Unseen Genius: Chapter 19: A Child’s Prayer
Erik stalked down the hallway wishing with every step that he could drive a fist through the wall. Never in his adult life had another man spoken to him in so condescending a manner as that puffed up peacock had done. ‘How thoughtful of you to have invited the help over for some cake,’ he recalled, angrily mouthing the words. He wouldn’t have been so arrogant if we were alone for five minutes. Five minutes and I could have ripped him to shreds.
At least Erik had had some pleasure in seeing the shock on the bastard’s face when he informed him of his current residence. That little tidbit had certainly knocked Lord Andrew down a few pegs. Oh it was childish to be sure, but he just couldn’t help himself from baiting the man. It had been all too easy.
Erik’s only regret was that his words had apparently gotten Brielle into trouble with her ‘landlord.’ The fact that she cared so much what Andrew thought of her sent his blood boiling. He didn’t like how the man spoke to her either. It was like he was speaking to a child rather than a young lady. What was more enraging was that Brielle allowed it.
Why she was relying on the dandy for a place of residence was a mystery to him. Her late husband surely must have left everything to her. The Donovan family was by all accounts extremely well off. The younger son of such a family surely could have provided for his wife. He stopped walking with a jerk when a thought suddenly struck him. Maybe she was staying here because she wanted to be closer to the man. Maybe she loved Andrew.
The thought left him feeling sick inside.
He heaved a great sigh, trying to release some of the dread building up inside of him. After a few calming breaths he continued down the hallway to do as Brielle had asked and check on Aria. As he neared the child’s room he could hear her stuttering voice through the open doorway.
Erik’s anger faded as he stood listening to her struggle with every word. He closed his eyes against the discordant rhythm of her speech. Every strained vowel and distorted consonant physically pained him. I was so sure that we had made progress. She was speaking beautifully just this morning.
Shaking his head, he placed a hand on the door and was about to push it open when his ears caught a few of Aria’s words. Erik turned his head, one ear towards the opening, sure he had misheard her. The child was praying. For him.
Edging the door open another inch, Erik peered around the corner. Aria knelt before her bed, both tiny hands clasped in front of her face. Her eyes screwed tightly shut as she battled to push every word out of her mouth.
“G-God bless M-Momma and Uncle C-Conner and E-Erik. P-Please don’t l-let Uncle Andrew b-be my new D-Daddy. He h-has m-mean eyes.” The child shifted slightly, scrunching her mouth up in concentration. “P-Please don’t let Uncle Andrew s-scare Erik away. And d-don’t let him t-take Erik away to W-War to be sh-shot.”
Aria stilled then and rested her forehead against her clasped hands. Erik waited for her to continue, but when she remained quiet he moved to push the door open. He stopped when the little girl raised her head and opened her eyes, gazing upwards.
“I want Erik to be my new Daddy,” the child stated with utter clarity, her eyes searching the ceiling as she made her request.
The hand Erik was holding against the door shook as he jerked backwards, struck utterly dumb by the implications of the child’s words. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. There must be some sort of mistake. There had to be a mistake. No one had ever wanted him for anything. And yet, Aria…
He raised a trembling hand to press against his aching heart as he stared blankly at the door. God, he couldn’t breathe; a terribly wonderful weight was pressing the air right out of him. What was this sweet agony? He couldn’t place the emotion stealing the very breath from his lungs, the strength from his limbs. What was it?
Then it dawned on him suddenly like a flash of lightning through the summer sky. It was love. How could he have not placed this feeling? He had loved before, hadn’t he?
No, this was vastly different. It was deep, like a handprint upon the heart, a bruise upon bone. It was unconditional and giving. He loved this child as if she were his own, a fact which both inspired and terrified. He had finally lost his heart to another female and she wanted him to be her Daddy. Suddenly he had the urge to both burst into delighted laughter and flee this house and the emotions within it.
Instead he remained still and silent, trying all the while to regain the tattered sheds of what remained of his composure. Sucking in a breath, Erik built up enough courage to glance around the corner of the door once more. A frown formed handsome creases about his mouth when he realized Aria had disappeared from her spot by the bed. He nearly gasped aloud when a sharp tug at his pant leg caught him off guard.
When his eyes snapped downward he was greeted with a pair of large, solemn gray eyes. “D-Did you come to r-read me a s-s-story?”
“Excuse me?” he rasped before clearing his throat of the emotion building there. He didn’t want her to see how distressed he was at the moment, but it was proving difficult to hide the hurricane of feeling clouding his brain.
“M-Momma is fighting w-with him. S-She s-sent you to make s-sure I had gone t-to bed.” With that said Aria lifted her right hand and popped her thumb into her mouth.
Erik shook his head and out of habit pulled the child’s thumb from her mouth. In their lessons together it had not taken long to discover that her thumb sucking was a display of insecurity. He had been trying to break her of the habit for weeks and he had thought he was succeeding, until now.
“And how do you know that? Are you a mind reader like your mother is?” he asked in a teasing manner, hoping it would be enough to distract from the catch in his voice as he referred back to Aria’s words at their first dinner together.
Without smiling Aria merely looked up at him then nodded. “Y-Yes, and l-like Momma’s M-Momma too. She used to w-work in the th-theater.”
Thinking the little girl was joking, Erik smiled and ushered her back into her bedroom. But as his mind turned over her words further he began to think otherwise. “Aria, how did you know it wasn’t Conner at the door this evening?”
“I s-saw it w-wasn’t him,” the child said, her thumb rising to her mouth again before a frown from Erik had her rethinking the action.
“You couldn’t have seen him Aria. The dining room is on the wrong side of the house for that,” he replied as he hefted the child up onto her bed before taking a seat next to her.
Finally Aria smiled at him, as if she knew something he didn’t. “N-Not with my eyes, I s-saw him in my h-head,” she explained with difficulty as she tapped a finger to her forehead.
“I don’t understand.”
“It is the s-same as w-when I hear the m-music. It is j-just there. I k-know things about p-people sometimes,” she said with a shrug.
Still not entirely convinced the child was serious, Erik smiled at her and nodded his head. “You must have a wonderful imagination to believe all this,” he said, reaching out to ruffle her hair.
“You d-don’t b-believe me?” she asked with a childish grin as she wrinkled her nose at him.
“I believe that you believe,” he said with a smile, laughing when Aria rolled her eyes skyward.
“T-That’s alright. M-Most people d-don’t understand w-what they c-can’t see w-with their eyes,” she said while patting his arm as if to comfort him against this news.
Aria turned from him then and scrambled off the edge of the bed, pattering to the marble topped bedside table and snatching a book from its surface. “R-Read now!” she squealed as she ran back to his side, waving the book over her head before climbing up to sit next to him.
Opening the book, she dropped it into his lap and pointed to a picture of a young woman kissing a frog. “This is m-my favorite s-story! S-See there w-was a P-Prince who was very b-bad and so h-he was turned into a f-frog. Then there w-was a l-lonely Princess w-who went down t-to the pond. And t-then the l-lady kissed the f-frog and he turned b-back into P-Prince!”
“Well it certainly sounds like you know the story. Whatever do you need me for?”
She giggled and leaned her head against his arm. “I l-like how you t-talk.” Stabbing a finger at the book, she puckered up her lips. “R-Read!!”
Sighing dramatically he held up the book in one hand, squinting at the pages before him as if he were unable to read the words. Erik grunted when Aria poked him in the side with a laugh, ordering him to read once again. Turning to the first page he leaned back against the headboard and began to read.
“Once upon a time there was a spoiled little prince.”
Aria settled into his side, her cheek pressed against the cotton of his shirt sleeve, one hand resting in the crook of his elbow. The small gold-faced clock hanging on the wall ticked out the minutes as Erik read each page, his voice instinctively acting out the different parts with funny accents and dramatic pauses.
He lost himself in the story as he read, just as he used to lose himself in his music. The ticking of the clock, the distant sound of the wind, the settling creaking of the house all faded from his attention as he read. The noise of the outside world faded to the rhythm of his words, the sound of Aria’s quiet breathing.
“And they lived happily ever after. The end,” he said closing the book quietly, the sounds of the evening returning to him once more. The voices out in the hall were silent now and Erik hoped Lord Andrew had finally taken his leave.
When no sound of approval came from the child lying against him Erik glanced down, slightly concerned at her silence. Slowly, a gentle smile spread across his face when the reason for the child’s stillness became apparent. Aria was sound asleep against his arm, her mouth slack with sleep, each cheek a warm, rosy pink.
He carefully set the book aside, not wanting to disturb Aria from her slumber. However, his caution was unnecessary; there was no threat of waking her, for his movements hadn’t even made her blink. She was out cold and beginning to drool upon his arm.
Erik couldn’t help but smile down at the child’s form. Hesitantly, he reached out a hand and grazed the tips of his fingers over Aria’s cheek. It was amazing really, that perfection could be found in such a small package. He had never known that it was possible to feel this way, like he was a part of something greater than himself, like he was needed. It felt glorious.
Just then the sound of a footstep upon a loose floorboard brought his head up quickly. Brielle stood in the doorway, her arms wrapped loosely about her waist as if she were chilled. Absently she rubbed at one of her wrists as she stared unblinkingly across the room at him. For some reason - perhaps it was the shifting lamplight or the quiet of the house - she looked terribly lonely and terribly young.
She raised a finger to her lips after a moment and stepped into the room. The hem of her skirts brushed the carpet in soft, intimate whispers. Brielle knelt down slightly and began to shift her daughter from Erik’s arm. When he made a soft sound of protest she merely smiled up at him.
“She won’t wake up now. She never does after a good story,” she whispered as she lifted Aria and placed her small head on the waiting pillows. Shooing him off the bed, Brielle untucked the blankets and pulled them over her daughter’s small body.
She straightened slowly and gestured for him to follow her out the door. Once they were both out in the hall she turned and closed the door. “Thank you for reading to her. It really means a great deal to her to have a story before going to sleep. It helps her to not be afraid of nightmares.”
Brielle turned from the door then, the shadows of the hallway shading her face from view. But her eyes - he could feel her eyes moving across his face like a touch. He stepped away from her, uncomfortable with the intimacy of the darkness.
Erik shrugged his shoulders, throwing off her gratitude. “She asked me to read. It was no great feat. No need to thank me,” he said in short, clipped sentences.
There was a pause before a small sigh issued from Brielle. “What is the matter?” she asked, while once again rubbing absently at her wrist.
“Why would you assume something is the matter?” he replied before turning upon his heel and striding down the hallway.
“Don’t take that tone with me. You only sound like this when something is rolling around in your brain you don’t want to deal with. And so you get snippy.”
“I do not!”
“You do. So please explain to me what has set you off this time.”
“I have nothing to say…” he began. When they reached the doorway to the library, the light pressure of her hand upon his arm stopped him in his tracks.
“Come now, haven’t we gotten past this?” she asked quietly, her hand tightening ever so slightly on his shirt sleeve.
He turned then, a frown tightening his lips. The torrent of emotion weaving through his blood sharpened his eyes, making them burn in the darkness. She started at his expression, releasing his arm. “If you must know I simply did not like the unexpected company tonight.”
“Andrew upset you? I know he is terribly condescending but…”
He huffed, one corner of his mouth curling into a sneer. “Well, are you going to do as Lord Andrew ordered? Is the man in charge of this household? Shall I be on my way tomorrow morning?”
Brielle stared at him with wide quiet eyes for several seconds before slowly drawing herself up to her full height. “No man is the head of this house, nor of me!” She advanced upon him then, waving her hands in the air angrily. “How dare you, sir, to imply that I would turn my back on a friend.”
“Oh so I am your friend then?!” he hissed, furious suddenly because of the fear creeping up his spine. The realization that all he had come to care for could be once again wrenched from his hands terrorized him. He didn’t want to lose this, didn’t want to be alone anymore. But he didn’t know how to stop it from being taken away.
“Of course you are you dolt!” she ground out poking him in the chest, the anger draining from her voice as she stepped forward. Her eyes flickered to the floor, suddenly shy. “You are the best friend I have ever had.”
Unwilling to release the protective shield of his rage, Erik leaned forward ever so slightly and snapped, “What a sad sort of life you must have had for me to be your best friend.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he regretted them. But his pride would not allow him to apologize to her, not when it was in her hands to trample upon his happiness.
Brielle’s eyes widened at his words before lowering to hide the bruised feelings so plainly written upon her face. She remained quiet but every breath sawed out of her throat. He watched as the color flooded her cheeks and her hands fisted at her sides. She finally raised her head with a snap. Whipping back one hand, she swung her palm forward and slapped it across his left cheek.
Shocked, Erik could only stare at her as she brought her arm back for another blow. Before she could hit him again he moved forwards, grappling to take hold of her hands. She fought against his grip with a growl which teetered off into a sob. Brielle jerked and twisted her arms, trying to free herself from his grip. The pair staggered into a table sending the knickknacks on top of it jumping. With his hip smarting from the table edge Erik surged forward, grabbing her lower arms in his fists and pinning her elbows to her waist.
“How dare you, you son of a bitch! I can’t stand this any longer! I just can’t do everything alone anymore!” Her arms relaxed in his grip, her body sagged tiredly against his. “I can’t fight everyone. I am just too tired to fight.”
“You are never too tired to fight.”
“Erik you know I would never send you away as long as you wished to stay.”
Yes, a part of him had known that, but it was a comfort to hear the words coming from her mouth. He sighed and relaxed his hold on her hands. Suddenly their close proximity became very, very apparent. Erik could see every silver eyelash shading her lids, could feel her breath brushing the skin along his neck.
“Yes, I know. I am sorry. Truly I am.” he finally replied, the leaden chill of his fear melting away. Erik raised his hands to either side of her face on the verge of touching her before he pulled away. If he didn’t put some space between them soon…
Brielle flushed scarlet as he stepped away from her. Funny, she appeared almost dazed. He retreated even further when the urge to kiss her parted lips swamped his brain.
“You look tired. You should get some rest,” he stately quietly, hoping his voice would not betray the thoughts racing through his head. When Brielle merely nodded he hesitated from leaving her. That lonely, lost shadow was once again darkening her face.
“You do not have to do everything on your own now, you know. I am here.” Startled by the words coming from his own mouth, Erik cleared his throat.
But the regret of being so open left him when the light of a smile once again flickered over Brielle’s face.
She pushed away from the wall and straightened. “Yes, I know.”