Authors: Felicity Sparrow
His current book is a dark masterpiece. He has been combining the fresh chapters by rubber band so that I can’t read them without removing it, which I’ve been instructed not to do.
Nevertheless, I’ve sneaked reads of the top pages of every chapter. The glimpses I get into his next bestseller are chilling.
The book is about a man driven to madness by lust. He’s watching a woman in a nearby town—I call her a woman, but she’s barely more than a girl—and half the chapters are the man’s vivid dreams of possessing her.
I know little more than that. The paragraphs I read are very psychological. I can’t wait to peruse the rest.
But I won’t get to read them until the draft is done. Never until the draft is done.
Still, I’m eager to read the beginning of this new chapter. Glancing over my shoulder, I ensure that I’m alone in the kitchen before lifting the rubber band and skimming the top page.
It begins with a murder. Blood. Dismemberment. Shadow.
A man speaks behind me. “What do you think?”
My heart leaps into my throat. I drop the pages on the counter and spin to face the doorway.
And there he is.
Sometimes I think that the reason that he doesn’t make public appearances is because he would be too dangerous to have in a crowd. He’s overwhelming in person. Incendiary. He could set an entire stadium on fire with a glance, and that intensity presents a literal threat to public health.
Erik is not an unusually tall man, perhaps six feet, but he looms the way that the forest looms on silent winter nights. There is no room for anything in the room between us. He extracts the oxygen from my lungs merely by existing.
Today, he wears a hooded sweater to protect himself from the bite of autumn. He’s carrying a life vest in one hand, a paddle in the other. The hems of his jeans are muddy. He’s been on the lagoon.
“I didn’t remove the rubber band,” I manage to stammer. That seems important to communicate. I have to make sure he understands that I haven’t disobeyed him—that obedience is my utmost priority.
Funny, I know. I work for Durand-Price’s interests, not Erik’s.
Yet it’s his approval I long for.
Erik brushes past me. He smells of soil and clean sweat. The inch of space between our bodies vibrates in the instant of passage and I think I might faint from proximity. The fact that he doesn’t respond immediately is much worse than being chastised.
He opens the kitchen’s rear door to hang his kayaking equipment outside on the patio. Golden light reflects off of the lake, shining into the house. The brief taste of oxygen clears my head fractionally.
The door creaks as he shuts it. We are trapped in the kitchen together once more.
“Well?” Erik asks. “I asked you a question, Ms. Durand.”
My throat is dry when I swallow. “The writing’s as impressive as always. I can’t judge the content without reading the rest.”
“Do you want to?” His voice is husky. It’s criminal that this man is so disconnected from the marketing of his intellectual property. He could make a million by narrating his own audiobooks, surely.
I’m distracted by his voice. It takes a moment to realize what he’s actually saying.
“Are you offering to let me read your work in progress?”
“I’m stuck,” Erik says, not without difficulty.
“Oh.” I duck my head, tuck a blond curl behind my ear. My cheeks are warm. “I can definitely help you with that. There’s no hurry, though. You’re already well ahead of deadline. If you’d prefer to continue mulling over the plot on your own—”
“No. I want you to read what I’ve written.”
. Erik Duke wants me to read his work in progress.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so flattered by anything in my life.
“Whatever you need, Mr. Duke.” It’s difficult to keep my tone professional when I feel so giddy on the inside. “I’m your assistant, after all.”
“Call me Erik,” he says.
My cheeks flame hotter. “You call me Ms. Durand.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you called me Christine.” My heart feels like it might explode as I make the offer. Suggesting that level of familiarity—it feels so intimate.
Erik steps toward me. “Christine,” he echoes. He’s testing the name on his lips.
I’m surprised by the thrills that race from my heart to my thighs at the sound of those two simple syllables.
I’ve never heard him say that before. It’s always been Ms. Durand.
He sheds the hooded sweater. Writers are not, as a rule, an athletic species; dedicating one’s life to the reading and writing of books is exercise for the mind rather than body.
Erik is not like most writers.
His hard form has been developed by the long hours he spends on his property, both on the lake and off. He has barely an ounce of body fat to conceal the cords banding his steely arms and torso.
His figure is impressive, but not developed for vanity. Sylvia Stone enjoys the
of being a woman who owns a yacht. She likes the idea that she might set sail at any moment, assuming that her ship is adequately stocked with sugary desserts.
Erik Duke is a man who doesn’t care for appearances. His strength is functional. I wouldn’t be surprised if he vanished into the wilderness one autumn day and didn’t return until spring thaw, whittled down to his absolute minimum by months of darkness and ice.
The sight of his pecs and shoulders stretching out his shirt makes my lips go dry.
He knows I’m watching him. He’s watching me, too.
Something is different today.
Erik is always intense, but his thoughts are seldom with me. He’s always thinking about his books.
But today, he’s present. Today, his eyes are on me, and he’s thinking about me, and those thoughts have cast a shadow over his features that look like the dangerous approach of a thunderstorm.
I really, seriously can’t breathe.
So I take his sweater from him, resisting the urge to bury my face in it, and step into the entryway. I hang the sweater neatly on a hook beside his winter jacket. I pulled that coat out of storage on my last visit—Maine winters have a way of appearing in a hurry, and I wanted Erik to be prepared.
He follows me into the entryway.
“What seems to be the problem with your story?” I ask, busying my hands with the folds of the sweater. The question takes the conversation away from the frightening prospect of intimacy of names, the intimacy of standing too close to Erik Duke, and into much more familiar territory. Books are my job. I can do books. “Is it the main character? The plot?”
“I don’t want to talk about it until you’ve read through the draft.” Erik is holding the chapter from the kitchen.
I reach out to take it. My hands close on the page. He doesn’t release his grip, so we are connected by the pages, and electricity flows between our fingertips through the words that he has written.
“You didn’t send me your latest story,” he says.
As strange and surreal as it is to work for someone like Erik Duke in the first place, the most surreal part is that he is interested in developing my skill as an artist as well.
Every few weeks, Erik instructs me to write a short story for him. He will read it, critique it, edit my rewrites.
He doesn’t want me to write his books, the way that Sylvia wants me to write hers.
Erik wants me to write my own.
My giddiness lifts to a heated buzz. He’s noticed that I haven’t turned in his last “assignment.” He doesn’t just read what I give him; he cares that I’m taking the time to write at all.
“I’ve been working on Ms. Stone’s books too much to have time for anything else,” I confess. “I was almost done helping with her next book, and she decided to make…significant editorial changes.” She deleted my entire draft and practically spit on the keyboard.
“You need to stop working on her books. They’re commercial. Vapid. They’re holding you back.”
I don’t disagree, yet the criticism stings. I take pride in ghostwriting Sylvia Stone books. Aside from Erik’s strange workshops, they are my only creative outlet.
“It’s my job,” I say gently. I try to tug the pages toward me. I’m afraid that if I release them, I will be relinquishing the opportunity to slip into Erik’s mind.
Instead, Erik Duke uses my grip to pull me closer to him. Just one shuffling step.
His narrow eyes are not quite brown, not quite blue. They are the color of Lake Symphony when the sun sets behind the clouds, when there is no wind to blow the algae away, when the mud between the reeds is at its murkiest. Anything could be hiding within those depths.
“Christine,” he says again.
This time, he is not testing the sound of the name. He is breaking ground on something frightening.
The doorbell chimes.
I have never heard it before, so the sound gushes ice over my nerves. The bell is akin to a warning klaxon. My hand slips from the pages, I take a step back, and my heart remembers how to beat.
The doorbell chimes again.
Erik presses a button on the monitor beside his door, which reveals security video on a monitor that was previously dark. Even through the grainy starkness of the black and white image, I recognize the car that had pulled up behind me at Sylvia Stone’s house.
Raoul Chance must have left mere minutes after me in order to catch up so quickly.
The realization leaves me trembling.
My publishing company’s new editor followed me to Erik Duke’s house.
“Who is he?” Erik asks.
It doesn’t escape me that his fists are clenched on either side of the door as he glares into the security monitor. The muscles in his forearms are bulging, his knuckles white, his shoulders drawn into hard lines of tension.
His smoldering hatred is a shocking contrast to Raoul on the monitor, who has stepped from his car and gazes up at the security monitors, shielding his eyes from the sun. Light glints off of his hair. He is a ray of brilliant daylight against the shadows of the forests.
Raoul’s calm only seems to make Erik angrier.
Someone has violated the sanctity of his private property. An uninvited visitor. Someone from the publishing company.
Anyone else would have known not to risk it—not for any reason. Erik Duke is worth as much money to Durand-Price as Sylvia Stone, and equally unpredictable in his own way.
Erik has accrued enough wealth to quit publishing and spend the rest of his life in solitude. And his pride is a mercurial beast. Many days, it seems like he only allows the company to have his books because he has no reason not to.
Having an editor show up at his doorstep when Erik has made it explicitly clear that he wants to be left alone could be the trigger he needs to never publish again.
I lick my lips, try to remember how to speak. Dangerous as Raoul’s presence is, I can’t lie to Erik any more than I could dream of disobeying him.
“That’s a new editor for Durand-Price. His name is, um, Raoul—Raoul Chance.” Erik’s gaze slices over to me and I feel like I’m an inch tall. Like I’ve done something wrong. I want to drop to my knees and apologize, beg him for forgiveness. “He wanted to talk to me after the meeting with Ms. Stone, but I left. He must have followed me. I didn’t think—I never would have—”
“I don’t want him here.”
Oh no, Erik really is angry at me. He’s still glaring at the monitor but it feels like I’m cornered.
“I’ll make him leave.” I force a smile that I don’t feel in my heart. “Don’t worry about it.”
My hand is on the knob for the front door when I feel the heat of Erik’s presence over my shoulder. Now I
cornered—he has me all but pinned against the door, his chest bare inches from my back, so close that he must feel the pounding of my pulse.
“We’re going to write tonight,” Erik says, breath warm against the back of my neck. “You and me, we’re going to make a story together. As soon as you make this editor leave. We have a lot of work to do.”
The way he says “work” evokes the heroes of his books. The tortured souls that populate the small towns of Maine, with all the twisted blackness rotting at the core of their hearts.
“I can’t stay too long,” I say in that firm but polite tone I employ with Sylvia. “It’s a long drive back to the city for me. I’ll be happy to Skype with you tonight, but—”
“No,” Erik interrupts. “You’re working with me tonight. In my office.”
Now I really can’t breathe.
He’s left no room to argue. And frankly…I don’t want to.
“Your office?” It comes out as little more than a squeak.
I’ve never been in his office. It’s the stuff of myth. If you search the internet for rumors—which I do, occasionally, because the gossip surrounding my clients is endlessly entertaining and endlessly wrong—then you’ll find many stories about what horrors Erik Duke has hidden in his basement office.
They say that he has torture devices down there. That he has an iron maiden with the barest millimeters of clearance so that he can plan his stories from the embrace of the metal casket.
I’m sure it’s all silliness, but who knows? Nobody has ever seen the room.
I could be the first.
More than that, he wants me to write with him…
The prospect is equal parts frightening and exhilarating.
“Okay,” I whisper hoarsely.
He lets me open the door to step outside.
It should be easier to breathe once I’m not sharing space in his house with him anymore.
I have to take my Kia to reach the gate. The distance is too great to walk. I feel vulnerable in the driver’s seat, as though Erik’s cameras are capable of piercing the doors and my skin to see into my very bones.
The gate opens when I approach it. Raoul stands on the other side. He seems to consider passing through, but I block him with my car.
If Erik was that angry to see Raoul on the road to his house, I can only imagine how he would react to the editor letting himself in.
Once I’m on the other side of the fence, the gate closes behind me.