Eventually, I pulled myself to my feet and put out the last light. I didn’t need it to find my way to the stairs, nor to the elevator. I had walked the path more times than I could count, and that night, it seemed interminable as I dragged my feet along the rich, red carpet. Just before I hit the button to open the elevator doors, however, I heard a sound behind and below me, and I froze. It was just a quiet scraping, but my enhanced sense of hearing made it as clear as a church bell. Slowly and silently, I turned from the elevator and made my way to the balcony railing. The sound came again, and I realized that it was coming from the front door of the gallery. I quickly made my way back down the stairs and positioned myself behind the curtain nearest the door, knowing that I would be invisible to anyone who entered. Sure enough, there was a sharp click as someone picked the lock, and the door creaked open. My sight was almost as heightened as my hearing, and I watched as a dark shadow entered my gallery.
My blood began to boil as I observed the intruder. How dare someone break into my building! I had been itching for a bit of violence ever since that Dutch bastard had tried to buy my paintings, and it seemed I was about to get my chance. I grinned as the man flicked on a flashlight and moved toward the oils section. His back was to me, and he didn’t notice when I followed him without a sound. He stopped in front of the paintings and chuckled.
“The fool,” he muttered, “a fortune was offered him, and now he will lose the money and the art.” I recognized the same accent as the bastard prince’s. Without seeing his face, I knew in an instant that this idiot who violated my space was Benjamin, the prince’s man.
I edged up behind him until there were barely six inches between us. He was much shorter than I as well as thin as a toothpick. I grinned as I thought of what I was about to do to him.
As he reached out a hand to the first painting, I growled, “I really wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
With a gasp, he whirled around, the flashlight rising to shine in my face. By the look on his face, I can only imagine what he saw, but I knew that my grin had changed to a scowl, and he took a step backward.
“Who are you?” he demanded with only a slight quake in his voice.
“I believe I should be asking you that question considering that I belong here, and you don’t,” I answered, my voice tight. I took a step toward him, and he took another backward. He hit the painting he had been about to take, and it clattered off of the easel to the floor. He continued to retreat, maneuvering himself around the paintings and bench, as I slowly approached him.
“A coward as well as a thief, I see.” My lip curled in a sneer.
He stopped suddenly and pulled himself straight. “I am no coward,” he snarled.
“Perhaps not,” I answered, stopping directly in front of him, “although I notice you don’t deny the thief label.”
“Who are you?” he asked again, and I cocked my head, deciding whether or not to tell him.
“Who do you think I am?” I finally asked.
His light and gaze traveled across my body, and I saw his eyes take in the expensive tuxedo, the hideous scar, the threatening scowl, and his eyes went wide. “You are him!” he whispered harshly.
“Who?” I asked softly.
“Erik Desmond,” he answered with a sudden grin and a chuckle. “The mysterious genius whom no one has ever seen. Now I understand why.” He laughed shortly. “Just wait until I tell people what an ugly bastard you are. Unless you pay me to keep quiet, that is.”
I froze for a split second as fury greater than I had ever known washed over me, and then my hand flashed out, and I grabbed him by the throat. My fingers fit nicely around it, and a growl came from deep in my chest as I swiftly forced him backward until he hit a wall. He struggled but could not release my grip. He tried to swing the flashlight at me, but I easily blocked it with my other hand, and it dropped to the floor.
“A coward,” I said, my voice getting louder, “I think not; a thief, most definitely; a fool, undoubtedly; a dead man, absolutely!”
“Wait!” he gasped, trying to wrench my hand off of his throat.
“Why? You break into my gallery, attempt to steal my creations, and now you try to blackmail me!” I was practically shouting at this point, and my hand was a vice as I began to squeeze. “Yes, there is good reason I am not seen, and there isn’t the slightest chance in hell that I will let you tell what you know!”
The man started to gurgle as my hand tightened further, and his eyes rolled back in his head. I stared, fascinated, as his lips turned blue, a perverse feeling of glee filling my entire being. When he stopped struggling, I released my hand, and he dropped to the floor in a heap.
For a brief moment, I towered over him and breathed deeply, relishing the sensation of triumph. In the next moment, however, the body at my feet shuddered, and it took a deep, rasping breath and then another and another. My euphoria vanished instantly, and I was about to reach down to make sure I finished the job when I heard someone at the door of the gallery.
“What the…? Erik? Why is the door unlocked?”
Damn! I heard the door creak and Sebastian’s footsteps as they approached us. Light blazed as he flipped switches on his way, and he threw back the blood-red curtain separating us.
“Erik! What the hell are you doing? Stop!”
He rushed over to me and inserted himself between me and the man on the floor. He rarely ever touched me more than a hand on my back or arm, but now he firmly placed both hands on my chest and pushed me backward.
A growl simmered deep in my chest, and Sebastian’s eyes filled with fear, but he stood his ground. “Get out of my way,” I said in a cold, flat voice that, even to my ears, sounded horrifying.
“No, Erik, I won’t let you do this!”
Sebastian was a large man, but I was much larger and stronger, and I took his wrists in my hands and easily shoved him aside. He staggered back, and just as I grabbed the still-gasping man by the front of his shirt, hauled him upright, and drew back my fist to bury it in his terrified face, Sebastian yelled, “Erik! You’re not your father!”
Time froze. I froze.
The words hit me like a truck, and I inhaled sharply. The red haze obscuring my vision cleared, and I saw the man I was holding against the wall. He was trembling and wheezing as he forced air past his bruised throat into his starved lungs. His blue eyes were wide with fear, and he was shaking his head back and forth, while his hands were wrapped around my wrist in an attempt to get free. In an instant, I saw myself in the man before me—myself as a five-year-old boy about to be slapped for not moving out of my father’s way fast enough, as an eight-year-old being belt-whipped for spilling water on the floor, as a seventeen-year-old being beaten unconscious for bringing a flower into the house.
My hand loosened, and the man dropped back to the floor. What I had just done slammed into my brain, and then, I was the one staggering back, my eyes wide. I continued backward until the backs of my legs hit the bench, and I sat, my hands over my face. I hadn’t cried in five years, and I didn’t now, but I was shaking uncontrollably.
Vaguely, I heard Sebastian say something about police, and my head snapped up.
“No! No police!”
“But, Erik, he’s a thief. The police need to be involved.”
I swallowed the guilt and shame that were threatening to overwhelm me and stood back up, still shaking. My voice was still stern but not nearly as menacing as it was before. “No police. The publicity will destroy my gallery. and my privacy will be irrevocably invaded.” I took one step toward the man, and he cringed against the wall, his eyes never leaving mine. “You will leave now,” I said slowly. “You and your prince will leave New York immediately. I don’t care what excuse you give him, but if you are still here tomorrow morning, I will know, and I will finish what I started. And I don’t care where you are in the world. If I hear one hint of a rumor that someone has seen the elusive Erik Desmond, I will find you. Do you understand me?”
The man attempted to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse croak, so he nodded his head frantically.
“Good.” I turned to Sebastian, whose eyes were almost as wide as the thief’s. “Make sure he is gone, Sebastian, and then go home.”
My friend also nodded, and I saw him move toward the man as I whirled around and headed toward the stairs. On the way there, I stooped and carefully picked up my fallen painting and replaced it on its stand. I flung the black curtain aside and strode up the stairs with determination, but with each step, more and more visions of my father bombarded me. By the time I reached the elevator, it was too much, and I slowly slid to the carpet and wrapped my arms around my legs, my head on my knees.
I vaguely noticed the lights go out, and I heard the front door shut and lock. I wanted to leave, to go home, but my body wouldn’t obey, so I sat there, at war with myself as I tried to banish the apparitions that were once again haunting me.
Sebastian tried to be silent, but I still heard him climb the stairs and move toward me. He knelt in front of me and laid his hands on my shoulders. It was then that I noticed that I was shaking again, and, on top of that, I was rocking back and forth, as I once was in Doctor Clark’s library. That realization filled me with disgust, and I stiffened.
“Erik, are you all right? Tell me what happened.” Concerned words filtered through the mess surrounding me, but they couldn’t fully penetrate the loathing that was rapidly overriding everything else.
I had sworn to myself five years before that I would never again be reduced to this pitiful, quivering weakling, and yet, here I was. My head came up slowly, and I glared at Sebastian, my lip curling in contempt. I climbed to my feet deliberately, my self-hatred building with every second. Without a word, I turned toward the elevator and slammed my hand against the button, seething inside.
My entire body tensed as Sebastian placed his hand on my arm, and I spoke quietly and with menace, “Get your hand off of me.”
He ignored me and only grasped me tighter. “No, Erik! Talk to me!”
I whirled toward him and wrenched myself from his grip. “Why!? What do you want to hear? Do you want to hear about my demons, about my father and my childhood? How he beat me from the time I was born, how he hated the very sight of me, how he would have killed me if my mother hadn’t stopped him? Do you want to hear how my mother killed herself to get away from him? What about how much I hate myself right now because even after five years away from him, he has the power to reduce me to a sniveling little boy again without being anywhere near me? How I’m afraid that I will turn into him? Is that what you want to hear, Sebastian!?”
Sebastian just stood silently, letting my words wash over him. When I stopped shouting and gritted my teeth in an attempt to control myself, he swallowed thickly.
“Erik,” he said softly, “you are my friend, and I care deeply about what happens to you. The world only knows you as the mysterious genius, but I know the real you.” He took my arm again, and I let him. “I know what you’ve been through to some extent. You’ve told me enough for me to hate your father as much as you do.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” I muttered darkly, but his words brought a measure of calm to my tense body and mind.
He chuckled. “Okay, you’re probably right. But,” he continued, becoming instantly serious, “I do know you, Erik. I’ve seen how you struggle for control over everything—your art, your gallery, your businesses, yourself. I’ve seen how you won’t let anyone close to you.”
“I’ve let you close, haven’t I?”
He cocked his head and studied me. “Somewhat,” he agreed.
“Somewhat? You are the only person in New York City who has seen my face, Sebastian. You know more about me than anyone alive, with the possible exception of the bastard whose blood flows through my veins.”
“That is true,” he said with a small smile, “but you keep the most important parts of you tied up inside of you, never to be let out, never to be known by anyone but you.”
“And what are those parts?”
“Your feelings, Erik.”
I frowned. “My feelings. Well, I’ll tell you what I’m feeling right now. I feel like going after that son of a bitch who dared break into my gallery and finish the job I started downstairs. I feel like finding my father and beating him to a bloody pulp with my bare hands and hearing him plead for mercy just like I did before I learned that pleading only made the beatings worse. I feel like climbing out on my balcony and…”
“Nothing,” I said quickly, turning away from him toward the stairs. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t follow me.”
“I mean it, Sebastian. Stay away from me, or I just might feel like doing something to you.” I all but ran down the stairs and out the front door into the bitterly cold November night, grabbing my black trench coat from the rack by the door on the way.
The wind hit me full force, its icy fingers finding their way past the barrier of my coat and seeping into my bones. I flipped up my collar but otherwise ignored the cold and crossed Central Park South into the park itself. I had no idea what time it was, but it was late enough and cold enough that I was completely alone as I started down the path that led away from the street.The lights were on in the park, and I walked slowly beneath the barren trees, letting the cold wash away the hot anger and hatred coursing through me. I walked for hours, seeing no one, until I couldn’t feel my extremities. It was three o’clock in the morning when I finally found myself back in my apartment, and I immediately stripped off my clothes and dropped into bed, but I couldn’t sleep. While my emotions were back under control, images of the evening inundated my mind—the memory of my father’s face and fists and feet, my own fist about to annihilate the Dutchman’s face, and myself crouched like a baby, shaking and rocking. As the sun rose, however, one last image imbedded itself behind my closed eyelids, and it caused me to bolt out of bed to get ready for the day. The image was that of a dark-haired, brown eyed girl who claimed to understand and seemed to stare right through me.