Chapter 31: The River Deep
“He’s using the contract to control you,” Sookie posited.
Eric nodded. “When I turn 55, however, I will have fulfilled my part of the deal, and—after that—I’ll be free of him.”
“And before then?” she asked. “I mean—can’t you get out of the contract?”
“You don’t want to know what he could do to me if I did,” he said ominously—dismally.
“So you’ll do what he wants,” Sookie observed.
“Could Appius break the contract?”
“Yes,” Eric responded. “Either one of us could break it, but the penalty would be ten billion dollars.”
“Which Appius could lose and still have more than ten billion to fall back on,” Sookie sighed, repeating Eric’s earlier words. “But you couldn’t pay that amount?”
Eric shook his head. “No—barely a fraction of it.” He sighed. “And—since I couldn’t pay the penalty—I’d be brought up on charges of theft, charges to which I would have to admit guilt.”
“But you’d be guilty of only breach of contract—not theft!”
“But I would have to admit to stealing from NP nonetheless,” Eric said flatly. “I would go to prison.”
“But you wouldn’t have stolen anything from NP,” Sookie said slowly, even as she tried to process what Eric was telling her.
“No—but I would be required to plead guilty to false charges all the same.”
Sookie shook her head. “But how could Appius make you do that?”
“He has many things held over my head,” Eric said, his tone dejected. “And—if I breached the contract—his punishment for me wouldn’t stop with my imprisonment.”
They were silent for a moment.
“Who would he hurt?” Sookie asked softly.
Eric closed his eyes tightly. “Your question should be ‘how many’?”
“A hundred and four,” he whispered.
“You made the contract with him hoping to protect those hundred and four,” Sookie stated with realization in her tone.
Eric nodded. “Mostly. It was only seventy-three people then, but yes.”
Again, there were a few minutes of silence between them as Sookie took in what he’d told her. She wanted to ask “who” again, but she realized she already knew who Appius would target: the people Eric cared about the most—his grandmother, his siblings, Bobby, the people that worked for him. She also realized that the “who” didn’t actually matter. The man sitting before her would have sacrificed himself for strangers.
After taking a large drink, she spoke, “But Appius could break the contract and pay you off if he chose.”
Eric nodded. “I wish he would, but he won’t willingly put me out of my misery.” He chuckled, but there was no mirth in the sound. “He does enjoy toying with my hopes, however.”
“What do you mean?”
“He wouldn’t even have to pay me off,” Eric chuckled ruefully. “He put an escape clause into the contract.”
“An escape clause?”
He nodded. “My thirty-fifth birthday—from midnight to 11:59 p.m. On that day, either one of us could dissolve the contract without owing the ten billion.”
Sookie bit her lip. “But if you broke it, he’d still . . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes,” Eric sighed, “there’s still a whole litany of punishments waiting for me if I break the contract by using the escape clause.”
“He knows you wouldn’t use it,” Sookie gasped, grasping why Appius would have such a thing added to the contract. “That means that the escape clause is there for one of three reasons,” she whispered.
“I’ve thought of three possibilities too,” Eric said smiling at her a little. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, and she immediately hated it.
She spoke quickly, as if she were ripping a Band-Aid off. “One—he’s going to evoke the ‘escape clause’ if he finds someone ‘better’ to be CEO.”
Eric nodded. “He’s always wanted Nora to take over, but she doesn’t want the job—never has. She’s not bad at her own job—as long as someone is there to oversee her—but running the whole company would be too much for her. Plus, she’s just too lazy to do it—truth be told. I respect the fact that she recognizes her own limitations.”
“But if she changes her mind, Appius could just take the position away from you without having to pay the ten billion,” Sookie commented.
“Yeah,” Eric said. “I used to be ambivalent about her changing her mind. I mean—I don’t think she’d run the company well, and I don’t want it to falter; too many people’s livelihoods are at stake. Plus—to be honest—part of me really wants to run NP—to see what I’m capable of,” he sighed,” or maybe just to prove to Appius that I can do it well.” He paused. “But lately, I’ve been hoping that Nora will decide she wants to be CEO.”
Sookie sniffled and nodded, knowing that her coming into Eric’s life had changed what he wanted for his future.
They were silent for a moment.
“The second possibility,” she said, biting her lip, “is that Appius never intended for you to be CEO at all and that he’s always been planning to use the ‘escape clause.'”
Eric nodded. “Yeah—that way he could string me along before yanking it away. After all, he could likely run NP for another twenty years without breaking a sweat. I’m not even sure why he’s contemplating retiring.” He shrugged. “Some nights I convince myself that he’s not planning to retire at all—that the contract is just an elaborate way for him to keep me miserable for a longer period of time.”
“And that part of you hopes that he’ll cut you loose.”
He nodded. “But—to be honest—I don’t think either of those two possibilities is why Appius put in the ‘escape clause.'”
“You think he put it there just to mess with your mind,” she observed.
“Yeah—he’d know that it’d give me some glimmer of hope that he’d break the contract.”
“And the best kind of torture is having hope ripped away,” Sookie said quietly—knowingly.
Eric nodded. “Appius knows that I wouldn’t use the ‘escape clause’,” he sighed. “It’s true that not having to admit to a bogus charge of theft would keep me out of a white-collar prison, but if that were the only thing that he was holding over my head . . . .”
“I know,” Sookie responded, squeezing his hand. “You’d take the prison sentence over being at your father’s mercy.”
“Gladly.” Eric’s lower lip quivered a little as he looked out toward the water.
“If he did break the contract—or use the ‘escape clause’ built into it—do you think Appius would cut you off from the company, as well as your brothers and sisters, completely?” she asked hesitantly.
He nodded. “He’d try. But if Appius was the one to break it, I’d retain the stock I already have in NP, and I’d get the trust fund. So he actually couldn’t force me to cut ties—not completely. Pam would likely stay in contact with me; she’s rebellious enough for that. And maybe my sister Gracie would too. Maybe even Alexei.”
“How much NP stock do you have?”
“Seven percent,” Eric answered. He ran his hand through his hair and looked back at her. “I inherited my shares of NP immediately upon my twenty-first birthday. They came directly from my paternal grandfather, who disapproved of the way Appius dealt with me. But seven percent is not enough to make me that influential on the Board of Directors.” He sighed. “And after my twenty-year term as CEO expires, the contract requires that I sell any remaining stock I have to my father or his appointee.”
“What will you do then?” Sookie asked. “You will have worked so many years for a company that you’ll just get cut out of,” she added as a tear drifted down her cheek.
He shrugged as he gently brushed her tear away. “I’ll live with that and count myself lucky if—once I’ve fulfilled my end of the contract—Appius no longer wants anything to do with me. Perhaps—by then—he will have even tired of causing me pain. Like I said, I wish he’d just leave me alone. If he broke the contract right now, I’d forfeit the ten billion dollar penalty, my trust fund, my stock—everything I have—in a heartbeat. Just to be free of him. Especially now.”
“But Appius won’t let you go—even though he seems to hate you.”
Eric nodded. “Because he hates me. He knows that being free is what I want, so that means that it’s the last thing Appius would allow.” He shook his head and sighed. “Appius is practical. I will be a good placeholder—you see. And—if I didn’t become CEO of NP—it would seem peculiar, and rumors might start.”
“And Appius doesn’t like scandals.”
“Precisely.” He sighed. “But it’s not all bad. I do want to run the company. And—since I’m to step down at 55—I’ll still be relatively young. I’ll be able to do what I want for the first time. And I certainly can’t begrudge my baby brother for being Appius’s preference to take over when I step down. Hell—I would have likely chosen A.J. as my successor anyway—contract or no—if that was what he wanted.”
“And if you have kids?” Sookie asked.
“I have to,” Eric responded quietly. “According to the contract, I have to have at least one child. And I’m pretty sure Appius will try to control him or her too.”
“But you won’t let him?” Sookie asked.
“No,” Eric replied firmly. “I’m going to,” he paused, “accept my children and let them lead whatever lives they choose, even if that doesn’t go along with Appius’s wishes.”
“But you don’t get to live the life you want,” she said sadly.
“No. I will not be able to have the life I want,” he responded softly, reaching his hand out to touch her cheek lightly before drawing it away. He closed his eyes. “My father’s vision for me is clear. By the time I’m thirty-five, I’m to begin studding more Northmans with someone my father deems appropriate. But my main function is to build up the Northman legacy for the son my father deems worthy—his child with Sophie-Anne.”
Sookie took a deep breath and shivered a little.
“I’m sorry,” Eric said, opening his eyes again. Sookie could see the guilt in them. “I shouldn’t make you—of all people—listen to me talk about my father’s marriage and breeding program for me.”
“It’s okay. I need to hear all this. I need to keep my eyes open to what’s going to come.”
“You can still change your mind,” Eric whispered, even as fear etched itself onto his handsome face.
“I know,” she said just as softly, “but I’m not going to, Eric. I’d rather have a year, a month, a week, or even just a day with you than have nothing.”
Eric felt hot tears enter the corners of his eyes. Before that day, he’d not cried since his mormor called him at boarding school to tell him that his morfar had died. And, even then, he’d waited until he was alone in his room. But with Sookie—in the safety of her presence—he’d already cried twice in just one day.
The two said nothing for a few moments, opting instead to gaze into each other’s eyes.
“I like having you here,” Eric finally said.
“I like being here,” she returned.
Eric smiled as Sookie looked out toward the Hudson again. His eyes followed hers and settled upon the water as well. The city was generally noisy, but from his home, he had always been able to concentrate on the tranquility of the water and the lights on the New Jersey side of the river.
He was surprised that he wasn’t surprised by how open he’d been with Sookie about his father and the contract. He’d not told her everything; after all, there was too much to tell for one sitting. But he had no doubt that he would tell her everything; with her he felt no reason to hide or to hold back. However, talking to her had made him feel both better and worse about the situation. He felt worse because he was reminded that he would one day hurt the one human being who seemed to fully “get” him. On the other hand, he felt better because she was still there with him; she’d not been scared away by the things he’d told her.
She’d not left him.
Eric squeezed Sookie’s hand lightly as they continued looking at the Hudson. He was glad that he and Sookie had decided to spend their first night together as an official couple in his home for several reasons. First and foremost, Amelia had texted Sookie while they were at the restaurant to tell her that she would be home that night, so the little private nest that they’d enjoyed in Brooklyn would be disappearing with the arrival of Sookie’s friend/housemate. Second, Eric was going to be working from home for much of the next few days and nights. He needed to finish up a deal with a Chinese publisher, Guangzhou Press; NP was set to print a substantial number of texts that had never been translated into English before, and he’d be on conference calls for the next few nights to finalize things.
To Eric’s great delight, Sookie had been able to take off the first three days of the week after sending a quick text to Sam Merlotte. Merlotte had been urging her to “play hooky” due to the glut of vacation days and sick days she’d accumulated since starting at Northman Publishing. She was also well-ahead of all of her deadlines.
The thought of having Sookie mostly to himself for several days left him tingling. The only times she planned to be away from him until Thursday were when she went to Brooklyn the next morning to get some clothes and when she met with Claudine on Tuesday evening. And he could busy himself with prepping for his phone meetings during those times.
He hardened slightly at the thought that Sookie wouldn’t be needing much in the way of clothing for the next few days if he had anything to say about it. His work with Guangzhou Press wouldn’t take up a lot of his time since he was already well-prepared for his meetings; in fact, he’d been to China two times during the previous three months to negotiate the main elements of the partnership; all that was left was the minutia.
Thus, he planned to enjoy Sookie over and over again.
But before he could do that, he knew that she had some things to speak to him about—questions given to her by Claudine―and knowing that Sookie was still fragile in many ways, he was determined to give her the chance to ask them before he pounced on her, though not pouncing was difficult, especially given how beautiful she looked as her eyes followed the boats moving smoothly over the dark water.
“Do you want another beer? And then you can ask your questions?” he asked, gesturing toward the notebook next to her.
“Okay,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Uh—can I use your bathroom?”
He smiled. “Of course.” He stood up, pulling her with him, before leading her into the house and then back through the gray area and into the foyer again. They walked to the other side of the elevator. “Here we are. I’ll just grab those beers for us.”
“Thanks,” Sookie smiled as she handed him her empty beer bottle when he reached to take it.
As she stepped into the guest bathroom, she let out a big exhalation.
“Oh my,” she said to herself, taking in the luxury around her. There were two sinks with matching mirrors over them, but the main thing she noticed about the bathroom was the tub/shower, which was unlike anything she’d ever used before. The tub was round and obviously a whirlpool. There was a circular track for a shower curtain to enclose the space if the bather opted to use the waterfall shower, but the curtains were currently tied back neatly. The space was decorated in white and a coppery shade of brown.
Sookie was glad to find that the toilet worked pretty much like any other she’d ever sat on and wondered briefly how Eric kept everything so spotless. She decided that he must have a maid as she used a pristine white towel to dry her hands.
She exited the bathroom and retraced her steps in the direction Eric had brought her. Once more in the field of gray, she heard noise coming from what had to be the kitchen, so she followed it and found Eric rummaging through the very large refrigerator to her right.
The kitchen carried on the gray color scheme of most of the other rooms she’d been in, but it was much lighter—almost blue-gray in hue. “Geez!” she exclaimed. “You have the biggest kitchen I’ve ever seen!”
He chuckled and brought a few items to the counter, closing the refrigerator door with his foot as he turned around.
“It mostly goes unused, I’m afraid, though Pam thought the size was necessary for parties.” He grinned. “You should see Mormor when she visits. I swear I gain ten pounds when she’s here. Even Pam can’t resist her pannkakor; those are like sweet pancakes.”
Sookie smiled. “Gran would have a field-day in here too. Heck! I could have a field-day!”
“Are you offering to cook for me, Miss Stackhouse?” Eric asked as he put together a plate with different cheeses and some crackers.
“If you’re lucky,” she smiled back.
“Oh I hope to be very lucky tonight,” he said naughtily.
Immediately, Sookie was blushing a bright red.
“You hungry—uh—for food?” she stammered as she gestured toward the plate he was putting together.
“Always,” he chuckled, still looking just as mischievous.
“How is it that you even have food here? You’ve been with me all week,” she said, trying to change the topic.
He winked at her. “Do you really want to know?” he asked, his eyebrow rising.
“Yeah,” she said with a grin of her own.
“As in Henry from downstairs?”
Eric nodded and chuckled. “His sister—actually. Thalia was looking for a little extra income since she doesn’t have a fulltime job. She comes here twice a week and cleans. She drops off and picks up my dry cleaning and does the grocery shopping too. I email her a list each week, but she sneaks in some healthy stuff too.” He smiled. “I think you’ll like her. She’s quite the badass, actually. Like Henry, she used to be in the Navy—until her husband, an NYPD cop, died in the line of duty.” He sighed and shook his head sadly. “Her husband was Blake’s partner; Blake introduced them—I think.” He exhaled deeply. “Thalia was deployed when her husband was shot; he was killed instantly. Talia’s kids moved in with Henry and Blake, and Thalia joined them as soon as she could.”
“That’s horrible!” Sookie cried, imagining how difficult losing her husband like that must have been for Thalia.
“Yeah,” Eric agreed. “Thankfully, she got a discharge from the Navy before her tour was up. She’s been living in the building for about two years and has been helping me out for most of them.”
“Do you know what she did in the Navy?”
“She was a transport pilot and a computer specialist.”
“And now she cleans your house?” Sookie asked incredulously.
Eric grinned and nodded. “She told me that she’s happy for the easy cash after serving in the Navy for almost ten years. Can’t say I blame her. And,” his eyes took on a playful glint, “she makes a hospital corner like nobody’s business!”
Sookie laughed and grabbed the beers while he picked up the plate of snacks that she knew he’d eat the lion’s share of.
“Plus, she mostly just wants something stress-free to do a couple of days a week to keep herself busy when her kids are at school. She also helps Henry out part-time with the security system in the building; occasionally, she does door duty in the tower when someone’s sick since Henry keeps even guard access to this part of the building limited to a small group. The core guards are Rasul and Tray as well as four others: Miranda, Jarod, Calvin, and Terry. All of them are ex-military, except for Jarod, who used to be a cop in Philadelphia before he moved to New York.”
Sookie openly the door to the balcony and led Eric back to their seats.
He continued, “Shortly after she started working for me, Thalia asked me to help her invest her husband’s pension and his life insurance money for their children. Not having to pay rent, she’s able to live off of what she makes from her part-time stuff and gets to spend a lot of time with her kids—both to make up for their father being gone and because she missed a lot of their early lives when she was deployed.”
“How old are her kids?” Sookie asked.
“Seven and ten now—if I remember right.”
As they settled back into their seats and enjoyed the still warm—but not too warm—June night, they snacked for a few minutes, content to enjoy the view in silence.
Finally, Sookie took hold of her courage and picked up her notebook. She tensed as she saw Eric tense. They both looked at each other and laughed a little as Eric set aside the now empty plate.
“Questions from my shrink got you nervous?” she quipped, even as she chewed on her own lip rather nervously.
“Absolutely,” he responded with a chuckle.
“Me too,” she admitted as her cheeks pinkened. “Some of them are—uh—things that Claudine says I have to ask even though I know they’ll—um—embarrass me.”
“Maybe—one day,” Eric said seriously, “you and I will have no reason to be embarrassed around each other.”
She looked at him, smiled, and nodded. “I hope so.”
“Though I will miss your blush,” he smiled back, causing that blush to deepen. He chuckled. “Okay—I’m ready. Hit me with the first question.”
“Well,” Sookie said, taking a deep breath, “most of these questions are things Claudine says we need to decide on as a couple.”
“Okay,” Eric said again.
“Okay,” she responded nervously. “The first questions relate to sex.”
He nodded, encouraging her to go ahead.
“I’m not on birth control right now,” she said biting her lip. “But I made an appointment with a GYN on Wednesday morning to get on the pill. But I got tested after—uh—Bill, and I’m clean. So—uh—I’m supposed to ask you about your sexual history now,” she continued fretfully as she bit her lip. “Not that I want all of your history. I just need to know your,” she looked down at the paper, “report card.”
“Report card?” he asked.
“That’s what Claudine called it,” she responded sheepishly.
Eric smiled a little. “I get tested every two months or so, and I’ve always used condoms. My latest test results were negative, and I haven’t been with anyone since then, but—to be sure—I’ll get another round done before we even think about not using condoms. By then, maybe the pill will be in effect for you?” he asked hopefully; he was biting his lip this time.
“What?” she asked as she saw the anticipative expression on his face.
“I’ve never had a monogamous relationship before, so I’ve never considered having sex without a condom,” he said, closing his eyes tightly before reopening them and getting lost in the river of her eyes. “But the thought of doing that with you is doing things to me,” he added gruffly.
“Oh,” Sookie sounded, turning even redder. “Well,” she said, trying to pull herself together, “I’ll get tested again too. Bill used condoms with me. But—uh—I don’t have any with me. I don’t carry them. Do you have some?”
“Okay,” Sookie said apprehensively, looking back down at her list of questions, “so we’ll use condoms until we’re both tested again and the pill is in full working mode.”
“Sounds good,” he said, leaning forward and taking her hand, only to notice that his own was shaking a little.
She closed her eyes and her forehead wrinkled with worry.
“What is it, Sookie?” he asked with obvious concern.
“The next question makes me more nervous than the others,” she almost whimpered.
“Would you like for me to read it?” he asked gently.
She nodded. “It’s number two on the list,” she managed.
Eric leaned forward and looked at the page. The question he saw there broke his heart a little. It read, “Will I be expected to leave after we have sex? Or—if it is at my house—will you leave after it is over?”
“Sookie,” he said gently, taking her chin in his hand so that she would have to look at him, “there might be nights when we are apart for a variety of reasons, but not after we have sex and not if I can help it at all. I want to sleep with you in my arms as much as I can—just as I have been doing this past week. Whether we have sex or not is immaterial. I want—I need—you with me.”
Immediately she looked relieved, even though her blush was back. “Okay—then. That works for me.”
“Okay then,” he answered with a smile. He brushed his fingers over her cheekbone. “What other questions do you have for me, Sookie?”
She took in a deep breath as she leaned into his touch. “Uh—who will know about us? Who will we tell?”
He took a breath and considered her question. “I would like to tell Pam and my mormor. Neither of them will say anything to my father. And Henry will soon guess how much you mean to me, but he’ll keep the other guards here from saying anything to anyone else.”
“You’re sure of that?”
Eric nodded. “I’ll get Bobby to run background checks on them, but Henry hires only people he knows well to guard the tower. I know that both Trey and Terry served tours with him. And Rasul was a Ranger and grew up in the same neighborhood as Trey. I think Calvin was Thalia’s drill instructor in basic training. And Miranda was in the Coast Guard and was a childhood friend of Blake’s. And Jarod is married to Miranda now. It’s a very close-knit group.”
Sookie giggled. “I’ll say.”
Eric relished in the sound of her laughter.
“I’d like to be able to tell Amelia and Gran,” she said, biting her lip again.
“What of your friend Lafayette?” Eric asked.
“He’s too big of a gossip, and he may have heard of you,” she smiled.
Eric chuckled. “Okay—so no telling the gossip.”
Sookie’s smile faded a little. “And—uh—do you want to tell Isabel?”
“She probably won’t need to know,” Eric answered carefully, “but if we eventually need to tell her, she’ll keep our secret. And—of course—Claudine will know.”
“And Thalia,” Sookie commented.
Eric chuckled. “Yes, Thalia will ferret out the information quickly.”
“And the people at the museum,” Sookie said.
“Ben will keep his crew in line,” Eric assured. “If any of them were interested in selling the story, I would have already been labeled a stalker in the tabloids.
She giggled. “Your courtship methods are a little strange, Northman.”
He chuckled. “What’s the next question, Stackhouse?”
She bit her lip. “That’s it. But now I’m supposed to ask if you have any questions for me,” she said nervously.
It seemed that a thousand questions went through Eric’s mind, for in that moment, Sookie Stackhouse intrigued him like no other, and he wanted to know everything about her.
Discovering the answers to those questions—every damned one of them—was something to look forward to.
But for right then, Eric settled on one question and prayed that he’d have enough time to ask all the others before their bubble burst.
“May I kiss you, Sookie?”
Unconsciously, she moistened her lips as she looked at him with big eyes. Midnight blue in the dim light—as deep as the river they’d been staring at earlier.
“Yes,” she answered in a raspy whisper.
He leaned in slowly—carefully—as if she might disappear if he didn’t.
But she didn’t disappear. Instead she leaned toward him.
A/N: Well—at least I got this one out a little sooner than the last. Thanks to those of you who are still choosing this story for alerts and favorite status. I really appreciate it! And special thanks to those of you who reviewed or commented on the last chapter! As always, your commentary is such a gift!
Up next: All I can say is that I’ve stocked up on lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits. I have the juicer and the zester out. And I’ve just turned off the hot water heater; it won’t be needed. 😉
Hopefully, the next one will be ready within the next few days.
(Note: The only reason why Sephrenia didn’t do banners for all of them is that I forgot to ask her to and she’s been dealing with health issues lately. When I know she’s feeling better, I’ll see if she’s up to making them. Meanwhile, you’ll have to settle for my swatches.)