“You’re sure this is a good idea?” Sookie asked again.
“We’ll know when we get there,” Eric repeated his answer. Jason was staring at them from time to time, playing alpha male in the most ridiculous way. His handshake with Eric earlier had been a juvenile show of testosterone and it had taken great restraint for Eric not to simply crush Sookie’s brother’s hand to jelly. Linda was another story. She made no secret of her annoyance. Eric was tempted to glamour her, but Sookie seemed to sense his thoughts and headed him off.
It didn’t help that Sookie was unhappy. Eric knew her unhappiness started before he arrived, he’d felt it, but now it seemed centered on him, making it difficult for him to keep a cheerful exterior. “And you’re sure you don’t need to feed?” Sookie whispered, her eyes narrowed. That caused another rather inconvenient stab of guilt, and Sookie’s eyes narrowed further.
‘Fucking bond!’ Eric thought. “I’ll explain when we’re alone,” he said aloud.
“It’s late!” Lars was scolding his seething wife. “You’re tired, they’re tired. Linda! You’ve been at it all day! Let the young people go. They have an hour’s drive ahead of them and they only arrived last night. Look at your niece! She’s sleeping on her feet. You’ll have Sookie all to yourself tomorrow and they’ll both be here in plenty of time for dinner.”
Sookie and Eric knew Linda had arranged an impromptu rehearsal dinner for the next night. “You know, just relatives and neighbors, people who knew Michele and want to meet her children,” Linda told them. From the sounds of things, it would be pretty much everyone coming to the wedding and that meant tomorrow’s rehearsal dinner would be a crowd.
Linda sniffed before giving a quick nod. She walked over and gathered Sookie into a hug. “Drive safe, Sweetie! It was just so good having you here all day! You sure you don’t want to stay? I have that nice room upstairs…”
“Linda!” Lars scolded. “Stop making them feel bad!” He held out his hand to Eric, forcing the vampire to return the handshake. “Drive safe, Eric. You have the directions I gave you, Ja?”
“Programmed into the car already,” Eric assured him. Linda was watching Eric, her mouth pursed. Eric couldn’t help it, he broke into his most charming smile, “And thank you, Aunt Linda. I’m sorry again I was so late. I’ll be here in plenty of time tomorrow. We appreciate everything you’re doing for us.” He pushed then, just a little, and his smile crept up as Linda’s eyes started to glaze just a bit.
“Oh, it was nothing!” the older woman responded, her tone changing. “It was nice to meet you, too.”
Sookie shot Eric a look and the vampire was sure he would hear about this later. Lars also noticed, and Eric felt sorry about the sudden suspicion that crossed the farmer’s face. “Come, Sookie,” and Eric wrapped his arm around her waist, anxious to be on their way.
As they started moving toward the cars, Sookie’s brother called out, “Going without saying goodbye?” Jason detached himself from Remy and several other men, heading toward them.
“Sorry!” Eric could tell Sookie really was tired. The smile she turned on for her brother looked brittle. “Guess we’re just tuckered out.” It was an odd phrase for her to use and Eric thought she must have heard it here today. “I’ll be back tomorrow and maybe we could spend a little time taking a walk, just the two of us.”
“And how about you?” Jason challenged Eric. “You going to keep my sister waiting all night again?”
It was all the invitation Eric needed and he said out loud what he thought of the younger man, “A true man doesn’t abandon his sister and Mother,” Eric hissed. “A man defends his women and protects them.”
“Stop it!” and Sookie slapped Eric’s stomach. “Jason had his reasons for going when he did. You weren’t there!” Sookie turned to her brother, “Eric has some old-fashioned ideas about things. Just know I’m happy and you should be happy for me.” She stepped forward and rose on tip-toes to kiss Jason’s cheek. “Tomorrow, okay?”
Both men looked sullen, and Eric hissed, “He did wrong by you,” as he followed Sookie to her car.
“He knows that,” Sookie answered. “He doesn’t need you to point it out.”
As agreed, Eric got in his car and took the lead, the voice of his GPS guiding him down dark roads across the flat landscape. Sookie’s headlights followed, close, but not too close. Eric was tempted to accelerate, challenging her to race him, but he knew it would be a bad idea. She wasn’t Pam. Her reflexes weren’t sharp and she was fatigued, and so he kept his speed in check.
The house was as Lars described, a white, traditional farmhouse with a wrap-around porch sitting in the middle of a clump of trees. The keys Lars provided turned the deadbolts and they were inside. It didn’t take long to find the basement. Eric looked at the windows in three of the four walls. “He said the root cellar would be perfect!” Eric grumbled.
“This isn’t a root cellar,” Sookie informed him. When Eric looked confused, she said, “Come on. It’s probably outside.”
Sookie walked toward the back of the house, “He probably meant their storm cellar. They get bad weather out here, so it’ll be away from the house, someplace they can take shelter if there’s a tornado.” She flicked the lights until she found the switch that illuminated the back yard. “There!” and she pointed at a set of doors set at an angle in the yard a short distance away.
Together, they walked to the doors. There was a padlock, so Eric flipped the keys on the set Lars provided until he found the one that said ‘Master.’ It slid home and the lock flipped open. There was a light switch just inside and together, they walked down the stairs into the cool, underground room. There were bunkbed frames against one wall and shelving that was meant to hold food. It was roomy enough and reasonably clean. “It will do,” Eric nodded.
“What happened earlier?” Sookie asked.
“When?” but Eric knew what she meant. When she didn’t answer, Eric shrugged, “I had to visit Maude, the Queen here. It is required that I check in. She wanted to be social and one doesn’t rush a Queen.” Eric could see that Sookie wasn’t buying it, but he found he simply didn’t want to explain things. It was late, she was tired. Eric glanced at his watch. It was nearing midnight. “I’m assuming you will want to be back there for breakfast,” he said as he brushed past her. “Do you suppose there’s a mattress in the house I could use?”
He didn’t wait for Sookie. He walked up the stairs and back into the house. He used his vampire speed to move to the upper level, anxious to be further from her. There were four bedrooms tucked under the eaves and two of them had twin beds. Eric tested the mattresses, choosing the one that was most comfortable. He lifted it, almost colliding with Sookie as he took it down the stairs.
“Are you going to talk to me?” she challenged.
“Why do you say that?” Eric fired back. He knew she was right, but taking the offense when challenged was instinct. “We are talking. We’ve been talking.”
“Fine,” Sookie sniffed. She stared at the single mattress in Eric’s arms, “So, you’re not thinking we’ll be sleeping together.”
That brought Eric up short. He felt badly enough about breaking his promise that he welcomed the exile of sleeping without her. It wasn’t natural for him, this guilty feeling, and being punished by having to do without Sookie’s warmth seemed appropriate. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might feel it was punishing her, but he could feel it now in her emotions. “There would be no room for you,” he pointed out. “The bed barely has room for me. As it is, my feet will be hanging over the end.”
“Maybe we could rig something up in here…” and Sookie bit her lips.
“You are kind, my wife,” Eric smiled. “It won’t be necessary. You should be comfortable. There are two larger beds. The mattress in the back bedroom smells newer.” He stared at her, willing her to speak or step aside, and she stepped. He could feel her disappointment, but it was no sharper than the disappointment he felt in himself. Holding the mattress steady, he extended his other hand to cup Sookie’s face. “You are exhausted. I can feel it. Sleep, Älskade. Your Aunt will doubtless have you running, and I will see you early tomorrow night. We will greet all your relatives. I will let your Aunt order me around and in two night’s time, we will have the human wedding that means so much to you.”
“Linda wants me to sleep at her house tomorrow night,” Sookie said quietly. “Tradition, and sleeping apart the night before and all that.”
“Pam has described some of the rituals,” Eric replied. “I am pleased that you are getting what you wish.”
“What happened tonight?” Sookie asked again, and he could feel her anxiety.
“Nothing of consequence!” Eric protested. “Sookie, you are worrying for no good reason. You’re tired. Things will seem different in the morning.” He glanced past her, “Let me take the mattress to this root cellar and I will return. I can sit with you until you fall asleep. We could shower…” and Eric gave her a flirty smile, but, unlike other times, it didn’t seem to cheer her.
Eric walked past Sookie, carrying the bulky mattress through the house. He manhandled it down the cellar stairs and into place. He took some minutes to test the latch to the cellar doors several times, satisfying himself that it would take a tractor to force them open once he’d secured them. He looked around before acknowledging he was purposely delaying his conversation with Sookie. He felt her sorrow and, to his shame, he considered not returning to the farmhouse at all.
She was on the front porch. When he walked around the corner of the house, he saw her swipe at her face and he smelled her tears. “What is it?”
She glanced away and he felt her steadying herself, “You cheated on me, didn’t you?” she asked and her voice was small.
“Cheated?” He felt she’d caught him and as soon as he felt it, he saw her face drain. “Not with my body!” he protested. “I did what I had to. I couldn’t allow Maude to see you as a target.”
“So, you…what? Kissed her? Performed for her? I can tell how crappy you feel about what you did, you’ve been grinding over it all night, and when you look at me? You feel way worse! You don’t think I can tell?” Another tear spilled over and onto Sookie’s cheek, but Sookie didn’t feel sad. She felt like a storm. The smell of her tear was almost irresistible and Eric’s eyes lasered to it, watching its progress until Sookie wiped it away. His eyes snapped back to hers and he knew how he looked, his fangs peeking from under his lip.
“I broke my promise to you,” Eric acknowledged.
“I knew it!” and Sookie drew in a deep breath. “I said it before. You people live by different rules. I can’t… I won’t marry someone who doesn’t respect me enough…who doesn’t care enough about me…”
“We are already married,” Eric meant his words to help Sookie understand he was committed to her, but it seemed to have the opposite effect.
“Not in any way I understand!” and Sookie stood, her hands clenched. “I won’t do this! I won’t stay with a man who can’t keep it in his pants!”
“I didn’t fuck her!” Eric protested. “I fed from her donor! I promised you I would only feed from you, but I couldn’t find a way around accepting Maude’s offer, not without making you a target.” Eric stood as well and began pacing past her, “And, in the end, I gained nothing! Maude knew! I couldn’t convince her you were just an accommodation I made to gain favor with the Seelie.”
“Is that what I am to you?” Sookie demanded and the anger she felt washed over him.
Eric grabbed Sookie and pulled her against him. He took an unnecessary breath, bringing her scent inside him, wanting to feel her both against and inside. It healed some part of him, settling his inconvenient roil of feelings, “No! You are…you are…” and he held her closer until she stopped struggling. He searched for the right word. “Unexpected,” he finally said.
She stood still, her hands resting at his waist. He could feel her disappointment, “I am not settled when I am with you,” he found himself saying. “I find I wish to be with you, to have you think well of me. It is not how I thought this would be.”
“I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” Sookie’s voice was quiet and Eric felt something snap into place. He hadn’t closed the bond, but the unsettled feeling coming from her was gone, replaced by resignation. “I guess Sophie-Ann was right after all. Must be good getting a favor from Niall, and I don’t blame you. Everyone in Ireland seems to want a favor from someone.” She pulled away, shrugging off his hands and then held him off when he reached for her again. “We’ll just tell Linda and Lars that we changed our mind. You didn’t want to do this anyway and we’re married enough for the Fae, right? That’s all that counts for you.”
“Now you don’t wish your human ceremony?” Eric asked. “But you said…”
Sookie sighed, “I’ve had plenty of people in my life who do what other people want from them, Eric. Breandan…”
“I am not Breandan!” Eric felt his own temper flare. “I will not have you compare me to him!”
“Really?” and angry Sookie was back. Her eyes snapped and she punctuated her words by poking him in the chest, “You weren’t going to tell me what happened tonight until I dragged it out of you. ‘Just tell Sookie what she needs to know,’ isn’t that right? At least with Breandan, I knew if I asked a direct question, he couldn’t lie to me. You? You lie plenty!”
“We are bonded too tightly!” Eric hissed. It just slipped out and Eric wondered at his own sanity. He couldn’t understand why he said it out loud and he could feel her reaction, her rage hitting him like a wall.
“Yeah, real inconvenient!” Sookie snarled. She shoved him, turned on her heel, and sailed through the front door, letting the screen slap behind her.
It was foolish, but Eric couldn’t help himself. He felt his emotions slipping, his famous control in tatters. He followed her inside, his walk stiff, “Don’t walk away from me!” he barked.
“Or what? You going to glamour me? Like you did my Aunt?” and when Eric’s eyes widened, Sookie snapped, “Of course I saw that! You should be ashamed of yourself! For someone who thinks he’s so smart, you sure fall back on your little bag of tricks when it comes to us poor humans. If you’re so smart, why don’t you try using your words for a change?”
It brought Eric up short. Sookie was right, pushing glamour at Linda had been the easy answer. “You are clever, my wife,” he conceded, stepping back and bowing his head. Sookie looked surprised, and then wary. “You see through me,” Eric persisted. “You aren’t afraid of me,” and when he said that, Sookie snorted. It made him smile. Lowering his eyes again, he reached for her hand and was pleased when she didn’t pull it away.
“I feel things for you I don’t remember feeling for anyone,” he said to her fingers, stroking her skin with his thumb. “You slip past my defenses to the core of me.” Saying these things wasn’t who he was, but he spoke again, revealing his biggest secret, “You confuse me.”
Sookie watched the vampire closely. She never thought of Eric as looking vulnerable. He was that badass who had people unconsciously stepping aside to accommodate, but he didn’t look that way now. He looked a little lost, talking to their hands instead of to her. He was huge, but, for a moment, Sookie saw the boy he had been and her anger slipped away. “This is confusing for me, too,” she conceded. “I think you’re right, I’m tired. We should talk about this tomorrow.”
“Will you postpone your ceremony?” Sookie could see it, she could feel it. Eric really was asking.
Sookie knew she believed Eric’s story. While she still didn’t understand the whole blood thing, he had promised, and she could feel his guilt. Frankly, that part didn’t bother her so much. It was that he tried to hide it from her. Still, he was standing there, looking so hopeful, “I don’t know,” Sookie replied. “I’m tired and that’s never a good time to make decisions. There are two more nights, and even though Linda’s blown this into more than I wanted, we can still cancel it.” Sookie smiled, “Tomorrow, okay?”
Turning, Sookie headed for the stairs. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“To bed, Eric,” Sookie told him, not bothering to look back.
As Sookie pulled sheets from the closet, she realized she had no pajamas. She’d have to sleep in her underwear. She checked her phone, setting the alarm, and wishing she had her charger. She’d plugged in at Linda’s house, but the battery was still low. Tomorrow, she’d make the drive back to the Cities, find the ranch house, pack their bags, and then drive back here, all so she could go back to Linda’s farm for another busy day of rushed wedding planning. “Please remember to program the addresses into my car,” she called out, “I have a long day ahead of me.”
Eric didn’t say anything, but she knew he was still downstairs, standing in the front hall. She realized she didn’t need to see him. She could feel him, like a heat signature, and when he finally went outside, she felt that, too.
It took a long time to fall asleep. Sookie tossed and turned on the faded sheets, staring at the ceiling and then out the window. She wondered how cold it got here in winter. A full moon rose and then, after a time, disappeared as it followed its course, out of her line of vision.
Sookie found herself in a shadowy place. She was running, but her feet kept sinking into the ground. Someone was chasing her, but her eyes kept looking ahead. She knew there was someone up ahead and if she could get there, she would be safe. There was a light, but the person chasing her was close, and then closer, and she sat up with a start.
“Were you dreaming?” Eric asked.
“Oh my God!” Sookie cried out, scrabbling back on the bed before she realized she’d been sleeping and her nightmare awoke her to find Eric hovering. Gulping, making an effort to steady herself, Sookie looked away and then looked back toward Eric. He was perched. There was no other word to describe it. His feet were balanced on the footboard and he was hunched over, his arms wrapped around his knees. “What are you doing?” she finally managed to squeak out.
“I couldn’t rest,” he replied.
“So, you thought you’d…what? Come up here and stare at me?” Another time it would have been funny and Sookie might have laughed if her heart wasn’t threatening to jump out of her chest.
“It makes me feel better to be near you,” he explained. “I am happier here.”
It was so simple, feeling and understanding Eric’s emotions. She could feel his need and his pride, his confusion and his desire. “I guess you are,” she sighed, knowing that she felt better being near him, too. “Come on, then,” and Sookie opened her arms to him.
Eric rose, and as lightly as any bird, he flew to her. In another moment, she was wrapped up in his arms, positioned on her side, and feeling him all around her. It felt safe.
“You know I am yours,” Eric whispered against her cheek.
“I guess I do,” Sookie answered and twining her fingers with his, she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.
When Sookie woke, it was because the sunlight was falling across her face. That was one thing she’d noticed about Minnesota. It seemed brighter here, the light harsher than the light in Ireland. “Home,” she said out loud, and then snorted, wondering when ‘home’ had become that place and not America. She rolled over, not that she expected to see Eric’s face beside her on the pillow, but she was starting to think of him as home, too. Of course, he wasn’t here, but there was a piece of paper. ‘I have programmed the directions in your car,’ the note read. ‘The numbers at the bottom are the codes for the doors. Don’t try to pack everything, just enough for tonight. I will return there myself and retrieve the rest. Don’t worry about the coffin. I will make arrangements for it.’
Sookie wondered if Eric had written all of this sitting beside her last night, or if he’d done it before he came upstairs. She figured the latter. It was probably what really brought him to the end of her bed. She thought of how he’d turned her against him, spooning into her back. He had relaxed then, she couldn’t pretend she didn’t notice. “Guess in a way, you can’t lie to me either,” she said out loud.
Sookie read the numbers out loud, then turned the paper over. She hadn’t expected to see anything on the back, but there was more writing and as she read the words, Sookie found her breath catching.
Eric’s penmanship was sloppier and the sentences were at an angle. ‘I wish to marry you,’ he’d written, ‘in every way that matters to you. I wish you to want to be mine.’ Sookie read the words again, and then ran her fingers over them. It wasn’t a declaration of love. Sookie thought back on all their conversations. There had been times Eric almost seemed to say the words, but Sookie knew she would remember it when he did. No, he hadn’t said he loved her, but, somehow, reading these words, it felt pretty close.
“Am I in love with you?” she asked, and then looked out the window at the bright day. There were times she was sure she was. Whenever Eric quoted poetry and while he locked eyes with her when they had sex, she was sure she loved him. When he asked about her day and when he flirted and laughed, she loved him then, too. But there were other times when things happened to remind her how little she knew about Eric Northman. “Maybe it’s just infatuation. I love him, but I’m not in love with him.” Sookie stared at the sunbeams that danced across the sheets. “Maybe it’s like he says. Maybe vampires can’t love and, if he can’t, what I’m feeling will just burn itself out… Like Breandan.” The temperature was cool in the room, so she told herself that’s why she shivered.
“Better get up and get going, Sookie Stackhouse! There’ll be plenty of time to worry about this on the ride to the Cities,” she scolded, forcing her mind away from her troubles.
Sookie glanced down at her dirty t-shirt and sensible underwear. She’d have to put all the same clothes right back on after her shower this morning and she considered not showering at all, but, in the end, she figured skin out clean was better than dirty all over. Car keys were downstairs and she found herself shading her eyes as she walked across the yard toward the vehicles. As she pulled out, she caught a glimpse in the rearview mirror of the storm doors, rising at their angle above the grass in the backyard. “Sleep well, Sweetie” she said out loud, even though she knew there was no way he could hear her.
The ride was long. Roads in this part of the country ran straight until they met highway intersections, where the monotony was broken by a turn, and then, everything settled back into a straight road. Sookie saw almost no traffic. It was early, but she wasn’t used to being so alone. In Boston, like other cities where she’d lived with her family, there was always someone else on the road and in Ireland, farmers rose early and took to the roads to reach their fields. Sookie saw lights on at the few farms she passed, but no cars. People here had the luxury of staying where they were.
After a few hours, Sookie saw a billboard for a chain restaurant, so she used the drive-thru. By the time she started her second cup of coffee, she was no longer alone on the road. Sookie could see residential streets on either side of her, instead of the endless fields and pastures, and the GPS started talking to her more often.
Sookie found the driveway of the house she almost remembered. Squinting at Eric’s note, she punched in the numbers and, as the locks clicked open, Sookie turned the note over, staring once again at the other words he’d written, followed by the single ‘E’ he used to sign his name. She raised the paper to her lips, kissing it, imagining the words to be a part of him.
Even though Eric offered, Sookie packed all their belongings. She couldn’t see returning here again. The suitcases were heavy and dragging them up from the basement chamber took a lot of strength. Once they were up the stairs, the wheels made getting them to the car easier, but Sookie still broke a sweat hefting and then shoving the bags into the trunk. “Jeez!” she swore, shaking out her arms, “What did we pack? Anvils?”
The drive home seemed faster. Before she knew it, Sookie was pulling back into the farmyard. The day was warming, just as Aunt Linda promised. Sookie looked at the trunk, then the three stairs up to the front porch. “Not getting done just standing here,” she groused and, throwing her shoulders back, Sookie pulled at the first suitcase. She caught her finger on the handle and felt a fingernail giving way, “Shit!” Pulling her hand away, she flapped it until the sting stopped. She could feel sweat starting to gather between her shoulder blades and glancing at the storm cellar doors, she wondered how hot it would get and if Eric would notice. “Why am I worrying? He’s underground,” she assured herself.
Taking a deep breath, Sookie stepped forward, and then something occurred to her. First, she looked all around. There was the road, but it was far away. She was surrounded by fields of sorghum and corn, but no people, so, stretching her hand out, she focused on the first bag. She couldn’t help it. She knew she looked ridiculous and it broke her concentration. “Focus!” she scolded and lowering her hand, she closed her eyes, curled her hands into fists, and visualized the suitcases on the front porch. She thought of them in all their specifics, the zippers, the wheels, and the pull handles. She imagined them resting beside the front door, their handles extended. She wasn’t sure she felt anything, but she wasn’t sure she didn’t, and, after a long few minutes, she opened her eyes.
“Holy shit!” she breathed. The trunk was empty and the suitcases were on the porch, just as she’d imagined. Sookie looked around again, just in case. Claudine had told her that working magic here would be harder. She’d been wrong; it just felt different.
Sookie headed up the stairs and, grabbing the handles, pulled the bags inside. Glancing at her watch, she started pulling hers toward the stairs, but then stopped. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” she whispered and leaving her eyes open this time, she imagined her bag upstairs. Looking at it was distracting, but, jutting her chin, Sookie focused. It was like the leprechaun. One minute the suitcase was there, but, in the next, it wasn’t. Sookie let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and when she felt as if she’d hyperventilate, she brought one hand up to cover her mouth. That’s when she smelled it, the faint sweetness that was her magic. “Eric!” she gasped.
This time, Sookie did close her eyes. She thought of it as cleaning house; wiping out every scent of magic. The last thing she did was pull that cleansing over herself. Her hand was shaking as she took hold of the bannister. “Don’t think about it,” she told herself. “Tomorrow you’ll have lots of time to figure it all out. Right now, you need to shower and change and get your ass over to Linda’s before she sends out a search party,” but as she climbed the stairs, a slow smile took over her face. “Wait till I tell Eric!”
As it was, morning was already half-gone by the time Sookie pulled into the yard. The lights in the trees were now being joined by mason jars and table tops were leaning against the fences. Sookie could see Uncle Lars heading out into the fields on his tractor, pulling a wagon full of people. “They’re going to get haybales,” Linda said, walking up behind her niece. “Good way to keep folks from stumbling into the food tables.” Linda gave Sookie a quick look, “You look tired, Sweetie. Well, come on inside, I’ve got coffee and Grace from down the road dropped off her sour cream coffee cake.”
Linda elbowed Sookie and after they got into the kitchen, she followed it with, “Guess it’s a good thing you’re staying here tonight. At least you’ll get some sleep!”
Sookie accepted the coffee cup thrust at her. “I’m not sure what you mean,” she stuttered, sitting in the chair Linda steered her toward.
“Oh, Lars told me he gave you kids the keys to his parents’ old place,” Linda winked. “Figure you both worked off your mad out there.” Linda waved as she plunked a huge triangle of crumbly cake down on the table, “I know, I know, I wasn’t very hospitable, but it was a long day yesterday and I was feeling fractious. I’ll make it up to your Honey, I promise!”
Sookie realized her Aunt had interpreted her exhaustion differently, so she opened her mouth to set her straight, and then shut it just as quickly. “What can I do to help?” she asked instead.
There weren’t as many chores today, so when Lars and his crew returned from the field, Sookie went outside to help them. Jason had been with her Uncle and when she walked over, he jumped down from the wagon. “Sorry about yesterday,” he apologized.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Sookie replied, but Jason wasn’t having it.
“Sure, there is,” he persisted. “I was an ass. Your fiancé is right. I should have stuck with you.” He looked up and Sookie could see tears in his eyes. “I never would have left if I knew Mom was sick. I swear!”
“I know that,” Sookie assured him. “Mom and I both knew you had to do what you did. She never blamed you.”
“Really?” and her big brother looked so sad. “Well, I blame me! I don’t know how I’ll ever make it up to you.”
“Really, Jason,” and Sookie grabbed her brother into a hug. “There’s nothing to forgive. She had a couple hard days, but she went peaceful. I think she was anxious to see Daddy. She was kind of talking to him in the end and it went fast, really fast.”
It was hard to think about and Sookie wiped away tears of her own. She remembered that last Thanksgiving. Her Mother had seemed so well, talking about her going to Ireland and teasing Breandan. Within weeks, it was over. “She talked about you, too. She loved you.”
Jason nodded, then turned away. Sookie knew he was trying not to weep. “Come on,” and she took Jason’s arm. “Let’s take a walk. I’ll tell you all about it.”
In the end, they mostly cried. They talked about places they’d lived and some of their more memorable moves. “I was jealous of you,” Jason told her. “I knew you were Daddy’s favorite. He’d take you on walks, just the two of you. I hoped he’d do the same for me, but he didn’t… Not the way he did with you.”
Sookie stared at her brother. Those walks Jason remembered were the times their Father taught Sookie how to use her magic. She thought of how it felt to be able to do things and she reached out and really felt her brother. He was unnaturally handsome. He had an almost-glow about him, but there was nothing Fae anywhere in his being. Jason was truly non-magical and Sookie realized that being magic was something she wouldn’t want to give up.
“Well, you were Mom’s favorite!” Sookie shot back.
“Daddy was Mom’s favorite,” Jason pointed out and Sookie had no argument. They both knew it was true.
“I figure I can make it up by being family to Linda and Lars,” Jason shrugged. “They’re here and Linda told me that having me around lets her know that some part of Mom is still here.”
“I think that’s nice,” Sookie nodded.
“You’re not coming back from Ireland, are you?” and Jason watched her.
“No. No, I’m not.” Sookie knew she couldn’t explain Eric, or their real grandfather. She thought about Niall’s dismissal of Jason and she wondered what Jason would make of Niall and Claudine and the Fae. Jason was stubbing his toe, dislodging clumps of dirt, and she knew all too well how poorly Jason would take the news. Even if he did believe her, Jason Stackhouse wouldn’t be comfortable knowing there was more family where he would never belong and Sookie couldn’t do that to him. “I’m glad you found Aunt Linda and Uncle Lars, though,” and she squeezed Jason’s arm. “I guess I’m the one that’s walking away this time.”
“But you came back here to get married,” Jason reminded her. “You found your way back, like me,” and he gave her that cock-eyed smile she hadn’t seen in a long time. She knew there were people who wouldn’t forgive him, but Sookie wasn’t one of those. There’d been plenty of days she’d wanted to walk, and now, in most ways, she had. “I figure the Navy’s going to be my home for a while,” Jason was grinning, “but when I’m done seeing the world, I figure this is as good a place as any to come.” He gave Sookie a side-eye glance, “Uncle Lars says Hadley and her husband don’t want this place. You know… I think I could see myself as a farmer.”
“I think you’ll be great at whatever you do,” Sookie smiled.
“Now, you sound like Mom,” They laughed, and then they didn’t, both of them caught in memory.
The sun was barely over the horizon when Eric pulled into the yard. Jason was up a ladder, helping to light candles in mason jars and he jumped down to intercept Eric, holding out his hand. “Hey, Bro!” he smiled. Sookie held her breath, but Eric didn’t hesitate, he returned the shake and then Sookie felt his call. It was low level, but it was definitely there. It wasn’t easy, but she held her ground, beaming as he roll-walked toward her, eyes narrowed, pirate smile in place. In spite of the people around them, Eric grabbed her up to him. He waited until she met his eyes, waited for that moment she started wondering what he was up to, and then he kissed her. It was a good one, too. People cheered and he lifted her, twirling her around before he set her back on the earth.
“You’re hungry,” Sookie whispered against his chest.
“In many ways,” he chuckled back. He captured her hand before telling her, “I don’t like waking alone. You’ve spoiled me.”
“So useful, having a Sookie nearby,” she teased. Eric was looking around and Sookie squeezed their joined hands, “Come on!”
She pulled him into the house and took him upstairs. The only door with a lock was the bathroom, “We probably won’t get much time,” she told him. “There’s a small bathroom downstairs, but there’s a lot of people here.”
It wasn’t a large room. The old tub had been replaced with a more modern plastic enclosure. Aunt Linda had set out good guest towels and Sookie hoped they wouldn’t leave any evidence. Eric turned her toward the vanity mirror and his fingers were against her bare thigh. “I don’t think we’ll have time for that,” Sookie squeaked.
“There is always time for ‘that,’” Eric growled. He pulled her underwear until it fell down her legs. “I want you to watch me,” he whispered against her neck. “I want you to see what you do to me.” His fingers were stroking her, “I can already smell you,” he whispered. “There is nothing that smells the way you do.” He lifted his fingers to his mouth and capturing her eyes in the mirror, he sucked on them. “I love the taste of you,” he purred. He licked her neck, his fingers returning to their work. When her breath caught, Sookie heard the sound of Eric’s zipper. He stepped back, pulling her with him. “Lean over. Hold onto the sink,” he instructed.
“Are you kids in there?” Aunt Linda followed her words with a quick rapping on the door. “Sookie?”
Sookie jumped away from Eric, “Just a minute!” she called out.
“Well, whatever you’re up to, cut it out! Your guests are here!” and they could hear Linda’s feet walking away.
“You look so guilty!” Eric teased.
“You don’t look guilty enough!” and Sookie turned around, slapping his chest. “Stop playing with your dinner and get down to it or you’ll go hungry!”
Eric was quick, but he still pulled her against him so she could feel how hard he was. “We need to find a way to slip away, maybe the barn.”
“You looked pretty comfortable with Uncle Lars yesterday,” Sookie said after. As usual, there were no marks, no sign of what had happened.
“My Father had a farm,” Eric told her. “I learned how to raise cattle and goats.”
“I thought Vikings only learned how to raid,” Sookie took one last look, making sure everything was set to rights.
“We only raided in summer. During winter, we needed to do other things to make sure our families prospered.” He said it, and then he looked away. There was something pulling at him, but Sookie couldn’t tell what it was. She thought of what it must have been like for Eric, how free, and she remembered his saying how little he enjoyed politics and the responsibilities that came with them.
“Guess I can understand how it would feel good to be reminded of those days,” Sookie smiled. She opened the door and walked out, so she didn’t see Eric’s eyes watching her.
“Here they are!” Linda announced as they walked down the stairs, and Sookie and Eric found themselves passed from group to group, introduced, and expected to make polite conversation. Most of the people they met were related in some way, so many had stories to share about Sookie’s Mom.
One group of older men made a remark in another language and Eric readily responded. They laughed and Eric peeled off with them, heading toward the beer wagon outside. Sookie wondered how Eric would manage. She knew he couldn’t really eat or drink anything, so she started to worry, but then, he looked at her and smiled, sending her his easy confidence and a clear feeling that he was getting away with something. ‘Sure, he gets out of holding babies and making small talk!’ she realized.
Dinner was set up outside on long tables. The floodlights were on, bathing the whole yard. It was a working yard, large enough to turn trucks and tractors pulling wagons. The ground was beaten hard by generations of farming. People here seemed easy with each other and Sookie was pleased to see Jason looking comfortable, standing with him. There were a couple groups of teenage girls and they were spending time either looking at Jason or looking at Eric, talking and giggling behind raised hands.
There was a group of older women, too, women in their twenties. They were flirting with some of the local men and soon enough, two had broken off to introduce themselves to Jason.
It occurred to Sookie that everyone here knew their place. Wives spoke with wives. Younger women deferred to older women and shared baby holding, shuttling things back and forth from the kitchen to the yard. The men gathered around the beer wagon or the trestle table. Children who were too old for holding, but too young to take care of themselves clutched their father’s pants legs. It was an easy gathering and just as Sookie finished meeting the last couple, Lars climbed up on the platform Sookie knew was for the band and called out to Linda. He pulled her up beside him, “We are all happy you came tonight to help us celebrate. Most of you knew Michele and Corbett and it’s always hard when your neighbors are taken so young, but this is a happy day! Sookie, their daughter, has found herself a decent Swede, and they’re getting married right here tomorrow night.”
“Sookie? Eric?” Linda called, and she waved until they made their way to the bandstand.
“You are all invited,” Lars called out and people cheered.
“Where’s Jason?” Linda asked and she shaded her eyes, looking across the yard. Sookie watched Jason come toward them and after he took his place on the little stage, Linda said, “And this is Michele’s boy, Jason! He’s a regular Navy man, but it’s looking like when his stint is over, he’s coming here to join our community!” and people cheered again.
Sookie couldn’t help beaming at her brother. He looked so happy. “You are content?” Eric asked. He pulled her back, wrapping his arms around her.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she placed her hands over his arms and enjoyed the moment. The band stepped up behind them and they all moved down, giving way.
The first song was a waltz, and Eric took Sookie’s hand and pulled her toward him. As he led to the ground in front of the band, people parted for them. He placed his hand at her waist, and then kissed her hand before extending it, bringing her close to him. Sookie knew Eric could dance. They’d hopped and twirled in his pub in Ireland, but the elegance of his movements took her by surprise. She felt as if she’d stepped into another era and she wished she was wearing a longer skirt, just to feel it swish around her.
After a few turns, others joined them. Lars sailed by with Linda in his arms and Sookie realized that people here knew how to waltz. It was followed by a polka and after that, a traditional line dance that reminded Sookie of Ireland.
Sookie found herself dancing with Lars, and then Jason. One by one, she was passed hand to hand, until her feet hurt and her cheeks ached from smiling. She could see Eric dancing as well, women lining up to take their turn. At one point, one of the single, pretty women tapped his shoulder, but an older woman cut her off, loudly demanding the attentions of ‘Mister Tall, Blond, and Strapping.’
Sookie was just bowing to her next partner when she felt faint. It wasn’t a surprise. She’d been busy for hours and hadn’t really had anything to eat. In an instant, Eric’s arms were around her. He walked her to a chair and brought back an artfully arranged plate of food and then a glass of water. “You must eat, Älskade.” Linda and Jason came over, offering to sit with Sookie, but Eric waved them away. He wouldn’t leave until she felt better.
That night, as Eric drove away, Sookie stood on the porch. It was late. Eric told them he had to finish the conference in the morning and joked at what a poor showing he’d make, tired as he was. He kissed Sookie and she could feel his reluctance to leave her. “Tomorrow,” he’d whispered.
“That Eric of yours, he loves you pretty well,” Uncle Lars said from behind her.
“Does he?” It slipped out. Sookie was tired and she thought about the show Eric made when he arrived. He had been happy to see her, but he’d also been hungry. He’d wanted to slip away a half-dozen times over the course of the evening and she knew he wanted sex.
Lars stepped around so he could look at her. “He does,” he said. “He is Swedish, so perhaps you expect him to talk too much, but he tells you how he feels. That’s a big thing for men like us.”
“How does he do that?” Sookie asked. She’d listened, waiting for Eric to tell her he loved her. There were times she was almost sure he had, but she knew he’d never actually said the words.
“Älskade,” Lars said.
“Yes, I know he thinks I’m trouble,” Sookie grinned.
“Is that what he told you?” and Uncle Lars laughed. “That’s not what it means, Sookie,” and her uncle dropped a heavy arm across her shoulder.
“Then, what does it mean?” and Sookie found herself holding her breath.
“Beloved,” her Uncle answered and Sookie felt her heart click into place.