Texas, early ‘70s.
Tristan Donovan’s first memory was of scarlet curls dangling onto his face like fingers of silk. During the early part of his childhood, he was cared for by Evangeline, a blithesome Haitian woman whose lullabies filled the air like a warm, exotic breeze. The lyrics were in a foreign language, which comforted him, even before he could understand them. But when this gorgeous red-haired woman entered his room, he was entangled in her warmth. Nothing else mattered when she was alone with him. She was like his personal sun—an angel who would kiss his face, make him laugh, and carry him around in her arms.
A big, loud man also inhabited their home. He seldom spoke to Tristan and never touched the boy. He was merely a murmur, a dark figure that filled the recesses of Tristan’s memory. He interrupted his playtime and told Evangeline to take him to his room. There were a few precious days, however, in which the big man didn’t come, allowing Tristan to sleep in the red headed woman’s arms. And there, playing with the ruby-colored curls that descended to her breasts, he experienced the greatest sensation of safety and love.
By the time he was five, Tristan already understood that the object of his fascination was his mother. Nora was tall and slim, and had inherited her rich red locks from her Irish parents. And that man, whose name turned out to be “James,” was his father and he seemed intent on instilling fear among those around him. The mere sound of James’ voice drove Tristan into a tremble.
Tristan also realized at an early age that Nora and James were not a good match for one another. But he was far too young to understand all the dirty secrets behind their relationship. His parents had met in New York when Nora was performing in an off-Broadway show. At the age of twenty-eight, James was tall and solidly built, yet not handsome. His lips were too thin, his nose too flat. But his green eyes were intelligent, his straight brown hair impeccably cut, and he always dressed in the finest suits. He had an air about him that invited admiration, and commanded respect. Most importantly, his family controlled the largest law firm in the United States, which made him a very eligible bachelor, regardless of everything else.
James courted Nora for three months while he worked in the city. It wasn’t long before she announced that she was pregnant. For the Donovans, producing a worthy heir was tantamount to the birth of a new king. For five generations, they had maintained a very important tradition: to wrest control of the family firm to the member of each generation who both graduated law school with honors, and had a child to succeed them.
Nora’s announcement at first startled James. He had never intended their relationship to continue beyond his time in the city. But it didn’t take him long to realize that this “situation” could be the miracle he needed. His eldest brother had recently married and was already behaving like the company was his. James could not wait to give him the news. Nora lacked the privileged mantel his father would have preferred from a Donovan bride, but she was beautiful, smart, and, as an actress, had the necessary abilities to impress the old man. Donovan Senior would fall for Nora’s great looks and be delighted in knowing his first grandchild was growing inside her womb. With that in mind, James appeared in Nora’s dressing room one night after her show, armed with a beautiful diamond, and popped the question.
At the time, James’s proposal seemed like a miracle for Nora as well. When she met him she was having an affair with an actor who co-starred with her in her play. Kevin was gorgeous, his career was progressing, but his manager was also his girlfriend. Nora was madly in love with him, but she ultimately decided that James was a better investment. She went on sleeping with both men. Yet, when she realized she was pregnant, it didn’t matter which of them was the father. It was unlikely that a wealthy bachelor from a traditional family would commit to her, but she told James the baby was his.
The diamond ring he offered her was not a promise of eternal love. James was temperamental and Nora knew their life together would not be so easy. Yet, by marrying him, she and the baby would be safe. She had always wanted to be a mother and that was the right way to do it. Without hesitation, Nora said “yes.” A week later, she abandoned the play and moved to Texas with James. She never contacted Kevin again.
Seven years later, Nora had long come to regret her decision. When she hadn’t been able to fall pregnant again, the doctors discovered that James was sterile. Soon, Nora’s world had collapsed on top of her. If James hadn’t needed an heir and a wife to keep up the appearance of a solid family unit for his father and the members of the company board, he would have thrown her and Tristan out with the trash. He’d chosen to keep them on, in return for Nora’s silence, but tortured her for her infidelity. After Nora grew numb to his attacks, James turned his anger toward Tristan.
Nora had considered divorce several times. But James appealed to her greed, agreeing to make million-dollar deposits on Tristan’s behalf, for every five years they remained married. Nora was a practical woman who had grown up in poverty, and money had always seduced her. James was a lousy father but he never laid a finger on Tristan. Besides, at that point, Nora did not care much for her own happiness, so the bargain seemed worth it. For the sake of Tristan’s prosperous future, she had agreed to stay on in that hell, adorned by diamonds and fur coats, with the guarantee that her son would have everything she desired for him.
Nora’s greatest heartbreak was to watch Tristan grow up with the knowledge that his father did not love him. The poor child did just about everything to please James but with no success. The first few years, James merely ignored Tristan, who would bow his head with a crestfallen frown upon his face. Hostile looks and constant screaming followed, and soon the young Tristan started to fear his own father.
Nora tried to bring more color into her son’s day by enveloping him in a world of fantasy. She read to him, playing all the parts in the stories with larger-than-life characters, exaggerating her voice and sweeping about the room in grand gestures. Tristan was captivated.
One day, she started to act out Peter Pan, one of Tristan’s favorites, when Tristan interrupted her. “Wait. Don’t do all the characters this time, Mommy. Let me help you.”
Nora smiled. “Alright. Who do you want to play?”
“How about you play Wendy and her brothers, and I’ll be Peter Pan and Captain Hook?”
“Fine, but we only have one book. What are we going to do?”
“You read. I’ve memorized my parts.”
And to Nora’s amazement, he truly had. He mimicked his mother’s exaggerated characters, sending his mother into fits of laughter. Nora was so impressed that they spent the next couple of hours acting out Peter Pan.
Once the curtains fell and the two bowed to their imaginary audience, they collapsed on the bed, breathless from laughing so hard. “If you continue like this,” breathed Nora, “one day you’ll win an Oscar. You were fabulous!”
Tristan smiled proudly and hugged her. “Thank you, Mommy. What are we going to act out next time?”
And so acting became their favorite routine.
Tristan soon mastered the craft of acting. As he grew up, his performances became more and more elaborate. He was a little chameleon, capable of morphing into whatever character he wanted to be.
At the age of ten, he joined the theater club at school, and it was fascinating for Nora to watch him on stage. Not only was he extremely talented; Tristan was growing into the handsome features that would define him in his adult life. He was taller than the other boys his age, and had fair skin, straight black hair, and honey-green eyes.
Nora loved the idea of her son becoming a serious actor, someone more famous and respected than she had ever been. But she knew that it would never happen, and so did Tristan.
By then, Tristan was aware that his family was extremely wealthy, and knew that one day he was destined to become a lawyer and take over their business. The emphasis that James placed on the subject weighed on Tristan’s young shoulders. Tristan simply rejected the idea of doing anything that would make him like his father. In fact, even calling James Father seemed wrong, and in his absence, Tristan referred to him by his given name.
James never recognized Tristan’s achievements. He never watched his acting performances at school, nor congratulated him for winning his swimming competitions. But he screamed at the boy and made him feel like an idiot whenever he made mistakes. Tristan had recurring nightmares in which James tortured him with whips and chains, gagged him or shoved his head into a bucket of water. After those dreams, Tristan would invariably wake to find he’d wet the bed.
He hoped that as he grew up he would become strong enough to control himself, but instead, he grew even more terrified of his father. It got to the point where Tristan would urinate in his pants whenever James screamed at him. But this was nothing compared to what occurred the following fall. James would prove to his son that the boy’s nightmares had only just begun.
The leaves had only started to turn when James insisted that he and Tristan go to Montana alone, so James could teach the boy how to hunt. There, James had brutally beaten him for the first time, and hunting was just one of the many lessons Tristan learned.
James was six-foot-three, with broad shoulders and a massive head. He was considered a large man by most, but for eleven-year-old Tristan, he was a giant.
Lying on his stomach against the dead leaves of the forest, the thick, leather belt came down for a third time against Tristan’s tenderized back. Lightning flashed against the boy’s eyelids, squeezed shut from the crackling pain running down his spine. Somewhere beyond that pain, Tristan could discern a very angry James yelling at him for having refused to shoot a young deer.
“Do you think I want a sissy as a son? A weak idiot who prefers acting out plays with Mommy?! Pain molds a man, Tristan. And my belt will mold you!”
Another excruciating smack. And another. Across Tristan’s buttocks, on his thighs.
Tristan covered his mouth to stop himself from screaming. But the humiliation and the sensation of impotence were worse than the pain. His jeans protected his skin, but nothing protected his heart, and the tears ran freely down his cheeks.
After two more blows, Tristan cried out. “Stop, Dad. Please! I’ll do whatever you want!”
James stepped back, still a little unsteady from the adrenaline rush. “Of course you will. You belong to me.”
Tristan would also later recall that on that same weekend, he had surprised James and his friends while they were fooling around with a fifteen-year-old boy. He’d stumbled onto the scene quite by chance. A nightmare had woken him in the middle of the night and when he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, he noticed someone skulking past his window outside. Tristan observed the stranger as he entered the bungalow behind the main house. Having failed as a hunter in the past few days, he thought James would commend him for his bravery if he caught the intruder. Eager to please, he tiptoed into the bungalow, saw the men and the naked boy and realized he’d made a catastrophic mistake.
“What are you doing here, you brat?!” James barked when Tristan entered the room.
“Sorry, Father. I thought that—”
As James took a step towards him, Tristan recoiled in fear.
“I won’t beat you. Not now. But you will pay for this.”
Tristan would be marked forever by the humiliation James put him through that night. First, James ordered him to kneel down like a slave, then had him lick his boots. Then James urinated on the boy’s upturned face.
There must have been laughter in the room, but it seemed deep inside Tristan’s mind and so loud he could not silence it. Feeling his nerves break down, he sat on the floor with tears pouring down his cheeks until James finally released him.
“Go away, you pussy. We’ll play more tomorrow.”
All Tristan’s senses were magnified as he ran back to the main house. He felt the earth under his feet, the cold air on his face, and the sound of his heart pounding in his throat. He wanted the reassurance of his mother’s presence, but she was not there and he was so scared.
He knew he could not bear one more day alone with James.
Tristan entered the house through the kitchen door and rushed toward the cabinet beside the sink. He picked out the sharpest knife he could find, and cut his wrists.
James’s bodyguard found Tristan moments later, curled on the floor in a puddle of dark red ink. Finding Tristan semiconscious, the bodyguard rushed back to the bungalow to get help from one of James’s friends who was a doctor.
Behind the dark curtain that threatened to close his eyes forever, Tristan heard hushed voices.
Will he be okay, Greg?
I managed to stop the bleeding. He should be stable until he gets to the hospital.
Damn it! This is deep shit!
The helicopter is here, sir.
A gentle whisper, in French, then silence.
Tristan remembered waking up at the hospital to a redheaded angel watching over him. Then, as his mind drifted in and out of consciousness, he was vaguely aware of his parents arguing in the room. But he was too weak to make sense of what they were saying.
“James, you know very well why I have been putting up with your abuse for all these years, but you crossed the line. I won’t let you hurt my son!”
James scoffed. “Your son? Tristan is only your son now?”
“Yes! And I don’t want your money! Tristan and I are moving out as soon as he recovers. I want a divorce.”
“Very brave, Nora! I haven’t seen the real you since I unmasked you a few years ago.” James smiled and touched Nora’s cheek, which was now red with anger. “You can really turn me on when you are mad.”
“Stay the hell away from me!”
“I don’t think you have that option. You still owe me for your betrayal and I won’t let you get away with it that easily.” James looked at Tristan. “And regarding your bastard son, yes, I abused him a little, but so what? I’m the one who provides for him; he’s enrolled in the best school in the city, and lives better than most snot-nosed kids his age. And as long as I’m the one taking care of him, he belongs to me, just like you.”
“You monster! I will go to the police if I have to!”
“Don’t be dramatic, Nora. Tristan just needs to man up a little, so he’s worth carrying my family’s name. He can’t be a weak shit like his little actor father.”
“And that’s your problem! Tristan is growing up, and not only looking more and more like Kevin, but becoming a great actor just like him!”
“You sound like you are still in love, my dear, but it’s too late for regrets. You wanted me to be your son’s father and that’s exactly what you got.”
“I don’t give a shit what you want! I’ve grown fond of the idea of Tristan replacing me in the firm, especially now that I know how much he hates the idea. I won’t give up on him, Nora. If you insist on the divorce, or go to the police, I will make sure that all the reports your shrink has been hiding about your schizophrenia will see the light of day. I will lock you up in an asylum, and you will never see Tristan again.”
A full twenty seconds passed before Nora managed to ask, “How did you find out I was seeing a psychiatrist?”
“Oh, honey, after I discovered you betrayed me, I ran a full investigation into your past. I’ve been keeping an eye on you ever since. I know everything—the hallucinations you’ve had, the treatments, and how your symptoms are coming back.” James stepped forward, his giant frame looming over Nora. “Don’t fuck with me. If you try to drag me into hell, I’ll make sure that you and Tristan come with me.”
“You can’t blackmail me, James! Don’t forget, if I tell your father that Tristan is not yours, your brother can claim his right to run the company. He has two boys, doesn’t he?”
James looked again at Tristan’s huddled body, lost in sedated sleep. “Well, if you do so, then Tristan becomes useless to me. And in that case, he may suffer a little accident, just like your dear Kevin.”
Nora suddenly found it difficult to breathe. Three months after James discovered the truth about Tristan’s paternity, Nora found a note in the papers about Kevin’s death in a fatal car crash. There was no evidence of foul play, and she assumed it had just been a terrible coincidence.
“You wouldn’t do something like that,” she whispered.
“There’s just one way to find out, isn’t there?”
Seeing the hatred in James’s face, Nora realized he would do whatever it took to have things his way. She had always respected the power he commanded, but for the first time she truly felt afraid of him. The fear ran deep into her spine like a cold wind, and traveled throughout her body until every muscle tingled. Her eyes filled with tears, and she murmured, “Alright.”
“Good,” replied James. “And see to it that your son keeps his mouth shut, too, no matter what I do.”