Chapter 32: Arrangement
“Jesus Christ!” Isabel cried, rushing up to Eric, who was leaning against the door of his corvette.
He’d not dared to go back into the party—not with the ugly bruise that was making its presence known on his throat. He’d texted Isabel, asking her to meet him at the car and bring a couple of bottles of water. He’d also asked that she give his apologies to Russell for not being able to return. In truth, as soon as he’d seen the blackness forming where Appius had choked him, he’d wondered if he ought to go to the emergency room, especially given the burning he still felt, but he’d decided to wait a while to see if the swelling worsened.
“What happened?” Isabel asked, looking at the bruise with horror.
“Not here,” Eric said, even as he took a bottle of water from her. “I can take you home, or you can stay and get a ride from your father.”
Isabel shook her head. “No. You should go to the hospital.”
“I’m fine,” Eric croaked out.
“Bullshit. It looks like you’ve been mugged!”
“I haven’t been. And I’m okay.”
Isabel sighed. “Fine. But you’re going to take me home so that I can make sure you don’t get worse. And—on the way—you’re going to tell me what happened to you.”
Eric nodded in agreement and then moved to help Isabel into the car.
“Should you be driving?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he repeated, his voice still cracking a bit.
She let him get a block before she spoke again. In that time, he drank the rest of the first bottle of water. Isabel handed him the second and relaxed a little seeing that he could swallow the liquid.
“Did Appius do that?” she asked.
Eric nodded in affirmation.
“Why?” she asked in shock.
“I suspect it was because I threatened his life,” Eric said evenly.
“I thought he might have harmed Sookie.”
Isabel tensed. “Did he?”
“No, but she’s gone.”
Eric sighed deeply but kept his focus on the traffic. “Yes. Appius wanted to use her to hurt me, so she left.”
“Why the fuck didn’t you stop her or go with her, Eric?” Isabel demanded. “It is clear how much you love her!”
“Yes,” Eric agreed, his voice a little less ragged after having drunk the water. “I do love her. But Appius is blackmailing me, and Sookie left on her own without my knowing about it,” he added, lying about the last part. He knew that he could trust Isabel, but he’d decided that only three people could know the whole truth about how and why Sookie had left: Bobby, Sookie, and himself.
“So—she just left you?” Isabel asked in disbelief.
“That’s what Appius informed me,” Eric said. “Apparently, she left him a message using the bug in my office.”
Isabel had already been told about the listening device, so she didn’t ask about it. “When did she go?” she asked instead.
“Today,” Eric responded, “sometime during the brunch.”
Isabel reached out and patted his arm. “I’m so sorry,” she said sincerely.
“Me too,” Eric replied. “But I can’t blame her. Appius had found out about us, and he would have driven a wedge between us one way or another. She left to protect herself from him.”
“I’m sorry,” Isabel said again, this time more softly. “I know you loved her.”
“Love her,” Eric corrected. “And I always will.”
“As I will always love Hugo,” she said in a barely audible whisper. She’d not mentioned him in months, but her tone betrayed her continued sadness.
“You still love him?” Eric asked.
Isabel nodded. “Yes. Even after I found out that he had a wife and children he’d not told me about, I still loved him—even though I tried not to. Distance and time haven’t made a difference either.” She sighed. “It’s been more than a year since I saw him, yet I still cry for him—almost every single day.”
Eric sighed. “Have you spoken with him?
Isabel nodded. “Yes. I’m ashamed to say that I took one of his calls about a month ago. He claims to still love me. He told me that he will leave his wife if I promise to marry him. But I have no heart to break up a family, and . . . .” She stopped midsentence.
“And?” Eric asked.
“Hugo is ambitious. I’ve always known that. He might actually love me; I don’t know. But what I do know is that he thirsts for the power and the position—and the money—that being with me would entail.”
Eric frowned, thinking of Appius’s words earlier. He’d said that Sookie had wanted him only for his money, and even though Eric knew that wasn’t true about the woman he loved, it seemed as if it might be true about Hugo. And he hated that for Isabel’s sake. “What about the person you’ve been seeing?” Eric asked.
“I stopped seeing him months ago. He wanted more than something casual,” Isabel said. “He wanted my love. And I just don’t have it to give anymore.”
The two were silent for a while, both lost in their thoughts about the people they loved.
A few minutes later, Eric pulled up in front of Isabel’s home and parked the car. He turned in his seat to look at her. “Appius offered me a deal—a détente of sorts. If I marry you within the next nine months, then he will leave me alone. He won’t try to interfere in my running of my division, and I won’t have to see him or speak with him.”
Isabel was speechless for a moment.
“I’d like you to consider marrying me, Isabel—not just because of Appius’s offer, but because you and I are friends and could have a good partnership.”
“I know we spoke of marriage last year, Eric,” Isabel said tentatively. “And you know that I genuinely like you. But I don’t think I could marry you. You belong with Sookie.”
Eric closed his eyes. “That can’t happen.”
Isabel shook her head sadly. “Appius knows you don’t love me—doesn’t he?” she asked.
“Of course. He doesn’t want me to have love,” Eric grimaced.
“I don’t love you either, Eric,” Isabel said, “at least, not romantically. And I don’t think I ever could. You are my friend, but that’s it.”
“I know,” he said. “I feel the same way about you, but I would still like you to consider marrying me.”
“That’s not a very romantic proposal,” Isabel deadpanned, trying to add a touch of levity to a situation where there was none.
“I know, but—as you said—we have talked about making an arrangement before.”
She nodded. “Yes—but that was before Sookie was in the picture. Eric, Sookie might not be my biggest fan, and I understand that, but I very much like her. And I especially like her because she makes you happy.”
Eric took a deep breath. “No matter what—I have to marry before I’m thirty-five, and, if I don’t find someone who fits the requirements of the contract, Appius could force me to marry someone like Freyda de Castro.”
Isabel cringed a little at hearing Freyda’s name. Freyda’s sanity was shaky at best. Isabel took a moment to contemplate Eric’s words. She knew about some of the elements regarding the contract. Eric had told her about it when she’d agreed to continue going to public events with him. In truth, being on Eric’s arm at events and benefits like the charity brunch had been no hardship for her. Isabel sincerely enjoyed Eric’s company. He was intelligent and an interesting conversation partner. And she knew that a marriage to him would please her father. And—given the fact that being with the man she truly loved, Hugo, was impossible for a variety of reasons—a marriage to Eric seemed to be a good choice.
“If we made an arrangement, what could you offer?” Isabel asked.
“Not a lot,” Eric said honestly. “I will not cheat on Sookie. I cannot; she will always be the wife of my heart.”
Isabel took a long breath as she studied the pain and sorrow in Eric’s eyes. “I could accept that—as long as the marriage was open for me.”
Eric nodded. “Of course. However, children must be had.”
“Adopted?” Isabel asked.
“Or artificial insemination,” Eric responded.
“How romantic,” she intoned.
Eric spoke sadly, “I cannot offer romance or love. Those things are Sookie’s. I cannot even offer sex anymore. All I can offer is an alliance that includes steadiness, family, and friendship.”
Isabel sighed. “I couldn’t offer you romance either.”
Eric nodded. “I know. I wouldn’t ask for it, and you would always be free to have sexual relationships with others, Isabel.”
“But you wouldn’t let yourself be free to do the same?” she asked.
“As I said, I will be faithful to Sookie—until the day I die.”
“So you intend to live as a monk?” she asked, the surprise clear in her voice.
“I had many women before Sookie,” Eric said honestly. “Enough to know that no one could ever replace her or compare to her. And since my right hand can give me the same level of physical release that someone else could, I see no reason to betray the love I have for her.”
Isabel chuckled a little. “I won’t take offense that I was one of those other women.”
Isabel nodded and contemplated for a moment. “I respect you, Eric. And I like you. I don’t know everything about what’s going on with you and Appius, but—if being engaged to me helps you—then I will agree to it, but . . . .”
“But?” Eric asked after a pause from Isabel.
Isabel took Eric’s hand in her own in a friendly manner. “I’m a pretty selfish person, Eric, and—frankly—being married to you would be ideal to me in almost every way. It would please my father. Plus, our personalities complement each other enough to ensure that we would make good partners. I’m not the kind of girl who ever wanted the fairy tale out of life, so I don’t really care about the fact that your bed and mine would never be the same. And—after Hugo—I doubt that I would ever be able to let myself trust enough to allow myself to fall in love again, so I can’t imagine ever needing out of a marriage if we formed one.” She paused again.
“Yet there was still a ‘but,'” Eric reminded.
Isabel nodded. “As good as an arranged marriage with you would be for me, I’m not quite selfish enough to be willing to take away the chance of a ‘real’ marriage from you—with Sookie.”
“But I already said that’s impossible,” Eric whispered.
“Maybe,” Isabel said, squeezing his hand. “But you’re my friend, so I’m going to pray for the impossible—for your sake.”
Eric looked a little confused. “So—where does that leave us?”
Isabel took a deep breath as resolution filled her eyes. “Get me a ring. I like emerald cuts.” She frowned. “But nothing too big or gaudy. One and a half carats would suffice. And a simple band.”
Eric still looked a little confused. “So you’re agreeing?”
Isabel nodded. “Yes. But I have conditions.”
“You said that your father gave you nine months?”
“Okay. So we have until the third week of October to get married.”
Having done the math already, Eric nodded in confirmation.
“If we get to that point, and there’s still no way for you to be with Sookie, then we’ll get married by a justice of the peace—with just my father and Pam there. And I want a prenup that indicates that if anything ever changes regarding your situation and Sookie, we will equally share custody of any children following our divorce.”
“Isabel . . . ,” Eric started.
“No,” Isabel said firmly. “I won’t do this with you unless it’s clear from the beginning that I don’t want to try to hold onto you if circumstances change. I like you too much to do that. And it would be best if the groundwork was laid out in a prenup if you ever found a way out of your contract with your father. And—I think it’s about time you called me Izzy,” she added with a little smile. “You know I prefer that with my closest friends.”
Eric sighed. “You’re being too good to me, Izzy.”
She chuckled. “Not really. I stand to gain a lot from a marriage to you, and—as I said—I think we could make good partners in life. And I couldn’t think of a better father for my children—children that I do want.” She smiled. “In fact, if we don’t end up getting married, I think I’ll move forward with adopting on my own.” She squeezed his hand. “Will you promise me that—even if you are not their father—you will be their godfather?”
Eric nodded. “I promise.”
“Good,” Isabel said as she went to exit the car. She paused. “Get the ring from Tiffany & Co. on Fifth Avenue. There’s a salesman there named Randolph, and he sells information to the tabloids when high-profile people buy jewelry. Be sure to mention that the ring’s for me, and the news will leak by the next day. Then—we can make a formal announcement.”
Eric nodded numbly. “I cannot thank you enough, Izzy,” he said.
The brunette sighed. “I’m sorry that Sookie is gone, Eric. I hope you can work it out so that you can bring her back and be with her. You love her, and she loves you.”
Eric’s eyes dropped and he said nothing as Isabel exited the vehicle. He needed no one to tell him of Sookie’s love for him. She would always be the wife of his heart, and he felt like a shell without her.
The sad part was that he knew Appius was right about one thing: his misery at not having Sookie by his side would never recede. He would be cursed to live a half-life—just like his father before him.
A/N: Hello all! Thanks to everyone who commented on the previous chapter. I’m so glad that so many of you are still on this journey with me! Some of you mentioned my biographical connection to this story. Indeed, writing is a therapeutic way to deal with the past. Since my father is now deceased and dealing directly with him is impossible, writing is the best way I have found to gain a sense of peace about the way he was.
I hope that you liked getting to know Isabel better. I think she’s kind of kick-ass actually. Remember that she’s a few years older than Eric, and she wants children. She believes he would be a good father, and that’s her main motivation for agreeing to the arrangement. She calls herself selfish, but I think she underestimates herself. We have already seen that she wouldn’t pursue things with Hugo once she learned he was married. And we learn that she is unwilling to agree to Eric’s proposal if he can have a life with Sookie. She’s a very successful woman in her own right too. She knows what she wants, and she has no problem going for it—unless what she wants is not the “right” thing. I’m having fun rethinking both Isabel and Russell in this work. Of course, being more in the SVM universe w/ this story, Russell’s a good guy, and it’s an interesting contrast to the UN-iverse (I stole that name from a commenter, by the way. I think it’s cool.), where he’s the big bad.
Anyway, that’s my rambling for the day.
Just one more chapter and then the epilogue for this one. Then it’s soon on to the third part of the trilogy.
Up next: Eric finds the letter Sookie left behind for him—even as he deals with being in their home alone.