The hair at the back of her neck bristled at the sight of him. She hadn’t seen him in a week.
It was too soon, yet too long.
Stop staring, she berated as she forced herself to look away. She could feel his eyes boring into her as she marched out of the counter and into the first barstool she could find, the one closest to the edge of the curved countertop.
She had two options: she could make an excuse and bolt or do the normal, mature thing and act like an adult. She tucked a loose wisp of hair behind her ear and squared her shoulder.
Don’t make this awkward. Turn around and say hi.
Summoning enough strength, she plastered one of her fake smiles and pivoted her head to him and said, “Hey,” with a feeble wave.
He didn’t say a word as he sauntered toward her, his long, tapered fingers strumming on top of the wooden counter.
Maybe it’s not too late to run.
The muscles on his jaw leaped and tensed making her swallow nervously as she recalled all those times she had left a trail of kisses along his jawline. Her thoughts must have been written all over face as a ghost of a smile flickered on his thin lips.
He was at her side before she could look away. The side of his thigh brushed against hers when he sidled up to the metal stool next to hers. It was a conscious effort not to move. Not to flinch. Even when he leaned to her side and his upper arm grazed her shoulder.
He was so damned close. Too close for comfort. Her nostrils flared when she caught a whiff of his scent. Clean, woody and masculine with a hint of alcohol, simply Eric. He was wearing his trademark ensemble of black fitted jeans, black shirt and leather motorcycle jacket. She didn’t need to look at his shoes to confirm they were his favorite low cut black boots. Only Eric could pull off an all-black attire and not look like a goth. Even his dark blue arm sling couldn’t make him look less attractive.
She suddenly felt self-conscious in her faded skinny jeans and plain buttoned-down white blouse and brown leather jacket and knee-high boots.
Eric, still refusing to acknowledge her presence, flicked his finger in the air and Sam came a-running. He turned his head around to scan the area and the girls went a-squirming. He nodded like a superstar jock to some of the male patrons and the testosterone in the air skyrocketed in a flash.
Sookie fought the urge to shake her head and roll her eyes. Eric would always be Eric. It didn’t matter how many years had gone by, he could still command a crowd.
“Boss.” Sam tipped his head at Eric while wiping the inside of a mug from behind the counter. “Didn’t know you’re comin’ in tonight,” his gaze flitting from Eric to Sookie, as though he could sense the palpable tension between the couple, “Pam’s already doing the inventory out back.”
Eric’s lips tugged into a lazy smirk as he drummed his fingers on the polished mahogany. “I’m not here.”
Sam nodded his assent.
“Scotch or beer?” the bartender asked, his voice squeaking with tension. She would have laughed if she wasn’t nervous herself.
“Scotch. And give her one too.” Eric tipped his head toward her. “She looks like she could use some.”
So, I’m not invisible after all.
“On the rocks or neat, cher?” Sam asked her, placing two heavy glasses on top of the counter. “Or d’you want somethin’ else?”
“Neat is fine,” she shrugged, darting her head to the narrow hallway leading to the backroom, where Pam had disappeared into. She never should have listened to Pam. Note to self: kill Pam.
Sam poured them their identical amber-colored drinks before he scooted to the other end of the counter to greet new customers, leaving the two of them alone in their awkwardness. Traitor, Sookie scowled at Sam.
Sam just gave her a slow shrug as apology.
She took a breath before she swiveled toward Eric. “You got your cast off,” she started, pointing out the obvious.
He looked down at his cradle sling and shrugged. “Got it off today. I still need to wear the sling for another week, though.”
She fixed her eyes on the band strapped around his neck supporting his arm. “Does it still hurt?”
A beat passed as his lips thinned. “Always.”
She stilled at his response. She didn’t have to be telepath to discern that he wasn’t referring to his injury anymore. Silence consumed her as they fell into a stalemate. She turned her gaze back to her glass, cupping it with her trembling hands. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.
He shrugged as he fixed his gaze on her reflection at the wall mirror behind the liquor shelf. “For what?” he asked lifting his glass to his lips, “for being a coward or for being a bitch?”
Her shoulders drooped. “Eric,” she sighed heavily. “Can’t we at least try to be civil?”
He tipped the glass lid and sipped before he put it back on the counter. “Right. Civil. How’s that working for you?”
She lifted her chin and glowered at his reflection. She might be a bitch but he could also be a pain in the ass. Even at their worst, they were perfect.
Her glare must still possess some sort of power over him as he raised his good arm up and said, “Alright,” before he gestured to Sam to refill his glass.
Sookie stared at her untouched drink. Time for some liquid courage. The liquor sure packed up a punch as she felt the alcohol burn her throat.
“Have you been to First Hill yet?” he inquired offhandedly. She stole a glimpse in his direction and caught him smirking when she winced at the sting of the scotch. Jerk.
“Nope.” She shook her head. “I’ve called my mom though. To thank her for the cleaning crew she didn’t send over,” she drawled, giving him a pointed look. It was his turn to avoid her eyes as he took another gulp from his freshly topped up glass. She smiled in satisfaction. “I knew you sent them, Eric. Thank you.”
He swirled his glass and snorted. “Well someone has to do the cleaning. If it were up to you that house would still be a dump.”
“Hey!” she yelped as the back of her hand hit his upper arm before she could stop herself. He turned to her sharply, eyebrow cocked in a mix of surprise and amusement.
“Sorry,” she mumbled dropping her gaze. “Force of habit.”
His lips twisted into a cocky grin.
She rolled her eyes, thrusting her chin out. “For your information,” she tipped her glass to him, “I do know how to clean now. And cook too.”
Three years ago. After her miscarriage…
The day after she was discharged from the hospital, she resigned from the diner and packed her things. Twenty-one years of existence reduced into a small suitcase. No heavy lifting for at least a month, Dr. Robinson had told her. She was supposed to come back to see the OB-GYN after a week for a follow-up. But she was a long way from Brooklyn by then.
She said her goodbyes to Hadley and took the bus to Manchester, New Hampshire, where Claudine Crane – a friend of her deceased grandmother, Adele – owned a Bed & Breakfast.
Claudine was her gran’s best friend, who moved from the South to the North when her husband passed away almost a decade ago. The raven-haired beauty had always been fond of the Stackhouse sisters every time they would visit their gran in Louisiana.
The sweet old woman in her sixties was living with her sister Claudette, an old maid in her late fifties, and together the siblings managed a quaint B&B in the highlands of New Hampshire.
Claudine took one look at Sookie and pulled her in a teary hug before she welcomed Sookie to her new home. Claudine gave her one of the rooms on the third floor of the triple decker inn.
The Crane sisters kept to themselves. They didn’t ask why Sookie left Seattle and she didn’t offer any explanation either. The Cranes were just glad that Sookie went to them when she did. Claudine and Claudette, who both had dark hair with gray streaks and mesmerizing gray eyes, had the warmth of true Southern women and the quiet elegance that reminded Sookie of her grandmother.
Sookie earned her keep by working the front of the house, cleaning rooms and preparing meals for the guests. Bed and Breakfast brought so many memories and she held on to the good ones like they were her lifeline.
She learned how to cook through Claudette, who taught her that a woman should be able to cook at least one dish flawlessly. Not to impress men, but as a part of her arsenal. Sookie liked the sound of that and before she knew it she was whipping up a perfect Hollandaise for the Benedicts.
The hospitality business was doing well, especially in the winter when yuppies or young honeymooners from Boston and New York stay at the inn for a ski holiday. It kept her busy and tired to the bone. Sookie embraced the exhaustion. It was only when she was physically worn out that she could mentally shut down.
Although she was still reeling from the loss of her unborn child, she didn’t want to give Claudine and Claudette something to worry about. She wouldn’t be a burden. Not to anyone.
She might be able to escape reality with conscious effort. But not when she succumbed to slumber.
Her dreams were always plagued with Eric and a baby with bright blue eyes – the exact shade as his father’s.
The baby was always a boy. He had his eyes, her nose, his lips and their golden hair. He was perfect.
And when he smiled she swore it was like looking at mini Eric. The sound of his giggles was like soft chimes in the wind, extremely contagious. She would wake up with renewed vigor and she knew she’d be untouchable for the rest of the day.
There also times when she’d dream of him weeping. His cries – like staccato hiccups – could turn Sookie into a psychopath. She would immediately be engulfed by an unadulterated urge to strangle someone with a piano wire because her child was miserable.
She was a mother who never was.
She knew it would only be a matter of time before she imploded. That was when she started writing her ‘dream letters’.
Pam still provided her comic relief with her impeccable sarcasm. She would call her sister once every two weeks from a disposable cell and she would fill Sookie everything about home and, of course, Eric. She would also speak briefly to her mother as they talk about something mundane. Michelle, unlike Pam, knew that she was staying with the Cranes. It was the only way she could convince her mother she was safe. Her mother insisted on sending her checks every month to help her financially. She would cash the checks as soon as they arrived and put the money in a separate account – one she never used. The Crane sisters, aside from the free board and lodging, paid her a small wage for her duties in the B&B. She accepted them knowing full well it was futile to say no to Southern ladies. They also let her keep the tips the guests left.
Life at the North was simple and quiet. And she needed that kind of inner peace.
Then winter came.
Her first and only winter in New Hampshire could rival that of Winterfell. The biting wind could make her curse like a woman possessed and the sight of the thick layers of snow outside could turn her into a nasty bitch.
Eric would have loved the weather in New England. She recalled how often she had teased him about his thick Siberian blood and how he would counter it by telling her he would send her off to Florida the minute she turned forty.
She missed him so much. She missed him like she missed the sun on her back.
December snuck in on her like an old enemy. And before she could channel her inner Grinch, Claudette was already dragging her all over Manchester to get Christmas decorations for the inn.
The week before the 25th, Sookie took the bus to Massachusetts to do her Christmas shopping. She bought her mother and Godric a snow globe, Hadley, a purse and the Crane siblings, a set of matching scarves and gloves. (God knows they needed those to survive the winter.)
The most expensive present she bought was an Italian cashmere cardigan for Pam. It cost her three months of salary but it was worth it.
She got Eric his favorite label of cologne. She bought two – one for him and one for her. She would spritz some on her pillow and a little on the inside of her wrists. She was like a junkie and his scent was her fix.
She boxed up the gifts and mailed it to Hadley in Brooklyn along with enough cash to ship the presents to Seattle.
The days passed by and while Sookie was contented living a serene life with the Crane sisters – away from Lilith or anyone who knew of her past – she felt that she was ready to move forward.
Her shot at a better employment came in the form of Luna Garza, one of their guests who stayed at the inn that Christmas. Luna, who was surveying the B&B for her next event, complimented Sookie for her intricate arrangement of poinsettia. Luna offered her a side job as decorator for the white wedding she was planning in January and Sookie jumped at the opportunity to showcase her skills. Luna was so impressed with her uncanny attention to detail that she offered her a full-time job as decorator for her social events in Manhattan.
Sookie didn’t know if she was ready to go back to New York. Claudine, intuitive like her gran, must have felt her apprehension and decided to put in her two cents.
“Adele had nothing but high hopes for you and your sister, Sookie,” Claudine had told her. “Just because something happened in your past doesn’t mean you can let it dictate your future.”
She came back to New York the following week without telling Pam or Hadley. Not just yet. Not until she was back on her feet again.
Sookie lived and breathed her job. Her non-existent social life catapulted her from a lowly decorator to assistant event coordinator in only three months.
That was when she decided to tell her sister, who was still harassing her to come back to Seattle. Pam couldn’t hide her excitement through the phone when she learned of Sookie’s new career.
“At least I don’t have to lie about your job when people ask me what you’re doing in New York,” Pam snarked.
Sookie wired the money her mother had been sending to Pam. One of them had to get a degree, Sookie told her sibling over the phone. Pam didn’t take much convincing and she used some of Sookie’s savings to buy plane tickets for her and Miriam when they visited her in Manhattan that spring.
Months dragged on but she somehow managed to get by. She got a one-bedroom apartment in lower Manhattan. The rent was ridiculous but it was only walking distance to her office. She would meet Hadley once a week and they would chat like rabid teenagers just like old times.
A year went down and then came Bill. It was a chance meeting when he turned out to be a groomsman in one of the weddings she was organizing.
Seeing Bill was like a blow to the gut. She ran away from home to get away from all the guilt, the pain and disappointments. And Bill reminded her of all those things. She would have bolted if she wasn’t afraid she would lose her job. Bill wanted to take her out for coffee and it was like she had crawled out of her own skin and watched herself nod yes.
It was surprisingly a lot easier to face Bill. He was, after all, a mere acquaintance. Someone who couldn’t make her fall apart like Eric could.
They went to the café near the reception and he gave her updates on Lilith. He told her that the silver-haired matriarch was walking with a crane now, which made her look more intimidating (and regal) than before. Sookie couldn’t even pretend to care.
Bill stayed in Manhattan for three more days before he went back to Los Angeles although Sookie only met with him once. He made Sookie promise that the next time he was in town they would have dinner together. She agreed halfheartedly knowing at the back of her mind that there wouldn’t be a next time.
“Did you know that the word whiskey was from the word ‘usquebaugh’ meaning water of life? Then they shortened it to usky before it became whiskey?” she told Lafayette – one of the kitchen staff – as he topped up Eric’s glass. She knew she was on the wrong side of inebriated when she started spewing her did-you-knows to someone she barely knew.
Eric was in the men’s room when Sam introduced Lafayette to Sookie. Lafayette, the gay version of Whoopie Goldberg, was pure delight with his rainbow jokes.
“Oh, sugah, it’s a good thing you’re hot because this nerdy vibe you have goin’ is not sexy at all,” Lafayette quipped, waving his palm in her face.
She laughed before she downed the rest of her drink. It was her second. And she no longer had the urge to hiss at the sting of the alcohol. Pam had checked on her after she had downed her first drink but retreated back to the supply room when she spied Eric.
Lafayette kept her company until he was summoned by a petite bottle-blonde woman called Ginger back to the kitchen. Lafayette blew Sookie a kiss when he made his exit.
Her glass made a hollow thud when it hit the wooden counter. She spun her head toward the other end of the bar where Sam was mixing cocktails for a group of women in expensive-looking suits. The way the women flipped their hair dramatically and flashed their iPhones like Steve Jobs’ groupies were screaming Apple Store whore.
It was bad enough that the jazz background music wasn’t loud enough to drown their conversation. Sookie had to overhear one of them saying she’d be going home with the ‘hot blonde with the sling’ tonight.
Good luck with that, she thought grimly before she could stop herself.
She waved at Sam, pointing at her empty glass. Sam held up a finger and mouthed, ‘one minute’. Sam looked like a headless chicken as he fumbled at the shelf, searching frantically for the right concoction of liquor. Her lips curved into a devious grin, deciding to play with Sam a bit to ease his anxiety.
Pressing her palms against the counter, she pushed herself up from her high stool and yelled, “Hey, who do I need to sleep with to get a drink around here!”
“That’d be me,” a husky voice whispered behind her making her freeze.
Her cheeks blazed as she sank back in her chair to find Eric staring at her with his lopsided smirk.
She swallowed as she grabbed his glass and raised it to her lips.
From the corner of her eye, she could see Sam giggling soundlessly on the other side and she suppressed the urge to flip him the bird.
“You were saying?” Eric crooned, prying his glass from her stiff fingers.
“Shut up,” she managed to spit out, keeping her eyes on the counter. God, she must have sounded like an idiot.
He chuckled, spinning his glass until he found the faint trace of her lipstick on the lid. His tongue darted out to moisten his lips before he took a long sip of whiskey right where her lipstick smeared.
He was toying with her. And damned if it wasn’t working.
Sam, mercifully, came and refreshed her glass. After a big gulp she was back in the game.
Soon she was laughing out loud again when Eric began sassing Sam for his subpar bartending skills.
“It’s a good thing he’s good at kissing my ass or I would have fired him on his first week,” Eric said with a barking chuckle as he turned to Sam’s direction, “Just look at the man,” he said tipping his glass to the hapless bartender, who barely caught the cocktail shaker he flipped in the air, “no wonder he’s not getting laid.”
“Excuse me!” Sam turned to them with an indignant huff, “I can hear you!”
Eric flipped his hand dismissively. “You’re right. We’ll trash you later.”
Sookie tittered, more like coughed as she choked on her drink. Eric rubbed the length of her back seemingly out of reflex. It took all her control not to go rigid at the gesture.
Friends could comfort each other, right?
It was a soothing ministration, one without malice or bitterness. She liked that. She wouldn’t mind hacking the whole night if he could have the doting Eric back again.
When her coughing subsided, he quickly reached for his heavy glass and tapped it with Sookie’s making a clinking chime. It was her third while Eric was on his fourth. She could sure hold her scotch, but she was still a lightweight compared to Eric.
Sookie grinned at him. “You see, we can be civil,” she pointed out before she asked another waitress, Holly, for a glass of water.
His lips tugged into a rueful smirk. “Don’t be so sure. The night’s still young,” he jested, throwing her a sideway glance.
She couldn’t help but mirror his smirk that eventually broke into a toothy grin. They must have looked like a couple of buffoons with their matching loony expression.
Then as if on cue Peabo Bryson’s melodious voice cut through the air replacing the soft jazz music.
‘If ever you’re in my arms again, this time…’
Sookie and Eric’s heads snapped at Sam at the same time, throwing identical glare at the bartender.
Sam’s arms shot up to the air in a comical gesture of I-didn’t-do-it.
Pam’s shrill giggle rang as she ducked her head out from the backroom, taking immense pleasure from her prank.
Sookie grabbed a piece of olive from the bowl under the counter and hurled it at her sister, who quickly slammed the door behind her.
The cheesy background music stopped at once but the furtive looks from the other barflies were enough to make her blush.
She quickly excused herself to go to the ladies’ room. She splashed cold water on her face and thanked all that was holy that the powder room was a single stall. If she could survive this night, she would be able to get through everything, was her mantra.
She marched out of the comfort room, considerably comforted.
“You know, I saw you on TV once,” Eric said casually, starting the ball rolling.
She arched her brow as she propped herself on the stool. “Oh?”
He bobbed his head. “You were sitting courtside and the camera zoomed in on you when you leaped out of your chair and yelled when D-Rose dunked in Melo’s face. I remembered the announcer saying ‘there seems to be a traitor on the Knicks’ bench, Kenny.'” His voice dropped low, mimicking the commentator’s voice.
She tucked her bottom lip under her teeth, mortified beyond words, remembering how she cheered for Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls while she was sitting on the side of the New York Knicks.
She could feel him staring and she couldn’t help but chortle. “Y’know they almost threw me out of the Garden for doing that? The entire Knicks’ bench was looking at me like ‘what the hell, bitch?’”
Eric guffawed, tapping the counter with his palms. “And I must say, you are not photogenic,” he teased.
“Jerk!” she shrieked with a grin, smacking his chest playfully.
Eric caught her wrist and her gaze, making her breath hitch. “Only because I know you’re prettier in person.”
Her heart thumped as the moment screeched to a halt.
Dammit, Eric, why do you have to ruin it by saying something so sickeningly sweet?
Fortunately, he let go of her wrist before she could start hyperventilating. And they fell into another companionable silence.
He cleared his throat and faced her again. “I never got to thank you for the gifts,” he said, changing the topic. “Thanks. I loved them.”
She took a deep breath, her pulse returning to normal as she forced another shrug. “Yeah, well. I’m glad you loved them because I still have a restraining order from Phil Jackson.”
His brow shot up to his forehead, his mouth forming into an O. “Y’mean you got the book signed yourself?”
“What do you think?” she volleyed back with mock offense. “I stalked him when he was in New York. Told him I was a big fan.”
“You were?” he cooed.
“As a matter of fact, I am. And it’s your fault,” she jabbed a finger at him. “You practically have a shrine for him. From the moment we met, all you could talk about was how great the Bulls were and how Jackson’s triangle offense was the best thing to happen in NBA. I never really stood a chance; your love for the Bulls rubbed off on me.”
He was grinning from ear to ear, running the pad of his thumb across his lower lip. She could hear her heart was pounding in her ear. She had forgotten how charming he could be if he wanted.
“How about Bill’s love for the Lakers?” he poked “I know he’s still a Laker.”
She crinkled her nose in disgust. “I will never be a Laker,” she answered automatically locking her eyes with his. “I hate Los Angeles.”
That statement could have never been more sincere. If she could help it, she would never return to that damned place ever again.
“Yet you married one,” he sighed.
There was something in his tone that hit something bigger than a nerve. It wasn’t anger or resentment, more like a quiet surrender. And it bothered her even more than his bitterness. What was wrong with her? Wasn’t that what she wanted, to have a normal relationship with Eric? Why did it hurt when it sounded like he was giving up? God, she was hopeless.
She saw him slouch, his elbow resting on top of the counter. “You know when I asked you to marry me; I said I’ll always be here for you. Always,” he said, fixing his eyes on the glass he was spinning slowly. “I still mean it. Even if I’m not your always.”