Sookie shook her head and stood awkwardly in the middle of the long room. The party was in full swing, and everyone was talking in groups—little circles of people gossiping or networking or flirting.
None of them were alone. Except her.
“You don’t belong at a party for ‘normal’ people,” Michelle Stackhouse’s voice said into her head as if she were standing right next to her.
Sookie couldn’t agree more.
She felt her feet moving. It took her a moment to realize where she was going.
Back to Gallery 819. Back to find Eric.
As Sookie reentered the room full of exquisite and renowned Monet paintings, she didn’t look at any of them. Instead, her eyes went to the place where she’d last seen Eric.
He wasn’t there.
She quickly scanned the rest of the room.
Still—Sookie walked into the gallery, and—as if being pulled there—she moved to the spot where Eric had been standing with Nora, hoping that he might have left behind something of himself—anything.
But she found nothing there.
She closed her eyes. “You can do this, Sookie,” she said to herself. “You can do this.”
When she opened them again, she was looking at Haystacks. Sookie felt her lips turn downward. She’d spent one of her Sundays in Gallery 819 and had developed an appreciation for Monet, but she just couldn’t bring herself to “like” Haystacks. She smiled just a little as she felt herself becoming a little calmer.
Being able to form an opinion—to hear her own voice in her head—had always been a saving grace in Sookie’s life. Sharing those opinions was something she still striving to do, but having them was another story. Michelle had never infiltrated the opinions that Sookie developed about other things—just the ones that she had about herself. But the ability to form opinions for herself—as Claudine had pointed out—was a good place to start. And it was something for which Sookie could be proud.
Again, Sookie tried some of the deep-breathing techniques Claudine had taught her, but this time they helped. She took a steadying drink from her cocktail and thought about the conversation she’d “overheard” from Sam and Pam. She sighed. It could have been worse. And really—she’d learned nothing that she’d not known. She’d already known that most everyone in the office disliked working with her. She’d already known that Arlene had filed another official complaint. The only new thing was that Pam had no more patience when it came to the complaints.
On the other hand, there was news that could be seen as good. Sam had defended her, and maybe if she could work apart from the others, the problems would stop. And there was also her therapy with Claudine. Every day Sookie was feeling a little better, a little stronger and more capable. “You can do this, Sookie,” she repeated to herself.
After a few more moments, she turned to face the rest of the room and to plan her exit strategy. Being calmer was a good start, but Sookie still wanted to leave the party as soon—and as inconspicuously—as possible. She had seen Arlene and her cronies near the door of Gallery 800 where she’d exited the year before, so leaving that way was something she wanted to avoid. She was just wondering if she dared slip out through the roped-off galleries when she heard the commanding voice of Appius Northman coming from Gallery 818, which was right next door to Gallery 819.
In addition to owning the company she worked for, Appius was one of the richest men in the country—and one of the most powerful. Through the doorway, Sookie could see that he was speaking with his brother-in-law, Stan Davis—Senator Stan Davis. Sookie took another nervous sip of her drink and moved out of the line of sight from that doorway—not that the powerful men would notice her anyway. But there was no reason to take the chance; the last thing she wanted in that moment was scrutiny from the owner of her place of work.
She turned around and let her mind focus on the painting which was her favorite in the room; it was called The Four Trees and it always struck her because of the mood it evoked in her.
“You like this one?” came a voice from next to her.
Clenching her drink in her fist so that she didn’t drop it on the wooden floor, Sookie turned toward the smooth voice and immediately became the proverbial deer caught in headlights as her eyes locked with Eric Northman’s. In that moment, she was glad that she’d not just taken a drink. She would have likely spit it out. “Close your mouth. Don’t drool,” said her inner voice. Somehow, she obeyed it.
“You didn’t like the other one—did you? The Haystacks?” Eric asked, gesturing to the painting to the left of The Four Trees.
Sookie glanced to her side in order to see if there was someone standing next to her—someone else Eric might be speaking to. But there was no one close to them.
“Do you speak?” he asked somewhat playfully with a raised eyebrow and a smirk.
Did she speak? In that moment, Sookie wasn’t quite so sure.
A million words went through Sookie’s brain. She loved words; they were her life. They had always been her refuge. They were her livelihood. But none came out of her mouth to save her from the silence that she was certain would consume her as Eric waited for an answer. She wanted to rip her eyes away from his and move them back to the painting—to do anything to get her bearings. But she couldn’t pull them away from him—not when he was so close to her.
“Oh—I’m sorry,” he said, speaking again as if she wasn’t standing there gaping at him. “I’m Eric Northman.” He extended his hand to her, and by reflex, she took it. His expression showed a little surprise along with the smirk that was still there.
She wondered if his surprise had come from the little bolt of electricity that she felt when they touched. Could it be that he had felt something similar?
“And you are?” he asked.
Who was she? She was a girl still unable to speak.
“Your hand is cold,” he mused as he broke their contact—probably ten seconds after what might have been construed as a “normal” handshake duration.
Sookie would have whimpered at the loss of his large, warm hand from her own if the novelty of having it there in the first place wasn’t so great. She’d only ever held one other man’s hand, but Bill had not really been one to take her hand in his that often.
“Of course, the temperature is kept rather cool in this place,” Eric said when she still didn’t answer. He seemed content to carry on both sides of the “conversation,” a fact for which Sookie was incredibly grateful.
“Would you like another?” he asked, looking at her left hand, which held her almost empty glass. “Perhaps, I could join you for one. I haven’t tried this year’s cocktail yet.”
Even as Sookie continued to try to think of words that could be construed as an intelligent answer, she heard Appius Northman’s voice from behind Eric.
“Eric!” Appius bellowed. “Come! I have something I wish to discuss with you.”
Sookie saw Eric’s eyes lose all of their life and mirth even before his father had finished his sentence.
“Now,” Appius added sternly.
“Another time,” Eric said, touching her hand again—ever so briefly. “It was nice speaking with you,” he added, his smirk reemerging for a moment.
He turned and walked away, and though she’d not been able to speak, her eyes followed him as he moved toward his father.
That was a mistake.
She met the dark steel blue eyes of Appius and had to work hard to keep her countenance steady even as the elder Northman gave her a withering appraisal, which was the direct opposite of how Eric had been looking at her.
“Who is that?” Appius’s lips asked as Eric joined him and Senator Davis at the other end of the gallery.
Eric glanced over his shoulder, and she caught the word, “Nobody,” on his lips as he turned back to face his father.
That single word—for some reason—wounded her more than any of the others she’d seen that night, but she didn’t plan on letting that show—not yet.
She breathed in, and she breathed out—inviting the numbness to take her. She just needed a plan. She just needed an escape.
She couldn’t really leave the gallery she was in, however, since she would have to go back into Gallery 800 to get to the hall leading to the elevator, and Eric, his father, and the Senator were currently in that path.
Sookie took a deep breath and turned around so that she was looking away from the men. She drank the last sip of her cocktail, even as she felt her eyes being pulled to the corner of the room where she’d first seen Eric the year before. It was empty.
“Susan,” Sam said from behind her, startling Sookie again. Thankfully, her glass was now empty.
“Hey, Sam,” Sookie answered as she steadied herself and turned around. She couldn’t help but to cringe internally at the name most everyone called her; Claudine and she had talked about her letting people know that she preferred “Sookie,” but that had been a goal for another week.
She managed to pull on a smile. She was certain that it was her fake one, but it was either that or nothing.
“I have great news!” Sam said, even though his own smile didn’t reach his eyes either.
“Oh?” Sookie asked, preparing herself for news that likely stemmed from his conversation with Pam.
“Uh—we have decided to—uh—give you Mr. Peters’s office when he retires at the end of the month. Uh—he’s not being replaced, and I’m sorry to say that this isn’t a promotion. You do great work—don’t get me wrong—but the department isn’t—uh—promoting now. And—uh—others have more seniority. But with all your projects, it makes sense that you have a little more room and your—uh—own space,” he finished awkwardly.
“Thank you,” Sookie said, truly grateful for the fact that Sam had found a way to help her to stay at NP—at least for the time being. “You’re right. I don’t have much room at my station, and this way, the others can have more space too,” Sookie said, trying not to sound robotic—trying not to look like all she wanted to do was bolt away.
“It’s just that we—uh—wanted to move one of the copy editors—because of the space issue and all—and since you are the only one that doesn’t—uh—have collaborative projects—uh—right now, it made sense for it to be you.”
“You’re right,” Sookie said. “That does make a lot of sense.”
Sam looked immediately relieved that she hadn’t asked him to justify the decision to move her any further.
“Well, thanks for letting me know,” Sookie said.
However, Sam didn’t leave as she’d anticipated he would after delivering his news; instead, he looked at her expectantly. Sookie took a deep breath and tried to think of something appropriate to say. Luckily—unlike when Eric was standing before her—the connection between her brain and her mouth seemed to work okay with Sam.
“It’s been nice seeing you, Sam―I mean outside the office,” she said somewhat awkwardly. “Did—uh—Luna come with you this evening?”
“No,” he said, a worried look momentarily clouding his handsome features. “She wasn’t feeling that well today—morning sickness. I should probably be getting home soon.”
“Me too. I need to email a client overseas,” Sookie lied.
“Oh—okay. I’ll—uh—see you Monday, Susan,” Sam said with an awkward wave as he turned away and left the room. Sookie was relieved to see that Eric and his father were gone too, but as she waited a few seconds so that it wouldn’t look like she was following Sam out, she felt a light tap on her shoulder.
She turned and faced the chest of Eric Northman. She looked up and then up again until she was once more locked into his eyes.
“Did I hear that you were going?” he asked with a twinkle in his eyes. “I am headed out too. Maybe we could continue our,” he paused, “discussion from before—about the Monet paintings.”
She looked at him wide-eyed, but her feet moved when he took her hand and led her out of the gallery. Her three-inch heels clicked as they made contact with the polished wood floors, but she didn’t notice the sound. She just noticed the warmth of his hand holding hers.
Instead of walking her through Gallery 800, however, he took her into Gallery 820 before looking around, moving a rope barrier, and then leading them into Gallery 823. He didn’t stop until they were in front of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh.
“I like this one. It makes me think of you,” he said, looking at her and not the painting.
Given that words were indeed her life, Sookie couldn’t miss the fact that his verb tense made it seem as though he thought of her habitually, but that couldn’t be.
Sookie looked at him in question, which was the closest she could get to forming words in that moment. She knew the painting. It was called Wheat Field with Cypresses. When she looked at it, her eyes were immediately drawn to the many blues in the sky. She realized that she was looking for the hues in Eric’s eyes there.
“Why?” she asked in a barely audible voice, though he seemed to hear her just fine. In truth, she found it ironic that her first word to him was also the name of a letter, but she was just happy with the baby step of making any intelligible sound at the moment.
“Are you offended by the comparison?” he asked, his eyebrows lifting and his smirk ghosting back onto his lips.
Her brow furrowed as she looked at the painting. She wasn’t offended by the comparison. She loved the painting in front of her. In fact, it was her favorite piece in that gallery. It was just that she didn’t understand how it could make Eric think of her. The painting was of a wheat field during a summer day. Poppies were in the foreground and a grove of trees made up the center of the piece though Van Gogh’s swirling blue sky was what mostly stood out to Sookie. That sky—so rich with the three-dimensional painting techniques Van Gogh was most known for—filled up half of the canvas, though the cypress trees poked up into the blue swirls.
“Why?” she repeated.
He pointed to the yellow wheat. “If you look close,” he said in a quiet voice, “this field seems to have every shade of yellow and gold in it,” he observed.
He turned to her and dropped her hand, which he’d still been holding. She looked from the blues of the painting to the blues of his eyes, finding the latter as beautiful as anything the great artist had captured on his canvas.
Slowly—as if to make certain she didn’t skitter away—Eric brought his fingers up to her hair.
All traces of his smirk were now gone, and his eyes held an intensity that made Sookie’s knees quake a little.
“I had never noticed how lovely that wheat field was—until I saw your hair last year. It was you—wasn’t it?” he asked a bit uncertainly. “You were in the Monet gallery we just came from, but I only caught a glimpse of you. I looked for you all evening, but couldn’t find you. And then I looked for you at NP. But for the last year, I’ve only found you here,” he said, gesturing toward the wheat field. “I began to think that you were a figment of my imagination.”
Her breath caught.
He stepped closer to her. “Is Susan your name? That’s what I heard Merlotte call you.”
She shook her head. “No,” she managed to whisper as his eyes seemed pull the word out of her.
“Do you have an alias then?” he asked waggling his eyebrow.
“Susanna,” she answered.
“That’s what Nora called you, but you don’t look like a Susanna to me,” he said with a hint of a smile. He was still holding a piece of her hair in his hand; the act was the tenderest Sookie had ever experienced.
“You look like the sun,” he said almost reverently.
Sookie hadn’t heard words of admiration for a long time—not since Bill. And he hadn’t really offered her that many of them. Thinking of her ex-boyfriend made her cringe internally a little. But it also helped her to snap out of her shock at the situation—at least a little.
“Sookie,” she said.
“Sookie,” he repeated, trying out the name. “It fits you. Who calls you Sookie? Friends? Lovers?”
She blushed deeply. “Friends,” she said. In fact, she had four friends, counting Claudine, and they all called her Sookie, even though one of them would no longer speak to her. So that made three. “Friends and my gran,” she added, mentally counting back up to four, which was the number of words in her first “sentence” to Eric. Sure—it didn’t have a verb, but it was at least more than one word.
“And me?” he said, half-asking and half-stating. “May I call you Sookie as well?”
As he asked those questions, he was bending over toward her, his eyes moving from hers to her lips. As if on a string, her chin lifted up.
Doubts filtered into her mind. She didn’t really know this man—despite the connection she felt with him. Every woman at Northman Publishing lusted after him, and—if the office gossip was true—many had been “entertained” by Eric, though he was known for never being with any of them more than once. And now it was she whom he was targeting. She knew better than to trust that he really liked her. He’d just met her that night—if it could be called a meeting.
Her self-doubt told her to run away, but, instead, she rose slightly onto her tiptoes as his lips made contact with hers.
The kiss was unlike any she’d ever experienced; as soon as it started, it was hot fire, and the intensity grew as his hands moved to the back of her head and pulled her closer. She was a little stunned at first, but whereas her mouth seemed to refuse to speak coherently to him, it immediately agreed to participate in the kind of conversation that was currently happening between them. His tongue sought entrance through her lips, and she allowed it without thought, even as she raised her hands to his shoulders, both to steady herself and to create more contact with him. However, his suit jacket prevented her from feeling the warmth of his flesh, so her hands traveled upward until they were touching his neck and jaw and cheeks and ears and hair—anything she could find that was him and not his clothing.
His hands moved from her hair to her face, cradling and touching—assuring himself that she was real. He kissed her with such a fire that he seemed like a man who was going off to war—a man kissing his lover goodbye before he faced a battle that would likely kill him.
When they had to break apart for air, Sookie looked up at Eric with shock on her face—shock at what she had just done and with whom she had done it.
Eric’s look mirrored hers, but it was there for different reasons. His mouth was open slightly so that he could catch his breath; he looked like he had been getting ready to speak, but had suddenly forgotten the words. He took a couple of small steps back from Sookie, almost as if he were scared of her all of a sudden.
Sookie bit her lip and backed off a little too.
Eric’s eyes, a blue tempest of things that she couldn’t decipher, despite her years of studying people, remained fixed on hers.
Blue swirls on a master’s canvas.
And then there was suddenly a look in those eyes that Sookie did recognize—accusation. She’d seen that look a million times—from her mother, from her brother, from her classmates, for her work colleagues, from her friends, from Bill, and even from Gran a few times. It was a look that told her she’d done something wrong—a look that told her that she’d been behaving “abnormally” again.
Her hand rose to her lips, which were still tingling from Eric’s kiss—a beautiful feeling that she’d never experienced before. But she couldn’t enjoy it, not with him looking at her like he was. She would have whispered out an apology, but her now-shaking hand was more firmly over her lips, as if to hide the offending things from his gaze. She must have done something wrong.
“Yes”—she thought to herself—“of course you did something wrong. You just got the best kiss of your life, but that doesn’t mean you gave a good one in return. This man in front of you—this god who would put Michelangelo’s David to shame—has kissed dozens of women, maybe even hundreds! And you have now kissed two men.”
While this diatribe was going on inside of her head, Eric stepped forward a bit and seemed ready to speak; however, again he stopped.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say. The shaking of her hand seemed to have moved to the rest of her body as they stared at each other.
“Please,” he said pleadingly, “don’t be. Don’t be sorry.” His voice cracked a little. “It’s just that I wasn’t expecting something like that.”
“It wasn’t bad?”
“No,” he said. “It was,” he paused, “perfect.”
“It was?” she asked, her quiet voice conveying her surprise.
He nodded and moved another step toward her, his eyes once more trained onto her lips.
“You folks are supposed to keep to the designated galleries,” a guard interrupted from the doorway, his tone both annoyed and bored—as if his only job that night was to make sure the guests stayed where they were supposed to be.
At the guard’s words, Sookie saw Eric’s demeanor shift immediately from uncertainty and longing to control and confidence.
Eric turned around to face their interrupter. “We were just looking at the Van Gogh,” he said, his voice steady and calm—the opposite of what it had been a few moments earlier.
“Oh, Mr. Northman,” the guard said in recognition. In a much more conciliatory tone, he added, “You can, of course, walk through the wing as you wish; however, I’m afraid that I’ll have to follow along with you if you want to leave the Northman Galleries. Uh—security reasons,” he said apologetically.
“That won’t be necessary,” Eric said. “It was just the one painting that I wanted to show my,” he paused, “companion. Shall we?” he asked stretching out his hand to Sookie. His eyes, now unseen by the guard, looked hopeful.
Her hand was tucked into his before she was even aware that she’d moved it.
“Have a good evening,” the guard said to Eric. He barely glanced in Sookie’s direction, however.
Given the interconnectedness of the gallery rooms, Eric led them out through two other roped off galleries, which led to the long hallway and the bank of elevators that Sookie had used as an exit the year before. The only difference was that she and Eric had emerged at the other end of the hall from Gallery 800.
Sookie was grateful. This way, they would avoid the party, which—from the sound of things—was still in full swing. Of course, she didn’t know what would happen once they had exited the museum. More to the point, she didn’t know what she wanted to happen.
As they approached the elevator and Eric pushed the button to call it to them, Sookie’s eyes were drawn to movements at the opposite end of the hallway where two men were having a quiet, though heated discussion. The men were at least thirty feet from Eric and her, but she recognized them immediately as Felipe de Castro and Victor Madden. De Castro ran the second most lucrative publishing house in New York—Vegas Publishing, named after the city where de Castro had been born and raised. Victor was his CEO. Not surprisingly—given his birthplace—de Castro had a reputation as a gambler. But he let Victor, who was rumored to be ruthless and underhanded, do his dirty work—at least according to the gossips at NP.
Sookie couldn’t help herself as her eyes went to their lips. It was her habit. She heard Eric curse impatiently to himself when the elevator wasn’t coming, and then she heard the button being punched again. But her eyes stayed on the talking men. What she “heard” from them caused her to gasp loudly, even as the elevator finally dinged to signal its arrival.
Her gasp drew Eric’s attention down to her, and then he followed her eyes to the other end of the hall where he saw Victor Madden and Felipe de Castro. The two men abruptly stopped their conversation when they noticed Eric and Sookie.
“Northman!” de Castro said with a slight Spanish accent. Given their distance from one another, his voice was raised. It also sounded falsely enthusiastic.
“Felipe. Victor,” Eric responded in greeting, even as Sookie squeezed his hand and looked up at him, her eyes containing nervousness that only he could see.
“Good evening, Eric,” Victor said smarmily.
“I thought that you were meeting my daughter here,” de Casto said, his tone betraying some annoyance as he took in the woman next to Eric as well as the sight of the couple’s joined hands.
“No,” Eric said simply.
“Then, she must have been mistaken,” Felipe said, his eyes narrowed. “However, I do wish you two would work out your difficulties and get on with things. I had such high hopes for you, Eric.”
Eric sighed. “I’m sorry to disappoint, Felipe. But as I’ve explained to Freyda, she and I can’t work—too many differences,” Eric said diplomatically, wishing that he wasn’t being forced to have such an awkward conversation over the length of the long hallway. Strangely, however, he didn’t mind that Sookie was there.
“Freyda can be quite tenacious,” de Castro said. “Perhaps she’ll wear you down,” he smiled, though his expression was anything but polite.
Eric shrugged rather awkwardly.
“Shall we lunch at the club next week?” Felipe asked.
“Sounds good,” Eric said, already dreading what was certain to be another awkward encounter. “I’ll have Ginger call Robin to set it up.”
“Excellent,” de Castro said.
Eric nodded a farewell and took a step toward the elevator before it was called to a different floor. Sookie caught only one more sentence from Victor’s lips as she was stepping inside after Eric. Although that sentence had been the only one aimed at her directly—laughing her off as Northman’s “tart of the week”—that was the least upsetting part of what Felipe and Victor had said.
As soon as the elevator doors closed, Eric went to press the button to go down, but Sookie squeezed the hand that she’d been holding and found her voice.
“Mr. Northman, those two men are going to try to damage Northman Publishing. They have been buying up stock, which they plan to dump all at once to drive down the prices; they think that if they do that, they’ll convince some big Chinese company to work with them and not you. And they have at least two spies in your company. I only picked up the names Quinn and Sandy, but they’ve been spies for a while. Their job for de Castro is twofold now. At first, they were only to find out all the information they could about NP so that they could use it to get the inside track when it came to contracts and such. But now, they also hope to learn something that can be used to blackmail you into marrying Freyda.”
Sookie hadn’t taken a breath during her speech. But now she inhaled deeply out of fear as Eric’s eyes turned stormy again, but this time it wasn’t from passion or confusion. It was from anger. His large hand, which had been holding onto her gently and comfortingly, now dropped her hand as if it were infected with a disease, and both of his hands came up to her shoulders, gripping her a little too tightly for comfort, but not in excess.
“What are you talking about? How do you know this? Are you a spy for de Castro?” Eric asked in an angry rush.
“No,” she shook her head. “I—uh,” she paused, not knowing how to explain. “I just know. Please. Just,” she paused again and then spoke in barely a whisper. “Just protect yourself—okay?”
“How do you know?” he demanded again.
Tears immediately rose and fell from Sookie’s eyes, and she was suddenly tongue-tied again. How could she explain what she could do? And even if he believed her, he might ask her how she’d learned to do it. And—if she told him, what then? Would he pity her? Would he think of her as defective? Suddenly, her mother’s voice was back, telling her to hide her ability—her disability—and to act “normal.”
“How do you know?” he boiled, this time shaking her shoulders a little.
“I can’t say,” she said in a whimper.
Eric pulled his hands off of her like she was on fire and then stepped back. She watched apprehensively as he got ahold of his immediate rage.
“Are you certain of what you told me?” he asked after he’d gained a little more control.
“What are you?” Eric asked, dragging his hand through his hair. He seemed to be talking to himself now. “A spy for de Castro? One of my father’s spies? Or are you a crazy person who just wants to stir up trouble?”
Sookie heard the word “crazy,” and part of her was immediately lost to her memories of other kids—and even adults—calling her “crazy Susan.” Playground chants from children and suspicious looks from their parents churned in her head. She’d come to New York to get away from “crazy Susan.” She’d left Bon Temps and then Mississippi in order to find a new life—a “normal” life.
And—even though she’d been on the receiving end of insults from almost everyone she’d met in New York, no one, with the exception of Claudine, had found out about what made her different. Her life hadn’t been perfect, but she’d been working to make it better. However, with a single word from Eric—“crazy”—all that seemed lost to her. She could take being odd. She could take not being liked. Those things were improvements, compared to what she’d gone through as a child. But what she couldn’t take was Eric Northman thinking of her that way.
But why would he think of her in any other way?
“What are you?” he asked again.
“A copy editor,” she said meekly.
He looked like he was going to shake her again, but she didn’t back away. She’d been shaken, slapped, and hit many times before by her mother, and Michelle Stackhouse had been a lot rougher than Eric. So Sookie just waited for any abuse Eric wanted to dish out.
However, Eric’s eyes changed from angry to haunted, and he made no move to touch her. Instead, he pressed the button on the idle elevator so that the doors would open. And then he stepped out. She stayed completely still and watched him go.
He didn’t look back.
As always, thanks for reading! And–for those of you who took the time to comment on the last chapter–thanks again!
I hope that you will check out the video I made for this chapter. It’s my first video, so forgive me if it’s a little clunky, but I had fun doing it. Just click the picture!