Chapter 02: A Niggling Sensation
Last Time: Sookie didn’t have time to say anything else as an older man—probably in his late seventies, but moving more like he was in his fifties—came out to greet them. From the lights illuminating the front entryway of the house, Sookie could see that he was smiling excitedly.
Niall had her door opened as soon as Bobby turned off the engine.
“Well hello, my dear!” Niall exclaimed, reaching into the car to take Sookie’s hand. Bobby took Ned so that Niall could help Sookie out of the vehicle.
“This is Ruby, Uncle Niall. Ruby Jones,” Bobby said as he got out of the car.
“Thanks so much for letting me stay here,” Sookie said, even as Niall was shaking his head and squeezing her hand in a friendly manner.
“Think nothing of it, Miss Jones.”
“Uh—call me Ruby, please,” Sookie said.
Niall smiled. “And I’m sure that Bobby told you that I am Niall Brigant, but I hope you will call me Niall.”
Sookie smiled at Niall. “I really appreciate you letting me stay here,” she said.
“We all get into a spot of difficulty now and then, my dear,” Niall said kindly. “And Bobby might as well be a son to me.” He winked. “You see—I’m still too young to have grandchildren.”
Sookie smiled at the charming man, though she couldn’t quite muster a laugh.
“Come—let’s get you settled,” Niall said, jutting out his arm for her to take.
Bobby grabbed Sookie’s suitcase and carried both it and Ned inside, following along behind Niall as he escorted Sookie into the house.
“Now—I know that you must be tired,” Niall said in a friendly manner. “But Louise left you a portion of tonight’s meal warm in the oven. And you can help yourself to anything you want in the kitchen.” His eyes lit up. “Tonight it was Louise’s famous veal parmigiana though, so you should definitely try it if you haven’t already eaten.”
Sookie nodded, though she really had no appetite.
As Niall led her through the house, he occasionally pointed things out. “Now—the kitchen is that way,” he said, gesturing toward the right. “And my study, which is where I spend most of my time, is over there,” he said, pointing to the left.
He stopped for a moment and opened the door of a huge library.
Sookie gasped a little.
Niall chuckled. “When I asked Bobby what my guest liked doing with her time, he said that you enjoyed reading; please feel free to borrow anything you like. I’ve read almost everything in here, and it’s sad to see these books getting dusty from disuse,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “But don’t tell Louise that I mentioned anything about dust.”
Sookie smiled. “I won’t.”
Niall grinned. “Plus, there’s nothing I like more than talking about a good book with someone!”
“Thank you,” Sookie said sincerely as she looked from the beautiful room back to her host.
Niall closed the door and resumed the tour. “Now through there is a nice sunroom. I had it added on to the house for my late wife, who enjoyed reading in there, especially in the mornings since the room faces east.” He pointed elsewhere. “Up the stairs, you will find my room and the other family rooms. You can explore up there tomorrow if you want.”
They stayed on the first floor, and Niall led her in the opposite direction down a long hallway. Sookie was trying to take it all in, but was already a little lost in the enormous house.
“Back here is the guest suite,” Niall said, opening the door to a large sitting room. Sookie noticed that a covered litter box and cat food and water were already set up in one of the corners.
Niall followed her eyes. “Yes—I figured you might want to base your little one in these rooms and keep him here, at least for tonight. Of course—after that—he can roam the house at will.”
Niall smiled as he looked back at Bobby, who had been following them quietly. “We haven’t had a pet in the house for years—not since the grandkids were young and used to bring in strays.” He chuckled. “Louise would skin my hide if I let the dogs in! They are too big and too likely to track in mud and shed all over the place! But I think your little one will be okay.”
“Thank you so much,” Sookie said again.
“You must stop thanking me,” Niall chastised good-naturedly. “After all, I’ve been wanting some more company. My granddaughter, Claudine, comes most weekends,” he said, “but both she and the Foresters are tired of all my old stories. And my other relatives,” he gave Bobby a mock-glare and then a wink, “only come when they want to get away from the city. So—you see—you’re doing me a favor by staying here.”
Bobby chuckled. “If you didn’t force me to play tennis each time I came, I would be up here more often.” He winked in Sookie’s direction. “Doesn’t Maria play tomorrow?”
Niall’s eyes brightened. “Yes—Miss Sharapova does play, but at 11:00 a.m. Australian time, so I have my DVR ready to go.”
Bobby chuckled again.
Sookie smiled at Niall as he led her from the sitting room into a bedroom. Sookie was surprised by how modern the décor was—almost too modern. She looked at the odd headboard and tried to hold in her skeptical look—and her laughter.
Niall sighed. “It’s really not to my taste either. But my grandson Claude went through a phase when he wanted to be an interior designer, and he talked me into letting him redo these rooms. I haven’t had the heart to change them, and other than the horrid headboard, it’s not so bad.” He chuckled.
Niall kissed Sookie’s hand. “Well—I’ll let you get settled. And I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Uh,” Sookie said uncertainly, not really knowing how to phrase her question, “is breakfast at any particular time?”
Niall shook his head. “No—I’ve never cared for a big breakfast, so just go to the kitchen whenever you’re ready. Louise or Karen will have coffee going by six or so, but don’t feel as if you need to rush to get around.”
Sookie nodded. “Thanks again, Mr. Brigant.”
Niall shook his head. “You must stop doing that, and I insist that you call me Niall, or Uncle Niall—like that one,” he grinned, looking over at Bobby. “Now—remember to help yourself to anything you need.”
“Okay,” Sookie smiled.
Niall looked at Bobby on his way out.
“You staying the night? Louise insisted upon getting your room ready.”
“No, but thank her for me,” Bobby said. “I’ll be heading back to the city once Ruby’s settled, but I’ll be back soon—probably next weekend. And I’ll stay overnight then.”
Niall nodded and gave his grand-nephew a kiss on the cheek. Sookie smiled at the older man’s affectionate gesture.
“Niall’s great,” Sookie said to Bobby once they were alone.
“Yeah—he’s always been cool, and since both sets of my own grandparents died before I was born, Niall sort of adopted me as a grandkid in a way.”
Sookie took Ned out of his carrier and showed him his litter box and food. Now wide awake, the kitten immediately began sniffing everything in the room, though he kept an eye on where Sookie was and followed her into the bedroom when she went back in there.
Bobby was setting her suitcase onto an odd bench at the foot of the bed.
Sookie took in the green dot on the bench with a shake of her head.
“Claude’s tastes always were a bit peculiar,” Bobby chuckled. “But this is still a nice room due to its location.” He pointed to the windows on two sides of the space. “You’ll have a great view of the rose garden during the day.”
Sookie nodded. “I can’t say thank you enough.”
Bobby shook his head. “We’re doing this for Eric. And you’ll never have to thank me for helping him. Plus—like I said a week ago—you are family now too.”
Sookie took his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you.”
“How are you holding up?” Bobby asked.
Sookie gave him a little smile. “I’m waiting for you to leave so that I can fall apart—actually.”
Bobby nodded in understanding. “We’ll get what we need against Appius,” he said.
“I just hope we can do it soon. I don’t like the idea of Eric hurting so much,” Sookie said, trying, but failing, to hold in a sob. “I wish we could tell him that I’m close.”
“He’d never have let you stay,” Bobby said. “He wouldn’t want you to be in danger. And he wouldn’t want you sacrificing for him . . . .” He paused and sighed deeply.
“Because he doesn’t think he deserves it,” Sookie said continuing Bobby’s thought.
Bobby closed his eyes and nodded. “Eric’s better—emotionally—than he used to be, and he’s good at hiding things, but . . . .” He stopped midsentence again.
Sookie sighed and took Bobby’s hand. Neither of them needed to talk aloud about how Sookie’s leaving would affect Eric.
“Please make sure he keeps going to see Claudine,” Sookie whispered. “And promise me that you’ll stick to him like glue for a while.”
“I promise,” Bobby vowed.
“Bobby,” she asked, “do you think that Appius would hurt Eric?”
A look of concern flickered across Bobby’s eyes. The perceptive Sookie didn’t miss it.
“What is it?” she asked. “Has something happened?”
Bobby gestured for Sookie to sit down on the bed even as he took a seat in one of the chairs by the windows. Ned immediately jumped up onto the bed and presented himself for Sookie to pet.
“Isabel called me earlier—while I was at my place with Thalia. It seems that Appius was in a bit of a rage after hearing your message.”
“Oh God!” Sookie muttered, horrified at what Appius might have done. “He hurt Eric—didn’t he?” she asked, already moving to get up. “You need to take me to him—right now! Is he okay?”
Bobby put his hand onto Sookie’s arm, soothing her until she sat back down.
“It wasn’t bad,” he said. “Eric’s okay, but Isabel was worried about him, so she called me.”
“What happened? Tell me everything.”
Bobby sighed loudly. “Isabel said that Appius was being his usual obnoxious self when he got a phone call. It must have been from the person he had monitoring the listening device.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Appius asked to speak to Eric alone, and there was some kind of physical altercation that left Eric with nasty bruises around his throat.”
“Dear God!” Sookie exclaimed, closing her eyes tightly. “Appius tried to choke him?”
Bobby sighed. “It looked that way to Isabel. I’ll find out more from Eric later.”
“I didn’t think Appius would physically hurt Eric,” Sookie said, clearly upset and regretting her decision to leave Appius the message that had been the catalyst for his violence. “This is all my fault!’
“No—this is Appius’s fault,” Bobby said firmly. “Isabel said that Eric threatened to kill Appius if he had hurt you, and that spurred on Appius to attack Eric.” Bobby sighed again, this time drawing in a long breath before letting it out. “But from what she said, whatever you conveyed in your message seemed to have worked to convince Appius that you’ve left without Eric’s help, and that’s a good thing.” Bobby closed his eyes for a moment. “There’s more. Do you want to hear it?”
Sookie nodded and bit her lip nervously.
“There’s good news and bad news.”
“It seems that Appius will be leaving Eric alone at NP. He’s promised not to interfere with Eric’s work in any way and to stop requiring him at family functions—though he won’t stop Eric from seeing his siblings as long as Appius isn’t present.”
“The bad news?” Sookie asked.
“In exchange for this, Eric has nine months to marry Isabel.”
“But the contract gives him more time. Why would Appius want Eric to get married sooner? And why to Isabel? She’d be good for him,” Sookie said, even though the words injured her.
Bobby sighed. “For Appius, everything is about games and control. He knows that once Eric is married and settled—especially if there are children—he will be easier to control. Plus, Appius knows that Eric truly wants to marry you, and he also knows that marrying anyone else—even someone like Isabel Edgington—will be like a stake to Eric’s heart.”
Sookie closed her eyes tightly. “What will Isabel do?”
Bobby’s brow furrowed. “She agreed. They will be getting engaged as soon as Eric gets the ring.”
A tear slid down Sookie’s cheek. “At least she’s a good person.”
“She is,” Bobby agreed. “That’s another reason she called me. She asked if I knew where you were. And I don’t think she believed me when I told her I didn’t.”
A little afraid, Sookie asked, “Why do you say that?”
“Because she asked me to pass along a message to you before she hung up.”
Bobby raked his hand through his hair again. “That she is agreeing to marry Eric because it’s a good arrangement for her too—but that she will call off the engagement right away if you come back. She wanted me to make sure you knew what kind of arrangement she and Eric had made.”
“What kind?” Sookie asked in a whisper.
“According to Isabel, Eric was very clear that he wouldn’t be cheating on you—even after they got married. He mentioned adoption or in vitro fertilization as ways to have children.” Bobby paused. “Sookie, Eric set up a partnership with a friend, but he told her that you would always be the wife of his heart—no matter what.”
Sookie let out another sob and looked at her ring.
“Isabel told me that—first and foremost—she would like to help Eric to be happy, and she believes that is with you. But Eric seems convinced that you and he cannot be together, so she is going to help him by marrying him.”
“When?” Sookie asked.
“As I said, they’ll be getting engaged soon, but they intend to wait until Appius’s deadline is up.”
“So nine months?” Sookie asked.
Bobby nodded. “The third week in October.”
Sookie closed her eyes, suddenly feeling as if the world were spinning. Twenty-four hours before, she and Eric had exchanged their own vows, and it hurt to know that he was now planning to marry someone else sooner than either of them had thought would be required. She tried to take solace in what Isabel had told Bobby about the arrangement she’d made with Eric. But Sookie could only imagine the hurt that Eric was experiencing.
His father had physically attacked him, and then he had—once again—asserted his control over Eric’s life. Sookie couldn’t help but to doubt Appius’s promise to stay out of Eric’s business—even if he complied with Appius’s directive concerning the marriage to Isabel. However, Sookie still prayed that Appius would leave Eric alone. And—if Eric’s marrying Isabel was the key to that—Sookie was all for it, despite the fact that the thought made her stomach queasy.
“Sook? You okay?” Bobby asked.
Sookie took a couple of deep breaths and then opened her eyes, only to find the world spinning a little. Her stomach lurched, and she ran into her new, beautiful bathroom, but the only thing she noticed about it in that moment was the toilet as she lost all of the food she’d been able to take in that day.
Niall walked up the stairs with a smile on his face. Ruby Jones had been charming—if a little shy—and he certainly looked forward to having a new dinner companion. His smile faded, however, as he thought about the sadness in her eyes. He wondered if it had to do with her brother, whose association with the mob had apparently endangered Ruby. Niall shook his head a little as he thought about his great-nephew’s odd associations. Niall knew that Bobby had a good heart, but the young man also enjoyed living somewhat on the edge.
Niall had once hired a private investigator to learn more about Bobby’s “career,” but the man had failed, and Bobby had shown up at Niall’s home to deliver a full report—including surveillance photos—that he’d made on the private eye! Bobby’d, luckily, had a sense of humor about the whole thing, and Niall had fired the private eye. Then Bobby had told Niall about what he did, and—though Niall hated the danger of it—he could admit that it was honorable work in a way. Basically speaking, Bobby worked as an occasional go-between for the police and certain members of the more established mob families when the two sides had similar “interests.” For example, Niall knew that Bobby had helped both sides work together to stop a child prostitution ring several years before. Niall also knew that Bobby worked for his friend, Eric Northman, in some capacity.
Niall scoffed. While he liked Eric, Niall had no time for Appius Northman. It wasn’t as if Niall and Appius had ever locked horns over anything; after all, their business ventures had never intersected, and they were of different generations, so they’d been able to steer clear of each other. No. Niall didn’t care much for Appius because—in Niall’s opinion—Appius had treated his own father like shit.
Niall sighed. John Northman had been one of Niall’s closest friends. And Niall still missed his old friend very much. Of course, Niall didn’t miss having to tolerate John’s wife, Grace. But being congenial to her had been a small price to pay for his dear friend. Niall had seen the way that John’s estranged relationship with Appius had eaten at him. And Grace—if anything—had fostered the dissention between father and son. Niall shook his head and put aside his thoughts of his old friend so that his grief would not bring him down.
Niall had lost many friends—as well as his beloved wife—and he knew that he had far fewer days ahead than he had behind, but he had, long ago, decided to make the most of them. And focusing on loss and grief was not conducive to his resolution to enjoy the twilight of his life. Instead, he thought about his new houseguest and the enjoyment he would get in discussing books with the obviously intelligent woman. It had been a while since he’d had company for an extended period of time.
He smiled again as he pictured Ruby; there was something about her that seemed so familiar. But Niall couldn’t imagine where he might have met her before.
Niall shook his head and went through his routine of getting ready for bed, cursing that his old body was now limiting his energy level. Sometimes it felt as if his body were creaking like a dilapidated house, though his mind was still sharp—at least most of the time.
At that moment, however, it wasn’t cooperating as he wished it would.
His mind continued to latch onto the odd inkling of familiarity he’d felt when meeting Ruby. But he still couldn’t put his finger on where he’d seen her before. However, there was something—perhaps in the shape of her face or in the rise of her cheekbones—that made him think that he’d definitely seen her before.
Or—maybe it was her name: Ruby. It seemed familiar.
He sighed as he got into bed and picked up one of his favorite books, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Perhaps spending more time with Ruby would help him to figure out why she seemed familiar.
He shrugged and turned to where he’d left off the night before in the well-worn book, and soon his was lost in the world Twain had created.
A/N: Many thanks for everyone who is still following and commenting upon this story! So—we’re back for a new “cycle.” I hope you liked this chapter.
I wanted Sookie (and us) to get introduced to Niall, and I wanted Sookie to know about the agreement Eric made w/ Isabel. And, of course, there is that niggling sensation Niall feels about “Ruby”/Sookie. Hmm…
Many of you have been making guesses, and some of you are on the right track. 🙂
Up next: We fast-forward to June (a little more than 4 months following this chapter). Several questions will be answered (at least partially), including the following: Why does Niall think he recognizes Sookie? And why was Sookie sick?