She bit her lip to stifle another grin.
Dog burn it, what was wrong with her?
She should have been appalled or at the very least, indignant.
He had sported a hard-on in front of her. What was so damn arousing with her cleaning his wound?
Hmm… was he fantasizing about her?
Okay, so maybe there was a teeny-tiny part in her that was flattered at how his body reacted at her ministration. He wasn’t hard on the eyes, that one was a fact. He had this bad boy allure that was quite difficult to ignore.
Ah, there’s the rub. Sookie wasn’t fond of bad boys. Bad boys were good and titillating in romance novels but not in real life.
Bad boys equaled heartache.
Bad boys were, in a word, bad.
She’d be damned to get infatuated with the likes of him.
As her Gran used to say: I may have been born at night but not last night.
The longer Eric Rothman was in their care, the more befuddling it got for her. She couldn’t wait to get him out of her hair.
Besides, Eric couldn’t be interested in her. No freaking way. It was clear he didn’t like her monologue about Big Al and Jason. Perhaps it was their mutual dislike of each other that roused the sexual tension.
She shook her head to stop herself from getting flustered. Again.
“Lord help us, she’s grinnin’ again,” Sookie heard Arlene croon, followed by a chorus of giggles from Dawn and Maudette.
Sookie turned to them. She had an inkling she was the source of their amusement.
The looks on their faces confirmed her suspicion.
“Finally, she’s back on Earth,” Dawn announced. “Damn girl you’ve been givin’ that ketchup bottle a hand job for hours. Are you practicing for somethin’ Sook?”
Sookie’s gaze fell on the red condiment bottle in her hand and felt her cheeks warm up. She quickly put the bottle back in the condiments’ rack by the order window along with the mustard and the hot sauce.
Tara, who was behind the bar, wiping the counter and obviously listening in on the barmaids’ conversation rolled her eyes and curled her finger at Sookie motioning her to come closer to the bar.
Sookie crossed over to the bar and slipped into one of the high stools. It wasn’t a busy night at Merlottes with only two tables occupied. It was already ten minutes past seven and the dinner crowd had yet to show up. It wasn’t shocking though, Wednesdays were usually dry, which was why they close up earlier on Wednesdays. Sookie had been looking forward to having an early night – cold beer, warm tub, soft bed.
“Start talkin’,” Tara always shot straight to the point.
“Talk about what?”
“C’mon Sook, we’ve been watchin’ you. You look like you were havin’ a wet dream with your eyes open.”
“I’m not!” she spat a little too defensively.
“Is it Alcide? I heard he’s back.”
Sookie bit hard, swallowing the bitterness that sprung up her throat. Was she the last person in Louisiana to find out he was back in town?
“How’d you know?”
“Momma told me this mornin’. She said Alcide came by the Parish to see Reverend Daniels yesterday to talk about some kind of fundraiser for the earthquake victims in Nepal.”
“It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the only one who can make your panties drop.”
Sookie lapsed into silence, feeling a twinge of guilt for having completely forgotten about Alcide.
“Y’know what, s’okay, I don’t need the details. ‘Sides I have somethin’ that can take your mind off of McSteamy.”
Yes, that was what she needed, a diversion. She leaned in closer, giving her best friend her full attention.
“Y’know Momma and Reverend Daniels are gettin’ married, right?”
“Of course. It’s this Friday, yeah? Am I invited? I didn’t get any invite.”
Tara shot her a look. “Family doesn’t need invite bitch.”
Sookie smiled. They were family.
“Okay, so the person who volunteered to make their cake came down with a nasty flu. I suggested that you could make the cake.”
Sookie gaped at her friend. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. You know how to bake. And I bet you can do a better job at it. It’s nothin’ grand. Momma only wants a simple red velvet, like the one you made for Gran’s birthday two years ago.”
Sookie fell silent. Baking was how Sookie and her grandmother spent their Sundays after church. When her Gran died, Sookie’s love for making pastries died along with her.
“I haven’t baked anythin’ in a year, Tara. I don’t know if my mixer still works.”
“Then get a new one,” Tara lobbed. “Better yet, do it here. I’m sure Sam won’t mind. Momma’ll pay you. You need this. You always tell me you need a sideline. This can be it. You can be the next Paula Deen. Lord knows we need a new one.”
Sookie chuckled. She could use the extra money. Especially with Jason taking on fatherhood and God knows what else.
“I don’t know what to say Tara.”
“I think the word you’re lookin’ for is ‘Thanks’,” Tara grinned.
“Ow hell no.” Tara wagged her finger. “Besties are for hussies. I’ll settle for bitch.”
“Thank you, bitch.”
“You’re welcome, whore.” Tara tipped her head to the door. “Head’s up, your bionic brother’s here.”
Sookie swiveled her stool to see Jason coming toward her, scratching the back of his neck.
Sookie’s foot pressed on the brake pedal hard – making the tires screech and grind against the gravel in the driveway – out of sheer frustration.
Jason’s truck was nowhere to be seen, which meant her stupid brother had ignored her pleas and still went to Fantasia to visit Crystal.
That wasn’t even the worst thing as she recalled her conversation with him at Merlottes a few hours earlier.
“I knew it. I fucking knew it,” Sookie grumbled as she kicked a pebble in the staff parking lot.
“Only for a few days, Sook. He’s in a real bind. You should’ve seen him while he was on the phone. He looked like he was about to burst an artery.”
“We’re not runnin’ a B and B, Jase. Why couldn’t he ask his friends to come and get him?”
“Aren’t you listenin’ to me?” The exasperation in Jason’s voice was thick. “He’d been screwed. His associates were also in a pickle. It’ll take time to come up with the money he needs to get back to New York.”
“Well if you trust him this much then why don’t we just lend him the money for the plane ticket and he can wire it back to us.”
“Have you seen him, Sook? The man’s not fit to travel.”
Sookie couldn’t argue with that.
“One week tops.”
Sookie leaned against the hood of Jason’s truck, defeated. She knew it was one argument she’d never win.
She fished for her keys inside her sling bag. She couldn’t believe this. Not only did Jason strike a deal with Eric behind her back, he had the audacity to leave their guest alone in the house.
What if Eric was con man? A thief? A serial killer? Or worse…
Damn it, she was going to sleep with her sawed off tonight.
All the lights were turned on. From the porch, the kitchen, the living room, all the way to the bathroom upstairs.
Sookie passed by the guest room –which was Gran’s old bedroom – to peer at their unwanted guest. She had agreed to let Eric use Gran’s room because it had the biggest bed and was closest to the bath.
The lamps on both sides of the four-poster bed were lit, providing a soft glimmer on the man sleeping under the sheets.
She kept the door ajar, enough to give him privacy, before she marched toward her own chamber.
Armed with a pair of white cotton pajamas and her pink fluffy bathrobe, she trudged to the bathroom to take a long hot bath.
“Sonofabitch!” she exclaimed as she took in the sight in front of her.
The tiles of the bathroom floor were wet and soapy that she almost slipped. Luckily she was able to grab onto the edge of the white porcelain sink, which was also damp, before she could dive head first on the ground. There was a used razor blade in the sink, along with a small tube of toothpaste and a disposable toothbrush.
Eric’s discarded pants, scrub top and wet towel were strewn pell mell in the tub. She could only say a small prayer of gratitude that his underwear wasn’t in the pile.
Was he even wearing one? She couldn’t bring herself to dwell on it as she stormed out of the bathroom and into the guest room, ready to raise hell.
Who the fuck did he think he was, Prince fucking Charles? Did he really expect her to pick up after him, tend to his every need at a ring of a bell?
You’ve got another think coming, buster.
“Eric!” she hissed when she reached the side of his bed, clutching her clothes and robe, fighting the urge to kick the side of the bed. “Eric, wake up.”
“Sylvie…” he moaned, turning to the side with his eyes still shut.
“It’s Soo-kie,” she gritted.
His hand shot up as though searching for something. She took it with the intention of yanking him awake.
Then she felt it. His hand was warm, too warm. She dropped her clothes on the floor and hunkered down to take a better look at him. He was pale – paler than normal. He was wearing one of Jason’s black tank tops, which had hiked up to his stomach, revealing the dangling gauze where his wound was supposed to be.
She cupped his temple with her palm, brushing back his hair. Her eyes widened in panic. He had a fever.
Standing up, she dashed to the wall beside the doorjamb to flick the switch of the fluorescent light. Sprinting back to his side, she began to check on his wound for infection. The gauze wasn’t taped properly so it untangled as he rolled on to his side. His suture was still intact with no sign of pus or watery discharge.
“Eric,” her voice was softer now as she shook his shoulder. He writhed and moaned again. Shit, was he delirious?
Sookie ran to her room to get the medical kit from her drawer along with her sling bag. She found the infrared thermometer and aimed it at his forehead. It pinged thrice, signaling an abnormal temperature. She read the scan: 101.3 Fahrenheit.
She reached for her phone inside the bag and began dialing her brother’s number. If Eric was having a septic shock, she would have to bring him to the hospital.
Jason’s phone rang as the bed trembled.
She lifted the thin floral blanket covering Eric’s leg and saw Jason’s phone vibrating to her call. Jason must have left his cell with Eric, in case his ‘associates’ from New York called. Genius.
She tried Crystal’s mobile but her call went straight to voice mail. Damn it.
Staring at her phone, she started scrolling for the emergency number for the Bon Temps clinic. She would request an ambulance. Yes, that’s what she’d do. As she was scrolling down, her thumb halted.
They had exchanged numbers last night before she left the hospital. Without much deliberation, she pressed it and put the phone against her ear. It took three rings before…
“Hello?” Alcide grumbled.
“Did I wake you?” she asked, forgoing the usual preamble. “It’s Sookie.”
“I know,” he murmured. “Is there something wrong?”
“It’s Eric. He’s running a fever. I’m afraid he’s having a septic shock. Jason isn’t home. I can’t wake Eric up. And…”
I’m afraid, she wanted to add but didn’t. She was rambling, terrified. She knew the mortality rate of people who had septic shock post-surgery and it frightened her to even think of Eric’s odds.
“Sookie, Sookie, calm down.” There was a pause as she heard a commotion from the other line. Like something crashing against the floor. “What’s his temperature?”
“One hundred one point three.”
“Okay, it’s not that high.”
Not that high? She wanted to yell at Alcide. What number did he consider high enough before it was socially acceptable for her to panic?
“Is he having chills?”
She grazed her hand against the length of his arms.
“Is he having delusions?”
Was moaning her name considered a delusion?
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay, so here’s what we’re gonna do: I’m gonna go to your house. I can be there in half an hour. You just stay calm and keep him comfortable until I get there. Can you do that?”
Of course she could. She wasn’t an imbecile. And she hated how Alcide was making her feel like one.
“I’ll be there soon.”
Sookie bobbed her head even though she knew Alcide wouldn’t see her response. She was beyond caring at that point.
Alcide took twenty-two minutes to get to the farmhouse. Yes, she timed it. It was the only thing she could do after she placed a cold washcloth on Eric’s forehead.
“How’s he doing?” Alcide asked as Sookie led him to the guest room.
“I checked his temp five minutes ago, still one-oh-one.”
Alcide, who was wearing a white wife beater and a pair of jeans, strolled inside the room and went straight to his unconscious patient. He hunkered down and took out a penlight from the small khaki knapsack he brought.
“No sign of abscess,” Alcide murmured for Sookie’s benefit as he gingerly pressed on the area surrounding the stitches. Eric jerked but his eyes remained shut. “Has he been taking his meds?”
Sookie opened her mouth to say yes then thought better of it. Truthfully, she wasn’t certain, and this was no time to make wild guesses.
“I’ll go check,” she replied as hurried out of the room. She might have spotted Eric’s pill bottle on the kitchen table when she went to get water earlier.
She was right. She was like a girl on fire as she zoomed back into the bedroom. She handed Alcide the orange container and stepped aside as the doctor pour the contents in his sizable palm.
“Just as I thought. Eric missed two doses. He’s s’pposed to take three a day.” Alcide was shaking his head. “It’s common for patients like him to get low-grade fever especially if he’s not taking the prescribed dose of antibiotics. His body is forced to work harder to ward off infection, thus triggering the fever.”
Sookie knew that. It was Fever 101. She dropped her gaze on her feet, feeling embarrassed. This was why she failed her MCAT because of her lack of focus.
Darting her gaze to the bed toward Alcide’s unconscious patient, she felt a sudden rush of rage. She wanted to yank Eric out of bed and slap him over and over. How could he be so careless? He had one job. How could he forget his one fucking job?
He could have died!
Fuming, she excused herself, exited the bedroom and raced into the bathroom to splash her face with cold water. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she couldn’t help but sigh. She was all over the place – then her eyes landed on the bath tub – just like those clothes.
Stomping like a petulant child, she gathered Eric’s dirty clothes and marched back down to the kitchen. They didn’t have a laundry room only a laundry space near the fridge. She opened the washer and dumped the prince’s soiled clothes one by one starting with the scrub top, followed by the damp towel, which was thankfully the same color as the blue top. She contemplated doing a separate wash for the pants but decided to ‘go green’ and chucked it in too.
The Southerner in her couldn’t do it though. If she were to do something, she might as well do it right. So before she could rebut her own argument, she pulled the denim trousers out of the machine to soak it with cold salt water first to lift the dried bloodstain. She was getting a basin in the closet under the kitchen counter when something fell out of the pants’ pocket, making a tinkling sound against the hardwood floor. Curious, she picked it up.
It was a ring. A huge ass diamond ring that made her jaw plummet to the floor.
“Sookie?” Alcide’s voice knocked the sense back to her.
Sookie balled her hand to hide the ring in her palm as she bolted upward to look at Alcide.
“I’m done. He woke up after you left but only for a couple of minutes; he’s still pretty groggy. I gave him ibuprofen for his fever. His temperature should go down in about an hour. Make sure he takes his antibiotics regularly for seven days. Check his temperature, if it goes one-oh-two or above, call me right away or bring him to the hospital,” Alcide prattled on in his clinical tone. “Oh be sure to keep him hydrated. And… avoid any strenuous activities.”
Sookie felt her cheeks burn. She didn’t have to be a doctor to decipher Alcide’s code for sex.
She shut her eyes and shook her head. “Of course, yeah, I understand.” She flashed him a meek smile. “Thank you Alcide. You didn’t have to come all the way here, but I’m real glad you did.”
Alcide beamed at her. “Anything for you, chère.”
The first time he called her that, she couldn’t sleep for days. This time though, it only made her uncomfortable. Maybe it was because it sounded a bit forced, like something he had to say to get a point across. Or maybe because she imagined him calling Debbie the same.
“Uhm… can I offer you anythin’ to drink? Tea, coffee, beer?”
Alcide shook his head. “As tempting as it sounds, I’m afraid I have to leave. I have a six o’clock shift tomorrow. Rain check?”
Alcide took a step closer and reached for her ball fist that held Eric’s secret. “Y’know I have to admit when I first heard about you and Eric, I didn’t believe it. But seeing how distraught you were…” His expression was pensive. “Eric is a lucky guy.”
Sookie gently pulled her hand out of his grasp. Eric’s ring was burning a hole in her palm, making their lie bigger than it should be. “Thanks Alcide.”
Alcide gave her a stiff nod.
Sookie led him to the front door and paused at the threshold. “So how much do I owe you for the house call?” she asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Alcide grinned. “First time’s free,” he quipped with a wink. “Get some rest chère.” With another nod, he jogged to his white SUV and sped away.
At half past midnight, Sookie was ready for bed. She had showered, brushed her teeth, changed into her soft cotton pajamas. His majesty’s clothes had been laundered, save for the pants that were soaking in a basin on top of the washer.
As she made her way to her bedroom, she couldn’t help but sneak one last peek at her guest. But a peek didn’t seem enough as she advanced to the bed.
It had been more than an hour. The medicine should have taken effect by now. Putting her palm against his forehead, she heaved a sigh of relief. His fever had subsided. Eric groaned and turned his head toward her, eyes still closed.
Sookie didn’t say a word. She simply looked to the bedside table as the diamond ring winked at her.
“Come back baby,” he murmured.
“Eric,” she shushed.
“I’m sorry baby… should’ve asked you to stay.”
Sookie watched Eric writhe under the sheets and thought that he might be having a bad dream… or good dream, whatever. If he wouldn’t stop moving he was going to unravel his dressing again. She had to make him stay still. Climbing on top of the bed, she took his hand to force him to face her and roll on his side – the uninjured side.
“You’re so much trouble, you know that?” she whispered, sweeping the hair off his forehead.
“Mmm-hmm,” he hummed.
It felt odd to have a conversation with someone sleeping – odd but somewhat calming.
He looked so peaceful. Like a naughty two-year-old who was down for a nap after painting the walls with peanut butter. She wanted to wake him up to set up some ground rules. To tell him it wasn’t right to give her a mini-stroke.
To ask him about the ring.
Pushing herself to a sitting position, she reached for the ring and held it up.
She could work in Merlottes all her life and she still wouldn’t afford a diamond this size.
She wondered how it would look around her finger. Before she could stop herself she slipped it in on her finger. It was one size too big. It definitely didn’t belong to her.
It was beautiful though.
She held up her hand and smiled.
This ring could put her through med school. It could pay off Crystal’s debt. It could give Jason the seed money to start up his own car repair shop. It could solve all their financial woes.
Ah, the power of one ring.
Her eyes felt heavy and she let them droop.
Then she heard knocking. More like banging. She leapt off the bed and padded down to the front door. Who could it be? It couldn’t be Jason. He had his own keys. Peering through the glass window by the side of the door she saw Alcide’s truck on the driveway.
Swinging the door open, she was greeted with the sweaty doctor.
“Alcide?” she asked, confused. “What’s wrong? Did you forget anything?”
Alcide panted as he stepped in, making her back away. Closing the door behind him, he stalked toward her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked again.
“Tell Eric I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For this…” Then with no further explanation he cupped the back of her neck and kissed her.
Her breath got caught in her throat as her knees buckled. She had to hold on to something to keep herself from falling backward so she latched on Alcide’s broad shoulders.
What is happening?
Why is he kissing me?
And more importantly, why am I not kissing him back?
Her eyes snapped shut as her lips parted. Alcide quickly thrust his tongue in while she struggled to keep up with him.
Everything was happening so fast. She couldn’t think. She could feel Alcide’s hand sliding down the length of her back. Her fingers moved up, weaving through his thick black hair. His lips were burning against hers and she was getting lightheaded.
He pulled her flush against him. She felt so tiny compared to his huge frame. He finally pulled away and started placing moist, open-mouthed kisses along the curve of her neck. He was so hot, literally, like heat was radiating out of his pores. She could feel his sweat seeping through her shirt.
“Sorry I took so long, Sook,” he husked as he nipped the bottom of her ear.
She threw her head back.
“You were worth the wait,” she whispered hoarsely.
“It’s always been you,” he grumbled against her clavicle.
“What about Debbie?” she had to ask.
Her eyes burst wide open. She looked down. Her fingers were no longer tangled through unruly black hair, there was only gold, like the color of the waning sun.
She let out a gasp just in time for him to look up.
The man caressing her wasn’t Alcide. Not anymore.
His lips tugged into a lopsided smirk before his large hands framed her face, his thumbs delicately stroking her lips.
“Hello lover,” he hushed before his mouth crashed over hers.
She woke up panting, as she pushed herself off the headboard.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.
Her head whipped to the side and found Eric sleeping peacefully beside her, his long arm draped around her waist.
She untangled his arm around her middle as carefully as her trembling hands could do before she slipped out of the room as quickly and as quietly as she came.
She ran straight to her bedroom closing the door behind her and leaned heavily against it.
What the fuck was that?
Was there an earthquake or was she still shaking?
She held out her hands, palm down in front of her to steady herself. And that was when she saw the ring on her left hand.
She cursed out loud as she pulled it off.
This was how Eric managed to invade her dream – because of this stupid ring.
For Chrissake, hadn’t she learned anything from Gollum? Coveting someone else’s precious could really drive a person to madness.