I looked up from the papers on my desk. “Yes, Sebastian?”
“There’s someone here to see you.”
My brows came together as I went back to the bank statements I had been studying. “See or talk to?”
“Doctor Adams? It’s not time for him to be here yet.”
“No, not the doctor.”
I pursed my lips and gave him my full attention. “Just what do you think I’m going to say? You really think I’ll let anyone see me?”
He shrugged. “I thought you might make an exception this time.”
“And why in the world would you think that?”
“Because she traveled over three hundred miles to be here and because you’ve been waiting for her to call you back. Not very patiently, I might add.”
I surged to my feet and leaned toward him, placing my hands on the desk. “She’s here?”
He nodded. “Will you see her?”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I closed it and dropped my head. I had called Sarah McAllister almost two weeks before and had hoped she had received the package I had sent, but I had heard nothing. I thought I was eager to see her and talk to her, but the knowledge that she was mere feet from me started my heart racing, and I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead. I dropped into my chair and ran my left hand through my hair.
His hands hitting the top of the desk brought my head up with a snap. “Damn it, Erik! You’ve made me miserable for two weeks moaning about how she hasn’t responded to you, and now you’re not even going to talk to her? This is not happening! You will at least talk to her and find out what she wants!”
I took a deep breath and silently begged him not to make me do this, even though deep inside, I desperately wanted to. Sebastian had been right when he had said that I was lonely. I wanted someone in my life that I could talk to, but I was terrified of the same. The contradiction made my chest hurt, and I closed my eyes against the pain and buried my face in my forearms.
“Erik.” Sebastian’s voice was in my ear, and I shook my head.
“What is wrong with me?” I asked. “How can I be so scared of something I want so badly?”
“My friend, I will not claim to understand what is going on in that head of yours, but I will tell you that you are going to end up killing yourself if you don’t talk to someone. If you won’t talk to me, then let it be her.”
Her. The vision of her dark hair, her equally dark eyes, and her perfect, white skin flashed through my mind, and a small voice suddenly whispered in my head.
You are my Erik. You are my brave, brilliant boy. You will be a great man someday and leave all of this behind you. You will do amazing things in your life. I know this is true because you are my Erik.
I hadn’t heard that voice in over five years, but it was as clear as day. Tears soaked my jacket sleeves as my mother’s face came into view next to Sarah’s, and I heaved a sigh.
“Erik, what is it?”
I turned my head and rested my temple on my arm. “She would have been so disappointed in me, Sebastian.”
“Who do you think? My mother, of course.”
“How could she possibly be disappointed in you? Look around you and see what you have accomplished.”
“This,” I sat up and flung my arm in a circle, “is nothing! She told me I was brave. She told me I would be a great man, but she was wrong.”
“No, she wasn’t, Erik.”
“Yes, Sebastian, she was.” I felt like I should be yelling at him, but I had no anger in me, only intense shame and grief. “I am a coward, and I can’t break away from being that terrified child who couldn’t protect himself or his mother.”
To my surprise, Sebastian grabbed me by my upper arms and forced me to look at him.
“Listen to me, Erik Desmond! You are the strongest, bravest man I have ever met! Most people who went through what you did as a child would either be dead by now or in an insane asylum or jail or living on a street corner! But look at you and what you have achieved. You are one of the most famous artists in the world as well as one of the wealthiest. You have overcome your childhood whether you think you have or not.” He let go of my arms and sat back on his heels. “Now, you say that Miss McAllister went through something similar, which makes her just as brave and amazing as you. Don’t you think that she is someone you could talk to? Someone who can help you put away that terrified child once and for all?”
I didn’t agree with his assessment of me, but I was willing to concede that he was right about Sarah, and I nodded. His face immediately broke out into a smile, and he stood up.
“Good, then I’ll let her in.”
“What is it?”
“I still can’t let her see me. Not yet.”
“If that’s your desire, Erik, I’m sure she’ll respect it.”
As he left my office, I moved so that I was before the windows. I took up my usual position with my back to the door and my hands clasped behind me, but I felt my heart pounding, and my breath became rapid and shallow. It worsened when the door opened and light footsteps crossed the floor.
“Mr. Desmond? Thank you for seeing me.”
“It is my pleasure, Miss McAllister.” I turned slightly to my right so that I could see her, and my heart skipped a beat as I took in her beauty. She was standing in front of my desk, and I could see that she was scared. Of what exactly, I wasn’t sure, but when she opened her mouth to speak, I held up one finger.
“No, please, let me say something first.”
She closed her mouth, nodded, and primly folded her hands in front of her and waited.
I cleared my throat and looked down at the floor for a moment before turning back to the windows.
“I wanted to apologize, Miss McAllister, for my behavior the last time you were here. I was despicably rude to you, and I am sorry. I have no excuse for it, but I do ask for your forgiveness.”
There was a long pause, and I glanced over my shoulder. She was in the same position, but I noticed that her hands were clenched tighter.
“May I be blunt, Mr. Desmond?”
The question surprised me, but I tried to hide it as I said, “Of course.”
“I almost didn’t come here. As a matter of fact, my father tried to talk me out of it. He said that even if you are rich and famous, you were also an ill-mannered brute and that I should have nothing to do with you. I disagreed with him on one of those points, just as I disagree with you on one point. You and he are right that you were not respectful to me before, but I think you are wrong when you say you have no excuse, and I just couldn’t stay away.”
She took a step closer to me, and I tensed.
“I’d like to see the view from those windows, Mr. Desmond. May I?”
“Um…” I wasn’t tongue-tied often, and I hated being so now.
“I’ll stay on your right side, and I promise not to peek.”
Shock flowed through me. “How did you know?” I wasn’t sure she could hear me, but she answered immediately.
“I didn’t for sure, but I figured it was a pretty good guess.” She took another step. I made sure that with every movement of hers, I kept my deformity from her sight. “You’ve let me see the right side of your face, but you have been determined not to let the left side show.” Another step, and she was only a few feet from me.
She did. “Do you really want me to? I got a different impression from your gift, which I loved, by the way, and your phone call.”
I took a deep breath and put both hands on the window. I tried to speak but couldn’t. The terror building within me was starting to overpower everything else. I hated myself for it, but there was nothing I could do about it except try to make myself angry enough that the fear was squashed.
I suddenly whirled, took three steps away from her, and asked, “Why are you here?”
There was no answer, and I ran my hand through my hair in frustration.
“Miss McAllister, I asked you a question.” I silently cursed when I heard my cold tone.
“It’s not going to work this time, you know.” The sound of her voice had changed so that I knew she was no longer facing me, and I chanced a look back at her.
She had taken up my position at the window and was gazing out at the park.
Without moving, she said, “You’re not going to chase me away this time.”
I realized that that was exactly what I was trying to do, and I thought of Sebastian’s little lecture. Unexpectedly, a fierce determination flared within me, any shred of anger and fear disappeared, and I decided that I would do as he had practically demanded of me: I would talk to this girl. About what, I wasn’t sure, but I knew without a doubt that I didn’t want her to go.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Please stay.”
She raised herself up on her toes and peered out of the window. “Since you asked so nicely, I think I will.” I could hear her smile, and then she sighed. “The view is amazing from up here.”
“It is even better from my apartment’s balcony,” I said before I could talk myself out of speaking. My voice still shook slightly, however, and I took a deep breath. “Would you like to see it?”
She made no sound.
“Never mind,” I said dejectedly. “Perhaps you would just like to tell me exactly why you’re here.”
“No,” she said hastily as her entire body stiffened, “I would like that very much, thank you; your offer just surprised me, that’s all.”
I wasn’t sure I believed her, but I told myself to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Do you have a coat?” The long-sleeved dress she was wearing wouldn’t be nearly warm enough for the biting wind I knew would be blowing.
“I have a cloak. Your secretary took it.”
“Please,” I said quickly, “don’t turn around, and I’ll get it for you.” She nodded, and I strode to my desk and activated the intercom. “Miss Parker, will you please bring me Miss McAllister’s cloak?”
“Yes, sir, right away.”
I moved so that I was between Sarah and the door. Panic began to build as I realized that I had put myself in a very precarious position. If she decided to betray me and look, I would have no choice but to either let her stare at me or turn toward the door, and then Miss Parker would see me when she came in. I was about to move to my chair when the door behind me opened, and Miss Parker’s steps stopped directly behind me.
“Here you are, Mr. Desmond.”
I held my hand out behind me, and she placed the soft, woolen cloak in it.
“Thank you, Miss Parker.”
“You are very welcome, sir.”
The door shut, and I slowly walked toward the girl at my windows until I was almost touching her.
“You didn’t look.”
She jumped. “Oh! You scared me! I didn’t even hear you coming.”
“I’m sorry about that. I learned as a very young boy to be silent.”
My hands shook as I reached forward to drape the heavy cloth over her shoulders, and then I hastily stepped backward. I watched as she tied it about her neck, and then she said, “I’m going to turn around now.”
Terror slammed into me, and I hissed in a breath before spinning and stumbling away from her, coward that I was.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I should have said that I’d have my eyes closed.”
“Do you?” I breathed.
“Yes, Mr. Desmond. I told you I wouldn’t look, and I won’t.”
I risked a glance at her and saw that she was standing facing me, but her eyes were indeed shut, and I was shocked that she had kept her word.
“I have no idea where we are going, however,” she said with a smile, “so you will have to guide me.” She held out her right hand.
The thought of touching her had two distinctly opposite effects on me. A large part of me fiercely wanted to take her hand and never let go, but another smaller but no less powerful part wanted to run away screaming. I took a deep breath and banished the fear to the back of my mind. Then I reached out and slowly slipped my hand into hers. The radiant smile she bestowed on me strengthened my resolve, and I took a step toward the stairs. She followed unquestioningly, and her bravery made me feel ashamed. She was putting herself in the hands of someone she didn’t know, and I was afraid to even make true eye contact with her.
When we got to the stairs, I said, “Do you mind if I guide you up? I wouldn’t want you to trip.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said. “I trust you.”
I started up the stairs, and she stayed one step behind me, clinging tightly to my hand. “Why?”
“Why do you trust me? You don’t even know me.”
“Maybe not, but I’d like to think I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I have judged you to be a decent man. A little rude, perhaps, but still decent.”
I glanced down at her, and there was a smirk on her face. I could have found my way to my home in the dark, so I kept watching her as we walked up the stairs.
“Decent? That’s not the reaction I have gotten from most people.”
“Well, how many people have you spoken to like this lately?”
“Including you? Two.”
Her eyebrows crinkled. “That’s…”
She tilted her head upward, and I held my breath, but her eyes remained tightly shut. She stopped, and I turned toward her.
“That’s very sad,” she said, and she placed her free hand on my arm. “Aren’t you lonely?”
I swallowed my answer because I didn’t want her to know the truth, and we resumed our trek up the stairs. Nothing more was said until we reached the doorway to my apartment. I led her across the room, startled but pleased that she kept her eyes closed, until we reached the glass doors that led to the balcony. I moved her in front of me and slid the door open. The cold wind hit us hard, and she shivered.
“Do you still trust me?” I asked.
“Then keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them.”
She nodded, and I raised my shaking left hand and placed it on her shoulder. I gently pushed her forward until she was standing in front of the black cast-iron railing. The wind howled around us, and I closed my eyes briefly in order to gather the courage for what I was about to do.
“Put your hands on the railing.”
Her hands reached forward, and she did as I asked. She was so tiny that the top rail was at her shoulder level, and I wanted her to see what I saw with nothing to block the view. I dropped my hand to her waist and wrapped it around her, trying my best to hold it steady, although I sucked in a harsh breath at the intimate contact. I hoped she couldn’t hear it over the wind.
“Step up,” I said softly.
She did so, placing her dainty feet on the bottom rail and straightening. The movement put her head just below my chin, and her scent blew around me. I took a deep breath, tightened my grip slightly to keep her from falling, and looked out at the park over her head.
“Open your eyes.”
Her gasp told me that she had done so, and I fervently wished I could see her face at that moment.
“Oh, Mr. Desmond, it’s beautiful!”
It was. The sun had set, the lights were on in the park, and they shimmered as if the world had turned upside down and the stars shone below us instead of above. Intermingled with the normal yellow pinpricks, however, were the myriad Christmas lights that were visible from our perch fifty stories high. Red, blue, green, and white glimmers flashed at us from the tree at the entrance to the zoo and the one in front of the Pierre Hotel. Added to these were the innumerable businesses that had decorated for the holiday. I had often stood in this exact spot and gazed out at the lights below me, but this night, it was different, and it was all because of the girl who trembled beneath my hand.
“Do you want to go back inside?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but I suppose we should before you catch cold.”
“I noticed you didn’t put on an overcoat.”
I frowned, wondering how she knew that.
“You never let go of me long enough to do so,” she said as if reading my thoughts.
She stepped down from the railing, and I took a step backwards and released her waist. She slowly moved to her right and circled me, while I made sure I stayed behind her. She walked into my home and stopped just far enough inside that I could step behind her and shut the door. Her head swiveled as she took in my apartment. She said nothing for a moment, and then she moved to the fireplace and trailed her hand across the mantle, keeping her back to me.
“Why are you here?”
Her hand stopped, and she tilted her head. Every movement she made fascinated me, and this was no exception. Her answer, however, was completely unexpected.
A hot surge of anger raced through me, and my personal fiend hissed that she was just like everyone else—come to see the monster. I banished him to the back of my mind, telling myself that she wasn’t like that. My fists were tightly clenched, though, and I fought to keep my voice calm.
“Curious about what?”
“A lot of things, actually.” She slowly turned, and I braced to spin away from her but stayed still when I saw that her eyes were closed. “But I don’t have time to ask you all that I want to right now. I hadn’t planned on staying here this long, and I have people waiting for me.”
She held out her hand to me, and I took it. She smiled brightly, and I felt my heart clench. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Desmond,” she said, her smile never dimming. “Would you be willing to talk again?”
A sudden, intense desire to hear her say my first name overwhelmed me, and I held her hand as she attempted to pull it back.
“Please, Miss McAllister, call me Erik.”
“If you wish, Erik,” she said softly, and I closed my eyes and drank in the sound, “but only if you call me Sarah.”
“Sarah,” I breathed, “it would be my pleasure.”
She squeezed my hand briefly and then pulled away and asked, “May I return tomorrow?”
I hesitated only briefly and then answered, “That would also be my pleasure. What time?”
She tilted her head again and said, “If you’re not busy in the morning, that would be best for me.”
“That would be fine,” I answered. “Eight o’clock, or is that too early?”
“No, eight fits my schedule. I’ll be back then.” She turned away from me but had only taken one step toward the stairs when I spoke.
“Sarah, I’d like to meet you in my gallery tomorrow morning.”
She turned her head toward me but didn’t look back. “Why?”
“I want to show you something.”
She said nothing else, but she nodded, and I followed her down the stairs to my office. She stopped in front of my desk, her back to me, and I pressed the intercom.
“Mr. Holdaway, Miss McAllister is ready to leave.”
The door opened, and Sebastian gestured for Sarah to precede him out of the office.
“Until tomorrow, Mr. Desmond,” she said, and his head snapped to me, a look of shock on his face.
I shook my head at him even as I said, “Until tomorrow.”
When they left the office and Sebastian shut the door behind him, I sank into my desk chair and rested my head on the back. I closed my eyes, and Sarah’s face filled my mind. I took a deep breath and frowned.“Sarah McAllister, what am I going to do about you?”