“What?” I step farther into the room and stand at the end of the table. “Victor, how can you say that? Have you tried to talk to him at all?”
He locks eyes with me over the length of the table.
“I will talk to my brother when the time is right,” he says.
James glances at us briefly and pretends to be more interested in the photographs in front of him. He appears uncomfortable.
“How is any time right?” I ask with an accusatory tone. “Right now is as good a time as any will ever be.”
“Niklas needs time alone,” he says and I slam my palm against the table before he gets the last word all the way out.
“Fuck!” I say angrily.
Victor stands up quickly from the table in one swift motion, sending the paper he had been reading in his hand falling onto the floor. His chair screeches as it’s pushed back a little on his way up.
James freezes, looking between the both of us under nervous hooded eyes.
“Woodard,” Victor says demandingly, “leave us.”
Without hesitation, James gets up, tucks his laptop underneath his arm and makes his way out.
A nervous ball sits in my stomach. I know he’s pissed at me, but I feel very strongly about what Niklas must be going through, and I can’t find any acceptable reason that Victor wouldn’t be trying to make things right between them, right now.
“Is that what you think of me?” he asks, angry but at the same time wounded by the prospect. “You think that these files and these photographs”—he waves a hand at the table—“are more important to me than my brother? Look at me”—he points at his eyes with his index and middle fingers—“and tell me you think that way about me, because that’s exactly how it feels right now—I want to hear you say it.”
I swallow nervously and begin to shake my head. I’ve rarely ever seen him like this before, so I know I’ve overstepped my bounds, that I’ve hurt him, and already I feel terrible for making him feel this way.
“I’m sorry…I just…”
Victor’s shoulders slump into a long sigh and he looks back down at the table, but not at the things scattered atop it. He falls heavily back into his chair and slouches against it.
“Izabel,” he says more calmly, but not looking at me, “I knew it had to come out sometime. Not a day has gone by in the past six years when I look at my brother and I don’t feel like shit for what I did. Niklas may never forgive me, but he will understand.”
I walk toward him down the length of the massive table.
“You seem to forget that he tried to kill you,” Victor adds.
“I’ve never forgotten that,” I say, “and I don’t think I ever will.”
“You haven’t forgotten or forgiven,” Victor says, “but you understand.”
I didn’t expect that, so I say nothing at first.
“I feel guilty,” I finally respond, still feeling some kind of need to confess because the guilt is weighing so heavily on my shoulders.
Victor’s head raises and he eyes me with a look of disbelief and maybe even disappointment.
I lean my backside against the end of the table in front of him, crossing my arms.
“Why?” he asks harshly. “Why do you feel guilty? If you say because you’re alive and Claire isn’t, you’re—”
“I’m what?” I snap back, challenging him. “I’m stupid and weak for having a conscience? I’m naïve? Too emotional? Go on, Victor”—I point at my eyes with my index and middle fingers—“tell me what you really think of me.”
His gaze strays.
“I think your heart is too big,” he says and instantly my tough exterior falters. “That’s why I feel the need to protect you all the time. Not because you lack skill or because I don’t believe in you, but because your heart gets in the way. And if there’s any profession in the world that you cannot and should not put your heart into”—he points harshly at the floor— “it’s this one.”
I’m quiet for only a moment, letting his words sink in.
And then something enters my mind that I’m more afraid to say to him than my accusations about Niklas—but I can’t hold in how I really feel.
“Things would be better for you if I was…more like Nora, wouldn’t they?” I did everything I could not to make it sound bitter or accusing, because I don’t mean it that way.
He raises his eyes to me, and for a long time he doesn’t say anything.
“In a professional and emotional sense, yes,” he answers truthfully, “but not for any other reason. But if I wanted someone like Nora at my side, you wouldn’t be here—unlike her, I do not play games—so please, don’t accuse me of wild attractions to that woman, or start feeling insecure that I’m going to stray.”
“I don’t think that at all,” I say, and I mean it. “That’s not what this is about.”
I lift my body to sit on the table in front of him, my legs, covered in a tight black bodysuit, hang over the edge of the table at the bend of my knees. Victor moves his chair closer to sit between them, laying his arms across the tops of my thighs and fitting his hands about my waist. The sleeves of his dress shirt are rolled up to his elbows; veins run along the hard muscles of his lightly tanned forearms.
I run all of my fingers through the top of his short brown hair.
“Do you not trust me to take care of myself at all, Victor?” I ask with concern and not with accusation. “Is there not anything about me—from a professional and emotional standpoint—that you feel doesn’t need…improvement?”
“I trust your judgment, Izabel,” he says. “When it comes to others, you’re a good judge of character. You inherently know, before I even do usually, about a person on the inside. But I don’t trust you when you’re angry or out for vengeance. You tend to make rash decisions, jump head-first into dangerous situations without a plan—take Los Angeles and Arthur Hamburg for example. But when you’re calm and not acting out of anger or revenge, you know what you’re doing. And I trust you one hundred percent.”
I thank him with my eyes.
We sit quietly for a long time and then I say in a soft voice, “What if Niklas doesn’t come back?”
“He will come back,” Victor answers, but in his voice I sense that he may not be as confident in that assumption as he’d like. “He is my brother,” he goes on, “and he may hate me for a while or even want to kill me, but he’ll always be my brother and I’ll always do anything for him and he knows it.”