“And so, Mr. Desmond, you can see that your investments are doing very well, only six percent of your tenants here are behind on their rent, and only five of those are behind more than one month. The Clark Hotel is almost always at maximum capacity, and your people there report no problems or issues that need your attention.”
I was standing in my opulent office with my back to the man speaking to me as well as the three others with him, staring out of the ceiling-to-floor windows, my hands clasped behind me. It had been two days since the night of the attempted robbery, and I was completely frustrated with a number of things. I tried to keep it out of my voice when I answered the man, though.
“Thank you, Mr. Turnbull. That is all very good news. Is there anything else, gentlemen?”
Chairs scraped softly, and throats were cleared as the four men seated at the table in my office answered in the negative.
“Then I will speak with you again next week unless something comes up in the meantime.”
“Yes, sir,” they all said, and they quietly left, shutting the door behind them.
As soon as the latch clicked, I began to pace back and forth in front of the wall of windows. When that did nothing to clear my head, I stormed to my mahogany desk and flung myself into the black leather chair behind it. I picked up a pencil and almost unconsciously began to sketch on the back of an envelope. I thought about the fact that I had asked Sebastian to find one Sarah in a city of seven million people, and my scowl darkened. I was trying to figure out a way to find her faster when my intercom buzzed.
“Mr. Desmond, sir, there is someone here who would like to speak with you.” My secretary’s voice trembled, and I sighed deeply before pressing the button. The woman had never seen me, but apparently, she thought I was something akin to an axe murderer, because she never spoke to me without sounding like she was about to either scream or cry.
“Who is it, Miss Parker?”
“A Miss McAllister, sir.” The tremor caused her voice to crack at the end, and I seriously considered firing her and replacing her with someone with a backbone.
I thought for a few moments if I knew anyone by that name and came up blank. “I’m not interested, Miss Parker. Get her information, and tell her I’ll contact her later.”
Seconds later, the door of my office slammed against the wall, and I slowly rose to my feet as Sebastian rushed in, shutting it behind him.
“What do you think you are doing?” My tone was ominous, but Sebastian waved his hand dismissively.
“You need to talk to her, Erik,” he said quickly.
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked incredulously, my eyebrows rising.
He laid his hands flat on my desk and said, “Because she has long black hair and brown eyes.” His eyes flicked to the sketch beneath my fingers. “And because she looks exactly like this.” He tapped the envelope, and I looked down.
Without realizing it, I had drawn the girl who had consumed my every thought for two days. Her eyes were sad, and I had even added the tears I had seen that night in my gallery. I caught my breath and stood quickly, sending the chair skidding back into the wall with a thud.
“She’s here. Will you talk with her?”
“No!” I gasped as I grabbed the sketch and stuffed it in the top drawer of my desk. “Are you insane?”
Sebastian frowned as he straightened. “Are you going to tell me that I have spent the last two days searching for this girl, and now that she’s here, you won’t even speak to her?”
“I…” I tried to scowl at him, but the look on his face told me that I failed miserably.
“Erik, what’s wrong?” His voice was quiet, but his frown remained.
I blew out a harsh breath and stormed back to the windows before turning and facing my friend. “I can’t, Sebastian! I can’t let her see me! I can’t do that to her!”
“Do what to her, Erik? You know, you might be surprised what will happen if you let people in. I’m sure she’ll be just fine with seeing you.”
“No,” I said sharply. “I can’t risk it.”
“Fine,” he said, throwing his hands in the air, “but you will speak to her.”
I opened my mouth to retort, but he stopped me with a glare and a finger in the air. “You will, Erik, if I have to hold you down in order for it to happen. Now, go sit at your desk and turn your back to the door. I’ll bring her in, and I’ll stay to make sure she doesn’t try to sneak a peek, all right?”
Trepidation filled me, but I nodded and took a deep breath before moving to my chair and turning toward the second wall of windows behind my desk. I had no idea why the thought of this girl being in the same room with me scared me so much, but I took long, deep breaths and tried to calm down. I succeeded just before the door opened, and I sat up straight in the chair and forced myself to sit still.
“Mr. Desmond, this is Miss Sarah McAllister.” Sebastian was always formal when others were with us, and it helped me retain control of myself.
“It is an honor to be here, sir. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.”
She spoke softly, but a shudder raced through me as her words surrounded me and seeped in between the cracks in my wall. I suddenly had an uncontrollable urge to look at her, and I swiveled my chair just enough so that I could see her out of the corner of my right eye.
She and Sebastian gasped at the same time. I knew he was stunned that I would show even this small part of my face to anyone, but I couldn’t decide what her gasp meant. The largest part of me was positive that it was a gasp of horror and that she was about to race out of the room in fear and disgust, but a miniscule part thought that perhaps it was a gasp of…something else I dared not name.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss McAllister.” I was proud of the fact that my voice was steady, and the right corner of my mouth lifted up a tiny bit as I took in the sight of the young woman standing before my desk.
She was dressed in a black and red dress which was cut to accentuate every curve of her body. Her legs were encased in nylons, and they ended in black high-heeled shoes. Her black hair cascaded down her back beneath a wide-brimmed black hat, but a few tendrils framed her lovely oval face. Her brown eyes were shining with tears, and when I saw that, I instantly frowned and spun my chair back to its original position. I silently berated myself for scaring her, and I took a deep breath, holding it when she spoke again.
“Mr. Desmond? Are you all right, sir?”
I groaned inwardly and placed my head in my hands, roughly digging the heels into my eyes. I had brought her to tears, and she was worried about me.
“I am fine, Miss McAllister,” I said tightly, though it was a bold-faced lie. In actuality, all I wanted was to escape to my apartment and end this awkward moment. “Please have a seat.” A chair scraped quietly on the floor, and I envisioned her gracefully seating herself on it. “What is it you want to talk to me about?”
“Um…I…” Her voice shook, and I hated myself a little bit more.
To cover my distress, I swiftly rose to my feet and moved to the wall of windows and stared at Central Park fifty stories below me. “I am a very busy man, Miss McAllister,” I said coldly, and I closed my eyes against the sudden pain in my heart as I said harsh words I did not mean. “If you have nothing to say to me, I’ll have to ask that you excuse me.”
“Sir, I’m sorry to take up your valuable time, but…”
When she paused once again, I heaved a sigh and risked a glance over my shoulder, being careful to keep the left side of my face turned away from her. What I saw almost caused me to turn toward her fully, but I restrained myself. Sarah was sitting on the very edge of the chair, poised to jump and run at any moment, and she was staring intently at me. The look of compassion on her face hit me hard, and I clenched my fists in an attempt to keep myself from either gathering her up in my arms or fleeing from the room, never to return.
“But what, Miss McAllister?”
Her eyes never left me as she answered, “But I had to ask you about the paintings, sir.”
I had completely forgotten that Sebastian was still in the room, but he cleared his throat and spoke softly. “Mr. Desmond, would you like me to leave?”
My eyes flicked to him, and I knew he could see the fear in them because he hastily added, “Only if you want me to, of course, sir.”
I turned back to the windows and debated my answer. On the one hand, I wasn’t sure I wanted him to hear what this girl had to say about my art. On the other hand, I had never been in a room alone with a stranger—not before my father disfigured me, and, with the exception of Doctor Clark and Nurse Williams, certainly never afterward. After a moment of indecision, I straightened to my full six feet, four inches and brushed off some imaginary lint from my impeccably clean black jacket.
“You may go, Mr. Holdaway. I will let you know if you are needed.” I was happy that my voice was steady, if not a little cold.“Yes, sir,” he responded, and I heard the apprehension in his voice, but I ignored it. I had decided years before that I would no longer be afraid of anyone, much less a little slip of a girl. My heart clenched in fear, however, as Sebastian’s footsteps crossed the hardwood and the door opened and closed. It stopped altogether at Sarah’s next words.