Chapter 65: Shaking
“But if our hopes are betrayed, if we are forced to resist the invasion of our soil, and to defend our threatened homes, this duty, however hard it may be, will find us armed and resolved upon the greatest sacrifices.”—King Albert II
“Hey, are you alright?” Isabel asked in a quiet voice, taking Eric’s hand in hers when she saw that Appius was looking at them.
“Ask me tomorrow around this time,” Eric said quietly, speaking into Isabel’s ear.
The brunette giggled as if Eric had just told her the funniest thing she’d ever heard. “At least Mr. Li no longer seems to be listening to Appius,” she whispered back.
He laughed a little, though Isabel could see no mirth in his eyes.
Luckily, however, to anyone looking at them—and Appius was—it seemed as if the two were having an intimate, light-hearted conversation.
“That is something,” Eric said before kissing Isabel on the cheek.
Pam walked over to them. “Hey,” she whispered, “I think that the Faeman twins are starting to creep out Liang.”
Eric looked over at Liang Chen, the person with whom he’d worked the most from the Chinese delegation. Pam was right. It seemed as if Neave and Lochlan were cross-examining Liang. Eric gave Pam a nod and walked over to “save” his colleague from his father’s lapdogs.
Thankfully—despite Appius and his lawyers creating a bit of unnecessary tension—neither Liang nor his boss, Guo Li, seemed overly concerned. Earlier that evening, Eric had mentioned to Liang that Appius might try to quibble over elements of the contract. And Eric was certain that Liang had passed that information onto his superior.
However, there wasn’t anything Appius could do. The document had already been signed before Appius arrived. Moreover, both Liang and Guo Li knew that Eric had full authority when it came to their dealings.
Thankfully, Guo Li seemed unperturbed by Appius, and Liang was simply nodding politely to the lawyers.
Less than ten minutes after she left the party, Nora returned to the gray lounge area. From his position, Eric could see her give Appius a little nod before moving to speak with Sophie-Anne and Andre. Eric made sure that he kept his eyes averted from the group when he felt Appius’s eyes turn to him. The gaze of his father always seemed to burn into him. But Eric kept his countenance steady as he chatted with Liang about the influx of American restaurants in China.
Eric took a deep breath, knowing that he’d have to endure Appius’s presence for only another half hour or so before the cocktail party broke up. He looked around the room and quickly assessed whether the eight members of the Chinese delegation were mixing well with his team from Northman Publishing. Overall, it was a relatively small party; in fact, there had been only twenty-five people in attendance before Appius and his group got there. Not wanting to overwhelm the numbers of the delegation from Guangzhou Press, Eric had invited only nine other people from his own department, and several of them had brought their spouses, which lent a casual air to the cocktail party. The purpose of the party was to twofold: first, to celebrate the signing of the contract; and, second, to help foster fidelity between the two teams, which would be interacting with each other a lot via conference calls and emails.
Especially before Appius arrived, the event had been a great success. As with all of Eric’s cocktail parties, Pam had done the planning and had chosen the hors d’oeuvres perfectly, and the small wait-staff Eric had hired was doing a good job keeping everyone happy. Indeed, the teams seemed to be mixing quite well, and the “business” relationships that they’d already forged were becoming “collegial” as well.
Eric noticed the moment when Guo Li nodded politely to Appius and withdrew from his company. Eric sent up a quick prayer that Appius hadn’t done anything to offend the distinguished businessman. As always, Appius had found and then monopolized the time of the individual that he’d deemed the “most important” in the room—other than himself, of course.
Eric gave Mr. Li a nod as he approached. Though he’d worked out most of the details of the deal with Liang, Mr. Li was more his direct counterpart in Guangzhou Press. He was in charge of his company’s dealings with North and South America.
“Your home is very lovely, Mr. Northman,” Mr. Li said in perfect English. Eric had quickly learned that everyone he worked with from Guangzhou Press spoke English impeccably, though they all had the expected accents except for Liang, who had spent ten years in the United States when his parents moved to California so that he would have the opportunity to attend an American university.
“Thank you,” Eric said.
“I would enjoy seeing the view from your terrace—if I may,” Mr. Li requested politely.
“Of course,” Eric said as he led Mr. Li out to see the view.
“Ah,” Mr. Li said as they got outside. “Yes. This is a lovely view. It is nice seeing something other than buildings.”
Eric nodded his agreement.
“Your father is an interesting man,” Mr. Li said evenly after a few moments of quiet contemplation.
Eric nodded. From his studies of Chinese culture, he knew that elders were afforded a great deal of respect. “Yes,” Eric said. “He is a very successful publisher and Northman Publishing has grown considerably since he took it over from his own father.”
“And you carry on his legacy,” Guo nodded approvingly.
There was a beat before Eric spoke. “It has always been my desire to help make Northman Publishing even stronger so that my family’s company will flourish well into the future. I can only hope to run the business as well as my father has,” Eric said sincerely.
Mr. Li nodded. “You speak well of your father.” The distinguished businessman looked out over the water before looking back at Eric. “However, I do not think it will surprise you to learn that he does not speak kindly of you.”
Eric forced himself not to tense up. “I am still working to earn my father’s approval,” he answered evenly. “Sometimes—such things take time.”
“Hmmm. In China, parents often have a great many hopes and expectations for their children. My child, a daughter, is in her first year at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.”
“You must be very proud. I believe that is an excellent university.”
“One of China’s best,” Guo smiled. “But even if she were not distinguishing herself as a student and even if she were not surpassing my hopes for her, I would still not speak ill of her publicly—especially not in the presence of those with whom she works. And I certainly wouldn’t speak ill of her if she had just initiated and perfectly orchestrated a lucrative deal for my company—a deal that was completed because of her. Because of only her,” he added meaningfully.
Mr. Li continued. “After you approached us, our company had offers from several other American publishing houses, Mr. Northman.”
Eric nodded. “Given the profits to be made, I am not surprised.” Eric was a little surprised that he’d not heard of the potential deals with other companies before. Mr. Li could have used the threat of aligning Guangzhou Press with other companies in order to strengthen his own position during negotiations. The fact that he hadn’t told Eric all he needed to know about Mr. Li’s character—and he respected him all the more.
“Do you know why I chose Northman Publishing despite the fact that a deal with Felipe de Castro and Vegas Publishing would bring my company higher profits?” Mr. Li asked.
“No,” Eric responded.
“There is only one reason. I chose based on the honor I sensed in the individual I would be working with, and that person is you. As you said earlier, Appius Northman is a successful businessman, but had he been the one we were to work with, I would have chosen de Castro,” Mr. Li emphasized.
Eric bowed a little. “You pay me a great compliment, Mr. Li.”
“You must call me Guo. It is appropriate to address trusted business associates by their given names in the United States—is it not?”
“Yes,” Eric responded. “Please, call me Eric.”
Guo nodded and looked into the window. He saw his group mingling easily with Eric’s group. Appius was speaking with Andre, Neave, and Lochlan now. “Our teams will work well together, Eric,” he said with certainty. “This has been a successful trip,” he indicated. “And I already look forward to your visit to China in February.”
“As do I,” Eric indicated.
Guo looked back out over the river. “Please invite your team to bring their families with them when you come.”
“Thank you, Guo,” Eric said, knowing that by extending the invitation to include families, Guo was indicating his desire to solidify their relationship as colleagues and friends.
“That invitation does not include your interesting father,” Guo said. “It is you that we work with.”
“I understand,” Eric said, a little surprised by Guo’s directness.
“Good. And feel free to bring your lovely companion, Miss Edgington. My wife would enjoy showing her around.”
Eric tensed slightly, something that was not missed by the perceptive Mr. Li.
“I doubt that Isabel could get away,” Eric said, “but I will make sure she knows that she is welcome, and I hope that you will bring your families too during your next visit here.”
Guo gazed at Eric through somewhat narrowed eyes as if he were trying to figure out the younger man with a single look. “My wife will be happy to hear of that,” he said finally.
“I’m afraid that my delegation and I must be returning to our hotel. Our flight leaves tomorrow in the evening, and I have promised my team that we will sight-see tomorrow morning.”
Eric smiled. “Yes, Liang indicated that you might wish to see some of the sights in New York. I have arranged for a small sight-seeing van to be at your hotel at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. The driver is a trained tour guide and will take you and your team anywhere you wish to go. After that, he will take you back to your hotel and then drive you to the airport.”
Guo nodded appreciatively. “You have been a generous host, Eric.”
Guo turned to go inside, but then stopped as he saw Appius looking out at them. Guo turned to face Eric again. The younger Northman’s eyes were momentarily trapped by his father’s glare.
“He looks at you as if you were a hated enemy,” Guo commented with disapproval.
“I’m not his enemy,” Eric said in a low voice as he pulled his eyes from his father’s to Guo’s. “Or—at least—I have never wanted to be his enemy.”
“No,” Guo said thoughtfully. “I can tell that you do not wish to be his enemy.” He stepped toward Eric, essentially blocking Appius from the younger man’s line of sight. “However, he will make you one if he does not learn to recognize his chief business asset—even if he cannot take pride in the gift of a child.”
Eric was stumped about what to say to that comment.
“We will speak soon,” Guo said reaching out to shake Eric’s hand.
“Yes,” Eric responded, giving Guo a respectful nod before following him back inside.
At a single look from Guo, Liang gathered up the group from China. After a few short goodbyes, the whole delegation was ready to go.
After they’d gone, Eric met with his own team for a couple of minutes to make sure that there were no complaints or problems with their counterparts. Then they left too.
As soon as the elevators closed behind the last of Eric’s people, Appius spoke loudly. “It seems to me,” he criticized, “that you cowed down to Mr. Li like some kind of supplicant! The Chinese should be grateful for our business—not the other way around!”
“Showing respect is a big thing in Chinese culture, Father,” Eric said evenly. “And Mr. Li is an important man in his company.”
“You’d think the president of the company would have made the trip if he viewed this deal as important enough—though, perhaps, he does not view it as such,” he said, looking down his nose at Eric.
“Perhaps you are right,” Eric said emotionlessly.
Isabel came up next to Eric and placed her hand on his arm. “Well, they were all nice enough,” she smiled, obviously trying to bring down the tension between father and son. “And my father always says that opening new markets around the world is good business.”
Appius’s expression softened a little as he looked at Isabel. “And how is Russell? I’ve not seen him in a while.”
“He’s well. He asked that I tell you hello and said that you two should get together for a drink at the club soon.”
Thankfully, after Isabel had taken charge of the conversation, the topics shifted away from business. It wasn’t long before Appius decided to take his leave, and that—of course—meant that his little “posse” would follow.
“Walk us out, Pam,” Nora requested. “We brought the school pictures Gracie sent you.”
Eric didn’t allow himself to react to Nora’s words. Every Christmas since Gracie had been in school she’d asked him if he’d gotten the pictures she sent. He always lied. He knew that Tamara always sent a large packet of pictures to Appius’s house. He also knew that Pam received an envelope full each year because he’d seen hers. But Appius—of course—had never felt the need to pass along anything that Gracie might have sent to him. And Eric didn’t want to trouble Tamara by asking her to send his separately.
“Did you bring Eric’s too?” Pam asked, keeping her voice smooth. “I could bring those up with me when I come back.”
Eric wanted to shoot Pam a warning look, but he kept his countenance blank.
“I don’t recall Eric getting an envelope this year,” Appius said somewhat snidely, but not so much that it was overly noticeable. “I imagine Tamara sent the pictures here if she thought he’d want copies of them. Have you gotten anything yet?” he asked Eric, the slightest of smirks on his lips.
“No,” Eric answered simply.
“Oh well,” Nora said seemingly oblivious to her father’s cruel jab, “I’m sure they’ll arrive soon. We only got ours earlier this week.”
Eric nodded. “Yes. You’re probably right.”
Henry had—thankfully—already called the elevator, and Appius, Sophie-Anne, Nora, Andre, Neave, Lochlan, and Pam got on board.
There was a collective sigh of relief as soon as the doors closed.
“So,” Isabel said looking around the foyer, “are we all that’s left?”
Eric also looked around the room. Only Bobby, Henry, and Thalia remained—other than Isabel and himself.
“Yes,” Bobby said somewhat tensely. “The kitchen staff finished up while Eric met with his people. They took off about fifteen minutes ago.”
“Well—it’s late,” Isabel said as Henry recalled the elevator for her. She kissed Eric lightly on the cheek. “And I have plans,” she added with a wink.
“Thanks for doing this,” Eric whispered, gesturing back toward the gray lounge.
“Any time,” Isabel said, patting his arm.
Eric smiled at Isabel as she stepped onto the elevator, but his smile dropped when he saw the expressions on the faces of the people around him once she was gone. Everyone in the foyer looked almost ill, and Henry brought his index finger to his lips signaling that Eric should be quiet.
Eric’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and he looked over to see that Bobby had just texted him from the same room. Bobby motioned for Eric to answer, and he quickly looked at the text, which read: “Nora bugged your office—at least. The foyer is not bugged, but the lounge could be. Blake will be back soon with a device that will determine whether there are other listening devices.”
Eric closed his eyes tightly and then threw his phone against the metal elevator doors.
“Do you want a drink?” Bobby asked quietly as everyone took in the sight of Eric’s mangled phone.
Eric shook his head and walked down the hall to his sitting room. The first thing he noticed was that the library books he and Sookie had picked up the week before were not on the table. They’d been reading The Count of Monte Cristo aloud together, and he knew he’d left it turned downward to mark their spot. The room looked strange—empty—without the books scattered about.
He glanced toward the closet, and the breath immediately left his body. All of Sookie’s clothing had been removed; in fact, he saw no trace of her. Bobby had even moved some of his own things to her side of the closet. Eric sank down onto his knees as if someone had punched him in the gut.
Trying not to make a noise, he buried his face in his hands. They were shaking. In fact, he felt as if his whole body were shaking. He fast-forwarded in his mind. One day, she would be leaving. She would be leaving because he was so fucking powerless that he couldn’t find a way to keep her.
Her presence in his home would become just a memory—a slip of time that had slipped away. A moment of light to compare to all the dark.
And suddenly, his house—a place that had felt like his safe haven for so long—had been invaded. He’d loved it there—especially since Sookie had warmed it and made it a home.
But Appius had reached right inside and had taken away one more thing he’d loved.
Unsteadily, he rose to his feet a few moments later and then went into the closet, grabbing his things hanging on Sookie’s rack and moving them back to his side. At least if it was empty, then it was waiting for her to come back.
“Eric?” Bobby said quietly, venturing into the room. Eric turned and glared at Bobby before pulling his overnight bag from the closet shelf. He quickly threw a change of clothes into it and then pointed toward the table in the sitting room.
“Guest room,” Bobby mouthed.
Eric nodded and practically shoved Bobby out of his way as he rushed out of the room. He avoided going through the office and went back through the foyer where Thalia and Henry still stood. He didn’t say a word to anyone as he went into the guest bedroom and looked around for Sookie’s things. He found them in the closet.
“Eric? Do you need to talk?” Bobby asked as he followed him in and closed the door to the bathroom/closet area.
Eric looked at him in question.
“I was in here while Nora was loose in the house, so I know this room is safe,” he said in a low tone. “And Thalia’s initial assessment of the bug in your office is that it can monitor only conversations in that room.” He paused. “And since neither Appius nor Nora came anywhere near this room, it’s okay to talk in here.”
Eric nodded. “I have to get out of here. I have to go to her.”
Bobby nodded. “I already texted Sookie to let her know what’s going on. She’s expecting you.”
Eric picked up the copy of The Count of Monte Cristo which had been stacked with the other library books.
“Everything will be back in place by tomorrow, Eric,” Bobby said quietly. “I promise.”
“I need every goddamned bug in this place gone,” Eric said, sounding a little defeated.
“I’m coming for breakfast in Brooklyn tomorrow. Sookie told me to be there at 8:00,” Bobby said. “We’ll talk about it then.”
Eric nodded and quickly left the room. He was still shaking. He found he couldn’t stop.
A/N: This one also got done faster than I thought! Thanks for all the comments about the last chapter! As always, even if I can’t respond to you all, I love reading what you have to say and knowing that you are out there!
Well—our Eric is at a crisis point here. The only question is: what will he do?
Comfortably Numb has only two chapters left. But don’t worry. The sequel is written and just needs revising, so there won’t be a long delay before the sequel begins.
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