As Eric watched Sookie, he quickly realized that her eyes were sharp, and she kept herself well-aware of her surroundings, so—even from across the wide avenue—avoiding her gaze was difficult, especially since he wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. Even though he was wearing clothing that helped him to blend in and a dark gray skull cap, which hid his blond hair, at 6’4”, Eric stood out from a crowd. Once Sookie settled onto one of the steps of the MET and began to eat, however, she focused more on the people near her, so Eric was able to cross the street and get closer.
Plus, Eric was well-versed in the practice of being unseen when he wanted to be, so he did what he did best. He kept to the shadows and studied the woman who had so captivated him. He needed to find out what made her tick. He needed to find out how she could hurt him. He needed to find out why he wanted to trust her.
Only three people in the world had his trust—and they only had it to a certain extent.
The first was his grandmother—Mormor. Elsa Larsson was his mother’s mother. As a child, Eric had spent his summers with her and his morfar, who had died of cancer when Eric was seventeen. Eric still visited his mormor each summer, and he loved her—as much as he dared to love anyone. He knew that he held back when it came to giving and receiving affection, but he’d learned long ago that holding back was the safest way to operate in the world—for the benefit of both himself and, especially, those around him. Despite this, however, Mormor had always been kind to him, and he would do anything to make sure that she was taken care of.
The second person he trusted—at least to an extent—was his sister, Pam. Pam was the only one of his siblings who shared both parents with him. She and Nora were the same age and had grown up together as “real” siblings, while Eric had been in boarding school most of the time. However, Pam had always spent two weeks of each summer in Sweden too. And the siblings had become closer there. She didn’t know much about Eric’s relationship with Appius; truth be told, Eric got the idea that she didn’t want to know. She loved their father, and Appius clearly loved her, so Eric kept many things from Pam because he didn’t want to lose her friendship. But—despite his reluctance to share certain things with her—he and Pam were becoming closer all the time. Pam had actually approached him with the idea that they live in the same building, so they’d bought homes a just floor apart in one of Copley Carmichael’s newer high-rises on the Upper West Side near the Hudson. Hell—he’d even trusted Pam with decorating some of his home when they’d moved into their building the year before.
However, the person that Eric probably trusted the most in the world was Bobby Burnham. He’d known Bobby from the time that he was six and Bobby was ten. Bobby had been the son of Godric Burnham, who was the headmaster at the first boarding school Eric had been sent to. In truth, Bobby was more of a sibling to Eric than any of his own were, and in many ways, the Burnhams had been his family more than the Northmans. But it was also true that Eric held back in that friendship too.
In fact, for the last few years, Eric’s relationship with Bobby had been as much about business as it was personal. Again—Eric understood that there was more “safety” in that kind of arrangement. Thus—despite any protests that Bobby made—Eric insisted upon paying his friend for any work he did for him. Bobby was a lawyer by trade—and a good one—but Eric was his only “official” client. Bobby had received a rather sizeable inheritance when Godric died and didn’t need to have his own law practice. Hell—he probably didn’t need to work at all.
However, Bobby still made plenty of money. In addition to working for Eric, Bobby did freelance work for the police and the FBI and sometimes even for the more “legitimate” facets of the mob—the ones that the FEDS were happy to “work with through channels” so that the overall peace was kept. Bobby was one of those “channels.” To tell the truth, Eric didn’t ask questions about the things that Bobby did; plus, he knew that Bobby couldn’t answer them anyway.
Despite over a quarter of a century of something akin to brotherhood, there were many things that Eric kept from Bobby about Appius. By necessity, Bobby knew more than anyone else; however, Eric was wary about letting anyone too close.
At a very young age, he had learned that those who were too close to him tended to die or to be taken away. And—irrational or not—Eric truly believed that if he allowed himself to love anyone, then that person would be damaged in some way because of his love. Too many people who had cared for him had suffered from prolonged illnesses for Eric to think otherwise; after all, his mother and both of his grandfathers had died after long battles with cancer. A large part of Eric didn’t believe that was coincidence; he believed it was because those people had come to care for him too much. Others had abandoned Eric or withheld their affection from him long before he could infect them with whatever plague he carried inside. He could not blame them for wanting to keep their distance. And for those who didn’t abandon him—Eric held himself back, hoping to protect them.
Eric closed his eyes. The first person to be taken from him had been his mother—someone whom he could hardly remember. Stella Larsson-Northman had—by all accounts—been the darling of the upper echelon of New York society. She’d been tall and modelesque, setting fashion and social trends for the rest of her class. Even as she was being eaten up with breast cancer just two years after Pam was born, it was said that she was still the picture of poise and grace. And she was throwing parties and attending events until almost the end, according to his paternal grandmother, Grace Northman. And that was saying a lot, given the fact that Grace very rarely praised anyone, except for her son, Appius.
Eric’s first stepmother was Appius’s age and brought with her a stepsister for Pam and Eric—Nora. Nora was officially still a Gainesborough, just like her biological father, but Appius Northman had immediately preferred her to his other children. Hell—she even looked more like him because of her dark hair and eyes. Pam and especially Eric had taken after their mother with their Nordic looks.
Nora’s mother, Beth Mellon-Gainesborough, had been a widow and was quite rich in her own right. Together, they had Alexei, who was the very definition of a wild child. Appius now preferred for Alexei to stay in Europe, where he had a “handler” who kept him out of serious trouble. When others asked, Appius liked to say that Alexei was “sewing his wild oats as a young man should.” But the truth was that Appius was embarrassed by Alexei.
Though it was not a love match, Appius stayed married to Beth because of Nora. However, Eric knew that his father was not terribly upset when his second wife died in a car accident in Vail. He’d been more upset that Nora had been injured in the accident.
Beth Gainesborough-Northman had served her purpose, adding to his Appius Northman’s coffers and his notoriety. And she’d also given him Nora, but there were no illusions of love between the two of them.
In fact, women were not really his father’s preference; however, that information was not acknowledged publically. Appius’s fourth wife, Sophie-Anne was the perfect choice for what most people would call a “beard.” Sophie-Anne was from a wealthy New York family, the Leclerqs. She preferred women, but she had also wanted to be wife to a power-player in Manhattan. And she was a master socialite, particularly good at party throwing. Plus, she loved being the center of attention—whether it be at a charity event she was hosting or at the opera. Despite her sexual preferences, Sophie-Anne had wanted children, and she’d already given Appius a son, Appius Junior, a child whom his father had felt was worthy of his own name.
Appius enjoyed letting Eric know that he was thankful every day that he’d not given his first son his name. Appius made it clear that he didn’t feel that Eric merited such a moniker. His father had also made it clear to Eric that even after he took over as CEO in a few years, he would be running Northman Publishing only until Appius Junior was ready to run the company.
Eric couldn’t really complain, however. He already knew that he would become CEO when he turned 35, and he was looking forward to running NP as he wanted to. Moreover, he was not ambitious in the same way that Appius was. He didn’t seek power for its own sake. Most of the time, Eric was not even certain what “power” was, and he’d certainly never felt “powerful.”
Despite all of this, however, Eric was a good businessman—excellent, in fact. Most of the people he worked with would call him a “natural.” From his grandfathers, he’d inherited a mind well-suited for constructing deals that benefitted all parties involved. While Appius did business by sheer force of will and sometimes intimidation, Eric drew clients to him using reason and mutual respect.
Appius, of course, hated everything about the way Eric operated his division of the company—except for, perhaps, the profits.
Business had not been Eric’s first choice for his life, but it hadn’t been a choice he’d hated either. When he was younger, he’d been more drawn to architecture and to building things, but he’d settled for constructing deals instead of skyscrapers.
Of course, Eric had never had much say in his own life’s plans. He’d been told that he would go to Harvard Business School, so he had gone. He’d been told that he would marry before he turned 35, so he would marry—though he was still determined to choose who and exactly when he married, even though there were restrictions about the choice he could make. He’d been told that he would have children to carry on the Northman name, so he would, even though Eric was not too keen on having children. The prospect of raising them in his world made him physically ill.
It wasn’t even that Eric didn’t like kids; as a matter of fact, he did. Though he didn’t dare love them, he liked all of his siblings very much, except for—perhaps—Nora, whom he still tried to get along with. However, he was afraid to be a father. He wasn’t sure how to be one, and he never wanted a child of his to feel as insignificant or unworthy as Appius had made him feel. Plus, he was worried that he would pass along whatever it had been which had caused his mother to die and his father to despise him. When Eric was only six, his father had told him that the cancer which killed his mother had first entered her body when she was pregnant with Eric. And though his mother had received treatment after Eric had been born, which had kept the sickness at bay for several more years, it had eventually come back to infect her again and then kill her. In effect, Appius had told the child that he was the reason his mother had died, and the little boy had—of course—believed him and internalized the blame.
As an adult, Eric knew that he should question the veracity of the notion that he had been the cause of his mother’s cancer, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do that. After all, even his mormor had confirmed when the diagnosis had taken place: during the seventh month of Stella’s pregnancy. She had waited until Eric was born—carrying him to full term—before she even thought about receiving treatment. Eric knew that Mormor had told him this story so that he would know just how much his mother had loved him, but it made Eric feel even guiltier. Even though Stella had gone into remission and had even had another child, Eric couldn’t help but to wonder if he was the cause of her sickness and her eventual death—just as Appius had told him so many times over the years. Eric couldn’t help but to wonder if he was the cancer.
Indeed, Eric worried that there was something inside of him that was rotten or defective, which was why he was leaning toward adopting any children that he had, rather than fathering them himself. Luckily, even though Appius required that Eric have children, he didn’t seem to care how they were produced, for Appius knew that Eric’s children would not be in line to inherit NP since Eric himself was not in line to inherit Appius’s stock in the company. Eric was actually grateful that NP would pass to Appius, Jr. one day. Eric was determined to give his children at least one thing that Appius had never given him when he was a child: the ability to choose. Even though he would be too afraid to give them his love, Eric would give them the opportunity to be what they wanted to be. And he was determined to pick a wife who could lavish the children with the love he couldn’t give.
Eric sighed as he looked at a family near Sookie. Two little girls were playing on the steps of the MET as a mother and a father watched over them. The couple’s hands were gripped tightly together, and they were speaking to each other quietly, even as their eyes stayed mostly on their girls. Even from the distance he was at, Eric could see the love flowing between the members of the family.
Eric imagined himself in such a scene. The woman he would be sitting next to wouldn’t matter in some ways; Eric hoped that she would be someone who would make a good friend and mother to his children. He couldn’t imagine speaking to her intimately or holding her hand as the couple he was looking at were doing. But he hoped that the children would still be running around with smiles on their faces. Yes—he hoped that very much. But most of all, he hoped that they would never become aware that he couldn’t truly love them. He would be able to show them his pride. And he would offer them unconditional support and encouragement in their pursuits. He would give them his time and his attention. But he didn’t want to risk damaging a child with his love.
Eric closed his eyes for moment, and suddenly he felt warm—despite the January cold. The woman in his imagination took on the form of Sookie, and in his mind, she took his hand as well, and then she leaned her body into his. The children, faceless before then, looked back at him with Sookie’s eyes and light shining from them.
He recoiled and opened his eyes, instinctively flexing his hand and finding it empty.
Eric refocused. He would begin running NP when he was 35, and he would marry someone appropriate before then—someone who could not pull feelings from him. Someone safe. He took a deep breath. He would turn 31 in February. Thus, he had almost four years to do as he wished. And then he would live the life his father wished. Perhaps, Appius would even hate him a little less if he did. And, when Appius Jr. was ready, Eric would simply step away—just as was expected of him.
“Yes,” he said to himself. “That is your life.”
All that Appius demanded of Eric was that he continue building the company and increasing Appius, Jr.’s legacy, and—despite Eric’s original preference for doing something else—he had thrived on his work. He’d been better at it than he thought he would be, and he liked it more than he thought he would. Plus, there were now so many people counting on him—so many jobs that he was responsible for protecting.
And when he had a family, he would protect them too. He just hoped that he could find a good wife who could settle for what he had to give. In many ways, he envied his father’s ability to find wives who were perfectly suited to his needs.
Eric sighed. In addition to providing Appius with an heir he could be proud of, Sophie-Anne had also been the perfect choice in a wife for him because she came with Andre, her older brother. In fact, Andre was Appius’s real bed partner most nights. Officially, Andre had a room down the hall from Appius’s, but that room was only used enough to supposedly fool the staff and some of the family. But Eric was good at observing things, and he knew that the real “marriage” in the Northman mansion belonged to Appius and Andre. Pam also knew, given the fact that she had been Sophie-Anne’s lover at one point—with Appius’s prior knowledge and approval, of course.
Yes—Eric thought to himself—when it came to fucked up families, his was at the top of the list, especially given the fact that his father had tried to push for him to marry Nora—his own stepsister—just two years before. Eric shuddered a little, remembering how Appius had called him into his office and presented the idea to him.
Eric had sensed for a while that Nora was interested in him, but she was his stepsister! And Eric had always viewed her as a sibling, despite the fact that Nora had been coming on to him for years. Even though they’d never spent much time together as kids, Eric had still felt ill when he thought of his own stepsister as a potential lover. Still—he’d cowed to Appius. He’d taken Nora out a few times, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do anything physical with her.
However, that changed one night when Nora endeavored to get Eric drunk—very drunk. And then she’d tried to seduce him. The encounter had been a study in awkward agony for Eric. Even drunk, it had felt wrong to kiss and to touch Nora. And before the “act” could even get started, Eric’s body had rebelled and had simply stopped functioning, no matter how much Nora had tried to stroke him and suck him to get him hard.
He’d been grateful for his inability to perform and had been disgusted by what he had done with his stepsister as soon as he’d sobered up—which was several days later.
The only redeeming consequence of that night had been that Nora finally decided that Eric was not up to snuff—not worth her pursuit. He’d never thought he’d be glad that he couldn’t get it up, but his limp cock had done him a great favor.
Thankfully, Appius had dropped the matter once Nora lost interest in Eric. Truth be told, Appius was probably happy that the match hadn’t worked out. Eric couldn’t imagine that his father would truly be happy about his most treasured “daughter” marrying his most hated son.
The truth was that Eric had been merely another of Nora’s relationships with somewhat taboo men; be they older, married, underage or her own stepbrother, Nora had a penchant for the forbidden.
Eric figured that the only reason why Appius had allowed Nora to pursue the match at all—beyond her whim to “have” Eric—had been his desire for his stepdaughter to be a “Northman” officially. Many years before—while Beth was still alive—Appius had made a push to officially adopt Nora, but the Gainesborough family had shown their “displeasure” at the notion. So Appius had stopped his attempt. However, Eric knew that his father still wished that Nora carried his last name. If nothing else, a marriage to Eric could have made that happen.
Eric sighed as he let himself focus on Sookie. Compared to his world, she seemed like pure light. The sunlight was bouncing off of her golden hair, making it even more beautiful than he’d thought possible. And she looked like an angel as she watched the people around her and ate her breakfast.
He knew that he shouldn’t be thinking about her like that—or thinking about her at all. He knew that someone so radiant was too good for someone like him.
“I could offer you nothing but misery,” he whispered to himself.
Appius required that Eric marry into a family of “substance,” and given the condition of Sookie’s coat, which hardly seemed thick enough to keep the cold away, Sookie didn’t have much money at all. Seeing her shiver, Eric’s impulse was to go to her and wrap her up in his arms, but he shook that notion from his head.
“I could offer you nothing but misery,” he repeated.
A/N: Below, you will find a “family tree” that I have constructed for Appius, his wives, and his kids so that you can keep it all straight. 😉