Tomorrow came too soon. The sun was already casting an orange cotton hue into the sky when she finally woke. Lillian had overslept again! Snapping the tags off a new dress, she gathered her hair up into a pile on her head and was quickly out the door. When she arrived at the club, the music was already thumping with the usual house beats. With a smile and nod at Jimmy, one of the regular bouncers, she passed through the black vinyl doors and was immediately hit with a blast of cold air conditioning and the pounding volume of the music. She sauntered up to the long bar, and leaning over it, hollered “Hey, Longshadow!” to the bartender.
“Sup,” he grunted, reaching under the bar and grabbing an unmarked bottled with a speed pourer. Soon his long, brightly tattooed arm shoved a glass of gin and tonic her direction. She shoved a five dollar bill at him and headed over to her usual table, situated with the widest view of the room. Settling in, she let her eyes take in the house tonight. Arun and his crew were here. She raised her eyebrows to the regulars and gave them a broad smile. A group of Midwestern tourists took up the big booth and a clutch of goth kids filled table nine. Quite a few local college kids were dancing, but they were all distracted and kept checking the giant blond guy on the throne.
Lillian choked on her drink and coughed. The throne was occupied tonight. And not just occupied, but owned by a stunning – a devastatingly gorgeous – man with long, leather-clad legs, gleaming blond hair, and chiseled features. He tapped at an iPhone and appeared to be extraordinarily bored. As if he had heard her, his piercing blue eyes flickered up directly into her stare. He smiled ever so slightly and nodded, going back to tapping at his phone.
A chill crawled up her spine to the base of her skull. She had assumed that they probably hired an actor to occupy the stage at some point. But this guy was unreal. With his supermodel looks, he had to cost a fair fortune. It didn’t make sense. Why wouldn’t they have advertised if this was a special occasion? It was just a regular Saturday night in Shreveport. She pulled out her Moleskine notebook and began scribbling down her observations. Everything was data, after all. She also wanted to sketch out a set of clear questions for the owner she had spoken with, whenever he came in. Privately, she hoped tonight would be one of those really rich ethnographic encounters, but if this fellow was as weird as he seemed, it might well be excruciating.
She was lost in her thoughts when the ‘Pam’ character that she’d seen a few times cleared her throat at the foot of the table. “Oh, hi!” Lillian said, closing her notebook.
“The master would like you to join him now,” she said curtly, gesturing with a nod towards the stage.
“Um.” Lillian’s eyes darted to the throne and she tried not to panic. She hadn’t come here to role play but she needed an excuse and quick. Her mind raced to find something, anything plausible. The actor gestured at her with a subtle flick of his hand. Fuck. Pam stood impatiently, a hand on her hip. “Sure, why not,” Lillian managed feebly.
“Another G&T for you?” the woman asked.
“Uh yeah, that’d be great. Oh, but I don’t have a tab started.” She reached into her bag for a credit card. “Pam” raised her eyebrow with a quizzical smirk and refused the card. They walked to the stage area and Lillian took a deep, calming breath, readying herself for whatever weirdness was about to happen. “Good evening. You must be ‘the Master’,” she said, trying not to sound too sarcastic. Smarmy and superior was not a very endearing way to approach one’s informants.
“Yes, but you may call me Eric,” said the man in the smokiest, most seductive voice Lillian had ever heard, with the sole exception of her caller from last nig…oh…shit. Her eyes must have visibly widened.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Professor Choate.”
Entirely rattled and feeling extra unprepared, she poured on a smile. “The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Northman.”
His eyes pierced through her, unwavering. “Call me Eric.” His words virtually dripped in sex.
“You don’t mind? I’ll admit that I’d feel silly calling anybody ‘Master anything’.”
A snaking smile drew out across his obscenely perfect features. Lillian’s breath caught in her throat. “You merit…an exception” he said casually, letting just the hint of the tip of his tongue roll over his bottom lip.
“Well, please feel free to call me Lillian.”
“You have met the other owner, but I don’t believe you have been properly introduced. This is Pamela Swynford de Beaufort.” Pam looked Lillian up and down and smiled.
“Charmed.” Pam said sarcastically. Then she glanced back at Eric and spoke rapidly to him in what Lillian could only presume was some Scandinavian language. The slight smile dropped from Eric’s face. “Vad!?” he hissed. He barked something angrily at her and then his hawk eyes settled on the bar. He narrowed his gaze as if to crush the bartender with its very casting. Without missing a beat, he smoothly turned back to Lillian, once again all charm. “Sit with me Lillian.” The sound of her name in his mouth sent a shiver through her. The room suddenly felt hot and her stomach felt tight. She sat hesitantly in the slightly smaller, lower chair to his right.
“Longshadow will be returning the money he has stolen from you.”
“I beg your pardon?” she said, confused.
“Your drinks, and anything else you order, are always on the house, at my express wish. Apparently the fool thought he could get away with not telling you as much and keeping the money you were paying all for himself.” His face was impassive, unreadable.
“Oh, gosh. Well, that’s really okay, I didn’t know any better. I’m sure he’ll remember next time.”
He snorted, unamused. “Not in my house.” He continued to bore holes at his employee with his glare. Lillian gulped. She saw Pam escort Longshadow away from the bar.
“No second chances here, I see,” she said. Another hint of a smile slithered across his sensuous mouth. How could someone be at once imposing to the point of being terrifying and unfathomably sexy all at once? He was like a tripwire to rational thought. Pam returned with her drink and headed back to manage the bar. “So, how long have you two been…partners?” she said, hoping by asking less he might offer more.
“Pam and I have worked together off and on for many years. We are not lovers, if that is your meaning.”
“Do you come in to play this role often? You certainly look the part.” She chuckled. “I actually thought you were an actor.”
“We work the floor now and again. Enough to keep the plebes satisfied. And I am very much The Part, as you say.” His eyes wandered over her, flitting from her firm tan calves, over her tight waist, to her blue-green eyes.
She bit the inside of her cheek to stop the blush from rising to her face. Of course he was as arrogant as he was beautiful. It wasn’t lost on her that he phrased everything as an order, as if the world turned by his grace alone. “What drew you to this business plan?”
“Well, I figured I might as well capitalize on what I started.”
Lillian furrowed her brow. “What do you mean?”
He looked at her with amusement. “I inspired Charlaine’s books. They’ve been remarkably successful, as I’m sure you know.” He paused in thought, then added heatedly, “They had the audacity to tell me that I don’t have intellectual property rights to myself…to my self! That was all I needed. I began applying for the necessary licenses the very next day.”
“Could you tell me more about that? How did you come to be the inspiration of Ms. Harris’ books?” she asked as positively as possible. Either he really had a story or he had a serious mental health issue.
“I was attending to some business in New Orleans. Harris was there in the same hotel at an authors’ conference. She entered our meeting room by accident, and when I escorted her out, she seemed convinced that our gathering appeared like a group of vampires conducting a trial.”
“Wild,” Lillian replied, relieved.
“In the following days, she kept trying to catch me in the lobby, saying how she was so inspired by our run-in and how she’d love to write a book based on it. It was truly exasperating. I finally threw her a few storyline ideas just to be rid of her. A year later I saw the first of her vampire series in the window of a bookstore.”
“Huh. Well, I can see how you’d feel a bit…violated by all that.” Her eyes narrowed. “So Pamela was at this meeting too?” She was featured in the books as a co-owner.
Eric raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Not much escapes you, does it.” He offered nothing more.
“Any of the other characters have real inspirations? Was there a large breasted barmaid with you at your meeting? Or are there no telepaths, faeries, or goblins?”
Eric smiled under hooded eyes. “Oh, there is magic in this world. Just not the tawdry little stories you’ll read in pulp fiction.”
“Oh?” she said. “What can you tell me about magic then?”
Eric placed a cool, long-fingered hand on Lillian’s knee and leaned in towards her. “Perhaps I will tell you one night, my lovely Lila,” he breathed, filling the air with an intoxicating scent. The air caught in Lillian’s throat. He smelled faintly of hickory, sea salt, and something crisp, like the air right before it snows. Mesmerized, Lillian glanced around the bar for a distraction. Everything about the man was refined and measured. She was captivated.
“You know, your clients are staring daggers at me. Being up here might not be the best for my work.”
He laughed softly. “The ‘fangbangers’ are jealous I have honored you by inviting you up here to entertain me. But it will only make them want to talk to you more.”
“It’s not so clear to me who’s entertaining whom.”
He raised an eyebrow. “This is work. It is boring, but necessary. Plus, I multitask,” he said, picking up his phone and waving it.
“Am I boring you, Mr. Northman?” she taunted, rather enjoying the repartee.
The curves of his lips curved in an almost imperceptible smile. “It’s Eric. And no.”
“This whole place is an effective illusion,” she offered.
“In a number of ways.” A moment passed as she considered this. “I read your dissertation. This project is quite a departure for you.”
Lillian choked on her sip of gin and tonic. “Oh god!” she sputtered. “That’s incredibly embarrassing. Why didn’t you look as some of my articles instead?”
“I did. I read everything.”
“Well, then.” She sucked in a deep breath of air. “You know I studied cloth exchange as a medium for social reproduction. Most of that work was looking at age hierarchies. This isn’t such a departure. My interest here lies with how people try to inhabit or play with the idea of immortality, and what kinds of material culture they perceive as necessary for producing it.”
“I did receive your official research proposal,” he teased.
“Well then you’ll understand when I say that classic anthropological theory tells us that play is never just play. I think there is a lot about contemporary social life that can be gleaned from how people imagine the non-human or the undead. I take it very seriously.”
“Dead serious, one might say.” His playful, piercing gaze absorbed her, then he looked away, lost in a thought. He spoke quietly then:
“Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new.”
Lillian laughed softly. “Ah, Shakespeare did understand humanity’s ripe imagination.” She blushed, recalling that the sonnet wasn’t just about people’s imaginations, but how one is kept up all night dreaming about a lover. Did he mean himself or her? Or was the ambiguity his point? Well, two could play at double-entendres. What an insufferable flirt! There was nothing worse than a man who new damn well he was gorgeous.
“Indeed, Eric, ‘All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” she paused, hoping to let that sink in. “’They make their exits and entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts’.”
Eric threw his head back and laughed a deep howl. ” ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?’”
“Never!” She shot a sarcastic look at him and took a long swig of her drink.
The two sat on the dais, shaking with laughter. Had she actually just suggested that the owner of the business she was researching was a big ‘ole man whore? Yep, that was her. Classy. At least he seemed to appreciate a good joke. She grew more sedate when she realized just how many people on the floor had stopped what they were doing and were staring at them. Rather hatefully, she thought. Suddenly pink in the cheeks with self-consciousness, she fiddled with the hem of her skirt to avoid the glares. Being the center of attention was never her strong suit. Thankfully Pam sidled up and whispered something in Eric’s ear. His smile fell.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting you tonight. Unfortunately, I have a call I must take and Pam has reminded me there’s work piling up. My apologies for leaving you so abruptly. We shall meet again soon.” He rose to stand, all 6’4″ of him towering over her, and gave a slight bow, leaving her. Lillian wasted no time getting out of the spotlight and back into her preferred shadowy booth in the back of the club.
When she later slid into the cool sheets of her bed that night, dawn had nearly broken on the horizon. She heard the sleepy early morning sounds start to wake the world – the chattering of a blue jay and the coos of a mourning dove. Her body was exhausted. After a week she still wasn’t adjusted to her nighttime schedule. Her mind was still busy, and as her fatigue washed over her and began to pull her down into the heaviness of sleep, the image of ice blue eyes kept circling in her head. That and a line. “Looking on darkness which the blind do see.” The words echoed repeatedly until she was fast asleep.
Over the next several nights, Lillian arrived at the club and eagerly checked the club’s throne, hoping to have the same cold thrill she had that first night when she first saw Eric presiding over his dark, thrumming little business. But nights passed without seeing him again, or Pam for that matter. Not that the other staff were unfriendly or uninteresting. Lillian’s work plodded along and the pages in her notebooks filled. Then nights turned into weeks. Her interviews with the club-goers started to feel repetitive, and her conversations grew circular and predictable. Her old adviser once told her that the moment that you knew what to expect from a line of questioning, you should start asking different questions, change tactics, or else move on to a different phase of the research. She was grateful that the project hadn’t entirely stalled out. At three weeks into the trip, she needed to start working on her first report to the owners. But thinking of the owners only highlighted their absence, and her thoughts drifted back to a certain someone’s long, muscular frame and his heady, seductive charm. She’d thought of stopping by Mr. Riley’s office to inquire, or perhaps even calling Eric herself, since he did give her his number. But then, she really had no excuse for ringing and she didn’t want to have an awkward conversation. He was probably just busy.
Catching herself staring at the throne again, Lillian slid out and installed herself on the opposite side of her usual booth so that she now had a view of the black wall next to the main door. Nothing to see there. The bench on this side was less comfortable, probably owing to the fact that everyone wanted to sit facing the other way, if not for the stage, then to enjoy the writhing bodies on the dance floor. Sighing to herself, she turned her notebook to a fresh page and started outlining the main points of her report. These were always tricky, since you didn’t really know what conclusions you had until you analyzed your data. And yet you were supposed to say something about how productive it had all been, blah blah blah. It was unsettling to make blind conjectures based on gut feelings. Nevertheless, she set to it until the yellow page was nearly full of neat bulletin points.
Unable to come up with anything more, her mind started to wander and her writing wandered off into curly-cue doodles that arched and slithered around the margins of the paper. At half past two, she let a rather embarrassingly large yawn escape and she realized how tired she felt. Nothing would come of this evening. Somewhere in her bag, she heard her phone vibrate. At this hour, it was probably just an email from some student wanting a last-minute letter of recommendation or a grade change from god knows how many semesters ago. She ignored it, focusing instead on filling in the lines of a rather elaborate rendition of the vegvesir, or Norse compass, at the top of the page. Maybe she should just pack up and call it a night.
Moments later, her hobo bag buzzed again. Agitated, she dug around in the jumbled contents and pulled the phone out. To her surprise, she had two texts from a certain Eric Northman.
Are you really as bored as you look?
Hmm? Or you’ve decided quit work and fulfill your dream of being an artist?
Lillian felt her cheeks immediately flush with heat. How the hell could he know what she was doing?! She whipped around, and lo and behold, there Eric sat on the dais, as though he’d never left the spot. He’d resumed the position she’d first seen him in – fiddling with his phone and looking imposing. Her heart skipped a beat. Eric was texting her from the stage. He didn’t look up, but she saw him smile, ever so slightly, as though he’d seen her in his peripheral vision. But that was impossible – she was at least 30 yards away. Turning back around and sinking in the booth’s seat, she blinked several times, as though his bright image had burned itself into her retinas. Eric was wearing the same skin-tight leather pants and what looked like a Fall season Rodarte sweater – an unstructured black knit with nothing underneath the open, messy loops. The garment, if you could even call it that, was entirely see-through. The broad, creamy expanses of hard skin peeking through turned her cheeks pink. She twisted the phone sideways to activate the bigger Qwerty keyboard and panicking over what to say, was unsure why she suddenly felt like an awkward tween.
‘Bored? I could ask the same. That why you ran off?’ she replied.
‘No. Business called. Miss me?’
She tried to play it coolly. ‘Your clients did. They told me. 🙂 ‘
Her phone again vibrated immediately. ‘I didn’t ask about them…Answer or I’ll summon you up here ‘
‘Mercy! Anything but that’
Her eyes narrowed in annoyance at the suggestive remark. She wasn’t about to let her work get turned upside down simply over a pair of tight pants and a couple witty remarks. ‘You’re burning up my data plan.’
She set the phone down and returned to her notebook, determined to brainstorm more for her outline. No sooner had she resumed writing, she received yet another text. ‘Follow me.’ Lillian craned her neck around in time to see Eric saunter off the stage and disappear down the back hallway. “Damn him,” she muttered. She was caught in a double bind and the bastard knew it. She couldn’t risk offending him and so she resigned herself to following along, hoping something useful would come out of his game. Lillian felt a little like Alice and Fangtasy was her own Wonderland, the land of the deeply weird. She huffed, then typed back. ‘Down the rabbit hole!’
She scraped together her materials off the table and dumped them in her bag, but decided to make Eric wait a couple minutes, just to be a pill. The phone buzzed again. ‘Not even a little ‘curiouser and curiouser’?’ the message read.
Sighing, she stood up and weaved her way around the edges of the dance floor and headed down the hallway. The blacklit corridor highlighted the fuzz all over her black pants and she brushed at it futilely while walking. On her left were doors to the bathrooms, and further down a heavy metal door that must be storage. The first office on the right she knew was Mr. Riley’s, so the second must be…the door was cracked ajar. She paused, noting the same camera and keypad security system. Lillian rapped lightly on the door and pushed it open without waiting for a response.
“You should be more careful with your security, Mr. Northman. You never know who might wander in,” she quipped. She was about to add to her snarky comment, but the air caught in her throat at sight of the room. It was a stark contrast to Mr. Riley’s drab office, not to mention the horror kitsch of the club. Both the floor and ceiling were a light wood, and the ceiling itself had been raised to expose the structure’s steel beams. Eric sat behind a beautiful desk, his boots kicked up on the edge. It was a solid piece of wood, with wide minimalist steel legs. Behind him sat a modernist cube bookshelf spread across the entirety of a pale moss-colored wall. It was filled with books and numerous objets d’art. The room was lovely and airy, full of soft filtered light. It reminded her of a forest.
“You were saying, Professor?” a smile weaved across his lips. He gestured to the square black leather chair opposite the desk.
She sat automatically, still speechless. “I’ve got to get the number of your decorator, this…this is unbelievable! It makes me want to never go back to my horrid little hole of an office!”
He chuckled and his eyes sparkled. That unearthly smile might be Lillian’s undoing. “You already have it. I designed and built this myself.” Unable to stop herself, she reached out and ran her hand along the edge of the desk.
“This is spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Reclaimed ash from my homeland. The rest of this tree was made into a ship.” He looked at it wistfully, then quietly added, “this is all that is left of it.”
“Where are you from originally?”
“Sverige, or as you say, Sweden.”
“Ah, so you are indeed a Viking, ship and all,” she teased. “But you hardly have an accent.”
“True. I left a long time ago.” He offered nothing more.
“It’s amazingly quiet in here, you must have done a hell of a soundproofing job in the walls.”
“There is only so much Rihanna one man can take.”
She laughed and tried to focus on the bookshelves instead of the gorgeous chest peeking through his sweater.
“So, to what do I owe the honor of an audience? Or are you just shirking your duties?”
“I could say the same. Although, I must say, your rendering of the vegvesir was quite impressive.”
She flushed. “How did…you couldn’t have seen that from…” she stammered, horrified at how juvenile she felt.
He tapped his phone. “I told you. I multitask. There are cameras throughout the club. I can monitor virtually every corner of my business from a CC feed directly on my phone.”
Lillian was still trying to recover. “Isn’t that a little overboard? I mean…”
“We take security very seriously here, my lovely Lila.” He pronounced it ‘lee-la.’
“I guess so.” She tried to ignore his pet name for her. Her Swedish was limited to a few phrases, but she thought ‘Lila’ meant purple. Unconsciously her hand went up to her lavender scarf. “Crazed fans thinking they’ll actually meet a vampire or what?”
“Yes, sometimes that. We try to stem their disappointment by selling them our merchandise. Which reminds me, Pamela and I are developing a new calendar concept. Would you care to have a preview?”
“Oh. Sure!” She pulled out her notebook and a pen, happy to get a behind the scenes view into the business. Eric spun towards the bookshelf and pulled a thick file from an Ikea storage box. He eyed the notebook, ensuring that she was ready. “Each month will feature a staff member. Now, Pamela likes this shot of herself…” he pulled out a glossy 5×8 photo and set it in front of her. Lillian raised an eyebrow. Pam was dress in little more than a black leather jacket and stilettos, straddling a Ducati motorcycle. Her bosom was prominently hiked up and on display and she gave the camera a come-hither gaze.
“Hot,” she quipped, picking the image up. Eric pulled out another sheet and set it on the desk. “I keep telling her this one is better. Which do you prefer?” In the second photo, Pam was splayed out on the hood of a matte black Ferrari, the same one she’d seen earlier in the parking lot. This time she sported a black leather and lace corset.
Lillian laughed. “This one is certainly more suggestive, but her boobs do look great in the other!”
Eric growled. “Dammit, that’s exactly what she said. She scratched the hood of my fucking car with her stiletto doing that shot. The least she could do is make it worth the trouble by letting me use the picture!”
“Aww!” she faked sympathy. “Such troublesome first world problems…”
He shot a glare at her. “Well, since we fired Longshadow, we do need a replacement for September. Maybe you care to fill in…”
“Oh no, mister! There’s no way!”
“Come on, I’m sure Pam would let you borrow a few outfits. Or maybe you’re just shy of strangers? I’m quite an accomplished photographer, you know. I’d be happy to take them myself,” he said, waggling his eyebrows.
Lillian threw up her hands in defense. She could just picture herself spread-eagle out on that preposterous sportscar, Eric standing over her. Her cheeks couldn’t get any redder with where that line of thinking was taking her.
“No? Think it over.” He sighed, flipping through the file before him. “Longshadow really is an ugly motherfucker. What a godsend to have him out of my sight. I’ve been looking for an excuse to fire him for ages. If only I could forget ever having seen these.” He chucked a stack of pictures to the side.
“Oh dear,” Lillian said. The shots involved a leather vest and a significant amount of chest hair, like the Village People gone horribly wrong.
Digging through more images, Eric paused. “Now here’s a handsome devil. Help me decide. January is such a hard month. You don’t really want to overplay the winter theme.” He started setting out more pictures in front of her.
“Oh Christ!” she blurted out, then clapped her mouth. The first few were various photos of Eric in front of a fireplace. Strategically placed limbs and a fur rug left little to the imagination. He placed more down. In the second set he was covered – partially – in what appeared to be snow. Placing a hand over them, if only to cover what she was seeing, she steadied herself and looked at the bookshelf.
“Well?” he inquired impatiently. The naughty glint in his eyes was not lost on her.
“I…” she stammered. “I suppose…I suppose there can be too much of a good thing. A bit over the top, no? Plus the fireplace…it’s so…”
“Stereotypical?” he interjected.
“I was going to say tacky. And also incongruous. If the others are all ‘vamp and leather,’ shouldn’t yours be too?”
“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair, appearing to mull over a thought. Shrugging, he gathered up the photos and, gathering them with another stack still unseen, tapped them together neatly and slipped them into a manila folder. “Here, perhaps you can review the rest and let me know if there are any that might do. I’d appreciate if you’d give me detailed notes on them explaining your…rational behind the selection,” he smiled innocently, nodding at her little book. Lillian tucked the folder away. “Of course it goes without saying that they are for your eyes only.”
“Of course,” she replied, wondering just how many kicks he was getting from giving her a stack of sexy pictures of himself. She tried to quash the inner voice wondering just how many kicks she would get too. Detailed notes…the gall! Refocusing, she let her eyes wander over the objects on her shelves.
“You’re quite the collector. Is that Lenca pottery?” She pointed to a terracotta vase with brown swirls.
“Yes. I spent some time in Honduras.”
“And so many rare books. I’m surprised you would keep them here.”
He shrugged noncommittally. “These are mostly less valuable editions or desk copies. I keep my finest ones elsewhere.”
“May I?” she stood.
Stepping around the desk, she squatted down to get a closer look. Eric sat watching her hover her fingers over the spines of the texts. She paused over one, then gasped and sat back on her heels. “You keep first editions of Jane Austen as your desk copies?!”
He laughed. “Trifles and diversions, min framtida älskare.”
“Your what? You know, I don’t speak much Swedish beyond hej and ja.”
“Look it up!” he said mischievously.
Lillian was about to respond when she spotted something on the other side of the wall. She squeezed behind Eric’s chair and stood on tippy toes. “This is…No, it can’t be” she said, in confusion. “Can it?” A crude little bronze horse, green with age, stood with one leg raised. A rider sat on its back an arm in the air. It looked like the warrior once held something, but it had long since broken.
Eric stood and came behind her. He casually plucked it off the shelf and plopped it in her hands.
She looked at it more closely. “Oh, of course. Reproduction. The devil is always in the details.” Pointing at the figure’s head, she showed him. “The artist completely botched the helmet. Etruscan eye guards were pointed and open, not rounded and closed. That’s much more typical of -”
“ – a northern European style. Yes,” Eric said, finishing her thought.
“Yes, I mean,” she huffed a laugh, “if archaeologists ever found something like that it would be groundbreaking. Evidence of contact between Nordic traders in Italy? What, some two centuries before Roman contact? That’s well before the Viking age.” She flipped it around, looking for an artist’s mark or production stamp.
“I know,” Eric said. “Which is why you should be careful with it.”
“Right,” he echoed.
Lillian was half-listening, still inspecting the statue. There weren’t any maker’s impressions. “Wait, what was that?”
“I said you should be more careful with something so wholly unique.”
Lillian’s smile turned into a look of horror. “What? No, it’s not real…” Eric nodded, hands deep in his pockets. “What!? It’s…it’s real!? Holy shit! Eric! Get it out of my hands!” She was terrified to move. “Take it!” she squealed. He laughed and set it back on the shelf. “Where…How…”
He shrugged. “I found it when I was a boy helping my father till the soil. I used to play with it as a child. It’s a shame we didn’t know it was valuable. I broke his little sword off,” he said ruefully.
Lillian just gaped. “And here I thought I was lucky to have had Legos.” Eric threw his head back and howled with laughter. Who was this man? A set of contradictions, that’s what: trashy club owner but a design genius, worldly charm and yet obnoxiously flashy (hello, a Ferrari?), sophisticated in his tastes yet shows a woman he barely knows near-nude photos of himself. Which reminded her of the packet currently burning a hole in her bag. And did he just say he was a farmer’s son?
“Eric, if you ever want to show that to someone and start a real stink with historians, I can certainly put you into contact with the right people. I mean, I’m no expert, but this is really important. Why keep it all to yourself?”
“And let someone take my toy?” he pouted, then winked.
Lillian glanced at her watch. “Jeez, Pam is probably going to come back here and kick my ass for distracting you from work for so long. I should get going.”
“Pamela may be co-owner, but I am the boss.”
“Certainly. Got it. You wear the leather pants around here.”
He leaned in uncomfortably close to her and whispered “You like?”
“Eric…” his heady aroma was divine. “It is getting late. I should go.”
“So soon?” He gave her sweet puppy dog eyes, and reaching up, playfully fingered a strand of golden brown hair framing her face.
“Yeah, I really am bushed. I’m going to head home.”
“Home? You couldn’t possibly mean that vile hotel.”
“Well, it is!”
“Sure, but it’s all I’ve got for the moment. The university made the arrangements. They have some deal with the chain, I guess.”
Eric grunted, unwilling to accept this as an answer. “I shall see you out, then, if you insist on leaving me.”
“Fine.” Lillian picked up her bag and slung it over one shoulder. Eric opened the office door, bowing slightly and gesturing the way. Leaving his little sanctuary of an office, she was rudely awakened by the gharish blacklights and thumping music in the club. She started back towards the main floor, but heard Eric clear his throat.
“Ah,” she exhaled, “your escape hatch.” Eric ushered her out into the parking lot to her car. Once she was settled into the vehicle and had turned the engine over, she rolled down the window. “Shall I see you tomorrow, or will you disappear on me again?” she said, feeling sheepish for even asking.
“I should be in my office around 11. I won’t be on the floor.”
“Okay.” She felt awkward, like the moment before ending a date. But of course this wasn’t a date, she was working, and this man was an informant, not a lover.”
“Until then, min framtida älskare. Remember your homework!” With that he pushed off the windowsill of the car and swaggered back to towards the back door. Her homework? Ah yes, look up just what the devil he was saying to her. Now if she could only remember.