“The more perfect a thing is, the more susceptible to good and bad treatment it is.”—Dante Alighieri
SIX MONTHS LATER
Freyda de Castro looked into the eyes of her child, trying to muster up love for her. But the child’s eyes seemed wrong somehow.
She sighed and looked away—before walking out onto the balcony of the luxury penthouse apartment where she’d been staying with her father.
The last months had worn her down—body and soul.
After Michelle Stackhouse had been murdered, her phone records had been scrutinized, and it wasn’t long before Freyda’s connection to the woman had been found. After that, Freyda’s nurse, Daphne, had been arrested for endangering her charge. Felipe had been furious at Daphne, who’d not only been providing his daughter with a phone, but had also been hiding the fact that Freyda wasn’t taking much of the medicine Claudine had prescribed in order to help her mental state.
Of course, Freyda had been furious that the woman had been caught—that her only allies were gone!
However, once back on her meds, Freyda had begun to calm down a little. And Claudine had come to see her almost every day. Almost against her will, Freyda had found herself being “helped” by the doctor—at least helped to find her sanity again.
But living inside of that sanity hadn’t proven to be easy at all for her.
Freyda looked up and breathed in the humid summer air. It had been raining throughout the day, though the storm had mostly passed through Manhattan. She took another deep breath. Because of the rain, the world seemed newer somehow.
Freyda closed her eyes as it began to sprinkle a little. But the drops were warm, so she didn’t rush to go inside. Maybe she was hoping that the rain could renew her too.
Especially since her daughter, Felicia, had been born, Freyda had been on medicines that had helped her to better understand reality versus the various fictions she’d created in her mind.
She knew, for example, that Eric Northman was not the father of her child and that Appius had used her against his son. She could appreciate the fact that Eric wasn’t hers—and that she really didn’t even “know” him. She had come to accept that her fixation with Eric had been an unhealthy obsession on her part.
But “knowing” those things and “feeling” them were two different things, not that the medicine Freyda was on allowed her to feel much of anything. Mostly, she just felt numb.
A few days after Felicia was born, Freyda had been “deemed” well enough to be released from the “recovery center” where she’d been sent by her father. She and her baby had gone to her father’s home—though Freyda wasn’t allowed to be alone with her child. In truth, she didn’t mind this precaution. After all, to her manic depression had been added postpartum depression.
Again, Claudine had tried to help her to “want” to be a mother—through both medicine and counseling—but, even as she tried to go through the motions of motherhood, Freyda knew it was best that someone else provide the primary care for her child.
Someone who was not her.
Beyond her child’s nurse, Freyda also had two fulltime, live-in “caretakers”—both hired by her father. Understandably, they were both nurses and “babysitters” for her. At Freyda’s request, her father had also arranged for Claudine to appoint someone else to be her main therapist, though Claudine was still consulting on the case and would visit with Freyda a few times a month. Claudine had accepted Freyda’s reasoning that she wanted a therapist with “more distance” from the case, and Claudine had arranged for a postpartum specialist to visit with her four times a week.
Freyda sighed. At the request of first Claudine and then her new counselor, she’d tried hard to remember what it had felt like when she’d “had a life” that didn’t involve her obsession with Eric. But it was difficult to remember a time when she felt “normal” or totally in control. It was difficult to remember ever thinking about what she wanted from her own life. It was difficult to remember what her own “dreams” had been.
Had she ever had any “sane” dreams of her own?
She couldn’t remember them if she had.
She couldn’t remember wanting to join in her father’s business, and—to his credit—her dad had never tried to force her to take an interest in the publishing world. In fact, from her teenaged years—when her mental illness had likely manifested, according to her therapist—Freyda hadn’t “desired” much of anything for herself, beyond “busyness.” She’d always just wanted to keep herself busy, for she would get uncomfortable any time a minute wasn’t filled. Thus, she would take elaborate “fun-filled” trips with “friends” who would keep her entertained. Between those trips, Freyda had filled her days with shopping. And at night, she’d gone to trendy clubs or exclusive restaurants—always surrounded by a group of people who seemed to adore her. And, if she wasn’t out with friends, she’d attend high-profile events—where her beauty and status were admired.
Freyda recognized now that she’d never been happy. She still wasn’t quite sure what being happy entailed; thus, she was pretty confident that she’d never find happiness. She glanced back toward the glass door into the penthouse. She wished that she could smile as she saw the nanny bouncing her happy baby on her lap and amusing her with a toy.
But Freyda couldn’t muster up a smile for her daughter. And—for that—she hated herself. She turned away again and once more closed her eyes to the falling mist. Claudine and others had tried to tell her that the medicine she was on would make her feel malaise at times, for it was keeping her from either manic or depressive states. They’d told her that she would get used to the feeling and would one day be able to take back her life—whatever that meant.
Indeed, Freyda knew that the medicine was helping to keep her sane. But she hated that it also made her think. Not thinking had been so much easier! She shook her head a little. Most of her thoughts were now centered on her baby girl—so sweet and innocent. So happy. Freyda felt certain that she would never make a good mother for her.
That Felicia would be much better off without her.
Not too long after she’d been on her meds, Freyda had gotten tired of thinking.
She’d gotten tired of life being hard.
And she’d come to believe that she wasn’t meant for the whole “living” thing.
She glanced back into the living room. In addition to Felicia and her nanny, one of her own “caretakers” was in there. Freyda knew that the woman was “keeping an eye on her.” She also knew that her father feared that she’d make another attempt on her own life. Hell—before she’d gotten home, her dad had arranged for the house to be “child-proofed”—with her being the child! The railing around the balcony had been built up so that it would be almost impossible for her to kill herself by diving off of the building. The chairs on the balcony had even been bolted down! And her watchers made sure that she didn’t have access to any kind of weapon with which she might kill herself. Hell—for a while, they’d even cut her meat for her!
But Freyda had learned something very important as her thoughts had refused to give her rest. She’d learned that anyone who wanted to kill herself or himself enough could find a way.
Yes—the railing of the balcony had been heightened, but Freyda had been planning how to get over it all the same.
In the past, there would have been no way that she could have done it—not in the high heels and designer dresses that she’d always made her “uniform”—even during her “casual times” at home. However, Freyda had begun “dressing” for comfort—tennis shoes, yoga pants, and soft T-shirts of the finest cotton that money could buy now made up her “casual wardrobe.” And—at her request—her father had hired her a personal trainer to help her to “lose the baby” weight. It was thought by all that exercise would help her mental state too. And it had—just not in the way the others had thought.
It had helped her to become much more physically strong than she’d been two months before—when she’d first come up with her plan to die. She knew that she would need more upper body strength to hoist herself up over the new railing. She knew that she’d need “sensible” clothing and shoes so that she would be unencumbered. And—for the past months—she’d worked to train her body.
Out of love for her father, she’d waited until her would be out of town on business. And he was—for the first time since the baby had been born.
She was ready to go.
For a last time, she glanced back at her child. Again, she could find no smile for Felicia. Had she found one—if she could have felt any love for her daughter or for herself—she wouldn’t be doing what she was going to do. She also saw that her caretaker had left the living room—likely to go to the bathroom or to the kitchen. It didn’t matter. This last piece of the puzzle had been what Freyda was waiting for.
She looked down at her tennis shoes, thankful that they had a good grip, given the fact that the railing would be slick from the rain.
With purpose, she walked to the side of the balcony, and used her strengthened body to pull herself up and over the railing. She stayed perched on the precipice of life and death for only a moment—surprised that she was so calm, surprised that there were no tears in her eyes.
She smiled a little. The rain would be her tears.
She jumped into it.
ONE WEEK LATER
Sookie sighed deeply as she marveled for the millionth time about how her body—even expanded as it was—fit perfectly against her husband’s.
He was spooning her from behind. Johan was in his co-sleeper, but her hand was close enough to be touching his little hand, and Eric’s long arm was stretched so that his hand was resting lightly on Johan’s back.
Though it probably cut off his circulation fully, Eric had managed to get his other arm under her, so that he could cradle the bump that covered their daughter, Kate.
As she heard Eric’s peaceful snore behind her, she couldn’t help but to smile. Earlier that day, they’d found out that their little “Kate” was, indeed, a girl. Had Kate cooperated during her previous two ultrasounds, they would have found out before then. But their daughter hadn’t wanted to “show her stuff”—so to speak. Despite Kate’s stubbornness, Sookie couldn’t complain. So far her pregnancy had been without any problems whatsoever, though Dr. Ludwig was insisting on appointments every two weeks. And Eric checked her blood pressure every day.
Sookie didn’t mind. She felt like she was simply along for the ride this time, as Eric enjoyed all of the facets of her pregnancy that he’d missed out on the first time.
She and Eric liked to joke that January was an especially fertile month for them, and Henry was already calling Kate and Johan Irish twins. Since he and Thalia were only eleven months apart in age, no one took it as in insult.
Sookie couldn’t help but to think of January—and specifically the NP parties—with fondness. Both of her children had been conceived around the time of those parties. And she’d met the father of those children at one of them—and seen him for the first time at another one.
Of course, Januaries had brought pain too, but Sookie and Eric had learned to take the bad with the good.
She sighed as she thought about the mixture of good and bad that had come to them lately.
The week before, they’d received a phone call from Sophie-Anne telling them that Freyda had committed suicide. Two days later, Felipe had called to ask if Eric and Sookie wished to meet Felicia, whom Eric hadn’t yet seen due to the situation. Guards in tow, Eric, Sookie, and Johan had met with Felipe, Felicia, and her nanny at a McDonald’s—of all places.
As it turned out, their first meeting with Eric’s half-sister would be their last for the foreseeable future. Felipe had decided to place his publishing company into the hands of his nephew and leave New York. He still had family in Spain and wanted to raise his granddaughter there. Freyda’s Will had named Felipe as Felicia’s guardian, and, given the situation, the Northman family wasn’t going to challenge Felipe’s wishes regarding where the child was raised.
However, Sookie knew that the whole situation and his further exile from his half-sister had bruised Eric’s heart, even though he thought that Felipe was acting in Felicia’s best interests.
While Freyda’s suicide had certainly scratched at the scars left behind by Appius, Grace Northman seemed to want to make new wounds for Eric and Sookie. In her obstinacy, Grace had pleaded innocent, despite the fact that the wire recording that the FBI had made was extremely damning.
Before they’d found out the gender of their child that afternoon, Eric and Sookie had spent the morning in court, where Grace’s defense team had begun to present their case. Eric had testified the week before—with his testimony lasting almost two full days. By the prosecutors, he’d been asked to recount all of the painful details of his childhood and early adulthood, and he’d stalwartly done just that. The defense attorneys had tried to paint him as a bitter man, who’d antagonized Bill Compton to commit the violent acts against him. They’d tried to argue that Grace had been “pretending” to want to shoot him and that she’d intended to shoot Bill Compton—but that Nora’s sudden movements had caused her to discharge the weapon too soon.
However, Grace’s attorneys’ efforts to portray Eric negatively had failed—epically—and Sookie had been proud of the strength that her husband had exuded as he’d testified. He’d faced the last of his demons, and he’d looked his grandmother in the eye as he’d answered every venomous question Grace’s lawyers threw at him with dignity and truth.
Given the bleakness of her chance for acquittal following Eric’s testimony, Grace’s attorneys had tried to counsel her to take a plea bargain. If she simply changed her plea to guilty, she would be allowed to live out the rest of her days in the relative comfort of a minimum security prison where she would be guaranteed her own room. However, Grace had refused the deal, insisting that once she testified, the jury would acquit her.
Loyal to Appius Northman to the end, Wybert had tried to take all the blame upon himself and Sigebert when he’d testified earlier that morning. And Luther wouldn’t say anything negative against Grace either—claiming his Fifth Amendment rights instead of answering about half of the questions he’d been asked. His own trial was due to begin in December.
However, no matter what lies Grace, Wybert, and Luther told, there was so much evidence against Grace that her attorneys looked more and more disheartened every day. There was a money trail proving that Grace had paid off Compton. There were the testimonies of Miranda and Eric, as well as several FBI agents who had heard Grace’s rants after she’d been read her rights and initially refused an attorney. There were ballistic reports. And, of course, there was the wire recording.
Grace was the only person delusional enough to think she would be getting away with murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder charges.
Sookie frowned a little as she caught sight of her phone on her nightstand. While she’d been in the courtroom with Eric that morning, Jason had texted her for the second time that week. Now that their mother was dead, Jason was obviously floundering—or “growing as a person”—depending how one looked at the situation. Niall continued to seek out a relationship with him, and her easily moldable brother seemed to be “human” now due to Niall’s influence.
However, for Sookie, there was still too much water under the bridge for her to attempt to meet Jason halfway. He’d spent a quarter of a century being cruel to her, and a few texts were not enough to make up for that.
Sookie closed her eyes tightly. She’d cried for her mother one time—and one time only—after she’d learned that Wybert had strangled her. She’d been in the shower and had been a little surprised when she felt her tears mixing with the hot water. But those tears had been more about saying goodbye to the scared little girl she’d once been. They were tears of relief.
And now that the demon of Michelle Stackhouse had been exorcised from her life, Sookie wanted nothing more to do with her—even in the form of Jason, despite the fact that he seemed sincerely apologetic.
She smiled as her husband rubbed her belly in his sleep. Kate was moving too.
She enjoyed the moment.
In the months since January, she and Eric had carried on with their lives, despite all the tragedy and the continued media attention. As long as they were together, there was a rhythm to them that nothing seemed able to penetrate, and though they had been sad about the lives lost, they’d moved forward—together.
Both Miranda and Jarod were their fulltime guards now, and Sookie and Eric had invested in the home above theirs when it had come on the market. Now that Eric had his trust fund—not to mention the fact that Sookie was incredibly wealthy too—they were able to afford to buy it. Hell—they could have bought a lot more, but they loved where they lived.
Currently, Jarod and Miranda lived in the new house, but Sookie and Eric were planning to connect the two floors into one large home—to accommodate their growing family and their live-in guards. They were simply waiting for the city building permits to be approved, but Copley Carmichael had already approved things from his end.
Miranda was Sookie’s usual companion when she left Carmichael Tower. And Jarod watched Eric like a hawk. Sookie was grateful for both of them.
Not surprisingly, Henry was a de facto member of their security team. He continued to run Carmichael Tower like a well-oiled machine, and he also continued to take his godfather duties seriously. Recently, he and Blake had decided not to have children of their own, so they had redoubled their efforts to spoil Johan. Sookie somehow knew that the couple would be even worse with Kate.
Pam and Amelia were planning a huge wedding for early September, and Sookie was going to be a bridesmaid, though the couple had yet to decide who “got” her. Regardless, she’d been ordered to get her first fitting done—for her already humongous lavender bridesmaid dress! The only good thing about the garment was that it had so much tulle that it would accommodate her growing child. Still, Sookie was already dreading “waddling” down the aisle. But she would do it for Pam and Amelia.
Meanwhile, Eric had been claimed as Pam’s best man, and though he was going to be wearing a lavender tie, the rest of his tux was quite elegant. Sookie was quite jealous of his luck in the wedding outfit department. Of course—as could be expected—both Pam and Amelia were vying for the title of “chief bridezilla.” And—surprisingly—Amelia was currently in the lead.
Bobby and Thalia had foregone a wedding and had followed Niall and Mormor’s example by eloping—though they’d opted for Niagara Falls instead of Vegas. Sookie and Eric—and Johan, of course—had been invited along as witnesses.
Sookie sighed and burrowed into her husband’s body even more. Yes. Their lives were moving forward, through the good and the bad. And, through it all, Eric had become the patriarch of the Northman family—despite how unlikely that might have seemed the year before. Even more unlikely was the fact that Sookie felt like the matriarch. But—then again—she had come to know that her place was right next to Eric, no matter what the capacity.
And by his side—no longer afraid of the world—she would stay.
A/N: Well—there is was: the last regular chapter of Burn out the Pain. An epilogue—set several years later—is coming. I originally intended to leave things here, but then I realized that there were some loose ends to tie up. I hope you enjoyed the chapter. I’ll get the epilogue to you ASAP.