Chapter 43: I Struggle to Swim, Part 3
“But their marriage was open,” Sookie said. “Appius had affairs.”
“I think it was the secrecy of my mother’s affair that enraged him. Or maybe it was the fact that she told Peder that she still loved him in the letter. Or maybe it was the fact that Appius still loved Peder. I don’t know. What I do know is that my father was certain that Peder was my father. And the doctor was there to draw blood so that a DNA test could be performed.”
Sookie gasped. “Why didn’t Appius have a DNA test done before—right after he found the letters?” She did some quick math in her head. “I mean—I know that DNA testing wasn’t as common then, but surely someone like him could have gotten access. And—if you were someone else’s son—wouldn’t it have been easier for everyone involved to have proven it then?”
Eric sighed. “Easier—yes. But less satisfying for Appius’s desire for revenge. Plus, he needed me in order to get Larsson Publishing. The company was part of the trust fund that my grandparents had set up for me.”
“The trust fund that Appius still won’t let you have access to?”
“Yes.” Eric sighed heavily. “If it had been discovered that I wasn’t Appius’s son, Mormor and Morfar would have fought Appius for the trust—at least the part from the Larsson side. And they would have won. I would have inherited Larsson Publishing. And—I would have grown up happy—probably in Sweden,” he added with a sigh.
Sookie closed her eyes tightly. “That’s why Appius insisted that Larsson Publishing be completely absorbed into Northman Publishing and that the name be changed,” she said, horrified. “Just so he could take it from you—hurt you.”
“Yes,” Eric responded in an even tone. “And I was the one ultimately responsible for the merger, a fact that pleased Appius greatly. Since Larsson was officially mine because of my trust fund, only I could complete the merger, and I did just that for the overall good of both Larsson Publishing and Northman Publishing—at least that’s why I thought I was doing it. Appius gave me access to my trust fund only long enough for me to finalize the merger and sign away my Larsson legacy. Of course, I thought that my legacy was all one thing—Northman and Larsson together—just as my grandfathers had envisioned when they had designed the trust fund.
He took a shaky breath. “Appius seemed excited about the merger. And during the last week it took to finalize the deal, his attitude toward me even seemed to change.” He smiled ruefully at the memory. “It was like magic. Appius acted as if he was proud of me; he told me that I was proving to be so good in business that he felt that I should receive the rest of the trust fund at the end of the year.” Eric closed his eyes for a moment. “Appius smiled at me, he patted my back, and he even introduced me as his ‘son, Eric’ once.” He paused as his voice caught. “It was everything I’d ever hoped for, and, like a fool, I bought the whole act—hook, line, and sinker—mostly because I wanted so badly to believe in it. I thought I was feeling his approval. I thought I was feeling his love.”
“But it was all fake,” Sookie said sadly.
“Yes. Fake. Once Larsson Publishing was officially absorbed by Northman Publishing, it was no longer part of my trust fund, and the publishing house, of course, made up the majority of what my morfar had left to me. So—just like that—Appius had what he’d wanted for years,” Eric said in an agonized tone.
“What was that?” Sookie asked, knowing the answer wasn’t simply a publishing house that Appius could add to his own.
“Revenge,” Eric said, his eyes looking haunted. “I figured it up once. Appius spent at least $50,000 a year to send me to boarding schools, so that’s over $650,000 for thirteen years. I received scholarships that covered most of my college costs, though Appius provided me with a forty thousand dollar check when I was eighteen in order to cover my expenses until I was 21—which is when I got my inheritance from my paternal grandfather. When you factor in things like clothing and food and the plane tickets to Sweden that Appius so generously supplied each summer while I was a child so that I was away from his sight, the tally is approaching $750,000. That is the price that Appius decided to pay in order to put me in the position to voluntarily sign over a billion-dollar company. He likely thought it was cost effective.”
Sookie didn’t say anything. Her words would have sounded like pity, and she knew very well that pity wasn’t what Eric needed. Instead, she kissed his hand tenderly and continued to listen to him.
“And then there was the time he had to commit to his plan,” Eric went on. “All those years of ‘meetings’ with me that he had to clear his schedule for. All those hours of plotting ways to make my life painful in order to punish my mother for being in love with the man Appius loved. All those years of getting back at me for being born.”
He ran his hand through his hair. “He blames me for her death—you know.”
“Why?” Sookie uttered.
“Her oncologists wanted her to terminate her pregnancy with me so that she could receive better treatment the first time she had cancer, but she wouldn’t do it.”
“But she went into remission afterwards,” Sookie said reasonably.
Eric shrugged. “Who’s to say whether or not the cancer could have been fully eradicated if it had been taken care of earlier that first time? Hell—maybe there’s some truth in what Appius thinks.”
“You can’t think that way,” Sookie said quietly. “It was her choice to make. She loved you.”
Eric’s lip quivered. “Yes—she did.” He took a long breath. “According to Mormor, Appius supported my mother’s choice to have me, but that was when he thought that I was his child.”
Sookie squeezed his hand.
Eric kept speaking as if he were being forced to do so. “Whether a valid belief or not, Appius spent years thinking that his wife died because she had chosen not to get rid of another man’s child. And I was the ever-constant reminder of that choice.”
He sighed deeply. It was another minute before he spoke again. His voice was pained, but strong. “Yes—the women who marry my father always make deals with him. Sophie-Anne is to be his perfect socialite wife; she is to give him access to Andre. She is to display his wealth at social functions. And she was required to provide a child—a male—so that Appius could ensure that a Northman son he loved and approved of ended up with the company. And Sophie-Anne is doing her job beautifully.
“Tamara’s job was to provide my father with government connections and clout. She was to appear with him at social functions and impress people with her intelligence and wit. She was to add to the tally of his children. Despite their divorce, he got exactly what he wanted from her.
“Beth’s job was to solidify my father’s position in high society. But—since my father believed me to be the bastard child of another man—she was to give him a son too, which she did. Unfortunately, Alexei hasn’t turned out well—according to my father’s standards—which is why he needed Sophie-Anne to produce a new male heir. Before that DNA test, I always wondered why my father allowed Alexei to go wild, but now I realize that it was because he treated Alexei in the exact opposite way that he treated me. Instead of trying to withhold everything that gave Alexei joy—as Appius did with me—he endeavored to give him anything he wanted. But that didn’t work out so well either, so Appius, Jr. is my father’s chance to avoid those mistakes. Regardless, Beth, too, did exactly as she was supposed to do; plus, she added handsomely to the coffers, just as Sophie-Anne and Tamara did. And, of course, Beth provided Appius with Nora.
“Mormor told me that Appius loved being a father when my mother was alive. I have no reason to doubt her, though I cannot remember it.” He paused. “Nora’s arrival allowed him the opportunity to be a father again since his heart had cooled toward Stella’s children.” Eric sighed. “I’m just glad that Pam has never received Appius’s full ire as I have. I’ve noticed things—a certain coldness Appius has with Pam on occasion. But—thankfully—Pam hasn’t noticed it. Or, perhaps, she doesn’t care.
“For many years, I was jealous of Nora. Appius gave her so much attention. He would speak to her at the dinner table as if he cared about everything she had to say. Meanwhile, he wouldn’t even look at me during dinner, which was generally the only time I’d be around him other than our meetings. I used to go back and forth between wishing that I could just disappear and wishing that he’d acknowledge that I was in the room—even if it was with a sneer or a glare. But, eventually, the jealousy stopped when I realized that it wasn’t Nora’s fault that my father didn’t love me.” His voice grew quieter. “I came to understand that there was something about me—about my very being—that Appius abhorred.”
Sookie kissed Eric’s hand again, trying to will strength into him as he said aloud things that he’d probably never put into words before. Eric leaned in so that his head rested against hers. He didn’t speak for a few minutes.
“My mother’s deal with Appius was different from those his other wives made with him,” Eric resumed with resolution in his voice. “There was love between them—and friendship. She did choose Appius over Peder, after all—and even her last letter to Peder didn’t indicate that she regretted that choice. I believe that my mother chose the man who would give her the life she wanted—as well as affection. Peder wouldn’t have given her that life. He’s a simple man in many ways; he operates a farm in Norway, a farm that has been in his family for centuries. Yes—he came to the United States for school, but he never intended to stay. And my mother wanted to live here—in New York. So she chose Appius, and the partnership they formed was beneficial for both of them. She helped to establish Appius in society to a level that Grandfather Northman was never able to achieve, despite his wealth. But that is what my mother wanted too. She loved the parties and the lifestyle. And she loved the philanthropy that she could accomplish.”
He paused to take a long breath. “My parents really were perfect for each other in many ways. Hell—maybe they were destined. Stella was the only daughter of one of the largest publishers in Europe. Appius was the only heir of the Northman empire, which included a prominent publishing firm that he was to take over. And their son was the perfect vessel to symbolize the joining of those empires.”
Eric paused and readjusted a little so that he could lie back and snuggle Sookie more fully into his body.
“A few years ago,” he picked up, “during one of my summer visits to Sweden, I told my mormor about the paternity test and asked about my mother, Peder, and Appius.” He tightened his arms around her even as she did the same.
“That must have been difficult,” Sookie said softly.
He nodded. “That’s when Mormor told me about my mother’s relationship with Peder. Mormor was always aware that they’d kept seeing each other, but she also reiterated that my mother was devoted to Appius—and then to Pam and me.” He paused and took a deep breath. “In the same conversation, Mormor told me that my birth was a great occasion and that the trust fund created by my grandfathers was much celebrated by everyone. Morfar Johan apparently handed out Cuban cigars while Grandfather John passed around the finest scotch anyone had ever tasted. My two grandfathers foresaw a life for me in which I would be blessed and much loved.
“Morfar Johan wanted me to have his company when I was old enough, but he feared he wouldn’t live long enough to pass it to me directly, so he put that inheritance into the trust fund—along with some other assets, though I’m not sure what. Grandfather John figured that Northman Publishing would pass to me through Appius, but he added a small fortune to the trust fund in the form of stocks and bonds and other types of investments. In truth, I’m not even sure what all is in the trust fund.
“And—of course—my parents were named as guardians of the trust fund. In fact, my grandparents—out of love—decided that my father and mother should determine when to release the trust fund to me. None of them wanted me to have to take on the responsibility of a fortune before I was ready to handle it. But—by the same token—none of them wanted me to have to wait for an arbitrary age if I was ready to take it on earlier. And none of them could have foreseen that Appius would one day withhold the trust fund out of spite.”
Though his voice was shaking, Eric went on as if being compelled to speak. “Mormor said that it was difficult to get Appius to put me down when I was an infant. She said that he would look at me like I was a miracle and rock me in his arms for hours.” Eric sighed. “Maybe he had to start hating me so much in order to stop loving me. I’ll never know.” He was quiet for a moment. “But hate me he did. I could feel that hate like a tangible hit to the stomach on the day he presented me with my mother’s letter, Peder, and the doctor who took my blood. Nothing he’d done to me had ever hurt that much. Maybe that was because I’d been so hopeful that I was finally going to get his love—because of the merger I’d put together.”
Sookie wiped away some of the large tears that were falling from her eyes but said nothing as Eric went on.
“Appius so enjoyed toying with me as we waited for the results of the DNA test. Before the merger, my mormor was receiving a percentage of the profits from Larsson, and I’d set things up so that she would still get a yearly stipend. But Appius planned to nullify the stipend by eliminating the longstanding contracts that would have funded it. That would have meant that—except for a modest inheritance from her parents—Mormor would have been left with no income. Appius joked that he was finally going to get back at her for her duplicity in keeping Stella’s adultery a secret. I thought I’d taken care of her,” Eric sighed, “but I hadn’t. Appius also showed me a memo which ordered the termination of the people I’d arranged to bring over from Larsson Publishing.”
Eric took a long breath. “It’s almost admirable—the lengths to which Appius went and the patience he took in plotting his revenge. He kept his knowledge of my mother’s affair a secret for twenty years as he played the dutiful—though distant—father to me. And no one—besides my headmasters at school—ever suspected him guilty of cruelty toward me because, fearful of losing the level of comfort I was able to find for forty-nine weeks out of the year, I told no one.”
As he trembled, Sookie burrowed her body into his as much as possible, trying to infuse him with her love.
“Appius sent me to the best schools and made sure I attended the best college. He played up the grieving widower spiel to my morfar and mormor when they would speak by phone. He claimed that being around me hurt him because of how much I reminded him of my mother. And Morfar and Mormor believed him. So when Morfar retired, he handed Appius the reigns of Larsson Publishing as long as it was kept separate for me—as long as it was kept salient and waiting for me.”
Eric closed his eyes as if tortured. “Appius gave me my job at Northman Publishing only as a means to an end—a way to finally get ahold of Larsson Publishing. And the genius of his revenge was that he made the destruction of that family’s legacy my first assignment. And—in doing that—he hoped to break my spirit. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised when confronted with the DNA test, which was conducted the day after the Northman/Larsson merger went through.” He sighed. “But I was surprised by it. I had thought,” his voice broke and he was silent for a moment. “I had thought—just the day before—that I had finally begun to earn my father’s love.”
Sookie felt more tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Appius tracked down Peder and dangled the promise of a child—me—over his head to get him to come to New York.”
“Why not Pam?” Sookie asked in a ragged voice. “Why wasn’t he in doubt about her paternity?”
Eric responded glumly. “Apparently—with Pam—the math didn’t work out. After I was born, my mother didn’t go to Sweden as much. And in the months around the time Pam was conceived, she didn’t go at all. Pam also has a birthmark on her right leg, matching one that Appius has exactly. Plus, I found out from Appius’s spewing the day of my DNA test—that he did confirm her paternity when she was in the hospital for pneumonia at age thirteen. However, he was so sure that I wasn’t his—so rigid in that belief—that he hadn’t bothered to have a test run for me before. Of course, all of his ‘new’ kids get DNA testing first thing.” He laughed mirthlessly. “That’s just another part of the deal.”
“So Peder came to New York to see if you were his?” Sookie asked after a few moments of silence.
“Yes. Peder still loved my mother, even after all the time that had passed, and—though he didn’t think I was his child since he believed that Stella would have told him if I were—he came for the test anyway. He came hoping that I was his.”
Eric sighed. “When I saw him, I couldn’t blame Appius for being suspicious. Peder Lang is only a couple of inches shorter than I am, and he has blond hair and blue eyes similar to my own. He even has a cleft on his chin. Hell—from the look of us next to each other—there seemed to be little doubt about to whom I belonged; that was another reason why Appius never had the test conducted before then.” He paused. “So—for about four hours one overcast April day as we all waited for the test results—I allowed myself to hope that I would soon have a father who loved me.”
Eric smiled a little. “I realized in those four hours that my life would be so much better if I wasn’t a Northman. It didn’t even bother me when Appius gleefully told me about his plans to fire me from the company that very day. His lawyer had already drawn up settlement papers for me to sign if—when—I turned out not to be his.”
“What was the settlement?” Sookie asked haltingly.
Eric took a shuddering breath as if the memory were causing him physical pain. “As severance, I would be given my salary from Northman Publishing for two more weeks,” he said quietly. “I was to immediately forfeit the NP stock that my grandfather John had left me in his Will; if I didn’t, Appius said that he would sue me for the stock as well as for the money I’d inherited. He claimed that he could prove that I’d received the stock and money under false pretenses. He said that the correspondence between my mother and Peder served as proof that my mormor knew all along that I wasn’t Appius’s child, and he threatened to sue her for damages in a civil court if she ever set foot on U.S. soil again. He also threatened to make sure that Mormor never saw Pam again if I didn’t agree to the settlement.”
Eric sighed. “Appius said he was being generous. If I did as he wanted, I would be allowed to clean out my personal bank accounts without a fight from him. Most of that money was from my inheritance from my grandfather, and Appius was going to allow me to keep that as long as I handed over my NP stock and began the process of changing my name from Northman that very day. He even had the paperwork waiting for me.
“Appius claimed that he had already arranged to have me arrested for fraud if I didn’t agree to sign the settlement and go quietly. And going is exactly what he wanted from me. He wanted me to leave New York within twenty-four hours, and since I had been—at his insistence—living in one of the apartments at NP at that time, he told me he’d have me forcibly removed if I didn’t leave voluntarily. He suggested that Europe would be an acceptable distance from him. And he said that I was no longer to have contact with anyone in the Northman family, including Pam.”
Sookie squeezed his hand as her tears continued to fall.
“When I told Appius that I’d never agree to sever contact with my sister—even if she was just my half-sister—he threatened to drag my mother’s name through the deepest mud that he could find. And he pointed out how much that would hurt Pam. He said that he had copies of every letter Peder had written to my mother and that her letter to Peder would be in the New York Post the very next day if I didn’t comply. He said that if I made waves, I would never get a job in publishing again—no matter where I tried to go. And he threatened to have my bank accounts frozen and to take everything from me—or, at the very least, to keep all that I had tied up in legal battles for years. I believed him,” Eric said bitterly.
“But I also figured that Pam and I could maintain some form of contact without Appius knowing—through Mormor,” Eric added. “And I knew that if I were out from under Appius’s thumb, I would be okay. Even though I’d only been working at Northman Publishing for a little under a year by then, I had saved quite a bit of money. I’d already invested the money Grandfather John had left to me, and that was more than enough for me to make a new start in life. And, more importantly, agreeing to Appius’s demands would allow me to take care of Mormor financially.” He sighed almost wistfully. “I was already thinking that I could go back to school for a degree in architecture or maybe even build a new publishing company in Sweden—one that restored my morfar’s name in the industry. By then, I’d discovered that I really did like working in publishing, and I was good at it too.
“And—I figured that if Appius really did leave me alone, I could get a job somewhere else, based solely on my schooling and the good reputation I’d been building for myself. Maybe I was naïve,” he added with a shrug, “but I imagined building a life on my own terms, a life that Appius was no longer a part of. I imagined friends that Appius wouldn’t take away and a job that he couldn’t threaten. I imagined living a quiet life and taking care of my grandmother. And while we waited for the tests, Peder and I were able to talk a little after Appius ran out of things to rant about and left Peder and me alone. Peder was,” he paused, “decent to me, even though he didn’t think he was my father.”
“And he wasn’t,” Sookie said regretfully.
“No. He was not. The tests confirmed—without a doubt—that I was Appius’s son. Based on blood type alone, I couldn’t have been Peder’s.” Eric shook his head. “No one was more shocked about the test results than Appius. I think the appropriate word would be ‘appalled.’ He ordered the tests to be run a second time.”
Eric and Sookie were quiet for a few minutes as they both tried to rein in their emotions.
When he spoke again, it was in a barely audible voice. “After we found out, I admit that there was a part of me that hoped that Appius might decide to love me since I really was his son. And—God help me—I would have forgiven him for everything if he would have just told me that he was sorry for what he’d done to me for most of my life.”
“But Appius’s attitude didn’t change toward you,” Sookie stated more than asked.
“If anything, he became harsher—more disdainful. And it was after that that he began to formulate his new plans for me,” Eric relayed bitterly. “Before the DNA test said I was truly his son, he saw me only as a means to take the Larsson fortune. After that, he decided that he might as well use me—since I was blood and all. It was then that he determined that—with my pedigree and looks—I could marry well and align the Northmans with another prominent family. It was then that he brought me the contract. He’d seen enough to know that I liked my work, so—of course—he decided to hold that over my head. At first, I told him to fuck off. I told him that I was done trying to earn his approval and love. I told him that I was leaving NP and New York and that he could shove his contract up his ass! And I told him that he could have my NP stock if he’d just leave me the hell alone.”
“Why didn’t you leave then?” Sookie asked cautiously.
“Appius presented me with an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Eric said, sounding more fatalistic than Sookie had ever heard him before. “So I made a deal with the devil.”
“What is your deal with Appius?” Sookie asked in a whisper. “I know that it somehow involves other people—a hundred and four. Will you tell me about it?”
Eric sighed. “Can I tell you later—maybe after my meeting? It starts in half an hour, and I need to get dressed and ready.”
She quickly shuffled to her feet. “I’m sorry. I lost track of the time. And you don’t have to tell me at all—you know.”
Eric smiled, stood up, and kissed her forehead. “No—I want you to know everything. You need to know how I’m trapped. How I trapped myself,” he finished dejectedly.
“I’ll wait up for you then,” she said.
“You don’t have to. I can tell you tomorrow.”
She shook her head. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.”
He smiled. “Neither would I.”
She raised herself up onto her tiptoes and kissed him lightly on the lips. “I love you, Eric.”
“Thank you,” he answered as he pulled her into an embrace. “Thank you.”
A/N: Okay—so now you have most of the story about why Appius hates Eric so much. It certainly doesn’t justify Appius’s abuse of Eric, but I hope it shines light on why Appius is as he is. Soon, Sookie will learn the exact terms of the contract. But—rest assured—there’s more to Appius’s motives than even Eric has been able to find out. And—eventually—you’ll get an Appius POV that will tell you about them. Meanwhile, however, our two lovers are going to try to eke out some happiness.
Many of you speculated about Eric’s paternity. “Casting” Stellan Skarsgård was a dirty trick. But Appius really is Eric’s father.
Thanks so much for all of you who are reading—especially for those who are commenting. Your words always make my day!