Chapter 64: Subterfuge
Appius leaned forward and poured Nora and himself glasses of scotch from the limousine’s wet bar. Andre had already taken care of getting Sophie-Anne a drink. And the two siblings were gossiping about some new scandal or another, but since it didn’t involve anyone he had an interest in, Appius turned to speak to Nora.
“The Faemans will meet us there,” he said.
Nora sighed. “I know I said I would help you with anything, Daddy, and I will,” she said in a low tone. “But this deal with China is really good for the company. I’ve seen the numbers and the projections, and it’s not something we should screw up for Eric—or NP.”
“I realize that,” Appius said, dragging a hand through his hair. He shook his head. “I have to hand it to the boy on this deal,” he said as if giving any compliment to Eric pained him. “It is going to make the company a lot of money.”
“That’s why I think we should play nice tonight and leave the Faemans out of it. I’d hate for the Chinese to back out of the deal, and a bunch of questions from lawyers—especially lawyers that haven’t been involved with the deal’s structuring—could get,” she paused, “awkward.”
“The Chinese won’t back out,” Appius said with an almost sinister smile on his lips. “I have made an arrangement with the owner of Guangzhou Press.”
“What arrangement?” Nora asked.
“Just a slight alteration to the language of the contract that was slipped in at the last minute.”
“Daddy, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to involve yourself in Eric’s part of the company,” she said cautiously. “If you are so certain that he means you harm, why rile him up?”
Appius waved his hand, somewhat dismissively. “It was nothing—really. In fact, I used the slight modification only as an excuse to speak with the head of Guangzhou Press personally. You know how the Chinese are about respect,” he said somewhat judgmentally. “So—I simply contacted my counterpart to express how honored I was that our companies were forming an alliance. Hell! The fact of the matter is that I helped the deal along—when Eric was faltering!”
“Oh,” Nora said with acceptance as she took a sip of her drink. “Well—it makes sense that the head of their company would want to speak with you personally.”
“Yes.” Appius patted her arm. “Plus, I don’t plan on pushing things too far tonight—just far enough to distract Eric so that you can slip out of the party and do what we discussed. God only knows what Eric is hiding from us, and I haven’t been able to get eyes or ears into his house.”
“If he finds the bug, he’ll be furious,” Nora said in barely a whisper so that Andre and Sophie-Anne couldn’t hear her. She wasn’t sure what all they knew and didn’t want to take any chances—especially where Sophie-Anne was concerned. “I mean—are you sure you need to bug Eric’s home? You already monitor him at the office—right?”
Appius took a drink. “I know how you feel, darling.” He sighed. “And you know that I don’t want to have to spy on Eric. But I feel it is necessary. And—after all—we’re putting a bug only in his office. That’s not really going to affect his privacy—now is it? It’ll just help me to keep an eye on the kind of business he is conducting from his home. And—even then—I’ll only be able to hear him.”
Appius sighed and continued. “It is too bad that we cannot put a spyware program onto his computer. But that wouldn’t be feasible—at least not today,” he said thoughtfully.
Nora’s brow furrowed.
Appius smiled. “And—as I said before—perhaps being able to hear Eric’s phone conversations and such will be enough. Yes,” he added, patting her hand again, “I truly hope it will be enough.”
Nora sighed, but nodded. She had mixed feelings about her father spying on her stepbrother, but she knew that doing so would help to alleviate some of her father’s stress.
She tapped her foot against the limo floor somewhat nervously. She’d been in the “private part” of Eric’s house only two times. The first had been when Pam took her up to show her the closet she’d designed for Eric. At the time, the place hadn’t even been fully finished yet, but she’d peeked around enough to know that the room beyond Eric’s sitting area was to be an office. The second time had been when Pam and she went up to enjoy the sauna that Eric had put into his home. However, Nora had gotten the distinct impression that her extremely private stepbrother had been somewhat perturbed at Pam for taking her into his home without asking him first, and Nora had not been invited back—except for business parties.
She sighed. Maybe Eric did have secrets.
She moved her hand slightly to touch her handbag. In it were her usual necessities—and a high tech listening device her father had gotten from one of Stan’s connections.
“Do not worry,” Appius whispered as he looked at what she was touching. “I have been assured that it is easy to place.”
She nodded and took another drink.
Since her father had told her about his first wife’s betrayal, Nora had kept a cautious eye on Eric at the office. But she’d not seen anything out of the ordinary with his work. The only thing that could have been considered abnormal about his behavior was that the office gossip hadn’t been buzzing about his sleeping with any random women lately. In fact, he seemed to be near the point of becoming engaged to Isabel Edgington. Nora scoffed a little. She’d never much cared for Isabel, but she knew her father approved of the match, and the Edgington family was certainly equal in clout to the Northmans. And with Isabel being an only child, the Edgington empire would pass to her—and, therefore, to the Northmans—if she and Eric married.
“What’s the matter?” Appius asked perceptively, patting his stepdaughter’s hand fondly.
“Nothing, Daddy. I just don’t want to have to make nice with Isabel.” She pouted a little.
Appius smiled indulgently at his favorite child. “I know. She is a bore, but let Sophie-Anne deal with her. You have a more important job to do tonight than trying to make nice with Isabel.”
Nora smiled as Appius patted her hand again. Her smile faltered a little, however, as she looked out the window and saw that they were nearing Eric’s building. There was a part of her that thought that what her father was doing was wrong, but she had determined to help him nonetheless.
In truth, she was concerned about her father’s stress level, and she’d noticed that he’d been drinking more lately. He was so worried that Eric was somehow playing him—that he was hiding something. But most of all, her father just wanted to be assured that Eric didn’t know anything about the provision in John Northman’s Will that would force Appius to give Eric all of his NP stock—as well as a lot of money—if he didn’t make Eric the CEO of the company before the deadline. Nora sighed again. She couldn’t begrudge her father for wanting that peace of mind.
She had thought a lot about what her father had told her concerning his first wife and his decades-long belief that Eric was another man’s son. Looking back, Nora could recall evidence of her father treating Eric differently from his other children, but she’d never really given much thought to the disparity at the time. Like everyone else, she’d simply thought that Eric was peculiar and quiet—sullen even. She’d not minded him, however. And—as he grew from a gangly boy to a handsome young man—she’d even developed quite a crush on him.
More than that, however, since they’d both been working at NP, she would even call him her friend—despite the fact that their try at a relationship was a disaster.
A few years before, Nora had decided that she wanted Eric romantically because he was—for lack of a better word—hot! And not just physically either. He was a hot commodity in the New York social scene! Plus, if she had married him, she would have become a Northman—officially. So she’d tried things out with Eric. At first, she thought it might even work. He’d taken her out to expensive restaurants and social events, and she’d enjoyed being on the arm of such a sought-after man. She’d liked being the envy of so many people.
Kissing him had been awkward, however—mostly because he seemed so nervous about the whole thing. And then when they’d tried to have sex, he was clearly not into it in any way. Disappointingly—even when she’d tried to arouse him with her hand and then her mouth—his cock had stayed flaccid.
Impressive! But totally useless!
To put them both out of their misery, she’d finally stopped trying to stir and stiffen him up. His lack of interest had been quite the blow to her ego, but she couldn’t blame him too much. He simply couldn’t stop seeing her as a sibling, and—though the taboo factor had been part of the allure for her—it had clearly not been the same for him.
Ironically, after their misadventures as a couple, they’d actually become closer—sharing a funny story if nothing else—though they still weren’t incredibly close. But they were certainly cordial to each other, and Eric had been and continued to be a big fucking help to her at work! Nora was well aware that she probably ought not to be CFO of Northman Publishing, and Eric had bailed her out of tight spots more than once—the most recent being only a week before. And he’d never lorded that knowledge over her or threatened to tell Appius that she wasn’t up to par.
She sighed and took another drink. Despite her misgivings, she would help her father by planting the bug. After all, if Eric didn’t have anything to conceal, it wouldn’t make any difference that their father was listening. And—if she was right about Eric’s behavior being above board—then he wouldn’t be hurt at all. And her father could rest more easily.
It would be a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Thalia made a great effort to smile innocuously as she took Sophie-Anne Leclerq-Northman’s cloak, though why the woman needed a fur cloak in September was beyond Thalia.
As if reading her mind, Henry gave his sister a little wink before marking Appius Northman and his party off of his list of expected guests. In fact, they were the last to arrive and had come with two additional “guests,” Neave and Lochlan Faeman, whom Rasul had contacted him about as they were checking in at the front desk. Eric had not been pleased when Henry told him about the surprise arrivals, but he’d not blocked their entry either. Instead, Eric had pulled Bobby Burnham aside and had a private word with him. After a few head nods—they’d both gone back to the party.
Henry and Thalia shared a look as Appius said something snide about the painting in the foyer. It seemed that the unpleasant elder Northman thought that the painting should be in the family estate since it had belonged to his grandmother—Eric’s great-grandmother. Appius told his captive audience that his grandmother had left it to Eric only because she was suffering from dementia when she wrote her Will.
Henry just rolled his eyes. One thing was certain. Appius Northman was an asshole!
Thankfully, Henry hadn’t had to deal with Appius much; however, he knew that Eric and Sookie were hiding their relationship from Eric’s father. Henry also knew that Appius had sent one of his people to try to spy on Eric quite a few times over the past several years. Actually, he’d sent two people—Sigebert and Wybert Deneuve. But Henry thought of them as one; after all, they seemed to have only one brain between them!
The Deneuve brothers were identical twins right down to the tattoos they sported on their forearms. A few times, one or the other of them had even tried to sneak into his building, but Henry had no time for that kind of shit!
In fact, one of the “Berts” had almost gotten to experience a prosthetic foot up his ass when he tried to enter the tower posing as an air-conditioning repairman. Henry scoffed. There’s no way he would have graced the “Bert” with his real foot! Unfortunately, the hulk of a man hadn’t resisted when Henry tossed his ass out onto the sidewalk. Indeed, Henry would have enjoyed dealing with a little resistance.
If there was one thing the head of security didn’t appreciate, it was others trying to find out the business of the people in the building he protected. Henry took that shit personally! And—whether it be paparazzi members or piss-ants like the “Berts”—Henry wasn’t one to tolerate riffraff anywhere near his building.
Henry sighed. As far as he and his well-chosen crew were concerned, Eric and Sookie were at the top of the list of people they wanted to shield. Unlike some of the snobby suits that occupied Carmichael Tower and felt that they were entitled to something “extra” because of the width of their wallets, Eric Northman had always treated Henry’s entire crew with respect. Added to that, Eric had done Henry a favor by hiring Thalia, who had wanted to avoid a job in security or on the police force because her husband had died in the line of duty. After her multiple tours overseas, Thalia had wanted to spend her time raising her kids, and working for Eric gave her the money she needed to live on so that she could tuck away her deceased husband’s pension into her kids’ college funds.
Henry smirked. And—of course—another reason why he liked Eric was the Pop-Tarts! Henry didn’t know a lot of people who would keep their pantries stocked with processed treats so that the building’s head of security could sneak up and pilfer them in order to hide his junk food addiction from his health-nut of a husband. But Eric Northman had done just that.
The addition of Sookie had made Eric even more liked—and envied—by the people on Henry’s crew. Not a week went by that she didn’t bring them a batch of cookies or a cake that she’d made. Or—even better—a pie or cobbler! Even Blake couldn’t resist those! Hell—the peach cobbler she’d brought to the desk the week before would have had her waist-deep in marriage proposals if she wasn’t so clearly taken.
Of course, Henry’s crush ran more toward Eric Northman himself, though he was content with just appreciating the view. In truth, Henry was even more content with his own husband, who was also helping with security for the party.
Yeah—Blake was most certainly the love of Henry’s life, but Eric Northman was not bad to ogle, and he was also becoming a good friend. Hell—he’d been at Sookie and Eric’s house just three days before for a poker night with Eric, Bobby Burnham, Blake, Thalia, and Tray, along with two guys who worked guard duty at the MET, Ben and Milos. Eric had hosted several such poker nights during the last couple of months, and Sookie always made sure that there was something good baked, though they’d order pizza for dinner.
Not liking poker—though she had tried it once—Sookie would hang out with her friends Amelia and Claudine while the poker players trash-talked, drank beer, and ate too much. They were fun nights.
A few times, Eric’s sister, Pam, whom Henry still thought of as the dragon lady, had joined them for poker—though lately she’d been more interested in Amelia than the cards. But Henry didn’t mind that. When Pam was concentrating of her card-playing, none of the rest of them had a chance in hell of winning!
From having knowledge of the comings and goings, as well as the guests, of every resident in his building for over four years, Henry knew that things like the poker night were “new” for Eric Northman, who had never seemed to have many friends before—despite the fact that he was on the top tier of New York society.
What Henry appreciated most was that Eric didn’t imagine that he was better than working stiffs like himself and his crew. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Eric treated them like honored guests—like he was working hard to make sure they had a good time.
Yeah—it was safe to say that Henry liked Eric and Sookie more and more with each visit he made to their home.
As head of security, Henry would station one guard in the residence whenever any of the people in the tower had a party. But Henry had never done this duty himself. However, he felt strangely protective over Eric—and especially Sookie. He’d decided early on that Sookie Stackhouse was a special individual. In a lot of ways, she seemed as shell-shocked as many of the people he’d seen after battle. Like them, however, she was just as strong as she was vulnerable.
And he’d quickly developed an almost brotherly desire to protect her.
It was clear, also, that Sookie and Thalia had become friends, and Thalia didn’t have many friends, given her own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Henry looked over at his sister and smiled at her. He was so proud of her. She’d been a great Navy officer during a time when women were just starting to get their real due. He knew that she had flown into some places that were hell on earth. But she’d made it out of them, and she’d saved others’ lives in the process.
Henry looked back toward the lounge and could see that Appius Northman was now talking with the highest executive from the Chinese group, Mr. Li. From the look on Mr. Li’s face, the words being spewed by the elder Northman were somewhat surprising and unwelcome, but Appius didn’t seem to notice. Henry shook his head. Just as he’d figured it would, the tension in the house had risen about a hundred percent after Appius got there. And it wasn’t likely to subside until the elder Northman left.
Henry rolled his eyes toward Thalia again, wondering why Appius didn’t just leave the business deal to his son, with whom the Chinese delegation was obviously more comfortable working. Henry didn’t know “nothing about nothing” when it came to running a multi-billion dollar company, but what he did know was that tension was bad in any high-stakes situation. And even he could see that Appius was sticking his nose where it didn’t belong—for no other purpose than to just be an asshole.
Of course, Henry couldn’t much do anything about the business situation, but when Nora Gainesborough approached and turned as if she were going to go down the hall to Sookie and Eric’s bedroom, Henry could do something. And he did.
“Sorry, Miss Gainesborough,” Henry said in a firm, though polite tone. He’d used that tone many times in the military when telling his superior officers things that they didn’t want to hear. “No one’s allowed in that part of the house this evening.”
Nora scoffed a little. “I’m Mr. Northman’s sister,” she said, managing to look down her nose at Henry even though she was quite a bit shorter than he was.
“Be that as it may,” Henry said resolutely, “we’ve been told to make sure no one moves beyond the area designated for this evening’s party.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, waving her hand as if to dismiss him. “I just want to use Eric’s bathroom to powder my nose,” she said, even as she glanced over her shoulder somewhat nervously.
Henry didn’t miss the fact that Appius was looking right back at her from the lounge, and he also looked very displeased.
“The washroom’s right through there, Miss Gainesborough,” Henry said inflexibly as he pointed toward the guest bathroom.
Nora glared at him but then turned away and went back to the party. Neither Henry nor Thalia missed the look that passed between Nora and Appius.
As soon as Nora was gone, Henry texted Blake, who joined them in the foyer a few moments later with Bobby Burnham in tow. Leaving the more-than-capable Thalia to make sure that no one tried to go into the rest of the house again, Henry gestured for Bobby and Blake to follow him into the guest bedroom.
“What do you think?” Henry asked after telling Blake and Bobby about Nora’s somewhat suspicious behavior—and about the fishy look that had passed between her and Appius.
“I think they’re up to something,” Blake said, his detective gears spinning.
“Me too,” Bobby sighed. “And I want to know what it is. If we find out, we could use it to help Eric.”
Bobby pulled out his cell phone and texted Eric, who joined them about two minutes later.
“Make it quick,” Eric said, obviously a little stressed out. “I need to keep an eye on Appius.”
Henry quickly brought Eric up to speed.
“We should let Nora through,” Bobby said to Eric. “We should see what she does.”
Eric looked at Bobby with narrowed eyes and spoke in a hushed voice. “If she goes into the master bedroom or bathroom, she’ll be able to tell someone lives with me.”
Bobby ran his hand through his hair. “Let me take care of that. If I know Sookie, she doesn’t leave a lot of traces of herself behind—right?”
Eric looked at him and spoke evenly. “Neither of us do.”
Bobby nodded in understanding. “Give me ten minutes. Then talk to Nora and tell her that you saw her confrontation with Henry. Be apologetic about it; even berate Henry a little if need be. And then let her have free reign.”
“They can’t find out about Sookie,” Eric said in a strained voice.
“Don’t worry. They won’t,” Bobby promised.
Eric nodded and left to rejoin the party.
“Henry, Blake—I need your help,” Bobby said as he slipped through the “secret passage” from the guest room to the living area where the piano was located.
Both men nodded and followed Bobby, who looked around the large living area as he walked through it; the space was neat and tidy, and there was nothing that indicated that a woman was a resident in the home. Bobby quickly led them through Eric’s office and into the sitting room. Bobby looked around quickly.
“The library books,” he pointed. “They might not believe that Eric would have those on his own.”
“Where do you want them?” Blake asked.
“The guest room we were just in has a large closet. Put everything in there. While Nora’s in this part of the house, I’ll stay in there—just in case she tries to snoop in that part of the house too.”
Blake nodded, quickly picked up the large stack of library books, and rushed toward the other end of the house.
Bobby then went into the bedroom and did a quick assessment. There were a couple of pictures on what he assumed was Sookie’s nightstand and a woman’s robe on the bed as well as a couple more library books. He grabbed those items and then walked into the bathroom. There, he quickly picked up anything that looked like it belonged to a female and wrapped it into one of Eric’s large towels.
“Okay—just the closet left,” he said to Henry.
The head of security nodded in understanding and hurried to the closet, where he saw a rack of women’s clothing to the right. Sookie didn’t have much as far as clothes went, so he was able to get most of the rack in one trip, though he gave instructions to Blake as they passed each other. Henry had found a large empty Tupperware tub in the guestroom closet and had brought it with him.
It took the three men only six minutes to eliminate any trace of Sookie from the rooms that she had been spending her life in.
The three took one last look around the rooms before Bobby took out his phone. Quickly, he set his phone to record video and put it in the master bedroom, placing it slightly behind the lamp on Eric’s nightstand so that it could record what Nora did in the room without being seen. Catching on, Blake used his phone to do something similar in the sitting room. And Henry set up his phone in Eric’s office.
“We can count on those only recording about 15—or maybe 20—minutes of video each before they run out of memory,” Blake said.
“It’ll be enough to tell us where she went,” Bobby said.
After one more look around, Blake slipped out onto the balcony through Eric’s bedroom, making sure the door was locked securely behind him, while Bobby went to the guest bedroom and Henry went back to the foyer.
A few minutes later, a seemingly upset Eric returned to the foyer with Nora in tow. Henry glanced behind the two and saw that Appius was watching—with great interest—from the lounge.
Eric approached Henry somewhat aggressively. “My sister tells me that you wouldn’t let her use the goddamned bathroom,” he seethed quietly.
Henry narrowed his eyes. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought that Eric was really angry at him. AND an asshole.
“Yes sir,” Henry responded with a hint of animosity—just enough to sell the scene. “You indicated earlier that no one should pass into the private areas of the house.”
Eric sighed as if frustrated. “My sisters are free to go wherever they wish—okay? And Bobby Burnham too.”
Henry nodded stiffly. “Yes sir.”
Nora had a satisfied look on her face. “Thanks, Eric.” She rose up as if to kiss him on his cheek, but gave him an air kiss instead. “I just want to powder my nose in peace. And you know I don’t like to use a bathroom where a lot of others have been.”
Eric smiled down at his stepsister, and Henry was again impressed by his friend’s acting ability.
“Of course. Help yourself.” He gave her an actual kiss on the cheek and then turned around to rejoin the party. Meanwhile, Nora looked at Henry in triumph and then went toward the master bedroom suite.
A/N: Well—I was able to get this chapter to you faster than I thought I’d be! Yeah me! Tomorrow will be hellish at work, so I won’t get to the next one in a couple of days. So bear with me.
Thanks for all the wonderful comments on the last chapter. I so appreciate you all following this story!
Character Banners by Sephrenia