[Single Kleenex precautionary warning]
Chapter 21: The Face of Hate, Part 1
“It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.”—Confucius
Previously: Eight months with Sookie and five months of therapy had helped him to understand that he shouldn’t measure his self-worth by Appius’s love for him—or lack thereof. At least, he could intellectualize that fact. But every time he saw Appius or talked to him or even thought of him, Eric’s first impulses were longing and defensiveness. Claudine had assured him many times that it was okay to feel that way—natural even. After all, thirty-one years of abuse couldn’t be erased in a week, or a month, or a year, or even a decade. Maybe not ever. But that didn’t mean that Eric couldn’t be strong in the face of his abuser. That—he could do.
And that he intended to do.
Two weeks shy of his thirty-second birthday, Eric Northman was going to take hold of his own life.
Eric steadied himself as he walked into Gallery 800 where he figured his father would likely be. Especially during the first hours of one of his parties, Appius liked to be the center of attention, so he held “court” in the largest of the galleries in the Northman Wing—just so that others could approach and pay “proper homage” to him. Eric ought to know. In the years before this one, he had been among the homage-payers, though his respect for his father had certainly never been accepted or reciprocated—not in any way.
As Eric approached Appius, he tried not to be intimidated by the larger-than-life man. Despite being several inches taller than Appius and having about the same width of shoulder, Eric had always felt small next to him—slight. Appius was built sturdier, while Eric was more like his mother—slender and lithe. Plus, no matter what Eric’s size or age, Appius had always had the ability to make Eric feel as if he were five years old—sitting in one of Appius’s large office chairs, his feet dangling over the edge.
His heart dangling over the edge.
Sophie-Anne was adorning one of Appius’s arms, looking as if she’d just walked off of a runway in Milan. And Andre was standing on the other side of Appius. Andre’s beady eyes had been following Eric across the room. Eric saw Nora and Pam standing off a bit to the side. Pam’s dress made her look part socialite and part dominatrix—the perfect combination for her. Eric was certain that the garment had cost tens of thousands of dollars and had been designed just for her.
Nora looked almost demure next to Pam—though no less fashionable. Eric could tell that her dress had likely cost just as much as Pam’s. But what caught Eric’s eye was the look Nora gave him before she schooled her features. Her eyes had flashed pity and that unsettled him.
Despite Nora’s disconcerting look and Andre’s snake-like gaze and Appius’s disdain-filled expression, Eric didn’t allow for his step to falter. In his mind, he was walking toward his future with Sookie.
“Father,” Eric said evenly with a nod of his head. “As always—you have outdone yourself with the party.”
“Sophie-Anne’s doing—I assure you,” Appius returned as he leveled his heaviest glare at Eric.
Sophie-Anne immediately began rattling off some useless information regarding the night’s signature cocktail. But neither Eric nor Appius was listening; they were sizing each other up.
When Sophie-Anne paused to take a breath, Eric gathered his wits. “Father, may I speak to you in private for a few minutes?”
Appius didn’t look surprised in the least. In fact, he seemed to be oozing with anticipation. Eric’s stomach flipped and then dropped, even as he tried not to let Appius’s eagerness frighten him.
“Certainly, Eric. Lead the way,” Appius said in his gravelly voice. There was a note of amusement in it, and Eric had to actively refrain from looking up at the cameras in the room, just so that he could “feel” Sookie looking back at him through the machine.
“I’ll be with you the whole time,” she had said in the limo. That thought helped Eric to steel himself again, and he led his father out of the room and through several of the smaller Northman galleries until they reached Gallery 826.
“Say what you need to say,” Appius said quickly once they were in the gallery and he had motioned for the guard stationed there to give them some privacy.
Eric closed his eyes for a moment and then began. “I will not be going through with our contract.”
“You cannot break it,” Appius said evenly, “unless we both mutually agree to do that. And I don’t intend to agree.”
“I can break it in three years,” Eric responded, trying to stop his voice from shaking.
“Ah,” Appius said, his voice a paradoxical mixture of anger and indifference, “on your thirty-fifth birthday.”
“Yes,” Eric said.
“And may I ask why you intend to break the contract and why you are willing to give up so much in order to do it?”
“I won’t be marrying according to your rules,” Eric said simply.
Appius looked momentarily surprised, but almost immediately regained his cold countenance. “Ah—Miss Stackhouse. I must say that I thought your taste in women was of a,” he paused, “higher quality.”
Eric refrained from taking his father’s bait. “Unless you want to renegotiate or nullify the contract now, which I would be open to doing, then I will be at Northman’s Publishing until my thirty-fifth birthday. After that, I’ll be out of your hair. I would, however, prefer to renegotiate.”
“You believe it will be that easy?” Appius commented, his voice thick and patronizing. “You always were naïve, Eric.”
“Only when it came to trying to earn your affection,” Eric said bitingly.
“And here I thought you were going to be civil,” Appius responded sarcastically. “I should have known better.”
Eric sighed. “After I break the contract, you will have my stock in NP and you will have the trust fund.” He paused. “You could have all of that—and more—now if we nullified the contract.”
“More?” Appius asked with interest.
Eric pulled a document out of his pocket and handed it to Appius.
“What’s this?” Appius asked.
“A new contract. It would nullify our other one. I’m prepared to sign it tonight.”
“And what would I get out of it?” Appius asked, opening the document.
“An additional seven percent of NP,” Eric stated.
Appius looked at the piece of paper and frowned. “So—between your beloved Mormor,” he sneered, “and your little friend, Bobby Burnham, you have acquired an additional seven percent of my company.”
“Which they will sign over to you right away if you sign that document.”
“I cannot own anymore stock if the company is to remain public,” Appius said.
“They are prepared to sign the stock over to Appius, Jr. or Nora or anyone you choose,” Eric said.
“And—in exchange—you want the international division?”
“Yes. You intended to dismantle it anyway if I broke the contract.”
“You intend to start up your own company from the division?”
“Yes,” Eric answered.
Appius took his time perusing the document in his hands. Seemingly, his smirk grew with every word he read. “You are offering me 30% of any profits made from your new company?”
“Yes,” Eric answered. “For the next two decades.”
“So the additional stock and the twenty years of profits in exchange for my giving you your freedom now?”
“Yes—and the right to break off the international division from the rest of NP and have complete ownership over it,” Eric said, praying to God that Appius would take the deal.
Appius’s smirk transformed into a sinister smile. “You would give up your stock and your trust fund. You would give up the chance to run all of NP. You would do this for your Miss Stackhouse? Tell me, Eric,” he said cuttingly, “is she what you want most in life?”
“Keep Sookie out of this,” Eric said forcefully.
“You put her into this—boy. Now—answer my questions and do not lie, or I will tear up this document right now.” Appius sneered. “Is Miss Stackhouse what you love the most in this world? What you want the most?”
“Yes,” Eric answered at a low volume. “I want her. And I want freedom from you and this,” he motioned between them.
Appius nodded soberly. For a moment he looked very old. “If only it were that easy.”
“It could be,” Eric responded, his voice pleading with his father for the first time in his life. “The international division is almost independent from the rest of NP already. It would be easy to break it off. I could be gone before the first of February. You would never have to see me again. Please—just let me go.”
“No,” Appius said simply. “There will be no renegotiation—no new contract.”
“Why not?” Eric asked.
“Because it would please you too much,” Appius answered venomously.
“You despise me—despise my very existence,” Eric whispered, almost as if he’d been dazed.
“True,” Appius said shamelessly. “And making you suffer is one of my favorite pastimes. And do you know why that is?” he asked malevolently.
Eric sighed. “Because my mother cheated on you.”
“No,” Appius responded. “Because I hate you. Because I wish you had never been born.”
Eric inhaled loudly as if he’d been punched in the stomach. After more than twenty-five years of more subtle abuses, he’d finally heard exactly what his father thought about him.
“Why do you hate me so goddamned much?” Eric asked, his voice sounding like that of a little boy, despite the curse word. “I was told once that you celebrated when I was born—that you loved me.”
Appius looked suddenly older again. “Perhaps that is why I have to hate you,” he said in a moment of raw honesty and intensity that made him seem almost vulnerable. That expression was quickly replaced by an icy glare.
“Once you break the contract and leave NP, do you plan to cut ties with the family?” Appius asked, slightly changing the subject.
“As I said, you would never have to see me again,” Eric returned.
“Ah—but you would want to see Appius, Jr. and Gracie and Alexei. And Pamela,” Appius said, his voice growing impossibly harder. “You have been trying to turn Pamela against me—haven’t you!” he demanded rather than asked. “You will try to do the same with the others too!”
“I told Pam some truths,” Eric responded, trying to steady his voice. “But that doesn’t mean she’s stopped loving you.”
“I don’t suppose so,” Appius said with an arrogant smirk. “But she did lie for you when you went to Louisiana to see your little tart through the funeral of her grandmother.” He paused dramatically. “What? Were you so ashamed of your little trollop that you had to hide her?”
“I’m not ashamed of Sookie!” Eric proclaimed passionately.
Appius scoffed. “Ah—it seems that you are in love,” he spat out the last word. “I should have known that you would choose someone just as defective as you.”
Eric shook his head. “She’s not defective.”
Appius chuckled. “I know all about Susanna Stackhouse’s defects. And may I just say that her mother is quite the sadistic bitch—though I can certainly empathize with the idea of despising a disappointing child. Imagine my surprise at discovering what a little freak you chose—so much so that her own mother loathes her. But such a useful skill your Sookie has!” Appius smirked. “That’s how you knew about de Castro and Madden last year—isn’t it? Your useful little secret finder read their lips for you—didn’t she? I must say that I was impressed that you’d found such an asset. Of course, leave it to you to screw things up and to become attached to the poor little circus freak.” He chuckled as he gestured toward a painting by Georges Seurat called Circus Sideshow.
“Shut the fuck up!” Eric growled, quickly losing his composure.
“Or what?” Appius grinned.
Eric took a deep breath. “You can’t bait me.”
Appius grinned. “That remains to be seen.”
Eric shook his head. “You can’t do a damned thing to Sookie and me. We are together, and together we’re going to stay. And—even if I have to stay at NP until I turn thirty-five—you will no longer be a part of my life come three years from now.”
Appius laughed. “You are a boy playing among men,” he said cruelly. “Do you think that you will take one breath on this planet that I don’t control?”
“You are done controlling me!” Eric said with a raised voice.
Appius’s lips twitched upward into a triumphant smile. However, instead of responding to Eric’s words, he walked over toward another painting in the room. “My money bought you an excellent education, so I am certain that you know the story of Pandora,” Appius said as he looked at the painting of the mythic beauty by Odilon Redon.
Eric didn’t answer.
“Do you know it?” Appius asked, leveling a dreadful stare at Eric.
“Yes,” Eric said in almost a whimper.
“Do you know why Zeus decided to create the first woman—why he decided to create Pandora?” Appius asked.
“To punish Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods,” Eric responded.
“Yes,” Appius replied in a low tone. “I have always enjoyed ancient Greek poetry. Hesiod is especially instructive about Pandora:
From her is the race of women and female kind:
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.“
Appius stopped reciting and seemed to get lost in the painting for a moment. “Your mother was so beautiful. And there was a time when I thought that she was perfect—perfect for me. Women were not even my preference, yet I loved her more than anyone—even Peder.”
The room was silent for a moment, and that silence carried with it a heavy weight.
“Stella,” Appius said, his voice catching on the name of his one-time beloved. “My Stella. My star.”
Eric sighed. “Please, Father. Sookie is my star—my sun. Please. Let me go. Let it all go. Let us both be free.”
Appius looked at Eric with narrowed eyes. “If your Sookie is anything like Stella, she will betray you.”
Eric shook his head. “She won’t.”
Appius smiled sinisterly. “Maybe not in the way Stella betrayed me, but it is inevitable that she will rip out your heart.” He laughed bitterly. “And I will enjoy that day because it would have hurt Stella,” he said, looking back at the painting. “Pandora unleashed evil onto this world, and she certainly passed along that trait to your mother.” He looked back at Eric and shrugged. “How can you blame me for hating you? You were born with her eyes and her smile—her deceit-filled smile.” He looked back at the painting. “Is it any wonder that I want to snuff that smile from the world?”
Again, Eric felt as if he’d been punched.
“Just cut me loose. You will never have to see me again,” Eric begged.
Appius pinched the bridge of his nose. His eyes were shut tightly. “After Pandora opened her box, she tried to close it, but it was too late, Eric. Too late.”
Eric closed his own eyes. “Too late,” he repeated.
The two men were quiet for a moment. However, there was anything but peace in the room.
Finally, Appius spoke. When he did his tone was even and emotionless—eerie. “In three years’ time, you will not break the contract; you will see it through. And you will marry according to the stipulations in the contract, and—just to be clear—your choices will not include Miss Stackhouse.”
Eric was already shaking his head. “No.”
Appius gave Eric an icy look that shut him up. “You will listen to me now—boy!” Appius’s voice boomed. “And then you can decide if you will be obedient. Then—you can decide if your Pandora is worth the price I will make you pay for her.”
A/N: Some of you were disappointed that I’d left off where I had in the last chapter. Was this a better stopping point?
That said, thanks to all of you who posted comments about the last chapter. I’m so thankful that you are sticking with me and this story. Editing this chapter reminded me just how much this story pulled at me when I wrote it.