Kiss a Cook Contest (EXAMPLE FIC - NOT AN ENTRY)

http:/www(dot)fanfiction(dot)net/u/2434344/KissACookContest

Title: Shelter from the Storm

Your Pen Name: Missus T

Betas Names: A Redhead Thing and LanYap

Characters: Eric & Sookie, and a host of other supporting characters

Disclaimer: I do not own the SVM folks, Charlaine Harris does, but I enjoy making things up about them in completely new settings!

A/N:
I was super excited that I was asked to judge this contest, but I was like, "Crap! I have a great idea for it!" So I started writing, and this is what poured out. I hope you like it.

Oh and cuz I'm all kinds of crazy - I made a playlist too. http:/www(dot)playlist(dot)com/playlist/20416788747

Huge thanks to Ohfortuneslost and A Redhead Thing for thinking of me as a judge. Big Easy sized thanks to LanYap for betaing and prereading as a New Orleans resident who experienced Katrina first hand. Double shot of espresso thanks to A Redhead Thing for betaing for me, and being her usual most awesome self. *any remaining mistakes are mine, all mine.

Suddenly I turned around and she was standing there,

With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair.

She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns.

"Come in," she said. "I'll give you

shelter from the storm."

Bob Dylan - Shelter from the Storm

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Thursday September 1, 2005

I was cleaning out the freezer in my restaurant, Beggar's Banquet, in the sweltering heat. The power had been out for too long, and now I was loading garbage bags with meat. It killed me to lose all of this perishable food, but we'd grilled as much of it as we could, joining forces with other restauranteurs and locals who had tried to outlast the storm, and the rest of this had to go before it got really disgusting. The officials were continuing to tell us to evacuate, but I sure as hell wasn't leaving now.

Three days ago, my beloved city of New Orleans had been sucker punched. I may not have been raised here, but this place gets in your blood. I'd fallen in love with the people and the city on vacation, and then, after at least ten visits, I gave in and moved to the Big Easy. Now the city was in ruins, just like my restaurant, and it felt like, my life.

Fucking Katrina had blown into New Orleans like the big bad wolf and let us have it. The recovery would be staggering. I couldn't even imagine how you rebuilt a city after this. The evacuation process had been ordered chaos. Living in the city, you learned to deal with evacuations. Katrina wasn't our first rodeo. What made this different, was that it was the first mandatory evacuation of the city that anyone I knew had had heard of. As close to a million people left the city, there were lines everywhere; on the highway, at the gas station, and heading to the Superdome. It was the only shelter in the city, and as they repeated over and over, it was a shelter of last resort.

We lost power as soon as the hurricane force winds blew into the city. I rode out the storm with a couple of my neighbors, huddled in an interior hallway, with a few flashlights and candles. Sitting there listening to everything was a terrifying experience. We couldn't see what was going on, but we heard debris hitting the house as it was blown everywhere. The wind whistled around doors, and any opening it could find, and the rain poured down. The wind and rain never seemed to let up, but just went on and on. There were loud noises that couldn't be identified and the house creaked with the force of the winds. We tried to talk to each other to stay calm, but there were times, when the storm was at its worst, that we tucked our heads down and prayed.

In the light of day, the city was devastated and the response to our despair was more often than not, a case of too little, too late. It's not to say that there weren't some agencies and individuals that went above and beyond to help anyone and everyone they could, but in general, there was a pretty piss poor response to one of the largest national disasters the country had ever seen.

My home and my restaurant were in the French Quarter, which was hit just as hard as the rest of the city. Many of the buildings in the Quarter had survived over two centuries of hurricanes, and they withstood the beating Katrina dished out. There was a fair amount of damage around the Quarter, but it was nothing like compared to what happened in other parts of the city.

The streets in the Quarter hadn't flooded, but many places, like my restaurant, had water damage from leaky roofs and damage to the building. The financial loss would hurt, but I couldn't fathom what my friends, neighbors, and staff were going through with destroyed homes and loved ones that had died or gone missing.

Several of my staff had wandered back into the restaurant when the weather cleared. They were in a daze, lost, and exhausted. The restaurant was without electricity and beginning to smell of mold, but they refused when I suggested they should leave the city. We made a plan to start cleaning up what we could and to look out for our neighbors, then everyone made camp in my house.

There had been some looting and robberies across the city, and I didn't want anyone breaking in to steal or damage what I had left. Between the five of us staying together, we set up a rotation, keeping two people at the restaurant over night while the other three slept spread out all over my home.

Raising my arm, I paused to wipe sweat from my forehead, and continued throwing away hundreds of dollars worth of food, one armful at a time.

"Excuse me, hi. I'm looking for Eric Northman."

I sighed. Whoever she was, I didn't want to talk to her. If I kept my back turned, I could pretend I wasn't who she was looking for.

"He's not here."

"Oh. Um. When will he be back?"

"Don't know. I need to clear out this rotten food."

I still hadn't turned around. Whatever help she was looking for, or whatever she needed, I didn't have it right now. I was close to breaking down. I was exhausted, filthy, and I just didn't want to deal with Little Mary Sunshine.

She exhaled, loudly. "Okay. Shit. Do you know if he's in New Orleans? Or did he evacuate?"

I was wearing a mask over my nose and mouth and my hair was mostly covered by a bandanna, although some had slipped out and was hanging in my eyes. It was dark, too, the only light coming from an open back door and a couple of hurricane lamps I'd put on shelves inside the freezer. She could stand there all day and never figure out it was me, and I was fine with that. I really just wanted her to leave. I had enough shit to deal with.

"What do you need him for, lady?"

"I can't get in touch with my brother. He told me if I ever needed anything to find Eric. I don't know where to go, and I can't figure out if I can even get out of the city anymore."

She sounded like she was going to cry. I didn't do well with crying. And what idiot had told their sister to find me if she was in trouble? That was just stupid.

"Who's your brother?"

"Jason Stackhouse. Could you -"

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.

"Sookie?"

I dropped what I was holding and turned around. It was really her. The blond hair, crazy smile, and curves in all the right places. She looked good. Better than I imagined she'd look when she grew up. She looked at me blankly, and I pulled the mask up on my forehead.

"Eric? Oh my god!"

She burst into tears, big wracking sobs, and I had to almost jump to catch her before she collapsed. We sat on the floor, and I pulled her into my lap.

"It's okay." I stroked her hair and held her close.

She must have been desperate. We hadn't seen each other in years. We were really no more than acquaintances, but she pretty much hated me the last time we met. It may have had something to do with me making obnoxious comments about her breasts and wanting to slide my dick between them.

I had been particularly drunk, shitfaced actually, coming home from an after-hours party with Jason when we got out of work. She was in town visiting for a week before starting college and was sleeping on Jason's couch. He forgot she was staying with him, and drunkenly promised his couch to me so I didn't have to go all the way home. We staggered into his apartment, and suddenly I found myself stretched out on the hide-a-bed next to his eighteen-year-old sister, telling her how hot she was and how much I wanted to fuck her.

We'd all eaten dinner together at the restaurant where Jason and I worked earlier in the week. I thought then that Sookie was beautiful, but she was young, and not at all my type. She was the kind of girl you took home to your parents, not the kind of girl you fucked and snuck away from without leaving your phone number. Apparently, my drunk self wanted to tell her what I would have done with her if she'd been more my type. She'd kicked me off the bed, literally, and I stayed there on the floor sleeping for a few hours before staggering home.

I was an ass. Well, most people would say I still was an ass, but even more so back then. Jason and I had met working as line cooks in New York City, and we worked our way up through the ranks. We had talked about opening a place together, but we had different ideas and knew better than to risk our friendship. And so eight years after sexually harassing his sister, Jason still lived in New York and I was in New Orleans. Jason and I talked about once a month, but, somehow, we never seemed to talk about Sookie.

She was curled around my body and it felt as good as I had imagined all those years ago.

"Sookie. What are you doing here?"

She sat back a little, not leaving the circle of my arms I noticed, and took a good look at me. One of her hands came up and her fingers ran along what had to be Samsonite-sized bags under my eyes. I hadn't bothered to look in a mirror, but I knew it was bad.

"You look so tired."

I smiled. "I'm exhausted, Sookie. But you didn't answer my question. What are you doing here? In New Orleans, and more specifically, here in my restaurant?"

She started talking, and it was like she'd saved it up for days. "I came down here for work and then I got a horrible migraine. There was no way I could fly home like that, so I hid out in my hotel room in the dark. When I finally got out of bed I realized what was going on," she shook her head. "My hotel didn't evacuate until it was too late, and then they started talking about sending people to the Superdome. A bunch of us stayed at the hotel until this morning, and then," her voice broke. "Corporate came in and closed it down. They told us all to get out. When I mentioned that I might know someone here they laughed at me, saying you were probably long gone. But I knew you'd be here. You're just like Jason, you would never leave."

"Jesus, you're lucky. I can't believe you didn't evacuate. Jason is going to kill you."

"You didn't evacuate." She huffed.

"No. I couldn't. This," I looked around. "It's all I've got."

She shook her head. "I'm sure that's not true."

I shrugged, and we sat, entwined, looking at each other for a long moment.

Finally, I said, "Welcome to Beggar's Banquet, my now defunct dream restaurant."

"It looks great, Eric, and I'm sure you'll get things up and running in no time. You must be doing well; Jason always said you were almost as good of a cook as he was."

I laughed. Fucking Stackhouse saying I was almost as good of a cook. We were always competitive, but in all honesty, it would have been hard to say who was better. "I actually finished culinary school. I'm a Chef now."

"Really? I remember you were taking classes. That's so cool." She grinned enthusiastically.

I smiled at her and shook my head. How could she be so excited at a time like this?

"What am I going to do with you? The city is a fucking wreck. I've got four people crashing at my place." I sighed and ran my hands through my hair. "We'll figure it out."

We were quiet for a minute, and I don't know about her, but sitting together, I felt the best that I had in days.

I gave her a half smile. "I'm sorry. I'm sure I'm the last person you ever wanted to come to for help."

She laughed. "Yeah, well. It was a long time ago, and you were really drunk."

"That I was."

"Eric, I'll sleep on the floor. I don't care. I'll help you clean up, whatever you need. I'll go home as soon as I can, I just didn't know where else to go."

For a split second, I thought about passing her off to someone else to get her out of the city and onto the first plane back to wherever she'd come from, but she was still in my arms and her breasts, her heavenly breasts, were pressed up against my chest making me think about totally inappropriate things again.

Someone cleared their throat, and I looked up to see Victor, my chef de cuisine, eyeing us with confusion.

"Oh!" Sookie laughed. "You scared me."

I stood, and reached a hand down to her. When she was on her feet, I introduced her to Vic and explained that she was Jason's sister and was stranded in the city. Jason had been down to visit about a year ago, so Vic knew who he was.

He was pleasant, but impatient, and finally said, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but that guy from the National Guard was here, he said you wanted to know when they were set up."

"Oh, yeah." I looked at my watch and realized that it was eleven o'clock. I'd been working in the freezer for over two hours. "I was going to help them serve lunch." I glanced at Sookie. "There are a bunch of us that stayed who want to help out."

"I'm just boxing up some things to stash in your office. I could come with you," Vic offered.

Sookie put her hand on his arm. "No, you keep working. I'll go."

I wasn't really surprised at her offer, the Stackhouse's knew how to work, it was in their DNA, but the determination in her eyes was what really pushed me to accept.

"Thanks, Sookie that would be great," I agreed and Vic nodded.

I knew that Sookie was feeling helpless and lost, we all were, and if serving some hot food made her feel a little better, I could give that to her.

"Not that I have much, but is there somewhere to put my stuff?" She looked around at the kitchen stacked with dishes and everything else that we'd tried to keep off of the floor in case of flooding.

I noticed that she had a large duffel bag behind her. "Vic can put it in my office for now. Let me get cleaned up."

For the past few days, we had been boiling water on the charcoal grill to clean our hands and someone, I wasn't asking who or how, had come up with a couple of gigantic bottles of hand sanitizer.

I hung up my apron and changed shirts, then washed my hands and grabbed us each a bottle of water. I took Sookie down to where the Guard had set up a field kitchen, and introduced her to the guys we had met earlier. They were getting ready to serve food to anyone and everyone who was around for lunch.

Sookie and I stood side by side, dishing up hot food and then cleaning up and prepping for the next meal. We talked off and on throughout the afternoon, and I found her easy to be around. She told me that she was living in New York City and working for an events planner. She'd come to New Orleans to scope out locations for a party one of their clients was throwing, but now, there was no telling if the venues were even still standing.

I told her about finishing my program at the Culinary Institute of America. We discussed how Jason and I had both changed jobs after that, and then things had really begun to change for both of us. I worked for people who challenged me and encouraged me to go out on my own, and Jason had gotten a girl pregnant who turned out to be the daughter of an oil tycoon, who, in turn, bought him a restaurant.

She told me stories about Jason's daughter, Selah. I'd met her once when she was a new born, but now she was two and was getting into everything. I'd heard from Jason that Crystal was pregnant again, and Sookie told me that they found out that they were having a boy.

We talked about all sorts of things and spent a lot of time laughing. She asked questions about the restaurant and inquired about my staff and if I knew how or where they were. We finished doing some prep work for dinner and decided to head back to the restaurant.

I checked my watch and was surprised to see that four hours had passed. I glanced at Sookie and really saw her for the first time in hours. She looked dead on her feet. I felt awful for not realizing how tired she was sooner.

When we got back to the restaurant, Victor and our new roommates were sitting at a table in the front window playing cards. I'm not sure that they had been true friends before the hurricane hit, but Charles the bartender, Remy the bus boy, and Liam a line cook, were laughing and teasing each other like they were at a weekly poker party.

Charles threw his head back laughing when he saw us come in the door. I raised an eyebrow at him in question, having no idea what was so funny.

"I'm sorry, boss." He snorted, trying to stop laughing. "The city is in fucking shambles, and you still manage to pick up a skirt." I glared at him. "I mean, lady. I'm sorry ma'am."

"Charles, this is Sookie Stackhouse. She's the sister of a very good friend, and she is stranded here with us. She is my guest and you will treat her as such. Understood?"

"Yes, Eric. I'm sorry. I was just joking. Pleasure to meet you, Miss Stackhouse. I'm Charles Twinings, head bartender here at the Banquet." He introduced her to the other two men, and invited her to join the game.

"Oh, thanks so much for asking, but I'm exhausted. Maybe tomorrow?" she asked.

"Of course," he agreed and they all nodded.

"I think we're going to call it a day. I'll take Sookie back to the house to get situated. Remy and Liam, you all set for tonight?"

"Yup. We're good boss," Liam answered with a nod.

"Don't waste the batteries and be sure to lock the back door."

"Aye, aye captain," Remy teased.

I turned to Sookie, "See what I put up with?" She laughed at us, shaking her head. "Let me grab your bag and we'll go."

She nodded and when I came back from my office, she was listening to Charles telling her that we had a ghost in the building. Luckily she looked more amused than afraid. Victor and Charles told us they'd see us later as we headed for my place.

I set her bags down and started to give her the tour. When we reached the guest bedroom, I was surprised to see that it was packed full of things from the restaurant. There were cases of liquor stacked around the room, while pots, pans, random boxes, and some of my favorite kitchen gadgets littered the bed.

I continued showing her around, my mind scrambling to reconfigure the sleeping arrangements because I had planned on her sleeping in there, but the only other beds in the house were mine and the pullout couch. After I had showed her where the candles were and our rudimentary bathroom facilities, we sat down in the living room with a couple of strong drinks. I had a shitload of alcohol, and it was definitely time for a cocktail. She could hardly keep her eyes open, and I knew I had to tell her what was on my mind.

"Sookie, I need to say something, and I want you to let me finish before you say anything. Okay?"

She nodded, looking uncertain about what I was about to say.

"I'm sorry about the way I acted before in New York. I don't want you to think this has anything to do with that, but I think you should sleep in my room, with me."

She tried to interrupt and I held my hand up.

"I don't want you sleeping out here with the others, and I would feel better if we were in the same room. I mean, I feel responsible for you, and the past few nights we've heard people outside, so I'll sleep on the floor, but I think we should share the bedroom."

She looked at me, eyes wide. "Do you think someone would try to break in?"

"Shit." I shook my head. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm just being cautious."

She bit her lip, then nodded.

"You're not going to fight with me? Or try to kick me in the nuts?"

She laughed. "No. And I'll even let you sleep on the bed with me."

I quirked an eyebrow at her.

"We're both adults, and we're exhausted, but if you try anything I'll kick you off the bed again."

I had expected her to put up a fight. "You're sure?"

She stood and nodded, then said goodnight and went into the bedroom. I stayed in the living room, waiting for Vic and Charles, sipping my cocktail.

After asking the guys if they'd heard any important news, which they hadn't, I finally headed to bed. I hoped that Sookie was asleep already; I didn't want her to feel uncomfortable. But when I pulled my shirt off and stretched out along side her, I realized she was trying to hide that she had been crying.

"Are you okay?"

She rolled over to face me and shook her head.

"What is it?" I whispered, reaching out to brush away her tears.

"I just want to go home, but I feel awful because so many of the people here don't have a home to go to, or they have a home but lost their family."

"I know," I said, feeling a lump in my throat. I felt horrible for being glad that I hadn't lost more than I did.

She leaned her forehead on my chest, and I gave in and pulled her into my arms. She cried herself to sleep. I woke in the morning still holding her, despite the heat and humidity.

"Mmm. Toothbrush," she mumbled climbing out of bed. "And coffee."

"Coke," I called after her. "We can't waste the water on coffee." I was halfway joking, but her reaction was priceless.

She groaned, and I thought I heard her mutter a curse as the bathroom door closed.

We spent the next week following a similar pattern, working side-by-side all day, getting the restaurant in order or feeding others at the Guard's field kitchen, and then falling asleep in each others arms at night. It hadn't moved beyond that, and I was fine with it. I realized that she needed comforting, and I knew she was going back to New York. I figured that we could be friends after this; it was a hell of a bonding experience, but after what had happened before, I was sure she wasn't interested in more.

Eight years ago, shit, last year, I would have already tried to seduce her. But lately, I craved more than sex. I wanted to be with someone I cared about, and that was crazy, because I wasn't used to caring for anyone.

The problem, I was finding, was that Sookie amazed me every day with something that she said or did. I wanted to know her, and for the first time in a very long time when it came to a woman, I wanted her to know me, and it scared the shit out of me.

Throughout the week, we found time to relax, or blow off steam, with my staff and other holdouts who had pooled resources to get by. We played poker while listening to emergency radios and told ghost stories in candle lit rooms. We visited Johnny White's Sports Bar on Bourbon Street a couple of times to visit with other locals and find out the latest news. Johnny's had never closed, through the entire hurricane and its aftermath; it was a sort of community center for locals, reporters, and relief workers alike.

I was comfortable with Sookie, and without trying, I found that I had learned a number of little things about her. I knew that she wanted more peanut butter than jelly on her sandwich and that she would go thirsty before drinking Diet Pepsi. She wore a wedding band on her thumb that had belonged to her grandfather and a necklace that had been her mother's. She bit her lip when she needed to think about something and she swore like a sailor when she was angry.

I had done something this afternoon that pissed her off, and I had no idea what it was. I knocked on the bedroom door and waited, but she didn't respond, so I knocked again.

"Sookie, please. Tell me what's wrong."

"Fuck off. Just leave me the fuck alone. I'm fine."

"You're not fine."

"You, are an asshole."

"That isn't news to anyone. Will you please let me in? What's wrong?"

She sighed, and then I heard a click as she unlocked the door. I opened it slowly, and she was standing by the window with her arms wrapped around her chest. I went straight over to her, gently putting my hands on her hips.

"What did I do?" I asked quietly.

She shook her head and wiped a tear. I was such a sucker for the tears.

I leaned closer, my chin almost resting on her shoulder. "Please, tell me."

"You want me to leave," she whispered.

"I want you to go home. Where there's clean water and electricity."

She sighed and I wished I could see her face.

"Why are you mad that I want you to be safe and comfortable?"

"That's not what I'm upset about."

I lightly grabbed her arm and turned her around to face me. "What is it?"

She bit her lip, and I felt the urge to kiss her; it had been getting harder and harder to resist. Shit, it had been getting hard to be around her, period. Her eyes met mine, and they were glassy from crying.

"You don't want me."

"What?"

"Please don't make me say it again," she said wiping a stray tear from her cheek.

Holy. Shit. Everything just sort of clicked into place in my head. I put my hands on either side of her face.

"Sookie, I do want you." I stepped closer, so she could feel that I was telling the truth. "I want you so badly it hurts."

She gasped as I rubbed against her, and her hands found their way into my hair, pulling me towards her for a kiss. "Then make love to me. Don't send me away."

"Honey, those are two separate issues," I said, kissing her forehead.

"Then get naked and we'll talk about why I'm not leaving later."

She didn't even pause before grabbing the hem of my shirt and pulling it over my head. I chuckled at her urgency, but found my own hands on her waistband, sliding down her zipper and pushing her shorts and panties down her legs. In a couple of quick moves, I had the rest of her clothes off and had her spread out on the bed.

I kissed my way up her body, stopping to nuzzle my face between her breasts, before capturing her lips. I felt her hands canvass my body before settling on my ass, pulling me towards her. Despite all of my fantasies about Sookie, I regretted that we weren't going to take things slow, but I quickly pushed that thought away when her hand wrapped around my erection.

I reached down to her center, running my fingers through her folds to see if she was ready.

"Oh, Jesus," I groaned. She was hot and wet and I felt my hips jerk involuntarily. She arched her back into my hand, sighing my name.

I grabbed a condom from my night stand and quickly covered myself. Moving between her thighs, I rocked against her, causing us both to moan before I entered her. I looked into her eyes as I filled her, letting her body adjust to my size, moving slowly. A million things flashed through my mind, all cliche, about how warm and tight she was and what a perfect fit we were. She brought me back to reality by moving her hips, and it spurred me into action.

She was grabbing my ass and pulling me further into her, meeting every thrust. It was hard and fast, our bodies slapping against each other, and we were both quite loud. I knew I wasn't going to last long because I'd been walking around hard for her for days. With the way she was screaming my name, I knew she was close too. I shifted my hips, changing my angle, and felt her body tightening around me until she cried out and her entire body relaxed. In just a few more thrusts, I found my own release.

Afterwards, she was tucked against my side, leaning on me and stroking my chest with her hand. We were a sweaty mess, and we'd been sweaty and smelly to start with, thanks to the heat and lack of electricity and airconditioning. When I thought about it, I laughed.

"You might want to get out of my armpit. That can't smell good."

She giggled. "It's fine. I'm just glad you didn't try to go down on me. I'm sure it's not pretty down there."

I barked out a deep laugh. She had a great sense of humor, and she'd rolled with everything the storm had thrown at her.

Her fingers were combing through the hair on my chest, and I put my hand over hers. "Sookie, you need to get out of New Orleans when you can get a flight."

She sat up on her elbow to look me in the eye. "Why? I'm safe with you. They're going to get the electricity up soon. Everything will be fine."

I closed my eyes. I wished that I had the optimism she did. "Sookie, it's going to be months, if not years, before the city is back to normal."

"And you're going to stay here for the rebuilding, but you want me to fucking leave?" She sat up, grabbing her shirt from the end of the bed. She pulled her shirt on and was sliding her legs into her shorts as she continued to rant at me. "Fuck you, Eric. I cannot believe I just fell for your bullshit. What? You couldn't have just found some skirt to fuck? You want me to go? I'll leave for the god damn airport now."

I sat on the end of the bed. "Are you done?"

"What? Yes, I'm done. I'm fucking leaving."

I grabbed her hand and pulled her back to sit down next to me. "I know what you think of me. But I'm not that guy any more. I don't want any other woman. I want you. Still. Again. Fuck."

Her eyes softened. "That's good," she said quietly, a grin sneaking onto her face.

I raked my hands through my hair and exhaled. "I want you to go home because you shouldn't have to live in my house with me and four other guys, because you deserve to shower every day and not worry about how you smell. You're exhausted, and I know you've lost weight since you've been here."

She looked away. She knew I was right, at least about her weight loss and lack of sleep. I leaned back on the bed and tugged her hand, pulling her down so we were lying side by side, facing each other.

"This is going to sound backwards, but I want you to go home so I can work on getting my restaurant back on its feet so I can be with you."

"Eric," she whispered, reaching her fingertips to touch my lips.

"Sookie, I was raised to take care of my own. I can't care for you properly now. I own a restaurant and I can hardly feed you. It is killing me that I can't even offer you basic amenities. You deserve pampering."

"What about you? You're hardly sleeping or eating either."

"Just for a while, Sookie. Go home until I can get the restaurant open."

"No."

"Yes."

"No."

"I'll call Jason and Crystal."

She snorted. Cell phones were still hit or miss for coverage, and your best bet was to stand in line to use a satellite phone from the Red Cross or National Guard to make any calls.

"Well, that will back-fire on you, Northman. Jason probably won't let me come back to be with you. He knows you too well."

I laughed, she had it wrong. "Yeah. He knows I'm ready to settle down and that I'm jealous of his family."

I could barely hear her when she whispered, "Really?"

"Really."

"Hypothetically speaking," she paused and bit her lip. "If I left, how would we keep in touch? How would I know when to come back? How would I know you didn't change your mind?"

"That's a lot of questions," I laughed. "Well, I will call you or email you as soon as I can and I'll make sure you know when the grand re-opening will be. And Sookie, I won't change my mind. If we don't talk until you walk back in my door, it won't make a difference. I will be thrilled to see you. I'll even clean out a drawer here for you now before you leave. It will be empty for you when you get back."

"One drawer? You've never lived with a woman before have you?"

I laughed. "I'll buy you your own dresser."

"If you give me the closet in the guest room too, we have a deal."

"Deal."

"Really?" Her eyes were like saucers and she was giggling.

"Sookie. I've always had a thing for you, but," I shrugged, "you wouldn't have wanted me back then."

Her cheeks got red. "Oh, I wanted you, but I wasn't interested in having you."

"Is that so?"

She nodded and then she looked serious. "Eric, really, do you want me to come back?"

"Yes. I want you to come back. Did you need to hear those exact words?"

"Yeah," she smiled. "I think I did."

"Good. Well, that's settled. Now, take your clothes back off and come here. We only have a couple of days to get sick of each other before you head back up north."

The guys figured out what was going on, well, I'm sure they heard a lot of what was going on, and they let us have our time together. The last night that Sookie stayed in New Orleans all four of them slept at the restaurant.

They had all fallen for Sookie in their own way as well. I heard each one of them tell her that they would miss her and couldn't wait for her to "come back home." But they had also individually told me that I was doing the right thing by having her go back up north. The key thing to me, and I think to the guys, was that she could go, and that she had somewhere to go. They didn't. I didn't. We were already in the only place where we had to be. If Sookie could get away from the heartbreak and ugliness that was New Orleans during these first dismal weeks, by all means, she should go.

I don't think she ever saw it that way, not even when I stood in front of the security gate with her watching silent tears run down her face. She would have stayed, for me, no matter what the conditions were. And though I was trying hard to pretend it wasn't true, it was one of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with her.

"Don't make me go."

I cupped her cheek. "We've been over this. I thought you were okay with it?"

"I was never okay with it," she whispered.

"You have a life up north and a job that you need to resign from first. Were you planning to just walk away from everything?"

"I thought I already did."

She stepped away from my arms and got in the security line; it was short and moving quickly.

"Sookie. Don't go like this."

She looked over her shoulder at me for a quick second, but it was long enough for me to see her devastated face. I stood there until she disappeared down the corridor, but she didn't look back again.

Fuck. What did that mean? I felt like there was a hole in my chest a mile wide.

I left Sookie messages when I could, but I always seemed to get her voice mail. I just kept hoping that she would remember what I had said. Even if we weren't able to talk, I would welcome her back at any time.

After much discussion with other restaurant owners and my own staff members who had returned, we decided to open the restaurant as soon as possible. We were surprisingly busy when we opened, because many people didn't have refrigerators or working kitchens and the emergency and construction workers needed places to eat.I knew once we got things up and running, even on a smaller scale, we would speed up the process of getting everything back on track.

It was difficult in the first weeks. A big chunk of my staff had evacuated, and many of them weren't coming back. It was understandable; there wasn't a lot to come back to for many people. Supplies were a nightmare, we couldn't get everything that we wanted, so we cut our prices and created a simpler menu out of the things we could get.

It was cash only, and I was in the kitchen seven days a week, sometimes working a double shift. It was hellish, and it reminded me of two things: one, that I loved being a chef, and two, that I really loved owning my own restaurant and only cooking two or three nights a week.

I found a peace in the kitchen again that I had lost before the storm, but there were still times when I wanted nothing more than to hear Sookie's voice. I missed her laughter and her smile, and I was sleeping like shit because my bed felt empty without her. I was cranky and tired, horny and frustrated, and miserable company for anyone to be around.

Before Sookie left, we had decided that she'd stay in New York for eight weeks, but that was before those last tearful moments. After the way she walked away, and the fact that I'd gone weeks without talking to her, I had no idea if she was coming back to me or not.

I talked to Jason the week after she left and all he really said was thanks for taking care of her. I wasn't sure what she had told him about us, so I didn't tell him too much. I hung up the phone, praying that she was tying up loose ends and packing her things to move to the Crescent City with me.

After a month, I broke down and called him again. Without asking, he told me that he was worried about Sookie. She had quit her job and gone to their Gran's cabin in the Berkshire's with her friend Amelia, where she had no cell reception or internet. Jason was afraid that she was depressed, and attributed it to the things she had seen during and after Katrina. I didn't have the balls to correct him.

I was slightly relieved to hear that she was at the cabin. I knew she was checking her voice mails, because the mailbox never got full, but I told myself that she wasn't returning my calls because she didn't have good service. My denial defied logic, but I pretended not to realize it.

There was a point about three weeks after Sookie left that Victor told me to get on a plane to New York, or get good and drunk, so I would stop being a complete dick. I had stood there a little shocked at his words, then nodded and took off my apron and left for the day.

I didn't go home and get drunk like he'd suggested though. My mind had been working nonstop and Vic was right, it was time for a break. I needed to clear my head and recharge my batteries. I had been spending every waking moment worrying about the restaurant and whether Sookie was coming back. The nights alone in my bed weren't much better. I took a sleeping pill and crashed, sleeping through the night for the first time in weeks.

In the morning, I called Victor to tell him that I wouldn't be in until after lunch, and he was fine with that. Shit, he was probably thrilled after the way I'd been acting lately. I sat down at the computer and designed an announcement for the grand re-opening of Beggar's Banquet. It would be held in a month whether we were ready or not, because that's when I told Sookie to come back.

I emailed the paper and set up an ad to run in two weeks. I started to get together an email list from the original opening and added to it the customers who had signed up for our newsletter. I knew that probably half of the people on the list were no longer at their same mailing address, but I hoped they were still checking their email.

I had one last task to do before I went to work. I dug around in the spare room and found a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey that I had stashed away as a gift for someone and walked down the street to Arlene's house.

She was around my age, but had been married three times and was currently reeling from her last fiancé being charged with a string of murders. She had horrible taste in men and she was a little on the redneck side, but she was a kind soul. She would step in to help at the restaurant in a pinch, and in return, I'd spent several nights consoling her after her fiancé was arrested. We sat at her dining room table drinking whiskey, and she showed me the intricate scrapbooks that she made for her kids, Coby and Lisa, who were presently in Texas with her parents.

Arlene was more than happy to help me out, and she promised that she would have a hand-made invitation for the grand reopening ready for me to mail to Sookie in the next day or so. She had great handwriting and offered to address the envelope for me as well, which was sweet, but I felt like I needed to do it myself. I hoped that Sookie would recognize my handwriting, but I had no idea if she really would.

The finished product was better than I expected. I addressed it to Sookie in care of Jason, hoping that he wouldn't ask for an explanation until after the re-opening.

After I put it in the mail, I tried to push her out of my mind, focusing on all of the details for the big night. I did what I could to help all of my staff that had returned, setting up my old computer at the restaurant for their use, helping them navigate the clusterfuck of resources that were supposed to help them if they could get through the red tape and searching for friends or relatives.

In the entire eight weeks I received one voicemail from Sookie.

"Hi. I was thinking of you. I wanted to talk, but you're not there. So. Okay, bye."

I had no idea what that meant. She thought about me? She wanted to talk? Both of those things could be construed in a number of ways. That night I did get shitfaced drunk. I woke up on the bathroom floor in the morning, more miserable than I'd been before I started drinking.

Being busy helped keep from worrying about whether or not Sookie was going to show up. I made it until two days before the opening before I called Jason again. He told me that Sookie seemed to have been better when she returned from the cabin but that he hadn't spoken to her since they met for dinner right after she got back in to town.

I couldn't find any clues in what he said that would lead me to think she was coming, but I didn't hear anything that indicated she wasn't either.

The morning of the re-opening, I changed the sheets on the bed and made sure the bathroom was clean. I put my best Chef's jacket in my garment bag and headed to the restaurant. The day was full of prep work and small adjustments as everything began to come together. The morning flew by, and it was suddenly time to get changed.

My nerves were shot. I'd had way too much caffeine throughout the day, and I was practically pacing. Would she show up? Would the restaurant be a success? If she didn't come, did I give two shits about the restaurant? I sighed. Realistically I did care, but honestly, I would be hollow without her.

The doors opened, and the evening began. It had started to rain, and even when the rain became a full out thunderstorm, I tried not to let it dampen my spirit. Throughout the night, I alternated between working in the kitchen and walking through the restaurant to mingle. Several times, the overhead lights glinted off of a head of long blond hair, and my heart sped up, only to sink at the realization that it wasn't her.

After speaking with a reporter for the Times Picayune, and some friends from the hotel and restaurant business, I went back to the kitchen to help Victor get caught up. We were moving fast, kicking out orders, and if felt like the days before Katrina. Things slowed down and I headed back out front.

I was standing at the bar talking with Arlene when I saw a man trying to open the door. He was struggling to get through with a large, black, opened umbrella. I stepped over and grabbed the door as he came in, putting his foot in the door while he brought the umbrella inside. He thanked me, and I was turning back to the bar when he closed the umbrella. I realized there was someone behind him coming through the door.

It was a very blond someone in tall heels, who had her head down trying to stay underneath the umbrella. I hesitated before taking a better look. I had begun to give up hope.

I turned my head at the same time she raised her eyes. My heart sped up again, but this time it didn't slow down. It jumped in my chest and it took all of my will power not to launch myself at her.

Sookie gasped when she saw me, bringing her hand up to her chest and then laughing. Her smile filled my heart, and I stood there, like an idiot, beaming back at her.

"Hi," she said, stepping towards me. She placed her hands gently on my chest, and I felt like they burned holes in my skin. "Can we go to your office?"

I cocked my head. What could that mean?

"Of course, lover."

I watched her face for a reaction, but she only smiled wider. Fuck me. I wanted to read her thoughts. I would have felt much better if I knew what was going through her mind. I put my hand on her lower back and led her to the back of the restaurant, struggling to resist the urge to pull her against my chest.

We stepped into my office and she closed the door behind us. I leaned on the edge of my desk, trying to slow down my heart rate before I had a fucking heart attack. In all of the ways that I had imagined her returning, this wasn't it. It wasn't anywhere close. I wasn't prepared for us to have our reunion in my office.

She came closer, standing between my legs. She smelled like summer wind and sunlight. I smiled, realizing that it was probably the best she had ever smelled around me, but that I would have recognized her scent anywhere.

"Hi."

"Hi," I repeated. "Didn't we already do this?"

"Oh, yeah." She laughed, and I felt the corner of my mouth lift and the fist around my heart started to release it's grip. She took a steadying breath and then exhaled. She bit her lip and then raised her eyes to mine before speaking.

"Did you mean it?"

"Yes," I breathed. I meant every word.

"I'm sorry." It was barely a whisper. "I just needed-"

I put my finger to her lips. "It's okay."

I didn't care that she had all but fallen off the grid for eight weeks, all that mattered was that she was back. She could tell me the rest later. I glanced at the small handbag that she had set in my chair. "Did you bring a suitcase?"

She nodded. "I did." Her hands moved to my hips and she grinned. "You got me a dresser."

"You've been to the house?" I raised an eyebrow.

"Yes. We need a new hide-a-key. I put it on my key chain."

I put my hand to her cheek. I loved that she had just said we. "You're staying?"

She nodded and stood on her tiptoes, putting her arms around my neck. Her face got closer and closer until our lips almost touched. "I never wanted to leave, remember?"

I closed the distance between us and brushed my lips against hers, softly at first and then my arms wrapped around her and the kiss took on more urgency. Her hands tangled in my hair and mine roamed her body pulling her closer to me with every breath. Her scent wrapped around me and her body molded to mine, and I felt the missing pieces click together inside of me.

Thunder crashed as we ended the kiss, and the electricity flickered, dimming the lights for a second. It startled us both, and then she was quiet.

I leaned back to see her face. I didn't want her to be afraid of the weather here. "It's alright, Sookie."

She laughed and shook her head. "I'm not afraid, Eric. I was thinking about how good you look by candle light."

I waggled my eyebrows as I lowered my face to kiss her. "Candles can definitely be arranged."

We kissed slowly, pausing several times to look at each other, as if we needed to confirm that we weren't dreaming.

There was a knock at the door and we laughed at the interruption.

"Eric, some people have been asking for you," Victor said through the door.

"He'll be right out, Vic," Sookie called.

"Sookie?" he laughed.

"Yeah. I'm sending him out."

Vic laughed again. It was only fitting for him to interrupt our reunion the way he had the day she found me.

I stepped back from her, trying to slow my breathing and will away my erection to face my customers, and I had to admit, I was hesitant to leave her.

"I'm not going anywhere."

How did she do that? She knew exactly what I was thinking.

"Come on. Let's go mingle and then we can go home."

"Home," she repeated. "That sounds good."

"It does, doesn't it?"

She grinned, and we walked into the restaurant, together.

00oo00oo00

A/N:

I remember reading about Chef John Besh and some other restauranteurs who either stayed in New Orleans, or came back immediately following Katrina, to help with the recovery, protect their restaurants and help their staff. I felt like Eric would be that kind of guy, and I think Besh is a cutie.

Links to stuff from the story - if you're into that.

This is pretty close to what I read about Chef Besh:

http:/www(dot)allbusiness(dot)com/north-america/united-states-louisiana/1110669-1(dot)html

Beggar's Banquet is one of my favorite restaurants. It's in East Lansing, Michigan.

http:/www(DOT)beggarsbanquet(DOT)com/

Johnny Whites - really - they NEVER closed during Katrina

http:/www(DOT)johnnywhitesneverclosed(DOT)com/home(DOT)html