Chapter 20: Five Percent of a Life
At 4:00 p.m., about an hour earlier than Sookie usually left the MET on Sundays, Eric and she walked out of the museum hand in hand.
Before they left, Eric had thought about introducing her to Ben and the others in his crew, but—not wanting to overwhelm her or to risk damaging her Sunday routine—he decided it would be best to wait. He wanted to be honest with her about everything—no matter how painful the topic—but he just couldn’t tell her something that might make her stop going to the MET. Perhaps it was highhanded of him to keep her in the dark, but he couldn’t bear the thought of taking away something she loved—even if inadvertently.
They arrived at the bottom of the steps of the enormous museum and stood there a little awkwardly, neither of them really knowing what to do.
He bit his bottom lip apprehensively.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her blue eyes wide and searching as she looked up at him.
He was gripped with fear and doubt. How could he hope to deserve the heart of someone as beautiful as the woman in front of him? How could he tell her that he was in physical pain at the prospect of relinquishing her hand and saying goodbye to her? How could he beg her to let him stay by her side until he was ripped away from it? How could he ask for her time when he had so little to offer in return? In fact, how could he ask for any of those things without sounding like the stalker she probably already thought he was?
“I was going to ask you if I could meet you here next Sunday,” he said tentatively.
“You’re not going to ask anymore?” she said dejectedly, her question sounding more like a statement.
“Wait,” he said quickly, “that’s not what I meant.” Nervously, he ran one hand through his hair, even as he gently tightened the hold he had of her hand with his other. “I want to see you next Sunday,” he assured. “But next Sunday is too long from now.”
Her lips slowly turned upward into a beautiful smile. “It is?”
He took a deep, nervous breath. “Will you take a walk with me, Sookie?”
He nodded in answer to both questions.
“In the park for a while?”
He breathed a sigh of relief and loosened his hold of her hand, but just enough so that their fingers could once more entwine. Now that he was guaranteed more time with her, his heart rate eased and his shoulders relaxed.
The humidity had risen, but the air had cooled and there was a breeze; the late afternoon sun painted the light in Central Park a gentle bronze.
Knowing that it would be several hours before the sunlight began to wane, Eric took Sookie on a meandering walk along several trails that he liked, trying to stretch out the time he could share with her for as long as possible. He first walked them in the direction Cedar Hill, a part of the park that was a lush sloping meadow; there, quite a few people were reading and enjoying the afternoon sun on blankets.
After they crossed East Drive, Eric led them south for a while—before twisting their course through the Ramble. He’d read about a mugging taking place in that area of the park the week before; however, the Ramble was generally safe during the day, and he’d already seen several of the park’s security personnel walking the trails. Still, Eric was a little more vigilant as they moved through what was thought of as one of the more dangerous parts of the park, especially for people walking alone after dark or for those venturing off the established paths. However, the Ramble was also one of the most beautiful sections of Central Park. Plus, there was no way in hell that Eric would let any physical harm come to Sookie—not ever again.
He closed his eyes, remembering the night he’d met Sookie. After she’d told him about Felipe and Victor, he’d grabbed her by the shoulders—roughly. Though he knew intellectually that he’d not really harmed her physically, he’d berated himself many times for touching her with any kind of anger whatsoever. He vowed that as long as he was breathing, he would make sure she was never touched that way again.
His thoughts were interrupted by her contented sigh as they walked toward the Azalea Pond. They stopped for a moment to enjoy the beautiful landmark, so fragment with the flowers that populated it in the spring and early summer. Then they wound their way along the twisty path until they got to the Ramble Stone Arch.
Sookie stopped them and looked up at the structure. “This is beautiful,” she smiled.
He smiled back, only then realizing that they hadn’t spoken since their walk began. It had been the most comfortable silence of his life—despite the myriad of thoughts that had been running through his mind. He knew that the comfort came from having Sookie near—feeling her pulse against his palm, hearing her soft sighs, smelling the faint scent of lavender when her ponytail swished a particular way.
Sookie’s stomach growled loudly, interrupting the peaceful moment and causing them both to chuckle.
“Are you hungry?” Eric asked, suddenly excited that a meal would give him the chance to spend even more time with her.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Would you have dinner with me?”
“I thought we’d been on a date since lunch,” Eric said with a half-smirk.
“You did buy me a hotdog,” she smiled up at him.
“And a Coke,” he reminded.
“And a Coke,” she repeated.
He glanced down and saw her looking up at him. Her smile was an easy one—carefree—and he felt his blood surge at the thought that he’d been the one to make her beautiful lips turn upward. Her blue eyes shimmered like the slowly rolling waves of Lake Vänern in the cove near the lake house he’d helped his morfar build. The rays of the afternoon sun were framing her hair as if she were their source—as if she were the sun itself. And—in that moment—he felt almost painfully pulled to her like a plant so used to the dark that it bruised itself when greedily stretching for the new-found light.
Before Eric even registered that he had moved, his lips had met Sookie’s. It was a kiss much like their first: explosive and all-consuming. Her hands were immediately on his shoulders, then on his neck, and then in his hair. His hands were drawn to her cheeks—craving to be warmed by them. Their lips and tongues moved in complete concert—together and singing. The kiss didn’t end until they were both gasping for air.
“I like when we do that,” she said breathlessly, for once speaking first when he was speechless.
“Me too,” he agreed throatily before bending down to do it again.
This time, their lips moved together more slowly, but no less powerfully. They were lips that were finding, rather than searching. And—again—those lips separated only when their owners were forced to take breaths.
Eric had to work very hard to stop himself from throwing Sookie over his shoulder and taking her deep into the wilderness of the Ramble where he could make love to her. However, he took control over his lustful impulses because Sookie deserved so much better than that. Moreover, she deserved to know what he could offer her before they became more physical. She needed to know the truth so that she could choose—even if that choice would likely put him out of her life forever.
An errant strand of Sookie’s hair stirred with the breeze, and Eric automatically reached up to push it softly behind her ear.
“What’s wrong?” Sookie asked, sensing his mood change.
“Later?” he asked. “Can I tell you later?”
She looked at him closely, seeing the turmoil in his eyes. “Okay,” she said. “Later.”
He sighed in relief and took her hand again. He brought it to his lips for a gentle kiss and then moved them along the path once more.
“Dinner would be nice,” she said shyly after a few moments.
“Do you like Japanese food?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
His lips curled into a smile that she read all the way up to his eyes. “Tonight—we’ll find out.”
“I’d like that. And I like this,” she said squeezing his hand, even as a blush rose into her cheeks.
“Me too,” he responded, an easy smile now on his lips. “It’s easy,” he found himself saying to match that smile.
She nodded, knowing exactly what he meant.
They fell into silence again as they crossed the lake at Oak Bridge. They stopped in the middle of the structure and took in the view of the skyscrapers in the distance.
“It’s a beautiful city,” Eric said quietly.
“Yes,” Sookie agreed.
“I want to stay in Manhattan,” he added, a strain in his voice that Sookie couldn’t quite decipher.
“Me too,” she said.
He languidly stroked her palm with his thumb, sending ripples through her body that matched the ripples in the lake. She leaned against his side and heard him sigh deeply.
After a few minutes, they continued their walk. As they crossed Balcony Bridge, they saw a young couple—of probably no more than seventeen or eighteen—kissing vigorously. Eric chuckled a little as Sookie blushed furiously.
Once they had walked well beyond the lip-locked teens, Sookie looked up at him. “Is that what we look like—when we kiss?” she whispered shyly.
Eric smiled a little, recalling what Sookie and he had looked like—when he’d seen them in the video at the MET. He shook his head. “No.”
She gave him a confused look. “How do you think we’re different?”
He shrugged. “They are,” he paused, “younger. And for them it’s,” he stopped, looking for the right word.
“Normal?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes. For us it’s not normal at all.”
She smiled, glad not to be “normal” for once.
Two hours later, Sookie had discovered that she did indeed like Japanese food—at least the sushi she’d tasted. In fact, she’d liked it very much. On the other hand, when she’d tried Eric’s saké, she’d discovered that she didn’t like that strong beverage. But she had enjoyed the Japanese beer that he’d suggested when she told him about her tastes in alcohol.
“I’m stuffed,” she said, smiling at him as they left the restaurant. “And I feel,” she paused, “happy.”
“They call it a sushi high,” he chuckled, even though both of them knew that it wasn’t just the sushi that had put the smiles on their faces.
He walked them to the street and stepped slightly beyond the curb. Almost as soon as he lifted his long arm, a taxi pulled up. Once they’d settled into the vehicle, he gave the driver Sookie’s address in Brooklyn.
“He can—uh—drop you off first,” Sookie said, doing some quick mental math. She knew she had enough money to pay for the fare from wherever Eric lived to the nearest subway station. Or—if she wanted to take the taxi all the way home—there was an ATM machine close to Amelia’s house, and she could use that to get the fare if she was short on cash.
“I’d like to ride with you—if that’s okay?” Eric asked taking her hand.
Trapped in the intensity of his eyes, she couldn’t deny him. Plus, she wasn’t ready to say goodnight to him either.
Eric and Sookie spoke almost nonstop for the half hour it took them to get to Brooklyn Heights. They talked about food and the art they had seen; the conversation was light and easy.
“Will you come in?” she asked when the cab pulled up to her address. Even in the dark, he could see her blush.
“Yes,” he answered without hesitation. It was after 8:00, and he had an early meeting the next morning, but he didn’t even consider ending his time with her. It felt too borrowed to squander.
He quickly paid the cabby and then took Sookie’s hand and helped her out of the taxi.
“Your housemate isn’t home?” he asked, taking in the fact that no lights were on.
“She’s staying at her father’s estate in the Hamptons. He’s having a big party for his sixtieth birthday this coming weekend, and she’s helping him get ready for it.”
Eric nodded and then dropped Sookie’s hand as she took her keys out of her purse.
Once inside, she locked the door and then took his hand again, leading him to her room without a word. She had free reign of the common parts of the house, but only her room was her own.
They sat on the bed together, not quite knowing what to do. They settled into silence, both of them looking at their interlocked hands.
“I should be wary of you, Eric Northman,” she whispered—after they’d been quiet for what felt like several minutes.
“Yes,” he couldn’t help but to agree.
“I’ve ‘heard’ things about you—with my ability.”
“What have you heard?” he asked with curiosity.
“That you’ve had a lot of one night stands. That you are dating Isabel Edgington. That you are a,” she paused and turned pink.
“I’m a?” he asked.
“Man-whore,” she finished sheepishly.
He chuckled. “I guess I am—was—a man-whore. But I haven’t had any one night stands since last December. And Isabel and I are just friends—now.”
“And before now?”
He answered honestly. “We used to sleep together—friends with benefits, one might say. But that ended in April. Now we just go to events together, and being seen with her helps to alleviate some of the pressure my father used to place onto me to get together with Freyda de Castro.”
“You know Freyda’s a little crazy—right?” Sookie commented.
Eric chuckled. “Yes. But it’s better than when Appius wanted for me to hook up with Nora.”
Sookie’s forehead crinkled. “That’s so—uh—gross,” she said blushingly. “She’s—uh—like your sister.”
“Stepsister,” Eric corrected. “But you’re right. It was gross. I never wanted to be with her like that.”
“Why did you go out with her then?” Sookie asked.
“My father pressured me, and I caved.” Eric sighed. “I always do. I took Nora out a few times, and I even tried to—uh—perform with her.”
“Not good?” Sookie asked.
“No,” he confirmed. “It—um—didn’t work.”
He looked down toward his lap. “It,” he said significantly, certainly feeling life in his cock as it stirred when she glanced in its direction.
She reddened once more. “Uh—why did you try that? With Nora?”
“She thought she wanted me at the time, and she is my father’s favorite. He would give her anything.”
“You were the ‘anything?'”
“Yeah. At least for a little while. Plus, since she’s his favorite child—well, except for maybe Appius, Jr. now—he’s always wanted her to be a Northman, but having her remain a Gainesborough was also beneficial. And my father didn’t want to risk alienating the Gainesboroughs by pushing an official adoption. It was controversial enough when Nora stayed in New York with Appius after her mother died. Of course, Beth’s Will was ironclad about Nora’s custody.” He sighed. “If I married Nora, she would finally be a Northman—in name—and that fact would please Appius.”
Sookie sighed. “I know she’s not your real sister, but it’s all a little,” she paused.
“Sick? Yeah,” Eric agreed with another sigh. “I am hoping that Nora never develops a renewed interest in me. And if she does, I hope to be able to make an arrangement with her.”
“Yes—she can have her life, and I will have mine. Nora cannot have children, so I would not be needed in that respect.”
“Oh,” Sookie said embarrassedly. After another minute of silence, she asked, “What about all the other women? Did you—do you—care for them?”
“Isabel—yes,” he answered truthfully. “I believe that I will come to an arrangement with her—when it’s time for me to marry,” he added in a quieter tone.
“When will that be?” Sookie asked, her voice betraying her emotion.
“On or before I turn 35,” Eric said with heartbreaking matter-of-factness. He looked at her, his eyes filled with regret. “I have to marry a woman who meets a list of qualifications my father has set. There’s a,” he paused, “contract between us, and if I break it, a lot of people will be hurt. I’m trapped,” he finished, his voice breaking around the final word.
She looked into his eyes; she could see the maelstrom of feelings in them, but his resignation was the hardest one for her to take.
“And Isabel? She would meet the list of qualifications?”
“And I wouldn’t.”
“No,” he whispered.
She took a deep breath. “And the other women—the one night stands?”
“They meant nothing beyond temporary pleasure to me. I have never felt,” he paused, “attachment to any woman before.”
“But there have been a lot of them—a lot of women?” she asked insecurely.
“Yes,” he answered straightforwardly. “More than you would think of as decent, but probably fewer than the office gossips would assume.”
She nodded and took a deep breath as she took in what he had said.
“Sookie, have you been with anyone before? Have you had sex before?” he asked softly.
Though his question took her somewhat by surprise, she nodded. “Yes. One person. Bill.”
“Good,” he said, even as he fought his jealousy.
“Good?” she asked, a little surprised by his response.
“Yes. I would never want to hurt you, Sookie, and I’m,” he paused, “bigger than most.”
Of their own accord, her eyes traveled once more to his waist, and she saw the outline of his manhood in his jeans. She gasped.
“Sookie,” he said almost as if in pain. “I want you—badly. I want you more than I have ever wanted anyone else. Do you want me?”
She gasped again—this time at the fervor of his words—and took in a sharp breath. She nodded. “Yes. I want you.”
“It doesn’t have to be tonight, Sookie.”
“If it is tonight, will it only be for tonight?” she asked so softly that he could barely make out the words.
“Are you asking if you are like the others?”
“Yes. If I am, I can’t be with you,” she said honestly, her voice catching. “I already feel,” she paused, “attached to you. Maybe I shouldn’t because I hardly know you.” She sighed. “Or maybe I should be afraid of you after you shook me like you did in the elevator.”
“I wish I hadn’t done that,” he said contritely, “but. . . .” He stopped.
“There is no ‘but,'” he answered after a moment. “There is no excuse. I could tell you that I was frustrated and angry at the information you had given me. I could tell you that I didn’t mean to hurt you—to take hold of you so hard that I probably bruised your skin. I could tell you that I didn’t sleep that night because I was worried that I had left a mark on your beautiful body. I could tell you that I really did think you were a spy for a while. Or I could tell you that I wanted you so badly that the thought of you working against me drove me a little crazy. And all of those things are true. But none of those things are justification for me laying my hands on you that way.”
He moved his free hand gently to her shoulder and brushed his fingertips over her T-shirt in light touches she could barely feel.
“I should be afraid of you for so many reasons,” she whispered as they gazed into each other’s eyes, “but I’m not.”
“I won’t hurt you, Sookie. Never.”
“Not physically,” she said. “But one day, you’ll leave me.”
He took his hand from her shoulder and looked down, his own shoulders sloping. He closed his eyes and nodded in concession.
“You’ll have to leave me,” she added.
He sighed. “Not until I am forced.”
“I won’t be a kept woman, Eric. I won’t be your mistress.”
Eric shook his head, the agony clear in his eyes as he reopened them. “I don’t have all the answers. I never have. But I won’t lie to you. And—as long as we are together—I won’t sleep with anyone else. I won’t even look at anyone else. I don’t think I could.”
“What about in the future?”
He closed his eyes again and shook his head a little. “I don’t have a future, Sookie,” he whispered. “I have only what is expected of me—what will be forced upon me. It is something that I will merely exist inside. And that—to me—is not a future.”
“No,” she whispered in agreement. “It’s not.”
He looked at her again, and his tumultuous blue eyes jolted her, causing her heart to ache. “I could have a now,” he said quietly. “With you, I could have a now,” he repeated in almost disbelief.
They stared silently at each other for a few moments: blue lost in blue.
“I’ve never been selfish before, Sookie,” Eric said, holding her hand just a little more firmly than he had before.
She didn’t mind the added pressure; in fact, she matched it. “And now?”
“I can’t help myself.” His blue orbs suddenly filled with tears that he fought to keep from falling. One didn’t obey and made its way sluggishly down his cheek. “God help me—I can’t help myself,” he repeated as if confessing a sin.
She raised her hand to wipe away the lone tear. “Eric?”
“How old are you?”
“I turned 31 on February 28.”
“So we would have less than four years,” she sighed.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “Three years and eight months of now. Three years and eight months to make you happy.”
“And you?” she asked.
“As I said, I am being selfish,” he responded with a soft smile. “I would be happy too.”
“And after that?” she asked.
“We break,” he said, his brutal honesty stealing the air out of the room for a moment.
“We break,” she repeated—a tone of inevitability in her voice.
“Yes. At least, I will break—when I lose you.” He closed his eyes again. “If I were a better man, I wouldn’t have put myself in your path today.”
“Because I’ll break too,” she said.
He shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe you’ll leave a long time before the three years and eight months is over. Maybe you’ll realize that I’m not worth breaking for. Sookie,” his voice cracked, “I’m not worth breaking for.” His eyes seemed to be imploring her to run from him—to get away. They held so much sincerely and warning that Sookie knew he believed his words right down to the core of his being.
“Don’t,” she said immediately and with just as much passion. “You are beautiful. You are intelligent. You are unique. And one look into your eyes made me feel like everything bad in my world could be burned up by your gaze. So don’t.”
He sighed. “You have a good memory, Sookie Stackhouse,” he said as he recognized the very words he’d spoken to her earlier.
“What about our three years and eight months?” she asked. “What would they be like?”
His expression immediately filled with hope. “I don’t know—not exactly. But I feel,” he paused, “good when I’m with you.” He shook his head a little, as if to clear it. “I want to be with you more than I want to breathe. I know I’ve gone about it all wrong. I kissed you, only to turn around and manhandle you. I watched you and I had you watched. You shouldn’t trust me.”
“But you want me to?”
“So we just don’t think about what happens after the expiration date?”
“I can’t,” he said with a pang of desperation in his voice. “I can’t think about that.”
“Okay,” she said quietly.
He took a deep breath. “I’ve always been good with numbers.”
He nodded. “Last week—when I was in Gallery 758, I realized that I could be happy for almost five percent of my life if I had three years and eight months with you—if I live to the average age men live to in this country, that is.” He chuckled mirthlessly. “When I got home, I double-checked with a calculator, just to make sure.”
“Five percent,” she said almost wistfully.
“Yeah,” he answered. “Actually, 4.8%, but still more than I ever hoped for before. But if you want more than that—and you should want more since you certainly deserve more—then I’ll go. I’ll leave you alone, Sookie. No more having you followed—not even to make sure you’re safe if you don’t want that. No more watching. No more anything,” his voice trailed off sadly.
She gripped his hand a little tighter and looked down at the hardwood floor in her room. She’d studied the patterns in the wood many times.
“I don’t know,” she said after a few minutes of silence had passed between them. “I don’t know if it’s enough.”
He raised her chin so that her eyes met his and then brushed a wisp of her golden hair behind her ear. He spoke softly, “You don’t have to decide right now, Sookie.”
“Next Sunday?” Sookie said as if in question. “Can I tell you then?”
“You can,” Eric said. His eyes held uncertainty and sadness, but also something else—hope maybe.
Sookie bit her lip, wondering if her own eyes held the same things. Those were certainly the emotions she was feeling.
“It’s okay, Sookie,” Eric said with a little smile. “You don’t have to give yourself a deadline to decide. We have too many of those already. You’re worth waiting for—even if I never,” he paused, “have you.”
“You have me,” she whispered, “already.”
“And you have me,” he returned.
“I’ll try to have an answer for the both of us by next Sunday,” she said.
He nodded, the intensity in his eyes growing as he looked at her lips. “Can I give you a goodnight kiss, Sookie?”
“No!” she cried out loudly.
A/N: I hope that you enjoyed this chapter. Thanks so much for the wonderful comments about the last chapter! I love to read what you have to say.