Chapter One

"Is there anything else I can get you guys?" I ask the two gentlemen at the table, sliding their plates of fried chicken and country fried steak in front of them. Both of the men are out-of-towners and I don't recognize either of them.

"Naw, sweetheart, this'll do it for now," says the man with the mustache, leering at me from under the brim of his hat. My brow furrows, and I'm dying to frown, but a force a smile onto my face instead.

"Great! You two just let me know if there's anything else you need," I say, turning on my heel and heading back to the bar, refusing to turn back toward the gaze I can feel on my backside. I understand that ogling occasionally comes with the job, but it's something I've never been able to adjust to, even after four years as a waitress.

"You okay, Sookie?" Sam asks as I step behind the bar and place my tray on the pass-thru to the kitchen. I wipe my hands on the small apron tied around my waist and smooth the wrinkles in my skirt.

"Just fine, thanks," I say, my hands going to the small of my back to knead at the muscles. It seems like near the end of my shift my feet and my back always kill me. I've thought for years it would be a good idea to wear shoes without a heel to work to relieve some of the pressure on my back and the balls of the feet. Of course, wearing a flat soled shoe isn't appropriate for a waitress, and I've settled on being thankful to Sam for choosing uniform shoes with fairly low heels. I realize Sam's eyes on me and I drop my hands. His eyes shift back from the drink he's mixing.

"Guys over there not giving you trouble are they?" His gaze shifts to the table with the ogler and I'm not thrilled to discover Mustache's eyes are still on me.

"Not yet," I respond vaguely, lifting my eyebrows toward the men as Mustache leers again. I can see Sam turn toward me, alarm in his face, and shoot a smile in his direction as I pull my ponytail tight. His muscles are tense and I lay a cool hand on his arm. "Just relax, it will be fine. They're nothing I can't handle. And if they end up being a problem, that's what you're for." I pat his arm in reassurance before grabbing the plates of food that appear on the pass-thru and walking around the bar to the main dining room to deliver them.

Though Sam has always done a great job of looking out for all of his waitresses, it's never been a secret that he has taken a special interest in me. Sam and I have been friends since the day I came into Merlotte's looking for a job all those years ago. Bill had just left for the war and money was tight. Though I would have never have admitted to Bill, him leaving me alone was rough, and there was more than one night when I had to go without supper for lack of money. But there were jobs available with all of the men leaving to fight, or moving to the cities to work in the factories, and it wasn't long until I was out there with other capable women, looking to fill the available positions out of necessity more than patriotism.

I only knew Sam in passing the day I walked into his restaurant desperate for a job. I had no skills, no experience, and hadn't even been running my own household for long. But after a short discussion and a brief trial period, I was hired for good. I was determined not to let Sam down and spent every day working myself so hard I was ready to fall asleep on my feet by the end of my shifts. Of course, I discovered later that the exhaustion wasn't exclusively due to hard work, but at the time Sam was rather impressed with my efforts. As time passed and I adjust to the schedule, I found I enjoyed my job and discovered it was something I was good at doing. Still, I still dreamed every day of the day Bill would come home and I could leave Merlotte's and we could return to our normal lives. It was only one and a half months later that my dreams came down around me.

"Who ordered the meatloaf sandwich?" I ask the tired looking mother and her son at table six. Their table is not in my section, but I don't mind helping out when I can.

"I did!" says the little boy, bouncing up and down in his seat as I put the plate in front of him. I can see why his poor mother is tired and give her a knowing smile as I set the other plate on the table in front of her.

"What do you say, Tommy?" she prompts, even as his little hands lift the thick sandwich.

"Thank you!" he nearly yells, giving me a toothless grin, and I can't help but smile back.

"You are most welcome. You folks enjoy, and let Arlene know if there's anything else you need."

The bell above the front door tinkles and my eyes move automatically in that direction. I watch as a tall, blonde man with broad shoulders steps into the room, doffing his hat and rubbing the dust from his shoes on the mat. He has a no-nonsense look to him and a ponytail hanging down his back. Another customer I don't recognize. Bon Temps is a very small and out of the way town and most days I know every face that comes through that door. Today doesn't seem to be one of those days.

I make my way across the dining room, keeping a substantial distance from Mustache and friend, and greet the newcomer with a smile. "Hello, sir, welcome to Merlotte's. Just one today or is someone joining you?" His eyes drift down to meet mine and I'm struck by the intensity of his gaze. There is something enticing in that look I feel my smile increase naturally. I'm somewhat surprised when he smiles back.

"Actually, I'm hoping to see Sam Merlotte," he says, eyes leaving mine to scan the room. "Does he happen to be here today?"

"He's almost always here," I reply with a look over my shoulder toward the bar. Sam is looking back at me with a strange expression on his face and I decide it might not be a great idea to walk the stranger over without giving Sam a warning. "Why don't you have a seat at one of these tables and I'll let him know you'd like to see him. What was your name?"

"Eric Northman," replies the stranger, swinging his eyes back to mine. It's nearly a giddy feeling when our eyes meet, and the smile on my face widens further.

"Have a seat, Mr. Northman. Mr. Merlotte will be right out to greet you."

I watch Eric seat himself in the farthest corner of the room and I return to the bar. I slide in between two stools on the customer side of the counter in front of Sam. "A Mr. Eric Northman is here to see you," I tell him quietly, still confused by the odd expression on his face. I realize I'm still smiling like a school girl with a crush and purse my lips slightly in an attempt to tone it down. Sam relaxes visibly.

"Tell him I'll be right out," he says, returning a liquor bottle to it's place behind the bar and using a rag to wipe down the countertop. I frown at him for a moment before turning back to face the dining room. Frowning at Sam isn't going to help me figure out his expression any more easily, but somehow I get the impression he's disappointed. At what, I can't even begin to guess.

"Excuse me, miss," I hear from the table I've been pointedly avoiding, and I close my eyes for just a moment before turning in their direction and forcing a smile onto my face. I can feel it become more and more tense the closer I get to their table.

"How are you gentlemen doing?" I ask, stepping to the edge of the table with some reluctance. I can smell gin on Mustache's breath as he leans forward and turns his face toward me.

"Doing pretty good now that you're here," he says, reaching out with a finger as if stroke my arm. The smiles drop from my face and I take a step back. I force myself to be polite.

"Can I get you guys anything else? Maybe another drink or some dessert? We have the best peach pie in three counties."

"Who could think about peach pie with a sweet peach like you around?" he asks with a laugh, looking toward his buddy for affirmation. I can feel my eyebrows go up and am pleased to see that his friend looks mortified. Undeterred, Mustache turns back to face me. "Come on, sugar, come a little closer." I anticipate his movement and take another step back as raises his hand to grab God knows what. I'm not quite quick enough and he manages to snag the fabric of my skirt between thick fingers.

"Let me go," I demand through clenched teeth, illusion of politeness gone completely. I look over my shoulder toward the bar for Sam. He's nowhere in sight. Great. I feel a hand on my waist and swing my head around to find that Mustache has risen from his seat. Apparently he's decided I need a hug. Rage and indignation fly through me as he pulls me close, and I barely register the sound of a chair clattering to the ground nearby as I dig my nails into hairy wrists. Mustache screams like a scalded cat and releases me, snatching his wrists from my hands and holding them close to his chest. I take a step back and bump into a wall. I raise my eyes to meet Eric's.

"You drew blood!" Mustache cries suddenly, shooting me a look of disbelief and holding out one of his injured arms for me to see. Yes, sir, that I did. "Lordy, girlie, I just wanted to see you. I wasn't going to hurt you none."

I am intensely aware of Eric behind me and can feel his body tense. I feel exactly the same way.

"You gentlemen need to pay your bill and leave," I say quietly but firmly, surprised at how steady my voice sounds. Inside I feel like I'm full of moths and bumblebees. Mustache hesitates, unsure of whether or not he has to follow my orders. I am just a woman after all, and I can tell he's not too familiar with taking orders from women. On the other hand, I am the one who made him squeal like a piglet in public and I'm certain he's not too fond of that. I watch the indecision flit across his face for a moment before his friend pulls out his wallet.

"I'm truly sorry for my friend, ma'am," he says with a sheepish smile, tossing a few bills onto the table. "We're going now. Thank you for the meal." Mustache trails his friend out of the restaurant and manages to shoot me one more disbelieving look before disappearing through the door. Somewhat dazed, I stare after them. A hand on my shoulder jolts me back to the present and I scoop the money from the table before turning toward the cash register at the bar. My hands shake as I press the appropriate keys to send the drawer flying open with a ding.

"Are you okay?" Eric asks from the other side of the counter as I slide the money into the appropriate slots and close the drawer with a clang.

"Just fine," I say, smoothing my shaking hands down my skirt front and reaching automatically to tighten my ponytail. Eric's eyes narrow at me slightly and his hand shoots out to grasp mine in his. I'm startled at his sudden movement and attribute my pounding heart to that feeling.

"Blood," he says, and I can feel the confusion on my face. "On your hand." My confusion continues for a moment before he turns my hand, pressing the palm flat onto his and holding my fingers up for me to see. Sure enough, the whites of my nails are stained red and there's blood on my fingertips. "You don't want to get it in your hair." I slide my hand from his and feel my heart rate decrease substantially.

"Thanks," I say mildly, ignoring the flush I can feel staining my cheeks. "Would you excuse me while I clean up?" I barely wait for his nod of affirmation before walking through the door to the hall leading to the kitchen, toilets, and Sam's office. I swing into the restroom and lock the door behind me. I step up to the sink and turn the water on warm, bringing my hands closer to my face for further examination. I can feel my nose crinkle in disgust at the amount of Mustache staining my fingernails, but I can't suppress the tiny smile that follows. I pick up the soap and start to scrub, lifting my fingers from the water every few seconds to check my progress. After what seems like ages, I finally deem my hands Mustache free and turn off the tap. There is a rap on the door as I reach for the towel.

"Just a minute," I call drying my hands briskly and double checking for blood. There's not a speck of red in sight. The knock comes again.

"Sookie, it's Sam. Are you okay?" I fold the towel over the rack and take a moment to straighten it before throwing open the door. I find myself face to face with a concerned looking Sam. "Eric told me what happened with that customer. I knew he was bad news. Are you okay? He didn't hurt you?" He takes my hands in his before I can speak and throws them wide, assessing gaze roaming my body. Since Sam's interest in my body isn't wholly professional, I step away from him after a short moment and he lets me drop my arms to my sides.

"Of course he didn't hurt me, I told you I could handle him, didn't I?" I ask with a smile. I'm not quite as confident in my skills as I let on, but Sam doesn't have to know that.

"You did," Sam admits, "but you shouldn't have had to. I should have been there. I want to take care of you." The emotion in his voice tells me he's talking about much more than the man in the restaurant and I give him a sad smile.

"I know you do, Sam. But sometimes I have to take care of myself."

"I understand, I do, but if Bill were here-"

"If Bill were here everything would be different," I interject, resisting the urge to lay a comforting hand on his arm, "But there's no saying it would be better."

"But Sookie-"

"Hush. We've talked about this before and don't need to go over it again. You are a wonderful friend to me but that's where your responsibility ends."

"But it doesn't have to. If you'd only let me, I could make things easier."

"There's much more to it, you know that. And you already make my life easier, more than you know." Giving into my instinct, I step forward and place the tiniest of kisses on his cheek. I wipe away the trace of lipstick with my thumb before stepping back and giving him a smile. "Now if you don't mind, I think I'll be heading home. It's been a rough day and my shift ended a few minutes ago." He gives me a nod but I can see the storm of emotion in his eyes. My maternal side urges me to take him into my arms, but my brain tells me that would be a bad idea. I force myself to walk through the back door without a backward glance.

The day is hot and bright and I start to sweat the instant I step into the sun. I cross the dirt area in front of Sam's trailer and climb into the truck I inherited from Bill. It is a '37 Ford and not quite my style, but it gets me from point A to point B and it's more than I can afford on my own. I push the button to engage the ignition and drive carefully around the building before pulling onto the road and pointing my car toward home. As I drive, my thoughts return to Sam. He has been a valuable friend to me since the day I received the news about Bill.

It was a Wednesday, I remember, and quite warm outside. It was nearly time for the dinner rush when the officers found me in the Merlotte's. I remember I was laughing at a long forgotten joke Arlene told me when they walked through door. One glimpse at their uniforms and I knew they were there for me. Individually, the words they spoke were innocuous. The killed of line in husband your duty was. Together in the proper order, they were devastating. Your husband was killed in the line of duty.

Turning onto Hummingbird Road, I banish the thoughts of that terrible day from my mind. It won't do to dwell on horrible things so close to home. I force my mind back to Sam.

After Bill died, Sam was everywhere. He was my boss, so I saw him at work, but it seemed like he managed to show up anywhere I went, increasingly so as time went on. At first I didn't mind it. Sam was with me when I found out about Bill and it seemed natural to keep him around for comfort. But as time moved on and I climbed from my pit of despair, I realized I wasn't being fair to Sam. I began to realize that Sam was interested in me as a man is interested in a woman. I was interested in him only for friendship. And even if I was interested in Sam as a man, I would think twice before jumping in a relationship with him. He is such a kind person, and I wouldn't be able to get past the idea that maybe I was taking advantage of his kindness for Halleigh.

I turn from Hummingbird Road and bounce up the deeply rutted driveway, glad the Ford is a durable vehicle. After a long moment of driving through the woods, the house becomes visible and I pull into the clearing. I skirt around the chickens in the yard as I pull around back.

"Momma!" cries a small voice as I stop the car in the clearing and pull the brake. I slide from the seat and close the door behind me, scanning the yard for the owner for the voice. Suddenly, the screen door on the porch flies open and a brown-headed little bullet flies across the yard toward me. My Halleigh. Her short legs pump like mad as she closes the distance between us and I can see her dark eyes sparkling in the sunlight from where I stand. She is the joy of my life and at moments like this I think I might be the joy of hers.

"Halleigh baby, I missed you," I say, scooping her from the ground and hugging her close. She nuzzles into my neck for lovely moment, mumbling that she missed me too before wriggling to be free. It seems like she's never content to stay cuddled for long. I set her down on her feet and take her hand, turning to walk toward the old farmhouse. "How was your day? Did you and Gran have fun?"

"Yes," she proclaims as we climb the steps, "even though she made me take a nap."

I suppress a smile and nod seriously down at her. Naps for little girls are almost a fate worse than death as far as Halleigh is concerned. "Well I'm sorry to hear that you were made to suffer so."

"I didn't like it. But Gran said that only way to grow up and be big like her is to take naps. Gran loves naps, did you know?" I can't suppress my smile at her tone. Apparently naps are a fate worse than death for everyone.

"Yes, ma'am, I did know that. But why don't you tell me what did my favourite ladies did today beside have naps?"

"We fed the chickens and plucked the weeds, and Gran showed me how to make paper dollies by clipping the pictures out of the catalog. It was neat, Momma, can I show you?"

"Of course, sweetheart. Run and get the dollies while I say hi to Gran." Her warm little hand slides from mine and she's off like a shot, bare feet thundering through the kitchen and down the hall on her mission. I walk into the kitchen at a more sedate pace and smile at the small woman standing over the hot stove.

"Hello, Gran," I greet the woman, placing a kiss on her wrinkled cheek and pulling her close in a one armed hug. Her soft hand comes up to pat my arm. "Anything I can help with?"

"Nothing at all," she says with a wave of her hand, shooing me away like a fly. "Just get off your feet and relax for a minute. Dinner will be done in a jiffy and I know you're tired."

"Of course I'm not tired." A lie. "I'd love to help." The truth.

Small feet pound down the staircase and Gran looks over at me with a smile. "Don't be silly. Sit down and play dolls with your daughter. You've been on your feet all day." Halleigh bursts from the hall into the kitchen, small hands overflowing with cutouts, her energy engulfing the room. I can't help but smile at her exuberance.

"Got them, Momma," she says, dumping the lot in a pile on the table.

"Alright, little miss," I say, giving Gran a stern look and sliding into the closest chair. I pull Halleigh into my lap. "Show me what you've got."

As Halleigh chats away and sorts through the cut out people, clothing, and furniture, arranging them in an order known only to her, I let my eyes drift to Gran. She's stirring a pot on the stove with a self-satisfied smirk on her face and I can feel my lips quirk into a similar expression. Somehow that woman always manages to get her way. It's been that way my entire life, and especially so since Bill died.

After Bill died my heart was shattered and every movement, every breath felt hard won. But I learned long ago that life doesn't stop when someone dies, and nothing could be different with the loss of Bill. The day I heard the news, I crumbled. Sam drove me home, to the house Bill and I shared, and I never made it past the front door. I sat on the porch for the duration of the night, lamenting lost dreams and wondering how I could survive with a hole through my heart. But the morning dawned bright, and I hadn't died yet, and picked myself up from the porch and pressed on. Bill mortgaged the house and I needed to eat, and I couldn't afford to stay home and wallow.

Gran kept her distance those first few weeks, having lost a husband of her own some years back. She was there when I needed her but realized I needed to work through the pain myself. I grew more numb and the pain decreased as time passed by. Still, I couldn't fathom that the hole inside of me would ever close. Until I found out about Halleigh.

The moment I announced my pregnancy to Gran with tears on my cheeks and joy in my heart, Gran decided my place was with her in her home. All through my pregnancy she tried to convince me that life would be so much easier if I would only move back in with her. She could cook, she said, and help with the cleaning. I didn't have to stand on my feet all day and work at home too. But I wouldn't move in no matter how much she begged. It felt like giving up. It felt like turning my back on Bill.

Halleigh was born in the bed Bill and I had shared, with a midwife from town attending. She looked like her Daddy from the second she was born, dark hair and dark eyes, with a nose and ears that I swear were his in miniature. It was then that I realized I wasn't forsaking Bill by leaving our home and making my life easier. He loved me, and would have handed me the world if I'd asked. It would hurt him to see me disengage and drift away just to hold on to things to keep him close. It was that day I realized I didn't need things. I would always have his memory. I would always have his daughter.

Halleigh and I moved in with Gran one month later.

"Alright, Halleigh, dollies off the table," Gran says, lifting a roast from the oven. I snap to attention. I didn't realize I'd been drifting quite so much and I give Halleigh a little boost off my lap.

"But I was just about ready to show Momma the best one," she whines with a pout giving Gran a grouchy look that I recognize as her father's. I can't stop the laughter that escapes my lips.

"The dollies will be here when dinner is over," I reminder her gently, disturbing the order and scooping them into a pile. "Put them away please." She gives me a pout but lifts them from the table obediently and trudges from the room. It seems like the only time I see that girl walk is when it's toward something she doesn't want to do.

I rise from the table to retrieve the green beans and Gran sets the roast in the center. Sweet tea is poured, plates are set out, and I'm just settling back into my seat when Halleigh skips back into the room, smile on her face. I can see the head of one paper man sticking from the pocket of her dress but leave it be. If one paper person is what it takes to get me a smile, I'm all for it.

"Whose turn is it to say grace?" Gran asks, finally sitting down in her chair. Though she has many years on me, it sometimes seems like Gran could outwork me with all her energy. Of course, she does get naps.

"Mine," pipes Halleigh as if calling dibs, before reaching out small arms to join hands with Gran and me. I close my eyes and bow my head as I listen for her voice.

"Thank you God for this food we are about to receive," she begins, and I smile. "Thank you for my day with Gran even though I had to take a nap. Thank you for teaching Gran how to cut paper dollies so she could teach me. Thank you for Momma, and Gran, and all of the chickens, and for the dirt. Thank you for making my Momma with a pretty smile. Amen."

Pretty or no, that smile is on my face as I add my own prayer. "Thank you for my wonderful daughter. Thank you for my wonderful life."

I echo her amen.