The line in front of the gallery already stretched halfway to Fifth Avenue by the time Adam dropped me off on the last night of Erik’s showings. I ignored the glares and indignant comments as I walked to the door and knocked. I had gotten used to them in the two weeks I had been coming. Quite a few people were not happy about the fact that I didn’t have to wait like them. Sebastian opened the door immediately and gestured for me to enter.
“I am glad you’re here, Sarah.”
“Why?” I asked as Sebastian took my cloak from me. When he raised his eyebrows, I laughed. “I didn’t mean it that way. I meant why more than normal?”
“Because Erik is acting weird,” he said with a smile. “More than normal. I was wondering if you would talk to him after the show.”
“Of course I will; at least, I’ll try.”
The showing was no different than the others had been. I stayed by Erik’s side as he circulated around the gallery. Sebastian had been right about most women backing off once they realized he was unavailable. All but the most uncouth contented themselves with talking to him about his art. Occasionally, one would attempt something more personal, but Erik always rebuffed them and turned his attention to me. Most would get the hint immediately, and we rarely saw those women more than once.
There was about half an hour left until the showing was over, and one young woman—I refused to call her a lady—had obviously had something to drink before she came to the gallery. She came in with five other ladies. They were all about Erik’s age, and the tipsy one wasted no time in sidling up to him.
“Mr. Desmond,” she said, her words not quite steady, “it is so nice to meet you.” She held out her hand, and he took it, bowing over it like the gentleman he was.
“Nice to meet you too, Miss…”
“Harmon, Julie Harmon.” When he tried to release her hand, she tightened her grip and stepped closer.
Erik did his best to keep a frown off his face, but he didn’t succeed completely. He slowly extracted his hand and glanced around for me. I quickly stepped to his side, and he gestured toward me, his face relaxing.
“May I introduce Miss Sarah McAllister?”
The angry stare she turned on me didn’t surprise me; I had seen dozens in the last two weeks.
“I know who you are,” she said rudely. Her gaze took in my entire body from my white pumps to my sky blue dress to my face and hair. Then she turned a saccharine smile on Erik. “Why don’t you ditch her and see what a real woman can do for you?”
The frown returned to Erik’s brow, and he opened his mouth to retort, but Miss Harmon’s friends instantly surrounded her and pulled her away across the room. She protested the entire way and drew every eye in the gallery to her. Erik’s frown was accompanied by a low growl when she blurted out, “What does that tramp have that I don’t have?”
I smiled when one of her friends clearly answered, “Him,” but Erik took my hand, kissed it softly, and said, “Excuse me, please, Sarah; I need to deal with this.”
I nodded, and my smile faded as he took long strides toward the group. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw Miss Harmon stiffen, and all of her friends blushed. One of them nodded and tried to tug Miss Harmon toward the exit, but the blasted woman refused to budge.
“No! I need to know how she managed to reel you in.”
Erik’s answer was loud and clear as Sebastian moved closer to him. “She didn’t reel me in, Miss Harmon. Not in the way you mean. She was my friend when I had only one other. She knows everything about me and stays with me anyway. What do you know about me, hmm? Nothing! You know that I am rich and famous, and that is all you know. If you knew the rest, you’d run screaming into the street. Miss McAllister does know, and yet she is still here by my side. That is what she has that you don’t have. Mr. Holdaway, please escort Miss Harmon out of my gallery immediately.”
He stiffly turned his back on the woman and walked to me and took my hand. Miss Harmon protested loudly, but Sebastian took her firmly by the arm and practically dragged her out the front door. Her friends followed, mumbling their regret for her behavior. When the door shut behind them, Sebastian turned to the people who were watching the whole scene with unabashed interest.
“I apologize for the disruption, ladies and gentlemen. Please resume your studies of Mr. Desmond’s work. The showing will close in about fifteen minutes.”
Sebastian’s calm voice filled the room, and I had never felt so thankful for him before.
Erik leaned down and whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”
I nodded, and he turned to his patrons.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. Unfortunately, it is time for me to leave. I hope to see you at my next showing.”
Without acknowledging their goodbyes, he led me to the front door and held my cloak for me before putting on his overcoat. Then he took my hand and walked out the door into the night.
We walked toward Fifth Avenue past the dozen or so people still hoping to get into the gallery. Erik completely ignored them, which surprised me since he usually was at least civil to everyone who came to his shows. His grip on my hand tightened, and I practically had to run to keep up with his long, determined strides.
“Erik, slow down!”
He glanced down at me and instantly shortened his steps. “Sorry.”
We crossed Central Park South, but he said nothing else as we entered the park and walked toward The Pond. “Erik, talk to me.”
He only shook his head until we reached the water, and then he stood staring at it. There was still a bit of ice in the center, but the weather had warmed enough that I had noticed small blossoms on the cherry trees that morning. It was late enough in the evening now, though, that only a few other people were on the path.
I moved in front of him. “What’s wrong?”
His shoulders slumped, and he dropped my hand, running his fingers through his hair.
“I am so sorry, Sarah,” he said, looking at me contritely.
“For what? You didn’t do anything wrong.” I stepped close to him and took his arms. “As a matter of fact, you did everything right.”
“Yes, Erik, you did. You stood up for me, and you didn’t lose your temper in doing so.” I smiled as he wrapped his arms around me. “What did you say to that awful woman, anyway?”
His frown returned, and he drew me to his chest. “I told her that she was being a boor and that I wanted her to leave without making a scene. Obviously, she refused.”
I chuckled and pulled back from him. “Obviously. But you handled her very well, Erik, and I appreciate everything you said.”
He raised a hand and trailed one finger along my temple down to my chin. “It was all true, but I left one thing out.”
“What is that?”
He tipped my face up and stared into my eyes. “I left out that the other thing that you have that no one else does is my love. I love you, Sarah.”
I caught my breath as he dipped his head and covered my lips with his. He pulled me close and tangled his fingers in my hair. My hands went around his back and I clung to him. Even when he broke the kiss, his mouth stayed on me, and I felt his warm breath as he trailed kisses over my cheeks, my eyes, my forehead.
We were both breathing harshly when he leaned back, and, as he gazed down at me, I knew that I had fallen irrevocably in love with him as well. I opened my mouth to say so, but he stopped me with another kiss.
“Shh,” he said softly, “don’t speak. You don’t have to say anything; I just needed you to know how I felt about you.”
He took my hand and led me to a bench. We sat down, and I pulled away when he tried to put his arm around my shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” The panic in his voice cut me to the quick, and I quickly raised my hand to cup his cheek.
“Then why did you pull away?”
I smiled at him. “Because I need to say something to you.”
Taking a deep breath, I traced his cheekbone with my thumb. “I need to tell you that you have my love, too.”
His eyes went wide, and a smile slowly formed on his handsome face.
“Yes. I love you, Erik.”
He looked at me searchingly, and then he stood up.
“What are you doing?”
He said nothing but only dropped to one knee before me and I gasped. He took both of my hands in his and looked at me.
“I was going to wait a while for this, but I can’t wait anymore. Sarah, I love you. I’ve loved you since that first time I saw you in my gallery crying because of my paintings, although I didn’t know it then. I have grown to love you more than I thought humanly possible since then. I don’t ever want to be without you.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a diamond ring. “Sarah Elizabeth McAllister, will you marry me and make me the happiest man in the world?”
I couldn’t speak. My mouth opened, but nothing came out, so I just nodded as tears trickled out of my eyes.
“Yes? Is that a yes? You need to say it, Sarah. I need to hear it.”
I cleared my throat and smiled as the tears came faster. “Yes, Erik, yes. I will marry you.”
He grinned, slipped the ring onto my finger, and pulled me close with a loud sigh. Suddenly, he stood and pulled me to my feet before picking me up and kissing me as he swung me around in a circle. He finally stopped and put me down on my feet. As he hugged me, he said, “You have made me very happy, Sarah,” but then he stiffened.
“What’s the matter?” I leaned back so that I could see his face, and when I saw the frown on his face, I reached up one hand to his forehead again. “Erik, what’s wrong?”
He looked into my eyes. “What will your father say?”
I smiled and continued to caress his face. “I don’t know, but there’s only one way to find out.”
He shook his head. “I should have asked him first.”
“Erik, it’s 1939. Neither you nor I need his permission to marry. We’ll go to my home right now and tell him we’re getting married.” When Erik’s frown persisted, I raised up on my tiptoes and kissed him. “I’m nineteen, and you are twenty-two. We are old enough to make our own decisions.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, but he didn’t sound like he meant it. He took my hand, and we started walking back toward Fifth.
“Erik, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Sarah, but I’ll be better when I know what your father’s reaction is.”
I curled my elbow under his and pressed up to his side. “He’ll be happy for us; I know it.”
“If you say so.”
That was all that was said until we reached the front of my apartment building. We passed Warren quickly, but I nodded to him with a smile as he held the door for us. As the elevator rose to my floor, I watched Erik. A muscle ticked rhythmically in his jaw, and the grip he had on my hand was almost painful. When the doors opened, he took one step out of the car, but then he stopped. I had taken another step, but I halted when I felt that he was unmoving. I looked back at him with concern.
The look on his face caused me to turn toward him fully—I could only describe it as fear. His eyes were not on me; they were on the door to my home.
“I…” He looked down at me, and his eyes were shining. “I can’t lose you, Sarah. I’ll die if I lose you.”
I took his hands firmly in mine. “Why do you think you are going to lose me?”
He shook his head, and his brow furrowed in agony. “Your father will never let you marry me. I am not good enough for you; you deserve better than me.”
The pain in his words tore at me, and I didn’t know what to do, so I hugged him. His arms came around me, and he held me to himself desperately, his hands fisting in my hair and my cloak.
“I can’t…please don’t leave me, Sarah,” he whispered, and I felt him begin to tremble.
“My poor boy,” I whispered back, and I heard him catch his breath even as he pushed me back. I looked up at him, silent tears escaping my eyes. I raised one hand to his scar, and he only half-heartedly grabbed my wrist. “My poor, broken boy.”
I twisted my hand out of his grasp and once more reached toward his face. His jaw was clenched so tightly I knew it had to hurt, and, instead of tracing his scar as I so longed to do to show him it truly meant nothing to me, I trailed my fingertips along his jawline, following it until I reached the nape of his neck. I raised up on my toes as I pulled him down to me, and I kissed him. I wanted him to understand how much I loved him, and I put all of that love into the kiss.
Erik’s hands returned to their desperate clutching, and he pulled me tightly to his chest with a groan that send a shiver through me. His lips parted, and he tentatively ran the tip of his tongue along my bottom lip. I gasped at the sensation, and he deepened the kiss, finally abandoning his rigid self-control and giving himself to me.
When he drew back, it wasn’t far, and he held me to his heaving chest. I could hear his heart pounding through his many layers of clothing, and I placed one hand over it. Leaning back, I looked up at him.
“Erik,” I said softly, as if to a terrified child, “I love you. I will always love you, and I’m not going anywhere. I am yours forever.”
“Forever,” he breathed. “That has a nice ring to it. Mine forever. And no one can take you away from me?”
The anxiety in the question that should have been a statement brought a pain to my chest.
“No, Erik, that is never going to happen. I will always be with you.”
“I truly hope that is true,” he whispered, and then he stepped back and straightened his clothing. “I guess the first test of that is now,” he said slowly. “Let’s go see your father.”
He was back to his impeccable, unflappable self, but I felt his hand tremble as he took mine and walked to my apartment. I unlocked the door, and he held it open for me to enter before him.
“Sarah!” My father’s voice called to me from his study down the hall. “Come here; I have something to show you.”
I looked up at Erik with a smile. “As do I,” I said, holding up my beringed hand. He just nodded and hung up my cloak and his coat, and my smile faltered. He saw it and tried to force a smile, but I knew it was exactly that. I took his hand and led him down the hallway to my father’s study. The door was open, and we stepped inside.
“Erik, good to see you.” My father’s head came up from whatever he was looking at on his desk. I bit my bottom lip to keep from blurting out our engagement, and my father saw it. “Something to say, Sarah?”
I glanced at Erik. He looked to be made of stone; he was standing rigidly at my side, his free hand fisted at his side and his face emotionless. I knew he was bracing himself for my father’s expected refusal to allow him to marry me, and I gently squeezed his hand. His eyes stayed on my father, however, and I held in a sigh.
“Yes, Daddy, I do have something to say.” I took one step forward and held out my hand. “Erik has asked me to marry him, and I have said yes.”
My father’s eyebrows rose into his hair, and he gently took my hand. He looked at the ring, and then a slow smile spread over his face. Without letting go of my hand, he stood, rounded the desk, and pulled me into a hug. “I am happy for you, my darling.” He released me and held out his hand to Erik, who took it, a look of confusion on his face. “Congratulations, my boy. I am proud of you.”
Erik’s eyebrows came together, and he looked completely perplexed. “But…”
“I told you he’d be happy,” I said softly, going to him and wrapping my arm around his waist.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” my father asked, his expression mirroring Erik’s.
“I just thought…” Erik stopped and shook his head. “Never mind what I thought, sir. I thank you for your congratulations. They mean more than you could ever know.” A real smile formed on his beautiful lips, and he pulled me to his side.
My father stepped close to us and placed his hand on Erik’s shoulder. “I want you to know something, Erik. I know a little of what you went through as a child, and I think you are the bravest man I know. I couldn’t ask for a better husband for my daughter. I know that you will take good care of her. And I want you to know that if you ever have any problems, about anything at all, you can always come to me.” He paused and moved his hand to the back of Erik’s head and held him so that he could look into his eyes. “I want to be a father to you—the father you never had. Will you let me?”
A shudder ran through Erik, and he looked down at the floor for a moment, blinking rapidly, his throat working convulsively. He raised his eyes and opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat, but when he failed to speak a second time, he just nodded slowly.
My father stepped back and smiled. “Good. Now, will you stay for coffee or a nightcap, perhaps?”
Erik closed his eyes briefly, and when he opened them, he returned the smile. “I would like to stay for coffee, sir, thank you, but I do not drink alcohol.”
“Coffee it is, then. Sarah, would you mind getting it started? I’d like to speak to Erik alone for a moment.”
“Of course, Daddy,” I said, and I raised up on my toes to give Erik a quick kiss on his scarred cheek before he could stop me. “Don’t be too long.”
“We won’t, I promise.”
I shut the study door behind me and practically danced to the kitchen. I pulled our percolator from a bottom cupboard and the coffee from the pantry and started the brew. Then I leaned against the counter and studied my engagement ring.
It had a gold band and a large diamond surrounded by smaller ones. I knew a little of jewelry, and I guessed that the main diamond was close to a carat, and it dwarfed my slender finger. The band itself was thin enough that it didn’t look out of place on my small hand, but I still knew that it had cost Erik a lot of money. I pulled it off my finger to see the maker’s mark on the inside of the band, and I gasped when I read “Tiffany & Co.” I knew that Erik was wealthy, but I didn’t know exactly how much money he had. The fact that the ring I slipped back on my finger was probably worth twice most people’s annual salaries told me that he was richer than even I had thought. No wonder every woman in the city seemed to want him for themselves.
That made me smile, and I absentmindedly twirled the ring around my finger as I thought back to the awful woman from the gallery. I determined then and there to get our wedding announcement in all the major newspapers the next day so that everyone in New York City knew that he was taken. I wouldn’t put up with any more women hanging all over him or trying to get him to go with them somewhere. He was mine, and I would make sure everyone knew it.
I had pulled a piece of paper and a pencil from a drawer and was jotting down some ideas for the newspaper article when Erik and my father entered the kitchen.
“Coffee ready yet?” My father moved to the percolator.
“A few more minutes,” I answered, but my eyes were on Erik. His eyes were red, and he self-consciously rubbed his hand across them when he saw me watching him. I smiled at him, and he returned it, but his eyes remained sad.
“What are you doing?” he asked, moving to my side.
“Writing an announcement for the newspapers.”
His eyebrows rose. “Already? Why so quickly?”
“Because,” I said with a shrug, “I want everyone in the city to know that you are no longer available. I don’t want another repeat of tonight.”
He chuckled and lifted my hand to study my ring. “Neither do I,” he said, and then he gently kissed my hand. “It looks good on you.”
“Erik, what’s wrong?”
He looked at me in surprise. “Nothing.”
I glanced at my father, but he was pouring coffee into cups. I dropped my voice. “Then why have you been crying?”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness but of power. They are messengers of overwhelming grief and of unspeakable love,” he said softly.
His eyes snapped open. “You know the quote?”
I smiled. “It is one of my father’s favorites. He has said it to me many, many times over the years.”
“Well, that’s why he kept me back in his study. He told me it’s okay to cry sometimes, and that he wouldn’t think any less of me if I shed tears.” He tilted my chin up and kissed me softly. “Irving missed two other good reasons to weep, however.”
“What is that?”
“Happiness and awe, and right now, I am filled with more of both than I can handle.” He trailed his finger down from my temple to my chin. “And you are the reason for both.”
“Without a doubt.”
“Happiness I can understand, but how do I inspire awe in you?”
“I am in awe that someone so beautiful, so strong, so perfect can love me. It amazes me.”
“It shouldn’t,” I said simply, “and maybe someday it won’t. I hope so, anyway.”
“I don’t,” he answered, scanning my face with his eyes. “I never want to stop feeling this way about you. I never want to take you for granted or lose this sense of wonder when I look at you.” He cupped my cheek in his hand, and I closed my eyes and leaned into it. “I love you, Sarah.”
A cleared throat behind me reminded me that my father was still in the room. My eyes opened, and I smiled when I saw that Erik’s eyes had dropped to the floor and he was actually blushing even as his own smile curled his lips.
“As lovely as this demonstration is,” my father said with a chuckle, “the coffee is going to get cold if we don’t drink it soon.”
Erik’s eyes flared with delight as he raised them to mine, and he bit his bottom lip as his smile grew. “We can’t have that, can we?” he asked before holding out his hand. I took it, and we followed my father into the dining room. Erik held a chair for me and then sat down next to me as my father placed the tray of mugs on the table.
The next half hour was spent determining what would be in the newspaper announcement. Between the three of us, we decided that we didn’t need more than a month to prepare for the wedding. Erik had no family, and mine was all in the New York area, so it wasn’t like they had to plan for traveling. Neither of us wanted a big wedding, and I was sure I could do everything in a month. A date of May first was chosen—what would have been Erik’s mother’s forty-first birthday. When we finished, my father took the paper and promised that he would get it to the papers in time for the evening editions. Then he shook Erik’s hand, gave me a kiss, wished us both a good night, and disappeared down the hall to his room.
I walked Erik to the door, and as he put on his coat, I opened it and leaned against the frame. When he was ready, he moved close to me and rested his forearm on the wood above my head.
“What are your plans for tomorrow, Sarah?”
I rested my head on the jamb and looked up at him. “I have two meetings to attend, one in the morning and one after lunch. Why?”
“Would you have lunch with me, then?”
“Of course. Where?”
“Where is your first meeting?”
“The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, near Battery Park.”
“When will it be over?”
“Why don’t we meet at Delmonico’s at eleven-thirty, then? I’ll call ahead and make sure they save a table for us.”
I smiled at the confident tone Erik had adopted. It suited him.
“That sounds good to me. Would you be able to take me to my second meeting? It starts at one o’clock, and it’s at St. George’s Episcopal on East Sixteenth. That way, Adam won’t have to wait around until we’re done.”
“It would be my pleasure.” Erik’s face lit up as he smiled. “You haven’t ridden in my Spyder yet. It’s quite an experience.” Then he dipped his head and kissed me softly. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
I nodded. “Tomorrow.”
With one last, loving look, he turned on his heel and walked to the elevator. I watched him the entire way, and after he pushed the button, he turned and leaned against the wall, his eyes catching mine. The smile was still on his face, and we stared at each other until the elevator door opened, and then he blew me a kiss and stepped inside.