I am Erik. I am my mother’s beautiful, talented, intelligent boy. Although I told myself this every day, I didn’t believe a word of it.
I am no longer Erik Desmond Taylor, abused, terrorized, miserable, motherless child from Willow, Tennessee. I am Erik Desmond, talented, famous, wealthy, miserable, motherless man from New York City. It had been five years since I had dropped the last name of Taylor, no longer wanting to be associated with the man responsible for my mother’s death and the death of the man who had become my surrogate father, but every day the demons that had tormented me as a boy picked at the scabs of my childhood and whispered their evil accusations in my head, and I couldn’t get them to stop.
After Henry Clark died at my father’s hand and I found out that my mother killed herself, I retreated into myself. The first week was spent in the hotel’s suite refusing to see or talk to anyone. The news of the doctor’s death had made its way to Willow, and both the sheriff and Nurse Williams came to Knoxville to try to comfort me, but I wanted none of it. The two detectives kept me up to date on the search for my father, but they had no luck. The only thought that I would allow in my mind was that someday, and someday soon, I would kill my father. That kept me in a perpetual foul mood, and I became more and more withdrawn.
Eight days after my world fell apart, Detective Johnson physically dragged me out of the room to bring me to a lawyer’s office in downtown Knoxville. I had no idea why, and I didn’t care. It turned out that the doctor had left a will, and in that will, dated a mere two months before his death, he left every penny of his fortune to me. I had known he was rich, but the total amount staggered me, even though I vowed not to let it show. I had inherited not only the house in Willow and the hotel but also the rest of his worldly goods—namely the contents of three bank accounts to the tune of over three million dollars. All told, a mere six months after leaving the cramped, one-room cabin in Willow, I had a net worth of about six million dollars. In the five years since then, through investments and other pursuits, I had almost doubled it.
I was standing on the balcony of my penthouse in Manhattan at sunset, looking out over Central Park. From there, I could breathe the cold November air and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city from high above it. I could try to forget all about the first seventeen years of my life and focus on the last five. I could try, but I rarely succeeded. Even thinking about this evening’s event could not completely dispel the anger and frustration that had been my constant companions since the day my mother and guardian died.
I vividly remembered my words to the Knoxville detectives at the hospital, despite the fact that I had been rapidly falling into a drugged stupor at the time. I still vowed to kill my father, and for five years, I had searched for him, using all the resources available to me, but with no results. Private investigators and the police had found no trace of him, and my own efforts had come up with nothing. I fervently hoped that he was not dead. I wanted the pleasure of that task myself. Just the thought of it sent a rush of adrenaline through me, and my fists clenched in anticipation of beating him to a bloody pulp.
A loud sigh escaped me, and I frowned as my muscles tensed. I slowly turned and leaned against the railing, my fists still clenched at my sides.
Sebastian Holdaway was standing in the doorway, arms folded across his chest.
“It’s time, Erik.”
My frown deepened as we stared at each other. Then, with a low growl, I pushed myself off of the railing and stalked past the one man I considered my friend.
“Explain to me again why I have to be there. It’s not like anyone is going to actually see me, and I wasn’t at the last one.”
“True,” he said with a smile, closing the sliding glass door behind me, “but this is your business, and you need to be there tonight. Think of it as research. You’ll be able to tell what people like and don’t like. Besides, it’s good for you to hear what they say about your work.”
“I don’t give a damn what people like. I create my art for me, not them. The fact that they are willing to pay ludicrous amounts of money for it is just a bonus.”
He chuckled. “You’ve heard the latest rumor, right?”
“Which one? The one that says I’m actually a group of artists working together,” I said as I slipped my arms into the jacket he held for me, “or the one that says I’m a woman hiding behind a male pseudonym?”
A laugh burst from him. “The second. I’ve heard my share of absurd speculations about you, but that’s my favorite.”
Stopping in front of the gilded mirror next to the front door, I double-checked my appearance. My seemingly ever-present scowl intensified as I stared briefly at my scar. The years had not softened it in the least, and because of it, I never let myself be seen by anyone but Sebastian. Even this night, I would stay in the shadows, and he would be the only person who would even know I was in the room. I tore my gaze from my face and straightened the tie and jacket of my tuxedo. If anyone did notice me, they would see a well-dressed, wealthy, mysterious stranger, which was exactly how I wanted it to be.
The last five years had been kind to me in one respect. I was four inches over six feet in height, and continual training and conditioning had turned my once-puny body into one with well-defined muscles which filled my tailored suit to perfection. As I turned from the mirror, I scanned the room. All right, two respects.
My apartment occupied the entire top floor of the building in which it was situated, even though I was the only one who lived there. Following the poverty of my childhood, I had decided that I would deny myself nothing. After convincing Sebastian to leave Knoxville and move to New York with me, I realized exactly how deprived I had been as a child, and I had no hesitation about using the money I had. My home had every modern convenience known to man, but not a single piece of furniture was newer than one hundred fifty years old, and many of the items were worth more than most people’s annual salaries. The apartment also had a custom-designed art studio with a door that led to the same balcony I had just been on. That entire wall was glass, and I often used the view as inspiration for my art.
“Come on, Erik, let’s go.”
Taking a deep breath, I straightened to my full height and glared at Sebastian before moving toward my private elevator.
When Sebastian and I had first come to New York, I was a naïve seventeen-year-old country bumpkin, and he was a city born and bred twenty-two-year-old man. I hadn’t wanted to engage with anyone, so Sebastian had quickly found us a hotel where no one would ask any questions, and I spent a week there while he scoured the city for what I wanted. Finally, he showed up with a huge grin on his face.
“I found it, Erik! It’s on the edge of Central Park, and I think it’s just what you want!”
We got into the doctor’s silver 1930 Alfa Romeo Spyder and drove to what was then the Vandervere Tower. Sebastian parked on the street in front of it, and I gazed up at the fifty story building.
“Well, the owners have gone bankrupt, so the bank’s asking one point two million.”
I looked at him in surprise. “For the entire thing?”
It had only taken a moment for me to decide to buy it. I figured that it was only a bit of the cash I had and that I could easily live off of the rest. I had only been a boy at the time, but I was right.
The first thing I did after moving into one of the offices on the top floor was to get a list of tenants and the prices they were paying for rent. I had never been a businessman before, but I had a head for numbers, and I realized that with forty-nine floors of offices with twenty offices each, I could charge fifty dollars a month and make more than half a million dollars a year.
I changed the name to The Desmond Building and had Sebastian spread the news that the newest office building was looking for businesses to occupy it. He was a born salesman, and within a year, ninety percent of the offices were filled. I gutted the top floor, had it remodeled into a penthouse apartment, claimed it as my own, and settled in while converting three of the offices on the forty-ninth floor into an office for me. I asked Sebastian to live with me, but he declined.
“I’ll work for you, Erik, but I want my own place.”
Since then, my time had been split between business and pleasure. About half of my day was spent making sure that my building and the Knoxville hotel were running properly, and the other half was spent with my art.
It was because of the latter half that I was forced to the first floor of my building to be around dozens of strangers. When Sebastian first saw my drawings, he told me that he’d show them around the art galleries and see if anyone would be interested in displaying them. I thought he was delusional, but when he came back the first day empty-handed only an hour or so after leaving, I was shocked.
“The first gallery, Erik! They took one look at your pictures and offered to sell them for you. They said they hadn’t seen such technique in fifty years.”
Word had spread quickly, and now I made more from my art than from my businesses. However, not a single person in New York City, aside from Sebastian, had any idea who Erik Desmond, the genius artist, actually was or what he looked like. I had contact with a few people, my lawyers and my accountants, for instance, but always either on the telephone, or, when I had to be in a room with people, with my back turned toward them.
As we rode the elevator to The Gallery—my showroom I had established on the first floor—my breathing quickened. Sebastian noticed and placed his hand on my arm.
“Breathe slowly, Erik,” he said softly. “You can do this. You always do.”I simply nodded, hating the fact that after five years, the thought of people seeing me still set my heart racing and my palms sweating. I forced myself to breathe deeply, though, and I steeled myself for what I knew would be a night of misery.