SIX MONTHS LATER, DECEMBER 2021
“So?” Hunter asked. “Will you do it?”
Coby looked at Hunter with a little shock. “You want me to be your groomsman?”
“Who else?” Hunter said with an easy grin. “Dad’s gonna be my best man, but Emma’s got two people on her side, and I wanted you for my second.”
“But, surely, you have tons of people to pick from,” Coby said as he spun his beer in his hands.
Though he had made it a practice to meet up with Hunter and Emma once a week at Merlotte’s for the past six months, Coby knew that Hunter had a lot of people that he was closer with.
“You were the first kid who was ever my friend,” Hunter explained, “except for Em. Of course, I want you to stand up with me!”
Coby held his countenance together. Everything was easy for Hunter, even this decision. Coby didn’t know whether he loved or hated Hunter in that moment.
“Sure. I mean—if you’re sure,” Coby said.
Hunter grinned. “I am. Thank you so much!”
Like a breath of heaven, Emma rejoined them—of course, tucking herself into Hunter’s ready side as she did so.
Coby felt no ambivalence in that moment. He hated Hunter.
“Well?” Emma asked, as she looked anxiously at Hunter.
“He’s in!” Hunter said excitedly.
“Sweet!” Emma exclaimed, kissing Hunter on the cheek as if he’d been the one to agree.
Coby really hated Hunter.
“Who are your attendants, Emma?” Coby asked, hoping to pull Emma’s lips from Hunter’s body before he combusted in his anger.
“My mom,” Emma effused. “And Becky, of course!”
Emma gave Coby a smile as she said Becky’s name, and Coby shifted a bit in his seat.
A bit uncomfortably.
“I heard you are dating her,” Emma said as she took a drink of her beverage, unconsciously swirling her straw in a way that made Cody shift for a completely different reason.
“We’ve gone out a few times,” Coby replied. Becky was older than he was by a few years, but she was nice, and—most importantly—she had become like an older sister to Emma over the years. In fact, Becky, a Were-panther who had once helped Jason, had lived with the Merlottes after she’d run away from her inbred kin. She’d once been Emma’s go-to babysitter, but the two now considered themselves family.
Becky had become a kindergarten teacher several years before and now lived in a little apartment owned by her “adoptive” father, Sam Merlotte. And—so that he could be around when Hunter and Emma were in town—Coby had gotten an apartment in Bon Temps too, though he now worked in Shreveport.
Coby hated living in the Podunk town and the simple apartment, but he wasn’t about to give up any chance to see Emma since she was in Bon Temps only during the weekends and holidays nowadays.
“Cool,” Hunter commented as Holly brought them over their food order.
Holly was still married to Andy Bellefleur, and Coby had once called her Aunt Holly—back when he truly felt like a member of the Bellefleur family.
“Hey, sweetie,” Holly said, bending down to kiss Coby on the cheek. “Your daddy made sure your steak was just how you like it.”
“Thanks, Holly,” Coby said.
Holly put her hands on her hips. “Now, mister, your daddy might let you get away with callin’ him by his first name, but I never gave you permission not to call me Aunt Holly.” She paused and softened her look and her tone. “Now, I know that your mom and dad aren’t married anymore, but I’m always gonna be your aunt in my head, Coby Bellefleur.”
Coby glanced over at Emma, who was looking at him encouragingly. “I know, Aunt Holly,” he said obligingly. “It’s just—you know how complicated things are with my mother.”
“I know, sweetie,” she said sympathetically as she bent down to give him another kiss on the cheek. “You know we all wish things had turned out differently, especially your dad.” She looked pityingly back toward the kitchen. In fact, Arlene’s betrayal had broken Terry’s heart. It was only his love for his children that had kept him going until he’d met Jennifer, who had infused new life into him.
Coby knew that his embarrassment was showing on his face as Holly walked away. “Sorry about that. She gets a little emotional at times,” Cody explained.
Emma brightened his world by giving him a smile and a pat on his arm. “Holly’s sweet. And we all know how much she and your dad love you. I’m just sorry your mom—uh—well—you know.” Her cheeks flared with a blush—an enchanting one.
“No, I’m sorry, Emma,” Coby said, trying to keep the tears out of his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to look weak in front of Hunter. “What Arlene said to you when she learned that you were a shifter . . . ,” he began.
“You hush,” Emma said, taking his hand for a moment—a beautiful moment to Coby. “We all know that you aren’t responsible for your momma. And I know you don’t feel like she does.”
Coby nodded. In fact, he felt the opposite of his mother. He would love to see Emma in her shifted form—her cheetah form—but he’d never been invited to the ætt land to watch her run.
Of course, that property might expel him now anyway, so it was likely better that way, but Coby hoped one day to see her, and he vowed to protect her from any discrimination she might face—even from his own mother!
Emma pulled out her phone and began to text someone. She gave Coby a sly look as she snuggled back into Hunter’s side.
Despite the look, Coby refused to let himself behave—outwardly, at least—like a love-starved idiot. He would not lie to himself by believing that Emma’s kindness and playfulness toward him was anything other than friendship. She’d always had eyes only for Hunter.
But those eyes were clouded. And Coby was convinced that—one day—he would have Emma’s love.
Hunter looked down at his girlfriend’s phone. “Em,” he said a little sternly, “ask Coby before you hit the send button.”
Emma looked up at Hunter with fire in her eyes. She was gorgeous! And Coby loved it when the two fought, especially when Hunter behaved in a high-handed way. For some reason, Emma hated that above anything else.
“Hunter Eric Northman, you know not to take that tone with me,” Emma growled.
“Min raring,” Hunter said softly, almost like it was a caress of his voice. “I don’t want Coby to be uncomfortable, and you know what happened the last time you played matchmaker.”
As if he really had caressed her, Emma was immediately soothed. She leaned upward and kissed Hunter squarely, but chastely, on the lips before turning to Coby.
“I was texting Becky to join us—I mean—if you’re okay with that,” Emma said.
“That’d be fine, Emma,” Coby said with a smile, though he hated that she’d just cowed to Hunter. Still, he knew he needed to keep up appearances, and he was even glad that he now had a guarantee for sex that night.
He needed a release!
However, he would make sure not to show Becky a lot of affection while Emma was there. That wouldn’t do, after all.
Coby checked Hunter’s expression, hoping that he’d see some kind of triumph there since he’d “won” his and Emma’s little scuffle. But he saw nothing on Hunter’s face except the easy, confident expression he generally wore. He looked like Eric when he wore that expression—despite the fact that Eric was not Hunter’s biological dad.
Coby held in his own celebratory grin. He’d recently met Hunter’s father—Remy Savoy. And Coby was certain that Hunter was not going to enjoy the little reunion that would soon be coming his way.
Coby turned his attention back to Emma as her phone beeped. She looked pleased by whatever response she got and winked at him.
“What other matchmaking experience have you had?” Coby asked Emma, hoping to fire up her anger at Hunter’s highhandedness again.
She bit her lip and sighed.
Hunter grinned. “One of the Weres guarding us at school took a liking to Clovache.”
“They would have been cute together,” Emma said even as she glanced nervously over her shoulder to steal a look at her guard.
Coby could have sworn that he saw Clovache roll her eyes.
Hunter chuckled. “And they might still be. But arranging for a candlelight dinner the first week they knew each other?”
Emma couldn’t help but to giggle, and a snort came out of her mouth.
Coby sighed. Adorable.
Hunter snorted in mimic of her, making fun of her.
Coby wanted to take his fucking head off!
But Emma didn’t seem to mind. “What are we at?” she asked with a challenge in her tone. “Like ten to a million?”
“Hey!” Hunter defended. “I don’t snort!”
Emma’s eyebrow rose upward on her forehead.
“I grunt,” Hunter tried.
“Riiiiight,” Emma intoned, sounding like Pam in that moment.
God—Coby hated when they teased one another! He hated the intimacy of such acts. And he imagined taking the gun he’d recently bought and blowing Hunter’s fucking head off in order to stop them from happening.
He took a breath to calm himself, thankful once again that Robin had made it possible for him to hide his thoughts from Hunter.
“So how’s school?” Coby asked before his sinister inclinations pulled him too far away from his assigned task that night, which was to find out what classes Emma and Hunter were planning to take during the spring semester.
Emma immediately pouted.
“What?” Coby asked even as Hunter got a triumphant look on his face.
“Mr. Genius here got a better score on the history final than I did, and he’s still gloating,” Emma said.
Coby smiled a little. Perhaps Hunter’s arrogance would finally make a chink in the couple’s armor.
“You are the one who wanted to bet on it,” Hunter said as he wrapped his arm affectionately around her shoulder. “And I beat you only by one point! And you still got a higher A in the class overall.”
Emma popped his shoulder even as Coby’s hopes sank.
“You would have never beaten me if I hadn’t helped you study,” she pouted.
“Men du hjälpte mig, min raring,” Hunter whispered to her. [“But you did help me, my dearest.”]
Coby seethed on the inside. He hated that Hunter had been the one to learn the Viking’s language from the man himself. He hated that he’d had to learn Swedish on his own and in secret. He hated that, even knowing that, he couldn’t make out much of what Hunter and Eric said to each other since they often spoke in Old Norse. He hated that he understood that Hunter had just called Emma his “dearest.” And most of all, he hated that she seemed to melt as she heard his words.
Emma grinned up at the love of her life. Oh—she was only eighteen, but she had known that Hunter Savoy—and later Hunter Northman—was the love of her life from the moment she’d met him.
Flashback to Emma and Hunter’s first meeting—she was 6 and he was 5
Emma frowned at her mother as she looked at her in the rearview mirror.
The boy she was having me meet was only five years old—a mere infant! On the other hand, Emma was already six and in school.
Luna parked their van outside of the house where Sookie Stackhouse lived. Emma could close her eyes and remember Adele Stackhouse. The old lady had brought treats to her Sunday school class until she’d died. And Miss Sookie had done the same for a while. But Emma had heard that Miss Sookie was out of town.
“A vampire lives in there—doesn’t he?” Emma asked her mom.
“Yes,” Luna responded. “And a little boy. He’s gonna be homeschooled, and Mr. Northman asked me to help his teacher.”
“Can we stay till nighttime then?” Emma asked her mom. She’d never seen a vampire up-close, so getting a glimpse of one might even make the forced “play-date” bearable.
“No,” Luna responded. “We’re meeting Mr. Merlotte for dinner tonight.
Emma couldn’t help but to smile a little.
“You like Mr. Merlotte—right?” Luna asked her daughter.
The little girl nodded. “Yeah. He’s real nice.”
Luna shared a longer smile with her daughter through the rearview mirror. Emma knew that her mom liked Mr. Merlotte, too. And Emma figured Sam would be her new daddy before long.
At least, that’s what she hoped.
Emma’s own daddy had never made her momma smile—at least not that Emma remembered. He’d been mean to Luna, and—when Emma had to spend time with him—he’d always told her bad things about her mother. Like how she wasn’t nice to him or how Emma should like him better than she liked her momma.
Marcus Bozeman’s words had made Emma feel uncomfortable because she’d never seen her momma be mean to him. And Luna had definitely not been mean to Emma!
Luna opened Emma’s car door and unbuckled her car seat belt for her—even though the child was able to do it for herself. But—since she didn’t really wanna meet Hunter—Emma wasn’t anxious to get out of the car.
Luna took Emma’s hand and practically pulled her toward the front door. A pretty lady answered.
“Hello Miranda!” Luna said.
“Luna,” the woman said, sticking out her hand in greeting. “And you must be Emma,” she said to the little girl.
“Yeah,” Emma said, looking up into her eyes. She somehow knew that Miss Miranda was two-natured—but not like her mom, Mr. Merlotte, or even her dad. “What are you, Miss Miranda?” Emma asked her.
“That’s not polite,” Luna said as the woman laughed.
“I’m a were-lioness,” Miranda smiled. “The queen of the jungle,” she added with a wink.
Emma frowned. “But there aren’t any jungles in Bon Temps.”
The lioness laughed. “But there are trees aplenty in the back yard. Why don’t you and Hunter go play among them while your mom and I talk about his schooling?”
For the first time, Emma noticed the little boy standing behind Miranda. He was shorter than Emma was. That was for sure! His hair was a dirty blond color, and his eyes were brown.
He looked scared of Emma.
And she frowned at him.
“I like climbing trees,” Emma commented, though she wasn’t particularly speaking to the boy. Instead, she just let go of her mom’s hand and started to go around to the back of the house—not really caring if the boy was following or not.
Emma liked to skip. The flight she achieved from hop to hop was much greater than a “normal” girl would have achieved, but she’d never wanted to be normal. She wanted to sweep over the land—barely touching it as she moved.
She stopped in front of a huge tree, which must have been very old, given its thick and gnarled branches. She smiled up at it and climbed, pulling her lithe body quickly from branch to branch until she’d reached a comfortable perch almost thirty feet above the ground.
When Emma was settled, she looked down and saw the little boy looking up at her. She noticed a woman behind him—a brunette with fierce eyes. The woman was clearly watching over Hunter, though she was keeping her distance.
Hunter looked up at Emma with questing eyes, and he bit his lower lip so hard in contemplation that it plumped between his teeth.
He said nothing as he reached up to grab a branch, his spiny arms pulling him upward—with difficulty. Emma could tell that Hunter wasn’t physically strong, and she found herself wondering why.
Didn’t he play?
Hadn’t he ever climbed a tree before?
Who didn’t climb trees?
What kind of kid didn’t climb trees?
As Hunter looked up at Emma again, pulling himself to the next branch, she forgot about his lack of physical strength. Instead she was taken in by his eyes. They were brown, but had just enough green in them to make her think of a summer meadow—alive but fighting with the sun in order to retain its water.
She could tell that those eyes—brightened by exercise—were trying to say things that his shy lips couldn’t. Indeed, he’d not yet uttered a word to her.
And yet he climbed.
She felt her heart clench and placed a hand over it—wondering what had caused the feeling.
As Hunter climbed higher, she knew the answer.
It was him.
She closed her eyes as he approached. Before that moment, she’d been a six-year-old girl whose life had centered on her mom and school. But now, she felt like she was Hunter’s girl, and he was hers.
But how could that be?
What did that mean?
Emma didn’t know.
But from her perch in the tree, she gave Hunter a little smile, and that was all it took to convince him to climb further upward—to her.
His face was the picture of terror as he moved higher and higher, but he set his jaw determinedly.
Emma smiled again at him, and she had a thought that she didn’t quite understand: “He will always get to me—always come for me—no matter what.”
Hunter’s gangly limbs took to the tree like a fish would to land, but he kept climbing anyway. His hands shook from limb to limb, and his feet slipped multiple times, but still he climbed. He’d bitten his lip until it bled, but still he’d climbed.
Emma thought about stopping him—about going back down to him—as his foot slipped in such a way that she worried he would really fall. It was then that she realized that he was more than twenty feet up—definitely far enough up to harm himself if he fell.
However, before she could move downward, the look on the face of the woman who was watching over Hunter—guarding him—told her that if he fell, she would catch him. And that look also told her that Hunter needed to climb.
Emma didn’t know the guard’s name, but she vowed to learn it and to learn everything about the boy with the eyes which had somehow captured her spirit.
When Hunter finally reached her, Emma couldn’t help but to nod at the guard in a kind of mutual celebration. Even at six years old, she could tell that Hunter was too wonderful to be stuck on the earth. He settled onto the branch next to her, and she took his hand immediately.
She did not understand the significance of the electric connection that she felt when she touched Hunter. Certainly, it wasn’t a sexual inclination, for neither of the two children was old enough to know of such things.
Actually, what they shared was even more significant than carnal energy. It locked them together like magnets. And there they stayed locked—and would stay locked together.
Emma looked at the panting boy and a single word entered her mind—a question really.
Emma smiled as she squeezed Hunter’s hand in Merlotte’s. The noise in the bar had gotten louder, and she’d been broken from her memory.
Of course, the young woman now knew what the energy that had passed between her and Hunter had meant. He was her soul mate—her other half.
As children, neither of them had understood what they were feeling, but they had tried to explain it to one another.
He’d told her in a quiet voice that he’d never climbed a tree before.
She’d told him that she’d never held a boy’s hand before, but that she wanted to hold his as much as she could.
He’d added—with a tiny bit more confidence—that he’d be happy to climb the tree again with her.
And they did—always together.
Until Hunter built her a treehouse in that tree.
And—though she loved her parents a lot—that treehouse had been the site of her first true home.