The rest of the night was divided between talking to Erik’s patrons and keeping the vultures at bay. The first woman who had been hanging all over him had given up trying to get his attention after a while, and as she left, I heard her mutter the word “jerk,” but it seemed like as soon as she was gone, there was another to take her place and another and another. It disgusted me. Those women knew nothing about Erik Desmond; they only knew that he was rich and famous, and they wanted to be a part of that wealth and fame. What was most nauseating was the fact that once they realized that he had no interest in them, they turned on him—and me—like hyenas on a fresh kill. They may have thought that their muttered curses and venomous glances were lost on Erik, but each time one occurred, he reached out for me. And I was always within reach.
Finally, just after ten o’clock, the show was over, and the last visitor left the gallery. Erik took a deep breath and dropped onto a bench. I stood behind him with my hands on his shoulders, and I noticed how tense he was. As I began to massage the knots from his muscles, he sighed and leaned his head back, resting it on my stomach. He looked up at me and smiled.
“That feels wonderful,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m proud of you, you know.”
He knit his brows, and his smile disappeared. “Why?”
“Because I know how much you dislike being around people you don’t know. Especially when they are trying to weasel their way into your…”
“My what? My life? My space?”
His eyes glinted, and he reached one hand up to take mine, and then he pulled me around the bench so that I was standing in front of him. He took my other hand and looked at our intertwined fingers.
“I don’t mind people in my world,” he said slowly. “Well, not as much as I used to.” He looked up, and I gasped at the emotion in his eyes. “I especially don’t mind you in my world, Sarah, because I know that you’re here because you want to be with me, not for my money or my name.”
My throat felt as if I’d half-swallowed a golf ball, and I pulled my left hand from his and ran it through his hair, causing him to close his eyes and to release a low rumble from his chest like that of a cat purring. I smiled at the sound, but the next instant, my breath caught as he pulled me forward to stand between his legs. He rested his head on my stomach, wrapping his arms around me and holding me close.
“I feel so…” He released a deep sigh. “Ah, I can’t think of the word…happy…content…calm.” He held me a little tighter as I held his head to me. “None of those are quite right to explain how I feel when you are with me, Sarah.” He raised his head, but I kept my hands on the back of it, my fingers laced in his hair. “I don’t know what I would have done without you tonight.”
I jumped a little when Sebastian spoke; I had forgotten he was still there. I looked over my shoulder at him. He was standing at his counter, his sales books in front of him, and he was looking at us closely. Erik moved me to the side and stood up, but he kept one arm around my waist. My hands slipped from his hair as he rose, and I moved one so that I was still holding him as well.
“What would I have done?” he asked.
“You would have found some excuse to leave. You would have left me here all by myself to fend off questions and phone numbers and requests for appointments with you. At least with you staying, I could focus on the business end of things tonight.”
“So glad I could help you out,” Erik said sarcastically, but when I looked up at him in surprise, I saw a grin on his face, and Sebastian immediately returned it.
“You jest, Erik, but I’m serious. I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I think you’re going to have to get used to it. Once you showed yourself to the public, women started thinking that they want what you have, and, as tonight proved, there are quite a few who aren’t shy about making their wants known.” He smiled at me. “I think once word gets around that you are not available, though, the number of gold diggers should significantly decrease.”
Erik’s grip tightened, and I responded in kind. “I certainly hope so,” he muttered, and then he released me. “Come on, Sarah,” he said, moving to the coat rack and holding my cloak, “I told your father I’d get you home after the show. We’d better get going.”
I walked to him and turned my back. When he draped the cloak over my shoulders, he didn’t immediately remove his hands. Instead, he slowly trailed them backward brushing my neck with his fingertips. I shuddered and turned to look at him, but he had turned away to get his overcoat.
“I’m not sure how long I’ll be, Sebastian,” he said. “If I’m not back before you’re done, just lock up. You don’t have to wait.”
“Got it, Erik. Take your time.” Sebastian grinned at me, and I could feel my cheeks redden. I glared at him, and he laughed. “Enjoy the night, you two.”
Erik draped his arm around my shoulder and guided me out the door. The night air was cold, but not unbearably so. He pulled me close to him as we stood on the sidewalk, and I thought I heard his voice shake when he spoke.
“Do you want me to drive you, or would you like to walk?”
“Let’s walk through the Park.”
He said nothing more but only guided me through the traffic on Central Park South, cutting straight across from his building instead of crossing at the corner of Fifth.
“You know how dangerous that is?” I asked him as we passed underneath the still-barren trees of the park.
“Crossing in the middle of the street like that.”
He laughed and tightened his hold on me. “I do it all the time. The cars always stop.”
“But what if one doesn’t someday?”
“Sarah,” he said as if I were a child, “even if that happened, they’re not going fast enough to do much damage.”
I stiffened at his tone and tried to pull away from him. “Don’t patronize me, Erik.” I frowned when he wouldn’t let me go. “I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Fine,” he said, pulling me back to his side, “I’ll cross at the corner from now on. Will that make you happy?”
“Yes,” I said with a huff, “it will.”
“Anything to make you happy,” he said so softly that I wasn’t completely sure I heard him correctly.
We had reached the banks of The Pond, and I stopped walking. He looked down at me questioningly, but he stopped as well. I sighed as I leaned into him.
“Nothing,” I said. “I just wish we could stay here for a while.”
Erik led me to a nearby bench and sat, pulling me down beside him. “We can stay here as long as you like, Sarah,” he said, and I leaned my head against his shoulder.
He rested his cheek on my head, and we sat there for a long time, not speaking, just looking out over the partially-frozen water.
“May I ask a favor of you?”
“Of course.” I sat up and looked at him. He was frowning, and I reached up one hand and ran it across his forehead. He stiffened slightly when my fingers got close to his scar, but I didn’t touch it. “You know you’ll get wrinkles if you keep frowning like this,” I said, hoping for a smile.
I got one and a chuckle as well. “Well, wouldn’t that be a horrible thing to have happen?”
“Not horrible,” I said seriously, “but you are far too young for wrinkles.” I dropped my hand. “What’s your favor?”
“My showings last two weeks. Would you consider being with me for all of them?”
My eyebrows rose. It was a lot to ask, and the look on his face told me that he knew it. His eyes begged me to say yes, but his slumped shoulders told me he thought I would say no.
“I’ll understand if you can’t,” he said, “but tonight was so much easier with you there. If you don’t agree, I can’t promise how many more I’ll attend.”
I thought of the favorable difference I had seen in him since he had been making appearances at his showings, and I nodded. “I’ll be there.” When his eyes lit up and he sat up straight, I knew that I had made the right decision.
He raised his hand and trailed his thumb along my cheek before closing his eyes and taking a deep breath.
“May I kiss you again?”
My heart pounded in my breast, and I nodded before realizing that his eyes were still closed. I scooted closer to him so that our thighs were touching, and whispered, “Yes.”
His eyes came open then, and they looked almost black in the faint light that came from the lampposts around us. He took my face in both of his hands, and his lips parted as his gaze dropped to my lips. Ever so slowly, he lowered his mouth to mine, and I couldn’t suppress a small moan when they touched. My hands moved to his upper arms, and I clutched the sleeves of his coat as his hands slid down to my shoulders. I could feel him start to shake, and all too soon, he broke the kiss. We were both breathing heavier than normal, and he rested his forehead on mine as his eyes locked on mine. We stayed like that for a few minutes more, and then he leaned back and stood up, holding out his hand to me. I took it, and he pulled me to my feet.
Without a word, we started walking toward Fifth Avenue, his thumb tracing small circles on the back of my hand. We made it to the border of the park, and then Erik stopped.
I squeezed his hand. “What is it?”
His eyebrows came together, and he looked confused. “Never mind,” he said and started walking again.
“Erik, talk to me.”
“I would,” he said with a small smile, “but I can’t find the words to say what I’m thinking.” He pulled me a little closer. “This is all new to me, Sarah. I’m trying to process it all. I just know that being with you…” He glanced down at me. “Kissing you feels right. It feels…nice.”
He wasn’t getting away with that again, and I gave him a mock frown. “Just nice?”
He frowned for real. “No,” he said quickly, “it’s much more than nice.” We had reached the front door of my apartment building, and his frown deepened as we passed our doorman while he held the door for us.
“Is everything all right, Miss McAllister?” he said, looking at Erik searchingly. He scanned Erik from head to toe, taking in everything from his scar to his frown to his expensive clothing in a few seconds.
“Everything is perfect, Warren, thank you.” I smiled at him, and the smile grew when I saw Erik’s eyes widen.
“Yes, ma’am,” was the only response, and then we walked to the elevator.
We were silent as we rode up to the twelfth floor. When the car stopped and the operator opened the door, Erik paused and looked at me before stepping out. I could tell he was thinking hard, and his frown was still in place. He kept his gaze on the floor as we walked to my home. Outside the door, we stopped.
“Erik, what’s wrong?”
He cocked his head. “Did you really mean that?”
“That everything is perfect?”
“Of course I did.”
“But…” he sighed, and my chest constricted at the frustrated sound. He ran his hand through his hair and fisted it there. “But you’re so beautiful, Sarah, and I’m—”
I stopped him by placing my fingertips over his mouth, my own frown forming. “Don’t you dare say it, Erik. You are the most handsome man I have ever met. Why do you think all those women were trying to get close to you tonight?”
His hand left his hair and captured mine, kissing it lightly before pulling it down. “They don’t want Erik Desmond, the man; they want Erik Desmond, the famous, wealthy artist. They want my money and the prestige of my name.”
“True,” I said, “but that’s not all. You are beautiful, too, Erik. Inside and outside. This…” I raised my hand toward his scar, but he grabbed my wrist.
“Someday you’ll let me, Erik.”
“I doubt that.”
“I don’t, but that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
I pulled my wrist from his grasp and stepped close to him. “The point is that your scar means nothing to me. The point is that it doesn’t matter what all those other women want because I know what I want.” I smiled up at him. “And I’m the only one that matters.”
He wrapped his arms around me. “Yes, you are,” he said seriously. “What do you want, Sarah?”
I took a deep breath and swallowed thickly as I clutched the back of his coat. “I want you to kiss me again.”
“Right here, right now.”
I raised myself up on my tiptoes, and he dropped his head. We met halfway, and, although Erik kept the kiss soft, his tight embrace and trembling body told me that he was trying hard to do so. I longed for him to let go of his restraint for once and kiss me with abandon and passion, but I knew that he wouldn’t do it. Not yet.
He pulled back from me, and I could see the strain in his face.
“Erik, kissing should be pleasurable, not painful.”
“Believe me, Sarah, kissing you is very pleasurable.”
“Then why do you look like that?”
“Like you’re either going to throw up or hit something.”
He paused and then pulled me to his chest. “I have all these new feelings flowing through me, and I don’t understand them. I’m trying to understand them.”
I was about to say something when our apartment door opened and he instantly released me. I turned around to see my father standing in the doorway.
“I thought I heard you out here,” he said with a smile.
I stepped away from Erik and gave my father a hug. “We just got back.”
He kissed my forehead and then looked at Erik. “Would you like to come in for a nightcap or perhaps some coffee, Erik?”
“No, thank you, sir. I should be getting home.”
“All right. Thank you for making sure Sarah got home safely.”
“Always, Mr. McAllister.” He caught my eyes with his. “I would never let anything happen to her.”
He raised my hand to his mouth and placed his lips on my knuckles. “Until tomorrow, Sarah?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll be there just before six.”
He nodded. “Just come to the front of the line, and I’ll make sure Sebastian is waiting for you.”
I smiled. “You think there’ll be a line?”
He chuckled. “There’s always a line. I have yet to figure out why.”
My smile disappeared, and my lips pressed together in anger, but before I could say anything, he placed one finger on my lips.
“I’m sorry. I’m trying to stop doing that. I’m trying to believe what you tell me, Sarah, but it’s hard. For sixteen years I was told daily that I was stupid and worthless and hideous, and if you hear something enough, it becomes truth.”
“But your mother told you that you were perfect and beautiful and intelligent. She loved you, Erik. Why don’t you believe her words instead of your father’s? Why can’t you see that people who love you will tell you the truth, and people who hate you will only say things to hurt you?”
He looked at me as if he had never thought of that before. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “Probably because my father reinforced his words with pain. I guess that made them seem more real.”
“Well, you need to believe your mother, me, my father, Sebastian. Forget what your father told you and believe what we tell you.”
“I’ll try, I promise.”
He smiled and waved as he walked down the hallway. I watched until he entered the elevator and the doors shut behind him.
“You’re good for him, Sarah,” my father said, and I turned to see him watching the elevator, too, “but I’m afraid you might not be enough.”
“Enough for what?”
He gestured for me to enter our home before him, and I did.
“Enough to exorcise his demons. You’ve been with him for months now, and he is still tormented by them. I can see it in his face sometimes.”
“I know, but I can’t give up on him. When he finally relaxes and laughs or smiles, I feel like the sun has come out after days of clouds. He needs me, and I need him.”
My father tilted his head and studied me closely. “Do you love him, Sarah? I mean really love him, not like a sister or a friend.”
I closed my eyes and thought about the thrill I got just thinking about being near him, about the desire I had felt when he kissed me. “I think so,” I said slowly before opening my eyes and looking at my father. “How do I know for sure?”
He smiled. “When he’s the first person you think of when you wake up and the last person you think of before you fall asleep, when being around him makes your day automatically better, and when he’s the first one you want to talk to when something happens in your life, that’s love.”
My eyebrows rose. “Really? Where did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear it anywhere, Sarah; I lived it.”
My good mood disappeared instantly. My father had lost his wife before I had come into his life. They had only been married four years when she was trampled by a runaway horse outside this very apartment building as she attempted to cross the street.
I stepped up to my father and hugged him. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to remind you of her.”
“Don’t be,” he said, hugging me back. “You know Tennyson’s quote about loving and losing?”
“Just know that it’s true. My life is better having loved Elizabeth even though it didn’t last. And if what you and Erik have is love or becomes love, your life will be better because of it.”
I nodded against his chest. “I think I do love him,” I said softly. I pulled back and looked up. “What if he doesn’t love me back?”
My father chuckled and brushed my hair off my forehead. “Based on the way he looks at you, darling, I don’t think you have to worry about that. Just understand that it may be a while before he realizes and admits his feelings for you. He’s been locked away inside himself for so long that I don’t know if he’ll be able to easily let go of that control.”
“I know. I’ll be patient.”
“Good girl,” he said. “Now, you should be getting to bed.”
“Okay, Daddy.” I rose up on my toes and kissed his cheek. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, baby girl.”