I hesitated outside the building, my thumb hooked into the shoulder strap of my purse, and gave the wooden front of the restaurant a dubious once-over. Anyone who lived in Choteau knew about “Elk Country Grill”—they had great barbeque—but, still…I couldn’t imagine conducting a therapy session in there. I glanced down at the calendar on my iPhone to double-check who my clients were. Erik Lindstrom and Katrin Svenson—sounded very Scandinavian—had made an appointment for some premarital counseling. I smiled. I loved the idea of a couple wanting to hit the ground running in their marriage. So many husbands and wives who crossed the threshold of my office didn’t come to me until their differences were irreconcilable.
Today’s session would be a refreshing change.
I crossed the small parking lot and stepped inside “Elk Country Grill,” a whoosh of body heat drafting over me, along with the noise of a dozen or so conversations going on at once. I blinked. It looked like little Scandinavia in here; just about everyone was blond. How was I supposed to pick out my clients?
“Hello.” A handsome man with silver-blond hair approached me, his cheeks rosy from drink and merrymaking. “I’m sorry, but the restaurant is closed today for a private party.”
“Yes, thank you. I’ve been invited. I’m looking for Erik and Katrin.”
“Ah, okay. Erik’s my son.” The fellow turned and hailed one of the taller blond men from across the room.
The man glanced at me, then caught the attention of a short woman who had her head thrown back in laughter. They both threaded their way through the crowd toward me.
Scandinavian, for sure. In fact, Erik and Katrin could be cover models for any Norwegian product; both were blond, blue-eyed, good-looking, twenty-something representatives of their Viking ancestors. Erik’s hair was styled into a crew cut; Katrin’s flowed down to her shoulders in pretty waves. Both were dressed casually in blue jeans and T-shirts, and in wonderful shape. Katrin was slender and petite, while Erik had a good deal of muscle packed onto his tall frame.
“Hello, I’m Regan Malloy,” I introduced myself, shaking hands with the two while the man who’d greeted me—Erik’s father—melted back into the party.
“I figured.” Erik made a sweeping gesture of the room. “Sorry, about all of this craziness. Our family is throwing us an engagement party.”
I couldn’t help jerking my eyebrows up high. “You want to have a…” session. No. There were too many ears about for that word. “Talk in the middle of an engagement party?”
“There’s a room in the back,” Erik flipped his eyes over my shoulder, “where we can have some privacy.”
Some of the tension left my shoulders. Oh, good.
“We’ve actually been engaged for a while,” Katrin added. “We just live in Bigfork now, so our folks haven’t had a chance to throw us a party until now.”
“Can I grab you a drink before we head back?” Erik asked me.
“Well, um…” I glanced down at the glass in his hand. Don’t mean to be rude, but, alcohol and therapy don’t exactly…
Erik held up his glass. “This is Sprite.”
“Oh.” I paused. “Yes, then. Thank you.”
We navigated our way through family and friends, heading toward the back of the room. The restaurant was a cozy place, done in wood and brick, the ceiling sprinkled with a dozen cone-shaped lamps. Erik passed me as he detoured toward the bar, and I caught a whiff of him. He smelled like a Bounce dryer sheet. And man.
We ended up in the restaurant manager’s office, which was really just a partitioned space at the end of a storage room. I took the small desk, setting the Sprite Erik had brought me at my elbow, and Katrin and Erik sat in two folding chairs. With the storage room door closed, the noise of the party was muffled to a low hubbub.
I propped my notebook on my crossed knees, pen in hand. “So when’s the wedding?”
“Oh, gosh, no, we’re not going to do the whole wedding thing.” Katrin gave Erik an affectionate look as she reached for his hand. “Just a simple ceremony with family. For us, this is about committing to each other, rather than the need for a four-foot tall white cake.”
“Well, that’s a nice sentiment.” Smiling, I uncapped my pen. “So, why don’t we dive right in. Some topics I touch on in premarital work are”—I wrote as I spoke—“in-laws, religion, finances, children, among a few others.”
Erik and Katrin looked at each other, then broke into laughter, Katrin flashing a set of pretty dimples.
I glanced between them. Whatever the joke was, I didn’t get it.
“Excuse us,” Erik apologized. “It’s just that we don’t have problems in any of those areas.”
“We’re really close with each other’s family,” Katrin said. “Erik’s childhood friend is married to my brother, and…well, we all just get along.” She flung an exuberant arm toward the storage room door. “Just look out there!”
I couldn’t argue with that.
Erik sat back in his chair, relaxing as he adjusted his grip on Katrin’s hand, lacing his fingers through hers. “With religion, we’re in complete agreement. We both go to church every Sunday. And finances?” He glanced at his fiancée. “Are you a secret shopaholic?”
Katrin chuckled, the alluring crevices in her cheeks reappearing. “No.”
Erik’s light blue eyes danced. “Sounds like we’re solid there, too.”
“Well, great. Those are some biggies. You’re starting out ahead of the game, if you already have those issues settled.” I was tempted to snap my notebook closed and snag some barbeque on my way out. These two seemed deeply in love and excited to start their lives together. I drew a deep breath, then gazed for a long moment at their entwined hands. “So, any jitters about this big step?”
“None.” Erik sat up and gave his head a good, hard shake. “But,” he added, “I want to make sure Kat feels fully confident about us, too. When she first got to know me, I was a commitment phobe and terrified of love. I put her through a lot until I was able to throw myself into a relationship with her. Kind of didn’t have a choice, really, she’s so great.” He smiled at Katrin, sending lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes, before he turned back to me. “If she has any lingering doubts about me, I want her to voice them, here and now, or whenever she feels like she needs to. I just…” He hesitated. “Well, truth is, she didn’t call her ex-fiancé on a lot of the stuff she probably should have, and I don’t want her to fall into the same habit with me.”
“What…?” Katrin snorted. “Oh, give me a break. I called you a coward when you wouldn’t take the plunge with me, didn’t I?”
Erik pondered that for a moment. “That’s true.”
“And not all of my habits in regards to my ex, Wade, were bad,” Katrin defended herself, pulling her hand from Erik’s. “I stayed with him in large part out of loyalty.” She cocked her head to one side. “Would you rather I be a disloyal person?”
Erick crossed his arms over his chest. “If it meant getting away from an abusive alcoholic jerk, then, yes.” Tension flexed the muscles in his jaw.
A flare went up inside my head. “Wade hurt you, Katrin?” I asked quietly. An abusive relationship could burden a woman with a great deal of heavy baggage: fear, insecurities, a battered self-esteem, distrust.
Katrin’s cheeks bloomed. “It’s not as bad as Erik is making it—”
“See?” Erik said.
Frustration flashed through Katrin’s gaze. “Wade was mainly an unreliable pain-in-the-butt drunk when we were together. He didn’t start threatening to hurt me until after I’d broken up with him.”
“Not just threaten,” Erik corrected, his voice as taut as his cheek. “He beat the snot out of you.”
Katrin exhaled a noisy breath. “Well, it’s over now, and I’m fine.” She dipped her chin at Erik. “Thank your for that, but the way.”
“Thank Erik?” I clarified.
Katrin nodded. “Erik was the one who saved me when Wade was…losing his temper with me.”
“Too late,” Erik growled.
“No.” Katrin took Erik’s hand again, her thumb idly stroking over his fingers. “You always do that, Erik—take on more of the burden for a problem than is your fair share.” She looked at me. “He helped nurse his mother when she was dying of cancer, you know; only him and his sister. It was a lot to manage.”
Oh, my. “I can imagine it—”
The storage room door flew open and two tall, muscled blond men reeled inside, laughing uproariously.
“Ha!” the younger one burst out. “Told you they weren’t doing the wild thing in here. Katrin isn’t like that, are you, Svägerska?”
Katrin’s eyebrows arched slowly. “Sister-in-law,” she translated for me out of the side of her mouth.
“And if we had been, Lars?” Erik snapped, spinning around in his chair. “Do you think we would’ve appreciated you barging in?”
The older one waved that away with a sweep of his hand. “You’ve got to come out, Erik,” he said, still laughing. “Pappa’s going to—”
“Nils, Lars,” Erik cut back in, his eyes leveled on the two men. “Take it back to the party, would you? Katrin and I are busy right now.”
The younger one—Lars, I gathered—seemed to notice me, then. His gaze traveled the length of me twice, the first time quickly; the second was a leisurely inspection that shot a thunderbolt of sensation directly into my belly. I managed to keep a neutral expression, but felt myself flush from toes to scalp with heat, some of it lingering in my cheeks as tingling prickles of embarrassment. Lord, how unprofessional to react in such a way to a client’s brother.
The other one, Nils, settled his large hands on his belt. “Is everything all right?” he demanded, an edge of protective challenge entering in his tone.
Which was rather fascinating. Who in the world did this man think I was?
“Yes, Nils,” Erik answered, his tone heavy with impatience. “Katrin and I will be back out in a minute. Please go.”
“Yeah, all right.” Nils turned to leave, but Lars, who was a longer-haired, just-as-handsome version of Erik, was stuck in place, his gaze trained me. He was turning his beer bottle in his hand, his fingers working nimbly, the tensile muscles in his forearm flexing. He winked at me with a smile that would melt iron.
My knees gripped the side of my chair.
Nils grabbed Lars by the shirt. “We’ll see you out there,” he said, dragging Lars out.
The storeroom door shut.
I cleared my throat into the moment of silence.
Erik turned back to face me. “Big brothers,” he exasperated, as if that explained all the ills in the world. “Kat and I, uh…” He expelled a breath. “I’m sorry. We wanted to have the session here at the ‘Elk Country Grill’ to keep things low-key, but maybe that wasn’t the best of idea.”
“No, it’s fine.” I pressed a palm over my thundering heart and took a quick gulp of my Sprite. “It’s nice to see that you have such a lively family.”
“Lively, yes…” Erik’s lips twisted sardonically. “That’s one way of putting it.”
I set down my soda. “So, um, where were we…? Oh, yes, I think we were discussing the death of a parent.”
Erik glanced aside and nodded stiffly. “Kat and I can both relate to that, actually. I lost my mom six years ago, and she lost her dad three years ago.”
Katrin placed a hand on Erik’s knee and gave it a comforting squeeze. “My dad died in a car accident, Erik, and even though that was awful, it was nothing compared to having to sit at a mother’s bedside and watch her fade away.” Katrin turned to me to add, “Every day Erik saw more of his mother’s life leave her, her breathing eventually turning to a rattle. I don’t know how he managed it. I couldn’t have.”
Erik shook his head. “You would’ve found a way to manage it.” He glanced down at the hand Katrin had placed on his knee, and put his palm over the top of it. “That’s just how you are: life knocks you down, but you get right back up, brush yourself off, and open your heart up for more.”
Katrin smiled gently. “You made it through, too, Minste, just…with a few bumps first.” Katrin looked at me. “One of the worst parts for Erik was that he thought his dad bailed on his mother in her hour of need; his dad stopped coming to his mother’s bedside once the cancer got really bad. That’s why Erik grew to hate the concept of love, you know. He believed that when you really need somebody, they’ll just let you down, so why bother?”
Erik’s chest moved beneath his shirt. “I was really pissed at my dad for a long time.”
“I’m sorry.” I thought for a moment. “Sounds like you felt protective of your mother.”
“I suppose so.”
Katrin nodded in vigorous agreement. “Erik has a very strong protective side. It’s probably what drew him into law enforcement.” She smiled with those dimples of hers. “And what drew me to him.”
I kept my eyes on Erik. “You were close to your mother?”
Erik swished his Sprite around, ice clinking, staring down at his glass. “Very. She home- schooled me and my younger sister for most of our education. When my two older brothers would go off with my dad on their adventures, I was happy to stay home with my mamma. But… I’m over my anger now. The true story of what happened came out just recently. Turns out my mother asked my dad to leave her bedside, not wanting his last memories of her to be depressing. He stayed true to her, after all.” He finished off his soda and set the glass on the floor by his chair. “I’m ready to move forward now with life.”
“I’m glad to hear you’ve got that resolved.” Maybe too neatly? I picked up my own Sprite and took a slow sip, using the time to mull everything over. These two had faced down some huge difficulties: the death of Erik’s mother, his commitment issues, Katrin’s former abusive relationship. And now everything was tied up in a hunky-dory bow? Maybe so…but I wasn’t one-hundred-percent convinced. I glanced down at my notepad and reviewed my list: In-laws, religion, finances, children… Ah! “We never talked about children,” I said. “Do you two want kids?”
Katrin brightened. “Oh, yes, of course. Right away, in fact. I love kids!”
“Sure... Just…” Erik cut a glance at his fiancée. “Not right away.”
Katrin opened her mouth, then closed it. “Oh,” she said softly. “I didn’t realize. I just assumed…” Her hand crept off his knee. “How long do you want to wait?”
“I don’t know.” Erik shrugged, his shoulders looking a little rigid. “Maybe five years.”
“What?” Katrin’s mouth popped wide again and stayed open this time. “Five?”
Erik’s eyes fell away from hers. “You’re only twenty-two, Kat, come on. There’s plenty of time for children. I want to get used to being married before—”
“Used to?” Katrin repeated, her lips tightening.
Erik grimaced. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just want you and I to be able to enjoy each other for a while before we add kids into the equation.” He pressed a hand to the center of his chest.
Her eyes lowering to the gesture, Katrin’s face flushed a bright red. “Are you going to have another panic attack?”
That snagged my attention. A panic attack.
“Oh, God,” Katrin went on, “how could I be so naïve?! You had a panic attack the day I told you about my dream of white picket fences and children, and…” She set a palm on her brow. “You don’t want to have kids, do you?”
“I didn’t say I don’t want to have kids.” Erik shot me a look. “Did I say that?”
Katrin’s throat moved in a swallow. “You’re still afraid of commitment, aren’t you?”
“No,” Erik countered. “I just…” He growled. “I don’t know what!”
“Actually,” I inputted carefully, “I think you show signs of PTSD, Erik.”
“Of—?” Erik’s brows pulled together. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Actually, it fits with the panic attacks.” I set my notebook on the desk. “Everyone assumes that someone can only get PTSD from going to war, but PTSD is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder…it can result from any trauma. And watching your mother slowly die before your eyes is a trauma, Erik—a significant one. You also had the distress of assuming your parents fell apart, and you held that inside of you for, what…? Six years before it was clarified. That’s a long time for a wound to go unhealed. I know you said that you’ve recently come to a new understanding about this period of your life, but these sorts of deep emotional injuries don’t just go away in a day or two. It takes some time.”
Erik leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees, his eyes staring a hole through the floorboards.
I observed him. “You’ve both commented that Erik has a strong protective nature. That tells me that he has a great need to look out for the people he cares about. And even though that’s very noble, it can also be a heavy burden, especially if”—then I quoted Katrin—“he takes on more than his fair share. The burden grows even heavier when you start to feel that no matter what you do, people get harmed, anyway. And that’s what life has taught you, hasn’t it? Your mother died, even though you nursed her. Katrin got the snot beat out of her, because—according to you—you arrived too late. And now there’s all this talk of children, who are fragile little beings who get sick and hurt all of the time, right.? I’m guessing you’re terrified something will happen, and there won’t be a damned thing you can do about it.”
Erik closed his eyes and scrubbed a hand over his crew cut.
Katrin stared at the side of his face, her nose red like she was on the verge of crying.
I placed my pen on top of my notebook. “But here’s a concept that I’d like you to try and embrace. Yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but mostly, they don’t. If you do all the right things, you’ll face your uphill battles like everyone does, of course, but in the end, odds are, life will be good. Your kids will come out happy and healthy. It’s what mostly happens.”
With warmth entering her eyes, Katrin ran a hand over the back of Erik’s head and nape, letting her palm come to rest on his shoulder. “One day at a time, Erik. I can wait until you’re ready because I know we’ll get there. Don’t worry. Jeg elsker deg.”
Erik craned his head around to look at Katrin. He paused a moment, studying her face, then straightened. His fingertips traced the curve of her cheek and down along the line of her chin. “You’ll make adorable babies, Älskling, with those dimples of yours.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Katrin’s mouth.
“Thank you,” Erik told me, “for solving that mystery. I…” He touched his chest again, but with lighter fingers. “I actually…kind of feel better.” He leaned over and kissed Katrin on the cheek, murmuring something in her ear.
“…sooner than you think,” was all I caught.
I picked up my purse, notebook, and Sprite. “I see a great marriage ahead for you two,” I said, coming to my feet at the same time they did. “And you can consider that my expert opinion.”
Erik smiled as he linked his hand with Katrin’s. “Make sure you grab something to eat before you head out.”
“Thank you, but I should get going.” Even though some great barbecue waited out there, socializing with clients was understandably considered a no-no.
I followed Katrin and Erik back to the party, re-entering noisy laughter, music, and the enticing smell of well-cooked food. As I headed for the door, I couldn’t help but scan the restaurant for Lars, the hottie brother who was a living, breathing example of why women loved to be women.
He was already radar-locked on me.
As I caught his gaze, his smile turned lazy and heated. My heart sped up. A damned shame he was a client’s brother. Because whoever snagged that devil was going to end up one helluva happy—and, oh, yes, satisfied—woman. I nodded farewell to him, a regretful little inclination of my head coupled with a small smile. Pushing out of the restaurant, I made my way to my car.
A huge damned shame, definitely.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this session between Katy Regnery’s characters, Erik and Katrin. Follow Katy’s Heart of Montana Series, and you’ll get to see more of these delightful Scandinavian characters. Katy and I love to discuss the session with readers. Make sure to comment!
1. Do you think Kat and Erik are ready to have children right away or should they wait a little while?
2. Erik and Kat have both lost parents. Do you think this makes their bond stronger or adds extra challenges to their relationship?
3. Erik is a strong, protective man. In this session, we saw how stressful this trait can be for him, considering his past losses. Do you think Erik is now on the road to full recovery over his excessive worry about harm coming to the people he loves? Or is this going to plague him for a while longer?
* * *
Katy Regnery is the award-winning author of two contemporary romance series, Heart of Montana, which follows each of the Lindstrom siblings, and Enchanted Places, set in Newport, RI.
Book 3 in her Heart of Montana series, the 5-star rated, SEE JANE FALL, featuring sensual heartthrob, Lars Lindstrom, is available now from Amazon: http://amzn.to/1pzJaXV
* * *
Tracy Tappan, founder and creator of The Character Couch, is a multi-genre author of gritty romance. Her latest release in her dark paranormal series, THE BLOODLINE WAR, about an endangered breed of human who are kidnapping genetically enhanced women to save their race, is available now at Amazon, 5-star rated. http://amzn.to/18XDygs
Visit her website www.tracytappan.com and join her Author Updates to keep abreast of other releases in her paranormal series, her upcoming medieval historical trilogy, and her new pulse-pounding military suspense series.