world when a soft touch on my shoulder made me jump.
“I’m sorry for interrupting, but I thought you might want to try the first batch of today’s experiments.” She had a plate with four different muffins, sliced in half and still steaming from the oven. She placed a smaller plate in front of me and sat to join me with her own plate.
“Are you going to tell me what I’m tasting, or is that part of the surprise?”
She thought for a moment. “Any food allergies?” she asked.
“None,” I assured her.
“Then I think I’ll let you see if you can figure them out on your own. Just so you know I haven’t tried these either, so it’s an adventure for both of us.”
I took half of each muffin and faked a scared face. “Here’s to the unknown,” I said, making my voice shake and causing her to giggle. We tasted each one together and shared our responses after we were done.
“I liked the chai tea one and the ginger peach. Not as impressed as I thought I’d be with the chocolate-orange or the lemonade ones,” she commented, pointing each one out as she critiqued.
“Was that orange with the chocolate? I thought it was delicious. The citrus and chocolate worked well together. And how on earth do you make ‘lemonade’ muffins?” I asked before sipping my tea.
“By taking the recipe for apple muffins and replace half the apple with lemon. The lemon is strong enough to overpower the apple taste, while the remaining apple is sweet enough to dampen the tartness of the lemon. Lemonade,” she explained with a grin.
“Well, I thought they were all wonderful,” I complimented, and began to nibble on the leftovers of the samples.
Her brow furrowed. “You’re not just saying that to be nice, are you?” she asked, quiet again.
I smiled at her. “I don’t see any point in offering to be your taste tester if I don’t give you an honest opinion. And I certainly wouldn’t be chowing down on the crumbs if they weren’t as tasty as I said.”
She nodded with another small smile and headed back to the kitchen after getting me a refill on my iced tea. I finished grading essays and started packing up. I went around the counter to call to Sookie, to let her know that I was leaving and to pay for my snack. She jumped at the sound of my voice, but quickly calmed herself. She declined my offer to pay, saying my input on her recipes was all the payment she needed. I brought the plates back to her before leaving with a bag of muffins that she had prepared for me in thanks for my help.
We visited like that for several weeks. I would come in and grade papers while she played in her kitchen, looking up recipes online and having me test them for her. Over time, she became more at ease around me. It seemed she felt comfortable enough with me for me to take the next step and actually ask her out.
While sitting and testing some French toast creation she had invented, I turned to her. “Sookie, I’d like to take you out sometime. You’ve cooked so much for me that I want to return the favor.”
Her jaw dropped and her eyes opened wide. “Oh… I… uh…I don’t know…”
“Sookie, it’s not a big deal. I just want to treat you to a night out where you’re free to enjoy someone else waiting on you for a change.” Her hesitation made me nervous. “If you don’t want to, I understand.”
“NO! Eric, I do. It’s… it’s just been a really long time since I’ve been on a date,” she admitted softly.
Any other woman and I would have seen it as coy fishing for a compliment or attention. After getting to know her, I knew she was anything but coy.
I didn’t know what to do. It had been so long since I’d let my guard down long enough to be around anyone but Amelia for an extended period of time. I hated that I was so walled in, but it was all I knew. I had been so outgoing in high school and when I started working at Merlotte’s after graduation. But after Bill… having my guard up was how I survived and those instincts don’t go away easily.
When I saw Eric come in on the day of his field trip, I was all kinds of flustered. I had never seen someone like him before. His blond hair was the same shade as mine and his eyes were such a pretty shade of blue. And he was so BIG, he filled the doorway of the bakery by himself. When he introduced himself, his voice gave me shivers. I wasn’t blind to Amelia’s scheming expression flickering back and forth between us as she stood on the sidelines.
I didn’t hold out a lot of hope though. There was no way a guy like that was unattached. And even if he were, I was too damaged for someone like him to waste his time on. I had tried a few times after the divorce to go on dates and they were all epic failures. I accepted that I had blown my happily ever after chance when I got involved with Bill and that being alone was all that was left in the cards for me.
I was so surprised when he came in on a Saturday when I was only open by default. I spent my weekends trying out new recipes or trying new combinations of old ones. It was peaceful. I didn’t object to his presence, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me uncomfortable at first, being alone with him.
It seemed as though he knew exactly how to behave around me. He was easy going, complementary, and, most importantly, didn’t intrude on my personal space. He just did his thing with grading his papers and I cooked like a demon, hoping the new recipes were successful. After testing them out, we chatted a bit before he left. I was left wanting more and not really letting myself hope too much for it.
I was pleasantly surprised when it became a weekly thing. He would bring in papers and assignments to grade on Saturday afternoons and taste test my experiments. I was actually pleased the first time he said he didn’t like something that I did. It meant that he was being honest with me. I was able to laugh over my failures and it made me comfortable.
But when he asked me out, I froze. I was happy and comfortable during our Saturday afternoons. Taking it out of the bakery wasn’t something I was quite ready for, and I didn’t know if that was a deal breaker or not. I asked for a moment and retreated into the kitchen and called Amelia.
“Girl, are you crazy calling me? Get back to feeding Tall, Blond and Handsome!” she chastised me without saying hello.
“He asked me out,” I mumbled.
After she squealed and cheered like a teenybopper, she realized that I wasn’t sharing her excitement. “What the hell, Sook! He wants to take you on a date. That’s a good thing.”
“Mia, you know I’m just going to mess it up like every other time before this,” I explained.
“Okay, one – Quinn was a douche that had Mommy issues and wasn’t worth your time to begin with. Two – JB was nice to look at, but didn’t have a single thought in that pretty lump three feet above his shapely ass. Three – I don’t really know what the deal was with Preston, but he just seemed all kinds of twisty and two-faced. Not a single one of them were worth a second of your time.”
“But that’s hind sight, Mia. They all seemed okay at the time. Their faults didn’t come out glaring until the dates.”
“And how much time have you been spending with Eric?”
I thought back and mumbled “Every Saturday for about six weeks.”
“So weekly, for six weeks, you’ve spent at least three hours minimum with the guy. That’s at least eighteen hours and WAY more time then you spent with the other guys combined. What are his faults.”
“He can eat unlimited carbs and not gain an ounce,” I joked. It was the only thing I could think of and she laughed with me.
“Seriously, Sook. Give the guy a chance. I have a good feeling about him and I dare you to find one single other person I have ever said that about.”
I racked my brain and she was right. Her “feelings” about people were freakishly dead on. I agreed to give it a chance and turned off my phone. Stuffing it into the pocket of my apron, I took a deep breath to calm myself and headed back out to the counter.
Eric sat there, looking down as if he were inspecting the grain of the wood. I cleared my throat and he chanced a glance up.
“Eric. I’m sorry for my hesitation. This is something I’m not really accustomed to and I apologize. I tend to retreat into my shell when I’m forced out of my comfort zone,” I tried to explain. He tilted his head at me, seemingly confused. I took another deep breath for courage. “Yes, I’d like to go out with you.”
Seeing his handsome smile was reward enough for accepting his invitation and I felt my cheeks heat with my blush. Years had passed, but after being told so many times that you’re worthless, stupid, and good for only one thing with no one saying otherwise, it becomes hard to believe that anyone else would see value when a man who claimed to love you saw none.
That night, Eric picked me up and took me to a little Italian restaurant in Shreveport. I could feel my palms sweating, but I tried to control my anxiety. As it turned out, we had many things in common. He had the same eclectic taste in movies as I did and preferred reading to television. His music tastes were rooted firmly in rock, but had an open mind to other genres. We had our differences also though. Where I preferred mysteries and historical fiction, he liked biographies and a little bit of sci-fi. We both enjoyed spending time outside, as long as sleeping on the ground wasn’t involved. Before we realized it, our server was asking us to settle up because the restaurant was closing. Three hours had disappeared in a flash.
The drive home was in comfortable silence. I don’t think either of us had realized how similar we were and reflected on that fact while he navigated the tree-lined back roads that led to my old house. He parked the car in my driveway behind my old hatchback and walked me to my front door.
“Eric, thank you so much. It’s been a long time since I‘ve had this much fun,” I said, looking up at him with a smile, glad my all-too-present blush was less visible in the low light.
“It was a pleasure, Sookie. Are we still going to do our Saturday tastings next weekend?” he asked.
“You better be there! I don’t know what to offer as specials for the coming week anymore without your input.”
“Well, far be it for me to leave you without specials. Thank you for such a great evening,” he said softly and leaned in tentatively. I froze, not sure if I was ready for anything physical after so long of nothing but platonic hugs from my girlfriend. But his lips just ghosted over mine softly before he returned to his full height and placed another kiss on top of my head. “Good night, Sookie,” he said before heading to his car.
I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of pressure I felt coming from him, but the insecure part of me wondered how long it could last. I hadn’t had sex with anyone other than the man who became my husband and I could never forget how that turned out. After the months of passionless, violent sex that was forced upon me whether I wanted it or not, I didn’t know if I would be able to open myself up to anyone like that ever again.
The date had gone better than I hoped. I was able to see her shell crack just a little while we got to know each other without the barriers of assignments to be graded or timers going off in her kitchen. I was also able to see the way her body tensed before I kissed her. I don’t think I’d experienced such an innocent kiss since I was ten when I kissed the girl next door and wondered if Sookie was a virgin. It wasn’t unheard of for a girl to remain a virgin past her teens, but it was certainly unusual. I heard the daily gossip in the halls filled with teenagers; in a small town like Bon Temps, there was nothing else for them to do except each other.
But things with Sookie were blossoming. Our similarities, as well as our differences, made her even more attractive and the fact that we killed three hours in the blink of an eye astounded me. I knew there was something more than shyness making her closed off, and she would need to trust me with this before we would be able to determine if there was something worth working for.
We continued our weekend ritual. I would spend the afternoon at the bakery on Saturday discovering just how amazing Sookie was in the kitchen and picking her up that night for a date. We would do simple, sometimes clichéd date activities, like dinner and/or movies. Sometimes there would be a fair nearby that we would wander through. More than once we just walked through the park and enjoyed the late spring, then summer, flowers. Once she let me do more than brush her lips with mine as a good night kiss, I thought my knees would buckle. Her lips were so soft and molded to mine like they were made just for me. I felt her gasp when I brushed her tongue with mine, but after a moment of hesitation, she relaxed into my arms and participated.
I couldn’t help myself feeling more and more for this intriguing girl that captivated me from the moment I saw her, but she still hadn’t trusted me with whatever was holding her back. We had been together for about six months when school went back into session. Before I was willing to get more invested in what could be “The One”, I needed to know what was going on and if there was something to work toward.
I arrived at the bakery early one Saturday afternoon, the jingle of the bells over the door chiming my arrival. I heard more than one voice drifting out from the kitchen; I wasn’t sure if my arrival had been heard.
“Sook, he needs to know. He has a right to after this long,” I heard the voice I had come to recognize as Amelia’s.
I heard a sniffle before Sookie’s shaky voice responded. “What if he hates me? What if he can’t ever look at me the same afterward?”
“Look at me, hon. Has anyone who knew the truth ever treated you differently? Look at me, at Sam, at all of your friends. None of us think less of you. You are a hell of a woman and made it out of a bad situation. Sure, you have a few battle scars, but they just prove how strong you are.”
“I don’t know, Mia. I just don’t know if I can do it.”
“Well, you have to. He needs to know. You know he does.”
Feeling uncomfortable at overhearing what was an obviously private conversation, I edged my way back to the door and pulled it open forcefully, making the bells ring louder. Amelia came out of the kitchen with a forced smile. “Eric, it’s good to see you again. Sookie will be out in just a second. She’s just… uh… tidying up. You guys have a good afternoon.”
She breezed out the door and Sookie came into the dining room. Her eyes were red and puffy and her face was blotchy. “Eric, I’m not really up for the test cooking thing. Do you mind if we skip it today? I think I’m just going to close up for the day.”
“Sure, no problem. Are we still on for tonight?” She never closed on Saturday, even though almost no one ever came in besides me.
“Actually, I’m not feeling well. I think I’m just going to go home and crash, try to get back to feeling a hundred percent.” She was lying. It was clear when she wouldn’t meet my eyes for the first time in months.
“Let me come over and take care of you then. I’m a wiz with a can of chicken noodle.” I wasn’t going to let her do this.
“No, Eric. If I’m contagious, I don’t want to get you sick too. I just need a couple of days to rest so I can be back at work on Monday. Amelia can’t boil water without burning it.” She sniffled and grabbed her purse before flipping the lights off in the kitchen and dining room. I followed her to her car, but she had retreated back into silence. I tried to kiss her before she got in her car, but she turned her cheek to me. “Sick, remember,” she mumbled before getting in her car and driving off. I stood and stared, wondering what the hell just happened.
I was pissed as hell. For half a year, I had seen her and Eric getting closer. We had even double dated a couple of times and it looked like Sookie was starting to come back to her old self. I could see in his eyes, every time he looked at her, Eric was falling for her more and more. They were so in sync with each other.
Which is why I was absolutely appalled that she hadn’t told him what had happened to her. Not that I thought he would ever treat her the same way as Bill had, but after six months, any normal, red blooded guy is going to have some expectations. He needed to know what was in her past if he was going to be part of her future. I decided to do something I had never done before – I was going to interfere in her life for her own damn good.
I knew she would run. I knew her better than I knew myself, which was why I was doing this. She would never forgive herself if she let Eric go. It would be one more thing that I would blame Bill for, but that did no one any good at all.
Before I left them at the bakery, before she bolted, I pleaded with her to tell him. She refused. I watched her lock him out again when she drove away from him. I could see his gears turning as he started to make the decision that she wasn’t worth it. I made it my job to make him see that she was.
I joined him on the sidewalk and unlocked the door to the bakery and motioned him in. He scowled at me, but walked through the door. I grabbed a bottle of wine from the cooler and a couple of glasses. “I would normally offer you something stronger, but this is all we’re licensed to carry.”
He nodded silently and accepted the glass. I sat next to him after pouring my own and turned to face him. “I heard the bells earlier when you came in, even if she didn’t. How much did you hear?”
“Just you telling her that she needed to tell me something and her not wanting to.” It was killing him, not knowing what was going on. It truly wasn’t my story to tell, but he needed to know where to cast his line if he was going fishing.
“Look, I can’t give you details. It really is Sookie’s story to tell. But…” I paused to collect my thoughts, thinking back to that scary morning seeing her in the ICU. “Her life has been far from easy and she’s lucky to be alive right now. Anything else I might want to tell you would be breaking confidence and I won’t do that to my best friend. Just go to her and ask her to tell you about Bill.”
His brow furrowed and he looked up. “Bill Compton?”
My own brows raised. “Yeah. How do you know that name?”
He looked slightly ashamed. “I looked up Sookie after we met. I got a partial match with ‘Sookie Compton’ and a blurb about how she was questioned about the disappearance of her husband before being released. She was married before?”
I hadn’t expected him to have any knowledge of Bill and it was venturing into confidential territory. I figured I could tell him anything he could find that was public record. “She married Bill Compton when she was eighteen and was granted a divorce shortly after she turned twenty. She filed a restraining order against him. You could find those things out with any search using her married name. Anything else… you need to get from her.”
He looked down into his wine glass. “She’s already running from me. How do I get her to talk to me?”
“You know where she lives. You know her schedule. It’s not like she broke your date to go out clubbing. I guarantee she’ll be sitting on her couch with a pint of Americone Dream, crying over some sappy movie or romance novel. Tell her what you’ve ‘found out’ since she left and tell her you want the whole story. I know my friend. If you open the door, it might take a little maneuvering, but eventually she’ll walk through it.”
I tried to digest the information Amelia had given me as I drove home. Sookie had been married. Who the hell gets married at eighteen? Had she been pregnant? And why divorce after little more than a year? Amelia’s answers had only given me more questions and the curiosity was killing me.
I opened my web browser and put “Sookie Compton” into the search bar. Sure enough, a blurb from the newspaper showed her marriage announcement and there were also dockets from court showing where she filed for a protective order and when her divorce was granted. I reread the article about her being questioned about Bill’s disappearance. I needed to know more. And I knew I would only get the answers I needed from one person. I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes, trying to add up everything I had learned about her in the past six months before I tried to get her to talk to me.
She was introverted; almost painfully shy. She jumped whenever someone snuck up on her. She rushed to fulfill any request posed to her as soon as possible, even at her own inconvenience. She shied away from physical contact. Amelia said, “She’s lucky to be alive.” A short marriage. A protective order. Her husband’s disappearance…
“Son of a bitch!” I hissed at my laptop.
I grabbed my keys and headed back into Bon Temps, breaking every speed limit on my way there. The entire trip I thought about how dense I had to be to not pick up on it, but I hadn’t had all the information.
When I pulled up in front of Sookie’s house, the lights in her front window were the only ones on and I could see her silhouette crossing the floor as she passed. I turned off the car and headed to her door. She met me there and stepped out onto the porch. Without looking up at me, she said, “I’m not really the best company tonight, Eric. You shouldn’t have come all the way here without calling.”
“Sookie, who was Bill?”
Her head snapped up, blue eyes flashing. “Goddamn it, Amelia,” she swore under her breath. “Bill was my husband until I divorced him almost four years ago.”
“Where is he, Sookie?”
“Hopefully dust and bones by now,” she muttered bitterly. “I haven’t seen him since he tried to beat me to death for having him served with the restraining order and divorce papers.”
I sucked in an involuntary gasp. I had figured it would be something like that, but to hear it so unemotionally from her own lips was worse.
“Was that what you were expecting, Eric? Do you want to also know that the beatings started after just a week of being married? That I had a strict list of rules I had to follow or face ‘punishments’? Or how about the fact that he raped me almost nightly, trying to get me pregnant? When I finally got the courage to get away from him, he came after me all over again and put me in the hospital.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea how to comprehend what she had gone through, but I hoped the bastard that had treated her like that was dead… or he would be wishing he was if I ever found his cowardly ass.
Sookie wiped the tears from her cheeks and looked up at me with fire in her eyes. “Don’t you dare fucking pity me. I lived through it and don’t pity myself; I certainly don’t expect or want it from anyone else. I don’t want to see that in your eyes when you look at me. That’s why I never told you about him.”
It was… bizarre seeing sweet, soft spoken Sookie speak with heat in her voice; her temper was kind of hot. She glared at me from her perch on the railing of the porch. “Let me guess.” She deepened her voice, “Sookie, you’re a sweet girl, but I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t think this is gonna work out.” She scrubbed her cheeks again. “No worries, Eric. You’re free to go.”
It hurt to hear the bitterness in her voice. No, I hadn’t signed up for anything. I had seen a beautiful woman and wanted to know her better. It had been a battle for months to get her to tell me anything about her life before I met her. I knew why now. But she was wrong.
“Sookie, I don’t pity you. Not in the least. I feel bad that you had to go through that, but I can only marvel at the woman you are despite having lived through that.” I slid my finger under her chin and lifted her head to meet my eyes. I meant every single word.
Her eyes were filled with skepticism that melted the longer I held her gaze. She slid herself off the rail and took my hand. Leading me through the door into her living room, she was silent. She excused herself to the restroom to wash her face and said she’d be back in a minute.
What a fucking night. I’d forgotten what my temper had been like when I was allowed to get angry. Four little words was all it had taken to bring it back full force.
I should have known Amelia would go behind my back and tell him about Bill. She always thought she knew what was best for me, and she was right when she said that Eric deserved to know about my past. She said that no one looked at me differently, but they did. Sam was the worst, being the one to find me after Bill left me for dead. Every single time he looked at me, I could smell the pity on him.
So I told Eric what had happened to me in the bluntest way possible. I figured he was going to go anyway; I might as well give him an out by lashing out at him for something that was in no way his fault. I had expected his pity. I hadn’t expected his amazement. He didn’t have a single flicker of the detestable emotion in his eyes when he looked at me and it surprised me.
I splashed some cold water on my face and went into the kitchen. I grabbed myself a soda and a beer for him. He deserved it. I sat across from him in Gran’s old rocker while he perched at the edge of the couch and handed him his drink.
“I want to apologize for going off on you like I did. You did nothing wrong. I have a four year blockage of temper tantrums and I’m sorry that you were the target for the first one.”
He nodded and seemed to be thinking of something to say. I sipped my Coke and waited, not in the mood to put words in his mouth again. Finally, after a few long moments of silence, “Will you tell me about him, Sookie? About how someone like you fell into that kind of relationship?”
I nodded and collected my thoughts. It took longer than I expected, but I was able to chronicle my time with Bill from meeting him at Merlotte’s to ending up in the hospital. I hated to lie, but stuck to the story Amelia and I had come up with surrounding my ex’s disappearance: that he fled town before I returned from D.C. with Amelia or face charges. I felt no guilt over what we had done to Bill, but I wasn’t willing to place the burden of that knowledge on anyone else. Amelia and I had agreed after it happened that we wouldn’t discuss it again, even between us.
Eric was very patient with me and didn’t interrupt my monologue, but he was unable to hide his gasps or the darkening of his facial expressions during certain parts of the story. But not one single time did even a flicker of pity go across his face. Anger, yes. Astonishment, yes. Pity, nuh-uh.
He went through two more beers while I talked, taking in all the information I was throwing at him. When I was talked out, he stood and extended his hand to me, not saying anything. He led me out of the house into my front yard.
I loved how it smelled at night in the summer, the heavy scents of honeysuckle and roses perfuming the dew in the air. Neither of us said anything, just enjoyed the sparkle of the stars in the sky and the crickets chirping softly in the woods. For the first time, in a very long time, I was comfortable with someone alone in the dark. I knew enough to be appreciative of that fact alone. After wandering around in the grass for a while, he pulled me under the big maple tree and settled me between his long legs, so my back was against his chest.
“I don’t know what convinced you to give me a chance after dealing with what you have. The fact that you have the capacity to even begin trusting someone new is amazing by itself. The only thing I would change is… I wish I had met you first.”
I tilted my head back and rested my head against his shoulder, my eyes closed. The confessions of the night, the emotional outpouring, exhausted me. “I wish you had too, Eric,” I whispered.
He wrapped his arms around my abdomen and let me lean back against him, not needing to fill the silence. I don’t know how much time passed, but I drifted off. I felt him lift me and carry me inside, but I felt no panic at all. He laid me carefully on my bed and covered me with a quilt. I felt him press a kiss to my forehead before I was completely gone.