Chapter 10: Why?
Eric sighed as he continued watching the object of his fascination. Appius didn’t care if Eric had any true affection for the person he married; in fact, it would likely satisfy his father more if Eric married someone who would make him miserable. That was likely why Appius was pushing that he marry Freyda de Castro, despite the fact that Eric had told him that the girl was obsessed and more than a little crazy.
Eric tried not to think about the irony that he was suddenly obsessed and a little crazy when it came to the woman he was watching. He shook his head. No—he thought—he was simply trying to protect NP. He almost believed his own lie.
To keep from dwelling on the fact that he was now officially a stalker—just like Freyda—he turned his thoughts to the beautiful brunette. When he’d first met her, Freyda de Castro had seemed like a run-of-the-mill spoiled socialite, and she’d been a tolerable fuck—certainly eager to please and be pleased, though a little on the bony side. A couple of weeks later, Eric had made a mistake in asking the girl to accompany him to a black-tie charity event; however, things had seemed normal that night too. They’d gone to the event, but had barely shared ten words with each other. After the party, they’d gone to Northman Tower for another bout of physical release. The only difference had been that Freyda asked that he take her to his home, instead of to the apartment at Northman Tower. But Eric never took women to his private residence. And he never would. It was his sanctuary, a place where he could be truly alone and at peace. At least most of the time, he could do what he wanted there, and he didn’t want a virtual stranger soiling that fact.
A month later, Freyda came by his office and asked if he’d return the favor by going to a charity event with her. He’d almost accepted. However, right before he did, he caught a flicker in her eye that he didn’t like. It was a look of calculation, so he decided that it would be best to cut ties with Freyda de Castro. In truth, though Freyda was beautiful, she bored him. She didn’t seem that interested in—or perhaps capable of—carrying on a conversation with him, even about the kinds of casual topics that the rich enjoyed. At the event they’d attended together, he was her arm-candy, and she was his—not an unusual situation for Eric. But to continue such an arrangement, he needed to at least “like” the individual a little.
For about a year, he’d enjoyed such a mutually-beneficial arrangement with Isabel Edgington—before she went to Paris to establish an arm of her father’s magazine in Europe. They’d been convenient dates for each other many times and convenient no-strings-attached sexual partners too. Whereas things were casual and interesting with Isabel, Eric had intuited that things had the potential to get complicated and messy with Freyda.
So Eric had ending things before that could happen—or so he’d thought. He’d been wrong.
What Bobby called “Freyda’s crazy” started with her calling him every week to see if they could attend this or that function together. Always honest about his intentions toward women, Eric had already made it clear to her that he didn’t wish to continue their arrangement, a fact which he reminded her of every time she called. However, the calls eventually became even more frequent, and when Eric would be seen with someone else, Freyda left jealous rants on his voice mail when he no longer answered her calls. Then she began stalking him. After that, Eric asked Bobby to investigate Freyda, and his friend found out that she had become obsessed with a married man a couple of years before, and it had taken a restraining order to get her to back off. Eric hoped it didn’t come to that for him.
Appius had only complicated matters with Freyda. Not long after she began following him, she came to the office again. Eric had told her—yet again—that she was not welcome in his life. He’d tried to be gentle about it—reminding her that he had been open about what he wanted and didn’t want from her right from the beginning. She’d laughed his reminders off, claiming that he just didn’t see their potential like she did—yet. When Eric informed her that he knew that she’d been following him and that he would call in the authorities if the stalking and the calls didn’t stop, she’d snapped and raged at him for breaking her heart and disrespecting their “love.” Eric had called security to escort her out of the building.
However, apparently Appius had been watching and listening to the encounter via the surveillance equipment he’d long-ago placed into Eric’s office, and he ordered the guards to deliver Freyda to him instead. Twenty minutes later, Eric had been ordered to Appius’s office where Freyda sat with a smug look on her face. Appius had told Eric that he should not only date Freyda but also marry her.
For once, Eric had denied his father outright. However, after that Appius had become Freyda’s advocate at every turn. The year before, she had been invited—unbeknownst to Eric, of course—to the annual Father’s Day brunch that Eric was required to attend at Appius’s estate. Eric had left immediately, much to his father’s disapproval. Following that incident, Freyda had seemed to lose interest, but then—out of the blue—she’d announced to the press that she and Eric were engaged. She even showed off a ring that Eric recognized as having belonged to Grace Northman, Eric’s grandmother!
Eric had immediately gone to see his father, demanding to know how Freyda had gotten the ring. Appius had said that he’d taken matters for Eric’s future into his own hands and that Freyda had been “decided upon.” Apparently, Appius had given her the family ring and told her to announce the engagement. He ordered Eric to go along with it.
However, Eric had not obeyed. Instead, he went to the press and denied the engagement, playing them some of the rambling calls that Freyda had made to him earlier in the year. He also explained that she had stalked him and gave the press some evidence that Bobby had gathered as proof.
Needless to say, both Appius and Freyda had been enraged. But Eric stood firm. He made it clear that if Freyda contacted him again, the press would get even more recordings of her calls to him—ones that made her look even more deranged. He also said that he would call the authorities and leak information about her past stalker behavior too.
Appius’s reaction had been to audit Eric’s department and to create a whole load of unnecessary nightmares for Eric at work. But—for the first time—Eric didn’t cave to his father’s pressure.
Eric sighed as he focused once more on the woman that seemed to be pulling him to her. “Sookie,” he whispered to himself, even as he knew that he’d never have her.
Eric had reconciled himself to the fact that he’d have to choose a certain kind of woman to marry—someone from the upper-crust of society. But he knew that he could do better than Freyda de Castro.
Hell—even Nora would be better than her! At least, with Nora, he could make an arrangement. Hell—to marry Nora, he wouldn’t even have to sleep with her or even live with her! Although Eric was something of a “playboy,” Nora was even more promiscuous. And she was also into some kinky shit that Eric was not. Thus, she would definitely want her freedom. They could have a “public” marriage and go to events together, while they maintained whatever “personal” lives they wanted. Other marriages in their world operated similarly. Plus, Nora would get the Northman name, which would make Appius happy. Moreover, Nora was unable to have children due to the injuries she’d gotten in the same car accident that had killed her mother. So they would have to adopt children to carry on the Northman name.
Several times, Eric had almost approached Nora about making such an arrangement; however, one thing had stopped him. Eric couldn’t imagine that Nora would want much to do with raising children, so he had decided against her as a choice. He needed a woman who could love his children since he could not.
In truth, Eric was hoping for a little bit better than Freyda or Nora in a marriage. However, he didn’t have any lofty notions that he would find great love or anything; he didn’t even want that. He knew that the cards he’d been dealt didn’t have a happy ending in store for him.
When he was younger, he used to stare at a picture of his mother and his father for hours. All the pictures of Stella and Appius had been taken down in his father’s home, but there was one at Mormor and Morfar’s home in Sweden. It was from their wedding day. Stella was dressed in a beautiful, full gown, her blue eyes radiant. Appius was smiling at her with absolute devotion in his eyes. They looked happy—in love. But Eric had come to understand that what he saw in the picture had led to only pain and destruction.
No. Eric was not hoping for love; in fact, he was pretty sure that love didn’t truly exist. He was, however, hoping for a certain level of understanding with the woman he married.
Hell—someone like Isabel Edgington would be ideal. They got along well. They were able to talk about books and art and politics. They had similar ambitions, and both of them prioritized work over their personal lives, though he intuited that she would make a good mother. She was an excellent lover too—one of the best he’d ever enjoyed. If she wanted, they could produce children the old-fashioned way and live a comfortable life together. Truth be told, Isabel and he had already discussed the idea of marriage, and they’d agreed that if they were both still single when Eric was approaching his deadline for marriage, they’d revisit the idea and—perhaps—come to an arrangement. However, that was still four years away, and both Isabel and he were enjoying their freedom at the moment.
In four years, however, Isabel would be almost forty, and she had told him that she’d likely be ready to settle down and have children by then. In truth, a big part of Eric was counting on Isabel to eventually marry him. It would save him a lot of hassle in finding someone else tolerable. And there was no way that Appius could deny Isabel Edgington. Other than Appius himself, Russell Edgington, Isabel’s father, had more influence and money than anyone in New York.
As Eric looked at Sookie, whose last name he’d discovered was Stackhouse, he couldn’t help but to envy people who were able to live a “warmer” life. The night before, her skin had felt so cool to his touch, but it had warmed him all the same. She had made his heart lunge instead of just beat in its usual metronomical way. And with one kiss, she had toppled his world from its atlas. And since that kiss, she had inadvertently caused all kinds of unrealistic notions to pass through his mind—despite the fact that he had now reconciled himself to the idea that she was likely involved in de Castro’s machinations. In fact, Bobby was already on the job—looking for a connection between Sookie and de Castro.
Eric couldn’t help but to find it ironic that Nora had been the person who pointed out Sookie to him. Nora had called the young woman “odd.” But that wasn’t the right word for Sookie Stackhouse, at least not in its usual connotation. More appropriate adjectives were perplexing and inexplicable—astonishing even.
And when he had finally looked at her the night before, she was looking right back at him—as if she’d been waiting for him to do it. Too quickly, she’d turned her direct vision somewhere else, but he had known that she was still watching him.
She had been watching for something specific, but he hadn’t understood what that was until five hours into his sleepless night. It had struck him like lightning as he’d been looking out into the night from his balcony. She had been looking for confirmation of something. And she’d found it—in him.
Confirmation of what—he was not sure.
After his unpleasant conversation with Freyda, Eric had looked once more for the mysterious blonde, but she’d left the room by then. However, unlike the year before, he’d found her again quickly, and he’d watched her for several minutes, making sure that she didn’t see him. He had to hand it to her; she was very good at moving through a room unnoticed. He hadn’t seen anyone else looking at her as she sipped on her cocktail—a fact which he’d not been able to comprehend. After all, he had been so damned captivated by her that he had stealthily observed her from across a gallery—for fuck’s sake!
And now all he could do was ask one question. Why? Why had he been so enthralled from the first moment he locked eyes with her. And—even before that—why had he been so fucking entranced by her golden hair that he’d dreamed of it for a year? Why?
Eric tried to think rationally. When he’d first looked at her, Sookie had struck him as lovely, but she had certainly not been the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—at least not in a conventional sense. However, her blues eyes had attracted him to her, both because of their vibrancy and because of the obvious interest with which she had been looking at him. Her blond hair—still enticing to him—was longer than it had been the year before, several inches past her shoulders, and it had a natural, soft wave to it. He figured that she was about 5’6”, almost a foot shorter than him, but certainly not short—average for a woman. And her heels made her closer to 5’8” or 5’9”. She looked fit, not as skinny as the stick figures that made up the majority of the women at the party, but certainly not fat.
Like the brat that she was, Nora liked to tease Pam that she was a size 4 to Nora’s size 0. Sookie looked to be a little bigger than Pam. That meant that most of the women at the party would have considered her to be “big,” but Eric’s own preference was not to feel a woman’s bones poking back when he touched her hips, and his hands already longed to touch Sookie’s hips—preferably while they were naked.
Still, despite the curves of her body—or maybe because of them—Sookie didn’t stand out, and her outfit for the party was certainly not meant to draw much attention—unlike most of the women’s garments, which likely needed double-sided tape to be held into place. Sookie’s dress was black and appropriate for the occasion, though a little conservative. It didn’t hide the curves that were under it, but it didn’t emphasize them either. The only thing that made the outfit noticeable at all was a light red scarf tied around her neck, but even that was not really meant to draw attention, nor did it.
As he had watched Sookie from across the gallery, Eric could tell that she was trying to convince herself to do something; he could almost see the wheels turning in her mind. Her internal pep talk seemed to have worked, and Eric could make out resolution in her profile as she began to slowly move through the room. She walked gracefully, though somewhat warily: a gazelle.
Eric had followed the path of Sookie’s eyes to Sam Merlotte and Pam, who were having a discussion that seemed to be pretty serious. When he looked back at Sookie, she had stopped and was staring at Merlotte and Pam. Immediately, Eric was able to discern why Sookie might make some people uncomfortable with that stare. Her eyes seemed locked in on her targets—as if she were trying to figure out everything about them using one unblinking gaze. He glanced back at Pam and Merlotte and was glad that they hadn’t noticed her.
After a couple of minutes, Sookie had abruptly turned away and had gone as if in retreat-mode back into Gallery 819. Eric had followed and then watched for a while longer before approaching her. And then—within a matter of twenty minutes—she had set his world ablaze, burning down every defense that he had ever constructed so that he wouldn’t be forced to feel anything too strongly.
He hated to feel, but with her so near, he could do nothing else.
He truly had been shocked speechless by the effect that their kiss had had on him. What had shocked him even more, however, was the effect that her words in the elevator had had on him. It wasn’t what she’d said. He was, of course, pissed off that Felipe de Castro was trying to hurt NP, both by getting hold of enough stock to affect its value and by trying to undermine the business from within. However, what had shocked him most had been his reaction to Sookie.
He’d placed his hands on her aggressively. He hadn’t struck her; he would never strike a woman, but he’d taken her shoulders firmly and had even shaken her at one point. Now—as he remembered the look in her eyes—he was the one shaken. Shaken to the core. Hers had been a look of resignation, acceptance even. She had accepted that he was going to hurt her, and she was going to let him. And in that moment, he’d hated himself.
As soon as Eric had realized why he had reacted so strongly, he’d let go of her and backed away. His reaction had come because he felt his heart twist at the thought of her betraying him. He’d only met her that night—had spent less than twenty minutes with her all told—but he realized already that she had the ability to hurt him worse than anyone else.
Eric didn’t know how he knew that, but he did know it.
After he’d left her in the elevator, Eric had been relieved not to see Victor or Felipe still in the hall. He’d gone into an empty gallery and texted Bobby immediately, so that he could begin investigating the information Eric had been told about. After that, he’d found his father and told him about de Castro and Madden’s plotting.
To say that Appius had been angry was an understatement. If Sookie’s information was correct, de Castro’s spies were extremely well-placed. John Quinn was the head of security for the whole building and had access to every camera and audio feed at Northman Tower—the exception being the ones in Appius’s office, for Appius could turn off his own surveillance feed whenever he wanted.
In many ways, however, the naming of Sandy was a bigger blow to his father. The only person named “Sandy” at NP was Sandy Seacrest, who had been his father’s personal assistant for five years. In fact, ironically, Appius had “stolen” her from de Castro and had enjoyed lording that fact over his business rival. However, it now looked as if Sandy’s loyalties were back with Felipe—that is, if they’d ever belonged to Appius in the first place. Especially because of her history, Appius wouldn’t have trusted Sandy with his deepest secrets, but he obviously felt betrayed nonetheless.
And—of course—as expected, Appius had immediately blamed Eric for the whole goddamned situation. Had Eric not rejected Freyda, Appius had seethed, Felipe would have never tried to interfere with NP. However, Eric knew better. Felipe had been looking for a reason to fuck with Northman Publishing ever since Stan Davis had influenced the Senate to give a lucrative government contract to NP over Vegas Publishing.
Luckily, however, Appius hadn’t asked Eric how he knew about de Castro. Eric knew that that would come later—after Appius’s rage had settled down. But Eric was determined not to bring Sookie’s name into it. Even if she was de Castro’s spy, his inherent urge to protect her had already won out over family loyalty in Eric’s mind.
After the party, Eric hadn’t found a nameless girl to fuck. Instead, he’d gone to Pam’s house, had a few drinks, and managed to get his sister to talk about the woman she referred to as Susanna Stackhouse. Just as Nora had reported, Sookie’s mere presence—apparently—had managed to turn the copy editing department onto its head, and not in any kind of good way. Pam confirmed that the disruption had nothing to do with the girl’s work. By all accounts, Susanna did her work beautifully. No—the problems in Pam’s department seemed to stem from jealousy. If anything, the girl was too efficient—too quick. And she’d not picked up any of the other copy editors’ hints to slow down either. The girl was also standoffish; Pam called her skittish and antisocial.
According to Pam, the “odd” girl spoke to her clients and even to Sam mostly through emails, in which she was—Pam admitted—extremely articulate. But Susanna was not one to socialize or even give a polite nod in greeting. So the others apparently gossiped about her “strangeness.” And it seemed that the gossip centered on Susanna’s propensity to stare at the world around her a little too long and a little too hard. Eric learned that Pam just wanted to fire Susanna and be done with the drama; however, Merlotte had come up with the idea of moving her to a new office.
Eric watched Susanna/Susan/Sookie as she finished her pastry and took a drink of her coffee. A small smile moved to her lips, and Eric felt a similar one reach his before he shook his head and let a frown replace it.
The fact that Sookie had no consistent name would send up a red flag for anyone. Was she a spy for de Castro? Did she tell Eric about Felipe and Victor because she had a moment of guilt after the kiss—the fucking magnificent kiss—they’d shared? Or maybe in approaching her, Eric had caused the skittish girl to think she’d been caught, which had then elicited her elevator confession.
The more he thought about it, the more things that Eric saw about Sookie that seemed to scream that she was—indeed—a spy. She was clearly uneasy around others. She studied people carefully as if she were recording the information. Even at that very moment, she was watching people—the family that Eric had been watching earlier as a matter of fact. He positioned himself so that he could see her profile better. She was watching the family with something akin to longing in her eyes. Then she closed her eyes, and her smile came back, a beautiful soft smile.
Eric would have done anything to know what was in her mind at that moment. When Sookie opened her eyes, she set her cup down and then looked at her empty hand. It was the same hand he’d held the night before, and the memory of her soft palm pressed against his made more than just his dick stir.
The family disappeared into the museum right after 9:30, but Sookie clearly wasn’t in a hurry. Instead, she finished her coffee at a leisurely pace before throwing her trash away. Her bag with the other two pastries in hand, Sookie walked up the stairs and then into the MET.
Eric followed, but kept his distance. He saw her hand the bag to one of the guards, and there was a brief conversation between them. As Eric passed through the guard station about a minute after Sookie left it, he saw that she had given the two guards the pastries.
Finding humor in the thought that Sookie had likely just “bribed” the guards into giving her free entry, Eric walked to the front desk to pay for his own admission. Her actions were “nefarious” indeed.
Eric had already lost sight of Sookie, who had disappeared into the museum, and he knew that there was no way he could find her in the giant labyrinth of the MET unless he was very lucky. So after paying, he gave his name to the attendant at the desk and told her that he needed to see the chief of security as soon as possible.
The Northmans were well-known as generous benefactors to the MET. Hell—ten of the most popular galleries in the MET were the “Northman Galleries.” And many of the pieces in those galleries had been donated by John Northman, Eric’s paternal grandfather, who had been a visionary when it came to art collecting. Hell—almost all of the Matisse paintings in one of the MET’s current exhibitions were on loan from Appius’s private collection.
There were cameras all over the museum too, and Eric was determined to spy on the young woman who was most likely spying on him and NP. However, a single question continued to nag him. Why?
Why was he so interested in her? Why did his heart beat more wildly anytime he was close to her? Why did he want to shield her—even if she was trying to hurt him? Why was he so goddamned scared of her?
A/N: Thanks for reading, and I hope that you will tell me what you think.