A New Chapter Contest Entry

Title: From Sky to Sea

Characters: Sookie, Eric, Bill, Sam, Alcide, Quinn

Word Count: 11,936

Pen Name: JanineMNM

Beta/ Doula: makesmyheadspin

Status: New writer/ Primipara

Disclaimer: All Southern Vampire Mystery characters belong to Charlaine Harris. The name of the town "North Dormer" was borrowed from Edith Wharton's Summer.

Summary: New Chapter Contest entry: New England-born Sookie can't let go of memories of last summer's lustful and secretive romance that surprised her with a pregnancy. Planning to take on parenthood alone, she nonetheless finds herself the object of a line-up of suitors vying for her attention. But will she choose the man who matters most?


"I hate this weather!"

Stepping out of Dr. Ludwig's office, I could barely stand to glance at the slushy snow clogging the sidewalks of my seaside hometown of North Dormer. Who could believe that just yesterday, under clear, sunny skies, we were all walking around coatless, carefree, and—as it turned out—stupidly gullible to believe we were in the home stretch toward summer? I would never forget this April Fools' Day.

I'll be the first to tell you that New Englanders can be a whiny bunch, especially about the weather. (I know because on some days I feel like I'm serving all of them at Merlotte's Diner.) Around this time of the year, after a long, gray, and dreary winter, Spring teases us with a few beautifully perfect days and then abandons us. We fall for it every time. Summer doesn't elbow her way in until June, when she brings sudden 90-degree days. Then we complain about how hot it is.

Actually, I don't ever complain about the heat. I love summer. I love the heavy weight of hot, humid air on my body—the hotter, the better. I should have been born in the south. So, yeah. I hate this weather.

Kicking slush out of my path, I nearly ran right into my brother Jason, who came bounding out the door of the auto supply store.

"Sookie! What are you doing out in this mess?"

"I had another appointment with Dr. Ludwig. As of today, I am forty weeks and four days pregnant."

Jason froze. He looked confused, which wasn't unusual, like maybe he was trying to count backwards and figure out the identity of my baby's father, which I'd managed to keep private. Grasping my shoulders, he sputtered in alarm, "You're more than ten months pregnant?" (Only because Jason had spent a lot of time growing up with friends with thick Boston accents, it sounded more like, "Yoah moah than ten months pregnant?")

"No, Jason. A typical full-term pregnancy is forty weeks, which works out to about nine months because there are more than four weeks in a month, except for February." I trailed off, seeing the blank look on his face and realizing I just needed to simplify things for him. "Look, it's okay. I'm just a few days overdue. Doc Ludwig has been keeping a careful eye on me."

He relaxed. "Well, okay…if you're sure. Can I give you a lift anywhere?"

"No. I'm parked right outside of Merlotte's."

He kissed my cheek before bolting for his truck. "All right then. I have to run."

"Oh! Hey, Jason…" I turned to tell him my other news, but he was already gone.

Forty weeks and four days. I wasn't always so obsessed with time—only since about four weeks ago, when Dr. Ludwig had first said that I would go into labor any day. Initially I'd been excited. I'd gone home, double-checked my hospital bag, done some last minute cleaning, and cooked and stashed another meal in the freezer. And then I'd waited. At my wit's end, I'd begged Sam, my boss at Merlotte's, to give me extra hours. He'd relented until customers, feeling uncomfortable about having a pregnant ticking time bomb waiting on them, started bussing their own tables. Plus as you might imagine, being in this kind of forever state of readiness for a life-changing event makes you kind of short-tempered. To make a long story short, Sam sent me home on maternity leave. With pay.

Still mucking my way to my car, I pulled at the exhausted elastic and fabric of my maternity clothes, which no longer offered full coverage of "The Mountain." That's what Sam had dubbed my midsection because of the way it erupted out comically, far beyond the small frame of my body. I'd taken the jibes in good stride, even wrapping my arms around myself in pride. But then The Mountain loomed so large that the good-natured teasing quieted to titters and finally to uncomfortable silences, averted glances, and barely disguised winces. The Mountain became the Elephant in the Room.

So I was not surprised when my sudden intrusion into Merlotte's post lunch crowd, milling underneath the protection of a large awning, caused the exact opposite of a commotion. There was one quiet gasp. There was a didn't-she-have-that-baby-yet comment. But otherwise, there was silence. With all of my remaining grace and dignity, I mustered a smile and polite nod as I lumbered the last few yards to my old yellow car, now looking like dog piss in the snow. Bracing against the door frame, I leaned in for my ice scraper and wondered why I did not get at least a perfunctory "hello" or a "howahya, hon?"

"Sookie." A voice from the crowd seemed to reply to my thoughts. "Sookie!" he said again.

I knew that voice. It was René, my co-worker Arlene's boyfriend, who had a bad habit of leering at my substantial bosom.

"Hi René." I turned to look back over my shoulder.

"Sookie, fix your jacket."

"Huh?"

"Your jacket." He pulled at his own coattails. "It's tucked up into your pants. Just looks a little…funny."

A muffled snort came from the direction of the crowd.

I started to reach behind me when I remembered the date. Merlotte's was a notoriously brutal place on April Fools' Day.

"Nice try, René. How 'bout you zip your fly and we'll call it even?"

I turned back to my car with my ice scraper in hand. But something was not quite right. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a blur of motion, a sudden shift in the sedate crowd still trying to avoid its return to the wintry mess. The disturbance was caused by Hoyt Fortenberry, Jason's best friend. He was whisking in my direction, reaching toward my waistband where, indeed, my coat apparently had been snagged during my quick trip to the ladies' room on my way out of Ludwig's office. Hoyt, who's not especially adroit even under the best conditions, hit a slippery patch just as he neared me, catching himself in the sad and tired elastic of my maternity jeans. With a sudden snap, Hoyt was on the ground, soaking up dirty slush.

So were my jeans. And my thong.

I might have been able to salvage the situation quickly. After all, my coat, now freed from my pants, covered most of my bottom. But Hoyt, fully aghast at his blunder, fumbled with my pants, tipping me off balance, and pulling me down onto all fours on top of him.

The crowd erupted.

Hearing the howls from all the way inside the diner, Sam popped his head out the front door in time to see my full moon still exposed.

"It all happened in a flash," Mack Rattray snickered to Sam.

"Sookie! Sookie, are you okay?" Sam bounded over to Hoyt and me to help us disentangle ourselves. At least he had the common sense to let me manage my own pants. They were goners.

"Everything's fine except my pride."

"Get in the car, Sookie. I'll finish clearing your car."

Grateful, that's just what I did.

"Ugh!" I bent my head into my arms folded across the steering wheel. "Just perfect!" I said aloud, hoping to jar my brain in other directions. This little fiasco would feed right into the nastiness of the cardigan-sweater-and-pearl-necklace crowd, the same heartless busybodies who'd savored the news of my out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a delightful morsel alongside afternoon tea. Maxine Fortenberry, their ringleader and president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her sidekick Jane Bodehouse, had spread rumors about my having a one-night stand with Alcide Herveaux, the fisherman who supplies Merlotte's. This much I will tell you: Alcide and I have shared serious flirtations and a date or two, but beyond that…well, it just isn't anyone's business. And by the way, I could tell you some juicy gossip about Maxine and Jane, but I won't bring myself down to their level.

Still waiting for Sam to finish clearing the car, I sat there quietly, willing myself not to think about the scene I had just starred in. Have you ever tried not to think about something? Like if I said to you, "Don't think about Sookie's bare ass sticking up out of the snow," what would you think about? Right.

Clearly, this kind of embarrassing situation would have called for some TLC from Gran. I remembered that once she had advised me, "Don't let anyone else's misperceptions about you determine who you are." I grabbed onto her words, held tight to their wisdom, and relaxed, letting go as other memories filtered in…

Pulling me close, he leaned down, resting his forehead against the top of my head as he stroked my arms. He seemed lost in thought, quietly contemplating, until he breathed sharply, seemingly on the verge of a verbal leap. And then finally, he said, "Sookie, I'm just passing through for the summer. I can't commit to anything else. I have…obligations."

My own love life had burned me in countless ways. I held nothing but a cynical view toward any kind of lasting commitment.

"My life is complicated too." I sighed with relief against him.

And then the mood lightened. Unfettered, we could succumb to the allure of summer, glamoured by its promise of carefree abandonment. His lips brushed against mine purposefully, parting them, seeking warmth.

Suddenly, Sam rapped on the window to let me know he was finished. I rolled it down to thank him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

"How's Sadie?" I asked. Sadie Gardner, a lifelong resident of North Dormer, had been down on her luck lately and in need of a few warm meals. Through a fund established by Gran before she died, I was running an underground soup kitchen of sorts at Merlotte's. Within the local network, people knew that if they asked for a table in Sookie's section, they could get a discrete free meal. Most people didn't take advantage of the help and used it only to cover themselves here or there. But about a month ago, Sadie had started coming in fairly regularly before suddenly disappearing.

"She's fine," Sam replied. "Turns out she's staying with her daughter now."

"Good." Relieved, I could check one of my worries off my list. "Anyone else we need to be concerned about?"

Sam reached over to pick some more ice out of my windshield wipers. "I'll take care of it. Do you want me to drive you home?"

"No. I'll be okay. It's tomorrow, Sam."

His eyes widened. "Really? How…what…" he stammered.

"Ludwig wants to induce me. I go in at 7 am."

"Wow, Sookie. Tomorrow! Let me know if you need anything—whatever you need."

"Thanks, Sam. I'll let you know how it…turns out."

"You do that. I'll be thinking about you." He leaned in again to give me a tight hug and then pulled away, eyes shining. "I love you…I mean…you know…"

"I know, Sam."

I pulled out onto the street. And then it really hit me. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I was going to be a mamma. Should I write it on my calendar? April 2. Give birth. And then I started crying all over again.

Soon enough I was heading down my long driveway, through a forested area around a large pond, and out onto a broad expanse of lawn overlooking Buzzard's Bay. Atop this scenic perch sat Gran's old saltbox house, with its asymmetrical roof- long on one side and shorter on the other—weathered cedar shingles, and white trim. In need of repair, it was charming nonetheless. In fact, no amount of money could buy its character or sense of history. It was home. I rolled down my windows to breathe in the sharp, cold air, smelling of pine trees and briny sea.

On the front walkway stood another one of the complications in my life. Clearing away slush, he was dressed from head to toe in clothes purchased from the Maine-based sportswear company: duck boots with felted wool inserts, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, fleece scarf, and a shearling wool cap with ear flaps. Because of this trademark style, I had nicknamed him.

L.L. Bill.

But to me (and only me) he was just L.L.

The history that L.L. and I had was complicated, to say the least. I'd say we were in a sort of holding pattern. In the past, we'd had more, which is what L.L. wanted again. I just didn't know if it was what I wanted. Pregnancy hormones aside, all of the ins and outs of our relationship made my feelings for him vacillate wildly, sometimes on a moment-by-moment basis. My best friend Tara thought I was crazy to even consider being his girlfriend. To her he was William Compton, attorney. Shrewd. Stiff. Sullen. The guy who made the bad investment decisions that led to the loss of my substantial inheritance from Gran. But Tara didn't know him the way I knew him.

About a month ago, when it had looked like labor had been imminent, L.L. had packed a bag and moved in from his house next door. Even before then, he'd made an effort to help me out in whatever way he could. He seemed to genuinely care about the baby and me.

Right now, however, he was sprinkling kitty litter on my front walkway.

"Oh, hey, L.L.! Don't use that on my sidewalk! It turns to mud and gets tracked inside. My wood floors are going to look like the backside of a potter's studio."

"Sorry, Sookie. I didn't have any sand and this chemical ice melt might damage your gran's hydrangea bushes."

I started to cry.

L.L. put down the kitty litter. "Come here. I know you've had a hard day." He pulled me into the crinkly fabric of his Gore-Tex coat, where my tears dribbled down his sleeve.

"I've been hanging on the edge of labor for nearly month. It's just so frustrating that tomorrow I have to go in there and be pumped full of drugs."

"You're getting induced tomorrow?"

"Yeah. Wait…if you didn't know about my induction then what…"

L.L. cast his eyes about, panicked, searching for a diversion.

Then it dawned on me. "Oh, for Pete's sake! Who was it? Who told you I got pantsed?"

"Sam called to make sure you got home okay. Come on," he prodded. "Let's go inside and I'll make you a cup of tea."

I went upstairs to my bedroom to find another pair of pants—the selection was dwindling—and then met L.L. in the kitchen. There was a new message on my answering machine.

"Hi, Sookie. This is Jason. I just wanted to check in and make sure you're okay. Hoyt feels real bad and wants to know how he can make it up to you. Listen. This thing will blow over in less than a month. Last month everyone was talking about how Maxine Fortenberry's vibrator fell out of her purse when she was paying at Dunkin' Donuts… rolled clear across the floor…well, heh, heh, heh, that still is wicked funny, isn't it? But don't worry about it, okay? Let me know if you need anything. Love ya!"

"Jason, too!" I rubbed my hands over my forehead as if I could erase away the embarrassment.

L.L. escorted me out to the living room, where he helped me get settled on my old sofa that sank impossibly low to the ground. Sipping my cup of tea, I began to mentally sort through the day's events. Although I'd been ready to have this baby for a month, knowing without a doubt that I would give birth tomorrow left me flummoxed.

L.L. sat next to me, resting his hand on my knee. "A penny for your thoughts?"

"Hmm…" I trailed off, recalling.

"A penny for your thoughts?" I said to him. Fingers entwined, we had strolled around the curve of the beach below Gran's house and onto the sliver of land that sliced a mile out into the bay. Nearly all the way to the end of the sandbar, I gave in to the sensation of being surrounded by water, almost as if I were walking on it. The spirit of this place (my home!) was palpable, settling in my bones and sustaining my blood, fueling body and soul. I looked over at his composed face and wondered whether he felt it too.

"Hmm?" he murmured. I had interrupted his thoughts, whatever they were.

"I said, 'A penny for your thoughts.' You're hard to read."

He laughed. "So normally you can read minds?"

I laughed back at him. "Usually I have a pretty good handle on people."

Gran had called it my "other sense." When I put my mind to it, I was good at observing and listening to all the different ways people reveal things about themselves. We called them nonverbal and paraverbal cues in my social work classes.

I explained, "You don't have many 'tells.'"

"Oh, so you're a poker expert?" he gibed.

"Maybe you should find out for yourself."

We continued walking, but he never answered my question.

Next to me, L.L. shifted. I caught a whiff of mint and inhaled deeply. Back when I had been going through morning sickness at all times of the day, the scent of mint was one of the only things that had calmed my stomach enough to get some food in me. L.L. would bring me bunches of mint from his garden. Remembering his kindness, I felt the tension in my body unwinding and leaned toward him to rest my head on his shoulder…and promptly got scratched by his wool sweater.

"Argh! Could you take this thing off?"

Resigned, L.L. bent forward to remove first his wool sweater and then another layer of plaid wool flannel to reveal a long-sleeve undershirt made of softer moisture-wicking fabric. I settled back, closing my eyes, breathing deeply, seeking out the soothing mint… smelling…menthol?

"L.L, what is that awful smell?" Eyes watering, I leaned away from him.

L.L. knew when he'd reached my limit. Still, as he stood up and started walking away, he sniped, "I used some muscle rub to relieve the sore back I've had from sleeping on that mattress in the guest room."

"Well if I had more money, I'd buy you a new one," I snapped back.

L.L. paused only slightly and then kept walking. "I'm going out to finish up the walkway so we're all set for tomorrow. Why don't you see if you can get some sleep? I'll make sure you're up in time for dinner."

I pulled down the old afghan from the back of the sofa and settled very quickly into a dream-fueled sleep…remembering…

July 5. By the calendar, the season was just beginning, only two weeks old. But Summer was already a mature young woman. Fully ripened, she held the promise of a long, ample harvest ahead, bountiful in her fruit.

He was there, pressed against me, melding our naked bodies with the heavy, sultry air. My arms thrown back behind my head, I lay open and vulnerable, savoring the delicious sensation of wild abandonment in the pit of my stomach. His strong, graceful fingers lightly stroked up and down my side, tracing my curves. Out, in, out. Up. Down. My body took form under his feathery sketching.

From my position beneath the window, I could see the hazy blue summer sky, bleached out by an intense sun, and the occasional seagull daring to traverse its path. Propped up on his elbow, he'd be able to look out toward the horizon, where a steady stream of boat traffic would be headed toward Cape Cod Canal. But he was looking at me instead, studying me with his enigmatic quiet intensity that I found exhilarating. I shivered.

"You can't be cold."

"I want more." I said.

"More what?"

Caught under the lustful rays of the afternoon sun, his words floated languorously, swirling mid air before disappearing and settling deep and low within me, tantalizing me with possibilities. As lovers, we were novices with each other, still naïve to each others' bodies and desires. But this much I knew: the level of unabashed comfort that had come naturally to us brought no limits to the amount of attention we would lavish on each other. No boundaries of exploration. Countless possibilities stretched before us.

I leaned in to nibble softly at his ear and whispered my carnal desires.

"Is that all?" he responded.

His body, quiet and still, belied the force churning inside. He was, if nothing else, a man of action, the kind of action that would be finessed, not blundered. The mere anticipation of his impending ministrations turned my innermost desires out, like a tropical fruit sliced open, flesh splayed, awaiting the feel of lips and tongue and teeth and heated breath. I reached down to touch the softest, hardest part of him, feeling his full potential for lovemaking.

A moan from somewhere deep and primal escaped from me.

It was his undoing. The very sound of my spontaneous pleasure ignited instinctive drives beyond the realm of his conscious control. His body stirred into fluid motion, caressing, kissing, licking, panting, exploring, claiming, and giving. We were, at that moment of flesh on flesh, joined in a way far greater than us—greater than the two of us entangled in the heat of a summer afternoon. We were caught in the tug and pull of the force of life itself.

My thighs opened wide, inviting him. Braced up on his elbows, he looked down at me, watching my eyes, studying my reaction as he gave himself to me, inch by gracious inch. He filled the very center of my being, possessing it in the most intimate way. And then his body began pulsing inside me- setting pace with the steady, insistent waves lapping on the beach- and driving us both toward inexorable culmination. There would be no turning back now. Time blurred and slipped around us as we became lost to the rocking flow of our bodies against each other.

The warmth in me was growing. I groaned in pleasure.

"Lover, I want you to cum with my name on your tongue," he whispered, nuzzling behind my ear before stringing kisses down my neck.

His light touch almost pushed me to my explosive end, but I steadied myself, clawing at the sheets. I didn't want this pleasure to stop.

Reaching up to hold his cheek in my palm, I smoothed the corner of his mouth, twitching almost imperceptibly. It was his sexiest "tell." I knew he was close. Reveling in the wonder of pleasuring this strong, sexy, gorgeous man, I felt my own powers swell. I would make him cum first.

"No. Gentlemen first," I teased, breathless.

He laughed. Leaning to one side, he slowly slid his arm down the length of my side to my leg and hitched it high across his back. His muscular body tensed as he supported himself and then firmly and purposely thrust, several times in steady succession, touching new places within me.

"Uuunh!" I was teetering on the edge, wanting to jump off, but also wanting to relish this most delicious moment.

"That's not my name, Sookie."

In response, I clenched my ring of muscles tightly around his substantial thickness.

He paused, exhaling hard, and bowing his head down. The corner of his mouth twitched.

I clenched again.

He growled deep within his chest and then called out, "Sookie!"

Tremors rippled through him as his seed exploded into my body. The warmth inside me grew impossible to contain.

"Sookie!"

Opening my eyes to savor his pleasure, I met his look, set against the backdrop of the wide open sky, and noticed for the first time the way his beautiful eyes matched its hazy blue heat.

I would give myself over to the heat…

"Sookie!"

Only now the heat shimmered far off, receding as I struggled to reach it.

"Sookie, turn over. It's not good for the baby on this side. Turn to your other side."

Gentle hands tugged at me, supporting my belly as I turned uncomfortably, uncertain how to move with this strange weight now centering on me.

And then suddenly, he was there, kneeling in front of me and looking at me with those same summer sky eyes. His hands were stroking my belly. I knew I was dreaming.

"It's really ours?" I could feel the tension in his body, coiled with excitement, ready to spring.

"Yes. Ours."

Trembling, he lifted my shirt with the utmost care and, resting a hand tenderly on each side, marveled at the expanse of my midsection. Meeting my eyes with a grin, he leaned in to kiss my belly button, which long ago had popped out.

Then, pulling back, he paused, still absorbing this surprise so suddenly presented to him. Reaching toward me again, his hands circled my abdomen in awe, exploring first the top of the bulge underneath my swollen breasts, and then underneath the waistband of my pants, just above my pubic bone.

Feeling every inch a woman, I shifted toward him.

"He moved! He moved! Did you feel that?"

"Yes," I groaned. My bladder had felt every inch of that move.

"Oh," concern now in his voice.

"Argh," I groaned again, feeling more pressure this time. "Ah!" A sharp pain seared between my legs as I felt a trickle of wetness.

And then I was awake- really awake this time- and fully disoriented from my nap. Outside, a gloomy darkness had snapped itself on tightly, containing the world around. I blinked against the brightness of the table lamp, filled with collected beach finds from years past. As I sat up, I realized, first of all, that I was alone. Then, feeling the wetness between my legs, I wondered whether the baby had kicked me in the bladder while I was sleeping. I was uncomfortable, like I really needed to pee, which wasn't unusual.

I braced myself against the arm of the sofa, stood up, steadied myself, and waddled toward the bathroom. Passing through the kitchen first, I found L.L., listening to NPR and rifling through the Boston Globe. He glanced up. "I hope you don't mind I let you sleep. I set some dinner aside for you."

At the mention of food, suddenly I was feeling woozy. Without another word, I picked up my pace and barely made it in time to the bathroom. L.L. was right behind me, holding back my hair and handing me a wet cloth.

"Can you give me a minute? I need to attend to some other needs."

"Oh…ah…sure." L.L. made a quick exit.

Fully awake, I felt the tenacious tendrils of the dream poking at me, reminding me of my aloneness.

By August 21, Summer already had shortchanged us, waning in strength as she cavorted with fluffy, light-hearted days. He and I started to lose our edge with each other, to feel uncertain as our definitions smeared and blurred. Without Summer- without our commitment to her code of carefree conduct—who were we?

We met quietly one evening for dinner on the pier, shielded by the throngs of tourists demanding their full share of vacation. Sitting at a picnic table, facing each other, we struggled to anchor the tray of seafood between our folded arms. It slipped and skidded off-center, back and forth across the imaginary middle line dividing us.

His actions uncertain and jerky, he reached out to select an oyster from its icy platter. Wrapping his lips around the shell, he sucked down the meat, its undulating folds and raw crevices bathed in its own briny liquor. Only a month ago, I would have shoved the tray aside and leaned across the table to taste his kiss.

"When did you get back?" I asked him, attempting to distract myself from the waves of nausea rolling over me. He'd been away on a work-related excursion on the other end of the Cape.

"This afternoon," he replied. Bringing another oyster up to his lips he hesitated, looking at me questioningly, offering.

My tender stomach lurched. Queasiness aside, I wanted to accept, but pregnant women couldn't eat raw shellfish. More importantly though, I couldn't accept because all that he was offering was a morsel of food, a mere bite of hedonistic pleasure to be savored, but ultimately consumed. And then gone. Requesting anything more—requesting sustenance from him- would change the very nature of our relationship. And as scared as I was facing this pregnancy alone, I could not bear the thought of becoming his responsibility.

At that moment, I decided to tell him what I knew what make our severance complete.

"I reconciled with William."

The stiff words—themselves a lie atop a hidden truth- curled hard lips around teeth and tongue.

He held his last oyster, slipped it in his mouth, chewed matter-of-factly and then swallowed. I watched his throat ripple and smooth. We said goodbye then, and alone, I stumbled into the dunes and retched in the sharp grasses.

The sound of L.L. coughing outside the bathroom door snapped me back to the moment.

"This just might be one of those low points in life," I thought to myself wryly, looking around at my outdated bathroom, sitting on the commode, as Gran always used to call it, and feeling an uncomfortable and nagging pressure.

I kicked off my wet bottoms, grabbed a towel, and wrapped it underneath The Mountain.

L.L. was waiting right outside the bathroom door.

"Should I call the doctor?" He looked inquiringly at my clothes.

"No. I think I'm okay. I'm just a little uncomfortable. Let me get changed."

As I gingerly walked upstairs to my bedroom, I tried to shift and move in a way to ease the discomfort, but the baby seemed to be stuck in a position right on top of my bladder. Pacing inside my bedroom, I realized with a panicky feeling that this pain that I was feeling—this constant searing claw jammed up between my legs- was not going away. I scooted down to my hands and knees, hoping it would relieve some of the pressure and give me a chance to catch my breath.

I must have been taking too long, because just then, L.L. peeked in, his eyes widening at the sight of my scrabbling about half naked on all fours. "Yes, I'd say she's in significant pain," he was saying into the phone. "All right. We'll be there in about fifteen minutes."

"Sookie, can you stand?"

I nodded.

L.L. stooped to help me upright. More woozy, sparkly stars flooded my vision. He grabbed for the trash can and waited while I gasped into it.

"Thanks," I sputtered, "I'm feeling much better now. Let's just sit down for a minute." I plastered one of my everything-is-just-peachy kinds of smiles on my face and sat on the side of my bed. "Could you grab me a pair of underwear and some pants?"

Once fully clothed, I'd feel just fine. L.L. rifled through my drawer, held up a pair of pants, frowned, and then resumed his search.

"Damn it, L.L. just grab anything. I'm feeling a draft over here."

He returned and looked down to find me pinching my thigh, trying to distract myself from the pain between my legs. Holding the clothes out in front of him, he raised his eyebrows in a questioning manner.

I waved my arms impatiently at him. "Just do it, okay?"

He bent to help me hook my feet into my panties and…pajama pants?

"Sookie, are you sure there isn't…anybody you'd like me to call for you right now?"

"No," I hissed.

With L.L.'s help, I grunted to a stand and headed out to his Subaru. Riding toward the hospital, I held onto the door tightly and prayed for a quick trip. Immediately he slowed at the rotary leading out of town.

"What are you doing?" I griped at L.L.

"I'm yielding to traffic in the rotary."

"Sweet Jesus, nobody else around here follows that law! Why should you now?"

L.L. merged into the circle, and then braked abruptly as another car cut in front of him. I heard him muttering something under his breath about Massachusetts drivers. He had a disdainful look of determination on his face, the one he gets when he has to do something he doesn't really want to do. The first time he'd given that look to me, I'd unwittingly served him a heaping pile of his least favorite food in the world: macaroni salad.

Maybe I was in shock. Maybe it was the pain. Maybe it was L.L.'s ongoing mutterings about how traffic laws were not merely helpful suggestions. Maybe it was the flickering overhead street lights casting alternating shadows and an orange-ish glow on his face. Whatever it was, suddenly I felt like I was riding to the hospital with a stranger.

"I can't do this!" I cried out.

"Sookie, of course you're scared right now. It's only natural. But you are going to get through this. It's the way you are. And I'm here to help, in whatever way you need."

L.L. was back. His look had softened and become more familiar. Or maybe I was just looking at him differently. I squinted my eyes, looking again, unsure, confused. There was a niggling disconnect in the back of my mind, as though something between us had been altered.

"But that's just it…I mean us…this…" I waved my hands impatiently, looking for words that wouldn't come.

L.L. waited, then seeing that my words weren't returning, he said, "I've made you this offer before, and I'll offer it again…"

Was he trying to get me to sign a contract? There it was again—that niggling little disconnect. I could hear sounds coming out of his mouth and see his lips moving, but had little understanding of what he was saying. I shook my head again, trying to concentrate on anything but "the claw." L.L. came back into focus.

"…I love you Sookie. I care for you and the baby deeply. I know I have made mistakes that have made your life very difficult. I deeply regret my mistakes every day. I don't know what else I can do to show you how much I love you. I'd do anything for you. Marry me. We can tell people that the baby is mine. Allow me to take responsibility. You and the baby will be secure."

"Oh, no!" I wailed, "I don't want to be your big plate of macaroni salad!"

"What?"

"Ooooh! It's the claw! Between my legs!"

"The what?" L.L. looked panicked. I noticed that he floored it through the next rotary.

"Oh…damn it! Summer sky blue!" Again, I waved my hands, exasperated. I wanted more than anything to make sense, even to myself. And then I panicked too, not wanting to cut myself off from his support, even if it wasn't perfect.

"I need you, L.L.. I'm really scared."

At that moment, we pulled up to the E.R. entrance to the hospital. L.L. darted around to open the door for me as an attendant came out with a wheelchair. Then we breezed through admittance and came to a halt at the desk in maternity triage.

Behind the desk, a woman said hello, then basically ignored us. I didn't know whether to hop up on the counter to show her my belly or what. I got up out of the wheelchair and paced, which made L.L. more nervous. I made the universal hand twirl motion.

"Sookie, I can't tell what this means." He acted out my gesture in an exaggerated fashion. The stress was affecting him too.

"It means that whatever's happening to me right now feels like it's moving along."

Another nurse breezed down the hallway toward us. "I'm coming. I'm coming," she said and then abruptly asked, "Are you the father?"

L.L. made the macaroni salad face at her and started clearing his throat and shuffling his feet. I jumped into the conundrum too quickly. "Yes, he's the father…I mean no…I mean…" I twirled my hands.

The nurse looked quizzically at L.L., who deadpanned, "It's the claw."

I laughed. It must have sounded maniacal because the nurse grasped my elbow and said, "Let's go down this way and have you checked out." She glanced at L.L. "Mr….?" She waited for him to fill in the blank.

"Compton. William Compton."

"Mr. Compton, I'm Nurse Oliva. You may wait right here." She said her name like Olive-ah.

"Nurse Oliver, when may I come back?" L.L. had misunderstood, thinking she was speaking with a Boston accent.

"That's Oliva."

"That's what I said. Oliver."

As I listened to their inanities, I was suddenly inspired by an idea that would evade the main question at hand. "He's my birth partner!" I shouted.

Everyone's attention jolted back to me. (Where it belonged, I might add).

Nurse Oliva took me back to a curtained area to help me get changed.

"So what's going on with you this evening?"

I took a deep breath, and then spilled everything in one shot. "I felt like maybe the baby kicked me in the bladder and made me wet my pants. I've been trying to pee ever since, but I can't get rid of the pressure and pain. I feel like there's a claw jammed up in there sideways. I'm scheduled to come in here tomorrow morning to be induced."

I handed her the patient information card from Ludwig's office.

"And you were at 4 cm and 80% this morning?" she said, looking at it. Her lips smirked.

"Right." I knew my numbers.

"And you don't feel like you're having contractions now?"

"I'm in pain, but it doesn't go away like a contraction would."

"Hmmph," she chuckled.

I hefted myself up on the table. Nurse Oliva unfolded a blanket over my legs, lifted my gown, and wrapped two belts around The Mountain.

"Not so tight," I grunted.

"Honey, I promise they're not tight" she said. "You're having a contraction right now. Look right here on this monitor." She pointed out the jagged line climbing higher and higher.

"Here. Let me just adjust this sensor a little."

As she pushed on the belt, I suddenly felt a great gush of water between my legs. At the same time, the claw, which had been wedged faithfully between my legs for the past hour or so, now slipped free, dragging itself from one end of my body to the other.

Now, when I tell you that I had promised myself that I wasn't going to scream during labor like a fool, you have to believe me. I figured that while I'd have no control over crapping on the delivery table, I'd claim some dignity by emitting no unladylike noises. But when that claw cut loose, I nearly lost my mind. The screams echoing off the hard surfaces of cold tile and hospital equipment hardly seemed like my own.

Nurse Oliva secured the sides of the bed and started pushing me toward a delivery room.

"I have to push!"

She puffed and blew into my face, trying to remind how to gain control. I blew out a few puffs, and then gave a big old push anyway. It was just too hard to resist.

L.L. was there waiting for me in the delivery room along with a man dressed in scrubs.

"I'm Dr. Naughton," he said.

"Where's Dr. Ludwig?"

"She's not on duty until tomorrow morning."

"Who are you again?"

L.L. spoke up. "That's Dr. Norton. He's the on-call Ob-Gyn."

Scrubs Guy cleared his throat. "Dr. Naughton. N-a-u-g-h-t-o-n."

As the good doctor was giving L.L. his second spelling lesson of the night, I scooted from the gurney to the delivery table. I was feeling significantly better now that the claw had cut loose, but there was no telling what would happen if it went back on attack.

Almost as soon as I was on the table, I could feel the pressure building again. In fear, I clutched at L.L.'s arm.

"Push down into your bottom like you're having a bowel movement when you feel the contraction," Nurse Oliva instructed.

"Great," I thought wryly, bearing down. My body had taken over, like it knew just what to do. Then I heard L.L.'s voice chanting, "One. Two. Three. Four. Five…"

"That's okay, L.L. I got this. It's not too bad," I laughed nervously. I bore down again, this time feeling a sting.

"Ah!" I backed off, my panic surging again. "I guess it's too late for an epidural," I half joked. Nobody chuckled along with me. I realized my fingers were still digging into L.L.'s arm. The pressure started building again. I pushed, feeling the fiery burn.

"Sookie, I can see the baby's head when you bear down" Dr. Naughton said.

Now with the reality of having to shove this baby out my hoohah fully upon me, I wished like hell for any kind of escape- anything that would take me away from this time and place. As another contraction took over, I could feel myself slipping and losing control. My breaths came to me in short gasps as I looked wildly to L.L. for help. I was shaking uncontrollably. Damn it, I didn't want to cry, but my fear had gotten the best of me.

"Shhh, Sookie, you're doing just fine," L.L. soothed. He brushed some hair out of my face.

I nodded and then half grunted, half sobbed through another contraction. L.L. was supporting one of my legs and stroking it steadily. I took a deep breath, and with some grit and determination, finally just bore down on what I needed to do. Soon enough I fell into a quiet hypnotic rhythm of sorts, pushing as much as I could stand with each contraction. I won't lie. It hurt like hell, but I managed not to focus on the pain. In fact, after a while, I had little awareness of anything else around me. By the time the head came out, I was so exhausted and out of it that Nurse Oliva had to get my attention to look down to watch my baby being born.

"It's a boy!" Dr. Naughton announced.

Nurse Oliva added, "Time of birth: 11:59 PM. You still have yourself an April Fools' baby! He's a big one!" Then she plunked him right on my chest as she briskly rubbed him down with a towel. He let loose a screaming, angry bawl.

In the movies, this is the time when the mother cries in joy as she reaches for her newborn treasure. Well, to be brutally honest, that's not how it happened for me. Worn out and overwhelmed, I could focus on little else besides my girly region which, ablaze with pain, felt like it had been blown to bits. Worse still, this squirming creature howling in my face looked like a day-old rump roast marked down for quick sale in the meat case.

Nurse Oliva whisked away the baby to weigh and measure him.

"Ten pounds, 2 ounces!" she exclaimed. "What's his name?"

"Name?" I stammered. "I wanted to meet him first. See what he's like."

I noticed L.L. was looking a little pale and subdued.

"Are you all right, L.L.?"

"I think I'm going to step outside for a minute, if that's okay with you. Would you like me to call Jason?"

I nodded.

He leaned down to kiss me on the forehead. "I'm proud of you, Sookie." As he backed away, I could see that his eyes were brimming with tears…and that the front of his clothes was splattered and wet.

"I'll get you a pair of scrubs for you to change into," Nurse Oliva said to him. "Birthing is a messy business."

When L.L. came back a while later, I was still getting my 10 pounds, 2 ounces worth of stitches, and Baby was sleeping in a plastic box on wheels next to me. He'd been cleaned, swaddled in a striped blanket, and topped with a cap tied with a curly blue ribbon. Before long, I too was sleeping, more deeply than I had in nine months.

At some point later in the morning, the new nurse, Nurse Carney, aroused me to get me out of bed.

"Come on, dear. It's time to get you back up on your feet and take you to the bathroom."

"I'm fine," I said, suddenly aware of exactly what she was asking me to do.

"Nope. Doctor's orders."

I stood with her help. It was such a strange sensation, shuffling across the room without that weight I had carried for so long. I gasped when I saw myself in the mirror—my straggly hair, the broken blood vessels on my face, the strange-looking flabby pooch where the baby had been. A quick shower and my own bathrobe from home put me in better spirits. As the nurse shuffled me back toward bed, L.L. was stirring awake from his nap on the lounge chair.

"Where's the baby?" he cried.

I jumped. I hadn't realized he was gone.

"It's okay," Nurse Carney replied. She explained that when she had noticed that we were both asleep, she had taken him to the nursery. She set a donut-shaped pillow in place on the bed.

"I'm Nurse Cahney, by the way." She nodded toward L.L..

"Nurse Connie," he nodded back. "I'm William Compton."

Nurse Carney hesitated briefly, and then continued raising my bed into a sitting position.

I sighed. "L.L., it's Carney. C-a-r-n-e-y." He threw up his arms in exasperation.

"Your throne, my dear," she said, patting at the pillow.

I climbed back in bed and began picking at the hospital food she had set in front of me before darting out. Within moments, she was back, wheeling Baby in his bassinette and parking him next to my bed. Then she was gone again, running off to tend to another patient.

"Sookie, don't let it get you down," he said, referring to my earlier lapse, when I had forgotten about Baby.

"Right." I pasted on a smile. I appreciated L.L's efforts to reassure me, but I was in no mood for platitudes. I looked over at the tiny living creature sleeping next to me- my own flesh and blood- and waited for one tug on my heartstrings. Nope. Nothing. He was nothing more than a stranger to me. I wondered how my heart could beat so cold.

I spent the rest of the morning napping, feeding Baby, and watching HGTV. L.L. dozed on and off beside me.

A buzz from the intercom startled us both awake. "Ms. Stackhouse?" a voice hesitated.

"Yes?" I pressed a button to respond.

"There is a man here who says he's the baby's father."

L.L. sputtered. Then I don't really know what happened. Suddenly I was no longer in the hospital room, instead reliving a moment buried long ago, now conscious.

Our bodies were cool. We had swum the fifty yards from Gran's beach to the floating dock. Oblivious to the hard press of weathered boards against our backs, we bobbed in the gentle waves, lost to the sensation of floating adrift. We discussed everything and nothing in particular. He talked about starting back up full time at his architectural firm in Boston in the fall. He said he'd get tickets and take me to a Red Sox game. And then conversation meandered elsewhere, casually.

I rewound the memory of our conversation.

In the fall. Us. Together.

Spinning now, I realized I had missed an opportunity to develop something more with him. The chance had been right there before me. Its massive form had floated to the surface like a whale, gracefully defying its bulk and weight. Visible for only a brief moment, it had slipped quietly away to merge with dark, deep waters.

Unnoticed until now.

How had I missed it?

Had he come back for me now?

"Sookie," L.L. looked at me imploringly.

"Who?" my voice wavered.

The intercom voice replied, "Sam Merlotte."

No. Of course not. He didn't know.

The wave had already crashed around me. Looking down, I watched sand rushing out to sea with the retreating water, creating trenches around my feet. I had the crazy sensation that I was racing backwards while standing still. I started to lose my balance, but Gran was near, holding out her arm to steady me.

"Ma'am?...May I send him back?" the intercom voice persisted.

"Yes."

Within seconds, Sam came breezing into my room.

"Sookie! Congratulations! We heard the news from Jason." He handed me a bouquet of pink carnations, my favorite flower, and kissed my cheek. He peered down at Baby, sleeping peacefully in his bassinette. "What's his name?"

"I don't know yet. I'm waiting to be inspired."

"Inspired? What better inspiration is there?" Sam murmured, tucking the blanket around the baby. Abruptly taking a deep breath, he straightened up.

"Well, that woman at the front desk gave me a hard time. She said only family members could visit, so…"

I managed a fragile smile. "Thanks for coming to visit, Sam."

His eyebrows furrowed. He sat on the other side of the bed and squeezed my hand. "How are you?"

The moment on the dock was long gone. We'd charted a different course and landed here, many alternate realities away from where we'd been, floating on that summer day.

"I'm fine. A little tired. A little sore." I could hear my voice faltering.

L.L. was watching me. "Sookie, you're not due for pain meds for another hour or two. Do you want me to get you an icepack?"

"Sure. That sounds great. Thanks."

L.L. was starting to head out the door when the intercom buzzed again.

"Um…there's another man here who says he's the baby's father."

Instantly, I retreated back within myself.

We were sitting on the dock, our feet cool in the water as we looked out across the bay. I brought my hand up to shield my eyes from the light reflecting off the faceted surface of the water. He leaned in closer to murmur in my ear. "Is that all?" he'd asked me once. What had he meant? The blinding light overwhelmed and washed out all of my senses. Frantically, I tried to hear him, but the harder I tried, the more quietly he whispered.

"Miss Stackhouse?...His name is Alcide Herveaux."

The retreating wave raced by me again. "Gran!" I called.

"Yes. Fine." I replied.

Alcide appeared at the door. Tall, burly, and handsomely weathered by the sun and sea, he looked out of place carrying a bouquet of pink carnations. He strode toward me.

"Sorry about that bit of undercover operation. Homeland Security is working hard for you out there." Alcide placed the flowers on the table by the bed, pausing as he noticed the other identical arrangement.

"Congratulations, Sookie." He kissed my cheek and then peered at Baby. "Who is he?"

I took note of Alcide's unusual phrasing of his question. He wasn't the only confused soul in the room.

"I don't know yet. I can't decide. I just call him Baby for now." I had packed away my feelings- given up on them- and now, exhausted from the day, had no more energy for social niceties. L.L. gave me a studious look.

Alcide stepped closer to Baby, craning his neck a bit to see his face.

"It's okay, Alcide. He won't bite." Sam joked, and then almost as if to make a point, he stroked Baby's cheek with his finger.

L.L. blanched. "If you're going to touch the baby, you should properly sanitize your hands, Sam. Infants have very weak immune systems."

Alcide smirked and then took the seat where Sam had been sitting. Sam shifted to the foot of my bed. I winced a bit at the jostling as the donut slipped beneath me.

"I'll go get that ice, Sookie," L.L. said.

But once again, the intercom buzzed. This time I was already safely away from the shoreline, with nary a toe in the water. The past would remain a past, and now I would forge ahead with the present.

"Yes?"

"The baby's father is here," a bored voice replied. "Name is John Qui…"

"Send him back," I snapped.

We all turned to look toward the door. "Hi Babe!" In breezed Quinn, another one of my former lovers. "That's some troll guarding the bridge out there." Almost as an afterthought, he glanced at Baby.

"Cute kid!" He added another bouquet of pink carnations to the pile.

"You look great." He leaned in to kiss my cheek, stole a glance at my breasts, and then plopped on the end of the bed opposite Sam.

"Aaah!" I squirmed, looking for a comfortable position.

Briefly, he managed a look of alarm. "Sorry 'bout that. I guess you're a little sore." Waggling his eyebrows, he added, "Hope you're not out of commission for too long." L.L., Sam, and Alcide groaned in disgust. Quinn had never been one to censor his words. He'd gotten much worse since I'd dumped him, almost in a desperate effort to win back my affection.

And then there they were—a whole roomful of men with whom I had shared romantic encounters of one kind or another- together for the first time. Suddenly things got quiet.

One by one, they studied each other, as if they were reviewing their "Who's-the-Daddy?" lists.

Not him.

Not him.

Him?

Not me!

Anybody else?

Then they were all looking at me. Every single one of them. My moment of reckoning had come. They'd put up with my request for privacy for nine months, and now they wanted answers.

"L.L., how about that ice?" I asked weakly.

"You thirsty, Sookie? I can grab you something to drink," Quinn offered.

L.L. snorted and headed for the door.

A new nurse from the latest shift suddenly blocked his path. "I'm Nurse Smith."

I could see L.L. was leaning toward her, trying to read her name tag.

"Nurse Smith!" he pronounced confidently.

Nurse Smith, a practical and direct kind of woman, wasted no time. "Are you the daddy?" she faced him squarely, publicly challenging his claim over me as the father of the baby.

L.L. stole a look in my direction, looking for an answer I was not yet ready to give.

"I'm William Compton," he retorted defensively. Clearly he did not want to concede defeat in front of everyone. "I was just heading out to get her some ice."

"Thank you, Mr. Compton, but I can take it from here."

"But I was her birth partner," he persisted, casting a heated look in my direction.

Grasping L.L. by the shoulders, Nurse Smith said slowly, "Well then I'm sure you need some rest too. There is a quiet waiting room at the end of the hall with fold-out lounge chairs."

The others, having watched L.L. get cut down to size by this plucky woman in pink scrubs, seemed buoyed. Sam, grinning, was humming "Sweet Caroline," the song played at the bottom of the 8th inning of every home Red Sox game. Alcide leaned closer to Baby, even breaching the one-foot perimeter around him. And Quinn…well, Quinn looked like he had found a new game on his cell phone.

Scanning the room and sensing the zing and crackle of renewed energy among them, I got the distinct feeling that something else was going on. I mean, sure I understood their amusement in watching L.L. put in his place. But it seemed like there was something more to it. Looking up, I caught Sam's smile beamed at me, laser-like in its focus. He winked. Alcide, too, was watching me and smiling. If I didn't know any better, I'd say I was in a bar full of men trying to pick me up.

Huh? That's when it hit me. I realized, at once, that my hospital room- on the post-partum floor of the hospital- was full of suitors. I shook my head, physically attempting to shake these crazy thoughts in place. On what planet was I living? What man courts a woman who's just given birth to another man's baby?

Suddenly, it was all too much—the pressure from L.L., the intense attention from Sam and Alcide, Quinn's cluelessness, their curiosity about the father's identity—all of it. In my tired, confused, and post-partum hormonal state, it was hard to believe any of their motives altruistic. Did they think I was needy? Were they here to prey on me, weakened and vulnerable to their advances? These questions latched on hard, wilting my spirit as I slipped lower and lower down the slope of the bed. I was drained.

Nurse Smith turned to me, visually appraising my mental status. Then addressing my suitors, she announced, "Unless you are related to Miss Stackhouse or the baby, I'd like you to leave and allow her to rest."

A bizarre, alternate universe version of the game show To Tell the Truth ensued, with a lot of standing, then sitting back down, and then standing again. (Would the real Baby Daddy please sit down?) While no one in the room could declare fatherhood, no one seemed ready to leave or relinquish a claim on me.

"I just need a private moment with Sookie," Sam asserted.

"Me too," Alcide added.

Quinn, the only one sitting still and not interested in burdening himself with a baby, whistled softly, staying put simply to watch the drama. And L.L., who nearly had been out the door, had managed to make his way past Nurse Smith back to a chair where he sat firmly, his possessiveness flaring wildly now. He was not leaving before anyone else.

Losing her patience quickly, Nurse Smith insisted, "I need some time alone with Sookie."

No one budged.

Seeing that she would need to take further action, Nurse Smith reached for the nearest prop, which happened to be an extra large package of sanitary napkins.

Nothing clears a room of men like feminine hygiene products.

"Thank you," she addressed everyone as they scuttled out of the room.

"Now then," she said, turning to me. "May I get you an icepack?"

I nodded.

She helped me get settled in a comfortable position. Immediately I felt a little better.

"It's time for the little guy to eat. Do you want to give him a bottle or breastfeed?"

I started to cry. She sat next to me on the bed and rested her hand me.

"Okay, there's one thing we nurses say on the maternity ward: No one gets to check out of here until she's had a good cry."

I sobbed harder.

"I have never met one new mom who wasn't overwhelmed in one way or another."

My cries ratcheted up yet another notch, certain that out of all of them, I was the worst mother.

"My love life is a mess and…and…I don't love my baby," I sputtered. There. I admitted it. "And he doesn't have anyone else to love him." I sobbed harder, realizing just how alone in this world he'd be. "And I'm really constipated."

"Well why didn't you say so?" She chuckled. "I can help you with that."

I grimaced, my crying stopped, and expected her to leave to get me a laxative.

Instead, she sat there quietly, rubbing my back for a few minutes.

"Have you spent any quiet time alone with the little guy?"

"No." L.L. had been with me nonstop.

"Well let's fix that right now."

First she untied my gown, pulled the whole thing off, and threw it aside, leaving me naked except for the mesh granny panties that were standard issue on the maternity ward. I giggled through my tears.

"Aren't those great?" she asked.

Then she picked up Baby, unwrapped his swaddling blanket, and pressed his warm body against mine. His little body shifted and squirmed. I gasped, realizing with a start that I was now watching the movements that I had felt when he was inside me. I had wondered what he'd been doing in there. Now I could feel and see it. I waited for another squirm. And then I felt a sudden warm rush and realized I was dripping milk—all over the bed and Baby.

"Oh!"

"Looks like your milk's come in! You just let down. That's a good sign. You and he are already connected. You two are going to make a good team."

She tucked a cloth that looked like a diaper underneath one side and handed me another one for mopping. Milk was dripping out like a leaky faucet.

"Will it stop? Should I get him to latch on now?"

She laughed. "You aren't going to run out any time soon."

"Take your time. When you're ready to feed him, wake him up. He looks pretty cozy, so if you have a hard time waking him, tickle his feet. And if that doesn't work, page me with this button," she said, pointing. "I have a few more tricks up my sleeves." With a purposeful wink, she reached down to pluck Baby's cap off his head, and then strode out of the room.

I looked down at Baby. The last time I had seen his head uncovered had been right after he was born, when his slimy hair had plastered the top of his head. He had been cleaned up in the nursery, and now spiky blond hair stuck straight up all over his head. It was the cutest thing I ever saw. He looked like a fuzzy little porcupine. I reached down to touch its downy softness. It tickled my fingers.

Then I took my hand and stroked his unbelievably smooth skin, marveling over the brand spanking newness of him, and thinking about how little of the world he'd felt. I wondered if I dared pull off his diaper, and figured since I was already wet, it didn't matter much. So I peeled back the tabs and looked down at his perfect little boy parts. Well, I guess I couldn't say they were little. His testicles were huge and swollen, looking comical next to his scrawny legs. I remembered from my reading that they would enlarge because of my hormones, but that the swelling would go down soon. I laughed to myself, knowing the pride his daddy would have taken in any case.

Now that he was fully exposed, Baby started to stir. His mouth opened wide and wavered in the open air, rooting for my nipple. Supporting the back of his head, I pulled him onto my breast. Immediately he suckled in earnest and sputtered as he drew in great mouthfuls of my new milk. The surprise opened his eyes.

And then, suddenly, I was looking for the first time into his eyes. In an instant, I found myself powerless, pulled by his enthralling gaze…mesmerized…

by his intense, hazy blue, summer sky eyes.

They drew me straight into his heart.

I had given life to that heart, nurtured in the center of my body. There was a time when I could hardly believe that within me, a pulsing heart even existed- surreal and intangible as it was—visible only as a flickering light on a computer screen. But here it was now, sustaining life. Still vulnerable and in need of my attention, it was, nonetheless, alive, full of potential, and ready to grow.

I loved him unconditionally.

I felt my breath hitch in my chest as a powerful nor'easter wave of emotion wiped me out. Sputtering, shaking, sandy, and bedraggled, I was stumbling on the shoreline. But it was okay. He and I were going to make it.

In that moment of connection, when I felt the fierce bond between us, I knew what I had to do. I knew I couldn't lie to Baby or hold him back from him his father, regardless of how his father would react to me and the way I had withheld the truth from him. Attempting to shelter our relationship by keeping Baby a secret had been misguided and selfish of me. How could I have been so foolish? How could I have missed tuning my other sense in the direction it was most needed?

So too would living with L.L. be unfair to all of us. Maybe it would be easier in some ways. We'd have financial security. L.L. would care for us both. But I knew I would never feel unbridled love for him. In fact, I wasn't sure I liked the person I was around L.L. Fair or not, I was still angry with him for my financial woes. I suspected he loved me in some ways, but felt a sense of duty and obligation to stay with me. It wasn't the kind of example I wanted to set for my son, my flesh and blood. No. I wanted my son to know Great Love.

With that realization, I began planning what I should have been planning months ago. Under L.L.'s security, I hadn't been pushed to make difficult decisions such as how to pay for childcare, keep my job, finish school, and plan for a more secure future. My head was swimming with possibilities, but it all felt good. I knew it would take a while to work out the kinks, but I also knew that with my determination and intelligence and willingness to work hard, we'd work it out.

I spent the rest of the night with Baby, cooing at him, napping, and feeding him. When I woke up, bright morning sunshine was flooding the room. L.L. was sitting there, smiling at me.

"You looked so peaceful sleeping there. It's the first time I've seen you looking relaxed in a long time."

"Thanks," I said, "Baby and I had a good night together.

L.L. squeezed my leg playfully. "Still no name?"

I hedged. "No. Still haven't figured that one out yet. But come here," I said, patting the bed next to me. "I've made some other decisions I need to tell you about."

The macaroni salad face returned. "Stop that, L.L. Hear me out. And help me scoot over a bit."

L.L. climbed up next to me. I leaned into his chest and realized he was wearing a short sleeve cotton pique polo shirt.

"Is it warm outside?"

He smiled. "Seventy degrees. Forsythia are in bloom." He pointed to an arrangement by the window.

I hugged him. And then I jumped right in, telling him about my night and how Baby and I had bonded and how much I appreciated his support, but that I had decided that Baby and I needed our independence from him. I felt a little bit like I was diving off a cliff, but I also felt confident that I was making the right decision. L.L. listened quietly. I knew that in his own protective style, he wasn't soaking it all in just yet, and that I'd have to be patient with him. When we were both talked out, we sat there for a few more minutes looking at Baby.

"L.L., look at this." I gently pulled off Baby's cap. His hair immediately sprang to life. "Isn't it the cutest thing?"

He smiled wistfully and then pulled me back to him. The baby stirred.

"Sookie?"

"Mmm-hmm?" I was still distracted by my little porcupine.

"Why am I all wet?"

"Oh!" I blushed, looking down and noticing my sopping wet nightgown. "I'm so sorry. My milk came in last night, and there's no controlling it."

"I guess I better hunt down some more scrubs. It's been a regular occurrence over the past few days," he joked, sliding off the bed.

"No, L.L., why don't you head home for a clean shirt and enjoy this day. After all, it might snow again tomorrow."

He hesitated, then leaned in to kiss me goodbye. "All right, Sookie. Call me if you need me." He walked out the door.

And just like that, the proverbial bandage had been ripped off.

Overall, I had a good day. Jason stopped by, apologizing for not coming earlier, and explaining that he had picked up extra work plowing. He, too, was sucked right in by Baby's charms, even tearing up a bit. Later, Tara came by with some homemade whoopie pies. As we worked our way through the batch together, she cackled with me over my story of how my suitors had shown up at the same time. When I shared my birth story, she laughed and aahed and groaned at all the right places.

Nurses came and went as shifts rotated throughout the day, and before I knew it, Nurse Smith was standing beside my bed again.

"You look so much better tonight."

"Thanks for all your help." I couldn't thank her enough.

She handed me some papers. "Has anyone given you these birth certificate and social security papers yet?"

I shook my head. "Do you happen to have an extra pen?"

She pulled one from her pocket. "You'll have to pick out a name," she prodded.

"Oh, right. Of course." I felt flustered and scatterbrained.

"I'll leave you be, but if you need to get out of bed, call me for help." She wagged her finger at me.

I shuffled through the papers aimlessly, lost in thought.

Summer had dazzled me. Its intensely warm and sensual light had studded the surface of the sea with a blinding, diamond-like display, beguiling me with its beauty. I had overlooked treasures lying in deeper, cooler waters.

But now I was ready to plunge deep. Really, there were only two men in this little guy's life who mattered most: his daddy and my brother. And that's when I knew what I needed to do. Without pausing, I grasped the pen firmly and wrote Baby's name for the first time in large, clear letters: Eric Jason Stackhouse.

There! Before I lost my momentum, I wrote in the space asking for his father's name: Eric Northman. For now, I'd have to leave his address as unknown. But I'd done it. I'd taken another step toward undoing the damage I'd caused by hiding and lying. I had no idea what kind of reaction Eric would have to us, but he had a right to know, and my son had a right to have a chance at loving his father.

As for myself, I'd made mistakes, but I still deserved a chance at Great Love, the all-encompassing kind full of passion and sensuality as well as affection and deep and unconditional emotional ties—from sky to sea. I would have to work hard, but I'd stop at nothing to share Great Love with Eric.

Before I could change my mind, I buzzed Nurse Smith and handed her the papers. She folded them up and smiled. "Would you like me to hand you the baby?"

"Yes, please."

I felt so excited now I could barely contain myself. My whole body was shivering, and in the brief moment it took her to lift the baby and hand him to me, I felt like I might burst. I pulled the little guy in close.

"E.J.," I said out loud for the first time. He'd be E.J. for now, for the sake of our privacy, until I could tell Eric. I peppered his cheeks with kisses and reveled in the deep and intense love I felt for him.

"E.J." I said again. His eyes blinked open.

"I'm going to get your daddy."


A/N Thanks to R.G., whose real-life adventures in getting pantsed inspired said scene.

Thanks to makesmyheadspin for her encouragement, seasoned advice, and patience with my first-time jitters.

Any errors contained herein are the sole responsibility of one computer-hacking schemer and conniver whose initials are L.L..