“Natural disasters are terrifying – that loss of control, this feeling that something is just going to randomly end your life for absolutely no reason is terrifying. But, what scares me is the human reaction to it and how people behave when the rules of civility and society are obliterated.”—Eli Roth
Appius Northman had always worked very hard to keep himself under control—maybe too hard. In fact, he could count on only one hand how many times he’d truly “lost it.”
The first was when he’d walked in on Peder and Stella having sex. No. That’s not what they’d been doing. They had been making love. The looks on their faces had told him that. There had been ecstasy between them—an intimacy that Appius wasn’t sure he’d achieved with either of them, and that thought had eaten through him slowly over the years.
His immediate reaction upon seeing them had been to let out a tortured yell, like a man whose heart had just been cut out. Through burning tears, he’d struck Peder—hitting him again and again. He’d wanted to kill him. He would have killed him. But a cool hand on his arm had stopped him. Stella’s hand.
After that, Appius had thought that Stella understood. Theirs was certainly not a conventional relationship—nor did he need her physical faithfulness. But he did need her heart.
He would have given her anything. He did give her the most important thing—his own heart. He had said goodbye to Peder too that day—first with his fists and then with tears that burned his eyes as they were shed. Appius understood well that he was being selfish when he asked Stella to choose, especially since Peder was only in their lives because Appius had needed Stella there when he first let himself be with a man. Her presence—though it may have seemed odd to many—had allowed Appius to be himself with Peder. And that “self” threatened to break when he saw Stella giving herself to another as she’d been doing with Peder. It hadn’t even been the physical act that they’d been participating in that had driven him to temporary madness. It had been the look in her eyes. It was the look she gave to Appius, and he couldn’t stand sharing that.
But Stella had chosen him. She had—seemingly—said goodbye to Peder. And she had never looked at Appius with any less love, despite his violent moment. Thus, he had felt secure in what they were to each other.
Despite what Russell had suggested, Appius had desired very few lovers while he was with Stella. She satisfied almost every need he ever had, but occasionally something within him would stir—a longing to be with a man. Stella always recognized that stirring even before Appius did, and she would encourage him to find a lover. Even then, however, Appius would not have relationships with the men he fucked. They satisfied a physical need that he had. However, it was still Stella’s soft body—the only female body that had ever attracted him to a great extent—that he craved most days.
But it was more than her body that he desired—that he wanted to own. It was her mind and her heart and her spirit. It was the way that she could make him laugh with just a look. It was the way her eyebrow would shoot up whenever she thought he was being an ass. She challenged him. She supported him. She held him steady. She knew everything about him—things that confused the hell out of Appius himself—yet, still, she loved him.
But she had loved another too, and Appius couldn’t accept that. He never could. He sighed. It seemed that Eric and he might share that trait—being able to give their hearts to only one person during their lifetime.
For Appius, that person had been Stella. God help him—it was still Stella. He’d fucked many people during the years since her death—but none of them had ever made him believe that he was someone to be “loved” as she had. All of the people he’d fucked—with the exception of Stella—had had a motive that had nothing to do with love.
He scoffed. Most of his lovers throughout the years had been attracted to his money or his power. Appius had no illusions about the people he’d screwed; they’d wanted something from him. Even Andre was with him only because he craved a powerful man to care for him.
Yes—even Peder had had a motive; he was experimenting just as much as Appius was during their college days. Though both Peder and Appius were bisexuals, neither had experienced actual intercourse with a man before Stella helped them to find each other. Indeed, now that Appius could look back on things with perspective, it seemed clear to him that Peder’s true motive had been to take Stella from him—to steal her.
Appius closed his eyes, wishing that he would have just killed Peder those many years ago—wishing that Stella hadn’t helped him to regain his control.
The second time that Appius had lost his reign upon his control had been when he found the letter that Stella had written to Peder—the one in which their secret affair was exposed.
The one in which she told Peder that she loved him.
The one in which she said that a piece of her heart would always belong to him.
Appius’s personal attorney at the time of Stella’s death, Dermot Faeman, the father of Neave and Lochlan, had given him Stella’s Will before the official reading. It wasn’t that Dermot or Appius had suspected Stella of wrongdoing. On the contrary, Dermot had been a good friend to both Appius and Stella, and he had wanted to give the grieving widower the chance to look at the Will privately so that he could control his emotions during the reading.
Appius had wept when he read how Stella trusted him so much that she gave him all she had, which included a nice-sized inheritance from her grandparents. She had written him a letter, telling him how much she loved him and their children and lamenting the fact that she was not going to be able to stay with him and grow old with him. He’d been surprised by the lock-box, which was meant for Elsa, for he’d not known about it. But he’d not been suspicious—just curious. He hadn’t opened the lockbox right away; in fact, he probably wouldn’t have opened it at all, except that he couldn’t find sleep the night before Stella’s funeral.
He remembered everything that happened back then was if it had been captured by slow motion cameras. Many times throughout the years, the events had replayed in his head. In truth, sometimes he couldn’t stop them from playing, even though he tried.
Even when he tried to drown his memories in scotch.
Stella had been diagnosed with breast cancer while she was carrying Eric—just a few months before he was to be born. Thankfully, the cancer was not spreading quickly. Stella, of course, had wanted to wait until Eric was full-term before aggressively treating the disease. Appius’s own feelings on the matter had been mixed.
But he had trusted Stella.
When Eric had been born, the child had lit up Appius’s world almost as much as his mother had. His son and wife shared the same startling blue eyes and smile, and there was nothing Appius loved more than eliciting smiles from them both. Thankfully, Stella’s cancer still had not spread very far, and radiation therapy worked. She had gone into remission after only a few months of treatment. And everything seemed fine until three years later.
Stella had fainted during Eric’s fourth birthday party. She contended that she was just tired, but Appius insisted she go to the doctor. The cancer had come back, but this time, nothing the doctors did stopped it.
He spared no expense in getting the best doctors around the world to come and consult on her case, but the disease was in her lymph nodes, and no one could do a goddamned thing to help her.
For a year, the cancer slowly ate away at her body until she was a weakened version of her once glorious self, but—through everything—Appius had found her no less beautiful. They had spoken a lot of their plans for their two children, Stella making him promise that he would see to it that Eric and Pam were happy.
As she became frailer and frailer, he hardly ever left her side. His own father stepped in to run the company during that period of time, and Appius stayed with his beloved Stella—his star.
The day she’d died, the best part of himself went with her.
She had drifted away in a peaceful sleep, tucked into his arms. He had felt her last breath pushed from her lungs and then the stiffness of her unanimated body. But he had kept hold of her, still, trying to push the cold away with his own warmth.
He would have sold his soul to eradicate that cold from her body—to see her eyes look at him with love once more.
But neither his money nor his soul had been enough to buy her life.
After his father finally convinced him that he needed to get up so that Stella’s body could be taken to the funeral home, Appius had returned to the room he’d shared with Stella before her illness kept her from climbing the stairs of their home. He looked at the bed that had once held so much warmth, and his sobs had come in an uncontrollable torrent. He’d gone to the small secretary desk Stella had found in an antique store. He unlocked the top and removed the gun that he’d bought two months earlier—the day he’d been told that there was no hope for his wife’s survival.
After all, how could he live on without his star?
He stared at the weapon for hours—before deciding that he should say goodbye to his children before he followed their mother.
Appius had gone to Pam’s room first. She was only two and a half years old then, and she was a quiet child. She lay asleep, and even when he placed a gentle kiss on her forehead, she’d not awoken. She simply cuddled further into her blanket as if the world hadn’t just fallen apart.
On the contrary, Eric was five and extremely perceptive, and he knew a bit about what was happening. Appius would never forget going into his son’s room the night after Stella had died. As if the child had known about his mother’s death by instinct, he was already crying, huge round tears wetting the eyes he’d inherited from Stella. Appius had pulled Eric into his arms and rocked them both for hours.
And—in the early hours of the morning—when Eric finally went to sleep, Appius resolved that he would stay alive for his children. As Stella had wished, he would focus his energy on them, despite the fact that a big part of himself still wanted to put a bullet into his brain so that he could share the same grave as his beloved.
But he could not do that—not to his children, especially not to his son, who was so sensitive and caring, just like his mother.
As Appius lay his son into his bed and kissed his brow, he realized that Eric had saved his life that night, for Appius was certain that had Eric been asleep, he would have kissed his son goodbye and gone back upstairs to his gun.
Less than 24 hours later, Appius’s world—and maybe a part of his sanity—shattered when he learned that Stella had continued seeing Peder. And on that day, Appius learned to hate the little boy who had just saved his life—the child that he had loved so goddamned much that hating him ripped out what was left of his tattered soul.
In that moment of ripping, Appius had, once again, lost control. In blind rage and sorrow, he’d destroyed the room he’d once shared with Stella. He’d contemplated taking the gun downstairs and using it on the bastard child of his cheating wife, but he’d refrained. And—when he’d eventually regained a semblance of control, his emotions felt cold. That was the moment when he’d begun to plan his ultimate revenge upon Stella, using her son to do it.
On that day, he also vowed that he would never lose control again—that he would be the master of his emotions. And for a long time, he had been. However, he’d lost control again the January before when he’d almost choked Eric. He’d almost killed him—wanted to kill him. He’d almost let his baser instincts take over and forever rid the world of the light of Stella’s eyes.
But now that light had been transferred once more—to an infant that looked so much like Eric that it made Appius’s arms ache in remembrance of holding his firstborn son.
“Johan,” Appius said out loud. It was the same name he and Stella had once decided for Eric’s middle name—so that they could honor both of their fathers: Johan and John.
“Eric” had been chosen for “Erik Northman,” the first Northman who had come to America from Scotland. He and Stella had laughed one night after they’d made love in the early months of her pregnancy with Eric, wondering if “Erik Northman” had been of Viking heritage as Stella was. The name had—after that night—seemed perfect for their firstborn.
Erik Northman had been ambitious and ultimately very successful. He’d been known for his luck and for his enduring love for the young heiress he’d married a few years after making his own fortune in America. Yes—the name “Eric” had been perfect.
The child with the name had been even more perfect.
Appius shook himself and poured a full glass of scotch. The liquor, he knew, was a crutch for him now—a way to deaden feelings that he needed to numb in order to function.
And that crutch was now needed—more than it ever had been before. For the fourth time in his life, Appius felt truly out of control—almost separated from himself. Had the others not been around, he had no doubt that he would have tried to kill Eric again. But this time, he wouldn’t have stopped until the breath had been squeezed from his son’s body.
Eric’s very existence threatened to take all that Appius had ever worked for—all that he had left. Eric would take NP. Eric would take Appius’s hard-earned fortune. Eric would turn all of his siblings against Appius, and he would lose them too.
And Appius could do nothing to stop any of those things from happening. Now that the codicil was no longer secret, Eric had all the power. And that thought riddled into Appius’s head like buckshot.
Years of suffering because of Stella.
Years of toil because of Eric.
And worst of all, Eric had found a way to get everything that Appius had ever wanted—a wife who loved him and a son he’d never doubt was his own.
And now Eric would be taking his company!
A company which had been the only thing to keep Appius sane after Stella’s betrayal.
Appius smiled and downed another drink. Eric thought he’d won. He thought he would be happy. But Eric was wrong. Appius wouldn’t allow Eric to take anything more from him.
He would be the one doing the taking!
He pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“Are things arranged yet?” he asked gruffly.
“Yes,” Franklin Mott said. “Everything is ready for you, but . . . .”
Appius cut him off. “Just do what I pay you to do,” he growled, “and take care of the guard.”
“Understood,” Mott said, even as Appius hung up.
Appius used the intercom to call Sigebert, who was driving the limo. “How far?”
“We’ll be in East Hampton in ten minutes, Sir,” Sigebert responded.
“Good,” Appius said.
A seemingly permanent smile etched onto her face, Sookie tucked her newly-asleep infant into the regular crib he’d been sleeping in for the previous two days. He looked like a little burrito, swaddled in the orange blanket Claudine had given them. Her smile grew. She knew that Johan would—as soon as he woke up—begin to un-swaddle himself. Indira called him “the little Houdini,” and even the experienced nurse couldn’t tuck the infant in tight enough so that he didn’t un-tuck himself at the first opportunity.
In that way—as well as so many others—he took after his father. Eric always slept with his hands and feet outside of the blanket. Sookie used to think it was because he was so tall and the blankets simply didn’t fit his body, but now she knew better. She chuckled and looked down at their child. “At least you won’t be a blanket thief when you grow up and meet someone.”
“No,” Indira said from behind Sookie as she came in to check on the child, “that one will steal more hearts than covers—I think.”
Sookie smiled at the nurse who had taken such good care of Johan during the previous weeks. She seemed to always be around, and Sookie wondered if she slept sometimes. Other nurses popped in and out too—Chow being the one who looked after Johan the second most often. But Indira was certainly the one with whom they’d all grown closest. She felt like family.
“Yeah,” Sookie sighed, “he looks just like Eric, so we’ll have to beat off girls or boys—or maybe both—with a stick.”
Indira chuckled. “Indeed.” She looked down at the sleeping child. “I see you have wrapped him up tight.”
Sookie smiled. “Yeah—but it will probably take him only a minute to get out of his blanket once he wakes up.”
“Or less,” Indira grinned.
“Do you think we’ll really be able to take him home tomorrow?” Sookie asked hopefully.
“Yes,” Indira said confidently. “Unless something unforeseen happens.” She smiled reassuringly when Sookie suddenly looked worried. “And—just so you know—I don’t think anything unforeseen will happen. This little boy has been making strides since the moment he was born.” She winked. “I have taken care of a lot of premature babies in my time working with Dr. Ludwig, but I have never seen a little one more anxious to get caught up and out of here than Johan. He’s quite the stubborn one. And he’s a fighter.”
Sookie smiled proudly. “I know.”
Indira patted Sookie on the back and left the room. Sookie couldn’t help but to continue standing next to the crib and watching her son. When he slept, he was the definition of adorable. He looked so serene most of the time, but every once in a while, his little nose would crinkle as if he were dreaming, and then he would wiggle against the confines of his blanket before stilling again.
Thanks to Dr. Ludwig, she and Eric had been able to stay at the hospital nonstop since Johan had been born. Sookie could have been released only three days after his birth; however, the doctor let them stay in their “family room” in the neonatal ward as they waited for Johan to get strong enough to go home. In preparation for that, Eric had gone to Manhattan early that morning—though Sookie had seen him shed a tear when he left her and their son for the first time since Johan’s birth. Sookie knew that she would feel the same way when she had to leave Johan’s side for the first time.
Eric had spent the morning and early afternoon making sure that the nursery at home was done and ready for their child. He wasn’t quite finished with the playroom yet, but he’d called to tell her that Johan’s room was ready and that the co-sleeper they’d ordered so that they could keep their tiny boy with them in their room for a while was also put together and awaiting Johan’s arrival.
Sookie took several nervous breaths as she thought about Eric’s other reason for going to Manhattan—to confront Appius. As expected, the Northman patriarch hadn’t signed the new contract, but Eric held out hope that he might, especially since Russell, Niall, and Copley had all been there and had put pressure onto Appius.
It was nice to have allies.
Eric had called Sookie half an hour before to let her know that he and those allies had already planned their next move and that he was on his way back to the hospital. Felipe de Castro had been presented with the evidence that Appius was the father of Freyda’s child. And then he’d been told why Appius had done what he had done. As expected, Felipe was in a rage after that. But Russell convinced him not to hunt down Appius and kill him. Instead, Felipe was going to go to Freyda, and he was going to try to get her the help she needed.
Of course, Appius’s reaction had been just as expected as well. He’d said hurtful things to Eric and had stormed out of the club. Sookie shivered as she wondered what his next move would be.
She sighed, took a calming breath, and closed her eyes for a moment, refusing to let Appius’s reaction stress her out. She had much more important things to focus on, after all.
Up until about sixty hours before, Johan had spent much of his time in a special incubator, designed to keep his lungs from being overly-taxed. After the first few days, Dr. Ludwig had said that the incubator was just a precaution—because she didn’t want Johan to develop problems like asthma later on. In truth, Sookie and Eric hadn’t minded the doctor being overly cautious with their child—despite the fact that Johan himself seemed a little impatient with all of the fussing. In fact, he seemed more anxious that even Sookie and Eric to get home.
Johan was smaller than a full-term child—to be sure. But it had quickly become apparent that he had the heart of a survivor—and a stubborn one at that. At first, Dr. Ludwig had wanted to keep him in the incubator for a full 24 hours before they held him, but Johan seemed to be having none of that, and he managed to wiggle his way into the little doctor’s heart just as quickly as Eric had done.
Within 18 hours, he was out of his box and learning to nurse. It took him a few tries to fully catch on, but now he and Sookie were both pros at the process. However, the place Johan liked to be most was in Eric’s arms, specifically against his warm, bare chest. When Indira had suggested that Eric take his shirt off to hold Johan, Sookie’s initial reaction had been to wonder about the nurse’s motives. Indira had laughed and then explained that Johan would rest easier with Eric if there was skin on skin contact—as there was when Sookie nursed him.
So Eric had taken off his shirt and had lain next to Sookie in the wider than normal hospital bed that had been brought into the room for them. Indira had put Johan on Eric’s chest and then had covered him with a blanket, and the rest was—as they say—history. Sookie was almost jealous of the immediate bonding between father and son. Johan was a little wiggle worm on Sookie’s chest—at least when he wasn’t in a milk coma. But Sookie couldn’t blame her child; Eric’s arms had always been a resting place for her too—a sanctuary. She intuited that Johan felt safe there, just as she did.
So she would just cuddle up against Eric’s side while he held their son and enjoy the love coming from both of them. It really was a beautiful sight to behold when her two boys were together. The only word for it was “magic.”
She froze at the sound of the acidic voice coming from the doorway behind her.
A/N: [Ducking and cowering over here—as rotten cabbage is thrown my way.] I would apologize for the cliffhanger, but it was premeditated, so my apology would seem insincere. 😉
After the last chapter, many of you posited that Appius might sign the new contract—eventually—if only to give himself more time to plot. But, as I’ve written Appius, I have begun to see him as so tightly wound that he was literally hanging onto sanity by a flimsy thread. His mind is so shattered that it seems held together with scotch tape in there. Trust me when I say that writing him is weird for me—for a variety of reasons.
Did I make anyone cry for Appius? I know I did when I wrote him recalling the events around Stella’s death. When writing, I knew that this would be the moment that Appius “snapped.” He cannot fathom losing to Eric. His whole life has been built around destroying Eric because he couldn’t stop loving Stella—no matter how much he tried. In Appius’s twisted logic, he finds justification for all that he’s done. And he truly feels like the victim. Now—with Eric and his powerful allies ganging up on him—Appius finds himself in a corner than he cannot escape from. We’ve seen flashes of violence from him, but his ability to rationalize what he is doing is the scariest thing about writing him.
All I can say is “hang on to the cliff.” I’ll try to get you another chapter soon.