Chapter 15: Just
Bill interrupted the tender moment between them with his truly hideous accent. “Sookeh—Susanna, I know that I hurt you in the past, and I’m willing to spend the rest of our lives making that up to you if I have to. I just want the chance to prove myself to you, sweetheart. But,” he glared at Eric, “even if you can’t forgive me, you need to know that the man you are with now is not who you think he is.”
Sookie suddenly radiated anger as she squeezed Eric’s hand. “And who is he, Bill?” she demanded, her tone now icy.
“When Michelle told me whom you were with, I looked into his background,” Bill said, his voice oozing concern that Eric could tell was fake. Again, Eric wanted to throttle Bill, but he knew that it would be more satisfying to watch him dig his own grave.
“Why would you do that?” Sookie asked.
“Because I still love you. Because I want to protect you from the likes of him. Because you deserve to know the truth about him.”
“And what truth did you discover about me?” Eric asked with mirth in his voice.
Bill leveled a glare at him. “That you are a womanizer of the worst variety! That you never stay with a woman long and that you will break Sookie’s heart.”
“Likely more than three hundred and fifty,” Sookie said, looking straight at Bill.
“Huh?” Bill grunted.
“Probably closer to three hundred,” Eric corrected, picking up on what she was referring to immediately.
“It’s still gross,” she said, looking up at him with a grin.
“Are you saying that I am lucky it didn’t fall off,” Eric smiled back at her.
“I’m saying that we’re both lucky it didn’t fall off.”
“What are you talking about?” Bill asked with frustration.
“The number of people I had sex with,” Eric responded, “before Sookie.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. “She believes it is gross that I had sex with so many, and—in retrospect—I must admit that I agree with her. Oh—and we are both incredibly thankful that my cock didn’t fall off,” he smirked.
“Very thankful,” Sookie intoned under her breath.
“What about after Susanna?” Bill asked Eric, his eyes narrowing.
“There is no after Sookie,” Eric said to the woman next to him more than to Bill.
Sookie smiled at him before turning a frown toward Bill. “Why would you come here when I’m grieving for Gran and then tell me things that you thought would cause a rift between Eric and me?”
Obviously uncomfortable, Bill shifted a little in his seat.
“Oh,” Sookie said, as realization flooded her features, “you believed that Eric had what? Traveled with me all the way to Bon Temps just so that he could seduce me into his bed? Trust me—if he’d wanted a casual tryst with me, it would have ended months ago.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “Shame on you, Bill Compton. Shame on you for everything you’re ever done in my regard. Shame on you for coming here and trying to use my grief in order to manipulate me into letting you back into my life.”
“Susanna, I would never . . . ,” Bill started.
“Yes. Yes—you would,” Sookie interrupted. “You just did!” She sighed. “You know—the sad thing is that I think that you really do believe that you love me, but I’m not the person you knew, Bill. I’m not afraid to live anymore.” She sighed again. “Looking back, I realize that you wanted me to stay afraid of everyone else but you; that way, I would be dependent upon you. And for that alone, I should despise you, Bill. But I don’t have the desire to feel anything for you. The truth is that you are a stranger to me, just as I’m a stranger to you now. And—you know what? I think things should stay that way.”
“Susanna,” Bill said in a strangled tone, “you can’t mean this. You need to stop listening to Northman. I’ve seen his kind before; he will do anything to get what he wants.”
“You’re right about that,” Eric seethed. “But that doesn’t even compare to what I would do to keep what I want, and I intend to keep Sookie, Mr. Compton. I intend to keep her safe from the likes of you.”
Bill grunted angrily. “You think that you are so much better than I am? I could use my influence to chew you up and spit you out,” he threatened, leaning forward aggressively.
From Bill’s posturing, Eric recognized immediately that the other man wanted a fight; moreover, he wanted Eric to start that fight—probably so that Sookie’s pity would be with him. However, Bill was wrong about that hypothesis. Eric knew that he could beat Bill to a bloody pulp and then have Sookie in his arms in the next second, but he also knew that Bill wasn’t worth the effort.
“Your mother was right to be concerned about you, darling,” Bill said, trying another tactic with Sookie.
It was not an effective one.
Sookie shook her head. “You seem awfully chummy with my mother, Bill.”
For a moment, Bill looked uncomfortable in his seat—though he quickly schooled his features. It wasn’t quick enough, however. Eric had seen the guilt in his eyes.
“You’ve slept with Michelle Stackhouse,” Eric stated with a mixture of certainty and incredulity.
The almost constipated look on Bill’s face confirmed Eric’s suspicion.
“When?” Sookie demanded. “Was it while we were together?”
“No,” Bill said in an agonized and pleading tone. “It was before I’d even met you. I stopped things as soon as you and I began getting serious.”
Sookie cringed a little. “Ew!” she said with a shiver before leveling an arctic stare at Bill. “You and I were never serious. I was an assignment to you.”
“Not in the end,” Bill vowed. “I grew to love you—deeply.”
“What you felt in the end doesn’t matter,” Sookie said evenly.
“How did you know Michelle Stackhouse before you met Sookie?” Eric asked tensely, even as pieces began clicking together in his mind.
“That’s classified,” Bill spat out, his jaw sticking out stubbornly.
Eric was on his feet and had Bill firmly in his grasp within seconds. The shorter man was on his toes as Eric pushed him roughly into the wall with his forearm under his throat.
Eric had moved so quickly and purposefully that Sookie gasped in his wake.
“Un-classify it! Now!” Eric ordered.
Hearing the commotion, Bobby was in the room in the next second. “Should I start digging the grave?” he intoned when he saw that Eric already had Bill well in hand.
“You’ll go down for this,” Bill choked out. “Assaulting a federal officer will land you in prison for years.”
“Bill, you are the one assaulting Eric,” Sookie said, rising to her feet. “Bobby and I can both see that. You came over here without an invitation. And you are the trained FBI agent in this scenario. You came after me when I turned down your proposal that we reunite, and when Eric tried to stop you, you attacked him.”
“No you don’t, Bill,” Eric said as the man he was holding tried to reach into his jacket pocket. “And—just so you know—it’s not there anymore,” he mocked, even as he showed Bill that he had already taken his revolver from his pocket. Bobby approached and took the weapon from Eric.
“Standard issue,” Bobby assessed.
“Tell me about Michelle Stackhouse,” Eric ordered as he pushed his forearm into Bill’s chest a little harder.
“She contacted the Bureau about Susanna’s ability,” Bill relayed, finally realizing that his life might depend upon him providing answers.
“Goddammit!” Sookie exclaimed. “She’s the reason you came for me?”
Immediately, Eric let Bill down and went over to embrace Sookie. Bobby still held the gun, though wasn’t pointing it at Bill.
“You’re under arrest,” Bill said as he tried to regain his composure.
Eric rolled his eyes at the clueless man. “If I had been planning to hurt you, you would be feeling a lot more than a sore throat. I was just looking for the truth. Sookie deserves that, you son of a bitch, and I knew that you wouldn’t offer it unless you felt threatened.”
Bill looked confused.
Eric filled in the gaps for him. “Michelle Stackhouse is and always has been an abusive parent. In fact, she’s a sadistic bitch! This morning—when she learned that Adele had barred her from the funeral and made Sookie executrix of her Will—Michelle was so angry that she decided to call in someone she thought would hurt Sookie. That someone is you!” He shook his head. “She figured that your showing up would remind Sookie of all the pain you’d caused her.”
“What?” Bill asked, still obviously oblivious.
“Did Michelle get a finder’s fee for telling the FBI about a valuable potential asset? Other than your personal attentions—that is?” Eric scoffed. “I’ll bet every single cent I have that she was paid for her information about Sookie, even as she tried to convince you that she just wanted what was best for her daughter. And you fell for her story hook, line, and sinker—I’d imagine. And then you slept with her!” Eric said with disgust.
“Not very ethical,” Bobby observed with a chuckle. “Or sanitary—I’d imagine. Though the ‘talent scouts’ of the FBI aren’t known for their ethics—or hygiene.”
Sookie sat back on the couch with Eric right next to her. She looked up at Bill. “You came to me the first time armed with all kinds of information about me. You manipulated me in order to try to get ahold of a skill that I would have never developed had my mother taken me to any doctor worth his salt. But she didn’t, so I lived a life of both physical and mental pain—a life in which I had no hope or happiness until Gran saved me. I even confided some things to you—told you that Michelle had mistreated me. But you never believed me—did you?”
Bill looked taken aback. “I thought you were referring to how she pushed you to improve your lip-reading skills so that you could fit in.”
“Bill,” Sookie said, sitting up a little straighter, “my mother called you here for one of two reasons. Either she just wanted to hurt me, or she hoped that you would succeed in drawing me to you so that she could manipulate me through you. But neither one of those things is going to happen. Your presence hasn’t hurt me because you aren’t the person whom I thought I loved so long ago. That person never existed. And there’s no way in hell that I’d ever let you into my life again!”
Eric looked at Bill with sharp eyes. “I take it that you came here tonight with the purpose of trying to get Sookie back by telling her all about your undying love for her and about my whorish ways. I take it that you also hoped to convince Sookie that your vision of her future—the Bureau’s vision—was best. I’m sure that you expected to find a Susanna Stackhouse here—a woman who was grieving and broken and aching for anything you chose to give.” His voice was angry. “And I suspect that you hoped to convince her that she could do no better than you.”
Bill looked down at his feet, clearly discomfited by Eric’s spot-on assessment.
“If that was your only business here, then you should go,” Sookie said in a quiet, though firm voice. “And if you ever really cared anything about me, you will never listen to another word my mother says and you won’t try to contact me again—whether it be for professional or personal matters.”
The room was silent for a moment. Bill, who was still standing by the wall that Eric had held him against, looked defeated.
“I just want to love you, Susanna,” he said in an agonized tone.
Sookie shook her head. “You might not be a bad person, Bill. Heck—I imagine in your line of work, you have to justify things to yourself so that you can live with yourself. But even if you did love me, there is no ‘just’ about what you want. You just want a woman who is meek and grateful for the just meager things you give. You just want a woman willing to look the other way while you sleep with someone else. And you just want a trophy to present to your superiors. I may have been ‘stunted’ or ‘unfinished’—as you once labeled me in your reports—but I’m not just the girl who left Mississippi two years ago.” She took a deep breath. “The Susanna Stackhouse you wanted to find here just doesn’t exist anymore. And I—for one—am glad about that!”
“Amen,” Bobby said under his breath, even as Eric squeezed her hand.
“You’ll just have to look elsewhere for what you want, Bill,” Sookie finished.
Eric smiled. He was proud of the woman next to him—so damned proud it ached! He was proud that she’d chosen him. He couldn’t imagine loving her more, but then she added words that sent his heart soaring into the stratosphere. “I could never be yours, Bill. I could never be yours because I was born to be Eric’s.”
Eric turned to look into Sookie’s eyes, which were already looking back at him.
“And I’m yours,” he vowed.
Bill sighed loudly. “So I’m too late,” he said with a mixture of sadness and—finally—realization.
Sookie shook her head; she couldn’t help but to be angry at Bill’s words. She turned a scathing glare toward him. “Yes. You are too late to find the shell of a human being you knew before. Yes. You are too late to find the unhappy woman who was afraid of the world. Yes. You are too late to find the girl who would settle for so little because she thought that she was worth nothing more. You are too late for any of that.”
Bill nodded sadly and walked slowly toward the coffee table; he put his business card on it.
Sookie and Eric both looked at the object as if it were a snake.
Bill looked at the couple guiltily. “I didn’t know about your mother, Susanna.” He sighed. “And you were right about why I came here tonight. But I hope that you believe that I thought it was for the best.”
Sookie nodded. “I believe you.” She did believe that he thought he would be the best option for her. But he was 100% wrong.
Bill inhaled loudly. “There may be a day when things change between the two of you.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” Sookie said.
Bill let out his breath. “Be that as it may, if you ever need anything of me—if there is anything that I can do to make up for what I did in the past—I hope you will contact me.”
Sookie looked down at the card.
“No strings? No expectations?” she asked him.
“None,” Bill said.
Sookie sighed. “Then I won’t burn it. That’s the best I can offer. Bobby?” she said, looking from Bill to her friend.
“I’m on it,” Bobby said as he reached for the card and put it in his pocket.
Bill sighed resignedly and then looked at Eric. “Do you know what you have?” he asked a little enviously.
“I know,” Eric said immediately. “I knew the moment I laid eyes on her.”
Bill sighed. “Then you’re the better man.” He looked at Bobby, who still held Bill’s gun.
Bobby gestured toward the door.
“Goodbye, Bill,” Sookie said in a neutral tone.
“Goodbye, Susanna,” Bill responded before following Bobby out.
“Walking me all the way to the home where I’m staying isn’t necessary,” Bill growled.
“When it comes to protecting those two, there isn’t a limit to necessity,” Bobby stated evenly.
“What are you? Northman’s watchdog?” Bill asked crossly—obviously bitter that his plans hadn’t worked out.
Bobby laughed. “When I need to be.”
“Are you good at it?” Bill asked.
Bobby only nodded in affirmation, but Bill caught the movement despite the dark.
“Is he,” Bill paused, “good for her?”
“They’re good for each other,” Bobby said without hesitation.
“I thought I was good for her,” Bill mumbled. “I thought I would be good for her again.”
“Sookie and Eric are,” Bobby paused, “different—special. And they deserve their happiness after a lifetime without it.”
Bill sighed as they came up to the house.
“Don’t crash the funeral,” Bobby warned.
Bill rolled his eyes. “I could charge Northman and you for assaulting a federal agent.”
“And I’m sure your superiors would love to hear how you slept with the mother of a potential asset. Or maybe the press would enjoy hearing how the FBI recruits unsuspecting young women with seduction.”
Bill glared at Bobby. “You have no proof.”
“No. You don’t have proof—not of assault,” Bobby said. “Plus, he grinned and held up his phone, “these things record—you know. And they also email those recordings to my emergency account which gets released to the public if I am prematurely eliminated.” He handed Bill his gun.
“Who the fuck are you?” Bill asked, not for the first time that night.
“I’m their friend,” Bobby said as he received a text. He grinned. It was from Eric—telling him to take his time coming back.
Bill scoffed and dragged his feet up toward the front door.
Bobby followed the retreating man with his eyes. Bill was a chicken-shit coward with a martyr complex, but that didn’t mean his couldn’t cause harm. Bobby lit a cigarette and dialed his phone as he headed toward the old cemetery between Adele’s home and the one Compton was renting.
“Agent Fletcher,” a gruff voice answered.
“This is Bobby Burnham.”
“Yeah—I remember,” Travis Fletcher said, his voice more relaxed. “Dan Groves put you in touch with me. You called a few days ago—asking for some advice on good private security firms in the area. You get all set up?”
“Yes. Thanks,” Bobby said. “But I may need your help again.”
“Well—Dan vouched for you, and I owe him more than one, so anything you need,” the FBI agent paused, “within reason. What exactly do you need?”
“Maybe nothing. But, then again, there might be a potential problem with someone in your line of work.”
“Really—a fed? Who?”
“Bill Compton, though I think his full name is William.”
“Ah—Billy boy,” Agent Fletcher said with a chuckle. “What’d that paper-pusher do this time? Trip over his own goddamned ego and tell you it was his dick?”
“So you know him,” Bobby deadpanned.
“Sadly,” Agent Fletcher returned. “He once worked out of the Shreveport office for about a month. What was it? Two or three years back? He rubbed everyone here the wrong way. Thought he was better than us field agents ’cause he was a recruiter.”
“Yeah—well his project back then was to recruit a friend of mine—a friend whom he tried to recruit via seduction from what I’ve gathered.”
“Fuckin’ Bureau,” Agent Fletcher cursed with disgust. “It’s like my goddamned mother-in-law!”
“Huh?” Bobby asked, stumped by Agent Fletcher’s comparison.
“Oh—I love the bitch,” the agent continued as if he’d not heard Bobby’s sound of confusion. “And don’t get me wrong. I know people who have much worse in-laws than I have. But every once in a while, the woman does something that makes me wonder why I ever voluntarily joined the family!”
Catching onto the comparison, Bobby chuckled. “Yeah. I imagine that lines get blurred in your line of work.”
“Yeah. I pretty much live in the grey zone, but there are some things that shouldn’t be done—though I’m not surprised that Billy boy’s up to his tight ass in questionable shit. I’m sorry your friend was his target.” He paused. “So—what do you need from me?”
“A safety net,” Bobby said. “Tonight Bill tried to worm his way back into my friend’s life through manipulation and lies. Her fiancé put him into his place by throwing him against a wall.”
Agent Fletcher laughed out loud. “And Billy boy’s just the kind of pussy who might try to use that incident to make trouble for your friends.”
“Yeah. It’s possible that Bill might do himself damage—try to make it look like my friend and I roughed him up. And there are other types of damage he could do too.”
“Tell me what else we might be dealing with,” Agent Fletcher requested.
Bobby lit another cigarette and did just that.
Fifteen Minutes Earlier
“Are you okay?” Eric asked as soon as Bill and Bobby were out the door?
“Yeah,” Sookie responded, her voice conveying a little surprise. “I am—actually.” She looked at Eric seriously. “I should have told you everything about Bill. I don’t know why I didn’t.”
“I know why,” Eric said quietly, taking Sookie’s hand in order to show her that he wasn’t upset in any way.
“Why?” she asked curiously.
“At first, it probably seemed like it was too soon to tell me, and then it probably seemed like it didn’t matter.”
Sookie nodded. “Yeah.”
“He was what drove you to New York—right?” Eric asked.
“Yeah. But not for the reason you might think. What he did hurt me, and all the progress I’d made in college seemed like it was gone in an instant. But what scared me the most was that I almost took him back—even after learning that he’d been sent by the FBI to procure me for my lip-reading ability through any means he felt necessary.”
“Through seduction,” Eric ascertained.
Sookie nodded. “I was easy pickings then. I wouldn’t be now, but I was then.”
“Would you ever consider that? Using your ability to help the government or something like that?”
Sookie shook her head. “I wouldn’t want others’ fates lying in my hands—not like that.”
“But you told me about de Castro and Madden.”
“It’s different with you,” she whispered. “It always has been. I’d do anything to protect you, and I felt that way from the start.”
“Thank you,” Eric said running the backs of his fingers along her cheekbones. “And I’m honored.”
They were quiet for a few moments.
“I would never want to be exploited like Bill and the FBI planned to use me,” Sookie sighed. “And I’m definitely not cut out to be some kind of spy or something. After the thing with Bill, I read all I could about how lip readers have been useful to the government, but—in every one of those cases—they chose that work. It’s not something I would choose.”
He pulled her into his embrace. “Are you okay—after tonight? After everything?”
“Surprisingly, Bill’s being here didn’t bother me. And learning that my mother was the reason the FBI knew about me shouldn’t have surprised me—or hurt me.”
“But it did?”
She sighed. “Yes. A little. I just wish that I could feel as indifferent toward her as I do toward Bill.”
Eric kissed her forehead, and neither of them spoke for a while, content just to sway gently in each other’s arms. Both of them understood just how difficult it was to feel indifference for an abusive parent.
“They asked me—you know,” she finally said.
“Who asked? What?”
“I got a visit from someone named Nan Flanagan during my senior year at Ole Miss. She said that she was recruiting for the FBI; she said that she’d found out about my lip-reading ability from one of my classmates, but I’d never told any of them, so that didn’t make any sense. But I figured that someone had figured it out.”
“You turned her down,” Eric stated.
Sookie nodded. “I told her the same thing I told you: that I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s fate.” Sookie laughed ruefully. “At the time, I wasn’t even sure I could be responsible for my own fate. I think that’s one of the things that bothered me so much after I found out about Bill. I turned them down, but they still tried to manipulate me. After that, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to trust anyone who came into my life.” She looked up at him. “But I was wrong about that.”
“Your trust means everything to me, Sookie,” Eric said.
“And your love means everything to me.”
“I wish I weren’t afraid to tell you out loud,” he said in an agonized voice. “You deserve to hear it.”
“Maybe. But I don’t need to hear it, Eric,” she said, even as she pulled him to her and kissed him gently. “Besides, feeling is so much more important than hearing,” she added, speaking in a whisper against his lips. “Take it from me. I know both ways.”
Eric took her chin in his hands and kissed her again—passionately. They were both breathless when he pulled away.
Immediately, he took out his phone and sent a text.
“What are you doing?” Sookie asked once she’d caught her breath.
“Telling Bobby to take his time coming back,” he said, looking at her with lust in his eyes.
She giggled. “Tell him I want an hour.”
He chuckled. “Just an hour?”
“Okay—tell him ninety minutes.”
A/N: Hello all. Thanks for the wonderful reviews for the last chapter! They were such a treat during my grading breaks (in fact, when I saw a new one, it was an excuse for a grading break, so double thanks).
I’ll try my best to get you at least one more this week, but—be warned—in addition to grading, I’ve also started the next story in the Gift Horse series, though I’m not very far along. So that story will be taking some of my time from editing, especially this weekend.
Up next in this story? What other unexpected visitors show up? And who will volunteer to give Bobby his New Year’s kiss?