A/N – To my "Anxious" reader, never fear. This story will be finished - sometimes it just takes a while. :)

So, the last chapter left us with Sookie storming out of Eric's office, kicking herself and wondering what was up with Eric. Eric was confronted by Pam during a brood worthy of Edward Cullen, in which she told him to man up so he could get what he needed from Sookie – both professionally and personally. When Sookie got home, she realized she left her keys in Eric's office.


cause you gotta look her in the eye
and you gotta love your way of life
cause you gotta guilty, filthy soul
don't ya know its out of your control

"Guilty, Filthy Soul" AWOLNATION

SPOV

I popped my head up at the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. I was sitting in my doorway, playing with my phone, trying to figure out who else I could call. The apartment super, Barry, wasn't home but I had left a message on his cell explaining I was locked out. My next door neighbor was out as well; not that Terry had a spare key, but the guy was a war veteran – maybe he had some mad MacGyver skills and could break in. I had just reached the sad realization that I had not really made any close friends since moving here when I heard the footsteps.

"Thank god you got my message! I thought I would have to sleep in the hallway," I called to Barry, watching for his dark hair to crest the landing.

But the hair wasn't dark, it was blonde. And it wasn't Barry.

A surge of anger, enflamed by embarrassment, surged through me.

"So stubborn," Eric shook his beautiful head at me. "You know you had only to call me, and I would have made sure you slept comfortably."

Damn him if that didn't raise lust through my body, despite his smug expression. I definitely needed to call Alcide, if only to take care of my excessive libido.

"There's nothing I want from you." I was bold and strong, proud of the way my voice did not waver. He looked down at me, sitting at his feet. His eyes roamed my legs, stretched out in front of me, up my chest causing an obvious physical reaction (damn it), to my flushed cheeks and fiery eyes.

"Oh, I have something you want," Eric smiled smugly, sliding his hand into his pocket. I felt my eyes widen in shock. Was he really going to do what I thought with that hand?

My gaze was so locked on his crotch that I almost didn't notice him pulling his hand out of his pocket and dangling keys in front of me.

My keys.

I gasped and struggled awkwardly in my skirt to rise off the floor. "Give me those!"

He held his long arm higher in the air, making it impossible for me to reach. "I thought there was nothing you wanted from me?"

The jerk was teasing me! Fool that he was, he obviously didn't recognize he had already stretched my teasing limit for the night.

I placed my hands on my hips and raised an eyebrow. "Nothing that isn't mine already."

That struck a chord with him, echoing of our interlude in his office. His half-smirk faded and his eyes grew dark and deep. "It's all yours."

What? I searched his face, desperate to understand the meaning behind his words. Our eyes locked, and the only sound heard for several long minutes was the pounding of the blood roaring through my veins. Eric blinked and turned his head, shutting me out.

"Here." He held out the keys. I took them carefully, making sure not to touch his skin. I didn't think I could handle those hands on my flesh again, not so soon after the memory of them there earlier, and the feelings they had wrought.

"Thank you," the manners ingrained in me by my grandmother came through, and I turned from him to open the door. "Good night."

"Sookie."

The gravity in his voice stopped me as I stepped inside. For a moment, I was afraid to turn, afraid of falling under his spell again if he asked… no, ordered…me to allow him entrance.

I felt the heat of his body move in behind me. "I need to talk to you."

"No," my response was immediate. "You said everything I needed to hear tonight, Eric. It's over. Go after someone else." The idea of that killed me, but a dalliance with Eric would have been a much more painful and prolonged death.

I heard his intake of breath, and he placed a heavy hand carefully on my shoulder. "I don't…"

He sighed heavily and I felt the heat of it caress my skin. "Sookie, I'm not accustomed to having to apologize. But I…recognize that my treatment of you this evening was reprehensible." Each word was stilted and weighted, and it was evident that the process was difficult for him.

I scoffed inwardly. Tough.

Still, I was my grandmother's granddaughter. "Thank you for recognizing that, Eric, even if that wasn't actually an apology." I slipped away from the warmth of his hand on my shoulder, turned and started to close the door. "Good night."

"I need you."

The words were forced and powerful, and they made me freeze like prey in the sights of a predator, my eyes locked with his.

"I need your help," he clarified. "With a work issue."

I didn't think I could be disappointed by him again tonight, but apparently it was possible. That fact made me angry and annoyed.

"Then talk to me at work," I snarled. I started to close the door, but the fucker put his foot in front of it like a damn sweeper salesman.

"I can't talk about it at work because I don't want to be overheard. It's about Russell."

I paused. I totally admit it. But, he knew just how to arouse my curiosity, among other things, and I just couldn't let it go - not when he might provide another piece to the giant puzzle in my mind.

"What about Russell?"

I could feel Eric's gaze on me, and I looked up at him to see an earnest expression on his face. I didn't believe it…much.

"We have reason to believe he's embezzling from the company, and that is all I am willing to say in this hallway." He leaned forward. "Now, please let me in."

A small, petulant part of me wanted to say "no" in the snarkiest tone I could produce and then shove the door in his face. However, I remembered I was a professional woman and refused to sink to such levels. Instead I scowled at him and stepped back to let him in.

He stared at me for a moment, and then stepped past me into my apartment.

I closed my eyes and took a short moment to berate myself. Not surprisingly, the voice in my head sounded just like Tara, yelling at me for being stupid. I silenced it. I might have been stupid about a lot of things in my life, but I'm no masochist. Eric was going to tell me what was going on, and then he was leaving. That's it.

I opened my eyes to see him settling into my favorite cushy chair…the only thing in my living room previously untouched by him – including me. It just pissed me off.

I stalked over and stood in front of the couch, refusing to sit. Sitting would just give him the impression that he was welcome…and he wasn't.

"Spill it. What's up with Russell?"

He looked up at me grimly. "You might want to sit down for this."

"No thank you." I said primly.

His shrug clearly said suit yourself. "We've suspected Russell has been stealing for a while."

Wow. I was surprised, but in some weird way, it made sense. Russell was an ass. "If you knew about this, why hasn't he been fired? Or arrested?"

"We were waiting to acquire enough evidence to do both. The last thing we need is for him to slip away without us being able to stop him, or to get the money back. We didn't want him to know we were on to him."

I thought back about Russell's nervousness, his extreme dislike of Eric, and all around weird behavior. "I think he knows."

Eric's grin was predatory and dangerous. "He does now. The timing of my return to the home office was planned. We want to put the pressure on him, let him make a mistake. He's quite afraid of me."

"Yeah," I nodded, chuckling. "Yeah, he really is. So, if you have all this evidence against Russell, what do you need from me?"

Eric leaned forward in the chair, his expression earnest. "We don't think he was working alone. I need your help in figuring out his accomplice."

This part didn't make sense. "Me? Look, while I'd love to be your Mata Hari or whatever, there is just no way I would be able to help you with Russell. You've seen it – the man hates me! He would never let me get close to him, and he certainly wouldn't tell me his secrets. I'm surprised he even hired me!"

"Oh, he was very insistent that you be hired." Eric's gaze became intense, and I wanted to squirm under his scrutiny. "We were prepared to hire someone within the department, but he demanded that you be offered the job."

What the hell? "But, he despises me! Why would want me?"

Eric's voice was cold. "We've been wondering the same thing."

It hit me, all at once, and my knees gave out. I sank onto the sofa, my mouth hanging open. "You think I'm his accomplice."

His silence was telling, and my heart sank. In that moment, I realized Tara's warning had been right on. I was starting to weave daydreams around Eric Northman, starting to feel something for him, and he thought I was a thief. I wrapped my arms around my stomach, trying to ease the ache forming there.

"I…" my whisper was loud in the weighted silence of the room. "I would never…" Eric had said he knew me – that he knew me even better than I knew myself – but if he thought this about me, then he didn't know jack shit. Outrage took over and I snapped my head up to look at him. "I've had things stolen from me in my life, Eric…from people I trusted. In a million years, I would never do that to someone else. I have always worked hard and earned my way. The idea that you would think that of me, that you would think I could…"

"Stop." He held up a hand and my words halted, much to my annoyance. Could I ever not obey this man? "I don't think you stole the money. And I don't think you're in league with Russell."

I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding. I amount of relief I felt from his words was disconcerting. "Then why do you think I can help you?"

"Because Russell wants us to believe it was you."

I gasped. "He's framing me?"

"Quite systematically, yes. And successfully enough that you were suspected for a while."

I felt violated somehow. People in the company actually thought I was a criminal and watched my actions. I was confident in my grandmother's lessons of morality, and I knew that I lived an honest life, but knowing that I was had been scrutinized felt awful. "You said I was suspected. Am I not suspected now?"

Eric shook his head. "No."

"Why not? What made them change their minds?"

Eric studied me for a moment. "The purchasing procedures."

In a flash, I recalled all of the trouble I had over those damn procedures since my employment at Sophie Ann's. My confusion over the convoluted methods, Russell's insistence that I just didn't understand anything, Eric's introduction of new procedures and my enthusiasm over how simplified they were, when everyone else complained they were more complicated. "That's how he set me up. He did it through my purchase requests."

"Partially, yes."

I saw red. What a prick. I mean, I knew Russell was an asshole of epic proportions, but this defied even my low opinion of him. He was just like every other thief I had known – my brother, my uncle. He was a liar and an evil little man. And he deserved to go down.

I growled. "What can I do? What can I do to clear my name and make him pay?"


EPOV

Her little growl shot straight to my groin, and I had to shift in the chair from the hardness growing between my legs. Sookie was magnificent in her anger. I knew she was a spitfire, but she had always been so compliant for me, and I was man enough to admit I was enjoying her passionate anger. Whoever had wronged her in the past had probably suffered a horribly justified fate at her hands, and the thought of that turned me on. At the same time, I wanted to rip the head off whoever had hurt her.

The desire in me was welcomed, but the protectiveness was not. I had been burned by my protective instincts in the past, and it was enough for me to be wary.

I had studied Sookie carefully throughout my espionage reveal – feeding her information bit by bit to assess her reactions. My instincts still said she was innocent of Russell's plot, but I had been deceived before. Self-doubt was not a feeling I enjoyed.

Reminding myself of Pam's objective, I asked her the next important question. "Who trained you on those purchasing procedures, Sookie?"

Her eyes widened beautifully, and her lips parted. Fuck it all, I had to move in my chair again.

"Arlene," she whispered. "Arlene trained me. I complained to Russell, even offered suggestions on how to improve things, but he brushed me off. It was Arlene."

Arlene Fowler? I couldn't wrap my brain around it; it wasn't what I expected. Arlene was an annoying gnat, someone that appeared to try to get ahead by hiking up her hemline and pulling down her neckline. She was a mediocre employee at best. Pam would need to know about this, and the woman would need to be watched.

"Oh my god!" Sookie exclaimed. "I saw them! Tonight, before I came to…" she halted, blushing.

"Before you came to my office?" I was glad to see her blush, knowing that she remembered some of the pleasure that happened there, and not only my fucked up memory trip. "What did you see?"

"Arlene was in Russell's office and they were arguing. She said something about how she let him fuck her, and that she wanted compensated for it." Sookie chuckled. "I thought she meant that he let him have sex with her."

"Russell having sex with Arlene?" The guy was blatantly homosexual.

"I know!" Sookie gestured animatedly. "It made no sense! But this does – she must be helping him."

"Hmm," I hummed, noncommittally. I still wasn't convinced, but I would let Pam explore the idea of Arlene as an accomplice.

"Why you?"

I raised a questioning eyebrow.

"I thought you were some hotshot mergers and acquisitions guy. Why are you involved in something like this? Isn't security responsible for tracking down thieves?"

I smiled at her confidently. Despite everything that had happened tonight, I was still obviously in her thoughts. This was a good step. "I'm known for getting what I want – no matter what the goal."

She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. The movement made her shirt gape open, and my gaze wandered down.

"Sophie Ann is an old friend of mine. She asked for my help specifically."

"So the rumors about you two are true?" She seemed surprised after she spoke, as if the words escaped without her approval.

She wanted to know about my previous lovers – badly enough to ask point blank. I realized fully in that moment that, although I had fucked up my chance with Sookie in my office, the possibility of another opportunity was not out of the question. She just didn't realize it yet.

"Are you asking because you want to know my sexual history, Sookie? Or because you like to spread gossip?"

Her back stiffened adorably. "Neither. I…I don't even know why I said that."

"Sookie," my voice was low, sensual, and it caught her attention, "if you want to ask me about my lovers, just ask. I am more than happy to satisfy your needs."

She turned to me, suddenly ready to spit fire. "Now, that's not entirely true, is it, Eric?"

I sat up, moving to the edge of my chair, drawing closer to her as her ire rose. "What do you mean?"

"I recall asking for something in your office, and you didn't satisfy me at all. 'Trust me' you said. 'Place yourself in my care and you'll never regret it.'" She effortlessly threw my words back at me, her kitten scratches diving deeper than I would have dreamed. "I regret it, Eric."

"Don't," I shook my head, not even knowing for sure what I was asking her to do, just that I couldn't stand to hear more. I had enough of my own regret – I couldn't survive hers as well.

"It seems to me that you might be threatened by a woman who asks for what she wants. Strong women scare you because you've been hurt. Is that it, Eric?"

I stood, scoffing. She had no idea. "Sookie, you are so upside down, you are leaving footprints on the ceiling."

She rose and put her hands on her hips. "What the hell does that mean? Are you saying you aren't threatened by a strong woman? That I don't scare you?"

She knew just how to entice me, to engage me, and draw me closer to her, like magnetic energy. I stepped to her, looming above her. My sight caught her gaping cleavage, and I saw the tiny mark my mouth had left on her breast. It reminded me that she was mine. She had given herself to me, and even though I had pushed her away, she wouldn't escape.

"Strong women are not at all a turn off, Sookie," I looked at her lazily, branding her body with my eyes as they roamed her frame. I moved closer. "They are most definitely a turn on."

Her anger turned to apprehension and she tried to step back. She quickly realized I had her pinned against the couch; she could either face me or sit down, and she seemed to realize that getting anywhere close to horizontal wasn't in her best interest at the moment. Instead, she put her hand up. I moved closer until it rested against my chest, warming the cold heart underneath.

"One minute you draw me in and the next you push me away. I don't understand you."

I smiled at her. "You don't have to."

She stared at me a moment, processing the way I looked at her, what I had told her, how I had acted. She had amazing intellect, and I would have given anything to know what was going on her in mind at that moment. Afraid of strong women? Ha! I revered them! It was the ones who simpered and whined that were to be watched, as they were like snakes that waited, watching, making you vulnerable so that they had a chance to strike. Strong, powerful women didn't have to hide.

I could tell when Sookie had made her decision about me; her posture stiffened and her expression became resolute. I slipped her a sly smile, and then stepped back, moving out of her way. I was satisfied with my progress so far, especially after my fuck up earlier. I could be patient and wait for her to be ready for me. Tonight was not the night.

She moved quickly out of my reach. Her long strides toward the door made her skirt hug the curve of her ass, reminding me that her underwear was a torn string on my office floor. The idea of such a delectable souvenir awaiting me made the thought of leaving more bearable.

"See you at work, Eric." She opened her apartment door, and gestured with one hand. It was my cue to leave.

I couldn't help but goad her a little farther. "Close the door, Sookie. I haven't said my goodbyes."

"Enough," she shook her head, chastising me like a little boy. "Look, I'll help you at work with Russell, but there will be no…directing me. Not again. Do you understand, Eric?"

I stared at her, silent and unwilling to acknowledge.

Her eyes grew angry, and her little hands moved to rest saucily on her hips. "I mean it, Eric."

I was waiting for her to stomp her foot. I could feel the smirk on my face. "I'm your boss, it's my job to …"

"NO!" A beautiful blush began to spread over her cheeks, down her neck and across her chest, blending with my brand on her breast. I was mesmerized by her reaction, physical and emotional. She had my unwavering attention.

"I'm not talking about work. I'm talking about…other times. Do you understand, Eric? You can't be commanding like that. It's not…it's not allowed. You can't do it."

Her bravery amazed and humbled me, slipping my mask of arrogance away for a moment. "I don't know that I can be any other way." I struggled to speak, the vulnerability strangling the words in my throat. "It's who I am." It's who I have to be. Everything in me silently implored her to understand, to recognize my weakness without abuse or exploitation.

Her eyes devoured mine until I finally lowered my gaze, feeling strangely exposed before her.

Her silence stretched, making me feel as if I were standing on the head of a pin, balancing precariously to avoid plummeting.

"I need to know you respect me," she finally sighed.

"I do." My answer was automatic, given without thought.

"You don't." Her tone was stern. "You're a misogynist. There might, and I stress might, be some women you respect, but certainly not all - and those most definitely not easily. Why is that, Eric? Why don't you respect women? Who hurt you?"

I wouldn't argue with her, but it wasn't respect I lacked for her. It was trust. And that I gave to no one.

I raised my eyes enough to meet hers. "I owe you," the admission was difficult, especially when it went against my instincts to make myself vulnerable in that fashion. "But I don't owe you that. You don't get to lay me bare; analyze me with your psychology minor. I'm not a project for you to evaluate."

"And I'm not a whore for you to fuck."

God, I loved her spunk. And she thought I didn't respect her. How could I not? "No. You're no whore." I left the last part of her sentence where it deserved…unacknowledged.

I leaned into her body, quickly - before she had a chance to move away, and kissed her soft cheek. "Well, as long as we've got that straight, see you on Monday."

And with a wink, I left her apartment.