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Regret Like Tears

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Regret Like Tears

 


It was always the same when the lock clicked shut in her cramped cell in Madame Sophia d'Avrigny's brothel. Christine curled into a ball on her cot, dragged the scratchy blanket around her, and fought down the choking, staticky feeling of absolute terror. There were no tears. No, she had long spent her life's quota of distilled grief when her Papa had breathed his last on the day before her sixteenth birthday, when days and weeks passed without the promised arrival of Madame Giry, her Papa's friend.

Madame Sophia had found her skulking the streets of that crumbling seaside ruin of a village where her Papa had died: starved, feverish, and very recently raped. Christine whimpered, the memories of the same facet and luster as a diamond within her mind. Hard hands, stinking breath, burning pain! It was always the same when the floral wallpaper closed in, and the sounds of the Madame's business bled through the walls. Despair rose to coat her tongue in its metallic fug. Fate had consigned her to this prison where monsters took the form of men.

XXX

Erik de Chagny watched the play of light in the cut crystal tumbler in his hand, filled with a generous finger's breadth of cognac. That delicious amber hue, its potent scent holding the lingering notes of strawberries and vanilla steeped in the soil where it had been grown. The drink held his interest as his father's rant did not. He had heard every permutation of this argument since he came of age ad infinitum.

Erik threw back the cognac, enjoying the harsh burn of it on the back of his throat. Restless for stimulation, Erik unfurled his lithe form from the plush chair before the fire and wandered over to the pianoforte. Music beckoned him like a beloved lover. A tender melody had come to him in a dream and held some faint wistful savor, like regret, like tears. Michel de Chagny's strident voice intruded upon his bliss.

"Erik, you cannot continue to shirk your responsibilities in such a manner! It is a disgrace! The Vicomte de Chagny does not refer to the emperor's beloved cousin as a . . . as a-" Erik rose to his feet in one fluid motion, glaring down his father. As ever, there was the faint pang upon seeing the mirror image of his own face—well, half of it. The right side of Erik's face was a mess of twisted flesh and exposed bone. Thus, the white mask covering that side from forehead to jaw. Whatever physical resemblance they bore, any love that could have existed between them had died with Hélène, Erik's mother.

"I believe my phrase was both accurate and conservative. Madeline Toulouse is an insipid cow who would not know true art if it bit her in her exceptionally large arse! Had I been inclined to use vulgarity, I could have called her an inbred cunt, which is also accurate." His voice, Erik's one beauty, could imbue words with colors, shapes and textures. Profanity on his lips, spoken with that sort of dry precision, somehow made the words sound more perverse.

Mottled red color filled Michel's cadaverous cheeks, erasing the bloodless pallor of illness. There was a time when a single cold glance had the power to reduce Erik to tears. Now, he just seemed pathetic. The Comte de Chagny seized a handful of Erik's sleeve, yanking him close with surprising strength.

"Careful, you hideous little wretch," he spat. Erik shook off the older man's grip, anger beginning to make his vision pulse red. He laughed coldly.

"Is that the best you can do, Father? Surely you can muster a more insulting epithet. Why, on your tongue, the words 'son' and 'heir' are the vilest curses."

Erik saw the backhanded slap coming and caught it before it connected. A flicker of disgusted fear rose in the older man's sharp blue eyes, seeing Erik's intelligence, talents and skills as a threat or worse, proof that he was not his son at all, but some manner of demonic changeling.

"Careful, Father. I am no longer a chip to be used as currency to imprison my mother. And seeing as your newest wife cannot so much as conceive where the previous two gave you only girls, it seems that you are stuck with me as your son and heir."

Michel de Chagny's once-handsome features twisted, in frustrated grief and the ashes of disappointment. Leaning heavily on his cane, obstinately rooted before the fire, the immaculately dressed Comte was visibly groping for more words to fling. His ire would be in vain, however. Erik had outstripped his father's intelligence by the age of eight. Erik sloppily poured another drink of cognac.

"There is Raoul. You mustn't forget your little brother, Erik."

The smile that touched Erik's lips was cruel. Since the old man's mood was so willfully truculent tonight, Erik would obligingly rub his nose in brutal truth. He turned and faced his father, lovingly outlined by the firelight. Michel's hair had long faded from black and now shone like silver wire. Both he and his son were tall and slender, with a hard, whipcord musculature. No fool had ever cast any doubt that Erik was his father's son. Erik advanced upon the Comte, with his slow, panther's prowl. The older man wore the expression of frigid dignity that Erik's hotter passions would never allow.

"Ah, yes. The precious, golden-haired boy. Before you grow prostrate in your desire to show fatherly affection to this prodigal, need I remind you that he is a bastard? Troublesome little beasts amongst the aristocracy, are they not? I can think of several who could benefit from a father's attention. But back to Raoul. Even if the emperor would upset the law of primogeniture for your sake, there is the tiny problem that your precious Raoul is the son of a whore."

Erik paused to wipe the flecks of spittle from his lower lip. He watched the words sink into his father's skin like drops of acid. While by no means unintelligent or without guile, Michel de Chagny did have the talent of self-deception, stubbornly repeating lies to himself until they became truth. But the despair that etched itself into those hard, careworn features spoke of the death of a long-cherished dream. Raoul would never be a de Chagny. A bastard, and an acknowledged one, entitled to a modicum of respect. But he could never be accepted at Court, or one of the peerages. Something that was Erik's by right of his birth. Michel sank slowly into his deep chair, his emerald signet ring glittering on his little finger.

"I hate you. I hate your mouth, your face, and those damned cat eyes! Just like your witch of a mother. I should have let them burn her, forty years ago. Get out." Erik's hands balled, shivering in rage at the mention of his mother. He had borne his father's hatred for as long as he could remember, but he could not tolerate words spoken against her, or the clear, pale green of the eyes they shared.

"Gladly, Father. Pleasant dreams," Erik drawled, with a mocking bow. He slammed the door of the study shut behind him.

The de Chagny's Paris townhouse stifled him. He needed air, distance. Any amount of time spent under the same roof as his father had that effect on him. He burst into his suite of rooms and swept on his cape with a graceful ripple of sumptuous cloth. The soft patter of slippers alerted him to approaching feet. He knew the tread of her step as well as he knew that cloying perfume crafted into a horrible simulacrum of freesia. A muscle spasmed in Erik's jaw, stifling a howl of frustration. He slammed his fedora on his head, tucking knife and pistol into his waistcoat.

"E—Erik? Where are you going?" her voice was high and thin, grating. Such a frail, excitable thing.

"Out, Claire," he replied, frost coating the syllables.

"But what did he say? Did he mention-" He whirled around to face her, tall, thin with hair as pale and fine as cornsilk and eyes like blue glass beads.

"I failed to mention your brother's investment plans, my wife. My father was much too busy listing all the reasons why he hates me and why he wants that puling brat Raoul to be his son. He would take the baseborn son of a whore over me. Anyone over me."

"Husband . . ." Claire pleaded, reaching for his sleeve. He jerked away.

"Don't," he said, hating the quaver in his voice.

"Leave me alone." With that, he swept out of the room, trying to ignore the burning knot lodged in his throat.

 

XXX

Madame Sophia considered herself to be an entrepreneur of female flesh. Shrewd business acumen mingled with razor sharp perception matched the customer to the girl with sterling success. Business was brisk as night fell and aristocrats emerged to spend their coin as their wives slept, even though the dismal driving rain usually meant empty coffers. Thus the Madame was in a fine mood. Madame Sophia's establishment catered only to the highest clientele, with sumptuous quarters to thrill the senses and cuisine for the most refined pallet. She sank back into her comfortable chair, surveying the women as they chattered and giggled, touching up their cosmetics and clothing with all the indulgent pride of a beloved aunt.

The sound of the door flying open and slamming into the wall startled her and she hushed and soothed the cooing flock of her soiled doves. Madame Sophia rose and swathed herself in her crimson silk wrapper. If it was that damned stable boy Raoul again . . . her world-weary mien softened into a simpering mask she reserved for customers as she saw the height and breadth of the figure in the doorway.

The white gleam of the mask made Madame Sophia's heart palpitate. Erik de Chagny. Her hands twitched for the fat roll of francs waiting for her. More than his money, he was an intelligent and erudite companion, who often whiled away an evening simply talking—to the Madame herself or one of the girls. Chess, she recalled was a favorite pastime of his, and his infrequent bouts of appetite revealed a special weakness for darkly complexioned filles. Madame Sophia had her regulars' preferences memorized. Such attention to detail meant happy customers.

"Monsieur Erik. How good of you to brave this miserable weather to join us. Come, Angel has been sharpening her skills at chess." A quick snap of her fingers summoned the establishment's resident seamstress, a woman of some education who would prove to be stimulating to Monsieur Erik's particular brand of activity.

"I need a girl," the Vicomte's usually angelic voice was reduced to a savage rasp.

Unholy green eyes glittered from beneath the brim of a dripping fedora and trepidation gripped Madame Sophia. She had seen men in every state of inebriation or arousal, but none had Monsieur Erik's pulsating force of presence. She was surprised the rainwater did not evaporate into steam off of his skin. She was vaguely frightened that any girl she sent with him would return injured.

"Of course, of course, mon cher," she clucked, ushering him into the parlor.

Monsieur Erik removed his hat and smoothed his hair. Customarily, he would exchange pleasant greetings or good-natured ripostes with the wittier girls and solicitous compliments on the shyer ones. Naturally, they all adored him and competed for his attention. Tonight, his powerful charisma was channeled into darker, violent energy that pressed them back, stealing the air from the room. Beads of water dripped from his cape into a puddle on the rug. Madame was not about to chasten him in this mood. A few stuttered greetings were met with stony silence as those hungry green panther's eyes roved over them. Mentally, Madame Sophia discarded this girl and considered another. Louisa would have been perfect, but she was otherwise occupied. Not Juliet, nor Pauline . . .

"Christine," Madame Sophia hissed, snapping her fingers. The slender Swedish waif floated to her side, looking absolutely ravishing in deep emerald green, even if her posture was horrible and her eyes wide and lost.

"Does she suit your fancy, Monsieur?" Madame drawled after her customary selection.

Her instincts were rarely wrong, but Monsieur Erik's mood made her apprehensive. The girl was fresh, but perhaps her innocence would soothe and arouse as another's practiced pleasuring would not . . . she knew she had chosen correctly when Monsieur Erik's eyes grew brighter, sharper, if that was possible. His eyes took in Christine's slender, nubile curves in one hot, lingering glance. He hefted his purse and tossed it to Madame Sophia.

"I'll take her for the night."


 

Chapter Text

II


Christine struggled to maintain the guise of simpering adoration like Madame Sophia had taught her. Difficult considering the Vicomte's gloved hand was like a hot manacle around her wrist. Difficult considering his green eyes were as hot and bright as molten glass and her tongue felt frozen in her mouth. Bruno—the Madame's muscle—stood with his long, ropy arms folded at the bar, flat black eyes tracking their progress across the parlor. Gooseflesh stippled her skin.

When Madame Sophia had brought her here over a year ago, she had graciously allowed Christine to heal and adjust free of charge—for a while. Gently, but under the explicit understanding that she had no choice, the Madame had eased her into the business with a few carefully selected men. Her first customer had seen her degenerate into a sobbing mess and stormed out. When Madame lost her second regular customer to Christine's screaming hysterics, Bruno had stepped in. In a low-voiced, almost pleasant tone, he had outlined just what he would do to her if she scared off another customer, all the while his thumb worrying the pommel of his knife.

Now . . . now this prowling predator was dragging her up the narrow flights of stairs. The Vicomte threw open the door to the richest, most sumptuous suite at the end of the hall. Christine flinched at the rosebud wallpaper, the remnants of which covered the walls of her cell. The Madame was thrifty with her coin. A panic attack would only make him angry. An angry customer meant Bruno and his soft threats. Cold sweat slicked her skin, the pathetic little creature that lived in her soul shivered in fear. Christine was only scant months removed from hunger, and she remembered it well.

The Vicomte released her and peeled off his gloves. Christine pressed back against the closed door, struggling to master her breathing. Mesmerized, she watched as the Vicomte shed his cape with a graceful, swooping twist, draping it over the fire's screen to dry. In the time from his arrival to when he dragged Christine up the stairs, Madame Sophia's staff had set a fire in the grate and a tray of soup and bread steamed gently on small table.

"Very efficient," The Vicomte observed, nodding toward the table with a faint smirk. Even this small smile held a note of sadness. His voice was like smoke and honey and the mournful echo of church bells . . . Papa would have called it the voice of a Dökkálfr, a dark elf featured in his stories.

Christine nodded, trying hard not to stare at the mask, so white. The shimmer of rainwater transformed it into pearl. Strangely, the mask comforted her. In a world where monsters masqueraded as men, this visible imperfection soothed her. The Vicomte smoothed his raven black hair, combed severely back, long enough to reach his collar and shifted uncomfortably on his feet.

"Can you speak, girl?" the words burst out, like the crack of a whip. Christine flinched, her hands bunched in the heavy green silk of her gown. She stared at him stupidly, feeling the walls close in with those ugly, florid pink roses.

"Parlez-vous français? Italiano? English?" he asked sharply, draping himself across one of the plush chairs.

"Français, Monsieur. I'm . . . I'm sorry." The Vicomte nodded, mollified, and an elegant unfurling of his fingers gestured to the seat opposite him.

"My apologies, Mademoiselle. I find myself in a very ill temper," he said, kneading his temple.

Christine saw an opening and approached him, walking as the Madame had taught her, a subtle sway of her hips drawing the eye to all that made her a woman. At least she looked the part now; months of fine food had banished the pale scarecrow that had arrived on the brothel's doorstep. She circled the chair and laid her hands on his shoulders. The fire cast them in a pool of golden light and she could no longer discern the pattern on the wallpaper. A weight on her chest eased.

"Perhaps I can help," she whispered. The tone was off. Not a sultry purr of a woman secure in her role as seductress, but the reedy whisper of a frightened girl.

She forgot her awkwardness when she touched him. He was so warm! His heat blazed through his clothing, warming her freezing hands. Christine began to knead the wire-taut muscles of his neck and shoulders, trying not to notice the lithe strength in them. If she closed her eyes and didn't think too much, it could be Papa's shoulders she rubbed after a long day of travel.

Silence settled between them, broken only by the crackle of the fire and the faint, soothing drum of rain on the roof. A low rolling sound that could only be described as a purr emanated from his throat and Christine found that her hands had wandered from his shoulders to tangle in his hair, gently massaging his scalp. This was not Papa. And even her hands knew what her mind did not. Papa was dead and she was now a whore, bought by this man to do with what he wished for an entire night. It felt as if she had supped on broken glass.

"Don't stop," the silken drawl shivered over her skin. God and all His angels, surely that voice was a tool of sin!

The shape of his skull under her stroking fingers was pleasing, solid and well-formed, his hair thick and black and glossy. The other men Madame had chosen for her were doughy banker types: well-paying who spent themselves quickly with little stimulation from her. The Vicomte was something else entirely. His animal warmth—or maybe it was the fire?—undid hidden knots of tension and Christine relaxed. She was almost . . . enjoying herself. She enjoyed the deep purring vibrating through her palms, and how the prickly energy softened and dissipated. It was an empowering sensation, much like petting a lion, she imagined; holding all that danger in her hands and feeling it calm under her touch.

Suddenly, a large hand, warm and smoothly callused grasped her wrist. He gently disengaged it from his hair and nestled his cheek against it before placing a soft kiss on her palm. She could not contain the gasp at the hot, damp press of his lips. He craned his head back to look at her—not a hardship for him, given their relative heights. His eyes, skin and mask were kissed and refined by the fire into jade, bronze and pearl. In that moment, with his hair tousled and his cravat loose, he was . . . not beautiful, but there was something devastatingly sensual and uniquely compelling about him.

"Thank you, Mademoiselle. You were a great help. I find myself very much improved," he rumbled.

"My pleasure," Christine replied in a vain imitation of a brazen retort.

His lips curved and he gently tugged at her captive hand until she stood in front of him. Another gentle tug found her in his lap. His green eyes studied her and he drew a handkerchief from his sleeve.

"Here. Wipe off the cosmetics. I would buy a doll if I wanted to see a perfect face." His dry tone made her giggle. Laughter? Not the practiced, professional laugh designed to flatter and entice, but a true laugh. Lines and rules were blurring much too quickly for Christine's liking and she took shelter in the fine muslin of his handkerchief for as long as she could to compose herself.

"There," he murmured in approval, plucking the pins from her hair with deft fingers. Her mane of curls sprang free from their imprisonment into its original shape. The Madame bemoaned her wild, unmanageable mane and she expected the Vicomte to react similarly. Instead, his breathing quickened, his eyes dilated to pools of midnight edged with the barest film of jade.

"You are an exceptionally beautiful woman." Christine bit her lip at the onslaught of his voice, now husky and warm, a living thing of intimate secrets and the press of naked flesh.

"T—Thank you, Monsieur." The Vicomte leaned back in the chair, eyeing her speculatively.

"You are new at this, yes?"

"Yes," Christine said, ducking her head to shield her face with her hair. Surely it was some sort of censure on her performance. He merely nodded, accepting her answer.

"Where are you from? I cannot place your accent."

"Sweden, originally. My Papa was a musician."

"Ah, ja. Vackra land. Varför lämnade du?" A shiver of joy raced through her hearing the words of her childhood.

"Ja! Ja!Mycket vacker! Hungersnöd, er I mean, famine. So many were migrating to America, but Papa did not want to leave Europe. So we came to France. Where did you learn Swedish? Your accent is very good." Again, that sad smile.

"Thank you. I once had a tutor from Sweden. He taught me. He also had a passion for drawing, and his work has always resonated with me." Christine nodded politely, while inwardly puzzled. Surely he could find better conversation amongst his own social circles. Why come to a brothel to simply talk?

"You are wondering why I am here," he said with an arch of an inky brow.

"Ja . . . I mean yes."

"Well Mademoiselle, contrary to the popular consensus, I am not a complete villain. I do not relish the thought of breaking my marriage vows, nor forcing my appetites on a frightened young girl. If we continue, it will be because you ask me to. If not, we simply share a meal, conversation, and warmth as we sleep. The Madame gets her francs either way." Christine released a breath she did not know she had been holding. If his words were true, this man was a gift from God. He chuckled, shifting her weight in his lap to a more comfortable position.

"I can see you have questions. Ask away."

"Monsieur . . ."

"Erik," he corrected, "if we are to spend the night together, it would be easier if we set aside formal address."

"E—Erik. My name is Christine . . . in . . . in case you forgot," Christine stuttered clumsily. Erik smirked. His fine-boned hand rose and cupped her cheek, his thumb brushing her lower lip, almost accidentally.

"I had not forgotten, Christine." His voice vibrated through her, like a note struck on a tuning fork. His voice was an elemental force of sound and color. Her name was a poem, each letters a song on his lips. A fey, dark creature, she thought. More dangerous than any lion.

"Your questions?" he prompted.

"Yes. Well. Ah . . ." she cleared her throat, and tried again, steeling herself against an outburst of anger, "do you not have a . . . er a . . . wife that could offer you, as you say, a meal, conversation and warmth?" Erik exhaled heavily through his nostrils.

"An honest question, Christine. But my marital life has been . . . strained. The match between Claire and I was based solely on family connection. I was seventeen when I married her. It was a bloodless transaction devoid of love, or even liking. Not a death sentence, of course, many marriages have flourished on less than what we had. But . . ." he closed his eyes, a muscle clenching in his jaw speaking of years of frustration.

"Claire is a delicate woman in both body and mind. One ill-said comment could send her into histrionics and my temper leaves much to be desired on that score. She rebuffed any of my attempts to share her interests or pursuits and I held grudges. I hoped, maybe, a child would settle her and anchor us both. And then when . . ." he paused, slamming a fist on the arm of the chair, "when we lost our son Thomas to fever when he was only three . . ." at this, his voice broke and something in Christine writhed at the naked grief howling in both the words and the silences.

"I hoped we could have another. Mend the void yawning between us. But it was not to be. Two more miscarriages and two more stillbirths and we still strove to fix what had been broken. Our youngest, Marguerite . . ." those green eyes shone with unshed tears, "she didn't live to see her first year. Whatever could have been between Claire and I died with our children. She blamed me for it. She said I demanded too much, expected too much. And maybe I did. I wanted it so badly. In my father's eyes, I have spent twenty years with Claire and have nothing to show for it but six dead babies and a stack of lined paper." He sighed, staring beyond her into misty memory. Lined paper . . . ah! Sheets of score. He was a musician too!

"Now we are both trapped, nursing our grievances. She has turned to her family for comfort. She dotes upon her younger brother. He reminds her of our Thomas, I think. And I . . . I find comfort elsewhere." He cleared his throat and tried to smile and failed.

"So that is why, Christine. There is also a perverse sort of pleasure in making tongues wag upon entering such an establishment then spending the evening over chess."

That one sentence spoke volumes to Christine. Covering up what was too painful to dwell upon with a dark, roguish humor. Also the desperate, lonely trust in confiding so much in a woman he had known for perhaps an hour, and a whore at that, whose mistress might pay well to air a Vicomte's dirty laundry to the right listener. Christine smiled.

"I imagine so," she replied. Erik idly toyed with one of her curls, watching in absorbed fascination as it rebounded when tugged.

"So. You have heard my sad tale, now you must tell me yours." Erik looked up at her expectantly and Christine felt the fragile ember of contentment die in the cold wind of grief.

"Please, Monsieur . . ."

"It will help to talk about it, Christine. I feel years lighter," he said softly.

Christine heaved a sigh that sounded too much like a sob, feeling the threatening pulse of the pink roses. Then Erik's arms drew her gently down, tucking her head under his chin and stroking her back. She relaxed into his embrace, persuaded by the music of his heartbeat, the tender stroking fingers, his solid male strength that soothed rather than intimidated. Before, such closeness with a man would send her spiraling into panic. Now it was . . . nice.

Her confession was halting, and in Swedish: "My papa took ill. We were too poor for medicine. I cared for him as best I could but it . . . it wasn't enough. He died and I was left alone. No family, no money. I sold my mama's ring to see Papa buried." The words were coming faster now, a flood of pain that she had kept bottled inside and was now surging free. She addressed the velvet lapel of Erik's coat, reassured by his steady heartbeat.

"My Papa's friend, Madame Giry, she was supposed to come. She was supposed to come for me! But she didn't. I begged from the church, but when they could no longer take care of me, I was back on the streets. When days passed and I couldn't find any food, I stole. And . . . then . . . then one night, a man found me sleeping in a doorway. He . . . he . . . he raped me and I . . . and I . . ."

"Christine." Her name halted the tide of words and she crumpled against his chest, fearing the disgust and irritation in his eyes. Surely he didn't want to pay to hear about her troubles! A hot knot choked her. No tears. Just this suffocating knot and this insufferable, perplexing man who pried out these painful memories.

It didn't feel any better. No, it was worse! With his inexorable strength, he peeled her back and forced her to look at him. There was no disgust, but some indefinable emotion that had him quivering like a plucked violin string.

"Perhaps my Swedish is not up to the task, but I thought you said you were raped. Is that correct?" Christine managed a mute nod.

"The Madame found me after. She said she would give me food, money and a place to stay. I thought she was an angel." All of those promises were conditional on her plying her trade. Erik patted her thigh, gesturing for her to rise. Christine floundered a little with her full skirts, but found her feet. She backed away until the other chair hit the backs of her thighs. She sank into it, closing her eyes to block out the pressing walls and horrible roses.

"Do you remember a name? What he looked like?" Erik demanded in that sharp, whip-like tone. Christine opened her eyes, and found him pacing like a lion in a cage. Christine shuddered viscerally away from remembering any details of her ordeal. She could not. She could not look back and live.

"N—No-" she let the sentence hang. The 'why?' echoed in the still air.

"If you gave me some sort of description I could find him. Turn him over to the authorities. Or, if you wish, hurt him very badly. That's what I'd like to do. I know some very bad people. I'm one of them. Vestiges of a misspent youth."

Christine stared at him in wonder. He would start a search for a man and do him harm at her word? For what? Out of his own sense of revenge? Or justice? Christine didn't know whether to be frightened or touched. Erik stopped his pacing and looked at her. He knelt before her chair and took her cold hands in his.

"Now I've frightened you. Forgive me, Christine." Ah! That voice! She wanted to crawl inside that voice and hide there forever.

"It's all right. I don't remember anything specific anyway," she whispered.

"You poor child. My poor, dear lamb," he crooned, chafing her cold hands between his. His face showed an expression of such vexed misery that her heart went out to him.

"I—I want so much to hold you, but I cannot imagine what it must be for you. What did you think when I chose you?"

"I was afraid," Christine admitted, deeply moved by his concern, "but I'm not anymore." It was on her tongue to mention how much she enjoyed rubbing his shoulders, and how good it felt listening to his heartbeat, but she refrained. She must remember some modicum of dignity.

"And I dragged you into my lap and touched you as if it were my right! Please accept my deepest apologies."

"It's all right, Erik. Really. I am an employee here, after all. You are not the first man I've-" Christine stopped, heat rising to her cheeks, belatedly realizing how crass that sounded.

"Please do not try and reassure me, Christine," Erik said gently, his face creased with misery. Silence stretched between them and Christine was at a loss. Finally, Erik cleared his throat and rose.

"Perhaps we should eat, hmm? The Madame's cuisine is always superb."

Chapter Text

III

What strange whim of Fate had brought her to him? This beautiful creature with that ridiculous hair and huge brown eyes filled with so much sorrow it wounded him. The soup was cold, but flavorful, the dark bread rich and dense spread with soft cheese. A pang struck him. He had never asked any of the women whose bed he frequented what their stories were. Surely there were others just like Christine, forced into selling their bodies when their world crumbled. He was just another man taking his pleasure at the expense of her dignity, her sanity. The fine food turned to stone in his stomach.

"Erik? Are you all right?" Christine's soft voice was faintly musical. He wondered if she could sing.

"Fine, Christine," he said, groping for words to say. What more was there after the most devastating secrets of their lives?

"You said your father was a musician. What did he play?"

He rose and added the last log to the fire, stirring the throbbing bed of red coals with the iron poker. His cape was dry and seeing Christine's discreet shiver, he swathed her in it.

"Thank you," she murmured, gifting him with a sparkling look. That she would be grateful for something so small made him feel . . . guilty, vaguely ashamed. Erik braced his hands on the mantle, staring pensively into the fire.

"Papa played the violin. He played so beautifully."

She quickly stifled the quaver in her voice and lifted her chin, her delicate features frozen in a moue of smiling coquetry. If he needed any further proof of her inexperience that was enough. The affected dance of expression and touch that composed a courtesan's web of seduction took practice, and a certain moral flexibility. The expression sat ill on her features, the expressive arch of her eyebrows and the plump, mobile mouth was too honest, too . . . pure.

"There is no need to put on airs for me, Christine," he said, "I'm sure your father wouldn't mind you shedding a tear for him after his death." Her wobbly smile struck him square in the chest.

"Thank you for being so kind to me. I did not expect that."

Erik grimaced. What was it about her that touched his heart, that made him want to maim and kill to avenge the wrong done to her? Those brown eyes, so rich and sweet like chocolate, maybe? The heartbreaking curve of her jaw? Maybe it was how slender and small she was; the crown of her head only reached his collarbone. It made him want to gather her close and . . .

"I beg your pardon?" he asked, realizing that he had been staring at her mouth. His eye traveled up the luminous white curve of her cheek to her eyes, framed by long, dark lashes.

"You . . . you said before, about the lined paper . . . I just thought you might be a musician too," she stuttered, imbibing a long drink of warm wine. Erik forced a tired smile.

"I am indeed. Music is the sole joy of my life." He had composed requiems for each of his children; even the miscarried ones the Church said didn't have souls. They were his, from the moment his and Claire's essence mingled in her womb.

Interest lit Christine's eyes.

"What do you play?" Erik dropped her gaze, unable to bear even another second in her brilliant regard.

"My preferred vehicle is the human voice. But I have long endeavored to broaden my scope: piano, organ, violin, cello, and others."

"I couldn't bear to sell Papa's violin, and it was so battered and old, Madame let me keep it. Maybe you could play for me sometime."

"I would like that," Erik whispered.

Even starving, she could not bear to part with her father's beloved instrument. Her fervid devotion and stubborn loyalty spoke of depths only hinted at in her fragile demeanor. Claire did not have Christine's strength. Like opal, she shattered under adversity where Christine shone like the diamond she was. Erik glanced at the clock.

"It's late. You should get some rest." A nameless emotion flickered across her features, gone too quickly for him to identify.

"Where . . . where will you sleep?" Ah. She was afraid. He gestured toward the chair.

"Erik! You'll freeze!" Christine protested.

"I do not wish to cause you discomfort-"

"You didn't. You don't." Erik eyed her, seeing soft rosy color stain her cheeks. Charmed, he found himself grinning.

"I am glad."

In silence, they turned down the bed's coverlet and Erik paused to pry off his shoes and socks, and shed coat and waistcoat. Christine raised an eyebrow at the heavy thud they made when he draped them over the chair.

"I never go anywhere unarmed," he explained.

"Oh," she replied.

Christine smothered the gas lamp and the fire's steady red glow was the room's only light. Ruby highlights caught in Christine's mane of brown curls. Teasing flickers of light and shadow danced into the hollows of her body, along the ripe curve of breast and hip. Desire unfurled in decadent languor. His primitive brain had no doubt as to what it wanted.

"Perhaps you should undress," he said huskily.

"What did you say?" Christine yelped, stepped back from the bed, eyes lost in shadow. She clutched his cape to her body in a vain attempt to obscure her shape. Erik almost bit his tongue. God, he sounded like a lecher!

"I mean, you would be more . . . erm, more comfortable." Her demeanor relaxed.

"You're right," she said, folding his cape and placing it with his clothing. Returning to the opposite side of the bed, she turned around and parted the delightful curtain of her hair.

"Could you . . . ?"

"Of course," Erik said, his throat hot and tight. He would not, could not ask for her favors however much he wanted to. After what she had been through, he would not take from her like all the others.

This was certainly an exercise in masochism.

XXX

A prostitute's trousseau had a few modifications, including fewer buttons and weaker seams, in the event a customer grew impatient. None of those customers had ever been the Vicomte Erik de Chagny. She could feel him there, his heat and his soft breathing, soft as a kiss. Christine didn't understand what this sweet heaviness was, why her breaths came quick and shallow. He dragged his knuckle gently down the curve of her spine and a shudder tore through her.

"Cold?" he purred.

"No," she replied quickly. Then, belatedly, she realized she just confirmed that she was shivering in reaction to his touch. He was offering her a gift. A night of sleep without her duties as a prostitute. A precious, precious gift. She wanted that.

Didn't she?

Those long, deft fingers grazed the skin of her back as he worked the buttons free, each touch gentle and deliberate, setting nerves afire.

"Finished," he murmured.

The emerald silk gown sagged, and after a moment's hesitation, Christine let it pool at her feet, leaving her in nothing but her black corset, slip and hose. She bit her lip, bracing herself for him to change his mind and grab her. Her feelings were a jumbled mess. Did she want him to? She had never wanted to before. Was this a reaction to his kindness?

Instead, she heard his almost soundless footfalls, retreating to the far side of the bed.

"You are a very beautiful woman, Christine." She bit back a cry at the sound his unbearable voice like drop of warm wax on her skin. Sweet pain and spreading, melting pleasure . . .

Without his warmth and with the fire dying, the room was growing very cold. Christine dove underneath the coverlet, clutching a pillow to her pounding heart. The gathering shadows obscured Erik's tall, lean shape, reminding Christine of her father's dark Northern stories about monsters and goblins. The bed lurched under his weight and Christine tumbled toward him. The mask was as pale as bone in the darkness. Monster . . . or man? His hands found her naked shoulders. Her breath hiccupped, her heart hammered against her ribs . . . his lips touched her forehead in an absent, grazing kiss, like one a parent would give a child when tucking them in for the night.

"Sleep well, Christine," he whispered. Breathless, fighting some unnamable emotion, Christine said, "Good night, Erik."

xxxx

She woke to a gentle shake on the shoulder. For a moment, she almost called out to Papa to give her a few more minutes. This bed was so soft and comfortable . . . then she opened her eyes and saw the pink roses on the wall. The window of her prison slammed shut, smothering even her dreams.

"Christine wake up, my dear. It is dawn and I'm certain the Madame's brute will be here to roust me from my pleasure nest at any moment." Erik voice was layered with so many different tones, crooning warmth and comfort when he said her name, the sweet oozing of chocolate when he said 'my dear,' then the sharp, dry tang of peppermint at the end.

Christine heaved a sigh and braced her hands underneath her. She slept best on her stomach, and blinded by her veil of hair, it often afforded her a few more moments' privacy. Slowly, she gathered herself to a sitting position, combing back her tousled curls. She found Erik seated on the edge of the bed, fully dressed and smiling. Christine smiled back sleepily. Her constant burdens of fear and loathing set aside, mind and body slipped into a deep, healing sleep and she felt refreshed.

"Thank you," she whispered. His elegant hand, draped over his knee, twitched as if to gesture. Christine raised a brow in question.

"No thanks are necessary, Christine," he said at last. The warm moment was broken by Bruno's pounding knock and the snarled threat of getting your trousers on or else. Erik hadn't even unbuttoned his shirt.

Perhaps it was the reminder of their circumstance and locale, but a degree of awkwardness pushed them apart. He helped her dress, and they nearly bumped noses as Christine stood on tiptoe to adjust his cravat. They shared a breathless, uneasy laugh. Christine stifled the absurd impulse to shake his hand. This man had treated her with dignity and respect, given her a precious gift, and . . . and . . . she was disappointed? What had this horrible place done to her that she did not understand a relationship with a man out of the context of a bed?

"When will I see you again?" she asked with feigned nonchalance. Those piercing green eyes saw through her front, however. Again, another abortive flutter of his hand. Did he want to touch her? What was stopping him?

"I will return when I can. A Vicomte's time is not his own," he said ruefully. Christine nodded, trying hard to stifle the wild fear rising up to choke her. Numbness punctuated with moments of terror started to feel normal after a while. Why then, did this hurt so bad? She could think of nothing to say, so she simply nodded. Erik donned his cape and fedora, cocking it at a rakish angle to hide the mask. He made a formidable sight: lean and dark and deadly.

"I will return," he promised her as Bruno opened the door. Christine froze a tight smile on her face, all the blood draining from her head, making her dizzy.

"I look forward to it," she said, throwing the words out in a practiced, sultry tone. The door closed behind him and Christine's ears rang with her own silent screaming.

XXX

"I must speak with the Madame," Erik said tersely to the brute Bruno. He had seen how Christine seemed to shrink when Bruno came in the door, the desperate gaiety in her smile. She was afraid of him. Bruno grunted and led him down the stairs to a luxurious office adjoining the parlor.

"The Madame will be with you shortly," growled Bruno, in a voice as coarse as gravel.

Erik sank into one of chairs across from the Madame's mountain of a desk. He directed none of his sharply honed deductive powers inward. No, for now he was a creature of impulse, instinct. Christine . . . she wakened something in him that he thought had died long ago. Tenderness, a fierce protective instinct, the primal pulsebeat of lust. Her smothered whimpers in her sleep broke his heart. Wandering in a prison within her own mind, he soothed her with his voice, crooning, "You're safe. You're safe." The low-voiced chant pacified her and her hand flung out, finding his. He didn't let go of her hand the whole night.

Claire, years ago when they were still sharing a bed—not for the joy of each other's company, but the hideous parody creating new life had become—despised being held. Said his embrace smothered her. Loss had made her brittle. Erik had never realized how much he hungered for simple touch. Even in a prostitute's most intimate embrace, there was a degree of distance, out of simple courtesy. Christine obliterated that with one soulful glance.

"Monsieur de Chagny! I hope your evening was satisfactory," Madame d'Avrigny cooed as she breezed in the door, aflutter with jewel-toned silk trimmed in lace.

"Most satisfactory, Madame. In fact, I wished to thank you personally for such a superb selection. It is as if you can divine the most secret desires of my heart."

Women such as the Madame were susceptible to flattery, and he used his voice, his one beauty, ruthlessly to his advantage. As expected, Madame visibly swelled with self-importance and flustered pride.

"It is my pleasure to see my patrons' desires fulfilled," she drawled, dragging her finger across her cleavage. Erik repressed a grimace of distaste.

"How may I assist you, Monsieur?" the faint emphasis on 'assist' held a wealth of insinuation that caused Erik to wonder exactly how one became a madame at a bordello without first offering her own wares. Erik knew he must choose his words very carefully. Above all else Madame d'Avrigny was a businesswoman with a miser's eye for coin who could scent weakness like a wild animal. He gave an affected little sigh, wringing his hands in what he hoped was a desperate gesture.

"I have something to confess, Madame . . ." a bright, malicious glow lit the Madame's clear, hazel eyes. Her lips pouted into a sympathetic bow.

"Oh? And what is that, my dear?"

Chapter Text

IV

Erik stepped out into the sullen grey of an August morning feeling very pleased with himself. After a superb thespian performance on his part, Madame d'Avrigny agreed to allow him exclusive claim to Christine—for a fee. This coup satisfied not only Erik's newly wakened protective instincts, but also rescued Christine from her . . . occupation.

As Erik danced around dirty puddles in the still-silent alley, his thoughts wandered to what waited for him at the de Chagny townhouse. Father was no doubt still smarting over their argument and Claire . . . She would be dutifully scandalized by his presence here and seethe silent resentment over dinner. It wasn't Claire's style to throw tantrums. Her perfected formula was silence whetted to a keen edge. The two of them had this routine down to an art form after twenty years. Had he been inclined to be affectionate, his attempts would be met with a coldly turned shoulder and stiff resistance in his embrace.

The livery stable next door to the brothel was owned by a Monsieur Germaine Méchant. He was a particular friend of Madame Sophia, and often found work for the male bastards her whores delivered. The interior of the stable was dim and ripe with the scent of warm horseflesh, crisp hay and manure. Erik paused in the doorway, allowing his eyes time to adjust. Among the quiet snorting and shuffling of the stables' occupants, a low, masculine voice at the end of the aisle caught his attention.

". . . and then this bit here: 'All sciences and arts have principles and rules, by means of which one makes discoveries leading to their perfection. Horsemanship is the one art for which it seems one needs only practice."

Here the reader snorted, and muttered, "Practice and a mount keen enough to tell the difference between the dressage and a bloody breastcollar. Not likely to see that around here." At the listener's offended snort, the voice amended, "Except for you, of course."

Erik rounded the corner and found a gangly young man draped across the back of his Persian stallion César.

"L'École de Cavalerie? Don't we have lofty aspirations," Erik drawled.

The young man swung upright long enough for Erik to register a narrow face and widely set eyes before sliding off César's back into a heap on the straw. César whisked his tail in annoyance, turning from his hay at the sound of his master's voice. Erik offered a flat palm to César who sniffed it politely in greeting and accepted Erik's knowing scratch behind the ears. The groom staggered to his feet, gathering the book and trying, in vain, to dust the straw from his hair and grubby shirt. With the grace of long practice, the groom leapt up into the loft and swung down to the aisle beside Erik.

"My apologies, sir. I . . . I didn't mean to . . . to take liberties. I mean, I read that they like a calm voice and-"

"Don't fret, boy. César has not taken any harm," Erik said, raising a hand to stem any more of the boy's stuttering confession.

The flat, grey light trickling in from the open door granted Erik a better look at this educated groom. A handsome young man of about seventeen years, if Erik was to hazard a guess, with a long nose and a wide, thin mouth. His golden hair was bound in a queue that reached the middle of his back and blue eyes skittered nervously over Erik's form. Erik, used to far worse than the boy's frank staring, simply waited for the boy to collect himself.

"He's a fine animal, sir," the boy said, with an admiring glance at César's glossy black coat, the breadth of muscle on haunch and chest, the hard clean lines of his legs.

"Indeed he is. I have a Persian acquaintance by the name of Nadir Kahn who is a purveyor of fine horseflesh. It is his dream to create his own line of Thoroughbreds from his Persian stock here as they have in England." Blue eyes alight with interest as well a certain shy hope that bewildered Erik, the groom nodded eagerly.

"I have heard of the Thoroughbred races they have in England. It's a pity there isn't more interest in such fine sport."

They spoke easily of horses and Guérinière's work. As they spoke the groom's hands moved over the worn cover and broken spine of his book. The book was a ragged, dog-eared, obviously cherished object. Something about this tableau tickled his brain. Why was this familiar?

"What is your name?" Erik asked, irritated by the faint nagging sense of déjà vu. The joy dimmed in the boy's eyes, his entire attitude slumping.

"Raoul, sir," he mumbled, eyes downcast.

The pieces fell into place in his mind. Raoul. His bastard brother. Upon closer inspection, Erik marveled that he had not noticed it sooner. The long nose was a mirror to his own, the strong jaw, even the particular nervous gesture of biting his thumbnail was a vestige of Erik's childhood, before his father's tutors had broken him of it. The book . . . Erik himself had given him the book a couple years before. A trifling kindness, a remnant of a simpler time when he hoped for some manner of relationship with his brother.

"Ah. Raoul. You've grown since I saw you last. How old are you now?" His brother's thin chest puffed.

"Twenty." Born the same year Erik had wed Claire. Born the same year Erik's mother had died.

"A bit scrawny, aren't you? Does Monsieur Méchant feed his employees?" Erik couldn't contain his years-old bitterness. God, the welter of emotion the boy's very existence raised in him twisted and snarled in his gut. Raoul offered a scoff of his own, resentment twisting his mouth.

"Employee? A neat term for slave."

"Poor, unlucky Raoul," Erik sneered.

A quiet voice in his head pointed out his hypocrisy. He held no ill will against Elise or Jacqueline, the products of his father's other marriages; in fact he was quite fond of the brats. Was it implied betrayal that the Comte de Chagny had been fucking whores while Erik's mother lay dying, or that Raoul himself was a threat to him simply by being born male? Raoul's blue eyes were wide and hurt. God, did the boy idolize him? Erik had a talent for disappointing the people who depended on him.

"Tack up my horse, boy, and be quick about it," he said, dismissing him with a brusque jerk of his chin. Raoul's shoulders sagged forward, hunched as if to avoid a blow.

"Yes, sir." The boy's hands were quick and efficient, Erik tried not to notice that his saddle and bridle shone with fresh oiling, or graceful, tangle-less drape of César's mane and tail. In the square's cold light, Raoul dutifully held the rein as Erik mounted. God, he looked like a dirty scarecrow in mismatched clothes, his cheeks gaunt and his hair dense with oil. Now Erik felt petty and miserable and guilty for crushing the boy's fragile hope. César pranced beneath him, eager to be away.

"Raoul, I . . ." he began, "I . . ." he broke off, pierced by the boy's expectant look.

"I am glad you enjoyed the book."

XXX

Madame Sophia sipped her tea, laced generously with brandy. A small token celebration at this morning's acquisition. Perhaps she had underestimated the appeal of fresh, unspoiled beauty. One night and the man was besotted. True, she had seen men come and generally make fools of themselves over one whore or another, the stupidest of which actually believed it was love they felt. Men were fools when it came to sex, a fact the Madame had learned to exploit a long, long time ago.

She had thought Monsieur Erik above such nonsense, being such a cerebral creature. With his wide-ranging conversation and preference for chess, Madame often had doubts of his attraction to women. Louisa and Nicole both assured her that his performance eschewed any such suspicions. Beneath his intelligence, his money and his mask, Erik de Chagny was a man like any other, and as such, malleable in Madame's skilled hands. For in all their protestations, the infatuation that coursed through their bodies could not survive the demands of time and distance, and soon they shifted their affections on another. Monsieur Erik would learn too. In the meantime she would take his francs, and use Christine's talents as she saw fit. Possessiveness was bad for business.

And Madame was a businesswoman.

XXX

Erik pulled César up at the gate, dismounting in one smooth leap and handing the stallion off to one of the de Chagny grooms. The long ride had helped immensely to restore his mood. Now he returned filthy, famished and hoping for solitude. Music had always been his solace, especially since little Marguerite's death last spring, and now fresh inspiration coalesced within him. Inspiration with a face and name . . .

The door exploded open to a gale of giggles and shouting. A small, dark-haired whirlwind struck him hard in the middle.

So much for solitude.

"Erik! Erik! I'm so glad you're home!" Elise squealed, her plump face alight. Erik smirked, pressing his fedora down on her head.

"Indeed, little ankle biter. I am home. And aren't you supposed to be with Monsieur Forel?" he teased.

The daughter of his father's third wife and the youngest de Chagny child, Elise was a slice of sunlight darting through these drab halls. Exuberant and intelligent with a fairness of heart that reminded Erik wrenchingly of an innocent, unbroken Claire, Elise and Erik shared a strange esteem, unheard of for an almost thirty year difference in age. Elise giggled, an impish light in her blue eyes.

"Jacqueline heard César and we decided to come and greet you," Elise explained.

Erik looked up at the taller, chestnut-haired whirlwind and smiled. He greeted Jacqueline with a courteous nod. At twelve, the middle de Chagny daughter was growing conscious of her duty as a lady and would not appreciate Erik's teasing and pet names as Elise would at eight.

To that effect, Erik said with all seriousness: "Such a gracious hostess to leave such stimulating employment to attend the needs of her errant brother." He honored her with a bow, a gesture ripened with gravitas with the aid of his mud-splattered cape. Jacqueline swelled happily under his serious regard and curtseyed on the steps.

"Where were you, Erik? You've been gone forever!" Still child enough to speak frank, Erik thought dryly.

"I went to visit a friend," he said truthfully.

"Papa was mad at supper," Elise observed. The solemn impact of the words were somewhat muted with her peering up at him from beneath his fedora. He swept Elise in his arms, and together the three of them entered the townhouse.

"I imagine he was. We have a . . . divergence of opinion," Erik said dryly, setting the little girl down.

He sat on the bench just inside the doorway and began removing his muddy garments. Madame Villon, the housekeeper, accepted Erik's dirty clothes with a wry wink. Erik began climbing the stairs, buffeted by both girls' chatter on how boring their lessons were and how atrocious the weather has been and did he know that Claire taught them a new needlepoint pattern? Jacqueline preened under Claire's remembered praise and Elise despaired at her uneven stitches. Erik hummed attentively and interjected at accepted intervals, but the girls' excited talk largely did not require his participation.

Once they reached Erik's suite of rooms on the second floor, Elise and Jacqueline perched themselves like two colorful magpies on the trunk at the foot of his bed, chatting away. Elise offered his fedora which Erik set in its proper place. Erik hid a grin as he removed his muddy shoes and socks, trading them for a freshly shined pair waiting for him. Two pairs of blue eyes watched him solemnly as he removed his pistol and knife from his vest and set them on his bureau. Both were beautiful objects in their own right: the pistol was a gift from the Comte with a mother-of-pearl grip, and the knife was a gift from Erik's friend Nadir, eight inches of dark steel with a curved hilt groaning with embellishment.

"You and Papa argue all the time, Erik. How come?" Elise asked. Affection for this little swot choked him. She couldn't understand why their father hated Erik for his face. Both his half-sisters accepted the mask as easily as they accepted the fact that he had black hair. They had never seen him without some variant of it. Erik heaved a sigh.

"It's complicated, mon petit cheri. There is a certain way Father expects me to look and think and behave, and I don't agree with him. There are . . . other impediments, as well," he explained, thinking of Claire, Raoul and his mother to name a few.

"That's silly! You're a wonderful brother!" Elise insisted, indignant on his behalf. Jacqueline's nose wrinkled.

"That's not all he is, stupid. He's a Vicomte. Things are expected of him."

"Jacqueline," Erik said, frowning at the slender, willowy wisp of a girl, "apologize to your sister. There is no need for name-calling." Jacqueline hung her head, the graceful swoop of her parted chestnut-brown hair like the wings of a sparrow.

"Sorry," she mumbled. Elise smugly accepted her apology.

"But she is right, Elise. Being the Vicomte de Chagny has expectations attached to it. Whether I agree with them or not."

"Jacqueline? Elise? Are you up here?" Claire's soft voice floated up the stair and with the faint rustle of skirts, she appeared in the doorway.

"There you are!" The mock-stern expression she wore smoothed into one of blank surprise seeing Erik.

"Oh."

Oh. How was it possible for one syllable to hold a wealth of disappointment and consternation?

"Good morning, Claire," he bade with a stiff bow.

"Erik," she murmured, before turning her attention on the girls de Chagny.

"You two must return to your lessons at once. Imagine poor Monsieur Forel's surprise to wake from his nap and find his charges missing!" the guilty parties giggled and hopped down from the trunk. Elise paused at the door to run back and hug Erik's middle. Erik combed her bushy black hair falling loose from its pins.

"See you at dinner, Erik!" she whispered into his shirt.

"Hurry along, little one. I don't want you to mire yourself in anymore hours of Greek translation than strictly necessary," he crooned, dismissing her with a gentle pat.

The air in the room seemed to dim and chill as the girls' chatter and laughter grew fainter and fainter.

"You would have made a wonderful mother," he murmured wistfully, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest.

He meant it as a compliment; she had such a way with his mischievous younger sisters. They adored her. She was still a striking woman, Erik thought, studying her. Her fine pale blond hair was parted and gathered into a tidy bun at the base of her skull, softened into grey in some places. Multiple pregnancies had thickened her thin figure; she was no longer the willowy teenager that had taken his hand as his wife at seventeen. But there was still a quiet purpose to her movements, not strictly grace, but careful deliberation. Claire flinched as if he had struck her. She shut the door with a smart snap.

"I was a mother. Or do you not remember Thomas?" her thin voice was like the snap of an icicle. It was a dirty, underhanded blow that struck Erik hard and square. His words whipped out with the bitter tang of poison: "How could I forget him? I see how much you blame me for his death every time you look at me." Her bony face twisted and Erik saw something crumple inward.

"So now you spend your nights at a brothel to get away from your harridan wife!"

A great weariness rose up and overwhelmed Erik. He was so tired of the blame, the resentment, the constant bickering. A dark, vicious spiral that they couldn't stop. He slumped, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding his head in his hands.

"Yes. I was at a brothel last night. What of it? It's not as if you would welcome me into your bed. You haven't even let me kiss you in three years." The long ride had made him sweat and that in combination with dirt and long wear made the mask itch abominably. He pried it off and wiped the damaged half of his face with a handkerchief.

"How could I bear to have you touch me with that staring back at me?"

He had heard this tune before, in every key, from a dozen voices for his whole life. Thick scar tissue protected his fragile heart from those needling barbs. Erik carefully, methodically wiped the mask clean. He rose and approached her. She paled, shrinking back against the closed door. He could count on one hand how many times he had exposed his face to his wife in the twenty years of their marriage.

"You protested against your father marrying you to such a monster, didn't you Claire? You always knew what I was."

"Y—Yes," she whispered, blue eyes glassy with unshed tears. Their marriage had become a battlefield and weakness could not be tolerated.

"A demon with an angel's voice."

He heard something shatter inside himself at the torment in her voice. He reached out, as if to comfort her and saw her flinch away, uttering a little whimper. The pain brought him to his knees.

"What should I do, Claire? What should I do if you won't let me even touch you?" his voice was small and quiet like a child, ragged with agony.

"Leave me alone. Please," she begged, twisting the knob and slipping away, leaving Erik on his knees, alone with the ruins of a marriage.


 

 

Chapter Text

V

 


The rope frame beneath the down mattress squeaked in time with the thrusts of the man laboring over Christine, a faint, sibilant protest in echo to the one Christine left unvoiced. The customer, a short, bony little baron old enough to be her father reeked. His breath fluttering in a warm, moist caress against her neck held a curious mixture of sweet brandy and the stale meaty stink of his last meal, laden with onions. His body odor and the rank stench of his sweat didn't help matters. His other . . . assets were nothing much to speak of, either. A little of Madame's oil helped with that, though the perfume of roses that wafted up from between their gyrating bodies only added to the miasma of sex floating in the air.

"Ughn, how do you like that, kitten? Huh?" he panted, grinding his bony hips against hers, his sweat dripping down onto her naked breasts. Christine hid her aggravated sigh in the false moan she uttered.

She hated it when customers expected her to participate, to like it. But her occupation was every bit as much an actress's role, about flattering delicate egos, coquetry, entertainment as it was about sex.

The other whores had taught her well and Christine did what she knew would appease him: moaning soft broken words of encouragement and pleasure, to arch just so . . . with a cry like a strangled goat, the baron spilled his seed within her body and fell heavily on top of her. Luckily, the curtain of his greasy blond hair hid Christine's disgust.

Christine knew there were three possible outcomes to a man's orgasm: one, he expected praise and rapture for his performance; two, he expected crooned comfort and love words before promptly falling asleep; or three, he rose to leave. The baron fell in the third category, thankfully, for he dropped an affectionate, glancing kiss on Christine's cheek before heaving himself off her. His flaccid cock slid from her body. Customers were very careful not to kiss on the mouth. That cost extra.

"It was a good ride, kitten. I'll tell your Madame so." He threw the words over his shoulder as he donned his trousers and fastened them.

"Thank you, Claude. I am grateful for your patronage," Christine simpered. Was she supposed to be flattered? By the time Bruno knocked, Claude had already dressed and kissed her forehead again. Oily affection got under her skin, so she was grateful when Bruno escorted Claude out.

Madame billowed in not a moment later, as Christine was pulling on her stockings. A talon-like hand seized the soft meat of Christine's upper arm. She winced, unnerved by the manic brightness in the Madame's hazel eyes. The effect was somewhat exaggerated with the heavy coating of sooty kohl on her lashes and the rouge on her cheeks. It was whispered also that the madam used bootblack to cover the threads of silver appearing in her black hair.

"Come, my lovely. You have another customer!" she chirped, dragging Christine behind her. Christine stumbled, hauling the bodice of her gown up over her naked breasts. Her mind whirred.

Another, so soon? Usually there was a least a quarter hour between customers, to ensure that they were fresh and generally up to standard. What also marked this occasion as suspicious was that the customer had asked for her specifically. Christine had not been working long enough to build any kind of personal clientele.

"A customer? Who is he?" she asked, dodging servants and the other girls as they wove through the warren of rooms in a flurry of preparation. After supper was their busiest time, and each of the brothel's four floors seethed like an upset beehive. Madame Sophia ignored her, pausing at the mouth of the stair.

"Pauline, yours is the gentleman in the Chrysanthemum Room. Try not to upset his temper. Bruno, roust that German lech out of the parlor. No sampling the merchandise without paying! And you! Raoul! I said fetch the applewood for the furnace. This shite smells almost as bad as you do!"

"Come on!" she snapped, dragging Christine down the stairs to the third floor, shouting more instructions, then altering their route to the back stair.

At the ground floor, they burst into the frigid September alleyway and skirted puddles of fetid water by the rubbish heap before re-entering the brothel in a warm room just off the kitchen, lit by a lone candle. A steaming tub waited, redolent with the scents of herbs. A soothing mixture designed to tend to abused tissue.

Was Christine's appearance so subpar that they had to detour the parlor entirely? And why was there time for a bath? Madame released Christine's arm and wrung her wrinkled hands together. Christine eyed the normally composed madam warily, rubbing her arm.

"Is—Isn't the customer waiting? Should I just-"

"Get in, you stupid girl! Wash yourself well. The customer specified he wanted a clean, fresh girl. We mustn't keep the Vicomte waiting."

Christine paused her undressing as her heart stuttered in her chest. Vicomte? Their interlude three weeks ago seemed like a dream. So much so that Christine had sworn to remove him from her heart where he had unaccountably taken up residence and surfaced in her thoughts at the most inconvenient times.

"Oh?" Christine said with deliberate casualness, easing into the wonderfully hot bath. At the madam's gimlet stare, she quickly poured a palmful of Madame's ridiculously expensive hair soap made of shaved lye boiled with hyssop and myrrh and worked it into her hair. It foamed into a pleasant lather that trickled in warm, wet rivers down her back and breasts.

"Which Vicomte?" she asked, scrubbing her scalp. The madam was making her nervous, seated on that squat stool watching her with an avaricious gleam in her eye.

"The Vicomte de Chagny. He's been quite the busy boy. Climbing rungs of the social ladder and all that. He's been formally accepted back at court."

To hide her pleasure, Christine slipped under the water to rinse her hair. She broke the surface and shook sodden curls from her face. Christine loved baths. The sense of restoration and renewal were one of her few pleasures in this new, terrifying world. She quickly scrubbed the lathered cloth Madame offered over her body. With surprising agility, the madam lunged, bringing her face less than an inch from Christine's. Her breath smelled of brandy.

"Don't disappoint him, Christine," Madame hissed, inviting her to imagine all manner of horrors if she did. Christine sank into the protective embrace of the tub, blinking through moisture-clotted eyelashes.

"I won't. I promise!" she squeaked. Madame's frenzied facade mellowed into one of indulgent amusement. She patted her cheek.

"I know you won't. Don't forget to clean your cunt, dearie," she crooned, in the same cautionary tone one would offer when going outside without a coat.

"Yes, Madame," Christine said dutifully, hoping the hot water would hide her blush. With that, Madame Sophia rose and left Christine alone with her hopes and ever-present fear.

XXX

"You try my patience. Where. Is. Christine?" Erik spaced the words with scathing precision, spat through clenched teeth.

Three weeks was much too long. The hunger she'd built inside him only grew. Irritable and restless, he had paced the parlor for the twenty minutes ticked off by the mantle clock until Madame returned sans Christine. The portly madam offered him her best smile, revealing small teeth stained by brandy and tobacco.

"She is busy making herself beautiful for you, Monsieur le Vicomte. You mustn't rush these things. If you have grown tired of waiting, I have other girls available. Louisa would be most happy to attend your needs."

The black-haired vixen rose and sauntered over, placing her red-lacquered nails on Erik's chest. A powerful wave of her dense, floral perfume encompassed him.

"I would very much, Monsieur," her throaty voice screamed of debauchery. Her liquid Saracen eyes held his boldly. Erik remembered their interlude with fondness, but it was not Louisa's face and voice and body that haunted his dreams and drove him to take himself in hand at least twice a night like a randy youth.

"Tempting, my dear, but I have a prior engagement," Erik purred, imbuing his voice with indulgence and regret, peeling her hand from his chest. He caught the flash of dismay in the madam's face as well as the tang of hurt ruffling Louisa. The madam's reaction rang some internal warning bell and he vowed he would examine it later.

Madame Sophia's eye cut to one side with a slight sagging of relief and Erik followed her gaze. He froze, stifling the urge to gasp, or stare slack-jawed, or ravish the beauty before him on the brothel's good carpet. Instead, he gorged himself on the sight of his shy, Swedish rose. Clothed in naught but a sapphire blue silk wrapper, Christine looked sultry, womanly, ripe and sweet like a peach. He longed to sink his teeth in and lap up her juice.

His gaze traveled from her delicate feet, vulnerable and bare, up the creamy length of calf to the hem of the wrapper embroidered with subtle patterns of glossy black thread. Damp silk clung to the swells of breast and hip and thigh, enticing him with their bounty. Her glorious hair was loose down her back, dark and damp and heavy. The sweet face that plagued his dreams was luminous, her brown eyes—not the mundane tones of mud or dirt, no, but of the richness of chocolate and coffee!—wide and bright. Was she happy to see him? Had she missed him? Lust stripped him of his eloquence.

"You look beautiful." He wondered, in the name of God's eyeteeth, how he was going to keep his hands off her. His trousers were already uncomfortably tight. Luckily the drape of his cape hid his affliction. Christine curtsied prettily, glancing at the madam.

"I couldn't find any fresh clothes, so-"

"As long as my customers are pleased, so am I," Madame preened. Erik shook himself and offered a stiff bow.

"I am very well pleased," he said huskily and heard the intake of breath from all three women present. If Louisa's voice invited debauchery, Erik's was seduction made audible. He watched, and saw Christine's eyes darken with arousal, plump pink lips slightly parted.

"Shall we?" he drawled, offering her his gloved hand. Her warm hand slid into his and Erik sent up a swift prayer for strength. Tonight promised to be sweet torture.

XXX

Christine was sharply aware of her nakedness beneath the wrapper; delicate tendrils of air caressed her through the damp silk, bringing her nipples to aching points. God, Erik's eyes felt like hot honey drizzled over her skin, and his voice . . . oh, his voice saying that she had pleased him filled her with unspeakable primitive joy. The lingering wanting she had felt for his protection and his touch returned ten, no a hundredfold. She had never wanted to before. But she wanted now. Oh, how she wanted.

Erik led her up the stairs, the wood cold and smooth beneath her bare feet. Each of the brothel's rooms was decorated with fine wallpaper of a certain theme: roses, chrysanthemums and so on. Their first night together, Erik had taken her to the Rose Room and sought to do so again. Christine stiffened, quailing at the thought of those tastefully wrought flowers closing in on her.

"What is it?" Erik asked gently, the hot focus of his green eyes trained on her. Having his complete and utter attention was heady stuff.

"Uh . . . um," Christine stuttered, "could we use a different room?" It was so hard to discern his expression with that black bandit's mask covering his face from hairline to upper lip. The full curve of his mouth thinned.

"Why?" he asked. Christine blushed.

She couldn't very well say it was because she was afraid of the wallpaper! She looked down at her feet, trying to ignore the squeak of mattresses and the muted sound of a laugh raised in professional flirtation bleeding through the walls around them.

"Please," she whispered. His fingers cupped her chin and tilted it up to meet her gaze.

"Very well."

He led her down the hall to the Green Room over the kitchen, warm and private. Christine breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the deep green walls decorated with wide vertical stripes of cream.

"Better?" he asked, closing the door securely behind them.

"Much," she said, giving him a shy smile.

Erik chuckled as if sharing a joke and kissed the back of her hand. It was a light, polite peck, but nevertheless, Christine felt it down to the soles of her feet. Erik moved to the fire and removed his hat, cape and gloves. He shucked off his coat and sat in one the chairs.

How had Christine not noticed how graceful he was? That exquisite surety of movement, a confidence that every sinew and muscle would obey his will to perfection, like a conductor before a symphony. His eyes moved over her and Christine repressed the delicious shiver it sent through her.

"Coincidence, or fate, do you think?" he said, with an inviting crooked smile.

Christine settled into the chair opposite him, crossing her ankles primly. She puzzled over his enigmatic statement. It was bad enough that she was in awe of him, combined with a heretofore unknown level of physical attraction, but now he wanted to verbally spar with her? She wasn't as witty as the other girls, especially Louisa. The image of Louisa's red nails possessively spread on Erik's chest rose in her mind's eye and Christine shoved the hot, nameless emotion aside. She abandoned the feeble retorts she could have offered and went with blunt honesty.

"What do you mean?" the sparkle in his green eyes said he was pleased with her answer. He gestured between them. It was only then that she realized his waistcoat was of the same sapphire hue as her wrapper.

"We are dressed to match each other."

"Oh . . . I'd say dumb luck," Christine said, "Madame simply forgot to lay out fresh clothes for me." Erik laughed, leaning forward to brace his forearms on his knees.

"Christine, in my experience, Madame Sophia doesn't 'forget' anything. She left the wrapper because she knew it would guarantee my reaction to you." Christine blushed to the roots of her hair, her heartbeat speeding up.

"And . . . what reaction is that?" the smile fell from his mouth.

In reply he leaned back in the chair, allowing his arms to sprawl along the arms. The firelight washed over him and she saw the evidence of a very prominent erection straining against his trousers.

"I've been like this since I saw you downstairs. Hell, I've woken up like this with your name on my lips." His gaze seared her.

"It's been a long three weeks."

That simple admission flattered and titillated her as dozens of flowery compliments and cheap trinkets had not. Yes, he wanted her body as the others did, but Erik knew her. Knew the most painful events of her life, knew about her culture and family and liked her for it. And he had enough honor to give her a choice.

"Oh. I've . . . ah, I've thought about you too."

Something shifted in his gaze, hardened into a smoky, predatory glitter. Christine was reminded of the image of a lion she compared him to in her head. If he had a tail, it would be twitching about now.

"Have you, now?" Christine lacked the words to articulate the layers of sex and sin his voice insinuated. Heat throbbed through her body, gathering in a damp well between her thighs.

Erik shook himself like a wet dog. He gripped the carved arms of the chair with white-knuckled fingers. The firelight gilded and burnished him in gold and red. Would his bronze skin bruise her, those jade eyes rend her? She was so afraid . . . but exultant at the same time.

"Christine, if you don't want this, if you don't want me, tell me now. Do not feel . . . obligated in any way. We could simply eat and talk and sleep like we did before." There was a sharp, pleading edge to his voice that Christine found heartbreakingly wonderful. He would protect her. Even from himself.

Before she had even consciously decided, Christine found herself on her feet. Erik leapt up, closing the suddenly unbearable distance between them and clutching her to his chest. The buttons of his waistcoat were cool and smooth against her cheek, fine, silky cloth over a thundering heart. A soft sigh escaped her: of mingled welcome and arousal. His body was lean and hard and tall. She felt enveloped in his warmth and strength, sheltered and cherished.

Erik pressed a warm kiss to her forehead. Christine peeled back, looking into the beautiful—yes she had come to terms with the fact that he was in fact beautiful—green eyes and gave him a brave, wobbly smile.

"Try that a bit lower," she instructed, before pressing her lips to his.

Chapter Text

VI

 


The supple feel of her lips against his sent a hot, lustful jolt through his body, joined by a twin ache somewhere beneath his left ribs. Plump, velvet soft lips hiding a garden of sweet delights, the tantalizing promise of heaven. Erik deepened the kiss with a series of languid pecks, slithering his tongue across her lower lip, catching her soft gasp in his mouth. Her hands fisted in his vest and Erik slid his fingers through her curly hair, so warm and heavy at the crown and cool and dripping bathwater at the ends at the small of her back. To have her so warm and sweet and eager in his arms . . .

Wait—Not eager. Desperate. It struck him like a thunderclap. This was not a willing woman in a cozy apartment; this was a brothel and a whore no doubt coerced by her madam to make her valuable customers happy.

Erik hissed, breaking away from the warm temptation of her mouth. Looking into her chocolate brown eyes, wide with puzzled fear, Erik was smote by a blow of vicious guilt that nearly crippled him. Where was the tenderness, his vaunted protectiveness? No, like the hundreds of men before him, he had swaggered into this establishment secure in his conquest and assuaging any guilt he felt with a cheap trinket or a smooth compliment and having the unmitigated audacity to expect gratitude, favors.

"Oh God!" Erik said, his voice cracked and hollow, "Christine, forgive me!"

Because his body was roaring at him to continue and the sweet scent of her enticed him, Erik staggered to the ewer, tore off his mask and doused his face and neck with freezing water. The cold wakened and chastised him.

His own words returned to haunt him, flaunting his erection and expecting . . . what? For her to be aroused by it, impressed by the part of male anatomy that had only abused her? How could she ever feel that way after what happened to her? The true implications of what he had almost so gleefully committed filled him with a self-loathing so complete it dragged his soul down like a weighted net.

Moaning, he dropped his head into his hands. Feeling the roughness of his deformity, he quickly mopped up the water and retied his mask. He turned to find Christine where he had left her, standing awkwardly before the fire, wringing her hands.

"What did I do wrong?" she whispered, her entire posture that of quivering defeat, of a kicked puppy who expected punishment. The ache under his ribs flared to burning life. Tenderness just as powerful and ruthless as the lust rose in him. He wanted nothing more than to hold her to his chest and tell her she was safe. When would he ever earn the right?

"Nothing. You are blameless, Christine," he reassured her, hating that he needed the distance between them to keep him from teasing apart that infuriating wrapper and mapping the terrain of her body with his fingers and lips. He would pay homage to her body as was her right, her due as a woman . . .

"Cover yourself, please. With the coverlet." His voice sounded strangled even to his own ears. Christine scurried to obey, sitting curled at the foot of the bed and swaddling herself in the velvety down. Christine was made formless and sexless by the blanket and Erik found his self-control.

Use that exceptional brain of yours, Erik! He told himself. He could think beyond the thrumming pulse of desire surging through his body. Erik chuffed out a rusty laugh.

"I have done precious little thinking since I saw you downstairs." He threw himself into one of the chairs, staring pensively into the fire. Mercifully, his arousal descended.

"I must beg for your forgiveness, Christine. I . . . forgot our circumstances. I had hoped that here . . ." Erik broke off, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I had hoped that you would consider yourself safe here with me, and free to speak and act without fear of reprisal. Madame Sophia told you in no uncertain terms to keep me happy, did she not? Threatened to sic that brute Bruno on you?" At the mention of the bouncer's name, a discreet shudder rippled through her and Erik vowed to keep a close eye on the other man. If he laid one finger on Christine . . . hot rage flooded his chest at the thought.

"Yes," Christine said quietly from her perch on the bed, "but . . . but that's not the only reason why . . . why I . . ."

"Yes? Go on," he coaxed, the ache under his ribs replaced with a delicious fluttering. Christine dropped his gaze and plucked lint from the coverlet with nervous white fingers. She took a steadying breath and the words rushed out.

"You're kind to me. And your voice is so beautiful." Erik swallowed hard, unsure of whether to be pleased or insulted. He was aware of the singular effect his voice had on others, and used it to his advantage almost unconsciously. A musician's daughter would be even more susceptible than most.

"Are you saying you would have slept with me because you're grateful? Grateful that I treated you like a human being and not a piece of meat?—well I did until tonight when I tried to wheedle you into bed." Christine's nod was solemn.

"I wanted to. I've never wanted to before."

Erik closed his eyes. God, did she even realize how devastating her brand of innocent seduction was? The temptation of inaugurating a succulent beauty such as she in the delights a man and woman could share together flavored his thoughts for several lurid moments. Then the tenderness whispered to him like the cool balm of a quiet melody, revealing how harsh and cruel the world had been to his shy Swedish rose.

"In the interest of clearing the air, my dear, allow me to say that my agreement with the Madame is such that her payments are secure, regardless of the nature of our arrangement. You need not fear me voicing any disappointment in your performance." He watched some of the tension seep from the set of her shoulders.

"I think," he said, choosing his words with great care, "I think it would be best if we take things slow. I find I have . . . very strong feelings for you, Christine."

A dreadful thought occurred to him, fraught with the insecurities fed to him from birth.

"And are you . . . might I inquire as to your feelings for me? Be honest. Would you prefer to spend your evenings elsewhere? I could arrange-"

"No!" she said, straightening swiftly, making an abortive attempt to rise. Then she ostensibly remembered his edict to sit and hide herself and burrowed deeper into her downy cocoon. It was on his tongue to say she was free to move as she wished, but refrained, giving her time to gather her thoughts.

"No," she repeated emphatically, "I want to stay with you." Erik repressed a small thrill.

"But honestly? I . . . I don't know what I feel for you. It's all so confused. Gratitude, surely. Admiration. A—Attraction." Erik's heartbeat stuttered in his chest. Her gaze was warm and shy, skittering over his face.

"Whatever my feelings are, they are strong," she whispered at last. Erik nodded sagely, trying not to grin like a fool.

"I am glad," he murmured. She gifted him with a small, sweet smile. The moment was warm and comfortable and he was loathe to break it. At last, Erik rubbed his palms together briskly.

"Very well, then. Shall we dine?"

XXX

Tonight, Cook had prepared an elaborate steamed cod resting on a soft nest of pasta drizzled in creamy sauce. It tasted marvelous. The wine was white and tart, and Christine found herself pleasantly mulled by its silken persuasion. Its heat warmed her all the way down to her belly, stoking a small fire there. Erik's sharp green eyes weren't cutting, glittering gemstones now, no, no, no; they were pools of emerald green water, an oasis where she found solace.

"Tell me your happiest memory, Christine," he drawled in that voice. The voice that did marvelous things to her insides and coaxed the cowering being hiding in her soul into capering with joy at the knowledge that Erik held her dignity and sanity in high regard. He would not touch her without her permission. What a beautiful, beautiful man!

Christine delicately chewed on her lower lip as she pondered. Thinking of Papa was a bittersweet exercise for her, the fond memories of her golden childhood casting her present misery in even sharper relief.

"Hmm. Let's see . . ." she paused, thinking. A memory occurred to her and she giggled.

"I can't say it was my happiest, because I treasure every moment I had with Papa. But there was this one time when Papa and I were making our way through England. A Count was having a party at his manor and invited Papa to play, which was good, because Papa and I had spent our last coin making ourselves look presentable. Everything was going well, Papa was playing beautifully and once the guests had had their dessert and sherry, Papa invited me sing. Mind you, I was ten at the time, and deathly shy in front of strangers."

Erik sipped his wine with negligent grace and Christine wondered if he had ever been in a situation which broke that impenetrable poise. She doubted it. His tolerant smile faltered a little.

"Was your father aware of your shyness? Exposing you to ridicule is entirely unacceptable," he said, the edges of his words holding a note of sharpness that puzzled her. Christine was faintly flattered that even in a memory he would be protective of her.

"Oh I couldn't bear to tell him. He thought I had a voice like one of God's angels, and was exceedingly proud of me. He would have never pressured me had he known, but I couldn't bear to disappoint him.

Anyway, the guests were more or less ignoring me, so I completed the first song without mishap. However, on a high note near the middle of the second song, the Countess's lapdog decided to join in howling. Then another of the guests' pets joined in, then another . . ." Christine couldn't stifle the giggles rising up like champagne bubbles. She could barely gasp out the last sentence.

"Before I could finish the song, I was leading a chorus of yapping dogs! You should have seen Papa's face!" Erik's laugh rolled out of him like a burst of music that colored an otherwise drab world. Christine's laughter left her breathless and euphoric.

"The best part was when the guests thought it was part of the act! The Count was so pleased he paid Papa double what he asked. Papa was so happy. He bought me a charm bracelet with a dog on it," the laughter died out of her voice, "I can't believe I lost it." A contemplative silence filled the room. The mask made reading his expression nigh on impossible, but she watched his full mouth soften, a simple relaxation of muscle around his eyes.

"I am sorry for your loss, Christine. You honor your father by loving him so." Hot emotion rose up in her throat and for one terrifying instant, Christine thought she might cry. She feared if she started crying, she might never stop. She shut her eyes tight, focusing on her breathing.

In . . . and out. In . . . and—a large, warm hand folded into hers on the table.

"Oh Christine," he murmured, weaving magic into those letters, folded comfort and distilled compassion. Christine squeezed his fingers, grateful for that hand gripping hers.

His hands spoke so well of him: long, well-made, graceful hands that performed hundreds of tasks to perfection, a man's hand chafed with calluses of pen, rein and sword, bare of adornment. The nail on his little finger was torn; it gave his hand a plebian air.

"Thank you. And you, Erik? What is your fondest memory?" she asked, not releasing her grip on his hand as she reached across the table for her wine glass. Erik's relaxed, watchful posture stiffened a little.

"I envy you, Christine. My face made it impossible for my father to love me, you see. My mother was often sent away to a home in the country, as punishment for the sin of bearing such a son." Christine's expression must have given away her distaste for the man, because Erik's eyes grew earnest.

"I do not want you to think ill of him; he is not an evil man. I simply do not fit what he wants in a son. As such, my early memories of the de Chagny Château are somewhat tainted. My fondest memories would be with my tutors, especially Monsieur Eklund—remember the Swedish gentleman I told you about? It was hard for my father to find a tutor that could keep interest for longer than a month; I was an avid and voracious reader from four years of age," he said without a touch of arrogance.

"I cannot select anything specific, but nothing rivals the quiet peace of being utterly absorbed in an enthralling subject. Monsieur Eklund and I would spend hours debating what we read as we walked the Château grounds. He wasn't afraid to cuff me when I was brash, which was often," Erik said, chuckling.

"How old were you when Monsieur Eklund was your tutor?"

"I was nine, eleven when he . . . left." Christine sensed a deep well of sadness lurking between the last two words. Well accustomed to the feeling of loss howling through a hole punched in one's chest, Christine chose not to pry.

"I'm . . . I'm sorry you lost your friend," Christine stuttered, lacking Erik's effortless eloquence and feeling young and obtuse as a result. Erik didn't seem to mind, a grin softened the firm line of his mouth. Slowly, respectfully, Erik lifted her hand to his mouth and dropped a soft kiss on the back. A tingling feeling raced up her arm and settled somewhere in her abdomen at the press of soft, damp, warm lips.

"Thank you."

From there, their conversation ranged over a variety of topics, with Christine sharing more anecdotes of her gypsying with Papa across Europe, and Erik elucidating on his education and his relationships with his half-sisters. More than once, Christine was left in awe of his incredible intellect, but he explained things in such a manner than she felt neither cowed nor pandered to.

"I should like to meet Elise, and Jacqueline too," Chrisitne said, her cheeks aching from the unaccustomed burden of a smile.

"I would like that," Erik murmured, relinquishing her hand only to refill their wine glasses. Somewhere between their fevered kiss and the meal, Erik had discarded his waistcoat as well as his coat and cape. He sat in his shirt sleeves, the downy white rolled back in precise turns to reveal thick forearms dusted with black hair. Christine admired the play of muscle under his skin as he carved wedges of cheese and bread. His mouth quirked in one corner and Christine read a sort of shy eagerness in his manner.

"I have a somewhat impertinent question to ask," he began. A vague foreboding fluttered madly in her belly. Was he a monster?

"Oh?" the syllable emerged strangled and soft. Erik nodded, a peculiar blend of sweetness and trepidation filling his green eyes. The knots of tension eased a fraction. Or was he a man?

"Would you sing for me, Christine?"

Chapter Text

VII

An expression of endearing surprise penetrated her wine-muddled relaxation. He saw fear dart across her features and regretted the loss of the easy camaraderie, the fragile promise of friendship winding around them like skeins of golden silk. Perhaps the wine was going to his head, or he was drunk on her beauty. The armor of her makeshift wrap was slipping off her shoulders; the sapphire blue silk of her wrapper shimmered in the firelight and Erik imagined nestling his face in the cradle of her shoulder and inhaling her scent.

Christine had not released his hand, nor had her grip gone limp and passive in his: an encouraging sign. Her hands were so small and delicate . . . Erik marveled at the graceful taper of her fingers, the soft, secret warmth of her palm and the echo of her beating heart. Her little finger was slightly crooked at the second joint. This tiny genetic anomaly pleased him.

"S—Sing for you? But why?" she sputtered.

Erik straightened in his chair in an attempt to sober up. There was something tense and strangled behind her words. He selected only the gentlest tones to speak, a medley composed of the drum of rain on the roof or the croon of a lullaby.

"It was an innocuous request, Christine. We are both musicians; I wished to hear your instrument." He paused, then added, "If it rouses too many painful memories for you, please forget I mentioned it." Christine's fingers braided with his, her chocolate brown eyes darting over his face.

"Oh no! I was . . . I was just taken aback. It's been so long since I've sung, you see. I really don't think I could impress you. I mean, you're . . . you're . . ." Erik was charmed to see a blush staining her cheeks, a pink rose's kiss on planes of cream. His shy, Swedish rose, a vision of such spectral beauty!

Yes, Erik thought ruefully, the wine is definitely going to my head. Erik grinned. Flowery speech aside, he found her manner bewitching, her earnest speech refreshing.

"I am ill prepared, that's all," she finished glumly, plucking at the hem of the pristine tablecloth.

Erik rose from his chair, drawing Christine up with him. The coverlet pooled in the chair, slithering down to the floor with a soft sigh. Her upturned face was sweet and open, embroidered with a heart-breaking, instinctive mistrust. The world had taught her cruel lessons that men only wanted to demean and crush and fuck. How could he show her tenderness and not have it construed as some sort of clumsy foreplay? How he longed to bend and kiss the plush pillow of her lower lip, trace his tongue over the maddening bow of upper lip, sink his hands in that mane of curls . . .

"Perhaps if I bare myself to your scrutiny, I could put your worries to rest, hmm?" he drawled. Those tormenting lips parted at his incendiary words, he could see the incensed throb of the pulsebeat at her slender throat, an innocent, unbidden rush of arousal. When had he moved closer to her? Control, he told himself sternly. He could not afford to seduce and beguile. If she came to him, it would be of her own will, and only then.

"That . . . that might be best." Erik stepped back, releasing her hand with a fond squeeze.

"As you wish," he said with a bow. A fragment of a thought marveled at the man who now teased and flirted and charmed. How often had he thought himself too old, too jaded, too ugly for such simple banter?

Under Christine's rapt focus, Erik began to sing. It was a common hymn with a simple melody, giving Erik's voice room to soar. It was rare for him to sing for an audience since both his father and his wife abhorred it, usually César or the open sky were the only receptacles for his most cherished treasure, so to sing for Christine gave him a unique pleasure. The array of expressions ranging from ecstatic to breathless that moved over her features enthralled him. When the last note faded into silence, Christine dropped her face into her hands. Ice slicked his skin.

"I hope I did not upset you," he hedged. The reaction to his voice was always unpredictable, whether he spoke or sang or shouted. Such a powerful result of merely exercising his vocal cords!

"No," she quavered though her eyes were free of tears, raising a hand to forestall him, "Your voice is . . . a miracle." He felt the compliment all the way to his toes. He stepped forward, intending to embrace her, then thought better of it. God, this was hell, longing to comfort her and being unable to do so!

"I—I'm afraid I will never compare," she said, gnawing on her lower lip.

"I don't want to hear my voice. I want to hear yours," Erik said simply, sinking back into his chair, "Please. Sing for me." Her solemn nod tasted like victory and he eased back in the chair, prepared to be quiet and respectful regardless of her skill.

"I . . . I know a few French songs. What would you like to hear?" Erik flicked his hand in a dismissive gesture.

"Choose your favorite. Sing in Swedish if it makes you more comfortable."

It would be enough just to look at her, he thought, just to watch as she was absorbed in something she enjoyed. A nostalgic air enshrouded her, a sort of dreamy abstraction of thought that filled him with a potent longing to know her: her thoughts, aspirations and fears. To know and possess utterly.

When she opened her lovely mouth and uttered the first trembling note, so vulnerable in its infancy, Erik knew he was lost. His eyes fluttered closed at the sweet, startling clarity of sound, as pure as driven snow. How was this talent wholly untutored? How could such concentrated beauty be possible in a single mortal soul? The cadence of words and notes fell over him like drops of cleansing rain, washing away years of loneliness and grief. In lyric Swedish, the song spoke achingly of loss and the miracle of hope. Oh, he would willingly enslave himself to that voice and the glorious soul that gave it wings; he would worship her for the rest of his life!

As her siren's song ended, his joints turned to water and he slid from the chair to his knees. A wild, inarticulate joy rose in his chest. Words were such inane, wooden things. There were none to articulate what he felt, the magnitude of what had occurred in this sumptuous bordello room.

"Oh Christine," he breathed.

XXX

Her name had never sounded more beautiful than when spoken by the man kneeling at her feet. Erik liked her voice? If his posture was any indication, he was just as enraptured by her voice as she was by his. Music bound them together at their innermost being. Song was her most prized joy and singing her sole talent. Her knees suddenly felt too weak to hold her, so she sat heavily on the foot of the bed, the ropes squeaking in protest. Both she and Erik sat in that ringing silence.

For her part, Christine knew it was because she was unsure of how to come to terms with the fact that she had found her soulmate in a brothel. Christine stared at her hands, held limp and loosely curled atop her thighs. She felt like a dishrag that had been wrung out of every drop of water and hung wilted on the lip of the sink. Oh, how could she contain this burgeoning well of feeling and act with any modicum of dignity? When he left her in this hell, she would die. The ghostly tie that bound her soul to his would snap, and she'd take to bleeding inwardly. She wished she could shed some of this burning emotion in tears, but it just sat in a hard knot in her chest, refusing to loosen.

"Your father was right, Christine. You possess the voice of one of God's angels and I am awed and humbled by it. You have . . . utterly shattered me." She felt likewise. She almost wished he would kiss her. Then she could draw him down onto the bed and saturate herself in him before the lock clicked shut behind him.

"What do we do now?" she asked.

Erik moved close and knelt at her feet, clasping her limp, cold hands in his. She could not read what she saw in his eyes, the flat curve of his mouth. Was it despair or joy that moved him? Christine could hardly identify her own feelings.

"I don't know. I don't know what will happen to us. There is so much in the way with the Madame and my . . ."

"Your wife," Christine said, without heat. He was going to leave. Wash his hands of her, go and find a less troublesome prostitute to share his bed.

"Yes. My wife . . . and my father. And the emperor and his court. My decisions are not my own, unfortunately. Any slight I make against the emperor would affect Elise and Jacqueline." The list of obstacles was entirely insurmountable. Why would he risk the loss of his entire life for her?

" . . . But I will do it for you. I swear I will find a way to free you from this place." All the breath left Christine's lungs and she was transfixed by this man, this mad, wonderful, honorable man.

"You . . . You would do that for me?" she choked. The knot in her chest throbbed like a hot coal. His hand twitched and Christine recognized the impulse for what it was. She captured his hand and nestled her face against it as she had longed to do, dropping a kiss on the center of the callus-roughened palm. A soft sigh escaped him and the air thickened and pulsated between them.

"Yes," he replied with infuriating simplicity. Yes? As if it was so easy?

"But Madame will never let me leave. She has Bruno and . . . and-" a strange fire lit in his green eyes but, strangely, Christine was not afraid anymore. She supposed finding one's soulmate dispelled much of life's uncertainties.

"You needn't worry yourself over Bruno. He will not touch you. I will make sure of it." Inwardly, she shook her head. How could he protect her? How, when he would leave her here?

"Do you hear me, Christine?" his tone sharpened, his grip on her hand tightened.

"He will not touch you. Believe me." Oh, how she wanted to! She wanted to believe Erik would sweep in and take her away from this horrid prison. How badly she wanted to believe!

"I don't know how I will do it or how long it will take, but I will find a way, Christine. I will!" he swore. Christine surged forward, pressing her lips to his in a clumsy, awkward advance. She pulled back just as suddenly.

"Thank you," she whispered. His eyes widened, holding to her face unblinkingly. The hand against her cheek stroked, his thumb curling gently around the hinge of her jaw.

"May I kiss you, Christine?" he asked, his voice threaded with a delicious richness, like cream and sugar. Her heart soared. He asked instead of took, wooed instead of raped! She rejoiced.

"Yes," she sighed, tilting her chin up meet him.

This kiss was so different from their fevered clinch; God was that only three hours ago? Christine felt as if she had lived and learned a lifetime's worth in that span. What they shared now was a true first kiss: a meeting of equals prompted by the stirrings of affection and discovery, sharing breath and soul and taste and pleasure. She knew now why the Madame charged extra for kissing. It was so . . . personal, in a way a more explicit connection was not. Whores learned how to detach, enshroud themselves in protective mental armor while men took their pleasure. You couldn't disconnect from a kiss. Nor, at the moment, did she particularly want to.

It felt so good, pleasure trickling down from their joined mouths to pool in her chest, between her thighs. He knelt perfectly still between her knees, hands braced on the bed, coaxing her mouth open with long, languid caresses. Christine sought his tongue, seeking that strong, slippery muscle and inviting it to join hers. So good . . . her hands kneaded his shoulders, glorying in the strength she found there. Strength he would bend to protect and shelter her, that would submit to her needs. For the first time in her life, Christine felt power. His animal heat pulsed underneath the fine white lawn of his shirt and Christine was assaulted by the potent desire to touch his naked skin. A strangled moan left her lips, vibrated against his.

She opened one eye, wondering why he was so still, so rigid in her embrace. Those long, graceful hands were locked into white-knuckled fists in the sheets, only his mouth engaged as her hands plunged into his hair, controlling the depth and angle of the kiss. A sound that could be only described as a whimper left his lips.

"Touch me, Erik," she said. Her voice was a stranger's. Sultry, husky with desire, breathed in between biting kisses along the swollen cushion of his lower lip. She would take her fill of him. Take, take all he would give.

"Oh God," Erik whispered, his breath wafting moist and warm over her face, "Mercy, Christine. I don't know if I can control myself. It's been so long since-"

"I want to. Please," she urged.

"No, darling," he insisted, grasping her shoulders and peeling back, "We need time. There is no need to rush." Christine felt something crumple inside her.

"Please! I need to know that it can be different! I need to know I can choose! Me! And I want you." Her gaze strayed to his lips, those full lips that offered such delight, the voice and soul behind them that was so bewitching to her. His hands rubbed her upper arms soothingly.

"This is different. You can choose. I understand, I do. But a handful of hours ago, I felt I was taking advantage of you, forcing you. I was no better than the man who raped you. To make love now . . . it's too soon." She wanted to cry and wail at him for denying her.

"What will I do when you leave?" she asked, sounding like the forlorn child who wept at her father's shallow grave. Erik made senseless crooning noises, ceaselessly rubbing her arms, kissing her forehead.

"I will return soon. I swear I'll find a way to free you," his voice shook with the force of his passion and she loved him for it. Spent of all emotion, Christine heaved a harsh sigh and leaned her forehead against his chest.

"Hold me, Erik. Please."

Erik rose and retrieved the coverlet and soon the two of them were burrowed beneath it. Christine clung to his warmth and solace until she slipped into a deep, restful sleep.

XXX

Erik spent the night suspended in a state of torturous bliss in Christine's embrace—fully clothed and perfectly chaste except for the long, sleepy, drugging kisses she initiated. Oh, the sweet pleasure of her mouth, the heavy pound of his heart in his chest and their limbs caught in a delicious tangle!

Sleep, if it came at all, was thin and fitful. Even on the infrequent occasion that he and Claire occupied the same bed, such pleasures were never indulged. Thus, the experience of a beautiful woman's sleep-heavy limbs twined with his, the warmth of her stale breath and the tickle of her hair under his nose was a novel one for him, even at his ripe age of thirty-seven.

Good God, he had been seconds from taking her when she said those words: Touch me, Erik. It was a heady thing to be wanted; whether it was a whore's professional desire or not. And Erik thought not. His and Christine's odd accord struck him as entirely frank. Christine simply did not possess the ability to be disingenuous. Only a lingering shred of sanity tinged with gut-clenching shame held him in check.

If it were not for the title foisted on him by Fate and his father, he would return this very night and quench the fire she'd built in him. But alas, there were the social demands of an aristocrat to consider. His skill as a musician was in demand for those who considered themselves sophisticated, such as the Comtesse de Chambourg's boorish husband, Comte François, who were to host a salon the day after tomorrow.

He paid the Madame, providing the necessary pleasantries, and stepped into the autumn sunshine. This time, Raoul's mellow voice did not greet him as he crossed the threshold into Monsieur Méchant's musty stable.

Typical. The moment he acutely needed the boy's presence he was nowhere to be found!

A quick scan of the area found it void of any bipedal life. Erik tireless brain presented him with a passing riddle. While this was not the only brothel Erik had frequented, he had also been a patron long enough to form a rapport with the ladies and Madame. Why was it that his and Raoul's paths had not crossed more often? His unconscious explanation was that Madame had her errand boy run ahead and attempt to suppress any awkward meetings with embarrassing family connections, but the answer didn't satisfy. Erik inspected the thought, turned it onto another angle, and promised to give it greater contemplation at a later time, filing it away with the uneasy political climate and the feasibility and logistics of fixed-wing aircraft means of travel.

A scrawny boy of roughly ten years of age who Erik did not recognize interrupted his musings with a discreet cough—or perhaps the beginnings of croup. Typical stable rat, undersized, skinny, dirty with that faint look of mingled awe and cool hatred for one of higher class. Also, that flicker of gaze that indicated staring at his mask and the unwilling fascination at what it might hide.

"My horse," Erik said with a terse gesture, accustomed to such looks, "the black stallion."

"I know your black, sir. I'll have him out in a thrice, sir!" the boy piped, scurrying away. Presently, the boy led César out to the yard, expertly holding the stirrup iron so he may mount. Once astride, Erik tossed the boy a coin.

"Raoul, the blond lad about ye high," Erik said, gesturing with his crop to a height roughly even with César's shoulder, "Do you know where he is? I must speak to him." The boy bit the coin to test its worthiness.

"Boy!" Erik snapped. The stable lad snapped to attention.

"Raoul. Where is he?" Erik repeated. The boy's eyes grew wide, all the color draining from his face beneath the smudges of dirt.

"I don't know nothing about that, sir! Good day to you, sir!" with that, the boy scuttled back into the dingy safety of the stable. Erik watched him go, easing back in his saddle with a faint creak.

The riddle merited more of his attention than le Bris and his glider.


 

Chapter Text

VIII

Elise and Jacqueline were not there to greet him as he returned. Instead, it was the Comte de Chagny leaning on his cane, looking as stern and saturnine as ever. One of the ever-present grooms appeared and Erik very nearly insisted on caring for César himself, if only to make the old man wait. Mere minutes and Erik stood alone on the stoop, feeling unaccountably vulnerable under his father's unblinking eye. The old man could pinpoint his weakness like a wolf marking a limping doe. Christine had wormed her way beneath his skin, shattering the icy armor around his heart. Her image floated in his mind's eye like a religious icon.

"The unfaithful husband returns," the Comte remarked, a smug smirk tilting the full mouth women went mad over. Even at the age of sixty-two, the Comte Michel de Chagny exuded virility, the force of his charisma projected through every glance and gesture.

The hard, marble-like sheen to the older man's wintry blue eyes invited Erik's scorn. God, did the man actually enjoy their vitriolic arguments? A host of glib and cutting responses leapt to Erik's lips, a choice morsel tasting of malice rolling around on his tongue, but he stifled them. As with Claire, his pervading emotion was one of weariness, futility. There was no way he could please his father even if he wished to—which, in his heart of hearts, was exactly what he had always wanted as far back as he could remember.

"Not that it is any of your concern, but my wife does not welcome me into her bed. Nor has she in quite some time. So I hardly think fidelity would be an issue if the woman in question neither seeks nor desires my affections, hmm?" His father opened his mouth to answer Erik's rhetorical question, but Erik interrupted.

"May we dispense with the lecture? Per your request, there are matters at the Château that require my attention and I must away if I have any hope of returning before the Chambourg's salon." The old man seemed mollified by Erik's resigned obedience.

A fit of coughing wracked the Comte's thin frame, doubling him almost in half. Erik made no move to assist him. His touch was unwelcome. Michel de Chagny pressed a handkerchief embroidered with his initials to his lips, but Erik still heard the harsh gasp of his inhalation, each exhaled breath an ugly wheeze.

Upon closer inspection, Erik noted the old man's pallor, the barrel-like dimensions of his once-lean chest, the spongy, blue-tinged fingertips. Hallmarks of serious emphysematous lung disease. That idiot physician said it was simply an excess of phlegmatic humors and suggested potions and bleeding. Erik considered it more a result of decades of cigar smoke and the eventual defeat of his body's natural defenses. Erik noted all this with clinical detachment, as if his body were a cadaver available for dissection.

When he had amply recovered, the Comte replied, "If you must." The strength of his voice was diminished as he leaned heavily on his cane. Erik bowed stiffly, then moved toward the stair. A cool, talon-like hand latched onto his forearm. Erik glanced sharply at his father.

"Erik . . ." he paused, struggling to catch his breath. Erik contemplated shaking off his grip, but something in the tone and manner stayed him. The Comte had aged in the past three weeks; time pressing and crumbling him into himself.

"Sometimes, a man says words in the heat of anger without truly meaning them." The jaded man whispered that the Comte must be feeling his mortality to attempt even this backhanded apology after months—years!—of unalloyed verbal assault.

"That's true, Father," Erik said gently, squeezing the gnarled talon on his arm, "but a man never forgets those heated words either."

Lunch was a subdued affair with Erik at his father's right hand. Claire, true to form, took one glance at him in yesterday's clothes slightly worse for wear and seethed silently over leek soup across the expanse of oak polished to a mirror shine. Almost unnoticed at the foot of the table sat the Comte's newest wife, Adele. She was a spinster of twenty-seven years, of decent fortune and breeding. Her spinsterhood was explained by her lack of personality or presence. Her mother's legacy of six sons had encouraged the match with the aging Comte, and as of yet, Adele had failed to deliver. This, Erik suspected, was more due to the Comte's . . . inability than Adele's fertility.

Elise and Jacqueline filled the silence with their bright chatter, eager to share with Erik the progress of their lessons which now included dancing and riding. The Comte de Chagny went to considerable lengths to ensure that each of his children received the finest education. Elise boasted that she was the more proficient rider, but Jacqueline was quick to point out how often she stumbled during the simplest waltz. Their good-natured competition lifted his restive spirit.

His two half-sisters coaxed Erik into conversation on literature and the sciences. Erik's thoughts returned to Christine. Last night's talk had unearthed a shared love of Shakespeare and his sonnets. The girls' bemoaning Greek translation inspired Erik. Trite trinkets and flowers were a poor wooer's gift; Christine deserved something as unique and lovely as she was.

As Madame Villon and John cleared away the dishes, Erik dabbed his mouth with his napkin and rose.

"Ladies, I fear I must take my leave."

"But you just got home!" Elise interjected.

"Where are you going, Erik?" Jacqueline's more reasonable voice asked.

"Off to visit your friend?" Claire spoke with an impressive mixture of boredom and loathing. The temperature in the room plummeted. He saw Elise's blue eyes dart to her beloved aunt in askance, and Jacqueline made a study of the patterns painted on the china.

"No Claire," he said coolly, "Father asked me to see to the Château. You needn't worry. I'll return in time for the salon." Everyone at the table knew that Claire had not been concerned about Erik's safety. He glanced at his father and saw something akin to sympathy in his eyes.

Erik circled the table and kissed Elise's unruly black hair, making an elaborate bow toward her elder sister. Solemn and wide-eyed, the girls bade him goodbye. He captured Claire's limp, cool hand and kissed it formally. He turned on his heel toward his father's chair at the head of the table.

"Goodbye, Father," Erik murmured.

"Goodbye, Son," he replied, with an ease unheard of between them. His hungry heart gobbled up those cool, civil words like a delectable treat. Erik tried to catch Claire's eye once more, but she was staring determinedly ahead, her dignity unmarred by her quivering chin or white knuckled fists. No love to be found there.

"Goodbye," he said, donning cape and fedora.

Erik had lied. No, perhaps it was more a fib. While he would depart for the Château, his path took him first to a modest flat in a residential district. He was admitted by the housekeeper and was soon ensconced in the study sipping cheap brandy.

When Nadir Kahn entered, his respectable black attire punctuated by the flair of his Eastern culture in the crimson sash and fez, Erik rose and greeted him in his own language. Black eyes warmed with pleasure and they shook hands. Erik was a man with few friends, but he considered Nadir Kahn to be one of them. Shared riding expeditions and fencing matches had segued into long conversations ranging on every subject under the sun and the gruff confidences men gave grudgingly. Erik had found a kindred spirit in Nadir.

"What brings you to my humble home, my friend?" Nadir asked, waiting until Erik returned to his chair before seating himself. Erik grimaced.

"I have a rather embarrassing confession, Nadir." The Persian's mustache twitched as he steepled his fingers under his chin.

"Oh? I fear you are mistaking my garb for that of a priest. Muslims do not countenance confession to a mortal being."

"A priest would be far less accommodating, believe me," Erik said dryly. The faint smile fell from Nadir's mouth and he leaned forward.

"Forgive my jesting. It is a rare occasion that you admit to weakness; I was simply enjoying the novelty." Erik dismissed the banter with a terse gesture. Assembling and discarding varying means of explanation, Erik simply stated the harsh, bold truth.

"I am in love."

The admission startled even him. He had meant to say: 'I am in trouble.' Love? He loved Christine. The ache under his left ribs, now acknowledged, spread in riotous delight to every dark corner of his soul. He was in love for the first time in his miserable life! Nadir's dark face grew solemn.

"I take it the lady is an unsuitable match? Or one who objects to the affections of a married man?" The dig was subtle. A widower of decades, the Persian's views on fidelity and marriage were immutable.

"She is a prostitute." He hated phrasing Christine as such. Her circumstance was neither sought nor tolerated. She was simply a pawn of Fate, as he was. The expression of shock on Nadir's generous features was almost comical.

"Go on," he said and Erik heard none of the friend in his tone, only the former chief of police of the shah of Persia, before disease and scandal rotted his country from the inside out. Though his horses were his salvation, Nadir had become very well connected with both sides of the law in his adopted country. The change absurdly comforted Erik. From there, Erik roughly sketched out Christine's plight and Erik's promise to free her.

"I fear money will not be enough to have the Madame relinquish her, even as my private mistress." The knowledge made him feel frighteningly powerless.

"Yes, my connections have warned me about her. Whatever the nature of her alliance with Méchant, it has left her with a veritable army of pickpockets, spies and thugs." Hmm, that might be an explanation for Raoul's frequent disappearances, he thought.

"You must tread carefully. That brute of hers-"

"Bruno," Erik interjected, dread coalescing in his gut like a heart of ice.

"Yes. Bruno. He is the worst sort of sadist. My contact with the gendarmes said he is suspected of killing a man in Spain. Flayed him to pieces."

The words were a sharp blow to his gut, winding him. He sucked in a breath, his fingernails scoring his palms. Wild, screeching fear burned through his nerves. Christine!

Nadir must have seen the effect of his words on Erik, for he grasped Erik's knee with a square, callus-roughened hand. The consoling touch was unbearable. Erik leapt to his feet and paced the room in quick, restless turns, the fabric of his cape lashing and whirling around his churning limbs.

"I have to get her out! Perhaps I can go the gendarmes and-"

"No, Erik. There is nothing you can do. Legally, anyway. No one cares if a prostitute gets roughed up by their madam."

This was so patently true that Erik could muster no reply. He sank back into the chair, every ounce of his formidable genius focused on finding a solution to the problem. Locked doors, barred windows and madmen were trifles. He would find a way around this. He had acquaintances from the intemperate years of his youth that would prove invaluable.

"My advice would be to wait. Test the weak points. Have you even thought past when you win her freedom? Where she will go? What you will do? What Claire will do?" Erik rose and stared out the window into the dismal grey maze of cobbled streets and milling humanity.

"My mother's property fell to me when she died. It is secluded, but well-kept. Christine will be comfortable there. She may stay there while I find a way to abandon this sham of a marriage." Hope conjured a beautiful image of that cottage nestled in the heart of the forest where he had played as a boy, a hearth where he and Christine would sit and talk as the wind sighed through the trees. Then he could believe they were the only two people in the whole world.

"Claire will not give up being Comtesse so easily. And your father?" Reality bled all the colors from the fantasy, leaving truth as hard and bitterly cold as stone.

"None of that matters," Erik said quietly.

Why was he to cling to the vestige of a promise that had been rendered meaningless when Marguerite had breathed her last? Didn't Christine deserve to be free; didn't he deserve to be happy? In his mind he saw himself breeching the brothel's defenses only to find Bruno with his knife to Christine's throat. Fear choked his own throat at the thought.

"I will not risk Christine. I will, as you say, test the weak points."

XXX

It was slow in the brothel this evening. The dinner hour had come and gone, and the only customer to arrive was up with Charlotte in the Lavender Room. While Christine was glad to find a reprieve from the ignobility of her work, however brief, it was also cause for trepidation. Slow business put the Madame in a foul mood, and Christine eyed her warily from her place on the parlor rug. The Madame sat sloppily drinking brandy, her severe coiffure wilting and her pudgy fingers plucking lint from her wrapper.

The murmur and titter of conversation of the other whores fluttered around Christine like an ever-moving flock of birds and just as incomprehensible. Christine stifled a yawn, finding herself longing for the quiet privacy of her cell. There she was free to dream, to remember the kiss and the steady heartbeat under her ear. Green eyes and warmth and a voice that made her soul begin to soar . . .

The back door creaked as it opened and all fifteen of the Madame's girls watched Raoul enter, arms laden with a load of firewood. Christine watched him with more than the standard catty amusement. From her gleanings of the other ladies' gossip, Raoul was Erik's bastard brother. If she squinted at him, she could see similarity in the nose, the jaw, their slender musculature. The swelling bruised black around his left eye made it hard for her to discern their color. A thrill rushed through her. Her life here would be more bearable if she could look into Raoul's eyes and see Erik's piercing green. Curiosity piqued her interest. What was Raoul like? What history did he share with Erik?

Raoul entered the parlor with shoulders pushed forward and eyes downcast. His gaze skittered over the ladies draped in various evocative positions of repose before settling on Christine. She offered a smile, hiding her disappointment when she saw his eyes were blue. The corner of his mouth twitched in reply. He reeked of neglect; his once-white shirt was nearly brown with accrued dirt and stains, torn at the cuffs and elbows. His breeches and boots were in similar disrepair.

"He smells like the shite he shovels," Louisa remarked sotto voce, her sharply upturned nose twitching in distaste. He was very pungent, but not of manure. Rather horses, leather and honest sweat. He smelled like freedom to her. Christine shrugged in disagreement. With a faint nod, Raoul skirted the fine rug and laid the logs in the wood box one at a time. Dusting the bits of bark from his hands and shirt into the box, Raoul rose, accidentally knocking the lid shut. The screech of ill-oiled hinges shred the ears.

"Clumsy sod! Get out before I lose my temper!" Madame shouted. Raoul marched across the parlor and shouldered his way through the kitchen door with a trifle more force than necessary. The sound of the door slamming shut made the Madame hiss and clutch her head. She uttered a string of curses under her breath before turning her baleful eye on them. A pudgy finger thrust out.

"Louisa, Juliet, Cassandra, go see if you can drum up some customers." The three in question were the most beautiful and most experienced and if anyone could angle for men with a need and a fat purse, it would be them. The many-ringed hand swiveled to Christine and her gut clenched.

"Christine, go to the kitchens and make yourself useful. The rest of you, find something to do, or Bruno will do it for you!"

Ten minutes later found Christine comfortably immured in the kitchens, shelling peas for Cook, a rail thin, middle-aged man who was the soul of jolly good nature. She neither knew nor cared why the Madame had singled her out; she would rather work her fingers to the bone for Cook than work. Raoul sat on a stool beside her, shoveling scraps into his mouth with a voraciousness that was almost obscene. Leaving her to her task, Cook resumed his seat on his stool by the stove, sipping from the flask he carried in his pocket. Soon, his thick snores filled the warm quiet.

"My name is Christine," she murmured. Raoul, his cheeks bulging with the weight of food they held, swallowed several times before replying, "Raoul."

Conversation began in halting spurts. Her question about his bruised eye was met with stony silence, in turn; his snide question about who she did or did not sleep with was rebuffed. An air of cool dislike flared between them. Finally, her inquiry about the horses he cared for struck a spark of mutual accord and the air softened.

"The Vicomte de Chagny's black is one of the finest beauties I've ever seen. Andalusian, he is, you can tell with that thick, wide chest, the short back and, of course, that mane of his. Like a woman's hair, almost." Christine saw the stallion clearly in her mind's eye, and Erik's powerful form astride it.

"He sounds like a beautiful animal. I would like to meet him one day. The Vicomte . . . what manner of association do you have with him?"

"Huh? Speak plain!" Raoul snapped. Christine rephrased: "How well do you know him?"

Raoul's open face dimmed somewhat, and he dropped his gaze to the mound of peas Christine had shelled, scooting a wayward pea away from the edge of the table with a fingernail rimmed black with dirt. Silence stretched on for so long, Christine feared she had offended him.

"Not too good," he muttered, "we have the same father. My maman, she was like you, a whore in this brothel—this was before Madame d'Avrigny was madam. There was some scandal when I was born. Maman swore she had no other man but the Comte, and I looked enough like him to be considered his bastard. The Comte wanted to make me heir because he don't like the Vicomte's face—he's misshapen under the mask."

An unbearable expression of sadness graced his features and Christine felt a jolt. She had seen such an expression on Erik's face on more than one occasion. Was he mourning the loss of the life and position that could have been his, or the circumstance that pitted brother against brother?

"But it was not to be. Comtes don't marry whores, nor keep their bastards, you see?" Raoul said reasonably. And she did. Blindingly, crushingly, she saw it. Even if she and Erik were miraculously free, there was no hope for them. Comtes did not marry whores. It took a moment for her to muster control of her voice.

"I'm sorry," she offered and Raoul smiled. It looked more like a grimace.

"He—the Vicomte, I mean—he gave me a book when I was a boy. He came here every so often. We were aware of each other in a distant sense, but we rarely spoke. Then, he gave me the book. I was ten or so. I couldn't read, but I wrangled one of the lads to teach me my letters." A faint smile touched his lips, treasuring the moment of crystallized kindness. Erik held some exalted status in Raoul's mind. Christine smiled. He had a talent for inspiring that in people.

"That was kind of him," Christine said. Raoul's blue eyes narrowed to flashing slits of jewel-like suspicion.

"It was. And I don't much like the idea of someone taking advantage of his nature." The pieces fell into place in her head. His mother had used Raoul as way to bargain with his rich father. Did he fear that Christine would do the same with Erik? A strange tenderness stirred in her chest. Raoul's standoffishness was borne of his protectiveness of his brother. Christine reached out and laid her hand over Raoul's.

"I don't either. Let's make a pact to make sure that doesn't happen, hmm?" She offered her hand. Raoul considered her outstretched hand and Christine wondered how harshly he had been used in life to make him so guarded. His square, hard hand gripped hers.

"Deal."

Chapter Text

IX

Erik sat at François de Chambourg's out of tune pianoforte, playing the insipid melodies lauded as contemporary fare. Aristocrats gathered in clusters here or near the life-size twin portraits of François and his wife Blanche, all sipping champagne and largely ignoring him. The portraits were rather flattering depictions, in Erik's opinion, omitting François' double chin and Blanche's large mole on her upper lip. Not that Erik had room to quibble about personal appearances, he thought dryly, ending the song with a flourish.

A smattering of applause muffled from gloved hands caught his attention. Erik swiveled on his stool and found Mademoiselle Obert and her cousin, Mademoiselle Godard watching him. Both were scarcely a year older than Jacqueline and brimming with excitement at being at their first salon. He bowed—a difficult task when seated—sending the two girls, flushed with their first taste of champagne into a blushing, tittering fit. In their adolescent appraisal, Erik supposed he cut a dashing figure, the mask a tantalizing hint of mystery. He was not unaware of the certain appeal he had to some, and had whiled away many a tedious soiree flirting with this baron's daughter or that comte's sister. Like a cat playfully batting about a kitten with velveteen paws, he did no harm, was unfailingly polite, and gave them a night being entertained in their rightful place at the center of a man's attention.

He was in no mood to do so tonight, not with Christine dancing in his thoughts and his wife chatting animatedly with Blanche de Chambourg. A melody rose up within his soul and his fingers crawled over the keys, coaxing a song of regret and tears into bloom. The first playing had been crude, a product of boredom and pique. Now he embellished, adding complex layers of sound that rippled and folded back on itself. It was a song for Christine . . . and for Claire too.

Claire looked very lovely tonight in a modest gown of de Chagny emerald, her blond hair gathered into an intricate braided bun with a comb thrust through crafted to mimic a fan of black lace. His gaze lacked lust's devouring urgency or love's treasuring caress. It was the remote appreciation of a work of art. His wife looked beautiful tonight.

Like a doe testing the wind, Claire sensed his gaze and turned. Erik offered a very small smile. The narrow face he knew so well softened slightly, and her lips curved. Erik finished the song with a tinkle of high notes, to the two demoiselles' evident delight. He rose, and with a negligent wave of his hand, produced two perfect red rosebuds seemingly from thin air. Both girls visibly swooned as this display. Sleight of hand had been a small passion of his as a child and he had never lost the knack.

Erik made his way toward his wife, snagging two flutes from a passing tray as he did so.

"A drink for you, my dear," he said smoothly, sliding the chilled glass into her hand. Claire's blue eyes flickered over him, saying something akin to: 'What are you playing at?'

"Thank you," she murmured. After the transcendent purity of tone in Christine's voice, every voice sounded harsher and duller, like the rasp of sand in his ears. Claire's was thrown in even starker contrast with that frigid politeness. Blanche de Chambourg broke in, laying a white gloved hand on his arm saying, "I declare, Erik! Your skill with the pianoforte is legend! Madame Obert's girls are positively atwitter! And Claire never told me of your skills as a magician!"

Erik looked down at the dumpy Comtesse dressed in the finest silks, a jaunty peacock feather stuck in her bun, small blue eyes sincere behind the thick spectacles and felt a surge of affection.

"I thank you for your delight in my music, Madame, but you over-exaggerate. It was a simple parlor trick."

"Pish posh! You must show us more—François, darling! Gather the guests! Dear Erik has volunteered to entertain us!" With that Blanche bustled off, flapping her thick arms like a fat goose ushering her goslings to water.

Claire's blue eyes danced with amusement. She leaned close, her lips brushing his ear as she whispered: "Don't look now, but I think you've earned another admirer." A faint flick of her closed fan gestured toward Blanche's retreating form. A faint thrill raced through him. This was wholly uncharted territory, sharing a joke with Claire. He cradled it in his hands like a baby bird. How was it possible that he knew Christine better than he knew his wife of twenty years?

"What do you suggest?" he drawled, matching her tone, "Shall I discourage this opinion, milady? I could, quite easily. I'm told I have rather boorish tendencies." He hoped she heard the veiled apology. Claire blinked solemnly, the thick layer of kohl on her eyelashes making her small eyes look larger and bluer.

"I think—for tonight—you should maintain the illusion, Master Magician." Erik studied her, his quick mind dismantling what she said, and what she didn't. An armistice, then? He considered her through narrowed eyes, a grin tugging at his lips. He offered her his open palm, where a yellow rosebud unfurled into full bloom under her eyes.

"As you wish, milady."

Soon, Erik found himself before an array of gathered chairs, the aristocracy whispering and giggling. The air of festive good-humor well hid the turbulence rippling through the city. The emperor had not hosted a party in weeks and the colorful, almost desperate gaiety of the evening was beginning to show.

"Mesdames and Messieurs, I bid you good evening. What shall you like to see first?" he said, negligently rolling a ring between his fingers. He looped it onto his little finger, pretending to admire the gaudy array of diamonds. Madame Beauchamp sucked in a gasp of horror.

"My ring! How—how did you get my ring?" she squawked. Erik arched a brow.

"What ring?" an artistic roll of his wrist and unfurling of his fingers showed his empty palm. A ripple of delighted 'ooh's permeated his audience. Erik returned the good madam's ring and likewise pilfered watches, handkerchiefs and even money purses to the crowd's evident delight. He had just produced Mademoiselle Godard's modest ring from behind Blanche's peacock feather when a truculent voice broke the spell.

"You're cheating! You've just slipped it up your sleeve!" said Mademoiselle Obert's unfortunate relation, her older brother Jacques, an obnoxious and determinedly dull sort even at his venerable bachelor's age of twenty-six. Erik knew him to be a swindler and a conniving little shit. As such, he despised the younger man.

An eager, mischievous demon of an impulse settled on Erik's left shoulder, after binding and gagging the angel that normally resided on his right. And if it accomplished his purpose, then all the better. Erik clapped his hands sharply twice.

"You may check my sleeves and my pockets if you like," he said coolly, "But first check your own." Jacques crossed his arms sulkily, muttering a rude word under his breath.

"Come now, lad! Be a good sport!" François de Chambourg bellowed, draping an indulgent arm around his wife.

"Oh yes, do be a sweeting, Jacques!" Blanche chimed in.

With a sullen glare at his host and hostess, Jacques shoved his hands into his waistcoat pockets and found not only the wayward ring, but the saintly Madame Dupont's embroidered handkerchief. Jacques' sudden bloodless pallor confirmed Erik's suspicion about the nature of their affair. He had thought they had been discreet in the cloakroom earlier. Erik's private revenge might have gone unnoticed but for the parties involved, save for when Jacques swiveled to return the ring, Blanche caught sight of the token in Jacques' trembling fingers.

"Oh! Ma chére Dupont! Jacques found your handkerchief!" she said, guilelessly plucking the square of damp, crumpled muslin from Jacques' hand to return to its owner.

An uncomfortable silence settled over the group, one Erik quickly diverted with pulling coins from behind the younger ones' ears, and other silly, frivolous tricks that drew chuckles and indulgent smiles. The laughter had a false edge afterwards, save for Blanche and François, who presided over the gathering with preening joy.

Blanche effusively thanked Erik for his performance and the salon ended soon after. Claire's leaden silence as they entered the de Chagny carriage made Erik wish for the freedom of bracing cold air in his lungs and César's powerful form beneath him. Her eyes were as hard as discs of sapphire and Erik stifled the urge to squirm under her scrutiny. It had been unnecessary to humiliate Jacques Obert as he had. It was a foolish impulse. A litany of his faults was soon to follow: recklessness, pride, hot-headedness, impulsivity . . . Claire's nostrils flared.

"You couldn't resist, could you? What perverse whim urged you to insult Monsieur Obert in such a manner? Now everyone will think-"

"I don't give a damn about what those insipid fools think and neither should you!" Claire continued her diatribe as if he hadn't spoken.

"—that you were somehow making fools of the two of them! Madame Dupont was going to help Etienne in his venture. You've ruined it! For once could you put our reputation before your thrice-damned pride?" Heaven forbid I get in the way of your brother's rise in society! He thought sourly.

"It wasn't pride, Claire! The man was manipulating her into sleeping with him! It was meant to be a warning to Obert." Claire snorted, a familiar sneer settling over her features.

"Noble indignation? That's rich coming from a man that frequents brothels at every opportunity!" Erik strove to control his temper.

"I was under the impression that any overtures toward you, my lawfully wedded wife, were unwelcome. What was your phrase? Ah yes: 'I would rather die.' Since I prefer to fuck a living, willing woman, I turned my attentions elsewhere." Erik could see his crudity shocked and repulsed her, or perhaps that was her reaction to his person in general. He could no longer tell. He ached. He ached right down to his bones. Erik sank back against the carriage's cushions, jostled by potholes, and heaved a sigh.

"I'll apologize to Madame Dupont in the morning. I am sure she will see the fault is mine and honor her promise to invest." His wife turned her face away, but not before Erik saw the silver tracks of tears on her cheeks as moonlight filled the cabin like spilled milk through the windows. The yellow rose he had given her fell onto the floorboard, wilted and forgotten.

"It's too late," Claire whispered.

"I know."

The next evening, Erik was summoned to his father's study under the pretense of reviewing the status of the Château. He rubbed his pounding forehead. Erik had thrown himself into the crafting of Christine's gift after the salon, working through the wee hours of the morning. It was blatant escapism from the hell of his present situation and his own foolish mistakes, but it comforted him.

Luc, the footman opened the door for him with a bow and a murmured, "Sir." The Comte de Chagny was seated in his high-backed chair, hunched over his knees with a blood-spotted handkerchief in one gnarled fist.

"Erik, come!" he barked, waving him in. The study was ablaze with light and warmth. Sweet beeswax candles emitted soft bubbles of golden light, a fire roared in the grate. Cloying tendrils of incense rose from its burner, covering up the sickly fetor of sickness. Beads of sweat gathered on Erik's skin and he chose a chair as close to the cold of the window as he could.

"Wine?" Michel asked. Erik arched his brow, but made no comment on his father's newfound congeniality.

"Yes, please," Erik replied, nonplussed.

His father's hand, its steady motion marred by a fine tremor, poured one generous glass and then another. Rather than expose his father to the laborious embarrassment rising and walking had become, Erik leapt up and snagged his glass under the pretense of perusing his mother's miniature portrait on the mantelpiece. Heat throbbed against his legs and the beads became rivulets. The rich red sang on his tongue, a vivid counterpoint to the portrait, shabby and yellowed with age. His throat felt tight looking at the green eyes set on a slight slant, a mirror to his own, the pointed nose, the expressive brows and crown of black hair framing her thin, pale face. Twenty years and still the hole loss had carved in him was so deep, sometimes he could feel the wind whistle as it surged through.

"I loved her, you know." His father's quiet voice broke into Erik's reverie. Erik's jaw clenched. His guard rose, like a fencer's initial position.

"You have an odd way of showing it. If you curse and revile those you love, I must consider myself most beloved."

"Watch your tongue, boy. Hélène was my wife, and I adored her." The anger he held in check, the howling misery that filled every grey day in this house surged around him.

"Liar. If you loved her, you wouldn't have sent her away, ill and broken to die while you were busy fucking some golden-haired whore. You wouldn't have punished her for the unpardonable sin of loving me! You used her and threw her away. Just as you did with Raoul when you realized your great dream would not come true. The boy should count himself lucky to have never known such a father."

"Don't tell me you've started to care for the boy," his father said.

"More than you ever have," Erik countered.

"Shut up!" The Comte roared, his voice a pathetic wheeze. Erik sneered.

"And look at you: too old and broken to put your misshapen stripling in his place." The Comte's blue eyes flashed.

"This old man is still strong enough to put the fear of God in you if you disrespect me again. Love kills and wounds and dies. You know that as well as I." No, Erik wanted to say. Loving Christine was a fresh breath of air after years of drowning. Dying started to feel normal after a while.

"Sit down, boy. Now." The edge of command earned in his distinguished military days still held sway and Erik dropped into his chair, glaring at his father with undisguised loathing.

The Comte opened a thin black leather binder and pulled out a sheaf of paper. Erik snatched the papers from his too-slow hands. He read 'The Last Will and Testament' in bold, calligraphic letters at the top of the page and laughed.

"Is that why you wanted me to see to the Château? For your fucking will?" The Comte forged on grimly, ignoring Erik's outburst.

"The will outlines my wishes explicitly. My lawyer went over it again last week. It states that in the event of my death, the entirety of my wealth and property will fall to you. The title of Vicomte, however, will go to my youngest son. Your brother, Raoul. In the event that you die without an heir, the de Chagny name lives on through him." Erik heard the years-old censure against his childless existence and it fucking stung. He considered his father's crack-brained scheme for a handful of seconds.

"Impossible," Erik concluded without heat. The idea of raising Raoul to his equal no longer terrified him. In fact, he would happily give him the title of Comte if it meant he could marry Christine. But that was just as impossible as his father's idle dream.

"Turn the page." Urged by piqued curiosity, Erik flipped the page. His eyes scanned the formal lawyer's speech. Cold shock settled in his stomach, as well as a diseased flower of perverse admiration. He let the paper sag and peered at his father, reassessing the level of his desperation and mettle.

"A marriage certificate. To Raoul's mother. My, my, aren't we desperate? The idiot clerks of the emperor's might be fooled, but I can tell the ink is barely dry on this page. Would you really forge legal documents and risk the destruction of both your heirs' lives and fortunes?" The Comte wagged his silver head.

"No one's fortunes will be destroyed. Especially not my sons'." Erik mirrored his sire in the slow shake of his head.

"You cannot will this into being, Father. What of Jacqueline? Would you make her bastard instead? Surely bigamy is still illegal."

"Raoul's mother died when Raoul was five. A full year before I married Jacqueline's mother." Erik raked a hand through his hair, the pounding headache worsening with each passing moment. He was tempted to toss the thing into the fire, this wretched brainchild of his father's spidery machinations.

"You put a great deal of thought into this, didn't you?" Again, that perverse admiration and grudging respect. His father heard it and raised his wine in salute, a wry smile playing on his lips.

"Legacy, Son. It's all that matters."

Erik contemplated the papers and then the man that had by turns been god, tormentor, gaoler and hero throughout his life. Together they forged chains stronger than any of iron. Chains that bound him to a lavish life of loveless misery.


 

 

Chapter Text

X

Three days after the disastrous salon, Erik reined César toward Madame Sophia's brothel at a quarter past five o' clock. The setting sun peeked through chimney stacks and peered over roofs, washing the de Chagny townhouse and its neighboring residences in jaundiced triangles of light. César's snorted breaths came in vaporous white clouds and Erik tucked his chin against the wind's frigid chill. The combined weight of his father, Claire and Raoul burdened him grievously. He longed for Christine: her voice, her sweetness, her shy, honest nature. A small parcel was tucked in the vest pocket over his heart, but wooing his shy Swedish rose was not his only objective tonight.

Test the weak points, Nadir had said. Stealth had always been a skill of Erik's; through most of his childhood to be seen and heard meant the ridicule of hard, staring eyes or barbed words.

He quartered César in a livery stable several streets away from the red-light district, paid the hustler, and ducked into an alley. There he traded a vagabond his trademark cape and fedora for a heavy brown coat smelling strongly of acrid sweat and cheap beer and slouch hat. As he moved on, he drew his knife. The textured hilt brought with it a dark, unspeakable thrill, a memory of live steel in his hand with naught but his strength, wit and speed between him and death.

For a handful of wayward years after his son's death, he had left Claire's bed not for the embrace of a paid woman, but for the camaraderie of a gang of broken men who fought and stole and killed for a paltry coin. Erik looked at that angry, frustrated young man he had been with pity. The restless yearning to stifle the guilt screaming in his ears had not been appeased by those dark desires. Years brought experience and wisdom, but memory slumbered in muscle and sinew, nerve and bone. It waited in hibernation for a time when society's polite dictates would no longer hold sway and men fought for what was theirs with their fists. Erik could sense such a time in the air, not only in the pitched battle for his Christine, but on a larger scale. A vicious, ugly monster of war that would devour all of France. When it came, Erik would be strong enough to protect his own.

Erik crept through the alleys and ruins with remembered ease as shadows reached their cold hands out to embrace him. He affected a slight limp, projecting what he privately called 'the grey man.' I am nothing. I am no one. You don't see me. In this mindset with the right posture and dress, he could be invisible in plain sight. He could feel the gaze of the wretches and thieves, the orphans and the drunks slide over him, accepting him as a part of the landscape of their world.

Madame d'Avrigny's brothel was a wholly unremarkable building from without. A simple brownstone of four floors, pierced with few windows. Upon closer inspection, one saw the iron lattices covering the windows, the heavy doors, the sharply slanted roof, denying any purchase of hand or foot. The monster in the form of Bruno and his unknown number of underlings were another matter. His revolver only had six shots.

Erik slipped closer, circling the building, pacing like a tiger in a cage. The cold pierced the threadbare coat to curl against his naked skin and Erik welcomed it. It was the deep, tranquil cold of moonlight, not a warrior bleeding out his warmth onto a thirsty battlefield. His mind churned out plans, scenarios, contingencies. Fear hardened into determination. He would do this thing and count it the one good thing in the balance of his soul before God. Even if he had to maim and murder to do so. A light beckoned him within. A light with a face and a name . . .

Christine.

XXX

Their stilted conversations birthed an infant kinship between Christine and Raoul. They smiled and nodded to one another when they crossed paths throughout the day. It felt good knowing there was one person in this wretched place she was happy to see. She had forged no acquaintances. The other whores were quick to disparage her hair and her accent as well as snipe over Erik's preference for her. While all of them despised her for commandeering his attention, Louisa took particular umbrage to this fact. Christine sat apart from the others and ate her meals in isolation. If the painful hell of her imprisonment didn't kill her, loneliness would.

Had it really been only five days since Erik's last visit? Her hands fisted in the fuchsia-hued gown she wore, a matching rose pinned in the nest of her unruly hair. Oh God, if she had to wait another sixteen days until she saw him again, she would surely go mad! Christine heard the door open. She sought the vacant, smiling facade that carried her through encounter after demeaning encounter.

Tonight the brothel was busy; Christine and Pauline, a sumptuous woman of leonine coloring, were the only whores available. She heard the indistinct murmur of the Madame greeting the customer. The voice that answered washed her ears in liquid gold, the voice that lifted her from the mire of her existence and cradled her in loving hands. His voice.

It was all she could do to sit still and not fly down the hall into his arms. She could hear the faint thud of his step on the carpet; soon, soon, soon, she would see him . . . there! Her eyes devoured his lean form, saving the sweet agony of meeting his gaze for last. Clad in his traditional black evening garb, she saw the burgundy waistcoat beneath his coat patterned with subtle patterns in dark thread. Where was his cape and hat . . .? Such trifles were forgotten when she saw his beloved face and the familiar white mask. Erik did not smile; he was a much better actor than she. The exposed half of his face betrayed only a Vicomte's casual arrogance edged with boredom. But, oh!—electricity arched between their locked gazes, a sharp, thrilling jolt that she felt down to her toes. He broke the connection to bow at Pauline.

"Good evening, Pauline. I hope you are well this evening," he purred. Was that part of the charade too? Christine did not have time to consider it, because Erik's eyes were on her again and something inside her melted.

"Shall we?" he said softly, offering his hand.

They did not speak again until they were in the room Christine would forever consider 'theirs'—the Green Room over the kitchen. Erik closed the door behind him and Christine could no longer resist the impulse and flew into his embrace. His arms snapped closed around her and a harsh sigh of mingled pain and pleasure escaped her. She buried her face in his chest, taking great lungfuls of his masculine scent of sage and smoke and horse, nuzzling the fine fabric of his coat. A square lump in his coat pressed against her cheek, making this tight grip uncomfortable, but she didn't care. His voice rumbled from deep within, warm breath stirring her hair.

"I missed you," he rasped.

"I missed you too," she replied and meant 'I love you.' She knew this perfect moment would end soon and mourned its loss.

He peeled back only far enough to cup her cheek.

"You've been well?" he asked as she hungrily studied the bare left side of his face. Thick, expressive brows, those vivid eyes, his lean, freshly shaved cheek. And lips, full and soft . . . Christine rose on her tiptoes and pecked a kiss on his mouth. It was a simple, glancing kiss, the kind she imagined were exchanged between husband and wife when greeting each other after a day apart. She treasured the hope that such casual touches would soon merit more . . . She shrugged.

"As well as can be expected. I find my day has greatly improved," she whispered. He chuckled.

"You flatter me," he murmured, kissing her forehead.

He offered her his handkerchief with a smirk, green eyes dancing with mirth. Christine giggled and wiped off her cosmetics. Erik plucked the pins and garish rose from her hair and tossed them negligently in the direction of the table. There was a strange sort of freedom in the fact that he wanted her bare, it confirmed that he wanted her for herself.

"That's better," he said.

An awkward silence settled between them. A sharp knock at the door startled her. Erik opened the door and allowed a maid entrance, bearing a tray with their meal.

"Thank you," Erik said. The maid curtseyed and left.

The two of them sat before a roaring fire, slipping into the well-worn grooves of dining and conversing together. Intimacy flavored their exchanges: Erik's hand stroking the back of her wrist after pouring the wine, Christine fussily buttering his bread and having him nibble from her hand. The way he rolled his eyes in exaggerated ecstasy made her giggle.

He spoke of Elise and Jacqueline and their lessons. The way he described them, Christine felt she knew them already. She confided in him of her conversation with Raoul and something like regret danced across his face.

"Poor, unlucky Raoul," he said with a hard edge to his words. Christine faltered, fear beginning to flicker in her belly. Had that been the wrong thing to say?

"I give him a damned book and he thinks I hung the moon. I gave him a book and conveniently forgot he existed. I should have taken better care of him." A leaden pause filled the space between them and Christine knotted her hands in her napkin. She'd gone and spoiled it!

"Had our positions been reversed, I'm sure he would have tried to save me. He seems disgustingly sincere," Erik snarled, then caught a glimpse of her face. The stern planes of his face softened as he grasped her hand and kissed it.

"Christine, darling, you shouldn't fret. The kinship and history between Raoul and I is . . . complicated. I am glad that you have found someone to talk to. I apologize for my bitterness." Christine released the pent up breath she had been holding, relief stealing through her.

"Good. I thought I'd done something wrong." Erik shook his head.

"Of course not. Never be afraid to speak your mind with me."

Conversation diverted to the safer territory of their shared love of the arts and Christine delighted in the opportunity to teach him some of the dark stories of home her Papa would tell her.

"I have a gift for you," Erik said during a lull. An almost childlike glee at the promise of presents raced through her and she couldn't wipe the smile off her face.

"A present? For me?"

Erik removed a small parcel from his vest pocket, wrapped in homemade paper pressed with the delicate filaments of flower petals. Christine accepted the parcel with reverent hands and gently broke the wax seal with her thumbnail. Peeling back the paper, she beheld a small blue-covered book, roughly the size of her hand. She smiled radiantly, peering at the spine for a title. She felt a flicker of puzzlement when she saw none.

"Open it," Erik urged.

Christine pried back the freshly-bound book and breathed deep of the subtle perfume of adhesive, paper and leather. She gasped as she saw the inscription in elegant, looping scrawl: 'May all of your songs take flight. With all my love, Erik.' Her heart beat a little faster at the word 'love.' The next page was beautifully illuminated with vines twining around the first letter. Her eyes roved over the familiar stanzas of Shakespeare's sonnets. Written with his own hand in neat, precise lines in her native language! A knot rose in her throat, of pure emotion.

"I apologize if the translations are a bit crude. It has been many years since I've written Swedish. I wrote the French translations on the back of each page. I thought it might help you learn to read French." Christine stared at this thoughtful, painstaking gift in rapt wonder, struck speechless.

"Do . . . do you like it?" she heard the insecurity in his mellifluous voice and felt that surge of womanly power. She could break him with a wrongly worded phrase. The knot in her throat made it hard to speak. Christine had to swallow a few times before any words would emerge.

"It's . . . it's the finest gift I've ever received. Thank you," she whispered.

His entire attitude relaxed and a small, innocent smile touched his lips.

"I'm glad."

Christine set the book carefully on the table and rose, decision hardening into resolve. She marched to his chair, noting from a distance the puzzled discomfort and almost unwilling arousal in his face. In one fluid motion, she climbed into his lap and bent to claim his lips in a kiss. Oh, each kiss was a new discovery! The first was fueled by lust, the second by tenderness, and this . . . this existed wholly in love. Christine was madly in love with this man . . . in love with the beautiful, sensitive soul, the brilliant mind, the texture of his lips and the taste of his tongue and the feel of his hair knotted in her fingers.

Soon Erik seized control of the kiss, hands threaded in fistfuls of her hair, tongue dominating hers with wicked, soul-stealing skill. Heat and pleasure mingled and bloomed through her body, pooling in her breasts and between her thighs. Time ceased to have meaning as they lost themselves in the give and take of their kiss. Lips sometimes wandered to map the fresh territory of cheek and throat, only to return to that life-giving well of sensation. Minutes or hours could have passed without her notice.

In an almost drugged languor, Christine surfaced for air. The fire's heat throbbed against her back. That combined with Erik's animal warmth around and beneath her drew a film of sweat on her skin. She could feel the hard length of him trapped in his trousers, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. Erik turned his amorous attentions to her throat. Soft, feathery kisses . . . oh God, a warm, wet rasp of tongue tasting her neck drew a low moan from her. She looked down at him, panting. The white mask glowed like a slice of moonlight.

"Take me to bed, Erik."

XXX

Erik closed his eyes against the husky plea in Christine's voice, made all the more devastating with her position astride his lap, her lips swollen from his kisses and dark eyes afire. By force of will, he disengaged his hands from the warm, silken haven of her hair to knead her upper arms. He would not have a repeat performance of his previous lecherous behavior. Would this ever stop? This beautiful, burning magic that surged between them and obliterated any thought beyond the primitive desire to claim her in every way possible?

"Christine. . . " her name was prayer, plea and demand all rolled into one, "please do not construe my gift as some sort of bargaining chip to-"

"I don't," she cut in quickly, "I know you wouldn't expect that. You're not like the others. You're a good man," she said with childlike faith.

Crippling remorse filled every corner of his blackened soul. Before Christine, he took his pleasure in brothels at the expense of a whore's dignity and his wife's pride; he had killed and stolen simply because he could, simply because he needed darkness to conceal this horrible, horrible guilt. And she called him a good man.

"No, I'm not. Christine, if you only knew what I've done, you'd curse me as a monster."

As Claire and my father do, was the silent addendum. Christine's smile was gentle.

"You love your sisters and your children. You have enough honor to regret not caring for a bastard brother that the rest of the world, including your father, cast aside. You care enough for my soul to take considerable pains to ensure my dignity and sanity. That sounds like a good man to me." Her hands fisted in his coat and kneaded his chest like a cat. A desperate light burned in her rich brown eyes.

"I want this, Erik. Please." In a gesture of defeat, he drew her down and pressed a trembling kiss to her forehead. He wanted it so badly. He wanted her, and was a selfish enough man to grasp what she offered with both hands.

"I cannot deny you."


 

 

Chapter Text

XI

 


Triumph glowed like a candle in her chest, her whole body quivering in a sudden, unbearable anticipation. God, was this how it was supposed to feel? This wonder and terror and desire that ached so deep in her belly? Erik patted her thigh in a mute request for her rise. She climbed off his lap and since her watery knees threatened to buckle, staggered back to sit on the bed.

Erik made undressing look like a dance of infinite significance as he shucked off coat and waistcoat, unbuttoned his cuffs, setting the heavy silver cufflinks on the table. Backlit by the golden firelight, Christine could not discern his expression. All she could see of his face was the mask which shone stark and pure and his molten eyes, watching her face carefully. He yanked off his cravat and tore off his belt. Socks and shoes soon joined them in an untidy heap on the floor. His need was as hot and urgent as hers, then, she noted from a faraway place. He normally fastidiously folded and stacked his clothes.

"Have you changed your mind? You're not undressing," Erik observed gently, his rich voice like the dense syrup of burnt sugar. The sound sank into her skin, tightening her nipples, making the saddle between her thighs plump. Christine bit her lip to contain a whimper. Her trembling hands balled in her skirt.

"I don't want to spoil this," she whispered, her voice a thin thread of sound. With a panther's lissome grace, Erik padded over to her and knelt. This reminded her so sweetly of their first kiss that she swayed toward him.

"You won't spoil anything, darling. We'll take our time. If you wish to stop, you must tell me," he purred.

Christine's heart pounded like a drumbeat in her chest, beating a tattoo of: want you, love you, want you . . . her tongue darted out to wet her lips and Erik's hot, sharply green eyes followed the movement with intense interest. Christine imagined his flicking tail and grinned. She made him feel tense and hungry. Her: poor, little Christine, afraid of her own shadow. It was heady, this rush of uniquely feminine power.

As if swimming through honey, Christine grasped his shoulders, feeling the heat and shape of heavy muscle through his shirt. She drew him close, savoring the caress of his breath, his warm hands on her knees, the thrilling initial shock of contact as their lips met. She draped an arm around his neck, fingers twining in the hair at his nape. Christine floated, fell . . . pulling him down onto a soft bed of their own making. She was drowning, drowning in his taste and scent and touch. There was no despair in this realization, only a primitive joy in possession.

Time softened and blurred into a dreamlike tapestry, punctuated with moments of startling clarity. The ticklish pleasure of his soft, open-mouthed kisses along her spine as he teased apart her gown. The feel of his teeth grazing the muscle at the joint of her neck. The instant of vulnerable panic that constricted her throat when Erik eased the last of her clothing from her body. Erik saw it, and cradled and soothed and kissed her on his lap, whispering half-coherent endearments in her ear. His tender care made her want to crawl into his pocket and stay there forever. She settled for kissing him to insensibility.

Soon Christine found herself upright on her knees in the middle of the bed, naked, with Erik nestled behind her still fully clothed. Erik's honey-tongued praise at the delight he found in her body both soothed and excited her, especially when accompanied by something delightful happening to the body part in question. Oh, his voice was a sexual instrument in itself: a medley of aspirated consonants mingled with growled vowels that wakened and stirred every interconnected nerve.

"Your breasts are so ripe and heavy . . . like the sweetest fruit that I want to . . . pluck from a branch," he crooned, plucking her nipples gently. The few customers who found foreplay necessary kept their caresses brusque and perfunctory; it had never felt like this! A low burn of pleasure tinged with an ache that was almost pain. Christine whimpered, letting her head fall back onto his shoulder. His breath tickled her scalp as he nuzzled her hair, sniffing appreciatively.

"Mmm, you smell like honey and lavender. Your hair is so silky and wild. I love these bouncy curls." He combed said hair back to nibble on the upper curve of her ear.

Christine was boneless under this sensual assault, hands fisting on his trouser-clad knees nestled alongside hers, his cock hard against her hip. She closed her eyes, focusing on the delicious rasp of his callus-roughened palms slithering up and down her arms, across her chest and wandering down her belly. His right hand treasured her breast while his left wandered lower, lower . . .

"So soft." He lipped the side of her neck. Those deft fingers hovered, insinuating teasing little caresses on her inner thighs before at last covering her mound.

"Oh yes, Erik. Please touch me there. I ache. I ache," Christine breathed.

"Patience, my darling girl, my darling Christine . . ." His tongue traced the throb of her pulse at her throat. A soft cry left her lips, of mingled frustration and anticipation. She watched that beautiful hand burnished by the firelight dip between her spread thighs. He parted her plump folds with a gentle graze of a teasing fingertip, finding her hot and slick. His growl was a thing of pure, animal lust.

"Wet. So wet. Are you wet for me, Christine?" he growled. Her entire being was focused on that fingertip circling the unbearably sensitive pearl of flesh between her thighs. Pleasure pierced her with jagged claws. Nothing . . . nothing compared to this!

"Yes! Yes! Only you!" she cried, hips thrusting lewdly against his wicked hand.

"Christine." Erik's voice was low and ragged.

His finger eased inside her, his thumb working back and forth over her nub. Christine swallowed a scream as secret inner muscle squeezed and suckled the invading finger. So good . . . so good! She rode his hand, feeling her body gather inward . . . Her release came upon her so suddenly she could only whimper as it ravaged through her in fierce, hungry spasms. Color burst behind her eyes, muscles stretched to the breaking point as she spun into a shimmering infinity. When she returned to herself, she was aware of the languid surge of his finger inside her, firing off tiny echoes of sensation and his lips moving against her neck. Her pleasure-saturated brain couldn't understand what he was saying.

Christine whimpered and sank boneless as he lay her down on the bed. Her eyes flew wide as he licked her juice from his fingers. His smile was wicked, his green eyes almost unholy with lust.

"Delicious. I'd like to taste you properly." He settled on the bed at her feet and slid his hands up the supple length of her calves and thighs, his trousers sharply tented over a massive erection.

"Your skin is so soft and smooth, Christine. Pale and perfect, like pearls dipped in cream." He dropped soft kisses on both of her knees and Christine bit her lip, eager for the sweet torture of what he promised . . . the wretched man turned his attention to her belly, nibbling her hipbones, dipping his tongue in her navel. He worked his way upward, nipping the underside of her breasts, laving the dip of her collarbones, nuzzling the underside of her arms. When his warm lips touched hers, Christine threw her arms around his neck and plunged her tongue into his mouth.

"Erik, please," she said huskily as they broke to breathe. His lips curved.

"Please what, darling? Have I neglected you in some fashion?" Heat flushed her cheeks. The wretched tease, he wanted her to say it!

"Yes! I mean, no . . ." He laughed softly.

"Which is it, love?" Love? He called her 'love'!

"I want you." That was the honest truth. Erik's eyes softened with tenderness and he kissed her, a lingering flick of his tongue promising more.

"Show me. Put my hands where you want me." Christine took his hand, dragging it over her breasts before thrusting it between her thighs.

"I am your obedient servant, Christine," he purred, settling to his task.

The ache he'd stoked in her belly unfurled into exquisite pleasure as he lavished his attentions on her breasts. The cradling curl of tongue around her nipple, the faint rasp of teeth, the sweet suction of lips . . . Christine thought she was melting into a puddle of quivering sensation. Her hands cradled his head reverently, petting his sweat-dampened hair, lost in his thrall. At last he settled between her thighs, looking like a fallen angel ready for sin.

"Erik, please . . ." she begged.

"Hush, love. I'll take care of you," he whispered, the puff of his breath almost unbearable on her sensitive flesh.

When he lowered his mouth to her mound, nothing in the world existed but the dance of his talented lips and tongue. The low smolder of pleasure she felt since he'd kissed her burst into a ravaging bonfire. Pleasure transcended into ecstasy under the lash of his tongue and one, then two fingers surging gently inside her, pushing her inexorably toward climax. Her heart stuttered in her chest at the magnetic pull of his green eyes meeting hers over the trembling, sweat-soaked terrain of her heaving body. Pleasure seized her with violent hands as those surging fingers curled inward, finding a spot of unbearable sweetness, a spongy bit of tissue that he stroked and rubbed as his tongue worried her pearl . . .

Ecstasy surged and receded like waves crashing on a beach as he coaxed, then urged, then demanded her to climax over and over again. He was patient and merciless, Lucifer's silver tongue that promised relief and only worsened the ache, deaf to her mewling pleas for mercy. He moaned and growled as he drank her pleasure in with increasing greed, sending the most unspeakable vibrations through her body. Christine watched his dark head bob between her thighs, listened to the wet sounds his fingers made, and swore she would do anything for him, anything he asked as long as he just—another climax exploded through her and Christine collapsed in a limp, sweaty heap of sprawled, boneless limbs. Erik rose onto his elbows and nuzzled her hip, grinning smugly at her.

"Have you had enough, love?" Christine mewled as his tongue lapped up her juice. She buried her burning face in a sweat-dampened pillow and nodded. He wiped his face on a handful of sheet and climbed up her body, gathering her limp form into his arms.

The chafe of his clothing on her over-sensitive skin was a fresh assault, and Christine whimpered, rubbing shamelessly against him.

"Good girl. That's my good girl to come so hard for me," he crooned, petting and gentling her. She was seized by the desire to feel his naked skin, to give him what he had given her in such largesse. His erection was bruisingly hard against her belly and she reached between them. She could take the edge off . . . He batted away her seeking hands and kissed her forehead.

"I'll be all right. Sleep now. You're safe. You can rest easy. I'm here."

Christine sank under with scarcely a ripple.

XXX

Erik watched the woman in his arms sleep with a strange welter of emotions snarled in his chest. With scientific precision, Erik began to unravel the slippery strands. An overarching theme was of love: mad, inimitable, irrational love, welded seamlessly with perfect tenderness and soul-searing lust. He realized that for all his three decades of experience, Erik had never in his life felt the terrible sting of love. Love for Claire and his father was smothered and suffocated until it died. Love for Elise and Jacqueline was a love of care and duty of restraint, as any brother loves a sister.

Loving Christine was a thing of selfishness that had transcended the bounds into sacred. But with that love came a surge of naked terror, the dreadful mortal fear of loss. He had endured the loss of his children and his mother, but losing Christine would drive him mad. Erik stared at this knowledge unflinchingly.

Sprawled on her belly, limbs loose with childlike abandon, she looked innocent and utterly delectable. He wanted to free his erection from his trousers, plunge into her and ride her to a shattering completion. He wanted to spread himself over her like a blanket and keep her safe and warm forever. Instead, Erik stretched out beside her, watching her sleeping face through the veil of her hair before sleep claimed him.

Unused to sharing a bed, he woke disoriented to a faint creak of the mattress, the warm scent of honey, lavender and female wafted up his nose.

"Christine?" he slurred, opening his eyes.

Christine sat beside him, gloriously naked, fingers deftly unbuttoning his shirt. Erik found himself instantly, painfully hard. The fire had died, but Christine had lit the tall, beeswax candles on each nightstand, filling the room with steady yellow light. His heart cramped painfully at the sight of her flushed and tousled, the light burnishing her hair into a dark halo, eyes dark pools of mystery.

A dreamy smile touched her full lips, a soft air of abstraction that softened the cruel edges of time. Soft hands teased apart the tails of his shirt and explored the terrain of his torso in long, tender strokes. He basked in the sensation of being caressed, humming low in his throat like a purring tomcat. Her questing hand dipped lower, lightly tracing the shape of his throbbing cock through his trousers. The low simmer of arousal surged hot and urgent and he sucked in a breath through his teeth.

"Stand up," she commanded gently, breaking the sacred silence.

Erik rose obediently, feeling an eager fear mingled with ravenous anticipation. He knew he wasn't a handsome man, but he wanted so much for his form to please her . . . Erik shucked off his shirt and Christine undid the fastening of his trousers and shoved them to the floor. Christine stood, her face blank as her eyes roved over him. Erik thought he could feel her warm gaze and gooseflesh stippled his skin. Was this what Adam felt when Eve came to him: hunger and fear and wonder? Christine looked up into his face and he saw all of his emotions reflected. Her hand alighted on his chest over his thundering heart.

"I've . . . I've never thought of a man's body as beautiful-" He nodded, accepting his unloveliness, eagerly wrapping his arms around her as she nestled against his chest, "-but yours is." He looked toward the ceiling and thanked God for this lovely creature with her brave, strong, resilient heart.

"Oh Christine," he whispered, cupping her cheek before bending to capture her lips. Desire sizzled between them. Christine broke the kiss with a soft sigh.

"Stand still," she whispered and Erik barked out a laugh. He could do little else without embarrassing himself quite dramatically.

What followed were the most deliciously erotic minutes of his life. A dance of lips and tongue and hands moving over his body, lavishing tender care on his hardened nipples and mapping heretofore unknown erotic sensations, like the delicate caress of her hair tickling his belly as she nuzzled his chest, or the feel of her saliva cooling on his skin. His cock pulsed, moisture weeping from the head. Christine paused her torture to smile at him.

"You are such a hairy thing!" she said. Erik grinned crookedly.

"Of course. I am a man," he gasped, closing his eyes and luxuriating in the feel of her chafing her palms on his sparse chest hair, the silky black hair underneath his arms, his thighs and calves . . .

Erik's eyes flew open as he felt Christine's kiss on the top of his thigh. The sight of her on her knees with his cock bobbing in her face sent a forbidden ripple of anticipation through his balls.

"Christine, you don't have to . . ." he began, trembling hands threading her wild brown mane. Her tongue darted out, licking the pearly dew from the swollen head of his cock. A hoarse, strangled cry emerged from his lips.

"Hush, love. I'll take care of you," his dark-eyed succubus promised, stroking his thighs soothingly. And she did. Oh sweet God, she did. How long she tormented him with teasing licks and soft, gentle suction, one warm hand cradling his balls, he didn't know. It was only as he was thrusting into that wicked, wonderful mouth that a thought streaked across his mind. When he found release, he didn't want to be alone. He'd been alone his whole life.

"Enough," he gasped, gently pushing her mouth away. At her puzzled look, Erik scooped her up and deposited her on the bed. He braced his hands on either side of her and leaned close to kiss her.

"I want to feel you. Let me in. Please." Her brown eyes burned, her silken arms reaching to embrace him.

"Come here, Erik. I want you." Joy made his heart swell. This beautiful woman wanted him!

Erik reached between them and found her wet. She drew him down on top of her and ohfuckyes he found his way home. Soul-shaking pleasure scalded him, hot, tight, Christine! He sought her mouth and plunged his tongue inside as he felt her body welcome him. He could have wept. Instead, Erik began to move, a slow, deep, languid surge, drawing out the pleasure of it.

Her limbs twined around him, her hips arched to meet him and Erik gloried in his possession of her. The tempo of his thrusts chanted the mantra of: mine, mine, mine. His thumb wormed between their heaving bodies to stimulate her and Erik growled against her lips at the flutter of her body suckling his cock. Christine broke their kiss to utter a low moan. Erik lapped up the dew of sweat on her throat and chest.

"Oh yes . . . Erik . . . oh more. More. Harder!" she breathed, her hands grasping his buttocks, urging him on.

With a growl, Erik reared up and plunged into her hard, feeling her body gather, like the sucking drag of a wave from the shore, preparing to crash-

"You know what I want, Christine. Give it to me. Give it . . . give it to me!" he snarled, mesmerized by the jiggle of her breasts as he ploughed into her.

"Erik!"

Her body arched like a bow beneath him, nails savaging his back. He reveled in it. The pain added dimension and clarity to his pleasure. Inner muscle clenched around his cock in rhythmic pulses and her pleasure-drugged eyes looked up at him like an acolyte worshipping her dark god. Her release called down his with the authority of a commandment and pleasure erupted from his cock in hot hard spurts of semen. Erik howled his pleasure into the room, exultant in his utter mastery of her. The meaning of life and love and sex jumbled in his mind as pleasure twisted its cruel knife in him. This was divinity, a sacrament, necessary to his fucking salvation.

They collapsed in a sweaty heap of tangled limbs, gasping and shuddering. As the post-coital fog began to clear, Erik nestled against her with a harsh sigh, burying his face in the side of her neck, already mourning its passing.

Eden ended with the dawn.

 

Chapter Text

XII

Christine nestled against Erik's side under the coverlet, resting her head in a spot between his shoulder and chest. She fit. She fit there as if God had designed them to be together. A pleasant ache pervaded her body, a latent thrum of pleasure surging through her veins as her heartbeat slowed. It made her crude reality that much more heinous when she knew what beauty could exist between a man and a woman. She breathed deep of Erik's musky, masculine scent of sage and smoke and sweat, one hand smoothing over his sweat-dewed chest, palm tingling with delight at the rub of his body hair and the pert bud of his erect nipple. Likewise, his callus-roughened hand slid down her back, his face nuzzling her hair.

"What's this?" she asked drowsily, plucking at the locket resting in the hollow in the center of his chest. A flat, silver rectangle groaning with slithering, vine-like embellishment etched into its surface, pleasantly warm from his body heat, Christine could see it was slightly tarnished at its corners.

"Hmm?" Erik grunted, opening one eye. The stroking hand wandered up and began lazily toying with her fingers. Christine made a soft sound of contentment watching their fingers weave and braid together.

"Oh that? It was my mother's. An old Moreau heirloom. My mother put a lock of my hair in it. She said she could keep me safe if she wore a part of me close to her heart. When she grew ill, I added a lock of hers to keep safe. I would have put my children's hair inside, but it didn't seem fair when some weren't even born when I lost them. I wrote requiems for them instead." His beautiful voice had so many textures and colors. In those few sentences, she tasted the salt of tears and bitter sorrow.

"I would like to hear them sometime," she whispered, bringing his hand to her mouth for a kiss. That hand cupped her chin, his green eyes the warm water of a lagoon she could bathe in.

"I'd like that," he replied huskily, drawing her close for a lingering kiss.

Christine hummed in pleasure, enjoying the dance of lips and tongue, the scent and taste of him. Love you, want you, love you . . . When they broke away, Erik kissed her forehead and Christine nuzzled his throat, loving the throb of his pulse under her lips. His voice vibrated against her face: "I . . . would you . . . may I have a lock of your hair? I would . . . I would very much like to keep you safe in my heart."

Christine sucked in a gasp, arms tightening around him. She sat up, needing to see his face. A stray thought marveled at how easily she had accepted his mask. It was as much a part of him as his graceful hands. The visible half of his face was as inscrutable as his masked side and she could see the tense, wary hope that gripped him. His words edged close to a declaration of love, and being madly in love with him as she was, Christine longed to say yes. She frowned.

"Your wife . . . ?" she trailed off, hoping he would divine her meaning. The small, sad smile she knew so well quirked his mouth.

"No. Claire never asked about it, but I didn't offer, either." Christine released the breath she didn't know she was holding and nodded, feeling guiltily relieved.

Pecking a quick kiss on his mouth, she slid from the warm haven of bed and rooted through their discarded clothing for his waistcoat. Brandishing his sheathed dagger, she returned to bed and presented it to him. Erik's smile was like the sun rising. Christine selected a curling lock near her nape, so Madame wouldn't notice. The dark steel of his dagger flashed in the candlelight and Christine didn't even feel the pressure as it cut. She watched him gather the unruly lock with something like reverence and secret it away in his locket beside two slender black loops: his own hair nestled next to his mother's. Her happiness dimmed at the thought of his mother's repugnance at choosing a whore to grant such an honor to.

"She would have adored you, I'm sure of it," Erik said, cupping her cheek and Christine treasured it as at the compliment it was.

Christine swallowed the lump in her throat and glanced at the clock. Three in the morning. Panic unfurled in her chest, three measly hours and he would leave. And she would die. She would die without him. He was breath and life, blood and freedom. Erik's face mirrored both her despair and naked fear. Christine contemplated the naked blade and seized a wild thought. Christine dragged her thumb over the blade, watching as blood welled from the cut with a faint throb of pain. Erik cursed and leapt up to retrieve a handkerchief.

"Christine, why did you do that?" he demanded, face creased with concern as he cradled her bleeding hand with the snowy lawn. She watched dark red blood stain the linen and was dimly grateful for Erik's quick thinking. If she stained the bedclothes, Madame would take the price of new ones from her already meager pay.

"I want something of yours to carry with me," she said, offering her bleeding thumb. Erik considered her for perhaps half a second before he raked his thumb with the dagger and pressed it to hers, their blood mingling. She could feel the pulse of their hearts and she fancied they beat as one.

"Blood of my Blood. Flesh of my Flesh," he whispered, eyes shining. The moment thickened and heated, like sun-warmed honey. Christine felt the now-familiar ache of desire grow in her belly.

"Erik," she said huskily, "please." Erik surged forward with a soft growl, pressing her down into the mattress and capturing her mouth. The locket swayed between them and Christine closed her bleeding hand around it. She wasn't alone anymore.

XXX

Erik found himself fighting tears as the sun's gentle rays pierced the iron lattice covering the windows. Their souls had woven together, how could he leave without rending them both into tatters? He'd lost his mind making love to her, tender strokes reduced to an animal branding his mate with his touch. Seized by the same wild, desperate imperative, Christine urged him on with feverish kisses, clawing nails and thrusting hips. Their mutual climax blasted sanity into nothingness and redefined the words pleasure and unity. But alas, soon their souls were housed in two bodies once more. In the aftermath, she clung to him and he to her, willing time to stop.

When time proved deaf to their pleas, Erik settled on a plan. He questioned Christine on every minute detail on the layout and workings of the brothel. The talk warded away despair, provided direction and action and they both clung to it.

"I will get you out of here. But I must be sure I can do so with your complete safety." Her smile was heartbreakingly brave.

"As long as there is hope I'll survive."

A declaration lurked between them and Erik pursed his lips against it. He'd be damned if he offered her words of love while she remained a slave! It would be too cruel. Any promises he made would be empty. They would survive, goddamn it!

Bruno's pounding knock broke the illusion of safety. He watched her flinch and felt a savage desire to slit the brute's throat here and now! But he wouldn't be doing Christine any favors being thrown in prison.

"He'll die slowly if he touches you." Erik couldn't stem the savage oath from leaving his lips. Christine swallowed hard, looking down at her hands, the wound of their blood-bonding on her thumb crusted over.

"You should . . . go." The halting cadence of her words shattered his heart.

A cry rose in his throat, the cry of an animal shredding its flesh trying to escape a trap. They rose and dressed, not looking at each other. It hurt too much. It hurt too fucking much! Erik turned toward her, shifting awkwardly on his feet. He wanted to hold her so badly . . . Seated on the edge of the bed, Christine wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth, eyes clenched tightly shut.

"Go," she whispered. And God help him, he obeyed. He stepped out of that room, smiled and traded ripostes with the girls, paid the Madame with obsequious admonishments, all the while dying by inches.

It was easier to breathe outside, each step taken with a distant sort of wonder that he was still alive away from her. The air was cold and clear, a thin veil of fog muting shapes. The film of ice from frozen puddles crunched under his shoes. A flash of blond out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and he beheld Raoul with something like relief.

"Raoul!" he shouted. The boy, laden with what looked to be half a dozen bridles draped over his person, halted and turned. His puzzled wariness gave way to genuine pleasure when he saw who had called him. He held up two fingers.

"A moment, sir. I'll have your black out in a thrice, sir."

"Just a moment, Raoul. I'd like to speak to you." His brother's blue eyes—the same piercing blue as their sire's—were wide and startled. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed.

"I'll be right back," Raoul said, disappearing into the stable's dim recesses.

Around the corner out of the brothel's view, Erik found two overturned buckets on which to sit and took his ease. He would not turn around and try to glimpse her through the windows. He would not think of her shattered expression. He would not touch his locket through his shirt . . .

The hesitant crunch of boots on gravel captured his attention and his eye traveled up Raoul's thin, dirty form. His left eye was black and swollen and Erik somehow knew it was not from a simple scuffle with another stableboy. There was a sort of nervy readiness in the lad's air that suggested a brutal, uncertain life. Erik marveled at the gruff protectiveness that rose in his breast.

"Have a seat," Erik said, gesturing a gloved hand toward the bucket opposite him. Raoul sat, nervously chewing on his thumbnail.

"What happened with that?" Erik said, tapping beneath his left eye, "did someone jump you?" Raoul's blue eyes narrowed.

"I can take care of myself, sir."

"Erik."

"Huh?"

"You may call me Erik. If you like," he tacked the last on as an afterthought. Suspicion weighed heavily in the boy's expression. His entire manner screamed: What do you want?

Erik truly didn't know. He wanted to enlist Raoul's help in keeping Christine safe. He wanted to ask why he hadn't seen Raoul more often during his visits here. He wanted to know how many of Méchant's boys would come to Bruno's aid when Erik attempted to free Christine. He wanted to know what manner of man his father would raise to the rank of Vicomte simply at the word of a whore and a pair of blue eyes. Erik wasn't sure which he wanted most, or if deep down, he wanted to know Raoul as his brother. Forthright dealings seemed vastly preferable to his father's complex machinations.

"Erik," Raoul said, tasting the name on his tongue, "where'd you learn to fight?" Erik arched a brow, hearing the doubt in the younger man's voice. A brittle smile touched his lips.

"I had already bested the emperor's fencing master before you were born. I am a decent hand with a knife as well." Raoul eyes gleamed with a clean, almost innocent admiration.

"I've heard," he said quietly, then dropped his gaze to a piece of gravel he nudged with the toe of his worn boot. Erik shifted uncomfortably. Elise and Jacqueline also indulged in a manner of hero worship where he was concerned, but that was built upon years of teasing and cosseting and spoiling. Raoul was a kicked dog who adored the hand that gave him a cursory pat.

"I've heard other things too."

"I had an . . . intemperate youth," Erik remarked, unwilling to explore which rumors—or truths—he heard from whom. Raoul nodded sagely.

"I hear you've taken a liking to the new girl, Christine."

"You hear a great deal," Erik said very dryly. Raoul shrugged as if his shirt was too tight. It was an insecure little gesture that reminded Erik piercingly of himself.

"Yes," Erik answered, "Christine is-" words failed to describe her! "-singular."

"She's nice," Raoul said in tepid agreement.

An awkward silence fell between them and Raoul shivered in the stable's shade. The sight pierced Erik and he cleared his throat.

"I could show you a couple things. To keep this from happening again," he offered with another vague gesture toward his face. A wary, fugitive joy stole over Raoul's expression.

"Really? Knife-fighting, like you?" Erik shrugged, as if the matter was of little import and didn't charge him with the same quiet sort of pleasure.

"Knife-fighting, fist-fighting, whatever you like." It was his right, after all. No de Chagny should disgrace their illustrious name by getting his arse beaten—no matter which side of the sheets he was born on.

"What—what if there's more than one? Could you teach me how to get away?" A niggling, maddening twinge of curiosity piqued in the back of Erik's brain. Who would be pummeling this unobtrusive and assiduous lad—and for what reason?

"Of course," Erik said. Raoul smiled, revealing small, even teeth, offering his hand for Erik to shake.

"Deal."

When Erik returned to the Château several hours later, clothes torn and muddied and bleeding from a cut on his lower lip, he was thankful all of the family was busy with their morning tasks. Claire found him an hour later, washed and tended, seated behind his desk managing the townhouses' accounts for the last quarter.

He glanced up at her slender form in the doorway and offered a cursory greeting: "Good morning, Claire." Claire closed the door with a sharp snap and Erik silently prayed for patience. Since she never sought his company for pleasurable reasons, his only deduction was that she wanted to pick a fight. Erik finished out the column and set the ink to dry before turning his attention to his wife.

"I spoke with Madame Dupont at length. She is one of the few noble ladies who keep their word. Etienne's venture is safe on that score." Not that the boy has the sense required to keep an ambitious naval contract afloat. Erik mentally snorted at the inadvertent pun. Claire's thin, unsmiling mouth told him she was unappeased.

"This must stop, Erik." Anger gathered in his belly, a hungry, defensive thing.

"Explain." Claire's eyes shone with enraged tears.

"These . . . visits you make! To that horrid brothel." Erik exhaled heavily through his nostrils, slouching into a position of louche insouciance.

"I've frequented such establishments for years, Claire. Why the sudden protest? Are you jealous?" The last phrase he layered with a particular blend of petty malice and scathing doubt. Claire stiffened, long white fingers plucking at her skirts.

"Jealous of those harlots? Never! It is my husband who lacks all sort of mannerly consideration for my needs!"

Erik's raised one inky, eloquent brow. A smile toyed with his lips.

"Your needs?" he repeated, adding a sinuous sensual flavor to the words. A ripple shivered through Claire's unbending form, her face set in a moue of disgust.

"My need for a husband who respects me," she retorted with a hint of petulance. Erik's faint amusement dissipated. He scowled.

"I have been suitably discreet. I never return smelling of perfume with smudges of rouge on my collar. Your precious Etienne has no less than three mistresses he gallivants about with, for fuck's sake! And you accuse me of being inconsiderate?"

"Do you have any idea what they say about me? You're making a fool of me!" Erik's jaw clenched. This revolving carousel of futility typified their marriage. He would do or say something, or not say something, and it would hurt her.

"Why must we continue this farce of a union, Claire?" He paused, swallowing a hot knot of years-old pain. A flicker of emotion danced over her face, settling on quiet despair.

"Please, Erik."

"Please, what? I've tried for twenty years to please you and failed. I want this to end." Something like panic settled over her and she reached across the chasm of his desk and gripped his arm.

"No! You can't!" she said. Erik shook off her grip and paced the length of the room.

"Why do you want to stay? I cannot make you happy, no matter how hard I try. You are entitled to half of what I have. You would be comfortable. Why stay trapped here?" Her face twisted into a familiar expression of loathing. His wife's laugh was a harsh, brittle thing.

"Oh yes, can you hear what everyone would say? There goes Claire. The poor dear, even her deformed wretch of a husband doesn't want her!" the venom in her voice seared him.

A part of him wanted to retaliate, to rend her to pieces with his words and watch her crumple into a sobbing heap at his feet. Instead, he spoke calmly: "Is your fear of public censure so great that you would spend the rest of your life with a man you hate?" Claire tilted her chin, thin lips pressed tight together.

"Unlike you, I put my family's welfare before my own selfish needs."

"Good for you," Erik shot back acerbically.

He yanked open the drawer to his desk holding the slender folder his father's lawyer had drawn up for him. He tossed it with a trifle more force than necessary, sending it skittering across the desk and landing with a faint thud at her feet.

"There are my terms. One signature and you are free. Consider it, at least."

Chapter Text

XIII

Madame could sense a change in her newest girl. Something about her bearing was different . . . dreamy almost. Something fresh and stunning. Like a virgin with the dew still on her. Or new love. Madame watched as Christine ran a brush through her horrid mess of hair. Humming, for God's sake! After breakfast, there was a lull in customers, giving the girls time to primp and fuss before a row of mirrors in the sunlit rear parlor. Their chatter and giggles filled the quiet space.

"Did the Vicomte bed you well, dearie? You're nearly purring this morning," she remarked, trailing a gentle, proprietary hand down Christine's back, the column of silk-covered buttons smooth against her palm. Tension shivered up the girl's spine like a plucked violin string. Limpid doe eyes looked at her in the mirror's reflection, outlined with smudges of the previous night's kohl.

"He was most generous, Madame," she mumbled, slouching to make herself smaller.

Madame felt the scrutiny of several of the other girls and a slow grin bloomed on her mouth. Playing the petty catfights against each other was entertaining as well as providing Madame a greater degree of control over them.

"Hmm, he's a lovely piece of flesh, isn't he?" Pauline drawled, fanning her ample bosom, "lean and dark . . . and such a lovely tall fellow! How're his bits, Christine? You know what they say about tall men." Pauline uttered her loud, braying laugh.

"With that voice of his, I couldn't give a fig about how hideous he is under that mask," Juliet interjected, rolling her eyes in imagined ecstasy.

"I wonder what is under there. Louisa, did you ever see it?" asked Jeanne. Louisa tossed her black, silken mane of hair over her shoulder.

"I was always much too busy with his other parts to worry about that itty bitty mask," she purred, casting a glare of pure, murderous malice at Christine's bowed back.

"Give over, Christine! Enlighten the uninitiated," Pauline gibed good-naturedly to broad agreement. Madame swelled with pride. Erik was such a fine customer, all her girls vied for his attention. Christine cast a pleading look at her. Madame petted her head.

"Tell them, Christine. We all want to know," she said with the steel of a command. It wouldn't do for the Swedish waif to fill her head with dreams of love.

"He . . . he's very . . . well-endowed." The words emerged in a strangled whisper, Christine nearly writhing in embarrassed shame. Oblivious, or perhaps maliciously aware of her discomfiture, the other girls dissolved into coos and titters.

"Mmm, nothing like a good-sized stallion to ride," Cassandra sighed. One of the older whores, Marie, chimed in, dabbing cosmetics on the bags under her eyes.

"Humph. What use is a stallion's prick if he only lasts as long as one? I'd take a man who can last, any day of the week." There were murmurs of agreement.

"Such a pity that most men don't know what to do with a woman's body," Jeanne bemoaned.

"So, Christine? Did the Vicomte ride well?" Louisa asked, smoothing rogue on her lips. Silence stretched on painfully long. Finally, Pauline said, "Don't be daft, Louisa. Didn't you hear the Madame say our little Swede was purring this morning?"

"No one asked you, you cow!" Louisa retorted. Pauline and several of her compatriots took umbrage at this and increasingly lewd and vicious retorts volleyed between them.

"Ladies, please!" Madame said, knifing through the argument with one sharp shout. Bruno appeared in the doorway, all ropy muscle and gleaming black eyes. A surge of primal lust shot through Madame Sophia. There was a stallion worth riding. A wild, dangerous stallion she had yet to tame.

"Is everything all right in here, Sophie?" he growled, eyes narrowing on the now-silent whores. Twisted and tangled with her fear and desire for Bruno was a strange brand of jealousy. The girls might submit to her and obey her, but that didn't hold a candle to sheer, gut-wrenching fear they felt for her lover. Fear bought obedience quickly and thriftily. And the Madame was nothing if not thrifty, be it with coin, time, or intimidation.

"Everything's fine, Bruno. Thank you, darling," she crooned, her eyes promising untold carnal delights for his swift obedience. As Bruno left, Madame swiveled toward Christine.

"There's no need to be such a prude, dearie. We're all ladies here." She heaped saccharine kindness onto the sharp words. The girl's wide brown eyes held a wealth of humiliated fear, tinged with hatred. The Swede hadn't learned the first of a courtesan's arts: to hide your true feelings. The smooth, swan-like column of her throat shivered as she swallowed hard.

"He has a stallion's prick and knows how to use it. Does that satisfy?" Coos and snickers rippled through the assemblage of whores. Madame's smile was as thin as Bruno's knife.

"Perfectly, Christine."

XXX

Raoul found her hiding in the kitchen, her newly applied coat of kohl slipping down her cheeks as her eyes watered. She wasn't crying. She wasn't! Christine huddled on the stool in the corner hoping for a moment's peace to order her thoughts.

"What's this now?" he said, grunting under the weight of the crate of vegetables he carried.

He set them down on Cook's worktable to be sorted, peeled and mashed later. Tugging at his baggy trousers, Raoul squatted down in front of her. The handkerchief he produced from his sleeve was worn and yellowed with age, but clean. The initials of A.F. were monogrammed at the corner in girlish curlicues with red thread faded to pink. A keepsake of his mother's? Christine blotted her face.

"I bet I look quite a mess," she croaked, the unbearable knot in her throat smothering her words. Raoul's rough hand patted her wrist awkwardly, accepting the damp, stained crumple of his handkerchief without demur.

"No. You're very pretty. Beautiful even." His earnest face and wide blue eyes were disarming and some of the tension ebbed from her shoulders. She smiled shyly.

"Thank you." Raoul offered a tight little shrug. A quiet moment settled between them.

"You love him, don't you? That's why it hurts so bad when they talk?" he asked. Christine absently rubbed the scab on her thumb.

"Yes, that's it exactly. Talking about it with them . . . it's obscene," Christine snarled, wrapping her arms around her chest. Raoul's grin was wry.

"Well, Madame Sophia is a right bitch. And Louisa's been wanting to sink her claws into Erik ever since he bed her." A dark, twisted surge of emotion writhed in her chest and Christine fought to suppress the urge to claw Louisa's eyes out. She was startled by Raoul's use of Erik's name. It was always 'he,' 'him,' 'the Vicomte.'

"Bitch," Christine seethed, oddly liberated by the taste of profanity. Raoul chuckled, an admiring glint in his eye that thankfully had nothing to do with her body. She felt the balm of his gruff understanding all the way down to her toes.

He gestured toward the door and the chattering brothel beyond.

"You cannot let them see you're hurt. Don't let them see anything but what you let them see. They can't get at you in here," he tapped his temple, then hers. The callused prod of his fingertip was oddly comforting. How long had it been since any man other than Erik touched her in a manner beyond the necessities of sex? The words sank in and Christine's heart seized.

"Do—Do you know . . . from experience?" she said delicately. A muscle fired in Raoul's jaw and he dropped his head, stray pieces of his golden hair falling forward to shield his face.

"My mother was a whore and I have a pretty face," was his terse answer. Christine longed to embrace him. The kinship grew and unfurled into friendship, a camaraderie borne of the same travesties and horrors.

"Men or women?" she asked.

"Men." How could he endure this horror? A more hideous question presented itself. How long had he had to?

"Oh Raoul," she said, gripping his hand tight between hers, trying to push all of her comfort and understanding into those two words. Again, that heartbreaking shrug. He refused to meet her eye.

"Like anything else, you get used to it. And it doesn't always hurt." Raoul broke off, a wary tension ringing through him. He expected her judgment, her disgust. While her stomach churned and twisted in disgust, her mind acknowledged it was hardly Raoul's fault.

"You did what you had to in order to survive, Raoul. There is no shame in it."

"He won't think so. He would have fought. He would have rather died than submit to that." She privately thought Raoul was probably right.

"Erik wants to protect you," she said. Raoul nodded, though she could tell that she hadn't reached him. The shame and misery in his soul wouldn't allow it.

"He wants to protect you. He asked me to look after you. And I will, Christine. For your own sake as well as for him," Raoul said and in the steel of his tone Christine heard the juvenile vestiges of Erik's authority.

"Thank you, Raoul. Erik is lucky to have you as his brother."

Talking with Raoul had settled her, but she was still unprepared when Madame sought her out to present her to a customer. The wolfish gleam in Madame's eye made her belly tight and empty like a drum. Christine turned her vapid grin on her chosen customer. Short and balding, a great fist of a nose thrust between beady blue eyes, the man had the shape of a lumpy pear. His belly strained against the plum waistcoat studded with silver buttons. A fat red tongue slid out to wet his lips. Christine curtseyed prettily.

"Well, Monsieur? Does she suit your fancy?" Madame purred. The man, a rich tailor, judging from his sumptuous garments, chortled in his throat.

"Oh yes, Madame d'Avrigny. Once again, you've outdone yourself," his voice was thin and reedy, grating her nerves. The customer pulled a purse from his coat pocket to Madame's waiting palm.

"Will that cover it?" he asked. Madame weighed the purse and pursed her lips in a catlike smile.

"I believe that will do it, Jean-Paul. The Rose Room is open. Enjoy."

Pudgy fingers latched onto Christine's upper arm. She hoped he wouldn't notice her quivering. Was she still smiling? Her lips were numb. As Jean-Paul wheezed as he climbed the stairs, Christine fought down a wave of nausea. Bruno awaited her if she lost another customer. She had to remember that or she'd run screaming down the hall. She had to remember . . . images and sensations bubbled up, of Erik and the flavor of his kisses, the rich beauty of his love. No! She couldn't think of him and live!

Jean-Paul leered at her and gestured expansively toward the bedroom, a damp, possessive paw pressed against the small of her back, creeping down to squeeze her buttocks. Christine's frozen smile faltered as the door clicked shut behind them, clammy sweat dewing on her brow.

After what seemed like an eternity of heaving and sweating, ending with a high-pitched, pig-like squeal, she lay face down and trembling on the bed, while the man—monster—was tucking his stubby manhood back into his trousers. That small, stubby thing had violated every orifice of her body. Her entire body felt battered and her arse throbbed with pain.

She hid her grimace of disgust by pressing her face into the downy mattress, still damp and acrid with sweat. His words were an indistinct murmur, a slurring liquid purr. It was as if Christine had forgotten how to speak French. He patted her hair and shut the door with a crisp snap behind him.

Christine smothered her face into a pillow and bit it, hard enough to taste the fluff and grit of goose down. A scream and a sob emerged from her throat. She wanted Erik more than she wanted her next breath. She worried the scab on her thumb, the only tangible thing she had of him. Bruno appeared in the doorway.

"Get up, you lazy slag! There are customers waiting!"

Christine scrambled to obey.

That night no man chose her, so Madame locked her in her cell. Christine had never been happier to see that hideous wallpaper or feel the rasp of that coarse blanket. Tonight, the room's suffocating embrace hid her from roving eyes as the long soak in the Madame's tub had soothed her battered flesh. The cot was a mute witness to both her misery and her loneliness. Even his book of poems offered no solace. Instead of reading the familiar stanzas, she found herself caressing the shapes of the letters, longing for the fingers who penned them. Christine conjured the memory of Erik's hands—those pale, graceful, long-fingered hands!—and his beautiful voice and wicked tongue, her fingers following the familiar terrain of her own body to the moist center of her ache. Her climax was brief and unsatisfying and left her more lonely and shamed than before.

She wanted Erik like she wanted her next breath. And tonight it felt like she would suffocate.

XXX

"What are you doing, Erik?" Elise's bright voice interrupted him as he paced around the parlor. A restless perusal of the day's post found no word yet from Nadir. Once their acquaintances were assembled, they would liberate Christine.

Still irritable and unsettled from his argument with Claire, Erik had needed to work out some of his frustration. With the added benefit of sharpening his admittedly rusty fencing skills, he had wrangled a couple of livery boys into acting as his sparring partners. They had performed admirably, but Erik could have fended off their blows in his sleep. The result of their halfhearted spar was that Erik's blood now coursed hotly through his veins, a bottled vitality with no release that left him more ill-humored and tense than before.

"None of your concern, imp. Shouldn't you be at lessons?" he snapped.

Elise flinched at the sharp bite in his words, and her wide blue eyes blinked up at him. Erik immediately recanted his harsh words, hating the savor of her wounded silence. He squatted down in front of Elise, combing a wayward tendril of her hair behind her ear.

"Forgive me. I am in a foul temper." Elise nodded in swift agreement, small hands wringing in handfuls of her skirt.

"Monsieur Forel said I could come. I just wanted to talk to you. I haven't seen you in days. What's wrong? Is it something I did?" Touched, Erik gathered her gently into an embrace.

"Absolutely not, dear one. No, it's not you at all. I've missed you." Elise was never one to be soothed and placated. She peeled back and squinted into his eyes.

"But what's wrong? Did you have another fight with Aunt Claire?" It was Erik's turn to stiffen. God, had the children been privy to the disintegration of his marriage? No, not disintegration, that implied there was something whole before. His marriage had been doomed from the beginning.

"How do you know Claire and I have been quarreling?" he asked. Elise chewed on her lower lip, the curtain of her wild black hair falling forward to hide her face.

"I heard your voice and I wanted to talk to you. I . . . I heard you and Aunt Claire talking. Jacqueline told me not to tell you, she said it was none of my business and married couples quarrel all the time, but Aunt Claire was crying and you were upset and I was scared!"

"Oh little one," Erik said, sinking his head into his hands, digging his fingernails into his scalp until the nerves shrieked with pain.

Precious, inquisitive Elise privy to the hideousness of an unfaithful marriage! Anguished, Erik looked up at his darling little sister, whom he spoiled and cosseted as he would have his little daughters had they lived. An image of a girl with Christine's chocolate curls and wide smile drifted in his mind's eye and his heart seized in a paroxysm of longing. He grasped Elise's slender shoulders and looked deep into her unspoiled eyes, free of tears. His brave little girl!

"You did nothing wrong. I am so sorry you had to witness that. Your sister is right, married couples often quarrel, but it is wrong for a man to hurt a woman whether it is with his hands, his actions or his words. It is also wrong to say hurtful things when you are angry. Both your aunt and I are guilty of that." Elise nodded, assimilating what she had been told. Her slender brows drew together in a scowl that sat easier on their father's face.

"What's a brothel, Erik? Aunt Claire wasn't happy you were going to one. Is that where they make soup?" she asked in all seriousness. Breath rushed out of him in a strangled laugh.

"No. It is an establishment where gentlemen and ladies may . . . share each other's company. I have a . . . particular friend I visit there."

Understatement of the century, he thought dryly. Her eyes shone.

"Oh, I understand! What's her name?"

"Christine." His prayer. A secret pleasure welled in Erik, the eagerness to share the news of a beloved.

"Christine," Elise repeated, tasting the syllables, "That's pretty. I'd like to meet her sometime."

"I would like you to as well," Erik said quietly, touching his locket.

He needed to see her. He couldn't wait until it was seemly, he didn't fucking care if it hurt Claire! He wanted Christine! That made him a faithless bastard, forsworn and untrustworthy and cruel. The harsh energy ravaged him, unchecked and beyond solace. He rose, dropping a kiss on Elise's forehead.

"I need your help, Elise." She brightened.

"Oh! All right! What can I do?"

"I must visit my friend tonight. Will you run and tell Christophe to tack César up for me?" She was already running down to hall. His sweet, loyal girl!

"Tell Christine hello for me!

Chapter Text

XIV

 


Christine's head thunked against the wall, carried by the momentum of Erik's greedy kiss. God, he felt so good! She didn't care if he hurt her, just as long as she had him close, had him inside . . .

"Yesss. Touch me, Erik. I like when you touch me," she hissed, clawing hands peeling apart his clothes to touch his hot chest, touch hard muscle underneath velvet skin. Touch the heart that hammered beneath her palm and the warmed metal of his locket. Erik thrust a knee between her legs, pushing her up the wall which was so cool and hard against her naked back. Madame had announced Erik's arrival as Christine was rising from a bath; her wrapper she had hastily clothed herself with was now a pool of dark red silk on the floor. The delicious rasp of the fabric of his trousers against her wet, throbbing flesh made her toes curl. He perceived this and obligingly ground her against his strong thigh. She gasped out his name.

"Christine," he fed her name back to her along with the wet, velvet stroke of his tongue, warm breath fluttering against her face smelling sweetly of coffee and cream.

The candlelight made the mask glow milky white, and his eyes, oh God, his beautiful green eyes! Three small, profound words rose to her lips, but she stifled them with a hungry kiss. A wild thing of jousting tongues and ravenous lips. The kisses were her salvation, an intimacy no other man was allowed. Her nipples hardened, her saddle of flesh between her thighs pulsated. Arousal and something tender and infinitely precious made this a sacrament where every other had been a travesty.

The hand teasing her pert nipples moved to his fly and freed his swollen member. A breathless shift of weight and then the long, sweet slide of him impaling her. Her walls clasped and suckled him and pleasure's burn escalated until it was nearly unbearable. Her breath emerged in whimpers and hiccups as he thrust into her: all heat and hardness and bottomless need.

Christine wound arms and legs around him, sheltering his face against her neck beneath the curtain of her damp hair. She stroked and kneaded his back, crooning broken endearments. Erik groaned, hips snapping in a hard, jarring rhythm as he bit and suckled the muscle joining her neck and shoulder. Christine gasped and disintegrated around him, pleasure like a pounding heart, like a burst of light. Erik stiffened, coming inside her with a broken moan. A hot rush of his seed burst into her grasping, waiting core.

Still seated deep inside her, Erik lifted her from the wall with a strength that left her breathless and staggered toward the bed, collapsing on top of her. A delicious lassitude filled her limbs and she relished his shape and weight atop her. Christine gently peeled aside his collar and blew on the back of his neck to cool him. Erik hummed, gooseflesh pebbling his skin. He uttered a contented sigh, nuzzling the meager pillow her breasts made. The alternating heat and cool of his breath teased her puckered nipples.

"Any decent man would apologize for such a . . . lascivious performance," he rasped, his beautiful voice like the rub of fur on naked skin. Christine stretched languorously, kneading the backs of his calves with the soles of her feet.

"And why is that? I quite enjoyed it," she purred. Erik snuggled closer, the beard stubble pleasantly rasping her skin.

"It's a good thing I'm not a decent man then."

A warm, sated silence stretched between them. Her hands couldn't seem to stop touching him. Gentle grazing strokes of his soft, sweat-dampened hair with the slightest hint of nail scraping his scalp, kneading the muscles of his shoulders and back through his clothes . . . she wanted his clothes off. Christine tugged at his rumpled shirt. Erik grunted, trying to burrow against her. When she persisted, he heaved a sigh and slid back onto his haunches.

"I was comfortable," he grumbled, shucking off the whole assemblage of shirt, waistcoat and coat and throwing it on the floor, heedless of the twin holsters housing his ubiquitous weapons. His cravat which hung in a limp knot around his neck met the same fate. He swung his long legs over the edge of the bed and peeled off his shoes, socks and trousers.

"Better?" he asked with an arched brow and a crooked grin. Christine felt so relaxed, so contented. He was here. That was all that mattered.

"Much," she replied, opening her arms. His face softened and he spread himself over her. They both exhaled a sweet sigh at the delicious contact of bare skin. Christine settled comfortably under his weight, feeling protected and cherished.

After a while, Erik rested his chin on her chest, green eyes shining.

"You are truly an exquisite creature, Christine. No woman has ever held me against her heart as if I was the key to her continued existence." Christine tightened her arms around him as the words struck her hard and square in the heart. She loved him so much her chest ached.

"I don't understand her," she whispered fiercely. A frown tugged at Erik's full lips.

"Who?" he asked gently, hands tracing soothing paths over her skin.

"Your wife!" she burst out in an agony of frustration. Christine framed his precious face between her hands.

"She can look at you and touch you and love you whenever she wants! And . . . and she chooses not to!" bitter jealousy seared Christine at the thought of the faceless Claire who Erik had married. She didn't think it possible to hate anyone more than she hated Bruno and the Madame, but Claire made a close second. Through the cloudy film of guilt in his eyes, she saw also the weak spark of hope. Christine yanked Erik close, claiming his mouth in a hard, dominating kiss, fingers knotted in his hair.

"She is a fool," she hissed against his lips, hands roaming in sinuous, proprietary strokes, loving the feel of hard muscle under supple skin, the radiating heat and muscle of a virile man in his prime. Underneath his aloof aura of brilliant self-sufficiency, he was simply a man. A man who wanted to be wanted. A soft moan vibrated against her lips. Melting heat throbbed between her thighs in response to his hardened cock pulsing against her hip. Christine kissed a path from his mouth to his ear, nibbling the upper curve and sucking the lobe into her mouth.

"You are exquisite, Erik," she whispered.

"Christine." There was a soft, pleading edge to his words.

He obeyed the gentle pressure of her hands and rolled onto his back. God, she loved him. From his tousled raven-black hair to the freckle on the third toe of his right foot, she loved every inch of his body. His body, his brave, hungry heart, his beautiful, brilliant soul . . . oh, how she loved him! A feather-light touch of her index finger with just the hint of nail grazed down his throat, down to circle his nipples which hardened as she watched. Christine bent and drew his nipple into her mouth, loving the faint rasp of his chest hair on her lips and his gasp, like a ragged edge of silk. His hands curled in her hair as she suckled on first one, then the other.

"Oh yes . . . oh Christine," he whispered.

"The men who walk through these doors expect to be worshipped for a coin or a box of chocolates. Not you. Not. You." Christine interspersed the words with passionate, open-mouthed kisses down his torso. Mmm, warm, taut smooth flesh, rising and falling with the incensed tempo of his breathing.

The long, hard muscle of thigh under her hands pleased her. The crisp mat of black pubic hair smelled of musk and sweat and male. His manhood was dusky and hard, traced with a pleasing pattern of veins. The head oozed pearly fluid that she lapped up in one teasing lick. A sound that could only be described as whimper fell from his lips.

Riding a thrill of heady arousal and feminine power, Christine looked up into his face and found his mouth slack, his body trembling in anticipation, green eyes wide. Oh his eyes were so beautiful. That clear, bright green was so rare, like the sun streaming through a tree's leaves, like the living beauty of the sea.

"Let me worship you, Erik," she said, voice low and husky with desire. Christine grasped him with both hands, stroking him in a slow pump. She swooped down, taking as much of him into her mouth as she could.

"Oh fuck . . ." he rasped, long musician's fingers knotted in her hair. Mouth and hands moved in tandem; she tasted hot, salty male flesh, hardness sheathed in silky skin. She lavished all of her learned skill and all the love she held into pleasuring him.

"So good . . . oh God . . ." Those broken words made her body pulse with a hard heartbeat of desire.

Erik's lean hips shallowly thrust into her mouth and she felt a primal thrill at the tortured, animal-like sounds emerging from his throat. Mmm, his pleasure was addicting. One hand stroked his thigh soothingly before creeping up to cup the hot, tight weight of his sack. A moan rose deep in her throat and Erik answered her with a gentle tug in her hair.

"C—Christine, I'm going to . . . oh I'm . . ." She watched his face slacken in intense pleasure. She sucked and kneaded, urging him toward that blindingly beautiful edge—he surged, his taste changed, his balls drew up tight against his body . . . Erik uttered a hoarse shout as his seed erupted into her mouth, pleasure wracking his body in a paroxysm of delicious torment. Erik howled her name, his grip on her head almost painful in the throes of his orgasm. A darkly possessive triumph filled her as she swallowed his issue, licking the vestiges of his pleasure from her lips. Christine sheltered him within the warm haven of her mouth, suckling gently on his softening manhood. Sweat glistened on his body, burnishing his olive-toned skin in bronze.

A primal pleasure surged through her. She had made him lose control. Christine had reduced this powerful man to a gibbering mass of twitching flesh under her mouth and hands. Christine slithered up his body, kissing his forehead, his cheek. The smooth white leather of the mask was smooth and cool under her lips. A mad, absurd impulse welled within her and she pried the mask from his face.

 

XXX

The breath of cool air on the twisted flesh of his face yanked him from an almost criminal state of bliss like a jolt of electric current. Erik was on his feet, one hand clapped over the offending deformity before he had formed a conscious thought. It was only as he saw her sprawled on the rumpled bed clutching his mask that betrayal bled through his shock. Anger nipped at its heels, harsh and violent.

"Why?" he asked softly. When she only stared up at him with those wide chocolate-brown eyes, he barked, "Why?" Any vestige of the brazen succubus evaporated, leaving the wide, lost eyes of child. He watched a flinch shiver through her at his harsh tone and a small part of him despaired at the sight of her shrinking away from him.

"I . . . I wanted to . . . I wanted to . . ."

Erik shifted on his feet, warring with the desire to snatch the mask back, wanting to run, to hide in darkness and lick the wounds of humiliation in peace. Christine couldn't see his face. She couldn't. If she turned away from him in disgust, he wouldn't survive. He'd given her too much of himself, more than he had in two decades with Claire. He wouldn't survive. It was the terror of this thought that brought harsh words bubbling to the surface, like poison suppurated from a wound.

"Wanted what?" he snapped, "Why would you betray me in such a way? I thought you, of all people, would understand what it is like to be used, humiliated." Christine seemed to shrivel under his hard gaze.

"That's not it at all! I only wanted to see you! I wanted to . . . to make you feel safe!" she blurted. Damn, the anger was slipping through his fingers, ebbing away at the quivering words, the utter sincerity written on her cherished features. Oh Christine, oh my sweet, beautiful beloved Christine . . .

"Explain," he said, in a gentler tone. Christine exhaled a steadying breath.

"The first night you chose me, the mask . . . comforted me. In a world where monsters masqueraded as men, I liked that this monster had the decency to show his flaws." Her fingers ghosted over the pilfered mask in a restless but heartbreakingly tender gesture. Christine marshaled a wobbly smile.

"It turns out that you are the only man I've known in a very long time. I just want you to feel . . . safe with me. As I feel with you."

Erik's jaw clenched against a hot knot of emotion.

"Oh Christine." On his lips, he made her name absolution and benediction both. The tension leaked from her and she slowly, hesitantly, opened her arms to him. Hope was inscribed so clearly on her face that his own desperate hope rose to greet it.

"Please," she whispered with such honest sweetness that his heart melted. Erik raked a careless hand through his hair and settled on the edge of the bed, cupping her cheek. Christine nestled into his hand, lips planting a fervid kiss on his thumb.

"Forgive me for overreacting. That was . . . unexpected."

"No, please. I'm so sorry, Erik. I never meant to hurt you. Forgive me." Her teeth gnawed on her lower lip. Tense contrition saturated her.

"It's all right, darling. You are forgiven," he said solemnly, weaving silk and moonlight into his voice. Christine sagged with relief, nuzzling his hand. Silence reigned for a few seconds and he could see her gathering her courage.

"I . . . May I see you? It won't matter. I lo—It won't matter." Every muscle in his body tightened at her near-admission. His heart thundered. Beyond the obvious distaste of promises made while she was still in servitude lurked a deeper fear of the breadth of her feelings. Could he bear to make that fateful leap alone? Her stalled confession liberated and terrified him.

But she couldn't see his face.

She couldn't.

His lips felt numb. A cold trickle of trepidation wormed its way into him.

"I . . . I'm afraid." It was a boy's voice, one layered with terrors of withheld love. Her face softened into such an incredible look of love, it obliterated all doubt. She loved him. She loved him?

"Don't be. You're safe. I'm here," she crooned.

"Try your very best not to scream. It is most unsettling," he said, a wan smile saying it was a poor attempt at humor. His heart was pounding, tense, restless energy begging for reprieve.

Erik gnarled his fingers in a handful of the bedclothes, and he bowed his head, eyes clenched tight shut. He wouldn't watch as her face twisted in disgust and fear. He heard the faint creak of the mattress and started at her kiss first on his thinned lips, then on the hard line of his clenched jaw. Her fingers pried his hand away . . . and he heard her swallow with an audible clicking noise. He knew what she saw.

It was . . . ugly. Grotesque.

Even the gentle light of the lone candle could not disguise his hideousness. The slack, pitted skin was dull, red and lusterless. Snaking veins, tortured skin peppered with a few sprouting white hairs along the jaw and what should have been his eyebrow. Crooked cheekbone, twisted muscles. His right nostril was caved in, his lower eyelid sagged and near his ear, the skin looked like bubbled wax . . . her whisper startled him.

"What did you say?"

"You're beautiful." Those impossible words left her throat and she was leaning close to drop an air-soft kiss on his rough, warped cheekbone.

"Beautiful," she repeated, her soft voice husky and soft.

A few tender grazes of her lips on the mark of his shame and he was completely, utterly lost to her, body and soul. An inarticulate sound emerged from his lips, a raw groan of mingled disbelief and pleasure. Erik found himself intensely, savagely aroused by her utter acceptance. Even recovering from one of the best orgasms of his life, second only to his previous interludes with her, his cock had the impudence to stiffen. Erik struggled to gather the frayed edges of his wit, clutching the broken pieces of his self-control.

"You are either delusional or blind to think me beautiful, darling," he growled. The words sound harsh, discordant. Not at all the dry, playful tone he had intended. Her smile was gentle, accompanied by the maddening feather-light caresses of her fingers on his gnarled face.

"I have eyes like a hawk and always have. As to my sanity, that has been in question ever since I came here. Delusion or not, I think you're beautiful. Kiss me," she demanded in a beguiling mix of youthful playfulness and sultry command. Erik could only obey.

This kiss held all the knowing pleasure of lovers with the initial singing thrill of discovery. They were naked and knew no shame . . . A savage groan left Erik's lips, adrift in the sublime pleasure of her lips and tongue, of her small hands gently trailing over both sides of his deformed face.

"Christine." He uttered her name like it was something holy, "I need you. I need you so very much." His voice broke then. Those eyes, so dark and sweet and rich, softened in unutterable tenderness.

"You have me," she crooned.

Her soft hands urged him down, pulling him atop her. Erik guided the head of his cock to her opening, teasing the soft lips, circling her sweet swollen little nub. Christine whimpered against his lips and Erik slid inside at the subtle invitation of her arched hips. The slippery clutch of her inner walls combined with her continual soft stroking of his mangled face threatened his sanity.

As they began their dance anew, Erik marveled at the shining diamond that was his beautiful Eve. Erik made love to her with an almost savage tenderness, undone by her acceptance as much as the beauty of their union. Their hands met, fingers braided over her head as he moved inside her. Eyes, lips, hands, bodies fused; exquisite pleasure seared his nerve endings. One. One flesh.

When they found release in almost the same moment, he thought nothing in the world matched this incandescent perfection. But when he was alone in his own body again, his demons rose up to jeer at him, reminding him that she didn't know everything about him. She would never love you if she knew . . . Erik defied the voice in his head, snuggling closer to her, dropping a messy kiss on her forehead before slipping into an almost insensate exhaustion.

 

XXX

Christine woke with a man's weight on top of her and for the first time, did not feel the need to establish her own personal space. Erik's scent of sage and smoke was augmented by the musk and sweat of their labors. Long, lean limbs wound around her, nestled close with his head pillowed under her chin. Instead of feeling suffocated by his clinging embrace, she felt . . . cozy, safe. Even in the large, sumptuous bed with the coverlet snarled around her calves and the fire nothing but a heap of ash-shrouded embers, Christine was perfectly content. The man radiated heat.

Her fingers trailed through his wavy hair, tucking a wayward strand behind his ear. Gently, she explored the terrain of his deformity. Given the speed of his reaction before, it was a testament to his exhaustion that he simply snored. Her poor love. Has this little mark been the reason he had sought love from a paid girl instead of his own family? Anger for his sake felt hot but clean, not the festering hatred she felt for Bruno and the Madame. At the heels of that thought surged the startling realization that if the world had not despised him, she would have never had the chance to love him. It was absurd that she should be grateful for such a horrid thing.

Several urgent bodily functions were making themselves known to her: mostly a full bladder and an empty belly. Christine took several aborted attempts at freeing herself without waking him and, realizing it was futile, kissed his hair.

"Erik, wake up. I'm hungry," she said with a firm shake on his shoulder. The inert form lying on her chest merely grunted and nipped her breast gently.

"As it happens, so am I, darling." His sleep-hoarsened voice rasped her skin like the rough lap of a cat's tongue. A subtle shift brought the evidence of his arousal against her thigh. Laughter bubbled up and she tugged at his hair.

"For food, silly!" Erik offered her a sleepy, slit-eyed look.

"That too," he purred, rising up onto his hands and kissing her deeply. A sliver of moonlight illuminated his face and Christine thought she had never seen anything so beautiful. He broke the moment by saying: "But first, I must avail myself to the privy closet."

Nature's call appeased, candles lit and swathed in Erik's cape, Christine sat across from him as they supped on cold pea soup and tepid wine. It was delicious. She adored the sight of him relaxed and sleep-rumpled in wrinkled trousers, his locket glittering on his bare chest. Conversation and laughter flowed easily between them. It fed something starving in her soul to simply absorb this delicious happiness she felt in his presence. In her mind's eye, she saw a cozy kitchen awash with sunlight from wide, open windows and a wild-haired little girl, with his beautiful eyes . . . After they supped they returned to bed, snuggled close and fell into a deep, blameless sleep.

As if their lives and choices were their own.

Chapter Text

XV

Erik's leave-taking left her bereft with a cold wind whistling through the hole punched in her chest. All she wanted to do was cocoon herself in the bedclothes that smelled of him and their pleasure and sleep the day away. But the brothel was busy this morning and scarcely three quarters of an hour after Erik left, Madame was guiding her toward another customer. She battled down a choking panic. Too soon! Any girl booked for an entire night was allotted half of the following day to rest. She needed time and space to breathe . . . the brothel's walls quivered. Or was that her?

The features and build of this monster were indistinguishable to her. Her body sashayed and simpered and fluttered its eyelashes while she screamed and wept and howled for Erik inside the privacy of her own mind. She watched from a distance as the man led her to the room, divested her of her clothes and smeared oil on himself, then her. Dimly, she was aware of an uncomfortable pressure, a repetitive jostling. Sounds, smells, movements composed something she should react to . . . why was that, again? Numb with her nose clogged with the noxious smells of roses and sweat, Christine grasped for something that held meaning, something she could throw herself against.

"Erik." She wasn't even aware she'd spoken aloud until pain exploded in her left cheek, her head snapped back under the strength of the clout.

"Ah ah, little slut. It's Pierre." A harsh voice rasped. A hard hand dug into the soft skin underneath her jawline, the part of him inside her exhibiting a great deal more interest.

"Say it for me, kitten." Christine blinked, her left eye watering and tender skin beginning to swell.

"Pierre," she repeated hollowly. The jostling was harder as he approached his release.

"Say it!"

"Pierre," she said, without inflection. Mid-thrust, the monster shivered on top of her in throes of his release. The same hard hand patted her head.

"That's it, kitten. I suppose it's easy to get 'em jumbled up, eh?" Christine rose and dressed mechanically, his sticky leavings painting her thighs.

Madame swooped over to them as they descended the stairs. Her eyes flickered over Christine and settled on the bruise that made her eye burn and throb. Her smile was brittle.

"I hope your experience was satisfactory, Monsieur Grossier." The monster uttered a coarse bray of laughter, squeezing Christine's rear with hard, square fingers.

"She's a fine filly, Madame. Thank you. Just needed a light tap to keep her in line. No trouble, I assure you."

He paid the Madame with a flourish and was gone. It was only as the door closed, shutting out the cold, fresh air and sunlight that Christine realized why she had reason to be afraid. The manic gleam in the Madame's eye did not bode well, nor did the strange tic under her left eye. Was she having some sort of apoplexy? Talon-like fingers painted blood red sank into Christine's arm, dragging her down the hall to her cell. The force of her shove sent Christine careening onto the cot.

"What did you do, you stupid cunt?" she hissed, flecks of spittle flying from her mouth. Christine shrank back against the wall, raw, jagged terror filling her belly like shards of glass.

"N—Nothing, Madame! I promise! Please . . . please don't-" the stuttered sentence ended in a yelp as Madame's open hand flew, striking her hard across her bruised cheek. Pain studded with stinging needles of sensation rippled across her face.

"Stupid, stupid girl!" snarled the Madame, "You're lucky Bruno is away on my business or I'd have him flay you alive!" Christine whimpered, curling into a shuddering ball. I don't like it here. I want to go home. I want Erik.

"I'm so sorry. I'll never be bad again, I promise! Please don't tell Bruno. Please!" Pure hysteria painted Christine's voice, the blind, desperate fear that had swallowed her waking and sleeping hours before Erik had come rose again, choking, shredding her.

Madame was no longer listening. The older woman was pacing the tiny room like a tiger in a cage, muttering to herself: "What will he do? What will he do?" Christine bit her lip to keep from babbling. What will Bruno do? Madame halted suddenly, turning a hard, baleful eye on Christine's huddled form.

"You ungrateful slut. I pulled you out of that festering shithole before you were raped to death and threw you into the lap of luxury and this is how you repay me? I should throw you to Méchant's rats. You'd think you've been fucked by a train." Her expression suddenly calmed, so quickly that Christine doubted her sanity.

"No, I think I'll let you stay here and think about what you've done."

With that, the Madame swept from the room in a sweep of rose-colored silk and lace, snatching the candle from the stand as she went. Christine flew from the cot as the door slammed and the lock clicked shut. Leaving her in darkness.

"No! No, please! Please, Madame! Please!" Christine howled, beating her fists on the unforgiving oak. Once, a century ago when Christine still believed Madame to be an angel of mercy, she had confided a secret fear of being left alone in darkness. How long she wept and pleaded and prayed for mercy, she didn't know. Sleep swooped in to rescue her from her disintegrating sanity.

XXX

His father's condition was worsening. He saw it in the doctor's tense expression, heard it in the wet rasping of his father's breathing. From his vantage point in the foyer through the thin glimpse the cracked door offered, he saw Elise and Jacqueline standing pale and wan in their Papa's sickroom. Whatever his failings with his sons, Michel de Chagny adored his daughters and they adored him. The tableau was blocked as Claire's grey-swathed form gathered the two girls close and both turned to her comfort with a grateful cry.

Even Jacqueline, ever trying to act according to her age and station, buried her face in Claire's bodice and wept. He knew from punishing lessons that his comfort to Claire was unwelcome. Even in the wake of their children's deaths. Especially then.

Deep in his chest, Erik ached for Christine. His anchor and comfort. Maybe he could go, just snatch one hour with her, just one hour, and then he would be strong enough to watch his father die, strong enough to bear the weight of Claire's focused censure, strong enough to bear the mantle of Comte. He imagined holding her and felt a bone-deep longing rise in his chest. Erik had donned his coat and crossed the room before he had even realized he was moving.

"I need an hour. I'll return soon."

Cocooned in shock, they didn't even notice his leaving.

XXX

The protesting pins and needles of her sleeping legs woke her and her tender palms sought the hard planes of the door to orient herself. Weariness enshrouded her like a heavy grey blanket, her throat burned with thirst and her stomach reminded her plaintively how long it had been since the pea soup with Erik. She crawled onto the cot and dragged the scratchy blanket over her. Her fingers fumbled along the cool floorboards, stumbling into the small pewter jug of water beside the bed and found it half-empty. She drained it. While it did not slake her thirst, it was better than nothing.

The small blue book under her pillow offered solace. Her fingers traced the inscription on the inner cover: 'May all of your songs take flight. With all my love, Erik.'

"Erik," she breathed his name like a prayer into the darkness. Her fingers skirted the edge of her hurt, the hot, tight skin under her eyebrow, the tender, burning edge at her temple. Christine burrowed under the blanket, seeking the solace of her dreams. He was always there singing songs in her head.

In her dreams, he was always there.

XXX

Erik swung down from César's wide back and settled him with an absent pat. A swift detour to Nadir's flat had found it empty. Riding through Paris's streets revealed hints of dissent, poor neighborhoods flying the blood red flag of the Commune. While wealthy families such as Erik's and infamous establishments such as the Madame's showed no lack beyond threadbare silks, the lower classes scrabbled simply for enough to feed themselves. The emperor Napoleon was the direct author of their suffering, and as such, no member of the aristocracy was safe to travel abroad unarmed.

Méchant's stable yard was deserted. The cobbles ended abruptly, crumbling into uneven gravel and sad, grey mud packed firm by the battery of dozens of feet and hooves. The wind howled, causing a rusted hinge to screech. Some firm, quiet instinct told him to remain quiet as he entered the stable's cold, dim interior. His hand found the hilt of his knife. It always sat easier in his hand than the revolver, though his skill as a marksman was nearly as renowned as his skill with a rapier.

The stalls were dark and yawning, smelling of musty straw and old manure. Faint grunting and scuffling at the end of the aisle caught his attention. Cat-quiet, Erik crept closer.

"-has had enough, has he? We'll make certain he's sucking cocks like the rest of us, eh?"

The stall door burst open and a young man staggered forward, trying to regain his footing. The instant Raoul's bloodied, frightened upturned face penetrated his mind, Erik sprang into action. One fluid leap and he scaled the partition and saw his brother's tormentors—three of Méchant's men already reaching for Raoul's prone form.

"Three on one? Let's even the odds a bit." Erik snarled. The biggest one, equal to Erik's own height and enough muscle to be arrogant about it was the first to charge. Erik dodged the wild punch, seized the extended hand and brought the forearm down over his knee, snapping the bones. The idiot howled in agony.

The blood sang in his veins, the demons jeered. The second, a taut man peering at him through a curtain of greasy red hair came at him with a knife. They traded whistling slashes before Erik caught the man's knife hand. He twisted until the rusty blade fell from nerveless fingers. A sharp jab to the throat sent the man to his knees, gasping for breath. The third—smooth cheeked and wide-eyed—turned tail and ran. Erik swiveled toward the first attacker. With wicked skill, Erik grasped a fistful of hair and exposed the vulnerable throat, Adam's apple bobbing. The thirsty knife flashed, eager for the red-black spray of blood . . .

"Erik, don't!" Raoul's voice reached him through the cacophony of bloodlust. The burly young man in his grip whimpered, piggish eyes darting between Erik's savage mien to the face of his erstwhile prey. Raoul's pale face held a strength like steel and Erik felt a moment's fierce pride in him.

"He's one of Méchant's. There'll be questions," he said. The smile that touched Erik's lips was unholy. He tightened his grip in the boy's oily hair, the knife's edge kissing the tender skin peppered with downy beard. A thin stream of blood dribbled down to stain the ragged collar of his shirt.

"You're lucky my brother is here to grant you mercy. I would have happily slit your throat and left you for the worms to feast upon." Erik's voice was a terrible thing of dark, hungry purpose, a knife's edge as keen as the one pressed to the man's throat. Inspiration struck and he said slowly, "You will tell me all you know of Méchant. Everything," he breathed, underlining the last words with a flourish of savage menace. The boy whimpered, cradling his broken arm. Raoul, standing with one fist braced against the partition, straightened and looked down at the thing at his feet with disdain and quiet disgust. The pride in Erik's heart bloomed.

He was a worthy de Chagny.

xxx

Something was very wrong. He could feel it prickling along his skin as he crossed the threshold of Madame's brothel. The parlor was empty of lounging whores or scurrying servants, but familiar sounds of activity filtered down from upstairs. While he couldn't pinpoint the specific wrongness of the tableau save for a missing lamp darkening the room, he knew in his gut it had to do with his Christine. The Madame appeared in a whirl of an expensive lace shawl and jewel-toned silk. Kohl-lined eyes widened upon seeing him loitering in her doorway. Widened, not with their usual avaricious gleam, but something colder, something he'd seen too often in the eyes of the woman he loved.

Fear.

The look kindled something like panic in his chest, clawing like a mad animal at his lungs, his heart. With the skill of long practice, he smothered his true feelings and plastered on a smile.

"Good evening, Madame. Your presence is irresistible. I simply had to come back for more."

To a discerning eye, the short, curt bow betrayed his agitation, but Madame did not notice. The discerning ear would also notice the serrated edge to the words, ready to cut and rend. Madame was oblivious to these subtle cues, but he was not. Her hands were shaking: a minute, fine tremor. She reeked of apprehension.

"We are honored by your presence as always." Her voice was steady, but the simpering smile did not reach her eyes. Erik waved a gloved hand toward the dim, empty parlor.

"Is business suffering with all of the emperor's talk of war? I've never seen your establishment look so . . . shabby." Any slur on her décor, no matter how backhanded, was a sure way to garnish a reaction from the Madame. Predictably, Madame d'Avrigny stiffened with a stiff quirk of brow.

"It's laziness on behalf of my serving staff, Monsieur. You understand, I'm sure." The commiserating drawl dug under his skin.

"Yes, well. Would you be so kind as to summon Christine yourself, since you're so short-handed? You understand," he imitated coolly.

Her usual poise eroded, he saw the shiver of offense ripple through her, but she obeyed without demur. The clawing panic calmed to a low, hungry purr at the thought of seeing her, of having the whistling hole in his chest seal closed in wholeness. Erik paced the parlor in quick turns. The boy who had attacked Raoul sang quite beautifully with Erik's knife pressed to his throat. He should have resorted to violence far sooner. Nadir or no Nadir, he would rescue Christine before the week's end.

"Monsieur, the Green Room is ready for your pleasure," Madame's obsequious voice said from behind him.

Erik relished the sweet anticipation of turning and seeing her . . . twelve hours was much too long to be without her. Chocolate brown eyes met his with the same hungry, almost feverish intensity. God, she was beautiful. A deep, brimming well of contentment filled his soul. She was here. The dark parlor obscured the beloved planes of her face and the wide smile was odd, crooked. The fear folded back on itself and sat in a hard, cold square in his belly as Christine grabbed his hand and led him up the stairs.

Chapter Text

XVI

 


Christine did not think there could be anything worse than Madame's display of apoplectic rage this morning. She had been wrong. The anxious tenderness of her careful grooming earlier was far worse. Christine knew the older woman's sanity had gone as she crooned and ran a soft brush through Christine's mane of curls.

"We'll just keep this our little secret, hmm darling? Just between us? See," she dabbed cosmetics on Christine's bruised eye, "all better. It never happened. He never needs to know. You won't tell him, will you sweetheart?" When Madame uttered the last sentence, the soft hand in her hair curled into a vicious talon.

Terror warred with confusion and it took everything in her to prance sedately on Madame's arm, to give him that brittle smile when all she wanted in the world was his arms around her. Madame didn't know about Erik's habit of having her remove her cosmetics. Oh God, what horrors awaited her when he found out? The familiar walls of the sedately striped Green Room soothed her. Even in this, Madame was a step ahead; the tapers on the nightstands were gone, leaving only the faint orange pulse of the fire.

"Christine." The syllables of her name spoken from his golden throat was a pleasure within itself and some of her stress ebbed away. Her body whispered to simply relax, melt against him and . . . Madame's mad eyes intruded upon that fantasy. His warm hands caressed her shoulders and exerted the gentlest pressure, trying to turn her to face him. Christine threaded her fingers through his and wrapped them around her belly, resting her head in the hollow of his shoulder.

"I missed you," she said softly, and meant 'I love you.' The subtle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, the gentle tickle of that breath in her hair was music to her.

"As I have missed you, darling." He kissed her hair, her temple, creeping down to taste her cheek . . . Christine danced away.

"I'm starved," she said, which was true.

She heard his light tread behind her and sat in her usual place, the shadows concealing her face. Erik peeled off his outer garments down to his shirtsleeves and draped them over the back of his chair with a heavy thunk. She glimpsed the sheathed knife and the faint pearly glow of his revolver butt. A deadly truth weighed on her. Madame would not let her go easily. Bruno's long, brutish shadow loomed over her thoughts. Erik would have to fight, even kill to see her free. Her romantic fantasies evaporated. What if he was hurt? The squeaking little creature in her soul wailed at the thought.

"You needn't wait for me, my dear. If you are hungry, feel free to eat at your leisure," Erik's rich voice interrupted Christine's frightening musings and, eager for distraction, she devoured the food set before her, scarcely noticing taste or texture. They shared repast in relative silence, but the quality of this silence settled heavily on her. Tension, danger lurked there as it had not since their first night together. A furtive glance found Erik taking a long draw from his wine, expression as blank and forbidding as his masked side.

"Is . . . is there something wrong, Erik?" she asked, the food settling in a hard, unpalatable lump in her stomach. Immediately, his green eyes softened and his hand covered hers, the rough pad of his thumb gently caressing her pulse point.

"No. My father's health is worsening." A bone-deep prick of sympathy struck her and it was pure compassion that leaned her toward him and tightened her grip on his hand.

"I'm sorry," she said. His full lips curved.

"It is all right. He's a right bastard, but he's still my father." The almost wistful tone underpinning the casual words touched her. Silence reigned for a handful of moments, a silence of comfort and contentment. Those beautiful eyes were soft.

"Is there something you need to tell me, Christine? We promised openness between each other, yes?" the timbre of his voice dropped to a silken purr. Christine stiffened and tried to pull her hand free, but he held it in a gentle, effortless grip. His other hand reached up unerringly, cupping her bruised cheek. Did he have the eyes of a cat?

"Nothing happened." The words rushed out around the fist clenched in her throat, fear slippery and cold. The corners of his mouth turned down.

"That's a lie." Oh God, it would be better if he was sharp, suspicious and demanding. This gentle, implacable patience was unraveling her like a spool of thread. Erik's warm, callused thumb grazed the tender flesh along her cheekbone and eye socket. Even wreathed in shadow, even painted with cosmetics, he knew. Of course he knew! He knew the color of her soul, of course he could see through her thin, clumsy deception.

"My poor lamb, my poor baby," he crooned. Quivering, nameless emotion rose like a surging wave, pressing against the cold fist around her vocal cords. Christine grasped his thick wrist, turning her head to drop a trembling kiss on his warm, salty palm.

"I . . . I . . . I ran into the doorjamb. It was an accident. It's nothing," she stuttered, addressing the empty plates and soiled tablecloth.

"Try again. You have nothing to fear from me," he pressed, his voice cloud-soft.

Oh, how sweetly he interrogated her! How dare he! How dare he come here, how dare he give her hope, make her love him, fill her head with these stupid dreams when all there was left for her was misery and degradation? Madame would lock her away in a closet, letting her out only to be fucked by the unending line of ravenous monsters and Bruno . . . Bruno would k—kill her Erik and then what would be left of her? A salty taste coated her mouth, of tears and regret. She dropped his hand and it hung hesitant in the air near her cheek, radiating the elusive promise of warmth and comfort.

"Do I? Do I have nothing to fear from you, Erik de Chagny? You could hurt me more than Madame or Bruno ever could. I have so very much to fear from you. You are more dangerous than any rapist."

A flinch shuddered through him. At the naked grief on his face, she wanted to gather him close and kiss him and make him better, but the salty taste and the clawing, nameless thing inside her was not appeased. His hands sagged to his sides and she felt bereft at their loss.

"I . . . I suppose that is true. I could hurt you . . . but you could hurt me too. You could have shattered me last night when you removed my mask. You could have utterly annihilated me with just a look." He rose and circled his chair, strong hands curling on the curved back, knuckles bony white. His face contradicted this tense posture, his eyes . . . oh God, she saw the love in his eyes and her heart fluttered in answer to it.

"My poor little songbird. The world has used you harshly. But do you not realize what it is I feel for you? What I believe you feel for me? It is so beautiful, Christine."

And it was. It was beautiful; it pierced her with something like agony. Or ecstasy. She wished she could release some of this pain with tears. Their cleansing flow hadn't touched her since Papa's death. Erik moved to kneel before her chair and she was reminded of their first night together when he had taken the same attitude. Green eyes moved over her face, lingering at the bruised eye, as warm and intimate as a caress.

"Tell me," he pleaded. Christine bowed her head.

"It's really nothing, Erik. A . . . a customer just got a little rough, that's all. You should see what poor Jeanne looks like after Monsieur Dupont is finished with her."

"A . . . a customer?" the words emerged in a strangled whisper. Christine's head snapped up at his odd tone. The orange, wavering shadows made it hard to tell, but his face matched the pallor of his white mask. A sharp needle of trepidation stabbed her.

"Erik?" Christine slid to her knees in front of him, "Are you all right?" Erik shook himself like a wet dog. A low groan emerged from his throat. He cradled his head in his hands, fingers digging into the scalp.

"Oh Christine . . . oh Christine!" he moaned, the anguish in his voice chilling her.

"Erik! What's wrong?" she demanded, shaking his shoulder. He snapped out of it, bleary eyes focusing on her, dragging in a deep breath. A horrible, mirthless smile twisted his mouth.

"I am a fool, Christine. A bloody, fucking fool to believe that whore could be trusted. Of course she'd skim a little extra off of one of her girls . . . it takes a perverse sort of brazen courage to face me night after night knowing that I . . . that you were . . ."

"You're not making any sense!" Christine snapped. Again, that ugly smile. It twisted his dear features into a stranger's. His eyes were glowing strangely. A banked rage that smoldered low, a hissing fuse to a stick of dynamite.

"I struck a deal with the Madame. To make you exclusively mine; no one else was to touch you. I've paid her a fortune and . . . and the bitch double-crossed me!" Erik calmed, cupped her cheek. Anguished tenderness animated his beloved features.

"And you suffered for it. I am so very sorry, my darling." For her part, Christine felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her.

"W—When did you make this deal?"

"After our first night together." Her throat closed. Even then? Even then he was willing to buy her protection? Hesitant hands grasped her shoulders, drawing her against his solid chest and strong, beating heart. Christine pressed a palm against his chest, feeling the warm shape of his locket beneath his shirt.

"Can you forgive me?" he whispered.

"For what?"

"For being a blind fool. I should have known the Madame would-" She peeled back, pressing a finger to his lips.

"Hush. You did what you thought was right. And I think it is very, very sweet." She replaced her finger with her lips. After a moment's tender clinch, Erik pulled away and gave her a measured look, petting her cheek with heartbreaking tenderness.

"How?"

Christine nuzzled against his hand.

"It doesn't matter."

"I'd like to hurt him for you," he said, his mouth twisted in black humor.

"He's not worth it."

Erik exhaled a breath through his nose and lurched to his feet, his knees popping. Christine accepted his proffered hand, and stood. Erik led her to the foot of the bed and sat. He stared at their joined hands, kneading her knuckles. Christine happily rested her head against his shoulder, content to simply be with him, this man she loved. Erik's voice pierced the tranquil silence: "There . . . there is something I must tell you."

A chill stippled her skin with gooseflesh. Something in his tone made Christine gnaw on her lower lip, trying to contain the sudden surge of jagged anxiety ricocheting in her chest.

"Very well. What is that?" she asked in measured tones. Erik's long, musician's hands continued their patient kneading, restlessly caressing her hands. He sat ramrod straight, tension emanating from him. Christine peered at his face, glimpsing something dark.

"It's . . . it's about me. It's the reason why Claire and my father despise me. It . . . It might change how you feel about me." The words emerged in sharp, pained bursts. He finally met her gaze and she was startled to see his green eyes hungry and darting, searching her face for the slightest hint of a negative reaction. When Christine remained in uncomprehending silence, Erik flew to his feet and began to pace the length of the room in restless turns. Christine bestirred herself to answer.

"Change how I feel about you? That isn't possible," she said, trying to soothe the jittery tension riding him like a demented jockey. A harsh bark of laughter emerged from his throat.

"Wait until you have heard what I have to tell before you make any rash pronouncements," he said with a curt, stalling gesture. Christine exhaled a shaky breath, marshaling her courage.

"Tell me." A deep, fragile yearning filled his face, and Christine longed to press him to her heart, shelter him from the demons hounding him. Instead, he straightened like a soldier, staring sightlessly into misty memory, and began to talk.

The bay stallion snorted and tossed its elegant head, eager to be gone. As eager as Erik was himself. It had been weeks since he had traded the self-important bustle of Parisian society for the quiet haven of the Château. His young wife preferred the activity of the city and he bowed to her wishes. Fine fissures spread in the freshly laid cornerstone of their marriage, fissures that widened every time she rebuffed his affection or every time his sharp tongue got the better of him. Erik took the rein from the groom and swung into the saddle in one smooth motion. His feet slid into the stirrups and he gathered the reins with practiced ease, adjusting the heavy coat and cape against the driving January chill.

'Papa! Papa!' a high, boyish voice shouted shrill from the doorway. Erik watched his three-year old son fly down the steps toward him, the sun glinting off his blond hair. He favored his mother's pale, narrow features, but held the promise of de Chagny height in the breadth of shoulder.

'Thomas, watch Phantom's hooves!' Erik commanded, dismounting and scooping up his boy in a tight embrace. Green eyes matching Erik's own blinked innocently. The boy was bloody fearless, Erik thought with a hint of masculine pride.

'I want to go with you Papa!' Thomas demanded, small chubby hands clutching his stubbled cheeks. Erik grinned, pressing a hard kiss on the boy's brow. The force of his love was almost violent in its scope and intensity. This cherished child had his father wrapped around his little finger, a vessel for all of Erik's fierce devotion. Thomas was mortar filling the rifts between Erik and Claire, fresh and clean and anchoring.

'You must stay with your mother,' he said, though it was a token protest. Solitude paled to having Thomas all to himself. Thomas pouted.

'Please, Papa? I'll be good! You promised you'd show me the fishy pond and teach me to swim and-'

'It's much too cold to swim, Thomas. It is a long ride-' Erik knew that pugnacious thrust of chin and the hard glint in his eye as a gesture of his own.

'I don't care. I want to go with you!' A flutter of movement at the entryway told Erik that Thomas' nurse was coming after her wayward charge. Upon impish impulse, Erik settled Thomas onto Phantom's saddle and swung up behind him, swathing him in the weight of his cape.

'Never fear, Madame! Thomas is coming with me!' the two of them crowed in delight as Erik touched his heels to Phantom's flanks and they flew off down the cobbled lane. Thomas' giddy laughter filled Erik's heart with joy.

The Château in winter is grand and austere, with an air of bleak sadness in the weak, watery sunlight. Even Thomas' laughter had to fight against the oppressive weight of generations of de Chagnys staring down from their gloomy portraits. Its grounds were quite the opposite. Scarcely an hour after their arrival—the boy had fallen asleep in his arms along the way and Erik hadn't had the heart to wake him—the two of them were heading out, swathed in coats, gloves and scarves into the glittering cold.

In his solitude, Erik sought the wind-swept fields, the quiet lap of water against the old, creaking dock, the sighing trees for peace and inspiration. They reminded him of Monsieur Eklund before Erik's father had sent him away for filling his son's head with worthless daydreams. Dreams of building something beautiful, dreams of writing an opera that would make the angels weep. Like a puppy, Thomas charged and floundered in the snow drifts, yipping happily.

Erik watched his antics fondly, absurdly jealous of his carefree exuberance. Together, father and son meandered toward the fishing pond, now frozen. His son's high voice peppered him with questions ranging from about the fish to why water freezes to why shoe laces were invented. Their legs dangling in the empty air and Thomas' blond head leaning against his arm, Erik considered himself well content with the world.

'Sir? Might I have a word?' Erik turned and found Monsieur Greene, his father's long-time steward loitering at the edge of the dock. The poor man couldn't abide with water, having nearly drowned as a young man. Even at this distance, the man's age-seamed features were grey with distress. Erik exhaled heavily through his nostrils.

'Thomas, I must speak with Monsieur Greene. I want you to promise me that you will not let go of this post,' Erik said, wrapping his son's mittened fingers firmly around the dock's support post. His son's wide green eyes were solemn.

'I promise, Papa.' For all of his mischievous exuberance, Thomas was a sweet and biddable lad, lacking his father and grandfather's notorious temper. Erik pressed a quick kiss on his warm, golden head and stood.

"To this day, I don't remember what Greene was there to tell me," Erik's voice sounded cold and dead to her, as cold and dead as that winter's day.

"All I remember was that sound—that horrible, awful sound!" Erik pressed his hands to his face.

A groan and snap of abused wood, the squeak of shattering ice, mingled with a high voice shrieking 'Papa!' Erik turned in time to see Thomas disappear over the edge . . .

'Thomas!' Erik roared. Ten galloping strides and he dove into the black, stabbing cold.

"Thomas swallowed a great deal of water, but he was still breathing when we broke the surface. It was half a mile back to the Château. By the time I got him inside, the damage was already done. Less than a week later, Thomas was dead. Because of me."

A harsh, animal-like keen emanated from him, the articulation of his soul's blackest guilt. He seemed to crumple, his rigid soldier's posture disintegrating as he slid to his knees. Her heart broke for him.

Erik's face was carefully blank, a prisoner awaiting his sentence.

"I loved my son more than anything in the world." The rough, pleading edge to the words snagged her heart. Christine swallowed the lump in her throat. Erik's words drifted back to her: Mend the void yawning between us . . . I wanted it so badly . . .if you only knew what I've done . . .

With a terrible clarity, she knew the dimensions of the guilt he carried since he was scarcely older than she. He thought of himself as cursed. That opinion was beaten and branded into his heart.

"You think I can't love you now. Because Claire doesn't." Erik leapt to his feet, turning his back to her. She watched his head wag solemnly. Christine wanted to embrace him, kiss him, but she clenched her hands in folds of her skirt. He needed the words.

"Erik, look at me." His head snapped up at the sharp command in her tone, eyes shining with unshed tears.

"You fool man! Of course I love you. How could I blame you for something you couldn't have possibly prevented?" Again she saw that fragile yearning, that desperate hope quickly seized and smothered.

"I shouldn't have left him on the dock, I should have made him stay in Paris with his mother-"

"It was an accident."

"It was Fate. I was not meant to father children."

"That a lie!" Christine flew to him, cradling his cheek. With a hitching breath like a sob, Erik turned his face into her palm and peppered it with hungry kisses.

"Claire was cruel to lay this at your feet. It was an accident, love. A terrible accident, a horrible tragedy and I'm so sorry you lost Thomas. But it was not your fault. I love you. I can't remember when I didn't."

"Do you really, Christine? Can you love me still?" his voice was soft, unbelieving. Christine smiled gently, peeling the mask from his face like a groom removing his bride's veil.

"I do," she whispered, standing on tiptoe to kiss his soft, parted lips.

Erik shuddered beneath her touch, his mouth quiescent. Then his hands plunged into her hair, cupping her skull. Christine flicked her tongue into his mouth, shyly, playfully. A low growl rippled from his chest and Erik angled his head to plunder her mouth, his long, skillful tongue surging. Pleasure weakened her knees, turned the bones of her pelvis to sponge. Every interconnected nerve felt as if it were bathed in the cradling stroke of his tongue, the rub of his lips, the taste and scent of him. Christine's hands stroked his poor, twisted face, treasuring the dark and light of him. She tasted the salt of his tears, felt the subtle quiver of his body. Compassion twisted its gentle knife in her, pierced by the fragility underneath his strength. The kisses softened and eased into a series of languid pecks.

"Christine," he whispered, and she shuddered at the exquisite flavor of love in his voice. Erik pressed soft kisses on her cheeks, her chin, her forehead, her eyelids.

"I love you. I didn't want to say it while you were still trapped here, but I can't help it. For the first time in my life, I am in love and it's beautiful."

"Oh Erik," Christine breathed, drawing him down for another kiss.

"I love you. I love you so much!"

God, spoken aloud, Christine realized how inane and inadequate those words were. How could they describe the miracle of it, the terror and the hope? Christine tunneled her fingers into his hair, devouring his mouth with passionate, hungry kisses, striving to show him the depth and breadth of her love. Heavy heat pulsed through her body and she wanted him to spread her across the bed like an empty dress and claim her. But he gentled, resting his forehead against hers even as she felt his manhood hard and eager against her belly.

"Christine . . . my darling, my sweet girl. I want to make love to you. But . . . not now. Not here. Not until we both are free. Are . . . you amenable to this?"

Touched by his desire to honor her as well as keep her, Christine nodded. Erik dusted her face with soft, grazing kisses and Christine hummed softly, drinking in his passion and his comfort. Finally, they sat on the edge of the bed, facing each other with their hands linked. For herself, Christine couldn't bear not to be touching him in some manner. Erik's green eyes hardened into a jewel-like brilliance.

"I will come for you tomorrow night." For the second time that night, all the breath rushed out of her lungs. But this time, her heart raced with a beautiful, breathless hope.

"T—Tomorrow? That's so soon . . ." Christine breathed. Erik's smile was quick, mischievous and utterly charming, as if they were about to embark on a wonderful adventure.

"Yes. My friend Nadir must have fallen off the face of the Earth; I haven't had word of him in weeks. It was his help I was waiting for. You . . . you understand now why I couldn't—I couldn't—risk your safety? A moment's lapse and . . . and-" His features crumpled and her heart reacted similarly at the sight of the naked grief on his face. This at the mere thought of her coming to harm, how he loved her! Christine hushed him with a finger pressed to his lips.

"It's all right. I understand." Erik whispered his thanks against the sensitive pad of her finger.

"Raoul and an . . . informant we recruited has graciously offered to help me. I will cause a distraction outside and Raoul will smuggle you away. Our informant told us Méchant's men will be otherwise occupied at a quarter past two in the morning. Raoul will escort you out of the city. My mother's family had a cottage in the forest near Reims that fell to me when she died. You will be safe there." Christine couldn't stop the smile from spreading across her face. Erik's face grew grave and she saw the shadow of terror. They shared in it for several heartbeats.

Erik cupped her chin and kissed her, lazy, sweet and heavy like honey, like a sun-kissed promise.

"Tomorrow?" she whispered against his mouth.

"Tomorrow."

Chapter Text

XVII

More than two hours had passed before Erik finally returned to the de Chagny townhouse at half past ten o' clock. He had no more than crossed the threshold when a sobbing Claire flew at him, slapping him hard across the face.

"You bastard! You pathetic wretch of a man!" she snarled through her sobs. Greying blond hair limp and wispy around her red, tearstained face, his normally composed wife was in quite the state which sent waves of cold and hot washing over him. What had happened? Erik caught the second blow before it landed. His mind rapidly decided it was angry.

"What in the name of God has gotten into you?" he demanded. Claire struggled against his implacable grip and with a deft twist Erik maneuvered her into the small parlor adjoining the foyer. Gas lamps lit the room in an incongruous merry brightness.

"Me? You're the lech who needs to visit a brothel twice in one day! When your father lays dying. When your sisters need you. When your wife-" Erik release Claire with a trifle more force than strictly necessary, his anger only matched by his guilt. When he and Christine were together, it was . . . perfection. He felt like a different man, kinder, less jaded, whole. It was only as the world intruded that it looked so sordid and pathetic. He and Claire took strategically neutral positions, like opponents in a boxing match, her on the settee and he leaning his hip against the piano.

"Spare me the dramatics, Claire. We both know you and my father neither require nor seek my company. And the girls had you," he replied, moving to the sideboard and pouring a sloppy finger's breadth of cognac. Erik paused to throw it back, its heat and taste searing his mouth.

"How is he?" he asked quietly, pouring another tot and handing it to his wife. Glaring murder at him from beneath a blond fringe, Claire plucked the cut crystal glass delicately but did not drink.

"Much the same." Erik exhaled heavily, marshaling his rapidly fraying patience.

"Then why the histrionics? I am surprised you didn't wake the girls with such a spectacular temper tantrum." The words dripped with scorn. Claire's blue eyes skittered away from his.

"Are your needs really so pressing that you must assuage them twice in one day?" Erik snorted, absurdly amused by her petty malice.

"That's rich. Claire de Chagny nee Chevalier, jealous?" It was Claire's turn to snort. A very unladylike thing, snorting.

"Hardly. We have been over this, Erik. It's humiliating."

"Try again, Claire. It doesn't ring true. Let's have truth between each other, just this once." It was the cognac, it was this horrendously long day that brought the words to his lips. He waited, tense, for her to answer. He no longer loved his wife, he was absolutely sure of that, which was ineffably sad to him. A man should love his wife. Christine had taken his battered, withered heart into her possession and named it precious.

There was an instant of an unguarded look when Claire's bloodshot blue eyes met his. Something like fear darted across her narrow features.

"I -" The door opened to reveal Madame Villon portly frame.

"Forgive me for interrupting, Madame, but-" she saw Erik's tall form swathed in black and her wrinkled hand fluttered to her throat before recognition permeated, "oh Sir, I'm so glad you're home. Your father's taken a turn for the worse. The physician said he might not waken this side of St. Peter's." Claire was already leaving, her cognac untouched on the end table. Erik rose to follow.

xxx

The wasted body in the bed, wheezing with each breath was not his father. Erik watched the labored rise and fall of the wasted chest under his emerald silk nightshirt and the heap of quilts. It was after midnight, and Erik sat vigil over his father, all the others had long since sought their beds.

"The physician said not to disturb your rest by talking, but he's a bloody idiot, so I'll speak my peace while you still have ears to hear, hmm?" Erik said, supporting his chin on his folded fists braced on his knees.

There was no response from the prone figure and Erik hadn't expected one. Words flew through his mind at bewildering speed, all the stifled words that he'd bitten back. Words to hurt, words to heal. He chose the words sure to engender a reaction from the gasping fish in emerald silk.

"I am in love. Her name is Christine. She's . . . she works as a—a prostitute at Madame d'Avrigny's brothel." Sure enough, the next breath emerged in a weak cough that could have once been construed as a laugh. Erik snorted.

"I supposed you would laugh at that, you bloody hypocrite. I can just hear you calling me a blind fool and a lovesick boy. I love her and by some miracle, she loves me. I . . ." Erik faltered, speaking his deepest fear in a hushed whisper.

"I try not to examine it too closely, for fear I will see that her love for me is borne out of some twisted form of gratitude. Gratitude for the primitive gift of human kindness. I took my pleasure from her like all the others. The only difference between me and they is that I made sure she enjoyed it. But I love her. God help me, I love her too much to let her go now. A better man would. But I learned my lessons well, Father. I am not a better man." Sighing harshly, Erik raked a hand through his hair. His tone strove for lightness.

"I intend on marrying her. Legacy and all that. Claire and I haven't shared a bed in over a year. As I'm sure you're aware, judging from your accursed will. Machiavelli would be proud of his pupil." In his head, he heard the caustic rumble of his father's voice, unmarred by sickness: 'Claire will never divorce your sorry carcass.'

"True, Claire will never divorce me. Why it that? She has never given me a convincing answer."

'Why else, Son? Money.'

"Money is not a temptation for Claire. She dresses befitting her station, but has never spent indulgently. There is more to it than that, and you have an inkling of it."

Erik eased back in his chair. It occurred to him that all of the little unanswered questions he had of his father would remain so, forever. Grief welled up in a sudden, uncontrollable rush. Despite their troubled relationship, deep in his heart, he still loved his father and yearned for reconciliation. Erik understood with an utter, profound clarity the allure of Heaven. Just one more chance to talk to loved ones long gone held a powerful allure. Erik reached for the limp hand folded over the wasted chest, the skin cool and dry.

"I'm here, Father," he whispered gently into his father's ear. A soft breath escaped like a sigh, the cold fingers exerted the weakest pressure around Erik's and he knew he had been heard.

xxx

Erik's eyes felt hot and gritty, muscles complaining with the deep, abiding ache of a grieving heart. He had felt so for years after Thomas' death, it almost became comfortable. It was only the joy of Christine's love that had dispelled the slow entropy of his soul. Dawn had not yet kissed the horizon, and Erik was now Comte de Chagny. He had stayed until the hideous rattle of Michel de Chagny's lungs mercifully ceased, and tended the cold body himself. His father was dead and lay in cold repose until morning came with the undertaker to see him to his tomb. Jacqueline and Elise needed to see him too, and mourn. Adele, his father's young widow, would depart for her father's house after the funeral, happier and richer without her dour husband.

Erik sat in his usual chair to the right of the ornate chair at the head of the table. The room was dark and quiet, and he stared sightlessly into the gloom as solid black shapes of furniture asserted themselves from the amorphous darkness. The dark curled around him, embracing him like an old friend. His thoughts wore a groove into his mind. Father is dead. I must free Christine. Father is dead. I must free—

"Husband?"

"Comtesse," he murmured, wishing for cognac, a cigar, something to occupy his hands and . . . and protect him from her approach. Claire with her blue eyes that saw too much and judged him so harshly. Despite her protestations to the contrary, he was simply a man, after all. Men had needs. Madame d'Avrigny's existence was proof enough on that score.

Damn it, why did she call him 'husband?' She didn't want him, she certainly didn't love him. Why chain him with that small, profound word? It was a barren comfort from the howling wind, hunched as he was in the ruins of grief and a broken marriage. At least the dark breathed and sighed around him, cool and concealing like silk.

Thick rugs softened the tread of her step as she approached and slipped into her chair across from him with a soft creak and sigh of wood and cloth. A wave of her dense freesia perfume wafted over him.

"Your father has passed, then?"

"Astute observation, my dear." Leaden silence followed, and even the soft groan and settle of the townhouse reproached him. Erik heaved a sigh.

"I apologize. That was unnecessary." Silent reproach stretched between them like thread on a spindle.

"Have you considered your father's will?" Erik attempted to forestall her question with a terse wave of his hand, only belatedly realizing she couldn't see him.

The cruel crumbling of his father's final hours, coupled with the nerve-shredding fear of what may await Christine tonight filled Erik with a tense, gnawing ache in his belly. Part terror, part despair. And Claire—his wife!—wanted to talk about the bloody will, Michel de Chagny's last feeble attempt to exert control on the world? What was to stop him from tearing the bloody paper into confetti and doing as he damn well pleased? The answer was nothing and no one. Emperor Napoleon was a type and shadow of the class's former glory, if he hadn't fled the country already. Even now, the poorer masses scrabbled for power.

"Yes, I've considered it," Erik replied in cool tones. They could be conversing over the weather or the state of the roads. The contrary side of him left it at that for a handful of seconds. Claire's voice was surprisingly gentle.

"What is your decision?"

"I would see my half-brother Raoul raised to his rightful rank with all the monies and titles belonging to the Vicomte de Chagny and my heir." That was absolute truth. Baseborn or no, Raoul deserved an education and a life beyond that of a simple groom. He waited, expecting an outburst of vitriol. After all, with Raoul's rise, that left fewer francs for her beloved brother Etienne to squander.

"That is honorable," she said quietly. Erik scowled in her direction, wary of the bald-faced compliment.

"But?" he prompted.

"But nothing. It is a horrible injustice that he was not cared for earlier, if he was truly the Com—your father's son."

"That is very fair of you, Claire." He could not temper the shock in his voice. Had there been even a hint that Erik had fathered a bastard, she would not be half so forgiving.

"Have you given any thought to my terms? Surely hundreds of thousands of francs are balm enough against the sting of public censure. Francs enough to see to your mother and brother and thus fulfill your filial duty," he said, offhand and flippant. This silence fell heavy between them, tasting of familiar bitterness.

"No," she said at last.

"No?" Erik repeated, incredulous, "But why?"

"I . . . I can't forget." Erik dissected her cryptic statement and forcefully uncurled his clenched fists.

"Precisely. You cannot forget, or forgive. This is torturous for both of us, Claire. I will not allow you to use our marriage as the proverbial hair shirt."

"Why the sudden push to be rid of me? Have you fallen for one of your sluts?" she drawled, venom dripping from the words. The darkness was as concealing as the confessional, and it emboldened him.

"She is not a slut, but yes. I am in love."

"What?" It was Claire's turn to sound incredulous.

"Her name is Christine."

"You pathetic fool. She wants your francs, not you."

"By that light, she does not much differ from my wife, does she?" he snarled. His anger mounted and the next words emerged in a harsh rasp: "Is it so unbelievable to you that someone would love me? God knows I tried to make you love me and failed. What love I had for you, I locked away until it died. I would have contented myself with a smile, a warm look . . . but you were determined to punish me. For years I thought I deserved it, but no longer. Christine told me the truth I needed to hear: it was not my fault." He enunciated the words carefully. A screech of chair legs on the floor announced her abrupt rise.

"You told your whore about Thomas?"

Oh Claire, always missing the point, he thought.

Striving for a civil tone, Erik said: "It is not my wish for us to lose the dregs of civility between us, but if you refuse my terms, I will initiate the legal proceedings. I would see you well cared for, Claire, and free to do as you wish." Erik rose and stared out the window. A sliver of pink-tinged pearl rimmed the horizon presaging the dawn.

"Husband," she whispered and Erik turned to look at her with dispassionate eyes. No tears gleamed in the faint light, nor was her face ravaged by despair, or malice. Instead, her familiar features were blank, cold.

"Yes?" Erik asked gently.

"I can't forget," she repeated, this time the words tinged with sadness. Erik nodded, regret a painful cramp in his chest. Maybe, there had been a chance for them before Thomas died. Maybe once.

"I know," he replied with the sad knowledge that some wounds would never fully heal.

The day passed in a grey blur. Breakfast was bleak affair when his sisters descended the stairs to find Erik in their father's chair. Jacqueline grasped the meaning immediately and broke down in sobs. Elise stared wide-eyed, tugging at her governess's skirts and asking why. Erik went to her and rested his hands on her shoulders.

"Papa is gone, little one," he said solemnly. Horrid understanding lit in those sweet blue eyes and she hurled herself into his embrace, clinging like a limpet. His own tears were lodged in a hot knot in his throat and Erik buried his face in Elise's wild mane of black hair, breathing deep of lavender soap, the faint tang of dream-sweat and innocence.

Grief was a lead curtain over the townhouse until luncheon whereupon Claire lured the girls into the parlor with the promise of cakes and their favorite stories. Erik followed his father's lawyer to the study and spent the afternoon mired in musty paper and legal jargon. His mind was across the city, circling restlessly around the precious, precious keeper of his heart. Preparing for his father's burial, Erik surreptitiously set his own affairs in order. The household staff was discreetly instructed to prepare Claire and the girls' things for the Château tomorrow. Paris was no longer safe, but Erik saw no merit in alarming them unnecessarily, or interrupting their grief to add another burden to their slender shoulders. Erik rubbed his chest, trying to ease the taut knot as he thought of Christine and Raoul. It was no longer safe for any of them. The footman Luc rapped on the doorframe as the solicitor took his leave.

"Yes? Was there any word?"

"No, Monsieur le Vic—I mean, Comte, er Sir. Monsieur Kahn's home was empty. It looked as if he had not resided there in some time." Erik leaned back in his father's chair, steepling his fingers. Perhaps it had been a foolish hope to think Nadir had only left the city for a short venture, but it still merited investigation.

"Thank you, Luc. You may go," he murmured.

Gone? That is unlike Nadir to go without so much as a word. Just as well, his home will do for a rendezvous point, should any of the three of us get separated. In the scant minutes he had with Raoul before departing, Erik sketched out a ragged plan and even practiced a few of the holds and locks he had begun to teach the younger de Chagny. The district where Nadir lived was close to both the river and the Madame's brothel—easy to find even in the wee hours of the morning with only the moon to guide them. One only needed to follow their nose to the stench of the river.

The hours of the evening dragged on, with Erik's nerves frayed ragged with tension. Judging from their subtle efforts to set him at ease, his household mistook his disquiet for grief or apprehension at the distant sounds of violence. Luc, the second footman Franco, the butler, and a handful of grooms were stationed discreetly around the house, all armed and reasonably well trained. They could protect the house while Erik was away tonight.

Elise crawled into his lap and rested her head under his chin with a harsh sigh. His arms gathered her to his heart. Elise toyed with the fine chain of his locket and Erik petted her wild hair.

"Will you tuck me in, Erik? And tell me a story?" her soft, childish treble broke his heart.

"Of course, little one." Erik scooped her up and carried her toward the stairs. As he passed, he kissed Jacqueline on the head and left her in Claire's able care with a terse nod.

Elise's governess had already changed her into her nightgown and braided her hair. Erik deposited Elise onto her soft feather bed and gathered the plush coverlet over her. Warmed bricks wrapped in flannel were tucked at the foot of her bed to ward away the creeping chill as autumn crumbled into winter. Erik bent and kissed her forehead, delighting in her soft giggle at the rasp of his beard stubble. He struck a thick taper alight and seated himself in the plush chair near the head of her bed.

"What story would you like to hear, Elise?" the candle flame shone in tear-wet eyes.

"Something happy," she whispered and Erik hissed in a breath, pierced by how small and sad she looked curled in a ball. A smile touched his lips as inspiration struck.

"I will tell you a story Christine told me. Once, when she was very young, her and her father came upon the house of a count . . ."

Hours later, when the house was still and quiet, Erik melted into the darkness on foot, headed for the Madame's brothel.

 

 

Chapter Text

XVIII

 


The truest test of her strength came during that long, horrible day. Christine knew the role she must play: smile, entertain and seduce while her heart ached with longing and beat swift with fear. Madame seemed in a jovial mood now that Bruno had returned from his mysterious business. While Christine lounged in parlor, she felt his malignant black gaze on her, the flat, remorseless regard of some soulless creature from her Papa's stories. Fear escalated quickly to sickly cold panic at the thought of Erik meeting Bruno in the inky darkness. Christine stifled this dangerous train of thought, discreetly worrying the scar on her thumb.

The day wore on in a grey haze, matched only by the dreary cold. Raoul lurked on the fringes of the brothel's workings, bringing in wood with snow dusting his golden hair, fetching and carrying for Cook. Their eyes met only once, when he stepped past her to stoke the fire in the parlor stove. In his troubled blue gaze she found the same fear she knew lurked in hers. Perversely, it was comforting that they shared the same burden.

The brothel's business was slower than usual for a Saturday afternoon, and as the night approached, Christine hoped against hope that Madame would see fit to retire Christine to her cell. It would be a simple matter for Raoul to filch the keys and release her. It was another matter entirely if they must interrupt a customer's allotted hour. Bruno was bound to become involved in that case and Christine did not care to contemplate the horrors that awaited them if caught.

"Christine, come and introduce yourself to this gentleman," Madame's voice held tones of cloying seduction and the steel of a command. Her heart gave a sick lurch. Maybe there was time to be free of him before . . . Christine glanced at the parlor clock as she stood and adjusted the bustle of her green gown.

Her prayers had gone unanswered.

XXX

Méchant's men were nowhere to be seen. Crouched atop a ruined roof across from Madame d'Avrigny's brothel, he waited and watched. Misted breath wreathed his face in ghostly smoke, snow falling lush and quiet. Clouds danced over the swollen moon's scarred face, painting the yard in wayward beams of light. It would be harder to conceal his tracks with fresh snowfall, but with luck, they would win free before anyone was the wiser. Erik's mouth twisted. His father always said a man made his own luck. It was one of the rare occurrences where he agreed with the old man. He patted his pocket, where a cartridge of spare bullets rested, heavy and cold.

Silent as a shadow, Erik leapt down into the inky darkness of the house. As a cloud passed over the moon, he darted toward the stable, springing into the empty loft. He consulted his timepiece in a slice of moonlight shining through a gap in the wall. Three minutes past two. His task was to disable any man who appeared in the yard, kill Bruno if given the chance—and Erik would find the chance, since the brute had hurt Christine—and escape when Raoul retrieved his love. It was a poor semblance of a plan, with holes wide enough to drive a fucking stagecoach through, but there had been little time to prepare. Three fat riding horses were stabled; their quiet snuffles and rustlings brought Erik a small domestic comfort. Erik felt a moment's fierce longing for César, but while spirited and tenacious, any ensuing firefight would spook him and spell the end of their escape. He knew the area well enough to disappear with relative ease.

Hopefully.

The heavy crunch of boots on gravel seized Erik's attention and he sought the butt of his revolver. He tracked the crunch around the corner toward the alleyway behind the stable and brothel. A grunt and a faint thud and scrape.

"That's the last of it," wheezed a man. Erik waited, trying to gauge the number of assailants.

"Should be enough to please those anarchist bastards, don't you think?"

"Who gives a fuck? As long as we get the gold. Not francs that ain't good enough to wipe your arse with, but gold," the voice was harsh, the scrape of metal on stone.

"Where's Raoul? The little shit had better hurry. It's freezing out." A third voice complained. Erik cursed inwardly. How had his troublesome little brother gotten mixed up with the fucking Commune? Last Erik had heard, the emperor had fled the city.

"Speak of the devil!" the first man snorted, braying like an asthmatic donkey.

A stream of profanity chanted in Erik's mind. Their skeleton of a plan was nothing but a heap of useless bones now. Time to improvise. A snap of leather and he heard the creak of a wagon on the move. Soft-footed, Erik slithered down from the loft and slipped around the rough outer wall of the stable. Two of the three men were seated on the wagon's seat, the bed stacked with barrels. A third man lumbered alongside, immensely fat, but with equally fat revolvers in each hand. Raoul balked at the brothel's side door, Erik watched as the fat man seized him by the scruff of the neck and struck him with the thick butt of his pistol. He could hear the dull thud of impact from his place at the stable. Christine was nowhere to be seen and Erik was unsure if what he felt was relief or fear.

Who are these bastards and what are you doing with them? Erik thought, And more importantly, why the fuck didn't you tell me about them? Introducing another player when the game was already afoot was stupid at best and potentially lethal at worst.

Erik kept a prudent distance as the wagon wended its way toward the river. From this distance, he couldn't hear their conversation, save for the repetitive bleated pleas from his brother. Erik crept from slum to slum, keeping abreast of the lumbering wagon's progress. A wagon laden with what? Supplies designated for anarchist Commune men? Bruno and his 'business' for the Madame fit into this. Questions whirled through his mind like a demented carousel while the sharply analytic part noticed that they were moving through back alleys to . . . to the Opera? True, the Opera Populaire wasn't far from either the Madame's brothel or the river, but to what end? Gendarmes often patrolled such areas . . .

"Which way is it, little cocksucker?" The driver growled at Raoul. When all he received was sullen silence, the fat man struck Raoul with the butt of his pistol. Enough of this. Erik had to intercept them before they met their contacts at the Opera, and anger had stoked to a slow roiling boil with each abuse heaped on his brother.

"Tell us where it is!" demanded the fat man, striking again and again. The fat man dies slow.

He waited for a thick fold of cloud to conceal the moon before melting from his hiding place. Blade and gun in hand, Erik sprinted for the wagon. In one clean leap, he landed in the bed. Erik fisted his hand in greasy black hair, the dark steel of his blade scraping bone as he opened the driver's throat from ear to ear. A spray of black-red blood soaked his arm. The fat man howled abuse, swiveling his weapons toward Erik. But Erik was quicker, shoving the second man into the path of his pistol.

"No, wa-!" the second man howled, hands curled in supplication. Too late. Light, sound and the thick white stink of gun smoke. Blood and brain matter spattered on Erik's chest. The donkey hawed and tried to bolt, save for Erik's quick grab at the reins. An almost lazy straightening of his arm and Erik had his revolver leveled between the fat man's eyes. At pointblank range, he couldn't miss. Only the pistol barrel pressed against Raoul's temple stopped him from pulling the trigger.

"I've heard of you, Monsieur. The misshaped aristocrat with a silver spoon up his arse who can afford all the pretty whores he wants. 'Cept this whore is your little brother, no?" The moonlight broke through the clouds, casting shadows over the man's eye sockets and mouth, lending a leering, corpse-like air to the mass of corrupted flesh holding Erik's brother hostage.

"Erik, I'm so sorry. They said they'd kill me if I told-" Raoul's anguished voice threatened to shatter the icy calm steadying his nerves.

"Shut up!" rasped the fat man. The hot barrel dug deeper, until Raoul cried out. Blood trickled from the wound, black and slick as oil in the moonlight. Erik's grip tightened on his revolver.

"Let him go." The fat man's thick lips parted to reveal tobacco stained teeth. The fat man kept a brutal grip on his brother's slender, obviously broken arm, twisted painfully behind his back. A faint whimper escaped Raoul's lips.

"Now why would I do that, Monsieur? Seems to me, I let him go, you'll kill me like you did me compatriots. Jacques and Marco were good tough men both, and you slaughtered them in a trice. What will become of poor Alexandre if I let your golden-haired whore go?" Erik tightened his grip on the reins, never taking his eyes or aim from his brother's captor.

"You'd be right. I'd kill you as quickly as I did your friends. But if any harm comes to my brother, I'll kill you slow. Poor Alexandre would be begging for death by the end," Erik drawled, malice heaped thick on his words.

"Aren't you rich cunts always going on about honor? Where's the honor in killing poor Alexandre?"

"None. Deformed wretches such as myself have no need of honor to keep us warm."

"Heh. You're a clever one, too. Let's see how clever." Fat lips split in a hideous grin, Alexandre fired his pistol. Erik fired in almost the same instant, but the wagon lurched under his feet. Erik's shot went wide, his feet knocked from under him by the wagon's violent heave. Sucking in air for his pummeled lungs, he hauled on the reins and belated realized Alexandre had shot near the poor beast's ears. He leapt free of the slowing wagon and gave chase.

The fat man was dragging a struggling Raoul back towards the looming Opera. Blood coursed hot through his veins, and inwardly, Erik cursed his inattention. Several men appeared, seemingly out of nowhere and formed a ragged perimeter around Alexandre and Raoul. One lifted a revolver toward Erik. He reacted, lightning quick. The other man's head burst like an overripe melon.

Four bullets left.

As their companion fell, two more of Alexandre's reinforcements found their weapons. A small, absurdly calm corner of his mind thanked God that the fools were unprepared, it bought him and Raoul the slimmest chance of survival. A sharp crack split the air, a thin angry buzz flying past Erik's ear. Another grazed his shoulder, burning pain caught in its wake. Erik rolled and pivoted on snow-blanketed gravel. He dropped to his knee behind the wholly inadequate shelter of one of the corpses he'd made, the dead man having fallen from the wagon as the donkey bolted.

He sucked in a breath, took his aim, and squeezed the trigger. In these moments, he craved that cold calm that wrapped around him. The piece of steel and machinery felt alive in his hand, hot and eager to do his will. A blade sang in his hand while a firearm roared. A dark stain appeared around the smoking hole in another assailant's chest. The third met the same poor fate.

Two bullets left.

Erik pivoted toward the final man and fired—

Miss. The man had tripped over a stone as he tried to take a step forward.

One bullet left.

Another squeeze. The impotent click of misfire. Erik groped for the spare cartridge . . . gone! What the fuck had happened to his fucking bullets?

He snarled and chanced a mad dash for cover beneath the wagon. Bullets from the remaining two men buzzed like mad, lethal bees. The donkey had wandered into the crossfire and brayed piteously, his hot animal stink adding to the miasma of gunsmoke, fear, blood and shit. Erik hunched against the wheel, breathing down the terror rising in his gullet. Outnumbered, pinned down by spates of gunfire, and armed only with his dagger, Erik's slim chance was disappearing as quickly as a wisp of cloud in the wind.

Clenching his jaw, he swiped at the harness with his dagger, cutting the donkey free. The poor beast limped toward the promising haven of an abandoned tenement. If he could just upend the wagon somehow, create a stronger barrier to make them waste their ammunition . . . Deafening silence interrupted his scheming. Why weren't they firing at him? A quick glance found them conferring in harsh voices. Ears ringing from gunfire and the mad pounding of his blood, Erik couldn't make out the words. That inconstant moon made a fugitive appearance from behind the clouds and Erik could make out the crude military stamp on the side of one barrel: GUNPOWDER

His face felt numb as he absorbed the impact of the words which carved themselves in burning letters in his brain. Méchant's men selling gunpowder to anarchist fanatics? Potentially disastrous. A wicked grin spread on his lips. An entirely selfish silver lining was that they daren't fire upon him. Erik hauled himself up into the bed of the wagon, curled around his dangerous salvation. The gore and sweat soaking his shirt met the cold air and Erik shivered in the wagon bed, teeth chattering. As uneasy, snow-hushed peace fell over the yard, Erik risked a narrow glimpse of his enemies between barrels.

The nameless anarchist knelt beside one of the men Erik had killed, clutching handfuls of his hair and keening. The fat Alexandre loomed over a huddled form. A stab of fear pierced Erik's heart. Raoul? Christ, had the boy been hurt? Erik dared not contemplate the alternative.

Instead, he bellowed with all the considerable power in his voice: "If my brother is harmed, I will personally shove you into one of these barrels and set it alight! What will poor, pox-faced Alexandre do then? My guess would be cry for his mother!"

He watched the anarchist surge to his feet, brandishing his weapon. Abandoning the huddled form, Alexandre lumbered over and yanked on the upraised arm.

"Are all you political men as stupid as inbred pigs? What do you think will happen if you shoot at the smart-mouthed Vicomte?" Alexandre snarled. Erik's eyes were riveted on the heap of tangled limbs. Was his chest moving?

"He slaughtered my brother, you fat whoreson! I'll kill him!" the Commune thug growled.

Alexandre uttered a wheezing, pig-like snort and shot back: "And kill us all in a fiery blaze of glory? Not until I get my gold, you shitting cunt! Then you're welcome to blow yourself to hell! I got people to answer to, same as you!"

"Here's your bloody money, Méchant!" Erik's exhaled breath rose in a dense white cloud. The fat Alexandre was Méchant? The fat man gave a mocking bow, pocketing the heavy sack.

"A pleasure doing business with you. Get up, you worthless brat!" the last Méchant addressed to Raoul, in a fetal position on the snowy ground. Thank God, still alive!

Every muscle in Erik's body tensed as he watched the anarchist approach with his pistol, cautiously at first, then swaggering.

"The aristocratic pig is out of silver bullets, isn't he?" he drawled, unholy glee animating crude features and broken teeth. Closer, Erik willed him, closer now. Close enough for the reach of his dagger . . .

"The Commune dog should watch his mouth, lest he die with his brother's poor grace," Erik quipped. It was a volatile brew he coaxed. Rage could make the other man irrational and make a mistake . . . or kill Erik quickly. The Commune man snarled in rage, bracing a foot on the wagon's wheel, reaching over to shoot Erik pointblank—

Erik's slice was quick and vicious, taking the man across the arm and chest. He squealed like a stuck pig, reeling back. Erik swung down from the wagon, knocked the revolver from his limp hand and snatched the man close in a parody of an embrace.

"Tell your brother hello for me," Erik whispered, plunging the dagger up below the lowest rib, deep into the kidney and the thick vessels there busily pumping blood. The man sucked in a ragged, hiccupping breath, hands clawing weakly at Erik's chest, snagging on something . . .

Erik freed his blade from the dying man's body and watched him fall. His hands were shaking, he noted dispassionately. He had killed more men in one night than he had in the previous two decades. Something in him was screaming, and he knew he soon must scream with it, but not now. Not until Raoul was safe and Christine was free. Christine. Erik exhaled a sharp breath, latching onto the thought of her like a drowning man to a raft.

"Erik!" Raoul's shriek was high and sharp, heard in the same moment as the clear, sharp rapport of a pistol. Red-black pain burst through him, centering in his chest. Snarling like an animal, he turned and found Méchant's leering, corpse's smile. Weakness stole through his limbs like a marauding ghost. It hurt to breathe. Warm . . . what was warm? Erik looked down and found warm red blood bubbling between his fingers, fingers that twitched and spasmed like a spider pinned to a board. He found his brother's eyes in disbelief, in bewildered pain, and fell into darkness, Christine's face floating in his mind.

XXX

Her hands trembled, sloshing the expensive brandy all over her lace-trimmed runner draped over her desk. Lace and silk, brandy and cognac, she had always been one for the finer things in life. Bringing the crystal tumbler to her lips, she threw back the liquor, which burned a sweet path of heat down her throat. That sweet heat did not melt the rising tide of cold, sick fear rising from deep in her belly. A single candle wavered on her desktop and she watched it, mesmerized.

"You're sure he's dead?" she said, spacing the words with careful precision as she did whenever the brandy swam too thickly in her veins.

"Yes, Madame. The little shit is dead. Shot him in the chest and then tossed him in the river for good measure." Méchant was a crude hulking fool, but he had his uses. Or so she had thought, before he fucked up a supposedly simple operation by killing one of her best customers who also happened to be a very rich and influential Vicomte.

Nausea roiled in her belly and she swallowed a retch, sinking heavily into her chair. Gendarmes and Commune men alike were easily paid off—unlikely to believe a poor bastard boy's wild tale. A bloated body in the river could be tidily passed off as some poor drifter, but if said Vicomte had actually lived . . . Personally, Sophia feared Erik de Chagny's wrath more than the brunt of the law. Maybe not even Bruno could stop him, not if the Vicomte had killed two of Méchant's and then four of the Commune men, who had demanded both gold and the gunpowder Bruno had tracked down for her as recompense for their dead.

Madame had nothing but six unquestionably dead bodies, a possible seventh, and a bastard groom that had slipped his leash. Méchant sucked in air nosily, helping himself to a tumbler of brandy, the groom having shattered his master's kneecap before fleeing. A crude cast of ash splints and bandages stiffened with starch made his thick leg jut unnaturally straight.

That little bitch Christine had her bony fingers in this, Sophia was certain of it. Both de Chagny men panted at her heels. The girl had been acting strangely twitchy, with that wild hair and yawning, soulful eyes. A smirk touched the Madame's rouged lips. She had given the girl to the customers she knew to have . . . rougher tastes. It was a savage and petty revenge, but satisfying in its own way. Something about the girl's dewy innocence made the Madame want to yank out handfuls of that curly hair. Méchant began to babble about how it wasn't his fault, how Raoul, the Commune men, or the arse-faced emperor were the ones she needed to blame.

"I warned you about this, Madame. I did. Remember when that Persian shit came sniffing around? You weren't above using my help then, were you?" the fat man wheedled, eyes glinting from their shiny folds of flesh.

"Christ, tell me you didn't kill him too?" Madame snapped, hands fisting in the lace runner. Beads of sweat popped on Méchant's broad, flat forehead.

"No, of course not! The lads just ah, just roughed him up a bit, is all. And then we-"

"Let me guess, threw him in the river?" Madame drawled. Méchant nodded. Madame cursed under her breath.

"Leave me," she snarled, watching with poorly concealed loathing as the immensely fat man laboriously rose and limped toward the door.

"Send in Bruno," she called after him.

It was only when the bouncer appeared that some of the wild tension ebbed. Her dark, wild stallion. She understood the dark, demonic passions that churned behind those cold black eyes. Whenever a whore had outlived her usefulness, Sophia gave her over to Bruno's tender ministrations to use as he wished. It was unbearably arousing when he came to her with blood red and hot and slick on his hands and fucked her against the wall. All of their deviant, twisted pieces matched. Bruno leaned his hip against her desk, arms folded over his broad chest.

"Erik de Chagny may still be alive," she said. He shrugged.

"If you send an incompetent fool like Méchant, you get sloppy results. You should have sent me." Madame whirled around in a flare of red silk, bracing her hands on the cold, varnished wood.

"I needed you here. Our Vicomte had something planned for that little Swedish bitch, I know it. I know it in my bones. Why else would he just leave after seeing her face smashed? The Vicomte is a proud, possessive man; he would never tolerate another man pawing his property." Bruno's thin mouth curled into a sneer. He pushed off the edge of the desk and sidled behind her, grasping her hips and digging his hard cock into her arse.

"What is it about him that frightens you so?" he rasped in her ear, "do you think I'd let some whining, puffed up peacock harm you?" He bit her neck, hard enough to draw blood. Madame gasped in pain, arousal making her breath come soft and fast. His tongue lapped up the drop, a lash of wet and rough. The bowl of her pelvis pulsed in time with her heartbeat.

"No . . . no you're . . . oh God, you're magnificent," she slurred, desire and alcohol blurring the edges of her world, making her fears irrelevant. Bruno's hands clawed at the clothing separating them. He shoved her face down onto the desk. Her arm knocked over the candle. It fell to the floor and sputtered out, leaving them in cold, solid darkness with only their mingled heat and rasping breathing. He shoved himself in and Sophia cried out at the exquisite pain and pleasure of it. His hand fisted in her hair and yanked her head back. God, she loved it when he dominated her like this.

"If by some miracle Erik de Chagny survives, I'll cut out his heart and fuck you on his corpse, but not before I make his little whore lick his blood off my knife," he punctuated the words with hard, ramming thrusts, reaching that unbearably sweet spot in her that was his alone. The dark promise of the words sent her tumbling to a climax, with him right behind her. Madame Sophia pressed her sweaty forehead against the cold, smooth surface. She could almost believe him.

XXX

Dawn found Christine pacing the length of her cell, the book of sonnets clutched to her chest. As after sunset fadeth in the west/which by and by black night doth take away/Death's second self, that seals up all in rest . . . She knew the Swedish and the French, and beneath that, the lyric pall of Death's shadow. There, she'd formed the thought that had haunted the hours since two in the morning, when Erik was supposed to come for her. What had gone wrong?

"No, he's fine," she whispered aloud, her prayers growing terse and frantic as hours stretched by.

"He's fine. He was held up, he will come another night." A part of her wished he had made love to her on his last visit. She hungered for the fresh memory of the taste and smell and feel of him, for the hope of his child. Improbable, with the teas and remedies Madame prescribed, but longed for all the same. Another quivering part of herself whispered that Erik had finally realized she wasn't worth all this trouble and decided to simply leave. Christine fiercely stomped on this thought, worrying the scar on her thumb. His blood mingled with hers. He was safe. He was safe.

"Where is Raoul?" she muttered. A key screeched in the lock and Christine stuffed Erik's book in her pillowcase. Madame nudged the door open and greeted her with a drawling catlike smile.

"Good morning, dearie. Did I hear you talking?"

"I was praying," Christine said, heart in her throat. Had she heard? Madame spread her arm, gathering Christine into an awkward embrace.

"There's a good little girl, still saying her prayers. Praying the Vicomte comes tonight?" Madame's heavily made up face did little to hide the deepening wrinkles or the yellowing of her eyes as alcohol ravaged her body. Even this early in the morning, Christine could smell brandy fumes on her breath.

"Allow me to let you in on a secret of the trade, Christine. You must remember above all that men are liars. They will say anything to get you into bed and promise anything to keep you there. Their cocks do half their thinking for them. Use that, hmm?" Christine nodded.

"Yes, Madame. I will," she said, hoping this was the correct answer. Madame grinned and swatted Christine's rump.

"We're slow this morning, go help Cook."

Cook greeted her with a smile, tossing her an apron and setting her to the task of kneading dough. It was mindless work, and as such, left Christine's mind far too much room to fret and worry. The warm, comfortable atmosphere was shattered by Raoul bursting through the back door.

"Raoul! Where have you been, lad? I needed the fires laid an hour ago!" Cook said in his sternest voice.

Christine stared at him, fear shredding her nerves at the sight of him. He didn't look like the same man she had seen last night. It was as if the life had been sucked out of him, leaving a grey shell. Snow-dusted blond hair hung in lank pieces, his face was disfigured by a black eye and a split lip. Blood caked his temple. His left arm hung awkwardly at his side. Bloodshot eyes moved listlessly from Cook and came to rest on her. Christine's heart was in her throat, she tried to force it down with a few dry swallows.

"Raoul? What happened?" she demanded. Raoul staggered across the room, seized Christine's arm and dragged her out the back door without slowing. His icy grip on her arm was painfully tight, but she followed. The tiny being in her soul moaned with fear and began to quiver. Christine quivered with it, or was that from cold? Snow fell in lush quiet, swaddling the ugly yard in smooth, downy white. Christine gripped Raoul's forearms, fingernails digging.

"Tell me. Where is Erik?" Raoul's face twisted, as if under torture.

"It's my fault!" his voice broke into jagged pieces, muffled as he buried his face in his hands.

"What happened?" Christine nearly screeched, peeling his hands from his face and shaking him. Raoul's hollow eyes had the look of a man sentenced to death.

"He's dead. Méchant shot him. Erik is gone."


 

 

Chapter Text

XIX

"What did you say? I couldn't hear you," Christine said, almost politely. She had misheard him, surely. Christine turned her head, searching for the source of that odd sound. A sound like harsh breathing, ending in a shrill keening. He was joking surely. Raoul's countenance was stony, lips pursed in a grim line.

"It was my fault. He was trying to protect me." That noise! Where was it coming from?

"Méchant and Madame made a deal with the Commune. Gunpowder for gold. They needed me because I knew about the cave underneath the Populaire. I found it by accident, on my way to meet a customer one night. Méchant took me with him to deliver the powder, and Erik followed us." Raoul's voice broke around the name. His face crumpled like paper, thin shoulders hunched, flinching away from the blow he knew would come.

"Those anarchist bastards attacked and he was so brave, he killed some of them but then . . . but then . . . Méchant shot him! Shot him right in front of me."

Christine blinked, a slow, crushing horror descending on her. The noise was coming from her. Like seeing a wound, pain bloomed beneath her breastbone. Pain like she had never known before. Papa's death had been blunted by shock, fear, and the lingering naiveté of youth. No such delusions shielded her now. The cowering being within her soul howled. Christine's hand flew, striking Raoul stingingly hard across the face. A flurry of clawing hands and wild, furious grief.

"No! No! You're lying!"

Christine clung to that one last thread of hope, sanity . . . Raoul's blank expression did not alter. Instead, he tugged a silver chain from over his head. Erik's locket bobbed on its chain. Christine watched, mesmerized, as it spun in a lazy circle. He said he'd lock me away in his heart and keep me safe. I don't feel safe. What happens when his heart stops beating? Christine snatched the locket from Raoul, still warm from his body heat as it had been warmed by Erik's. If she kept it safe, if she kept it warm, he couldn't be dead.

He couldn't.

"Christine?" Raoul's voice was as irritating as a yapping dog. Vivid loathing cloaked her, a thing woven of her hatred for the Madame, Méchant, Bruno, and Claire. It would keep her warm; keep her warm when he was dead and cold.

"If it weren't for you . . ." Her voice wobbled and broke; she left the end of the sentence unsaid. They both knew the truth of it. Christine shouldered past him into the brothel, the locket warm against her heart.

XXX

Pain. Cold. He hurt. He hurt so bad. Raoul? Where are you, lad? Christine? Vaguely, he was aware of movement, a sense of free fall . . . Icy shock struck him like a blow and he flailed in the bitterly, horribly cold river, its current a deep, hungry pull. Inarticulate fear shredded his nerves; the most primitive need for air filled his being with strength. He punctured the slick black surface with a sucking breath, managing to tread water for a handful of seconds, before pain dragged him under.

God, his chest! His arm didn't work! His arm . . .

Air, oh yes. Erik fought for space to think around the fear, around the cold, around the pain. His legs kicked, his left arm cradled to his chest as his right paddled on. Oh Thomas, this is what you felt. This cold bludgeoning your brain with only the primal need to get away, this gut-twisting fear that you will never have enough air again. Erik swore he would be as brave as his boy.

So he swam, even though pain formed a second heartbeat in his chest, even though his limbs grew sluggish as his body sucked the warmth toward the vital organs. His vision began to narrow, his breath stuttered in his chest. Slimy stone walls rose on either side of the river. He clawed for purchase, his own hands stiff and disobedient to his will.

He was too weak . . . he couldn't hold on . . .

A hand shot out, grasping his wrist. Erik's eye traveled up the thin, dirty sleeve to a familiar face. Relief surged through his tired being.

"Nadir."

xxx

"There. Found it. Right here," a blunt fingertip prodded the source of his pain, just below his collarbone. Thank God, away from his heart or thick vessels, might've punctured the lung though, that would explain the short breath, the stabbing pain . . . Christ, was his shoulder broken?

"I must remove it and clean the wound. Try to be still." Nadir's voice was calm and steady, but trimmed with an edge of doubt. Erik had a moment to appreciate the humor in it before the knife descended, and all he knew was pain and blood. Erik could only see Nadir's face above him and the reflection off his spectacles in miniature of the horror that was his chest. Erik's voice howled and broke around the gag stuffed in his mouth, hands scrabbling and feet thrashing against the leather cuffs that bound him to the kitchen table.

Tears mingled with the sweat on his naked face. The room blazed with candlelight and stank of blood and the sharp whiff of alcohol. The knife screeched against bone and spots appeared before Erik's vision. Then a brief respite: the pain dulling from a slow, sharp carving to a pulsating throb. The Persian's features were hard and closed, dark eyes squinting intently. A pair of forceps appeared in those deft, gloved hands.

"I can see it. Take a moment to breathe," he murmured. Erik jerked his head in a sharp nod, breaths whistling through his nose.

He had a hazy recollection of Nadir pulling him from the river and warming him in a tub of lukewarm water. His gore-caked and river-soaked clothes were summarily burned and he lay clad in a pair of Nadir's old sleeping trousers which hung several inches too short. Only a few swallows of brandy blunted the pain; the rest was to be used as disinfectant. Erik passionately hoped he passed out before that phase.

"All right. I will start again," Nadir said gently, brandishing his forceps. Erik clenched his teeth as the forceps descended, like two cold, needling pincers. Not so bad, just a feeling of pressure . . . then hot, shooting pain down his arm as the forceps slipped. Nadir cursed steadily in Persian.

"Almost. Bear with me, my friend." Erik nodded again, unfurling his fists.

The forceps jabbed again then pulled. Oh God, it was out! He watched Nadir brandish the wet red slug. A tight smile stretched his lips.

"I even got the bit of your shirt it caught on the way in, see?" he smeared a dark bit of something onto his finger.

"If we hadn't got that, it would have gone septic for sure." A terse flick sent the slug into a dish with a faint tink. Nadir trained his spectacled gaze onto Erik.

"It still might, Erik. Méchant's men threw you essentially into an open sewer. I'll clean it as best I can. All we can do after that is pray." Erik knew the dangers of infection better than most. The odds were against him in this. He nodded, flicking his fingers in a gesture that meant 'get on with it.' Speech was beyond him at the moment. Disinfection by way of boiling brandy was not a prospect he relished. Nadir poured and Erik fell into a sizzling white hell.

Erik woke tucked in a sparse camp bed, a sling looped around his left arm and his chest wrapped in what appeared to be the beginning stages of mummification. The crackling, devouring pain had crumbled into a steady simmer. He touched his chest. Where had his locket gone? Had he lost it in the river? The thought filled him with sorrow. Christine . . .

Erik squinted at the weak sunlight streaming in through a dirty window. Wherever they were, it was not at Nadir's home. The Persian sat in a rickety chair, peering at the pages of the book spread on his lap. Upon closer inspection in the morning light, Nadir was a changed man. Gone was the long-striding, energetic horseman who debated and squabbled with him. This man was feeling every minute of his forty-three years of life and more, with dark, baggy circles crouched beneath his eyes, his old clothes hanging off him like a scarecrow, his whole posture and attitude one of weariness and defeat. Only that wary strength in his eyes reminded Erik of the old Nadir.

"You owe me an explanation, my friend," Erik rasped. Nadir looked up, dark eyes magnified by his spectacles. He closed the book and folded his hands on his knees.

"So I do. Where would you like me to start?" Erik paused, considering.

"Why didn't you answer my letters?" Nadir's lips pursed.

"I have not been to my home in several weeks, Erik. Soon after our last meeting, I received a tip by one of my contacts and went to investigate Méchant's holdings." A glittering anger filled the older man's liquid black eyes.

"My contact had been turned. Méchant's men were waiting for me. They beat me and threw me into the river." A harsh laugh left Erik.

"A popular modis opperandi of thugs, it seems." Nadir's lips curved in token amusement.

"I washed up near here and took time to recuperate in this ostensibly abandoned house. I tried to return to my home, but the Madame's man was there."

"Bruno went to your home?" Erik asked, a cold feeling settling in his belly. If Bruno could find where Nadir lived, then he could find Erik's home. Elise, Jacqueline, Claire, Christine, Raoul . . . who could he truly protect?

None, whispered his guilt.

"Yes. My housekeeper was dead. I could see her sprawled on the parlor floor, her head twisted nearly all the way around. I knew no help could be found with the gendarmes; your Madame has them well bribed. So there I was, unarmed, injured, and suddenly homeless. My injuries were more serious than I anticipated, and I spent several weeks abed with fever. Elaine, the owner of this house found me half-dead and nursed me back to health. This is her father's old house, and one she visits infrequently. She works as a seamstress for the Opera. It is through her that I heard the tales of ghosts and ghouls down below the Opera. I, of course, investigated and found a turning mirror that led down into the Opera cellars. There I found the Commune's armory. Ten thousand pounds of gunpowder, if there's a gram."

"Holy God. Someone must be told about this!" Erik said, the ramifications suddenly greater than the pitched battle for Christine and freedom. Nadir's head wagged sadly.

"I tried. I went to five separate districts speaking with detectives, gendarmes, commanders, anyone who would pretend to listen. When I tried to lead them down through the cellars, all the pathways were sealed off or booby-trapped. No further inquiry was warranted. This brings us to last night. Elaine heard whispers that there was going to be some sort of exchange at the Opera. I arrived far too late, only in time to see them throw something into the river. I followed it downstream and it turned out to be you." Erik lay there, digesting all he had been told.

"I am sorry you had to suffer so on my account, Nadir. Truly, I am. If I hadn't come to you for help . . ."

"Stop this, Erik. I chose to help you. Neither of us realized just how ruthless our enemies were," he said firmly, grasping Erik's hand with his own square, callused one. That hand, once capable of taming Persian stallions to bit and saddle, was now nearly fleshless, bony. Erik nodded, gratitude bubbling up from his chest.

"Thank you. For everything," he rasped. Those words seemed wholly inadequate now that Nadir was without home, occupation, or health.

"You are most welcome." There was no censure in his tone, and the silence afterwards stretched into one of companionship and camaraderie. At last, Nadir cleared his throat.

"So you must tell me how you found yourself against Méchant and the Commune all at once." Erik quickly related the details of his plan, Raoul's agonized duplicity, and the ensuing firefight.

"I must get back. Christine is waiting for me . . ." Erik braced his hands on the bed and tried to rise. His muscles screamed in protest and his bones melted into limp noodles. Nadir eased him back onto the nest of pillows, as Erik sucked in precious air through his teeth.

"You are in no condition to face down a psychopath and a vengeful Madame," Nadir scolded, "Christine is as safe as she can be."

"Raoul must think that I died! You cannot expect for me to simply lie here whilst they think me dead!" Nadir sighed.

"See to your family first, Erik. I beg you. Get them out of this wretched city while they still can. The lootings have gotten worse, and . . ."

"Enough!" Erik snapped, raking his good hand through his hair.

The twin shackles of love and duty pulled him in opposite directions. Nadir said Christine was safe. How could she be safe when she was in the clutches of that same vengeful Madame and psychopath? But now Erik was in the same position Nadir had been: wounded, unarmed, and without a plan or a hope.

What could he do?

XXX

Had it been real or a product of her fears? Raoul had disappeared like a wisp of smoke, maybe it had all been in her mind . . .

Her fingers found the locket and she knew. Oh God, she knew! He was dead and she was alone.

"You should eat something, Christine. We've customers booked all evening," Pauline murmured, leaning close. The older prostitute's breath smelled of brandy fumes and there was a smudge of rouge on her teeth. From her place draped on the edge of the parlor's low couch, Christine met Pauline's gaze. Whatever the other woman saw in her eyes made her recoil, her thin concern evaporating. No relief to be found in tears, no solace to be found in solitude. No, she must smile, dance to this ridiculous coquet's tune to please her rapists. A hell of brittle smiles and what dangled between a man's legs. For the rest of her life. Part of her disconnected in that moment, stepped back from the horror.

Time passed. Or, she thought so. She rose, danced to the tune she was bid, and slept. The workings of the brothel were almost comforting in their ritual sameness. Madame's casual spite and Bruno's cold malice could not touch her. No, a thick cloak of grey swathed and sheltered her. The red rage hadn't kept her warm, but crumbled to ash. Part of her welcomed its apathy, another part screamed and fought against its suffocating weight.

"Christine, I have quite the gentleman for you!" Madame's oily voice oozed. Christine obeyed, her grip limp and cold in his as she climbed the stairs.

Whether by accident or design, the Green Room was what the customer chose. Memories of a sublime voice, green eyes. He had a name and a bright, strong heart and . . . and . . . he was dead. The screaming part of her gibbered. She felt cold. Frozen.

As the monster peeled off her gown, the locket bounced between her breasts. It burned against her flesh, a brand that named her faithless and heartless. Of course she had no heart! Her heart had stopped beating in a courtyard watching her lifeblood stain the snow. Of course she had no faith. God had not seen fit to save her Papa or her lover, or offered her succor from the brothel's daily hell.

The thrust of the monster into her dry, unprepared body arrested her attention. Pain anchored her drifting mind, misery her mooring to reality. She watched him labor over her dispassionately. This was her eternity. An endless cycle of rape until her beauty faded and she died unmourned and unloved.

A thought struck, as swift and blinding as summer lightning. The suffocating grey dissolved in a surge of sweet, sweet relief. Yes, the relief to her life's sorrows, the answer to her unsolvable problem. It was so simple! It was so easy! Why hadn't she thought of it before? Laughter bubbled out of her, rusty and uncertain at first, then gaining strength. The monster's enthusiasm withered and he staggered back, clutching at his sagging trousers.

"What's wrong with you?" His slack-jawed look, revealing several rotted molars, was unbearably funny. Christine curled into a ball, prostrate with demented laughter. She pointed at his shriveled parts and howled like a loon. She heard the heavy stomp on the stair and knew her pain would soon end.

"She's mad!" the monster told Bruno, gathering his clothing and bolting from the room.

Christine laughter tapered into an absurd titter and she crawled up the bed to where he had lain his head, nuzzling the pillow lovingly. His scent of sage and musk and male had long been washed away, she could only smell strong soap and linen. Bruno's black eyes burned with the promise of retribution. A hideous smile split his thin lips. His ubiquitous knife gleamed wickedly at his side.

"I warned you about what would happen if you scared off another one, didn't I?" The voice that emerged from his throat was as harsh and ugly as her lover's had been smooth and beautiful. Christine couldn't stifle the giggles bubbling up like champagne.

"Ah Bruno. The Madame's dog, obediently trotting at her leash." The words flew free, light as air where once they had been burdened by fear. A subtle change shivered over Bruno's form, as if shedding an ill-fitting costume. What Christine saw in his eyes was all of the distilled hatred of a twisted, black soul.

"The last man who insulted me was in Spain. By the time I was done with him, his own mother couldn't recognize him," he whispered, drawing his knife. Christine sighed, admiring the blue steel edge. Bruno paused, considering. A deft motion slid the knife back into its sheath.

"No, we'll save that for later. First I think you need a good lesson. My father taught this one to my mother. Taught her so well, she died bleeding inside when I was ten."

The laughter gripped her again, in anticipation and the twisted hope of relief. Bruno's meaty fist struck hard, while she laughed. By the third blow, her laugh was nothing but a bloody gurgle. By the fourth blow, all she knew was darkness.

Chapter Text

XX

An hour was all he needed. Time enough to arm himself and see his household safely off to the Château. An hour and he would be on his way to free Christine, or die trying. The nag Nadir had hired from the livery stable plodded along no matter how Erik urged him. But soon, the townhouse was in sight, the windows glowing with light in the darkly overcast December morning. Nadir had promised to watch the brothel and monitor the comings and goings, hoping for a chance to somehow smuggle a message inside and correct the grievous lie.

The promise of snow swirled in the air. Icy air curled beneath the borrowed, threadbare clothing, and Erik shivered. His wound had not succumbed to infection, not yet. Erik felt horribly weak and his left hand was marred with an obvious tremor. A faint hope remained that he could regain some of his former dexterity. The remnants of a ratty sleeve had been crudely fashioned into a mask for him to wear. The strap was much too loose and he had to stop every few minutes to retie it.

Erik eased back in the saddle, pulling the shaggy nag up at the gatepost. Hot and cold washed over him at the sight of the sleek black door kicked in, the front window smashed . . .

"God," he murmured, and it was a prayer. He leapt up the stairs two at a time, and shouldered his way through the ruined door. Dead leaves were scattered across the parlor, the table overturned, the shattered chandelier creaking pitifully as the wind caught it.

"Elise? Jacqueline? Claire? Answer me!" he bellowed, fear rising in a cold, thick knot in his throat. The patter of running feet, coming from his study.

"Erik!" Elise's high voice warbled and broke, then she was sprinting into his arms.

"Where were you? Where did you go when we needed you?" she sobbed, beating her small fists against his aching chest. Her words shred his heart. Fate had played him for a fool again.

"Elise, Elise, my poor darling. What happened?" he crooned.

"The bad men came in the middle of the night. Luc tried to fight, but they knocked him down and kicked him until he didn't move anymore. They started breaking things. And . . . and Aunt Claire . . ." Swinging Elise up onto his right hip, Erik was already striding toward the study, where he heard the murmur of voices. Jacqueline peeked into the hall, saw him and uttered a sharp cry. She flung herself at him, sobbing in the same honest sorrow as her younger sister. Erik gathered them close, breathing in their tarnished innocence and trying to fight down the panic clawing at his throat. After a moment, the girls found their composure.

"You're hurt," Jacqueline murmured, touching the sling.

"Oh Erik!" Elise cried, gingerly touching the red spot staining the bandage.

"I'm fine, girls," he said, setting Elise down. Linked by joined hands, they headed for the study. His chest was on fire, each step and breath a torment, but it was his penance. His penance for loving Christine and fighting for his own selfishness. The door creaked open at his light touch and he found the room in a similar state of disarray as the foyer. Madame Villon looked as she had aged fifty years overnight. Her grey, line-seamed face transformed when she saw him into a look of mingled relief and sorrow.

"Oh Sir! I'm so glad you're all right! Those Commune bastards, they stole some silver, looted about, but our boys hustled them out soon enough." she said, wringing her wrinkled hands. Erik waved his hand. The possessions were meaningless. They had rooms full at the Château.

"Where are the boys now?" he demanded. Madame Villon's face sagged.

"They're taking poor Luc home to his family. The physician said he wouldn't survive the night, God rest his soul." Erik scanned the room. The other three maids, the cook and two kitchen lads were present.

"God rest him. And the Comtesse? Where is she?" Erik said thickly. Madame Villon heaved a shaky breath. Elise and Jacqueline both uttered twin whimpers. The panic was thickening, deepening into a morass of bottomless terror.

"She's upstairs with the physician."

xxx

It was just the same as when his mother lay dying, the horrible silence, the leaden air. Erik leaned against the banister, trying in vain to catch his breath around the pain in his chest. He was cold, as cold as he'd been in the river. Now he regretted taking the time to dress in his own clothes and mask. Maybe it was already over . . . He opened the door and found the physician—that dyspeptic string bean—bent over Claire, administering a potion. The older man glimpsed Erik in the doorway and approached him.

"Monsieur le Comte, I am so very sorry. A most horrible accident." A fucking accident? As if she had slipped on a patch of ice? A Commune bastard had shot her in the midst of robbing his house!

"Is that what they call assault these days? How is she faring?" The words were clipped and cruel. The physician visibly cowered.

"Th—the bullet caught her beneath the breastbone. She is bleeding internally. Frankly, I am surprised she has lasted this long." The words caught him short and sharp, a punch in the gut, knocking out his wind.

"Leave us." It wasn't until he shut the door behind him that Erik found the will to move toward the bed.

"Claire," he whispered. The thin skin of her eyelids twitched, her blue eyes opened and shone with pain. Her greying blond hair was loose and spread over the pillow and the nightgown trimmed in lace peeked from above the coverlet.

"Erik," she gasped, her hand fluttering an inch off the coverlet. Her voice was a weak thread of sound. So pale . . . Slowly, joints aching like an old man's, he knelt beside the bed and grasped her hand. Cold. Erik bowed his head, pressing her knuckles to his forehead. Guilt, that oily black stain on his soul, thickened and spread until he was drowning in it, as thick and hot as the blood gurgling in Claire's lungs.

"Oh Claire . . . I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't there when you needed me." He hoped she knew it wasn't just for last night. Swimming through pain and opium, Claire blinked slowly.

"They . . . they tried to take . . . couldn't let them." She fluttered her hand to one side and Erik saw, with dawning horror, the locked box on the bedside table. The teak and ivory patterned lock box that held the requiems he'd written for their lost children. Erik buried his face in his hands. The man had tried to take it, thinking it held money or valuables, and Claire, she had . . . she had fought for it.

"Oh God! Oh Claire . . ." the words felt as if they'd been torn from him by the roots.

"Letter . . . read it," she wheezed. Frowning, Erik snagged the key from the drawer and unlocked the box. A letter bearing Claire's neat hand sat atop the sheaves of score.

"Claire, you need your rest-"

"Read it." Swallowing any further protest, Erik read:

Husband,

You might be surprised to find this letter here, amongst the notes you penned in honor of our lost issue. At first, the impulse was one of pique and a childish need for you to think of me as well as the dead. But since of late, all you seem to have time for is your painted women, my gesture will pass unnoticed. You have pressed me many times to tell you why I so detest your infidelity, in light of my own seemed aversion for you.

Have I ever told you about the dream I had the night before our wedding? No, I think not. Even though our marriage has spanned two decades, it has never fostered such confidences. I dreamed I had slipped into a world of silver mist and moonlight, with the most beautiful music intoxicating my senses. My lover was waiting there, tall and dark and unknowable. I embraced him, but when he smiled, he had a wolf's bloody teeth ready to rend into me. I ran and tripped over a gravestone that bore my name.

You could perhaps understand why I found the tall, dark husband with a masked face waiting for me disconcerting. Doubly so when I heard your voice for the first time. A demon with an angel's voice. We were doomed from the start, weren't we? I didn't like what your voice made me feel, I didn't like what I felt when you touched me in our marriage bed, I didn't like feeling out of control. So I held myself apart from you.

And then Thomas. The vehicle of our hopes and the vessel for our thwarted love. I loved our son. And when he died, God help me, I wished you had died in his stead. When you came to me with that silken, beguiling voice, promising another child, and those long hands that had let Thomas die slid against my flesh, I wanted to vomit. Forgive me, Erik. I didn't see how it shredded you inside; in fact, I would have relished your agony in those early months after he died.

The years passed, and the sheets of score in this box multiplied as pregnancy after pregnancy ended in blood and despair. I hoarded your slights against me, real or imagined, used them to nurse and nurture my hate as I would never nurse a baby. You would gain no victory in my eyes, not until you returned my dead babies to me. But you never cursed me. You were unfailingly courteous. God, I could see that spark of hope in your eyes whenever you spoke to me, hoping that this time, there would be a kind word. Every time I crushed it under my heel, I justified it by saying I was protecting myself from you. The simple answer for loathing those faceless women, especially this Christine you gushed about is that I love you. I never wanted to love you, but love you I do. Almost as much as I hate you. Husband, you mocked me with jealousy, and it was true.

There is my secret. I can't forget Thomas, and so I hate you. I can't forget you , and so I love you. I will lock this away with the ghosts of our children, and perhaps one day when you are free, you will remember me with some fondness.

Claire

"My God," he whispered, looking up from the page into his wife's eyes. He grasped her cold hand and pressed his lips to the back.

"Oh Claire. Yes. We were doomed from the start. I waited for you to forgive me, and when you couldn't . . . I am so sorry." The smile she offered was a travesty. She beckoned him close and kissed the silk of the mask gently.

"I forgive you," she whispered. Something inside him loosened and fell, and he wept. She looked so pale, with the blue tones of marble in the weak lamplight.

"Thank you." For the first time, Erik embraced his wife in truth and healing. His face pressed against her throat, he knew the moment her heart stopped beating.

XXX

Voices woke her. Loud, angry voices pierced the sweet grey veil sheltering her and she curled deeper into herself. What had she done wrong now? She heard a babble of feminine voices raised in distress, a harsher, deeper register barking and a low female voice answering in kind. Hard fingers gripped her arm and inside she howled with blinding pain. Brokenhurtstoppleasebroken!

"Holy God! What did you do to her?" the hand retreated, then stroked her hair with awkward tenderness. The voice was wrong. Not liquid gold and heaven made audible. Inconsolable grief rose from deep inside, threatening to swallow her whole. Nonono . . .

"You're not leaving here with her!"

"What use do you have for her now? She's coming with me!"

"She is my property, you little shit. You'd better thank your lucky stars that Bruno is busy disposing of that troublesome Persian friend of your fucking brother's. Do you even know how to use that thing?"

"Oh yes, my fucking brother taught me. You pull back the hammer, like this-" a metal click, "—and squeeze . . ."

"Goddamn it, stop! Take her, then! Just leave! Leave us be!"

"I should just kill you. You deserve it." Harsh, ragged sobbing.

"Please . . ."

Every broken, bleeding place in her screamed in horrible unison has those hard hands grasped and hoisted, swinging her up over the bony fulcrum of a shoulder. She couldn't speak, couldn't see, couldn't think around the throbbing, bludgeoning, spiteful pain. Nononohurthurtpleasehurt . . .

"I would say 'rot in hell,' but even that would be too kind for you."

Cold air, a heavy slam, each jarring step tearing her nerves with pain. Hard hands swung her, cradled her against a wall of bone and muscle and the smell of horse. With a grunt he lifted her, laying her down on a flat surface. The pain quieted to a dull pulse. Her outstretched fingertips brushed rough wooden siding. A wagon? There was a metallic tang in her mouth, blood and despair.

A tender stroke on her forehead, above the wreckage Bruno had made of her face. The gentle touch was sharply contrasted by Raoul's harsh voice: "Stupid, fool woman! Didn't you think? Didn't you fucking think about what Erik would have wanted? He would have wanted you to live, damn it!" It had obviously occurred to Raoul. As deeply as her despair seeped into her soul, how much more would that be compounded if she had had some hand in his death?

"We are going to Erik's house and you are going to get better." Or else was the glaring subtext. The mention of his name hurt so bad she could hardly breathe. Or was that her broken pieces rubbing together? Her assent or even acknowledgment was apparently unneeded, Raoul patted her hair gently—one of the only parts of her that wasn't broken, bruised or bleeding—and the wagon trembled. She heard him land on snow-covered gravel with a wet crunch, and murmur sweet words to the horses. Pain was a hard, hot jolt as the wagon lurched into motion.

Once again, a hopeless pawn of fate and circumstance, Christine was headed for a life she hadn't chosen, alone.

XXX

César seemed to sense his fragile state and stepped with sedate care down the road toward his and Nadir's rendezvous point. His father, Nadir, Claire and now Christine's uncertain future . . . the pillars upholding his life were being demolished one by one and now he wobbled, precarious, bewildered and terrified. His father and his wife were not given the pomp and ceremony due them as they were interred in the de Chagny mausoleum. A hasty burial with two frightened children sobbing from a loaded carriage was not the scenario Erik had envisioned. Honor would come later. Now, Elise, Jacqueline and his household were en route to the Château and safety.

One burden laid aside, at least. What he needed now was strength. Not his usual stoic, tensile strength, but one of clarity and fury. He would need wit and strength both to conquer Bruno. Erik hunched lower over César's neck, flying snowflakes dribbling from the brim of his fedora. God in Heaven, he felt battered and old, eyes gritty from grief and lack of sleep, his left hand spasming periodically. The bullet had not only broken his shoulder blade and torn his flesh, but also had nicked a nerve, ruining much of his former dexterity. Crude force would be his saving grace now.

The dingy house where Erik had woken to pain and the thin comfort of a friend stood empty. Fear slicked his skin like dirty ice. He drew and cocked the revolver in one fluid motion. His right hand, at least, still executed his will without complaint.

"Nadir?" Long, nerve-rending silence . . .

"Erik." Relief loosened his taut muscles and Erik shouldered his way into the bedroom. His relief evaporated when he saw his friend slumped in the chair, staunching a bleeding wound.

"What trouble did you get yourself into, old man?" Erik demanded, striving desperately for levity as he knelt beside the chair, peeling back fingers gummy with half-congealed blood to peer at the wound. Thank God, not serious, a gouge along the side of his chest, scraping against a rib. A knife wound.

Bruno.

"Frailty thy name is Nadir," the Persian jested weakly.

"Nonsense," Erik replied. "We both know you're tougher than an old boot." Nadir's dark eyes were solemn.

"He found me in the stable looking for your brother. Caught me by surprise."

"You're lucky he didn't gut you by surprise," Erik snapped, hands swiftly cleaning and bandaging the wound as Nadir talked. A crooked smile peeked through the grimace of pain.

"I got a shot off, though. Bought me time enough to get away. He's wounded, Erik." The monster bleeds at least. Thank God for little mercies.

"No word on Christine or Raoul?" he asked, eyes studious on the strip of bandage he was winding around Nadir's torso. The Persian wagged his silvered head.

A brief, intense debate ensued between them. Nadir insisted he could still be of use while Erik countered that he had nearly been killed whilst trying to 'be of use.' Twice. In the end, with much cursing in two different tongues, Erik helped his friend into bed.

"Bruno doesn't know about this place. You'll be safe here. Perhaps we could trouble Elaine for supper? I know Christine will be hungry." The underlying message was clear. He would return with Christine or not at all. Their eyes locked and between them flew the terrible knowledge of what could come.

"You remember how to find the Château, I trust? Elise and Jacqueline need a visit from their favorite Persian uncle." Nadir gave a fair attempt at a laugh.

"Their only Persian uncle." Erik shrugged.

"Who knows? Maybe Raoul has Saracen blood." The smile wobbled and fell from Nadir's face. He laid a hand over his heart.

"As-Salāmu `Alaykum."

"I badly need it, Nadir. Wa 'Alaykum as-Salaam, my friend."

From his vantage point, the brothel and stable were as bland and unremarkable as they had been yesterday. Erik was the one who'd been changed: beaten and shaped and fired into something almost unrecognizable. Not Vicomte, but Comte, not married but widowed, not whole but crippled. He looked upon his swaggering confidence with disgust.

Low, brooding clouds crouched over Paris, threatening more snow. A light in the window offered a cheery, beckoning touch. Christine . . . he couldn't wait. He couldn't wait for the gendarmes that were probably paid from the Madame's pocket, he couldn't wait for the veil of darkness to hide him, Christine was in there and she needed him. He would be there for her, as he hadn't been for Claire or Nadir. It had to happen now, while Bruno was at a disadvantage.

In a secluded alley, Erik swung down from César and found his weapons. His skin prickled at the thought of unseen eyes watching, crouched in wait like a beast in a cave . . . Sucking in a steadying breath, Erik made a break for where Nadir had said he and Bruno had had their duel. The stable was deserted; a stall door creaked in rusty reproach. Erik strained his ears for the slightest rasp of breathing, a scrape of boots on the gravel . . .

He reacted, swiveling just as Bruno's knife cleaved through the air where his throat had been. The revolver in his hand rose, took hasty aim.

Crack! The weathered grey wall exploded as the bullet tore through. The bastard was quick!

A hard hand seized the wrist holding the revolver. Erik chopped viciously at the elbow, easily breaking the grip. His brain, absorbing data, took in that Bruno was the shorter of the two of them, but long-limbed and well-muscled. A sharp twinkle caught the weak light. Knife. Erik grasped the wrist, twisting the arm attached to it at a painful angle. Bruno snarled in pain. Malignant hate, dark, dark eyes, hard grabbing hands, red blood . . . bleeding! A wet red stain on his belly. Cruel hands torqued Erik's wrist and the gun fell from nerveless fingers to the ground. It may as well have been across the ocean for all the good it did him. The knife flashed. Had Bruno missed him?

Intense struggle ensued: muscles screamed, tendons strained, wills clashed in the meeting of hate-filled eyes. With a roar, Erik shoved, breaking the grip of their grappling hands and slammed his knee into Bruno's lean belly square over that red stain. Bruno shrieked. The pain of the blow only seemed to enrage him further, like a baited bear. The bouncer charged, his momentum slamming Erik in the aisle wall, the knife plunging down like a thirsty fang. Erik checked the blow, his clumsy arm quivering under the onslaught. Oh God, his broken shoulder blade screamed! Too strong! His strength was draining away, like water through a collander. His eye darted to a halter lead, draped innocuously over the stall partition. Maybe three seconds to act, to find his revolver—A hideous smile spread on Bruno's crude face, relishing the prospect of victory.

"I'll beat you into a soft, bloody pulp. Just like I did to your Swedish tart," Bruno snarled, his spittle flecking Erik's face. Rage surged through him, burst free along with the howl of denial. A demon, they called him. A demon he would be!

Erik snatched the lead rope, then delivering a vicious elbow to Bruno's face. Cartilage crunched under his elbow. Eyes stinging and blood pouring down his face, Bruno lurched forward with a blind thrust. Anticipating the move, Erik threaded the arm through the headstall and yanked it taut, his other arm punching deep into that wounded belly. Bruno's empty hand swatted at him, but Erik doggedly held on. After a moment's struggle, he succeeded in snagging the free hand, twisting both into a painful knot. Erik found it ease in itself to trip the bouncer and fell him like a tree. Something sweet and dark pulsed through Erik; his booted feet stomped and kicked at the prone figure. Savage pleasure filled him at the soft grunts of pain, the crunch of breaking bone.

"What did you do to her?" he roared. Each blow was an act of true, bloody justice!

"What did you do?" Rage throbbed in time with his heartbeat, the ancient male imperative to conquer the threat, the interloper.

"What. Did. You. Do?" he punctuated each word with a vicious stomping kick to any available body part. Erik swayed, his breath short in his chest. He looked down and found deep gouging cuts along both arms and across his chest. How had he not felt them? The heap of long, dark-clad limbs shuddered and emitted a noise that Erik identified as laughter. A mangled horror to rival Erik's own visage turned toward him, his jagged-toothed, blood-reddened smile a travesty in itself.

"She asked for it. Scared off a customer with her laughing. She wanted it. Some whores come to like pain, did you know that? I teach them sweet lessons and they come to like it, even beg for it in the end. Your Christine sang so sweet in the end. She sang for me." The world lurched beneath his feet. He had failed. The black, oily guilt surged over him, he was drowning in it! No . . . no . . . no!

"You're lying!" In reply, Bruno only laughed.

Seized by red, hot rage, Erik took up his dagger, relishing the thought of carving out the monster's still-beating heart, then his lying tongue, then hack at those cruel hands until he was nothing but a pile of useless meat.

It happened too fast for him to follow.

One moment, Erik was kneeling to deliver a killing blow to a bound enemy and the next, coarse rope was digging into his windpipe, his vision swallowed by the image of a demon. Warm breath smelling of blood and onions wafted moist over Erik's face. Dirty straw was poking him through his clothes. It itched.

"You hit hard, de Chagny. I'll give you that. But my father did that and worse before breakfast. Do you want to sing for me?"

The only sound emerging from his throat was a song of soft, glottal sounds, hungry for air. His hands felt blind, disobedient to his will. So, when he snagged the butt of his revolver with his very fingertips, it was quite an accomplishment. An accomplishment made still greater when his vision narrowed and he squeezed the trigger.

The monster sprawled on top of him went limp and the pressure at his throat ceased.

Erik sucked down greedy breaths of cold, musty air. It took several tries to coordinate his tired muscles into shoving the corpse off of him. And a corpse it was, if the hole in its head was any indication. Erik rolled onto his hands and knees, coughing weakly, swallowing the urge to retch.

No time to rest. He had to get to Christine. Bruno had lied. Hadn't he?

Chapter Text

 

XXI

Bruno should have been back by now, she thought. The parlor was deserted. All of the girls were locked in their cells, but whether to protect Madame's precious workforce from more incursions by mad-eyed grooms or to keep them from escaping, even Madame d'Avrigny was unsure. Probably a mix of both.

So now she watched, sloppily drunk, as flecks of snow pelted the window. Had she been sober, her gnawing unease would have found release in pacing. As she was, she couldn't even totter to her sumptuous bed without injuring herself. Acid seemed determined to eat away her insides. Should she send for Cook to bring her something? Madame dismissed the thought muzzily. The sot was probably snoring by the fire, anyway.

Her be-ringed fingers wrapped around her tumbler, its rim marred by the scalloped smears of her rouge. Hmm, her tumbler was empty. One more drink would settle her nerves. By the time she was finished drinking, Bruno would be back. Nodding to herself she upended the brandy bottle. A pitiful puddle of golden liquid filled the glass. Not enough. It was never enough.

She had just brought the glass to her lips when the sound of the door flying open and slamming into the wall startled her.

"Bruno?" she called, her voice quavering.

"Guess again." God, even hoarse and laced with hate, his voice was a thing of angels. She contemplated the glass and, deciding it would be best to have one last drink, drained it. Madame blinked slowly at Erik de Chagny, standing with one arm braced on the wall. The other leveled a revolver at her. Wasn't that funny? Twice in one day!

All she could think to say was: "I thought you were dead." A knife-thin smile touched his full, finely-sculpted lips. He looked like hell. The black mask had seen better days, splattered with . . . something. His white shirt and black trousers were torn and blood trickled from the wounds on his torso. Madame glanced down at her good carpet and found muddy boot-tracks and an abbreviated blood trail.

"I am quite alive Madame, which is more than I can say for your companion."

Madame sagged in her chair, weeping sloppily. Who would protect her now? Who would make her feel good?

"Where is she?" Uttered with his angel's voice, it was like a jolt of icy water.

"Gone," she said, hiccupping. A profound change settled over him. He seemed to sway, as if about to topple.

"No," he whispered. Green eyes shone like chips of jade. The arm holding the revolver never wavered. His face spasmed into a rictus of denial.

"No! You're lying!" The hammer mechanism clicked. Madame sniffled.

"It's true! He took her this morning!" she protested. The full line of the Vicomte's lips thinned.

"He? Bruno?"

"No, Raoul."

"Raoul? Where did he take her?"

"I don't know!"

"Where?"

"I swear to God, I don't know! He just took her at fucking gunpoint and left! More trouble than she was worth, that one."

"No." His voice was like the crack of a whip and Madame shrank in her chair, shrank under that unholy light in those unnatural green eyes. The next words were spoken in an intimate, soft-voiced whisper: "You don't have the right to speak of her. You are as much the architect of her misery as Bruno was. You should suffer the same fate."

Fat tears slid down her cheeks, ruining her cosmetics. Madame shut out his vengeful face and the raised weapon by burying her face in her hands.

"It was business! She was my property! It's not like I forced her to work!" Her girls were lucky, living with silks and fine food and brandy. So much better than Sophia's own hard-bitten life of dirty fucks in squalor. They should be fucking grateful!

"No, you used Bruno for your dirty work, you hideous cow, you festering sore on the arse of humanity!"

Hideous? He thought she was ugly? Madame blubbered into her handkerchief.

"Don't kill me!"

"I should." Erik de Chagny in motion was like watching a dancer, all liquid grace and restrained power. His magnetism was undiminished by the blood, dirt and straw covering him. He took one step toward her, then another.

"I should." The black revolver was such a tiny thing, would it hurt when he pulled the trigger? Madame Sophia cringed away, weeping like an inconsolable child.

"Please, please . . ." Time dragged on in slow, stretching agony.

Madame was looking at the gun, not the man, so she did not see the slight tick in his face, the almost imperceptible shiver racing over his frame. The gun fell as if his arm was weighted with lead.

"Hell will find you soon enough without my tarnishing my soul to speed you to it. Now, give me the key." At this unexpected reprieve, Madame blinked.

"The key?" There wasn't any money in the strongbox. Impatience lit his eyes.

"Yes the key, you fool woman! The key to her room." Why would he want in her room? Didn't he hear her when she said the stupid Swedish whore was gone? Didn't he believe her? Instead of waiting for her produce said key, de Chagny yanked Madame to her unsteady feet and dragged her in the direction of the cells. Coordination and equanimity robbed from her, she bumped into walls and tripped over rugs in his wake.

"Which door?" he growled. Madame pointed, offering the key. De Chagny snatched it from her and opened the door. He stopped short.

"Is this the same wallpaper as in the Rose Room?" Madame frowned at the nonsensical question. He asked about the wallpaper?

"Y—yes. Yes, it is," she answered, eyeing him warily. The Vicomte gave a curt nod.

"That answers quite a bit," he murmured.

Shaking himself, de Chagny moved about her room, snatching a tiny book from the pillowcase and tucking it in his pocket. Madame watched dumbfounded as he knelt on the floor and peered under the cot, as he peeled up the mattress, then knocked over the small stand.

"Where is it?" he snapped, radiating malevolence. Madame shrank back, raising her hands in feeble defense.

"Where is what?"

"Christine's father was a violinist. She said you let her keep his instrument. It is a slender defense of your humanity, but I would have it regardless. Where is it?"

"Oh," Madame felt nearly weak-kneed with relief, "this way."

Her room held her magpie's hoard of the girls' treasures that she held for safe-keeping. The troublesome Swede's violin was among them: a battered thing in an equally hangdog case. De Chagny tucked it under his arm gently. Madame sank into her office chair, consoling herself with a fresh tot of brandy. His bow to her was one of mockery.

"I will not pretend I don't loathe you with every fiber of my being, but you have been accommodating." A snake of coarse rope looped around Madame's wrist. She stared at it, wondering where it had come from. An affronted squawk left her as her other wrist was also snagged. Hard, remorseless green eyes watched her struggle against the bonds tying her to the chair.

He strode from the room, and Madame stared at the empty doorway dumbly. A key screeched in a lock, then another, and another.

And for the first time in a long time, Madame Sophia d'Avrigny knew true terror.

 

XXX

Raoul had padded the bed of the wagon with hay and old horse blankets—judging from the coarse texture. Her mangled wreck of a face couldn't smell a thing. He wrapped her in a sort of sling so that she was suspended a few inches over the bed of the wagon. It was surprisingly comfortable, and muted most of the wagon's jostling. One of her musty blankets had slipped, though, and snowflakes landed and melted into icy tears on her battered face. The wagon lurched to a stop and she heard the crunch of Raoul's boots on the snow-covered road.

"I can't hear myself think over your damn teeth chattering," he groused, but his hands were gentle as they tugged the blanket more securely around her. Christine reached out with her good hand toward his voice and encountered a bony knee. A weak twitch of her fingers beckoned him close and she felt the warm puff of his breath on her cheek.

"Huh . . . baaa?" the words emerged tortured from her damaged throat. Oh God, her voice! Had it broken along with her body as Bruno beat her? Would she ever sing again?

"How bad?" Christine nodded slowly, painfully.

"Uh, Bruno beat you up pretty good." Gently—very gently—his hands peeled back her warm, scratchy cocoon of blankets, cataloguing her injuries.

"Two black eyes swollen shut, a broken nose, a jaw out of joint—let me fix that, deep breath and-"Christine cried out, flung out clawing hands as Raoul grasped and pressed . . . her jaw clicked into place with a sick pop. Some of the pain abated and hot tears leaked from the corners of her ruined eyes.

"Sorry, sorry . . ." he petted her hair, "open up your mouth now, let me see." Christine obediently wiggled her jaw back and forth, the pain in her mouth ebbing to a dull throb.

"Your teeth tore up the inside of your mouth, and I think you lost a molar." Well, that explained why she tasted blood.

A wet glugging sound and two rough, wet fingers pressed into her mouth, swiping along the inside of her cheeks and gums. Christine gurgled, choked on the burning sting of brandy. She swatted at him, resenting the rough treatment.

"We have to keep those cuts clean. Whenever one of the horses would turn up lame or injured, I'd fix them up. I know a thing or two about tending wounds. My arm, for instance. It wasn't broken, just pulled out of socket. Easy enough to fix. Now is as good a time as any to fix you."

"No, please Raoul . . ." she moaned, or tried to, instead it emerged like "Nah . . . plea . . . raw . . ." Christine tried to twist away, but only succeeding in tangling herself in the blankets in her makeshift hammock.

"Now, now Christine. It'll be fine. I'll be quick. Do you want some brandy first?" The command in his voice was immutable.

Tears of frustration and misery clotted in her lashes, sobs whistled noisily through her broken nose. She hated him. She hated him for his harsh, unlucky life, she hated him for his relentless need to keep her alive, but most of all, she hated him for not being his brother.

"There, there . . . drink this," Raoul crooned, cupping her head. A hard rim bumped against her teeth. It was swallow or choke, so Christine swallowed. Brandy burned a path down her throat and built a small fire in her belly. Raoul made her drain half the flask before mercifully releasing her.

"One shoulder's out of joint," hands touched her wrist, testing the joint. Hot knives of pain speared through her.

"A sprained wrist, along with two broken fingers and . . ." his hand pressed on her tender ribs, drawing a squeak from her, "good, I don't think they're broken. Just bruised. Christ, you're black and blue all over! And . . . oh."

"Uh?" she repeated, alarmed by his tone.

"The locket. You still have it." Her good hand clawed at her chest and found the locket's warm shape.

"Mine!" she insisted.

"Of course, Erik would have wanted you to have it." Another whimper tore free from her.

"Don, don plea." It hurt too much to hear his name. It hurt more than when Bruno's fists made her bones snap. His name became a chant in her mind: Erik . . .Erik . . .Erik . . . Erik . . .

"Christine, I know . . ." Raoul heaved a sigh, "I know you hate me for . . . for what happened. But just let me help you. Let me try and fix it." Earnest passion filled the words, and it roused only the stirrings of pity. The grief was too fresh, the wound too deep. When she didn't reply, Raoul cleared his throat.

"Well, think about it at least. Now, let's fix you up."

Either the brandy had begun to work, or Raoul truly did have some skill with healing, because resetting her shoulder and fingers were only moderately painful. His prescription for her battered face was a fat sack made from his torn sleeve filled with snow.

"It'll clear up the swelling quick," he murmured. It actually felt good. When it was over, he bent and she felt the rasp of his chapped lips on her sweaty forehead, coarse hands wrapping her in her cozy sling.

"Where do you think we should go? Erik's Paris house is much closer, and our sisters are there. Erik wanted us out of city, headed for Reims. He gave me some money, and we have plenty of food. Where should we go?"

Christine fought against the heavy blanket of brandy and pain weighing her thoughts, striving for light and clarity. The words 'our sisters' pierced her viscerally. Raoul had never met his half-siblings, yet he claimed kinship with them with a fierce, pugnacious undertone. Having sampled the love of family, he was loath to surrender even the most tenuous link. Could the two of them go there and find succor, Erik's whore lover and the family's black sheep bastard brother? What about Erik's wife? Christine shuddered away from the thought.

"Awa'," she said, nodding.

"Away? I guess that's best. It'll give you time to get better. Reims it is." The wagon bed quivered as Raoul swung down and stomped up to the driver's bench.

"Hang tight, Christine. We'll be safe soon." Safe? She thought drowsily. Erik had promised to keep her safe in his heart. The least she could do was keep him safe in hers.

XXX

Erik swung astride César with a groan. Nadir had promised to head for the Château with his new paramour Elaine as soon as she returned from the Opera. As for Erik, there was no rest to be had. He would not stop until he found her. It was only now as the last of the adrenaline ebbed that he could grieve.

Oh Christine . . . Christine . . . why did you do it?

Had she sought death out of despair, or grief? Or was he a narcissistic bastard for thinking it had anything to do with him? Perhaps it was. Perhaps she had grown to love Raoul. At the moment, Erik could not conjure jealousy, only a deep abiding ache. If he could only know she was safe, that she was well, he'd be content. She was free now . . .

First, he had to find them. Raoul was a clever boy; he would put the money Erik had given him to good use. It should be simple to overtake them, or even ride ahead to the cabin. A grim smile touched his lips. Nothing had been simple, not when the world intruded between him and Christine. A frigid winter's night, a determined groom and a day's distance separated them. Erik touched his heels to César's sides and the stallion surged into a liquid smooth canter, the bitter wind whipping tears from his eyes.

Chapter Text

XXII

 


It seemed to be an eon of jostling along cobbled streets leaving the city. Christine heard shouting, an indistinct babble of anger in a rising tide of violence. Raoul's voice cut through the noise and the wagon shuddered to a halt. She whimpered, curling into herself. Her swollen eyes had healed just enough for Christine to see thin slits of a blank grey sky over wagon's wood siding and indistinct blobs of color, churning restlessly. Was it a riot? The wagon shuddered beneath her. She uttered a broken cry, throwing up her hands upon seeing the snarling face of a man.

"That's enough! Get away from her!" Raoul shouted, groping for his pistol. The man swiped at the bulging sack holding their foodstuffs, but the wagon lurched. The man disappeared. Dizzily, Christine realized Raoul had dove for the man and succeeded in fighting him off. A heavy thud in the wagon bed announced the return of their food.

"Let us pass!" Raoul bellowed, brandishing the pistol.

The two of them left Paris without any further molestation. Another epoch passed in painful monotony. Christine's fingers wormed beneath the tattered remnants of her shift and found the warm rectangle of his locket. It was always warm, no matter how chilled Christine's skin grew. She found that she wanted to live. Oh, the grief and the pain were still there, and in that, she was grateful for Bruno's work to distract her from it. But she found she no longer wanted to die.

As Raoul had so eloquently put it, Christine needed to keep in mind what he would have wanted. He had been her friend and lover, her savior and anchor. And now he was gone. How did one go about living after such a loss? She thought she had when her Papa died, but that had been cloaked in shock, blunted by fever. The wound was still there, a deep, yawning thing on her soul. Perhaps, in part, that was why she had clung to him so fiercely. He had been the first man since her Papa to care. Upon closer inspection, had his love for her simply been a rash reaction to the first scrap of kindness thrown to his starving soul? Was it a thing born of wine and lust and desperation?

Near dusk, Raoul broke the silence.

"That was close, huh Christine?" Raoul's shout was half-lost in the wind.

"I have Erik's pistol, found it on the ground outside the Populaire. Only problem is, it isn't loaded."

A bluff? Raoul had taken her from Madame's brothel and fought their way out of the city with an empty bloody gun? Christine exhaled through her nostrils, which had healed just enough to allow for a whistling stream of air. There was vanity enough in her to hope it would heal straight. She must look like a bloody horror if Raoul's crude commentary was any judge. Would he have even loved her like this?

The assorted aches and pains coalesced into one massive throb beating in time with her heartbeat. Her throat was dry; congealed blood lingered in the folds of her mouth. In his haste to free her, Raoul had given her nothing but brandy for sustenance and her stomach was reminding her of this fact rather plaintively.

"Raw!" God, her voice! Christine had the vague impression of a memory where her insane laughter rose to a shriek and broke as Bruno's heavy fists rose and fell. Tears clotted in her eyelashes at the loss of her one true beauty. Gamely, she tried again: "Raw, plea!"

"Huh? Did you say something?" he asked. Christine braced herself as the wagon swerved off the road and slowed to a stop. A horse whinnied and then quieted under the murmur of Raoul's voice. Feet crushing snow and then he appeared above her, windblown and snow-pelted. While he exuded an air of laconic endurance, he was obviously very cold in naught but his tattered shirt and trousers. Raoul squatted down next her.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Hung. . . hungree." She struggled to marshal the correct movements of lips and jaw and God, it hurt!

"Hung . . . oh you're hungry? Why didn't you say so?" he chided with a gentle shake on her shoulder. Christine managed a nod, and groped with her good hand, tugging one of her blankets off. Raoul shot her a look of profound gratitude, draping the raggedy thing around his shoulders. Christine watched him straighten and crane his head around.

"Let me move a bit farther off the road." Raoul whistled and chirped to the horses and Christine let out a soft sound of distress as the wagon listed sharply to one side before evening out.

"Sorry, snow bank," Raoul said. He slowed the wagon and dismounted. She could hear him crooning and patting the horses.

"Right, well, there's a tree over there. I'll get us a fire going. Some broth would be best, I think." Christine rasped out her agreement.

"Right," he said, clearing his throat, "I'll get to it."

Christine lay back, contemplating the snow-dusted bower of branches above her and listened to Raoul's steady stream of muttering and cursing as he attempted supper. The product of his efforts amounted to warm, salty water with spices clotting the surface. To Christine it was heavenly, especially coupled with softened hunks of warm bread. After Raoul scraped the tender insides from the burned crusts, the bread was quite satisfying.

"Good?" Raoul's voice was tentative, wide eyes endearingly anxious.

"Good," Christine repeated, nodding.

"We'll sleep here. The horses are tired." The weariness coating Raoul's voice gave him away.

The wagon bed shuddered under his weight and Christine flinched a little as Raoul lay behind her, curling an arm around her. But he brought with him the heat of the fire, and slowly her body relaxed against him. Silence filled the space between them, the bone-aching cold beginning to recede as they shared warmth. Sleep beckoned; Christine feared the dreams that lurked there, the ones that promised the taste of lost joy.

"He really loved you, you know," Raoul whispered. Christine uttered a low moan, curling into herself. Why must he grind salt into her raw, bleeding wounds?

"You can't just throw something like that away, Christine. It's precious. It makes the rest of us feel like the world can be . . . can be good, you know?" Raoul's words pricked her like the sharp jab of a needle.

"He . . . he is . . . dead," she forced those evil words past her abused throat and jaw. A vital part of herself was gone, why did it matter if she gave Raoul hope? The world was a bleak and evil place peopled with monsters like Méchant and the Madame and Bruno. Raoul's hand, heretofore engaged in stroking her arm, abruptly tightened. Old fear sank its talons into Christine. Was Raoul a monster like them? He could do whatever he wanted to her, Christine's only protector was in the ground.

"I know. Don't you think I know? Don't you think I see his blood on the ground, see Méchant's men haul his body away whenever I close my eyes? That's your fucking problem, Christine. You can't see anything beyond your own pain. Erik was my brother as well as your lover. And you're fucking welcome for my saving your bloody life!"

Raoul began to rise, when Christine hauled on a handful of his thin shirt. He couldn't leave. If he left, she would be alone with nothing but her pain. Contrite, she rasped: "I am . . . sorry Raoul. Thank you. For the soup. For ever'thing." In her narrow field of vision, the fire burnished his hair to a bronze sheen and revealed pale, bruised features marred by an expression of irritated surprise. He sank back down, exhaling through his nose. Burrowing close, he rested his pointed chin on her shoulder.

"I never really understood why Erik was so enamored with you. There are prettier, cleverer whores. Now I understand. You snag the heart, Christine, and hold it tight." Raoul uttered a harsh little sigh and nestled closer to her. The tree and the wagon blocked most of the howling wind and the soft snuffling of the cobbled horses created a soothing melody. Tucked in tight in a nest of dense wool blankets and straw, it was surprisingly cozy. Christine and her Papa had bunked down like this during their years wandering the Continent, when money was too meager or an inn was too far.

Beneath the heap of horse blankets with a man curled behind her radiating warmth, Christine felt her tension ease, the pain dull to an inane ache. She didn't realize Raoul's hands had begun to wander until a callused palm cupped her hip. That hand inched with cautious surety up her belly and cupped her breast. Her sleepy lassitude evaporated and she snatched at the offending hand. God, would it always be this way? Was her body her only currency and worth?

"Stop," she snapped.

"Suit yourself," he grumbled, and promptly fell asleep.

Christine lay wakeful, puzzling over it. From their prior conversations, she was aware of a subtle current of attraction when Raoul spoke to her. The way his eyes lingered, his blunt appraisal of her beauty. But Raoul was also every inch the prostitute Christine was herself. If she was honest with herself, she had thought that Raoul was more inclined toward his own sex. It was also puzzling that he would find her love for Erik as proof of the world's goodness while trying to bed her. Puzzling, or telling of his own estimation of his worth. But beyond Raoul's inclinations, Christine's own feelings on the matter were firm. She had sampled the exquisite beauty of actually making love to a man. Anything less would be obscene and . . . and . . . cheap. There would be no one.

Ever again.

"Christine, wake up. There's a coach coming." Raoul's voice intruded on her blessedly dreamless sleep. Groping her way upward toward consciousness, Christine strained her ears and heard the whine of turning wheels, the jangle of harness and the clomping and blowing of horses.

"Wait . . . is that-?" Raoul's tone was odd, breathy and excited.

"Oh my God! Christine! The crest! It's the same one! That's my family!" A sharp leather crack and Raoul urged the wagon after the coach, shouting. Pain screeched through her at the abrupt movement. Her sleep-dulled mind whirred. Erik's family? Here? His sisters, oh God, was Claire with them? She felt sick.

"Hang on, Christine! They're stopping!" Raoul said. She crawled from her sling and rose to her knees, straining to open her abused eyes wide enough to see. Her head spun and her eyes swam. All she saw was a white blur of sky and field and road, and an indistinct black blob ahead.

"Wha . . . what's going on?" If she took her time and enunciated carefully, her speech was at least halfway intelligible. Weakly, she sank back onto her pile of horse blankets, clinging to the sack of foodstuffs for ballast.

"Lie back now, you fool woman. You're injured, remember? There's someone getting out. An older woman. And two girls—Christ, my sisters!" Christine's heart sank. Older woman: Claire. At last meeting face to face with her rival. In her mind, Claire had always been tall and slender and gorgeous with a smile like a sliver of ice.

"Jacqueline and Elise," Christine said.

"Yes," he whispered. He turned to her, raking his fingers through his damp, snarled hair.

"Do you think they'll like me?" he asked shyly. Christine didn't have time to reply when a voice reached them.

"Are you all right? Do you need help?" a woman's voice asked.

Raoul swung down from the wagon, vainly trying to smooth his hair. From her place leaning against the wagon bed, Christine strained her eyes against the painfully bright glare of the sun and snow and saw two slender girls and a woman approach, a woman old enough to be Christine's grandmother. Relief loosened her joints. Not Claire, then. She looked back at the two girls, her heart giving a painful lurch at the sight of Elise. God, she looked like the wild-haired daughter of her dreams. But in her dreams, their daughter always had his eyes. Those beautiful green eyes . . .

And Jacqueline, elegant and regal, standing with proper grace, she looked like such a lady! Raoul's coarse voice interrupted her musings.

"Uh yes, uh I'm . . ."

"Oh Jackie, look! That lady's hurt!" Elise said, brow puckered in dismay. Christine blinked in surprise and tried to smile. Her ruined face probably made it a horror.

"Quiet El, let the man talk," Jacqueline said, hugging her sister to her side beneath the shelter of a fur-lined cloak. Raoul cleared his throat and brushed ineffectually at the straw on his trousers.

"I'm Raoul," he said, "I am the son of Michel de Chagny." Christine watched the shock settle in. Jacqueline had the grace to hide her dropped jaw behind her gloved hand, while Elise gaped openly. Immediately, Elise swiveled toward the woman.

"Madame Villon, is that true? Is he . . . our brother?" Villon, the housekeeper. He had told her about the woman who had become a nanny and confidante as well as housekeeper in the long years of her tenure at the de Chagny holdings. Open shock rounded her eyes and dropped her jaw, but the keen, assessing look said Madame Villon saw something of her employer in Raoul.

"I think so, mistress. Look, he has your papa's eyes and build. Did he ever tell you that you had a brother named Raoul?"

"I thought he was a bastard," Jacqueline said, squinting at Raoul with wary eyes. Christine flinched for Raoul's sake. Though obviously parroting whatever she'd heard from the adults around her, the girl's casual contempt while uttering the word stung.

"I am the son of Michel de Chagny. You should let me see him, he'll know me," Raoul said firmly, hand balled at his sides. Tense silence fell. A deep, weary silence seemed to rob the three de Chagny women of their energy. Oh God, did they know about what had happened to their brother?

"Michel de Chagny is dead. He died three days ago," Madame Villon said softly. Christine couldn't stifle a gasp. Dead? She had known he was ill, but . . . And now that he was gone, didn't that make Raoul the Comte de Chagny?

"I miss Papa," Elise said, hanging her head. As she did so, she caught sight of Christine and pointed.

"Who are you? Why is your face all messed up?" she asked, obviously eager to avoid the painful memory of her father's death.

"Remember your manners!" Jacqueline reminded severely. Christine found her voice and carefully said, "I'm Christine." Joy lit Elise's chubby face.

"Christine? That's the name of Erik's friend, the one he likes to visit." A rush of bittersweet pleasure filled her. He had talked about her. She had meant something to him.

"I am his friend," she croaked. Always. Elise's smile was dazzling.

"Isn't it wonderful? A brother and a friend all in one day!" she squealed, squeezing her sister's hands. Jacqueline looked like she had bitten into a lemon, blue eyes wide and livid. Christine swallowed hard. Young as she was, Jacqueline knew what it meant to be a married man's special friend. Christine could feel the weight of Madame Villon's look and waited for the words that disowned them. Madame Villon's lips pursed.

"There isn't room for either of you in our carriage. I am under the strictest orders to get these girls to the Château safe. Be sure you don't slow our pace."

And just like that, Christine's future upended again.

XXX

With a horse like César, the journey from Paris to his Reims cabin could be made in a day and a half. Erik kept a punishing pace. Punishing for Erik's battered body, that is. After the blood-soaked madness at the Opera and his duel with Bruno, Erik's mind felt sluggish, stupid with pain and exhaustion. He snatched sleep in the saddle, shoveled down the half-stale sandwich Elaine had given him and shivered beneath Nadir's threadbare coat. The wind was nearly as cruel as the river, slicing through his clothes as if it was nothing and curling against his naked skin.

When he stopped for the night, head pillowed on his saddle and pistol in hand, he sank immediately into the grip of a nightmare. A nightmare where a monster savagely beat the woman he loved into a bloody pulp. A nightmare where he watched, helpless as Claire and Raoul were murdered, his home burned, where all he loved was shattered, desecrated and destroyed. Erik awoke to misery, both of body and mind. Erik's arms wrapped around himself, wanting to whimper for Christine's comfort. He wanted to kiss her awake in a wide bed all their own, hold her until the sun rose and spend the day making her smile. She deserved so much more than he could give her.

Under the bower of a tree where he was tethered, César let out a low whicker of greeting. The night was brilliantly clear and cold, the snow like milk and the stars like cold shards of diamond. Erik shied away from thoughts of Bruno, the gutted townhouse, Nadir's wasted features. He had bought justice in Bruno's blood. The ledger of his debts revealed so much he had yet to repay, but that act of bloody revenge brought him some comfort. Christine or Raoul would never have to wake in fear of a monster's shadow. He groped for his tin flask, numb gloved fingers fumbling to twist the cap. Once open, he took a long drink. The water was cool and crisp on his tongue, washing away the faint aftertaste of terror.

Nadir was a dab hand with bandages, Erik would give him that. The wounds on his arms and chest from his duel were duly disinfected and covered, his bullet wound repacked and his left arm in a sling to aid in his shoulder healing. Such encumbrances made it difficult to ride, but Erik found a way to manage.

"Any more bandages and people will think I am a burn victim," he told César dryly. The stallion snuffed in reply, before resuming his browsing for edible tufts of grass.

Erik ached, right down to his marrow. Now that he had won free from the madness of Paris more or less intact, Erik turned his thoughts to all of the upheavals of the past few days. The terrain of his world had been completely leveled. His father and Claire were dead. Raoul and Christine were injured and traveling alone, believing him to be dead. Elise and Jacqueline fled to their refuge, no longer children thanks to the horrors they had witnessed. Nadir's life was in ruins. Erik lay on the cold, hard ground, his hurt shoulder throbbing unmercifully.

"Christine," he whispered. Her name was the first thing he said upon waking, and the last thing before sleep. It was his prayer, until she was in his arms again and the world was whole.

Chapter Text

XXIII

"I can't believe he's dead. My father, I mean. Not that I ever heard from him growing up, but my mother talked about him quite a bit. She loved to talk about how I resembled him and how it was mad that they didn't see it. I had his eyes, his build, even his crooked little toe. At first, I thought it was because she loved him, because she wanted us to be a family. In the end, I found out it was just for the bloody stipend he gave her. A stipend she often used to buy silk and lace instead of food. That's where I know the crest from. I always thought it was pretty."

Damn him, she thought. Raoul made it so hard for her to hate him. How could she when his upbringing was bereft of anything resembling love and he had clung to his brother's good opinion so fiercely? Their pace trailing the de Chagny carriage was brisk. Beyond the necessities of travel, the de Chagny driver had not shared any information.

"I'm sorry, Raoul." He gave a tense, uncomfortable shrug.

"Did Erik ever talk about our sisters?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder at her.

"He did." Speech was still slow, slurred and difficult, but Christine was managing. Slowly, haltingly, she offered a quick sketch of their personalities and passions. Elise's picture was clearer and more vivid; he had held a special fondness for his youngest sister. In many ways, she was the daughter he had never had, and a vessel for all of his frustrated love. Jacqueline, by inference, was more Claire's creature. An odd smile toyed with Raoul's mouth, as if receiving an unexpected gift.

"Do you think they know about what happened to Erik?" Raoul asked quietly once she was finished. Christine controlled her wince.

"We'll find out, I suppose."

She and Raoul made a solemn pair after that, each wrapped in their own private thoughts. By mid-afternoon, both carriage and wagon stopped for the occupants to stretch their legs or tend the call of nature. Christine clutched the edges of her sling, waiting for the surging echo of travel to ebb.

"Would you like to step down, Christine?"

Swinging in her sling had become wearisome and disorienting, so Christine nodded. Raoul was really very considerate, in his own blunt fashion. Laboriously, she crawled to the rear of the wagon and swung her legs over the lip. God, her whole body ached, right down her marrow. Taking his proffered hand, Christine stood spindly-legged like a newborn foal. Raoul's spare boots were heavy and loose on her feet, but adequate. The Madame's nightgown was stained and ragged beneath her makeshift shawl of horse blankets and she self-consciously tightened the knot.

Her squinting gaze wandered over the road, then up, endlessly up, to the open sky. Sudden, screeching panic froze her joints and clawed at her throat. Like a rabbit beneath a hawk's remorseless eye, she felt only the blind urge to run and hide. Over a year trapped in a handful of locked rooms had crushed and flattened her into a wan shadow of a woman. Her heart hammered in her chest and she crumbled into sobs. Space and light and air bludgeoned her senses, making even the walls of the wagon preferable to all of this . . . this freedom. Christine suddenly found herself pressed against a thin chest, wiry arms wrapped around her.

"Christine, Christine," Raoul murmured, stroking her wild hair. It was his horse-gentling voice, a low, sweet croon that soothed human nerves as easily as equine ones.

"Ssshh, hush. It's all right, hush now, little one . . . hush, you're safe." Raoul said, cradling her until the panic loosened its grip and dissolved. Safe . . . safe. She felt safe? Her lover had made her feel safe. But he was gone . . . Numb fingers wormed beneath her shift. The locket was warm against her heart and she gripped it tight.

"Breathe . . . breathe . . ." Raoul urged, and she obeyed, in and out, in and out until her heartbeat slowed.

"It happens to some whores who don't see daylight much. It's all right, it gets better." Christine peeled back far enough to peer at his face, set carefully blank. This man had saved her life, nursed her wounds, soothed her terror . . . he did not deserve her hate.

"I don't want to hate you," she whispered. Raoul's blank expression melted away and he embraced her with heartbreaking tenderness.

"Thank you," he whispered into her hair. Up the road, Elise was waving manically. Raoul cleared his throat and stepped back.

"Shall we?" he asked. A brave tendril of hope wormed its way through the ash and detritus of her old life. Brave and tender and oh so fragile. She would cling to it.

xxx

The Château de Chagny in the wan, colorless twilight was the place of cold, looming grandeur that her lover had described. As the gravel drive meandered toward the manor on the hill, Christine glimpsed a frozen pond with a long wooden dock that had seen better days. Was that the same pond where Thomas had fallen? She shuddered, huddling deeper into the scratchy comfort of her horse blanket shawl. The memory of green eyes shining with grief's tears flitted through her mind's eye. Green eyes closed forever . . . Christine closed her own eyes against the sudden rush of pain.

Raoul whistled low, in naked, awed admiration at the opulence. Christine was in complete agreement with him. She had never truly grasped the breadth of her lover's wealth and social standing. Her heart took up a loud, thudding rhythm, cold sweat dampened her palms.

Surely they wouldn't lead us to the very door and turn us away?

A snide part of her mind whispered, Claire might. Raoul would stay, certainly. He was as much their blood as her lover had been, but Christine? She was nothing but a whore, and a battered, less-than-sane one at that.

As Elise, Jacqueline, then Madame Villon and three young men stepped down from the carriage, Raoul turned to her, a puzzled frown marring his brow.

"Where's Erik's wife?" Some of her ringing tension ebbed. Not a direct confrontation, then.

"I don't know," she said.

Stewards and grooms materialized from the manor house, outlined in brilliant gold light pouring from behind them. The wind picked up and Christine huddled closer to Raoul. With tidy efficiency, they began unloading luggage and tending the horses. At Madame Villon's distracted wave, two broke off and marched toward them.

The stewards, looking to be no older than Raoul, shared a glance. The taller of the two, brown hair parted and combed into shining waves, cleared his throat and said, "Madame Villon has instructed us to show you to your rooms for the night. There are baths being drawn for the lady and yourself, Monsieur." An awkward silence descended as Raoul groped for equanimity, probably from being called 'Monsieur' for the first time in his life.

"Uh, yes. Thank you. When might we expect to meet with the Comtesse? We have important news for her." The stewards shared an uncomfortable look, the younger blond one staring intently at the pile of horse dung near his shoe.

"The Comtesse Claire de Chagny was killed in Paris two days ago. Commune men ransacked the townhouse, killing a groom and our lady while the Comte was away." The taller steward's eyes blazed, but with rage or tears, she couldn't tell. The words sank into her along with the bone-numbing cold. Claire was dead too? God, had the past few days razed the de Chagny family to rubble, with only this cold monolith to comfort the children left behind?

"God rest her soul," Raoul said, crossing himself. Christine followed the gesture perfunctorily, still reeling from the shock of it. Dead? Would Claire be granted an eternity with him while Christine rotted on this plane? The ultimate injustice!

Lost in thought, Christine didn't even notice the stewards' small shadow until Elise peeked out from behind them.

"Raoul, Christine! Welcome home!" Christine summoned her crooked, pained smile. Pure compassion cramped her heart. The poor dear. She had lost so much, was so determinedly cheerful to keep the sorrow at bay.

"Hello, Elise," Christine said warmly. Raoul echoed the sentiment with something like wonder.

"Come on, let's get inside! There's supper!" her hands churned in a rapid ushering motion. Raoul swiveled toward the wagon bed and rummaged around until he found a . . . a book? Comprehension dawned and Christine swallowed hard. Another token from the man they both had loved. A pang struck her at the thought of her own book of sonnets now gone, lost . . .

Elise clutched her hand, tugging her from the wagon. As Christine found her feet, she was suddenly painfully aware of the torn shift, borrowed boots and horse blankets she stood clad in, of the evidence of her failed assisted suicide attempt marring her body. Shame was nearly as crippling as pain. Her heart flinched as she heard that name. Elise was dancing around her, walking backwards toward the house as Christine followed.

"-'Specially when Erik says it. He even makes my name sound pretty with his voice."

"What was that, Elise?" Christine asked. Elise's grin was quick and bright.

"Your name. I was saying Christine is such a pretty name, 'specially when Erik says it. Erik told me you were his friend at the brothel. I asked him if brothels were where they made soup, and he said no. I asked Jackie and she said that's where whores live. Are you a whore?"

Stricken, Christine stopped dead, the shame suddenly crippling. All she wanted to do was melt into the snow. This girl's simple question would destroy what was left of her soul. Instantly contrite, Elise threw her arms around Christine's waist and hugged her.

"Oh Christine, I'm sorry. Jackie and Madame Villon are always telling me to mind my tongue. I didn't mean to say bad things. It's just that Aunt Claire didn't like it when Erik visited his friends at the brothel and I wondered if it was because they were whores." Such a perceptive child, she thought.

"I . . . I was one. But not anymore," Christine stuttered. Elise's nod was solemn.

"That's good. Now let's go get some supper." Christine smiled tightly, gripping Elise's proffered gloved hand.

"All right. I'm starved."

The staff of the Château did not know how to treat her. They greeted her with a respectful 'Madame,' and served her with the decorum befitting a Comtesse, but their eyes shifted and their posture was tense. Christine fidgeted in the stiff, straight-backed chair, as uncomfortable as they. Every one of her bruised bones ached, her face throbbed, and a headache crashed against her skull like relentless surf. At the moment, she was invalid, guest, and mistress to their dead employer—a strange, ambiguous place that even Madame Villon did not know how to cope with. Thick, rich turtle soup sang on her tongue and built a merry fire in her belly, perfect after the endless, dreary cold. Eagerly, she devoured two bowlfuls as Madame Villon and Raoul sparred in awkward, stilted language.

"I am sure I do not know what you mean, Monsieur," the housekeeper was saying.

"You're implying that I am some kind of con man, don't even deny it! Well, all I have is my mother's word—which was good enough for my father, you said so yourself that I was in his will! Erik named me his brother and heir." Raoul paused his tirade to grope in his pocket for something. Slamming his hand down on the table mirror bright with polish, he gestured to the pistol and purse broadly. A look of belligerent triumph lit his face. Out of the tail of her eye, she saw Elise's eyes widen. Christine slanted a look between the two and wondered if that was one of his father's expressions.

"There it is! That's Erik's pistol, and the purse he gave me. I have no other proof than the blood in my veins and my own face. If you call me a liar, you call Erik a liar and I will not stand for that!" The old housekeeper seemed mollified, or cowed, depending on one's interpretation of her expression.

"I am calling no one a liar, Monsieur, especially Erik, God bless him. Perhaps it would be best if we sought out our beds and discuss this tomorrow with cooler heads?" Raoul sucked in a breath to reply and Christine chose to intervene.

"I think that is very wise. Thank you Madame, and goodnight," she said, her voice a dry croak. With a short curtsey, she looked to the girls.

"Goodnight Elise, Jacqueline." Elise grinned, waving shyly. Her elder sister . . . her eyes were hard and pitiless; the look sat ill on such a young, sweet face. Christine clenched her sore jaw. The stony judgment in that look was hard to bear.

Raoul rose and bowed stiffly, awkwardly, before following a maid toward the bedrooms. They encountered a problem at the grand, arching staircase leading upstairs. Christine paled, gripping the smooth marble banister. Her joints ached and her knees wobbled as it was, would she have to ride up in the dumbwaiter like a heap of starched sheets? With a muttered curse, Raoul swung her up into his arms, boots, horse blankets and all. The young maid gave them a startled look, but bustled along. At the top of the stair, Raoul set her down and sucked down hungry gulps of air.

"Are you all right, Raoul?" Christine murmured, unsure of whether to be insulted or charmed. He waved away her concern and straightened.

"Well? Where's her room?" he snapped, blue eyes afire. The maid scurried on, and soon they reached a door of dark, richly carved oak.

"Here is your room, Madame. Yours, Monsieur, is just down the hall, here." With a sweep of her arm she led Raoul down the hall, and Christine gave him a reassuring nod.

Christine turned the brass knob and entered the room. It was beautiful, and thankfully bereft of any maids. Though a minor guest chamber on the second floor, it still dazzled Christine with its simple opulence. The brothel's trappings, while fine, always seemed . . . cheap, false. Here, a cheery fire blazed in the grate, the walls papered a gentle cream. A wardrobe and bookshelf dominated two walls, a privy closet sat tucked discreetly behind an ornately carved screen. The bed, complete with dark green coverlet and hangings, looked temptingly soft and large enough for five.

But what caught and held her attention was the bath. A gleaming copper tub lounged before the fire, the surface of the water steaming gently. Beside it stood a small table holding towels, soaps and combs. Eagerly, Christine began shedding her filthy clothing, stained by travel and by blood. The locket lay warm and hard between her breasts, gleaming in the captured firelight. Easing into the blisteringly hot water was a wonderful, painful ecstasy. Her aches dissolved under the heat's persuasion.

Pouring out a palmful of hair soap, Christine carefully lathered her mane of hair, rinsed, then soaped up a cloth and scrubbed her body from head to toe. God, half her body was covered with deep, blue-purple bruises, some turning sickly green around the edges. A discreet probing with her fingertip found that her nose was indeed healing straight. The water and the cloth had a distinct brownish cast by the time she was done.

Exhausted from the meager effort of cleaning herself, she leaned back against the rim of the tub. Sweat dewed on her skin at the soft, sensual caress of silken water and the gentle, murmuring fire. She could feel her heartbeat in her fingertips, her toes, between her thighs . . . her hand slid over the familiar terrain of her own body to her core, slick and aching. His name slid from her swollen lips.

"Erik . . ." Ah, glorious abandon in whispering his name, her prayer! Knowing fingers kneaded her pearl, thighs clenched and hips bucking as the pleasure coiled, built . . . her eyes fluttered open and she saw him there. A ragged gasp left her lips and she sat up.

"Don't stop," Raoul rasped from where he leaned against her closed door. His dark blue eyes held an unbearable sensual sleepiness—unbearable because she recognized the expression on a darker, leaner face with green eyes. A quick glance down found him hard, jutting against his trousers. He had bathed as well, his hair was wet and sweat glistened on his bare chest and upper lip. Panting and achingly unfulfilled, Christine stood, snatching a towel to her chest.

"Get out, Raoul." Her tone was all wrong, weak and breathy.

"Let me help, then," he said, surging forward. A callused fingertip followed the meandering drop of water down her throat to her breasts, slipping under the towel to circle her nipple. Her nipples were taut and aching, intensely sensitive. Maybe she could just close her eyes and imagine Erik . . . Raoul's wrist grazed the chain of the locket and pain knifed through the sensual haze.

"No," she said, snatching his hand away. Raoul's expression crumbled into pain and sorrow and naked, vulnerable longing.

"You said you didn't hate me." His tone was almost accusing.

"I don't hate you." Raoul sank to his knees, wrapping his arms around her waist, hands restlessly caressing her back and buttocks. Face pressed to the towel draped over her belly, his voice shred her heart with its pleading.

"Then let me make you feel good. Don't you want the pain to go away, just for a little while?"

"Not like that," she murmured, petting his cool hair, shining like golden wire in the firelight.

"I know what it's like to be with someone you love. It's so beautiful; I don't want to try and recapture the shadow of it. And you deserve better than that, Raoul. You deserve someone who loves you."

"Couldn't you love me?" His voice was thick, mournful. Christine's heart broke for him.

"Oh Raoul . . . You're brave and loyal. You understand what I've been through better than anyone alive. Maybe I could have loved you . . . before. But I love Erik." His name didn't hurt to say anymore.

"I love him too," Raoul rasped. How long she stood there, cradling him as wept against her, she didn't know. When he looked up at her, it was with the wide, innocent eyes of the boy he'd once been.

"Can I stay here tonight? I won't do anything, I promise. I just . . . I just don't want to be alone." Christine stroked the glitter of golden stubble on his cheek.

"Yes, you can stay." As Raoul turned down the bed, Christine dried herself and slipped into a shift of such fine cotton, it felt like silk. She felt Raoul's eyes on her as she did so, but ignored it.

"Do you want me to comb your hair? My mother said I was a deft hand with a comb," Raoul offered shyly.

"I think your work with horse's manes might be better experience," Christine said with a smile, surrendering the comb. Raoul grinned like a boy and spread his legs, inviting her to sit between them. Snuggled on the bed surrounded by the mound of pillows, Raoul began from the dripping ends of her hair and worked his way up. He is a deft hand, Christine thought sleepily as the comb ran through her hair. Soon her hair was free of tangles, and she snuggled into the welcoming down of the bed, wallowing in sensual comfort. Raoul curved behind her, draping an arm around her. There was a hard lump digging into her lower back and she shifted away from it.

"Sorry," he murmured sleepily into her hair. Christine reached for the locket and held it tight as she slipped into sleep.

XXX

It took every ounce of Erik's control to stay upright. His limbs felt like overcooked noodles, his head pounded, chills tore through his body. He staggered against the doorjamb of the cabin, shaking hands fumbling with the key. Maybe they had made it here before him . . . at last, the key found the lock and he staggered through the open door.

Empty.

Empty with a few dried leaves skittering from the open maw of the fireplace, the air smelled of musty neglect. With a groan, Erik's legs gave out beneath him. Where were they? They had a full day's lead on him. Surely he would have overtaken them, seen some small sign . . .

"Please God, let them be all right. Let them be safe." He would wait. He would wait forever for her. Perhaps he could wire the Château, though why Raoul would chose to go there instead of the cabin was beyond Erik's ken.

His head swam. Erik scrubbed his face with his hands. Let it be exhaustion, let it be exposure that made him weak. Not infection. If his wounds were infected, he would die. That was fact. In the wan dawn light, he peeled back the bandages. No sickly sweet stink, no streaks of redness, no blistering heat or fever . . . just scabbed lines from his cuts, and a ragged hole in his shoulder. Relief brought tears to his eyes. What an irony it would be to fight so hard to free her, only to die of infection.

Maybe stone-eared Fate would be kind to him, just this once.

"Rest. Rest and food," he told himself.

César was in his cozy stable, happily crunching on the oats stocked in the tack room. Erik would not be so lucky. Since the cabin was used so infrequently, it was not regularly stocked, or cleaned. Erik had meant to make preparations, but the madness in Paris had prevented him. With difficulty, he mustered coordination to his weary limbs. The pantry offered only a moldy paring of cheese and a wizened apple.

"Oats for me, then." Dry oats mixed water were about as appetizing as they sounded, but Erik choked them down. As sunlight streamed through the snow-sprinkled trees, Erik retreated to the cabin's lone bed. Tearing off the dust cloth, he climbed in boots and all, swathing himself in the heavy down coverlets. Warmth seeped slowly into his bones and Erik sank into a deep, restful sleep.


 

Chapter Text

XXIV

"Christine! Christine, wake up!" A high, female voice shattered the sweet dream of sunshine and Erik's voice. Behind her, Raoul groaned, flopping onto his belly and pummeling the pillow into a shape more pleasing to him. A rapid, woodpecker's knock, followed by Elise's voice, now marred with a petulant whine: "Come on, Christine! Get up you . . . you slugabed!"

"Coming," she slurred, sliding out of bed. She gasped as her warm, bare feet made contact with the icy wood floor. Gingerly pinching the bridge of her nose to keep the headache at bay, Christine undid the latch and opened the door.

"There you are!" Elise's blue eyes narrowed, hands braced on her hips. Stifling a jaw-aching, blisteringly painful yawn, Christine grinned at Elise's impatience.

"Good morning, Elise."

"Good morning," Elise rushed through her greeting, sucking in a breath to say more, when she caught sight of the locket. Her pudgy finger stabbed the air.

"Hey! Where did you get that? It's Erik's! A gift from his mother!" A look of wary speculation animated Elise's generous features. Christine clutched the locket to her heart.

"It was a gift. He would want me to have it," she snapped. His little sister was within her rights to take it back. In that, his sister ranked well above his whore lover. Elise's expression cleared instantly.

"Well, if he gave it to you, then it's all right. Now come on, there's something I want to show you."

Grasping Christine's good hand, Elise hauled back with all her strength. Christine snatched a robe from its place on a hook. Belting the sash of the deep blue robe, Christine followed at Elise's urging. Climbing down the stairs proved to be within Christine's strength, but only just. She clutched the banister and tried to will the trembling from her legs once she reached the foot.

"Do I need to fetch someone, Christine? You don't look so good," Elise asked, her small hands patting Christine's back.

"I'm fine," Christine said, waving off her concern. The cold marble felt good on her broken fingers, which ached unbearably sometimes. Her ribs were also complaining about so much sudden activity. Her stomach lurched and churned in sympathy. Coughing, Christine swallowed down the urge to vomit.

"Now what's so important that you wanted to show me?" Christine asked, eager for distraction from her bodily woes. Subdued, Elise threaded Christine's arm over her shoulders.

"You can lean on me if you need to. What happened to you, anyway?" Christine regarded the little girl for a long moment. A young noble lady did not need to know what had happened to Christine's face. But then again, Elise was not insulated from violence. God, her own aunt was shot right in front of her.

"A very bad man hit me. I made him angry and he hit me." Elise's brow forked, and to Christine's horror, her lower lip began to quiver. Slowly, painfully, Christine knelt.

"Oh Elise, oh darling. What's the matter?"

"I'm—I'm so sorry that h—happened to you." Elise sniffled, flinging her arms around Christine. Pressed against Christine's chest, her next words were muffled with tears and fabric: "When we left Paris, Erik said one of his friends was in trouble and he was going to go help. Did he mean you?" Tears filled her eyes. Her Erik, gallant and brave, he'd cared for his sisters in the wake of Claire's death and then immediately thought of her safety. He had been too late though. She had already lost all faith and given in to her despair.

"Yes," she whispered, reaching for the locket for comfort, "I loved him very much." Elise peeled back, peering into Christine's face.

"Loved him? You mean you don't love him anymore?" Wet with tears, Elise's eyes seemed deeper, bluer. Like Raoul's, she thought. Pain cramped Christine's heart. Had anyone told this poor child that Erik was dead?

"No, of course not. I will always love him. It's . . . it's just different now that he's gone." Elise cocked her head like an inquisitive bird, brow furrowed.

"Gone? Erik's not gone. That's what I was going to show you: we just got a telegram from Reims. He went there looking for you and Raoul. Madame Villon just went to town to send one back. He'll be home soon!"

Not gone? Not gone? Alive? Christine's world lurched and spun on a new axis around this thought. Her heart pounded. Hot and cold washed over her in waves.

"W—When did you get this telegram?" Her voice sounded so strange: warbling, with barely enough breath behind it to make a sound. Hope, oh God, hope was so cruel. It breathed life into all the hurt, broken places. It hurt. Christine didn't know whether to laugh, cry or scream.

"This morning. Christine, you're hurting me." Christine immediately loosened her grip on Elise's shoulders, rubbing apologetically. This morning. He was alive. Alive. Alive. Alive! How was that possible? Raoul had said . . . he had said . . .

"You saw him? Before you left Paris? Was he hurt?" Could he have survived a gunshot to the chest?

"Yes. A bad man shot him and threw him in the river. Erik said his friend Nadir helped him. I like Nadir, he always bring us candy. He didn't this time, though. All he brought with him was a lady."

Oh God. The past few days were a string of blood-soaked battles and tragic near-misses. Her hands flew to her ruined face, her ruined voice. He would come to her now—now that she was ugly and mad and broken? The wild, insane laughter surged up in her throat and she wrestled it down.

"I . . . I think I'm going to-" Christine muttered, before her vision bled to black.

XXX

R and C at manor –STOP-Persian just arrived—STOP-All safe and well—STOP- Come home-STOP-

Erik stared at the yellow scrap of paper, reading and re-reading Madame Villon's message. Releasing the breath he hadn't known he was holding, Erik steadied himself against the counter, knees watery with relief. Safe and well. He would be safe and well now too. Fresh energy welled up in him, a smile stretching his wind-chapped lips.

"I take it all is well, Monsieur le Comte?" the telegrapher asked, long fingers drumming an uneven tattoo on the station's counter.

"Very well, Monsieur. You have my thanks," Erik replied, folding the telegraph neatly and tucking it into the pocket over his heart. Offering a few bills, Erik excused himself with a polite nod and stepped into the howling wind and the brilliant sunshine. Elation lightened his stride, he felt as if he was floating over the ground. Safe and well.

Safe and well and free. At last, they were free.

César sensed his change in mood as he swung astride, gathering the reins. The stallion pranced, tossing his elegant head.

"Home. We are going home," Erik said, and touched his heels to the stallion's flanks. The surge of speed lifted his heart and soon Erik was laughing in sheer wild joy.

It was the following dusk before the Château was at last in sight. By midday, César had slipped a shoe and Erik had dared not push his gallant stallion faster than a slow trot. In the way of anticipated journeys home, the distance seemed to stretch on beyond the horizon into an infinity of cold, hungry, weary monotony. Upon seeing the familiar looming shape of the Château ablaze with light, Erik's heart took up a new, lurching rhythm to her name: Christine, Christine, Christine . . . So close now.

A breathless steward was the first to greet him as he dismounted, a plump, rosy-cheeked lad that Erik recalled with some fondness.

"Monsieur le Comte! We had begun to worry for you!" he gushed, taking César's rein. Erik's smile was more of a tired grimace. He gave César's thick damp neck a firm pat. The stallion offered a weary nicker, nibbling Erik's sleeve companionably.

"Your sisters and . . . your brother are waiting for you. As well as that Persian fellow and . . . and . . . her." With a certain dry amusement, Erik wondered how Raoul had adapted to life at the Château. His heart leapt at the 'her.' Christine.

"Thank you, Albert. Give César some pampering this evening. Hot bran mash, a good rub down, and watch his right fore. He slipped a shoe yesterday." Nodding vehemently, Albert squeaked, "I will, Sir. I surely will!" Albert led the stallion away toward the cozy haven of the stable. As he watched them go, a jagged glass memory of another stable knifed into Erik's consciousness and suddenly he was there, staring into bottomless black eyes filled with such hate . . . Erik swayed on his feet.

Speaking with Albert made Erik feel at once more weary and more human. Since the moment he had last seen Christine, his days and nights had mutated into a torment of loss and fear, blood and cold. His surge of elation upon hearing they were safe had exhausted his emotional reserves. Everything around him held a surreal, dream-like quality and for one wild moment he wondered if he would wake up and hear his father and Claire on the stair, his life wholly unchanged.

The door exploded open to a gale of joyful shouting. A small, dark-haired whirlwind struck him hard in the middle, followed closely by the taller, brown-haired whirlwind. His little imps. Their twin impacts struck his wounds and set them afire, but he didn't care.

"Erik!" Jacqueline and Elise cried in unison. Since Claire's death, Jacqueline's taut, adult self-sufficiency had given way to a sort of wounded need. She yearned for affection but rarely allowed herself to ask for it. Erik's heart ached for her. Elise had the same sweet, generous heart, and coped by being desperately cheerful. The tears and pain would come, and Erik swore he would be there to comfort her. Erik held them close, dropping kisses on upturned foreheads and murmuring endearments. After a tender moment thus, Elise was bouncing up and down like an overeager puppy.

"Oh Erik, did you hear? Raoul and Christine found us on the road and now they're here! Christine said a very bad man hit her and that's why her face is messed up. She thought you were gone, like Aunt Claire. I told her you had just gone looking for her and she got this funny look on her face and fainted. She is all right now, though. When I told Raoul, he just got really, really pale. Didn't he, Jackie?"

"He took the news much better. Your Persian friend is here too. He is quite a gentleman," Jacqueline said. Through his little sisters' recitation, Erik's heart wiggled free from his chest and crept by increments up until it resided somewhere in his esophagus. If his own mind still reeled drunkenly from the events of the last week, Christine's would have in equal measure.

"I need to see them." His voice echoed oddly in his ears, his feet carrying him across the threshold into the warm, soft light of the Château. For so many years, he'd found the manor oppressive, but as of this moment, he could wish to be nowhere else in the world.

Madame Villon greeted him with a dry peck on the cheek and babbled explanations. The sight of Nadir calmed him and Erik gladly embraced his friend. They parted with murmured greetings in Persian and Nadir cast a meaningful glance toward the staircase. Had they not heard him coming? Why weren't they coming to greet him? Ice hollowed out his belly, remembering the long climb up the stairs to Claire's deathbed. Erik knelt between his sisters and kissed them perfunctorily.

"I must speak with Christine and Raoul for a bit. I will be down for supper and we can talk, hmm?" Both girls agreed, though he caught a flash of rebellion in Jacqueline's gaze before her solemn nod. He made a mental note to talk to her about that later. Then, at last, still clad in the same filthy clothes in which he had fought and killed the monster of his love's nightmares, Erik climbed the stairs to where she waited.

XXX

Faintly, she heard his voice. Even worn and raspy, it was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. Tears filled her eyes. Since discovering he was indeed alive, Christine had wept almost continuously. Catharsis, she thought, after a year of her emotions stunted and crushed beneath fear.

"He's here! Christine, he's here! Can you believe it?" Raoul was bouncing on the balls of his feet, nearly skipping around the room. Raoul's intense remorse at having been misinformed had given way to a giddy sort of joy that made him very difficult to be around for any length of time.

By contrast, Christine's heart began to pound as she heard the tread of his boots on the stair. Could he love her when she was like this? She had seen her face in the mirror in the hall. A mess of bruises in variegated shades, both eyes still puffy, the white of her left eye red where a small vessel had broken. Her nose was healing, but remained hideously red and swollen. A broken, used-up whore was entirely unworthy of him. What did she have to offer him but her tattered excuse for a heart?

A soft, hesitant knock.

"Christine? Raoul?" Erik's golden voice sank into her skin like the sun's caress. Raoul bounded over to the door, flinging it open. She gasped, fighting the impulse to bury her damaged face in her hands.

Erik . . . he looked . . . older. The dark stubble on his cheeks glittered with a smattering of silver, highlighting the sharp angles of cheekbone and jaw. His black mask had seen better days, seamed with dirt and filth. The lines bracketing his mouth looked worn deep and his full lips pressed into a thin line. His whole attitude was one of weary endurance. Those eyes . . . oh God, his eyes held such naked pain! Unbearable green eyes shifted to Raoul and his expression softened.

"Good to see you, lad." With that, Raoul uttered a strangled sob and flung his arms around his brother. Through his noisy tears, Christine could make out the words: "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry! Please forgive me!" Erik gruffly patted Raoul's shoulders, murmuring comfort and absolution. Grasping his shoulders and peeling him back, Erik regarded his brother with the same gentleness he regarded Elise and Jacqueline. While Christine was happy for Raoul's reconciliation, her heart still thudded heavily in her chest. That traitorous organ was so very eager to tear itself free and return to its master, regardless of Christine's reservations.

"We have much to speak on, Monsieur le Vicomte." Raoul stiffened at the title, then laughed at Erik's grin.

"That will take some getting used to," Raoul said, sniffling. He glanced at Christine and offered a blinding smile as he left, closing the door behind him with a soft click.

And she was alone with Erik before a crackling fire, seated on the foot of the bed while he stood like a felon waiting for judgment. The tableau reminded her so cruelly of their last meeting that she shrank a little into herself, uttering a tiny whimper. Then he knelt before her, head bowed. Tears stood in his eyes, his entire frame quivered with powerful emotion.

"Oh Christine." His voice trembled with silken pleading, "Christine. Forgive me. Please." Oh God, she felt the moment her heart surged free, abandoning itself into his keeping. Forgive him? For what? For a brief, horrible moment, she was certain he had decided he didn't want her after all.

Warm, callused hands stroked her hair. Her eyes slipped closed. She remembered that heart-breaking tenderness, and arched into the touch like an affectionate cat. He loved her, as she loved him.

"Why?" she said softly.

"I wasn't there. I wasn't there when you needed me." His voice made her ache. Christine opened her eyes and found his anguished, pleading eyes, reverent hands still in her hair. Life and his family had demanded that he shoulder more guilt and more pain than was just. Christine reached out and cupped his stubbled cheek, restless fingers caressing his hard jaw.

"It was a misunderstanding, and in my selfish pain, I wanted to join you—wherever you were." A ragged sound escaped him and turned his chapped lips into her palm.

"And I know I'm . . . ugly." Christine's confession seemed small and shallow said aloud. Erik exhaled a breathy laugh.

"Impossible. Do you truly think I could not love you after suffering as you have, when you loved me despite my face? Is that what you think of me?"

"No! It's just that . . . I'm not . . . worthy. I am a whor-"

"Don't, Christine. You will not refer to yourself as such. You did what you had to." A small, wry part of her mind noted that it was almost the exact words she'd said to comfort Raoul. Then the harsh timbre eased into a sinuous, slithering caress, like a teasing, lapping tongue and she couldn't think at all.

"I love you, Christine. I won't ever stop." Christine was swallowed whole by the love in his green eyes.

"Love, oh my love. Oh my poor little lamb." Christine sighed, all the tension flowing out of her as Erik's dry, chapped lips rained her upturned face with feather-light kisses. Her forehead, her eyelids, her cheeks, her nose. Every battered inch of her he treasured.

"Erik," she breathed, pain and fear loosening their grip on her soul and falling away.

Their lips brushed, met, savored in a series of decadent, languid kisses. She tasted the salt of sorrow and healing, and beneath that, she tasted Erik. As comfort became greed and lips wandered to appease their hunger, Christine threaded her hands into his oily hair, tasting sweat and dust on the skin of his throat. Erik eased her into his lap, hands unbearably tender.

"You are worthy. You are worthy of everything I can give you, Christine. I will give you a home where you will always feel safe. I will give you my love, my fidelity, my name—all that I am is yours, if you want it." Christine laughed breathlessly, her laugh turning to a gasp as he nibbled on the curve of her ear.

"If I want it? Of course I want it." He sealed those words with a kiss that quickly melted from sweet and chaste to something no less sweet, but far from chaste. Christine peeled away the mask to cherish his own pain with kisses, grasping for more of the taste of his skin.

"And I give you my battered body, my less than sane mind, and my wounded heart. If you want it." She wanted to promise children, but the words seemed cruel and fickle. What if the Madame and Bruno had . . . had damaged her in some way? Erik's delicious voice drew her from the sharp needle's prick of fear.

"I want it. I want all of you, forever," he purred against her throat. His stubble rasped against her skin, a pleasant prickling.

Was this real? Or would she wake up in a sumptuous bed with a customer knocking on the door, or Raoul snoring next to her, still shattered inside? Christine's hands cupped his face, treasuring the deformed and perfect sides equally.

"Is this really happening? Are you really here with me?" she whispered, striving to imprint every detail into her mind: the dirt under his fingernails, his taste of sweat and winter and hunger, his scent, oh God, that familiar, wonderful smell!

"Yes, my love. I'm here. I'll never leave again." His voice! Even her grief-ravaged mind could not recreate that voice from the ashes of her memories, not every hue and flavor of it! Christine drew his precious scarred face close, content to feel his breath tickle her skin. That soft, sweet breath, proof that he was alive and here and she wasn't mad.

"You found it." His husky voice drew her from her bliss and Christine peeled back far enough to look into his eyes.

"What was that, love?" she asked. His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes in an adorably familiar way.

Warm, callus-roughened fingers disentangled from her hair and skimmed down her throat. Christine's breath caught at the sudden rush of arousal caused by his finger, curled around the skin-warmed charm of the locket resting innocuously between her breasts.

"My locket. You found it," he purred.

"R—Raoul found it and gave it to me. After he . . . after he told me you'd died." Couched between those words hid the deepest grief of her life. Erik's smile faded and he drew her into his arms, pulling her against his strong chest. With a harsh sigh, she nestled against him, listening to his strong, beating heart.

"You kept me safe. You kept me safe in your heart," Erik whispered into her hair and she thought it was quite the opposite.

Chapter Text

XXV

She had to share him. She didn't want to. No, she wanted to coax him into her bed and wallow in the sweet secrets of his body, wrap herself in his scent and his taste and his pleasure and fall asleep to the music of his heartbeat beneath her ear. But beyond that door waited his household, his grieving younger sisters, a prostitute-and-stable-boy-turned-Vicomte, and a transplanted Persian. At the tentative rap of Madame Villon on the door, Erik heaved a sigh and retied the mask, offering her a rueful grin.

"Duty calls, love. Will you come with me?" Christine wrestled down the surge of fear that filled her at the thought of him leaving her sight.

"I'd follow you anywhere," she said. Taking his proffered hand, Christine enjoyed the heady feeling of being drawn against his lean body. A low, delicious ache throbbed in her belly, sweetly aware of everywhere they touched. Erik felt the same; she could see it in that languorous look. Christine stood on tiptoe and stole another lingering kiss, her tongue tangling lusciously with his.

"Minx." He breathed the word against her lips, his voice like the taste of cream and honey. Caught in chaotic, surging happiness, Christine laughed. He was alive and he loved her. She supposed she could share him.

It was only as she descended the stairs in his arms that she could see the change in the entire estate. All of them were happier, kinder, more alive when he was there to order and tease and soothe them. During supper, he greeted his staff by name and voiced his commands with a beguiling mixture of warmth and sternness. That same sternness was evident when Elise questioned her bedtime. He relented all too easily when the little girl's lip quivered, in Christine's opinion. Content to simply bask in her glow of happiness, Christine trailed after the trio, watching as Erik nestled between his sisters to read them a story.

The grandeur of the de Chagny manor was evident even in this simple, auxiliary parlor. The fireplace was large enough to roast a boar in, the mantle crafted of fine, blue-veined marble. Erik and his sisters lounged on a thick carpet before a crackling fire. The shadows cast odd, undulating shapes over the floor and Christine rested contentedly in their shade, drowsing to the golden croon of his voice. It was a silly tale of a princess with glass slippers that both sisters adored. More than once, Christine felt Jacqueline's questing glance and shrank back. She couldn't bear that hard look of judgment. Not now, when he was here.

Once Erik finished the story, he turned and smiled at her. Christine's heart lurched, her whole being lighting up at being the center of his attention. He rose, his catlike grace marred by a slight stiffness. Christine felt her smile stretch in tandem with his proximity. Her cheeks ached with the unexpected burden of so many smiles.

"I have a gift for you, love."

"You are gift enough for a lifetime, Erik." The words flew from her lips before she could stop them. They sounded trite and girlish, but his soft, stunned look stifled her embarrassment. He brushed her cheek gently with the backs of his fingers, cupping her jaw, drawing her chin up for a cloud-soft kiss.

"Still, I must warn you that I plan to shower you with gifts at every opportunity." His drawling, teasing voice made her shiver.

"Lucky me," she said, buoyed by wild, almost drunken joy. Green eyes crackled with mirth and held up one finger.

"One moment."

Elise, giddy and giggling, trotted at his heels out of the room to the foyer, miles from sleep. Christine rose from the chair, her joints complaining. The warmth of the fire beckoned and she settled onto the edge of the rug beside Jacqueline. Erik's twelve year old sister rested in an oddly self-protective posture, sitting with her legs drawn up against her chest, arms wrapped around them, chin set on her upraised knees. Christine felt the grief yawning in Jacqueline like an open wound. So young to have her blue eyes clouded with sorrow as they stared into the fire for answers, to have her unbraided hair spilling down her back and concealing her expression like a mourning veil.

"I am sorry, Jacqueline." Such wan, weak words.

"For what? For almost killing my brother?" the words were softly spoken, barely audible over the fire's crackling, but they struck Christine like one of Bruno's fists.

"W—What?" she said.

Jacqueline addressed the fire in the same fierce, low voice: "You heard me. If he hadn't gone looking for you, he wouldn't have gotten hurt. If he had been home, Aunt Claire wouldn't have died."

Christine swallowed hard, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Was she the architect of Jacqueline's misery as Madame had been the architect of Christine's? It was a horrifying thought. She took in a breath to offer a paltry defense when Erik returned with Elise, Raoul and the Persian at his heels. Christine ruthlessly stuffed her hurt and guilt back, summoning her former easy smile. But not quickly enough. She saw Erik's eyes narrow, his smile falter as he cast a glance at Jacqueline. Christine subtly shook her head, silently pleading with him to drop it. A muscle fired in his jaw, but Erik knelt on the carpet before her without demur.

"Your gift, love," Erik said, producing a case. Christine sucked in a gasp. She knew that battered, dusty case: the seam torn along one corner, revealing a peek of the moth-eaten red velvet interior, the initials G.D. rubbed smooth on the worn handle . . .

"Is that . . . ?"

"I rescued it, along with something else you left behind," he said, offering a small blue-bound book.

"Oh Erik!" Her voice broke over his name.

"What? What is it? Do you like your present, Christine?" Elise's bright voice intruded and Christine gathered the little girl into her lap with a soggy laugh.

"Yes, Elise! It's my father's violin. It's one of my most prized possessions. And Erik made this book for me," Christine whispered, accepting the case and book with a reverence of a holy object.

"You must play for us!" Elise suggested, to a chorus of agreement from Jacqueline, Raoul and the Persian.

Reluctance radiated from Erik's kneeling form and he stared down at his hands braced on his knees. Christine followed his gaze and saw the slight tremor of his left hand. Compassion squeezed her heart. They both had lost their music, and feared conjuring a weak shadow of the perfection they'd once wrought together.

"Please play, Erik. I'd like to sing with you." The poignancy of her beloved playing her father's violin touched her soul, as did the look of hope and fear and love that Erik gifted her with.

"Truly, Christine?"

"Truly." Dropping a glancing, indulgent kiss on Elise's wild hair, Christine slowly, painfully rose to stand beside her love. Erik opened the case and rosined the bow with the utmost care, as if playing with the finest instrument in all the world. Christine loved him for his thoughtfulness and forgot her fear as the bow touched the strings and his music washed over her.

XXX

Their song was simple, the notes familiar, and soon Erik forgot his trepidation as his fingers danced over the strings. If there was sluggishness in his damaged fingers, he found he cared little. It had been too long since he played, since he lost himself in the simple yet profound pleasure of creating. Only once before had he shared that pleasure with Christine and the experience was a heady one. His brave beloved, offering her tortured voice to soothe his fear. The love that pierced him was almost agony. His battered angel, his wounded little lamb.

The violin crooned to her a psalm of comfort, of tenderness. And when she sang . . . Erik was assaulted anew with a vision of her glorious soul, beauty couched between the raspy, halting notes. Far from ruined, her voice held a new pathos: the crystalline soprano of an unspoiled Eve transformed into a mezzo-soprano filled with the pain of a fallen existence. Rich and elegant, she soared . . . Borne on the wings of inspiration, Erik's voice rose in harmony with hers, souls joining, tangling together. Her beautiful eyes found his and the world fell away. Together, their regret and pain were made beautiful. Only when her father's violin sang the last note did the spell break. A dazzling smile split Christine's bruised face and his heart burst as she mouthed the words 'I love you.'

"That was beautiful." Elise said, round blue eyes looking between Erik and his beloved with something like awe.

"Indeed. Allah has blessed the two of you with an extraordinary gift." Nadir said solemnly. Raoul could only smile, dazed and happy.

"Thank you, Monsieur Kahn. You are too kind," Christine said, moving closer to Erik, obviously uncomfortable with the attention. Erik drew an arm around her, dropping a glancing, negligent kiss in her hair. With a sigh, she melted against his side. God, the taste of Christine's adoration was a potent brew; one Erik could easily get drunk on. Madame Villon bustled into the room, bracing her weathered hands on her hips.

"It is half past eleven o' clock in the evening! Whatever else you have to talk about can keep until morning. Off to bed with all of you!"

As if on cue, Elise loosed a jaw-cracking yawn. She offered sleepy hugs and sloppy kisses, first to Erik, then Christine, then Raoul. Her elder sister followed without a word. There was a moment of tension when Jacqueline disengaged from Erik. A strange hardness glittered in her eye as she regarded Christine. A muscle fluttered in Christine's jaw as she spread her arms open. The elder de Chagny daughter snatched a swift, perfunctory embrace. Erik made a note to speak with his sister in the morning. Warm good night wishes were shared amongst the adults; Erik's ribs groaned under Raoul's fierce embrace. As they trickled from the parlor, Madame Villon turned to Erik.

"There is a bath waiting for you in your quarters, Sir. And ah . . ." the old housekeeper cleared her throat delicately, "I have moved your things to the master suite, Christine dear."

"Th—thank you, Madame Villon." A blush stained Christine's cheeks. Erik's chest swelled and he wanted to crow that this beautiful creature was his and his alone.

"Yes, thank you Madame. Good evening," Erik said, offering her a saucy wink. Chuckling, the housekeeper bustled from the room. Erik carefully returned the violin to its resting place.

"Shall we?" he folded her hand into his.

Carrying her up the stairs toward his rooms harkened thoughts of carrying a bride across the threshold. Erik longed for it to be true. His wounds ached, but he bore her slight weight like the precious burden it was. They walked in silence as the darkness and cold gathered around them. The Comte's bedroom suite lorded over the third floor.

"Here we are." He shouldered his way through the cracked door and set Christine on her feet. He closed and locked the door, leaning against its solid comfort as Christine laid both book and violin on the bedside table. Erik followed her gaze around the room. A fire roared in the grate, warming the cavernous space and casting the bath and massive barge of a bed in gold and red.

"It's beautiful," she said, turning to smile at him. Erik had always thought the deep green bedding and hangings matched with the dark, lush carpet swallowed all the light and made the room dark and grim. But seeing her here and free and limned with the fire's loving gold, Erik couldn't help but agree.

A deep, abiding weariness made him ache down to his very marrow, but her presence sank into skin and flesh and nerve, wakening that bewildering mixture of love and lust. The same notion crackled in her eyes and she stepped close, peeling off the mask. Erik couldn't conceal the years-old flinch, but was swiftly soothed by her kiss. She fed him words of love along with the pleasure of her lips and tongue.

"Christine," he whispered, disengaging gently from the ripe temptation of her mouth. Before drowning too deeply in her, he needed to cleanse himself of the past week's horrors.

"I am filthy, love."

Christine's nose wrinkled endearingly.

"You do need a bath," she agreed, plucking at the limp, stained linen of his shirt.

His body reacted predictably to Christine's hands divesting him of his clothing, so Erik swiftly stepped into the bath to stifle the temptation to simply take her. The hot water was heavenly, though Christine as his bathing attendant proved to be devilish torture. She interspersed the sweeps of the soaped cloth with kisses; warm, soapy fingers kneaded his scalp with the delicate scrape of nail. More than once she 'dropped' the soap and innocently groped in the murky water to retrieve it.

His wicked love, she tried her best to distract him while he shaved under the pretext of turning down the bed. Erik loved the playfulness of their little game, loved drawing out his restraint into a pleasurable agony, loved watching her from the reflection of his small shaving mirror.

"Done," he rasped, swiping the vestiges of shaving soap from his face, tossing both straight-bladed razor and mirror onto the stool beside the bathtub. Pale, delicate arms wound around his waist, hands splayed on his bare belly. Moist breath fluttered between his damp shoulder blades, cool then warm, cool then warm. Lips grazed the skin just below his injury. The bullet hole had finally closed into a small, round scab; Bruno's slashes were similarly healing.

"Does it hurt?" she whispered. Erik threaded his fingers through hers and drew her hand up to drop a kiss on her palm, before pressing that hand over his heart. He stifled the impulse to wrap that hand around his throbbing cock. They would take their time.

"Only a little. I'm fine, love. I promise." Her fingers kneaded his skin; lips dropped soft, grazing kisses on his back, wandering up until she delicately bit the muscle joining his neck and shoulder.

"Make love to me, Erik."

Erik was honestly unsure how they moved from the bath to the bed, but soon Christine was beneath him, hot and sweet and eager. Free and alive and together, Erik knew there was no joy more profound.

"Christine," he crooned, cradling her precious, beautiful, battered face. His lips cherished the bruises, her poor nose, the line of her abused jaw as she had once cherished the horror of his own visage. Was this the tenderness she felt? Had she ached to draw his pain into herself and erase the memory of it? Her hips pulsed in mute pleading, her hands sought to tease and pleasure, but Erik gently batted them away. He would worship every inch of her, name each bit of flesh exquisite and lovely in his sight. Erik peeled the shift from her and his heart lurched at the sight of mottled bruises and his locket resting between her breasts.

Words of endearment and broken whispers of her name punctuated his kisses. God, he loved the taste of her skin, the throb of her heartbeat beneath his lips, the subtle vibration of her soft cries. The locket gleamed and Erik was struck by the sheer rightness of it. A totem of love and protection, it was only right that his love should wear it against her heart. Her breasts beckoned him and he lavished them with lips and tongue and the faint rasp of teeth, nuzzling and licking and suckling. A fragment of a thought pierced the lust: he imagined her body ripe with his child, breasts heavy and lush. Would she cradle him to her heart and nourish him with her milk as she would their child? The thought impaled him with a deep, painful longing.

"Erik . . . Erik . . ." his name was a chant on her passion-swollen lips, growing more feverish as he kissed his way down her belly. His mouth watered, longing to slake his lust with the taste of her nectar. His skin felt thin, lust a hard, urgent heartbeat in his cock. When Erik lowered his mouth to her, Christine screamed. A smug male smile touched his lips, grateful for the room's thick walls and the fact that all the other bedrooms were on a separate floor.

Coherent thought vanished, smashed into shards of taste, smell and texture, creating a sensual mosaic of pleasure. Her fingernails gouged his scalp, muscles strung taut and quivering in time with the languid strokes of his tongue. He urged her climax with his tongue, inwardly chanting: more, more, more! More musk and sweetness, more heat and texture, more pleasure. Erik renewed his attack, adding the slow surge of his fingers inside her, crooked gently seeking that sweet spot . . . her wail was one of a most exquisite anguish and Christine shattered in his arms, sobbing with pleasure.

Triumphant, Erik rose over her, seeking to share the taste of her glory. Ah, he loved the feel of her skin pressed against his, sharing heat, the faint sticky slick of sweat and pleasure. Christine whimpered, their tongues tangling as she sought out her taste at the corners of his mouth. When they broke away to breathe, Erik beheld her in awe. Sleepy brown eyes met his with that look of naked adoration, almost . . . worship. It was a wonderful, terrifying feeling that Christine worshipped him with the same ardor that he did her. She shifted beneath him, legs winding around his hips.

"Please . . . please . . ." she whimpered. Bracing his weight on his good arm, Erik found his way home.

"Chris—Christine!" he cried, working himself inside with short, agonizing thrusts. Scalding pleasure enveloped his length, silken and wet and so tight. God in Heaven, how was she this tight? His toes nearly curled in hedonistic delight. Erik's hips rocked and pulsed, savoring the sensation. A circular, grinding thrust made her gasp and writhe.

"So good . . . so good . . ." he rasped. Erik found their rhythm, deep and slow and hard. Sharing breath, they watched the pleasure build in each other's eyes. Their passion burned too hot and soon Christine came apart around him, her muscles squeezing, squeezing him. Arching in ecstatic pain, his orgasm burst from him, filling her up with his seed. For a sweet eternity, they writhed together, drawing out the shuddering aftershocks, mouths meeting in sloppy, languid kisses. With a shaky sigh, Erik gathered her to his chest, burrowing beneath the heap of down coverlets.

"I love you," she whispered, kissing his chest.

"And I love you," he answered, tilting her chin up to taste her mouth. Erik dropped into a deep, restful sleep, at last knowing peace of mind and soul.

XXX

Christine woke sometime in the night to a darkness so complete it was like the inside of a tomb. Centuries ago, such darkness would have frightened her, but she had since learned the truth of monsters, and of men. Lips moved over her brow, soothing away the tension that had built in her limbs.

"I . . . I had thought that . . . that you might have grown to love Raoul. In my . . . absence." Erik's voice was barely a whisper, as if he hoped she was still asleep and deaf to his confession. Christine surged up, seeking his face in the dark. She could see nothing the faint wet gleam of his eyes, the chiseled angle of his jaw. Her mind presented her with the crystal clear image of Raoul's passionate pleas, callused hands moving over freshly bathed skin. Whore, accused a voice.

"Oh Erik," Christine rasped, hot tears clogging her throat. His hands rose, idly toying with her hair, imbuing tentative comfort in the almost casual touch. Christine melted down onto him, clumsily kissing his chin, his jaw before finding the haven of his mouth. A deep throb of pleasure settled between her thighs as hands reclaimed the terrain of each other's bodies. Christine littered his jawline and neck with kisses, feeling the pitted skin and twisted muscle of his deformed side before settling near his ear.

"I think I was born loving you, Erik. I'll never ever stop. Raoul, he . . . he wanted me."

"And . . . you took . . . comfort in one another?" Aching, piercing sadness coated the words, so haltingly spoken.

"No," she said emphatically, "we did not. I couldn't. Not when I knew what it could be with someone you love." Tension melted from him, an exhaled breath sounding close to a sob.

"Good. I didn't relish the thought of thrashing my little brother so soon after finding him again." The joke was a feeble one, but they both laughed. Easy, familiar warmth settled between them and Christine snuggled happily against him. Soothed by his heartbeat, by the rise and fall of his chest, by his fingers combing her hair, she whispered: "I am sorry about Claire." Erik's pain breathed in his silence.

"As am I. She loved me, you know. Both loved and hated me. Isn't that a strange thing?" A shoot of jealousy unfurled in Christine's heart, but she stomped on it. Claiming his mouth in a lingering, possessive kiss, Christine nestled against him in their cocoon of warmth beneath the coverlet. Mine. Mine, and I know the worth of him, she snarled at the specter lingering between them.

"Tell me," she said.

The story tumbled free from his lips, beginning when they parted, through the deaths of his father and Claire, through his trial with Bruno, his suffering at the thought of her broken. Christine cradled him against her heart as he wept, crooning nonsense words of comfort. In turn, she told him of the dread of waiting for him, of Raoul's confession, her anguish and reckless grief, cajoling Bruno to violence. Erik's golden voice smoothed balm over her soul's wounds and Christine felt the last of the pain ebb as healing and comfort washed over her. Touches of love, imparting solace, seamlessly melded into ones of desire, imparting quiet longing. Together they made a soft harmony of sighs and moans, the wet sounds of their joining, a ballet of touch, pleasure and motion culminating in shattering, breathless completion.

As her heartbeat slowed and she drifted toward sleep in her beloved's arms, she heard the breath of the most beautiful words in the world crooned against the crown of her head: "Will you marry me, Christine?" She hummed, nuzzling his chest.

"Yes," she whispered.

Chapter Text

XXVI

A tickling sensation roused him from the depths of sleep. Erik snorted, swiping the offending hair teasing his nose.

"Sorry," Christine murmured.

At the sound of her sweet, sleep-hoarsened voice, Erik was flooded with the most delicious rush of happiness, bubbling in his veins like champagne. He felt blissfully, stupidly happy. Erik opened his eyes to behold the most exquisite being in creation smiling down at him, combing her wild curls behind her ear. Rich golden sunlight poured from the opened curtains, glittering off of snowdrifts. The light seemed to sink into Christine's hair and skin and transform her into a dazzling, ethereal creature. A wounded goddess, he thought, eyes caressing each of her bruises. He wished he could erase the memory of Bruno's fists. The locket's glinting shape soothed him.

"It's all right, love," Erik whispered, rubbing his hands up and down her arms. A sudden shyness toyed with her beloved features.

"I was watching you sleep. I still can't quite believe that you're . . . that you're . . ." Tears gathered in her chocolate brown eyes, clotting her lashes. Erik drew her down for a kiss. Hmm, he loved kissing her. It gave them both a measure of pleasure and comfort, and was wonderfully, powerfully life-affirming when their tongues tangled.

"Hush now, love. It's all right. I'm fine, truly," he purred against her lips. Her soft laugh sounded too close to a sob.

"I hope you're prepared to deal with a fiancée who follows you around like a puppy," she joked. Erik snorted.

"Darling, if you think I'll be offended by spending every waking and sleeping moment with you, then you're sorely mistaken." Mollified, Christine stretched sinuously, loosing a jaw-cracking yawn.

A greedy, half-formed thought told him to press her back into the bed's softness and keep her there until he'd slaked the need she roused simply by being. Erik heaved a sigh. Such selfishness could not be warranted. Elise, Jacqueline and Raoul nestled into his thoughts, bright and clear and so very needy. They needed his guidance, his solace—and the girls needed his decorum. Erik could not dance about the Château blindingly, brilliantly happy when their beloved aunt had died not days ago. While a living wife could be placated with sizable alimony and joint raising of his young sisters, a dead wife would only be deified. She already had been, in Jacqueline's eyes. Erik had seen and guessed at the reason for Christine's brittle smile last night.

"That being said," Erik said slowly, weighing and measuring his words, tautly aware of Christine's sudden, fixed attention, "my sisters, they loved their aunt very much. And I would not wish to cause them pain by-"

"By announcing your engagement to a woman of dubious worth," Christine finished, face set in an expression of such horrible sadness. Inwardly, Erik writhed in agony at tearing the fragile cocoon of happiness hiding them.

"No!" Erik interjected, grief coating the words. Could she not see how radiant and exquisite she was? His poor, wounded lamb, his fragile beloved! Erik cradled her face between his hands.

"You will be my wife, and the world will grovel at your feet. They will worship you as I do." Erik broke off from his passionate declaration to exhale a frustrated breath. How he wished their battles could be over, and their joy complete!

"I just do not wish to belittle my sisters' grief by appearing so happy." Her kiss was a benediction.

"I understand. A secret engagement, then." A weary sort of mischief filled the words, an attempt at levity that hid a well of sadness. Erik peppered her face with kisses, wishing there were words to soothe that sadness, to banish that pain. Cupping her chin, he made a show of admiring her.

"Look, my future bride."

"Just think of it," she said, eyes shining.

A sweet, poignant moment stretched between them.

"What shall we do today?" she asked, reaching for her shift. Erik sat up, scrubbing his naked face with his hands. God, would he ever grow accustomed to removing his mask in her presence?

"First, breakfast." Erik grinned, snatching a kiss, then another. Christine hummed happily, fingertips tracing mysterious patterns on both twisted and whole halves of his face. The force of his love pushed out, deepened the kiss. A fierce and ardent desire to protect her wakened and unfurled in his soul, like a sleeping dragon. Protect her from the hard-eyed glances from his staff, the whispers, from the blind, desperate hate of a grieving child. But how?

"And then?" Christine asked, teasing him with furtive little pecks along his cheekbone, seeming to relish the twisted muscle and tortured skin.

"Then we must begin a Vicomte's training. Equitation, at least will not be a challenge. The rest, however . . ." Christine shared in his dry chuckle, resting her forehead against his. Erik savored the intimate caress of her breath against his face.

"You'll make a gentleman of him yet, I have faith in you," Christine said, eyes soft with adoration. She was rain to the parched soil of his soul. Erik combed her hair from her forehead.

"I will speak with Jacqueline, darling. She will not disrespect you again." The joy dimmed and Erik cursed himself for crushing that fragile spark in an inelegant attempt at comfort. Claire had never been receptive to his words or affections; he was out of practice.

"No, Erik. It wasn't disrespect. It was grief, and the truth. I am at fault for you being hurt . . ." her face crumpled.

"No, no love. It was the fault of Méchant and his thugs, the fault of the Commune men who vented their hate on the innocent. Not you. Not you." Erik could see the doubt congeal in her eyes, and every fiber of him wanted to leap inside her mind and root out the lie that hurt her.

"Claire's death was an accident. A horrible, tragic accident. Jacqueline will realize this. She must." A forlorn look filled her eyes, the dark, knowing eyes of an orphan who knew a promise would not be kept.

"I hope you're right."

Discomfited, Erik rose from bed and crept over frigid floorboards to pull trousers from the chest of drawers near the wall. Madame Villon would probably burn the clothes he'd arrived in. His shoulder rasped a warning as bent to don his trousers. The warning became a scream when he tried to thread his arm through the sleeve of his shirt. The pain made his curse a gasped whisper.

"Let me help you," Christine said.

"Thank you, darling," he replied, the shooting pain down his arm quieting to a dull ache as Christine helped him into his shirt, warm busy fingers marching down his chest. There was a sort of hushed intimacy in the gesture, almost as powerful as when she removed his clothing. He stilled her hands on his now-clothed chest. Erik felt a stab of remorse. He didn't have a ring for her. She deserved something as beautiful and unique as she. Words of reassurance flew to his tongue and died there. Instead, Erik said the only thing that would forever be true: "I love you." Christine replied with a soft kiss.

XXX

Christine quickened her step toward the sound of Raoul's voice and laughter. Both of Erik's sisters, after their initial wariness, quickly warmed to their brother. This was probably sweetened by Raoul's surprising repertoire of silly jokes. Erik chuckled, weaving his fingers through hers.

"I'm glad they're getting along," he said. Christine squeezed his captive hand, anchoring herself to his presence. Her other hand smoothed the skirt of her gown nervously. It was a fine thing belonging to Erik's mother, a rich royal purple. They were of a similar size, though there was a certain embarrassing looseness around her bust, hastily pinned.

"Raoul can be quite charming when he wants to be. It must be a family trait," Christine said.

"Maybe." Erik winked and Christine felt a warm glow in her chest. God, she loved him! This beautiful man who had lost so much, who was so bravely resilient, who held her and loved her and cherished her even when the rest of the world would name her filth. And beyond his love for her lived the breadth and scope of his love for his family. So much so he would hide his own joy to save them pain.

They entered the dining room together and the table's five occupants swiveled to look.

"Good morning," Erik said.

"Erik! Christine! It's about time you're up!" Elise said, happily slurping her porridge. The Persian snickered into his steaming teacup, the slender woman beside him—presumably Elaine—blushing at her empty bowl. Raoul's smirk spoke volumes. And Jacqueline, Christine's gaze skittered over the middle de Chagny child, but not before she saw the venomous glare that sat so ill on such sweet, unspoiled features.

"Yes, you must have been very weary from your journey," the Persian said, dark eyes sparkling with mirth.

"Quite, Daroga." Erik's voice was clipped and brisk, each syllable tinged with amusement and warning. He pulled out a chair for her and Christine sat, squeezing his wrist in silent thanks as he she did so. A maid bustled into the room with a tray laden with tea, porridge and toast.

"Here you are, Monsieur le Comte," she murmured, serving Erik first, then her.

"Thank you, Marie," Erik said.

To Christine's dismay, the conversation and laughter quieted with their presence. She studiously tucked into her porridge, grateful for something to occupy her eyes and hands. Erik could be counted upon, though. His teasing and cajoling loosened the tension thrumming at the table.

"Christine, after your stunning performance last night, I must ask: where did you learn to sing?" the Persian said, fingers steepled in a pose of quiet attentiveness. Christine stifled the urge to fidget under the concentrated focus of the table.

"My father taught me. He was a violinist."

"The voice of an angel," Erik crooned, squeezing her hand. Christine basked under his attention, offering a shy smile.

"Oh yes! Your voice is so pretty, Christine!" Elise said, a smudge of honey decorating her chin.

"Thank you." Christine stifled the urge to hide her discomfiture behind the curtain of her hair. She would soon be Erik's wife, and Comtesses did not cringe in embarrassment.

"What happened to your father?" Elise asked. Christine's smile shattered into something brittle, pained.

"He died." Dismay puckered Elise's brow.

"Oh I'm sorry. And your mama?" Christine's throat clogged with years-old, formless grief.

"She died giving birth to me." Her grip on Erik's hand reminded her of the love and beauty she still held, and saved her from yawning despair.

Christine looked up and found Jacqueline's blue eyes, glittering with unshed tears. Were they tears of remembered pain or . . . or maybe the beginnings of understanding, forgiveness? Christine ached for it. She wished for peace between them. Erik loved them so much, and she refused to be the wedge that divided them.

"I am sorry for your loss, Christine," Elaine murmured, dark eyes wide and compassionate. Erik had told her of Elaine's role in his escape from Paris and was grateful for the older woman's generous nature.

"We've all lost loved ones, mine are no more remarkable than yours," Christine said quietly. Erik raised his teacup.

"A toast: to love lost, and love found." Christine drank, and saw the two younger de Chagnys sipping their milk in solemn accord with the adults. Madame Villon broke the moment by bustling in and clucking that both de Chagny girls hurry off to their lessons. Elise started to protest, but was quelled by Erik's stern look.

"Jacqueline," Erik murmured, catching her wrist as she passed, "I must speak with you in the study. Now." Christine's heart inched up to her throat as she watched Erik rise and guide his sister into the Comte's study.

"Don't worry, Christine," Raoul soothed, "Erik will set her aright." Christine mustered a wry grin.

"Thank you, Raoul. Erik tells me we are going to make a Vicomte of you. Starting today." The expression of alarmed trepidation that graced his handsome features was almost comical.

"What . . . what does that mean?" His voice was small, boy-like.

"It means you'll have a tutor, a fencing master, a dancing instructor, a tailor for your suits, all of the culture your fine family can muster," the Persian explained, looking dryly amused at Raoul's unease. Startled blue eyes glanced from the closed door of Erik's study to the Persian, to Christine. Something like relief softened his features.

"Well, I guess that is all right. As long as the future Comtesse learns with me." The Persian and Elaine murmured in surprise.

"Comtesse, my dear?" the Persian said, thick dark brows doing their level best to reach his hairline. Christine ducked her head, winding the fine napkin around fidgeting fingers.

"Erik asked me this morning. He . . . he wishes to be sensitive. The girls . . . they just lost their aunt. It would be cruel to flaunt our engagement so soon after the former Comtesse's passing."

"I think that is wise," the Persian said, nodding his silvered head. The smirk Raoul cast her way could only be described as smug.

"I knew he'd ask you, if he stopped fucking you long enough to catch his breath."

"Raoul!" Christine protested, face aflame.

"Mon Dieu." Elaine whispered, crossing herself.

"Language, Monsieur le Vicomte," the Persian said severely. Raoul's shoulders slumped forward, wings of golden hair falling forward to hide his face.

"I suppose vocabulary lessons are on the top of the list, hmm little brother?" Erik's dry voice broke in. Raoul offered a tight little shrug, grinning sheepishly. Christine met Erik's gaze, pleading for a verdict on Jacqueline's reaction. Green eyes softened, warm rough hands kneaded her shoulders in tender reassurance. As always, his presence eased her tension, filling her soul with purring contentment. Christine nuzzled his hand with her chin.

"Yes," Erik continued, "Christine has consented to be my wife. And both of you will be educated on your future responsibilities." Rich, masculine laughter filled the air and Christine swiveled to behold the beauty of Erik.

"Don't look so glum, Raoul. It will be enjoyable. Well, some of it. I promise."

"When do we start?" Christine asked, something like hope stirring in her breast. She wasn't worthy of him, or the life of a Comtesse, but she could learn to be useful. She could learn her place here. If he was here, then everything would be all right. Erik's eyes gleamed with mischief.

"This very minute, love. We'll start with music lessons." Raoul's nose wrinkled.

"Music lessons?" he repeated. Erik grinned.

"Of course. Every gentleman must be well-versed in the fine arts." His wink was for Christine alone.

Chapter Text

XXVII

The three of them made quite a harmonious trio, if Erik did say so himself. He had feared that Christine's confession of Raoul's desire for her would sour the brotherly affection Erik held for the golden-haired de Chagny. He was thankfully mistaken; Raoul proved himself to be an earnest and devoted brother, who seemed genuinely happy for Erik and Christine. It could not be said that the de Chagny household was without conflict, though.

"I don't understand why I have to learn any of this! Why does it matter which bloody fork you use for the salad?" Raoul said, pacing back and forth before the roaring fire in Erik's study. Christine slanted a wry look at Erik, rolling her eyes. Erik smothered a chuckle, dropping a kiss on her brow. The two of them were nestled comfortably in one of the wingback chairs before the fire, pouring over Monsieur Forel's book of etiquette. Gas lamps lit the room in soft, pleasant bubbles. Reading French was still a struggle for her, but she was learning quickly. Raoul, on the other hand . . .

"I told my father the same thing when I was younger than you, Raoul. You know what he said to me?" The younger de Chagny stopped his pacing, filaments of his golden hair falling from its respectable queue. The lad looked very fine when groomed and dressed in the tailored suits of a Vicomte. Gently born ladies would be lining up for him once they tamed that coarse stable-hand's tongue of his.

"What did he say?" Raoul asked, blue eyes wide. Erik grimaced as he straightened his left arm across the back of the chair, his shoulder reminding him he was not yet fully healed. Christine cooed, nuzzling his chest in mute comfort.

"He reminded me that we were de Chagnys, a line that could be traced back to gallant knights and statesmen. A legacy of shining chivalry, centuries long. That was why even a deformed wretch such as myself would learn how to dance." Raoul's scowl was an echo of their father's.

"Was he always such a heartless bastard to you?"

"He sounds like a cruel man," Christine said, eyes glittering dangerously. Erik laughed, faintly flattered at their protective attitude. It was . . . refreshing.

"Not cruel, simply . . . short-sighted. And not always, little brother. He appreciated my aptitude for fencing and marksmanship. They were skills of his own, you see. The only moment I was certain of his pride and regard was when I bested Camille Prevost in a bout." Erik smiled at the memory, then caught Christine's blank look.

"Camille Prevost? He was the son of Pierre Prevost, one of the greatest fencers in France," Erik said. Raoul made a derisive noise in his throat.

"I'd much rather learn to fence and shoot than dance!" He attempted to mime Erik's arched brow and only succeeded in looking very puzzled.

"Come now, Raoul. Dancing isn't so bad. I haven't mashed your toes in at least three lessons!" Christine said. Raoul immediately softened.

"Oh, it's not you, Christine! Dancing is just . . . boring." Erik shared a commiserating grin with Christine, then was struck by inspiration.

"But little brother," Erik said, rising and drawing Christine up with him. Her smile was sunny, but perplexed.

"Dance with me, love," he crooned, framing her in a classic waltz pose. Humming a tune under his breath, he led Christine in a few sweeping steps, gliding effortlessly across the study's carpet.

"You're a natural, darling." What could be better than Christine in his arms, laughing and breathless with her brown eyes sparkling?

"A natural, my foot," she replied, flushing.

"What you see is the product of many hours with poor Monsieur Lambert and many trod-upon toes." Her poor face was beginning to heal, a softer, fading red-purple as opposed to the brutal blue-purple of fresh weals. Regardless, he thought her the epitome of perfection.

Slanting a glance at a bemused Raoul, Erik's voice took up a dry, lecturer's intonation: "Dancing, like fencing, requires strength, agility, and grace. Bodily precision." Erik leaned Christine down into a graceful dip, snatching a quick kiss. Drawing her up, he unfurled his arm, leading her into a spin. She floated like a cloud, her hair rippling like a silk veil. He indulged a moment's fantasy of a masquerade ball with her on his arm, with dancing and champagne and laughter. Maybe at the New Year . . .

"What could be boring about learning the limitations of one's own body, learning the precise balance of control and strength, all the while capturing the sole attention of a beautiful woman?" he asked, unable to stifle his smile.

"Shameless charmer, this one." Christine's raspy voice was teasing, her arms winding around him and nuzzling his throat with a look of such flawless happiness that Erik's chest ached. Erik glanced at his brother and found a look of such sullen pugnaciousness that he was reminded of his father. Jacqueline had given him the same rebellious look when he'd taken her aside to speak of Christine. There was a chink in that armor of grief, though, Erik thought. He had seen Jacqueline soften when Christine mentioned her dead mother and father. His poor orphaned girls, united in their pain.

"I'll take your word, Erik. I shall learn to dance," Raoul said, fiddling with the lacy cravat at his throat, held in place with a stickpin adorned with a de Chagny emerald. The younger de Chagny glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, a smile breaking across his face like the sun from behind a cloud.

"It's three o'clock, Erik. Nadir said I could look at his stock."

Erik smothered a smile in his palm. While Nadir had lost his great stallion during the madness in Paris, his home outside the city had escaped unscathed with the entirety of his Persian broodmares. The mares Nadir had brought with him to tempt Erik were some of the finest, and since laying eyes on them, Raoul had been utterly smitten.

"It is a stroke of luck that Father left you an inheritance with which to buy expensive horses."

Raoul had the grace to look abashed, and Christine poked Erik in the chest, hard.

"Erik, don't tease him. Nadir is only being friendly."

Erik beamed down at her, stroking her wild hair with restless fingers. He loved the simple freedom of being able to look, to talk, to touch . . .

"Friendly like a grinning fox, my dear. Nadir is first and foremost a businessman, who knows a star-struck customer when he sees one," Erik said dryly.

"Go and fawn over the horses, little brother. But try and mind your clothes. I know how Madame Villon prizes your new suits."

"I will!" Raoul said, already tearing off the cravat and bounding out the door.

Christine smiled at the empty doorway, and Erik was eager to reclaim her attention. A subtle shift of palm moved his hand from the formal waltzing clasp to weave their fingers together. Drawing her close, Erik dropped a kiss on the smooth, cool back of her hand.

"Christine," he said softly, just for the pleasure of hearing it.

Again Erik savored the pleasure of rich dark eyes meeting his, free of the crippling uncertainty that had darkened them in Madame's brothel. The hand that rested on his shoulder slid down, tracing the velveteen black of his lapel before sliding into the warm space between coat and shirt. There was something sinuously erotic about her proprietary touch, even when both of them were fully clothed, doing nothing more than holding hands. His free hand skimmed down the russet silk of her bodice. The warm color looked very fetching with her dark hair and creamy skin.

"Erik," she said with equal softness, her voice deliciously hoarse. There was warmth and immediacy in her fallen voice. They had both lost so much, including the perfection of their music. Never again would Erik's left hand play with the same effortless excellence as before. Never again would Christine's voice soar to the highest crystalline notes. Her father would never give her away in marriage and Erik's Thomas would never meet his uncle.

Erik bowed his head, resting his forehead against hers. As she always did when they were alone, Christine peeled off his mask. Maybe one day the sight of his naked face would no longer sting him with shame. He could spend eternity like this: not making love, not even speaking, simply breathing the same air, simply basking in the privilege of her presence.

"Do you find your lessons to be a trial, love? I certainly do not care if you are schooled in the fine art of flower-arrangement, or any other courtly ridiculousness. I was raised thus but . . . it did not occur to me that you might find them as distasteful as I did." I will do anything for your happiness, he almost added with an acolyte's fervid devotion. Erik would treat the love he held for her carefully, lest he smother her with it. Christine chuckled, warm breath caressing his naked face.

"No, I want to learn my place here. I'll learn to arrange bouquets with the best of them." Erik's smile was pained. He did not like the edge that hid in those words, the implication that she must perform to some ridiculous, arbitrary standard.

"Only if you want to. I am happy simply to have you with me, to have you consent to be mine. You don't have to-" Christine quite effectively silenced him with a kiss, parted lips coaxing his mouth open, the wet velvet stroke of her tongue along his lower lip arresting all thought from his head.

The passion that always simmered in her presence roared to a boil, and soon Erik was clutching her close, tongues tangling. Their woven hands remained linked in a parody of dancer's stance, while free hands wandered. That wicked hand under his coat raked a path down his belly with her fingernails. The sensation was blunted by the fine cambric of his shirt, frustratingly so, but his wonderful, devilish love burrowed her hand beneath the waistband of his trousers. Her hot mouth accepted his whimpers, before breaking the kiss. And Christ, her hand-

"I want you, Erik. I want to be your partner and helpmate, your lover and the mother of your children, God willing." Erik nearly cried out at the exquisite agony of those words, coupled with the feel of her cool, skilled hand fondling his hardening shaft.

"I will be whatever you want me to be." An expression of crippling vulnerability molded her cherished features. The kiss he breathed on her lips was one of benediction, as sweet and sacred as a bridal kiss.

"Then be yourself. You please me by breathing, Christine." Her smile was breathtaking, her eyes moist.

"Thank you," she whispered against his lips.

"I want you to feel safe and free . . . I will do anything for your happiness." The words flew from his lips as her hand milked his cock in slow strokes, lubricated by the sticky moisture weeping from the head. Pleasure incinerated restraint and he arched his hips in helpless thrusts against that sweet, knowing hand. He would have sealed the words with a kiss, but she turned her attention to the deformed side of his face, dusting the tortured skin with kisses. God, she knew touching him like that was enough to unravel him! Was she trying to destroy every scrap of his sanity?

"Love me. Love me and keep me with you forever and I will be happy," she whispered in his ear before sucking on his earlobe.

"Oh God, yes!" The heartfelt agreement emerged in a low strangled groan, barely audible over the crackle of the fire. The door was wide open, Elise or Jacqueline could walk in at any moment . . . the thought cooled his ardor enough to keep him from spilling himself in his beloved's tender grasp. Gently, he removed her hand from his trousers, despite her soft murmur of complaint and the adamant protest of his turgid, throbbing flesh.

"Mercy, love. At least close the door." The command was breathless and the sparkling happiness in Christine's eyes unraveled any of the prim protests his brain offered. Erik felt bereft for the brief moment she left his arms to obey his command. He was a bloody mess under a few whispered words and a few bold strokes: shivering soul, pounding heart, hard, aching cock . . .

"Lock it," he rasped. The door secured, Christine turned toward him, a seductive smile curling kiss-swollen lips.

"Come here." Erik wove only the darkest, most seductive tones into his command, a shackle of silk willingly donned. Lips parted, Christine closed the gap between them.

Erik was determined to be a more active participant. He nodded toward the wingback chair where they had spent several quietly studious hours beside one another. There had been affection, tenderness and an almost saccharine amount of love, but not this wild, lustful conflagration. Christine flushed and Erik swallowed hard, fearing she had suddenly reconsidered making love to him in his study in the middle of the day.

"I . . . I have my . . . my blood. I feel . . . I want to touch you, but not . . ." Erik nodded gravely, not wanting to embarrass her. That also explained why she had only sought comfort in his arms the night before. He had a clinical knowledge of a woman's cycle; Claire had always been terse and fitful when Eve's curse was upon her. But Christine's made her hungry for him? Erik spread his hands.

"I am yours to do with as you wish, darling." Some of the tension ebbed from Christine's shoulders, the soft smile on her luscious mouth quickly turning wicked as her eyes wandered over him. Oh yes, he would gladly be her toy, her plaything.

"Take off your coat." The words spoken in Christine's desire-roughened voice was nearly enough to make him come. Stifling a groan, Erik shrugged off the suddenly stifling velvet.

"Good," Christine said, eyes dilated to dark, glistening pools. Her praise drew a small sound from him, too deep to be a whimper, too soft for a sigh. At last, at last, she was touching him, innocently pressing her hand over his pounding heart.

"Christine," Erik growled, gently tugging on the silver chain around her neck until he could see his locket against the glowing golden russet of her bodice. See and glory in his possession of her.

"Erik, my love. Mine." she punctuated her gentle nuzzling of his throat with a sharp nip. Her fingers deftly unbuttoned his shirt and untied the flies of his trousers, loosening his clothing, but not removing it. There was an illicit sort of thrill to love-making taken while partially clothed—

Any further thought was erased when Christine's mouth began to learn to topography of his body. Nuzzling through the sparse smattering of chest hair to the peaks of his tight nipples. Heat and pleasure danced through his quivering nerves. She lavished his nipples with languorous strokes of her tongue, then sucking hard in no discernible pattern. God in Heaven, she was going to drive him insane!

Erik had the presence of mind to stifle his cries, to ease onto the chair to make her utter debauchery of him easier. Christine hummed happily, before snuggling between his spread knees and licking his belly and navel like it was some sort of confection. He gripped the arms of the chair as if they were the only things tethering him to the earth, focusing on not whining with each exhaled breath as Christine freed his cock from his trousers. She looked at him as if he were a treat, a treasure, engorged and pathetically eager. When she took his length into her mouth, torturously slow, laving him with tender strokes of her tongue, Erik abandoned what was left of his dignity.

"Christine, goddess!" he cried in a hoarse whisper, hips jerking in time with her strokes. Pleasure made him ache and writhe and moan under her ministrations. Both hands sank into her wild curls, kneading her scalp with shaking fingers.

"Oh my dark-eyed succubus, my sweet, wicked girl . . ." As he watched, one of her hands smoothed over her own body, drifting beneath her skirts. . . a small part of him felt cheated of the pleasure of touching her sweet secret places, but the rest of him was bloody well aroused by the sight of her pleasuring herself as she sucked him. Her head bobbed faster, his balls felt taut and heavy with the weight of his aching lust; he was close, oh so close-

"God yes! Please . . . mercy . . ." Her cry reverberated through him as she found her pleasure, and Erik's roar emerged in a strangled breath. Boiling pleasure surged up through him and he was coming in her mouth, coming so hard stars danced before his eyes. Christine drank it all down, suckling him gently with eyes narrowed in sleepy slits of pleasure.

"Christine, Christine," he chanted, hoarse and weak and needy. Erik hauled her into his lap, blindly seeking the comfort of her lips. He tasted himself there and found it wasn't an unpleasant flavor. Wrecked and shaking, Erik sought her fingers, suckling the taste of her blood and her pleasure from her skin. He did so very gently, mindful of the healing bones. Christine uttered a small sound and soon their mouths met and mated like the world was ending. When they broke away to breathe, Christine narrowed her eyes in a mock-glare.

"So I am going to learn how to arrange flowers and dance and which fork to use with the salad, and that's that." Christine's tone was emphatic, at odds with her gently petting his hair and kissing the tip of his nose. Erik chuckled, as limp-limbed and dreamy as a cat in a windowsill.

"Of course, Comtesse. I wouldn't dream of stopping you."

The crystal door knob twisted, catching on the lock.

"Erik?" Raoul's puzzled voice bled through the door, "Christine? Are you still in there? Come and see, Nadir has a fine little filly that I think would be perfect for a future Comtesse."

"We'll be there in a moment," Erik said, stealing one last kiss that tasted so wickedly of their pleasure, before nudging Christine from his lap. Her hands went to retie his trousers and Erik batted her away.

"No, love. You'll have me hard again. It wouldn't do to scandalize young eyes in such a way," he said, grinning. Biting her lip to stifle her giggles, Christine crouched on the rug in search of his mask while Erik restored his clothes to a semi-respectable state. The velvet coat had a few wrinkles and his shirt clung to sweaty skin in places, Christine's hair was mussed and lips lush and swollen. Taken together, they made a thoroughly disreputable pair.

Mask in place, Erik turned the lock and yanked open the door to find his brother down to his shirtsleeves, his golden hair loose about his shoulders. He cast one shrewd glance between them and his puzzled frown dissolved into a sly grin.

"Rushing me off so you can fu—I mean . . . share convigial society in the middle of the afternoon, hmm?" he said. Christine buried her burning face in her hands.

"It's convivial society, boy. If you're going to mock me, do it properly," Erik said, folding his arms over his chest. Raoul snickered.

"That was quite cultured, Vicomte," Christine offered with a gracious half curtsey. Raoul narrowed his eyes.

"Don't sound so surprised! I've been trying."

"You've done very well," Erik said, clapping a hand on Raoul's slender shoulder.

"I suggest we visit London next season to sample high society." The light mood dimmed a little as each of them remembered the horror of Paris: of a blood red flag and a mob of angry, shouting faces.

"Come, Raoul. Show us this filly of yours," Christine said, twining her fingers through Erik's and ushering the two of them toward the foyer.

XXX

The two de Chagny brothers were studies in contrast. Light and dark, coarse-tongued and silken-voiced, whole and scarred, yet mirrors of each other in so many ways. Christine enjoyed listening to their good-natured banter as the three of them donned coats and gloves to brave the winter's cold. Madame Villon had overseen the decoration for Christmastime and the Château seemed warmer and brighter bedecked in ribbons and pine boughs.

Erik reclaimed his grip on her hand as soon as they were both appropriately garbed, the press of his glancing kiss muted by the leather of her glove. Christine's heart lurched in her chest. She loved him so much. The minor aches and lingering malaise that came with her menses had disappeared, banished by the taste of Erik's pleasure and her own. Her blood made her irritable and restless, the dull heavy ache quickly tipping into lust at the slightest touch from Erik. He was a drug to her and today had been an exercise in frustration for her, sitting so close. Rousing him has been such delicious fun.

A weak winter sun sagged toward the horizon, warming the snow and frozen mud with hints of gold and rose. Raoul led them through the stable, which to Christine's eyes seemed to be a warm, quiet sanctuary, a groom sweeping the aisle as the de Chagny horses dozed peacefully. Christine breathed deep of the scent of hay, leather and horse. It was a warm, homey sort of smell.

"Where is César?" Christine asked, eager to meet the stallion Erik and Raoul both loved.

"We've had to keep him in a separate shed, with all of Nadir's mares here. Nadir prefers to let his mares breed in the spring as they would do naturally. It's better to keep a stallion away, even though none of the mares are in heat," Raoul explained. Christine nodded, offering her flat palm to the curious nosing of a squat little pony. She had been around horses most of her life, carriage horses and the like, so she knew the etiquette, but had never ridden herself.

"This is Sugar Lump, Elise's pony," Erik said, scratching the blond thatch of mane between the pony's ears.

"Sugar Lump?" Christine said, grinning. Erik's green eyes danced with amusement.

"Christened for his favorite snack."

"Poor little lad. Elise wants a grown horse now, after seeing all of Nadir's fine stock," Raoul said, stroking the crooked blaze on Sugar Lump's chestnut nose. Erik's lips thinned.

"She'll get a grown horse when she is grown herself," he said. His thunderous expression cleared and he smiled.

"I must be sure to make that clear at supper. Come, the pen is through here," Erik said, sliding his arm around Christine's waist and guiding her after Raoul's bouncing stride. Christine rested her head on his shoulder, wishing she could hear the thump of his heartbeat. That was swiftly becoming her favorite sound in the world, especially when nightmares gripped her and she woke to its music under her ear, accompanied by the liquid golden croon of a sleepy murmur and the brush of lips against her brow.

A festive mood permeated with frosty air. Elise, Jacqueline and Nadir's Elaine were perched like colorful birds on the uppermost rail of the pen, swathed in blankets and shawls. Nadir held a horse tethered in the center of the pen, bound by only a rope halter. In the dying light, the horse's coat gleamed like bronze, the mane and tail soft, glinting black. Another horse stood quietly in the churned up mud of the pen, breath rising in thick white plumes. Even to Christine's unschooled eyes, she could see their worth in their elegant carriage, the taut snugness of muscle beneath well-groomed coats. Raoul ducked between the slats of the pen and approached the dozing horse with slow, practiced movements and crooned words.

Hearing the tread of their step on the gravel, the three observers turned and greeted them. Even Jacqueline offered an approximation of a smile, though Christine could see how it pained her. Christine forced warmth into her own greeting, a steely determination underlying the sentiment. Erik was hers, and she wasn't going anywhere.

"Oh aren't they pretty, Erik? Nadir says that one there would be good for Christine," Elise, cheeks flushed and eyes alight as she pointed to the one Nadir held tethered.

"Is that so, little ankle biter? What do you think, Jacqueline?" Erik asked, draping his free arm over the rail, keeping her snug against his side. In the harshest daylight, Christine could find glints of silver in his black hair, the faint lines webbing the corners of his eyes, vestiges of frailty in the face of his taut strength, his glittering intelligence. The middle de Chagny sibling paused, frowning at the slender horse Nadir was putting through her paces.

"Since Christine's never ridden before, she should have an older, more experienced horse. Don't you think?" Inwardly, Christine rejoiced at the words. Though cool and neutral, they seemed sincerely meant.

"I wholeheartedly agree, my dear." Erik offered a tender smile to his younger sister. Turning to Christine, he arched a brow.

"Perhaps you would like to learn on one of our older horses, before trying your hand to one of Nadir's fillies?"

"That won't be necessary, my friend. Saba is the soul of gentleness. I've trained her well to respond to a lady's hand," Nadir said, a flick of the whip at the ground in front of the filly enough to make her stop. Coiling the lunge line in precise turns, Nadir led the filly to the fence. A liquid dark eye regarded Christine through the slats of the pen, a fuzzy black muzzle nosing Nadir's sleeve. Up close, the filly's shoulder was roughly even with Christine's eye line.

"But I've never ridden before, Monsieur. I wouldn't want to confuse her with my ignorance," Christine said, a small seed of fear taking root in her belly. The thought of being up so high, with so much muscle and power beneath her and the threat of steel-shod hooves if she fell . . .

"I would like to see you and Saba together, Christine. I'm certain I've made you a good match," Nadir insisted, dark eyes gleaming.

"Be that as it may, Daroga, Christine will ride when and as she wishes." Though the words were spoken with a simple ease, Christine could hear the steel of command hidden in it and was grateful. Nadir blinked, then bowed his head and said, "Of course." The Persian squinted at the setting sun.

"Too late for it today, anyway. Ladies, shall we head inside for supper?"

"Aw, do we have to? I'll stay and help Raoul!" Elise said, jumping down and scampering off before anyone could stop her.

"Mind Raoul, Elise!" Erik called after her. Gallantly, the Persian offered a hand to Elaine. Erik grasped Jacqueline's slim waist and swung her down, not before catching her in a swift, fierce embrace. Christine found herself standing in an odd huddle with Erik and Jacqueline. Erik's smile was encouraging.

"I . . . I think Raoul's in love," Christine said, nodding to the large black horse he petted with such devotion. Jacqueline followed her gaze, a few flyaway strands of brown hair escaping her neat braided bun. Her face softened into a look of incredible tenderness and Christine's heart soared for Raoul's sake.

"He's an idiot over Octavian."

Christine frowned.

"Octavian? That's an odd name for a horse." Jacqueline giggled in reply, combing her hair behind her ear.

"Nadir thought he was being clever. César is Octavian's sire," Erik explained, sharing a sidelong glance with his younger sibling, warm with humor. Christine flailed, mentally sifting through her weeks of study to find a reference. Her Papa had not had money to send her to school, and had taught her from his memory and from any of second- and third-hand books they could find on their travels. She learned her letters, sums, sentences, and music of course, which was a complex language of its own, but science and history had barely been touched upon. A dreadful feeling of inadequacy rose in a hot knot in her throat. Erik noted her unease, of course, and shrugged.

"It's a bad joke, but Raoul was rather proud when I explained it to him: such a distinguished lineage to be named for two such great Roman emperors. And both excellent horsemen, from some accounts." In two sentences, Erik subtly included her in an enveloping sense of camaraderie and soothed her embarrassment by hinting Raoul had been enlightened as well. Christine didn't think she could have loved him more than at that moment. She uttered a breathless little laugh, at a loss for what to add lest she reveal her ignorance.

"Octavian is a beautiful horse. May we visit César before we go inside?" she asked, nestling against Erik's side. The wind was bitterly cold even under her coat and gown. The wind brought snatches of Raoul's and Elise's voices as they chattered away.

"Of course, love. But first, I'd like a word with Raoul," he replied, pressing a kiss against her forehead. He glanced encouragingly between the two of them before bracing his hands on the upper rail. A swift, fluid leap had him within the pen, long legs eating up the distance separating him from his brother.

Jacqueline gathered her coat tighter around her and began to follow Nadir and Elaine's progress leading Saba toward the stable. On impulse, Christine reached out and grabbed the younger girl's forearm. She plucked up her courage and forged ahead, saying the words she'd rehearsed in the mirror a thousand times.

"Jacqueline, Erik has proposed to me, and I've accepted. And . . . and I know I'll never replace Claire and I wouldn't even try to. But I'd like . . . I'd like us to be friends." Christine asked, her rasping voice nearly lost in the wind. Glittering blue eyes, so much like Raoul's met her own brown with startling clarity, maturity. With a jolt, Christine realized she was only five years older than Erik's sister. Jacqueline's smile was still a child's though, bright and quick.

"We'll see. Come, I'll show you the stallion's barn."

Chapter Text

XXVIII

Erik leaned against the doorjamb of the parlor, watching his three siblings and his love playing a game called Jeter le Sourire. Elise, who stood in the center of the circle, danced and pulled faces, trying to make one of the other three laugh. Any who laughed would take a turn as the joker who would then try to 'throw' their smile at the audience. Had Christine really only been here a month? She was breath and life, joy and light. The magnificent fir bedecked in Christmas finery lorded over the parlor's far corner, filling the room with its faint, fresh perfume. Even the sight of that wretched dock could not twist his heart in his chest as it once had.

A small velvet box rested in his pocket, a souvenir from his trip to the jeweler's in town while Christine had her lessons. He'd give it to her tonight: Cook had already offered up his best attempts at meatballs, rosehip soup and mashed rutabagas—which several texts assured him was a most Swedish supper. Christine has been ecstatic and Raoul had gorged himself with equal zest. Nadir sequestered himself away after supper, acutely uncomfortable despite Erik's protests. A Muslim amidst a Christmas celebration was awkward at best, Nadir had argued. He was content with Elaine's company.

Erik touched the box in his pocket, returning his thoughts to his planned seduction. He'd pamper her, of course, with a hot bath and him as her faithful bathing attendant, and after they made love . . . When she was sweaty and sated and happy, he'd slip the ring on her finger, a perfect gift for their first Christmas together. Her blood had ended a week ago and the strain of not being together save for that marvelous interlude in the study had added a piquant edge to their loving. He looked forward to making her beg again. She begged so sweetly.

Raoul's stony façade cracked into a reluctant grin as Elise began her best imitation of Monsieur Forel's nasal accent. The three watchers groaned as Raoul took his place in the center of the circle with an extravagant bow. His jokes made his turns merciless. The clock on the mantle struck the nine o'clock hour. Madame Villon bustled in and urged the children to their beds with exhortations of good behavior, lest Father Christmas not arrive. Erik stepped in, dropping kisses on the girls' foreheads.

"I believe it is Jacqueline's year to choose the story," he said, nodding toward the bookshelves.

"A story?" Christine asked. She was nearly healed, the bruises an afterthought, the shapes of her face as clear and lovely as they always had been. Likewise, his wounds were on the mend.

"Every Christmas, I read the girls a story before bed," Erik explained, leaving it unsaid that the tradition had begun with Thomas, and his poor heart couldn't let it die and lose that tenuous link to his boy.

"Jackie and I trade off on picking the story," Elise said, giggling and ducking away from Raoul who snaked a hand out to tweak her braid. The elder de Chagny sister was already snatching a worn book from the shelf, her favorite childhood tales. For all the pretense of choosing, neither of the girls strayed far from their beloved fairy tales.

"Oh yes! Oh Christine, you'll love this one!" Elise said.

"I think Christine should read to us this year," Jacqueline said quietly, book folded protectively against her chest. Elise chimed in her enthusiastic agreement. Bewildered pleasure fluttered across Christine's face and Erik's heart soared, swallowing the instant of hurt that sprouted. It was a good thing Jacqueline wanted to include Christine, for God's sake!

"That is a wonderful idea, Jacqueline. Now all three of you, go wash up and meet in Jacqueline's room for story time," Madame Villon said, ushering the three of them toward the stairs. Beaming, Christine snatched a quick kiss on his lips before dancing toward the stairs, her and Elise's linked hands swinging merrily. With a sigh, Erik fondly bid his fantasy of using Christine's bath as erotic torture goodbye—at least for tonight. He consoled himself with the thought that he could still fuck her into boneless satiation and chain her to him forever with a band of diamonds once the children were safely asleep.

Raoul was staring at the stairs like a hound left shivering in the cold and Erik felt a bone-deep stab of sympathy. He braced a hand on his brother's slender shoulder, guiding them from the parlor to the study.

"They didn't mean anything by it, little brother. Story time is for little girls; they probably thought you didn't want to come." Color suffused Raoul's cheekbones.

"I know," he said. Erik shrugged, striving for lightness.

"If it makes you feel any better, they excluded me too. I've been tucking them in for years then in comes Christine and I'm second chair," Erik said without heat. Raoul raked a hand through his golden hair, loose and gleaming in the light of the gas lamps.

"Thank you, it does help. And it's been . . . good getting to know them. I didn't expect that." Erik snorted, striding toward the decanter as Raoul took his ease in one of the chairs beside the fire.

"And what did you expect, Raoul? To be turned away at the door?" Erik was honestly curious. Beyond his stolid good nature, fierce loyalty and gruff stable boy's reserve, he knew very little of his brother's soul. There was an odd balance of the immeasurably worldly and perfectly innocent in Raoul. Since his return to the Château, Erik had poured his focus onto Christine and the girls. It was high time he and Raoul spoke as men and brothers.

Pouring a generous finger's breadth for both of them, Erik took his seat opposite Raoul, slouching in a way that took his weight off his injured shoulder. Contemplating the shimmering contents of his glass, Raoul's soft-voiced answer was almost lost in the crackle of flames.

"Yes."

"But why? Father wrote you into the will. It was your right to be here," Erik said, matching the quiet of his tone.

"I heard my maman say so my entire childhood. You didn't see a painted carriage riding up to spirit me off to a palace then." That's because he didn't make you his heir until he was on his deathbed. He was waiting for something better to come along, either my heir or one of his own body. Erik left the words unspoken, but nevertheless, they hung in the air, tangible and bitter. Another token from Michel de Chagny.

Raoul threw back his brandy and set aside the glass, swiping his mouth on the back of his cuff. He turned the full battery of ocean-deep blue eyes on Erik, tension quivering through him like a plucked violin string.

"I tried to fuck Christine. Twice. Wanted to for longer than that." Once the words were out, Raoul clenched his eyes tightly shut, as if waiting for a blow. Erik's grip tightened on his glass. He let the silence draw out like a blade, waited for one blue eye to peek open.

"Yes, I know. She told me. I also know she refused you. Twice." If there was the faintest edge of satisfied sharpness in his tone, Erik felt justified. Raoul had ambushed him with the topic, after all. He strove to soften the words.

"You both thought I was dead, I understand the life-affirming psychology of it. Are you . . . are you in love with her?" Erik feigned nonchalance, sipping his brandy. Raoul's violin-string tension was still there, a baffled look softening his severe features.

"No. And I don't want her anymore. I see how happy she is with you. I just wanted . . . comfort. And I wanted to get as close to you as I could." Erik recoiled, eyes flying wide.

"No, no, not like that! I mean, I do like men, but I like women too." Raoul buried his beet-red face in his hands. His words emerged muffled, thick with embarrassment: "Christ. Now you think I'm sick . . . a deviant." A sliver of blue eye could be seen through his woven fingers and Erik held up a finger with a wry smile.

"No, little brother. You simply need to explain. And more brandy." Raoul looked dazed and a little wild-eyed, like a cornered wild thing. Erik snatched up the bottle and poured another measure for both of them.

"Now talk. Your proclivities are none of my business, as long as you are discreet, though I would remind you of the dynastic responsibilities of noble families." Raoul frowned, sipping his second measure slower.

"But don't you and Christine want children?" Erik's eyes fluttered shut briefly, assaulted by the potent vision of her ripe with the fruit of his seed, of the dream-daughter with her wild hair and his eyes . . .

"More than anything, I want a child with Christine," he whispered. He opened his eyes and regarded his brother sadly.

"But I know better than anyone that these things are hardly a foregone conclusion. Babes sicken, die. Pregnancies fail." Five words had never held more grief, terror and bitter, bitter pain. Raoul shifted in his seat, obviously ill-at-ease with the thought of offering comfort.

"Christine is a fine, healthy young thing. If she were a filly, I'd breed her in a second." Erik threw back his head and laughed. At Raoul's miffed expression, he only laughed harder, until tears leaked from his eyes. He held up his hand to forestall Raoul's temper, tapering into milder chuckles.

"Thank you, Raoul. I know you meant it as a compliment when you compared my future wife to a horse." Realizing his error, Raoul flushed.

"It was a compliment," he said beneath his breath.

"As I said, thank you," Erik said, bowing his head in grave acknowledgment.

"Now," Erik clapped his hands on the arms of the chair, skewering Raoul with his gaze, "no more distractions. Explain what it is you mean by ah . . . wanting to be close to me via Christine's body." At the moment, Raoul showed more kinship to a tomato than a de Chagny. He would no doubt blame it on the alcohol and the heat of the fire. Raoul heaved a sigh and addressed the polished surface of Erik's shoes.

"I told Christine that the love you two share wasn't something she could just throw away. It's precious. And you were the only family I had. I missed you and I wanted . . . I wanted to feel good, and touch whatever was so good between you two." It was love the boy wanted, what he ached and pined for. But surely a former prostitute knew it took more than the act of love-making to make it true? Raoul risked a glance at Erik's face.

"Am I mad to want it?"

"No, no you are not," Erik said softly. Raoul released a heavy breath, relaxing back into the chair's embrace. Silence reigned between them for a long moment.

"And as to my . . . proclivities?" The puzzled frown combined with the questioning edge to Raoul's words was one doubtful of the word's meaning.

"It means your inclinations, your tendencies . . . in this case, your taste in sexual partners."

"Oh. Don't worry; I'll marry a lady someday."

"On the condition that you divulge your tastes to her. It would be most dishonorable to wed a lady under false pretenses." Claire had strung him along for years with the hope of reconciliation, the contradictory impulses of love and hate making them both miserable.

"Yes. Yes, of course." Raoul looked doubtful, but he agreed readily enough.

From there, their talk ranged to more pleasant topics, to horses, shooting, and fencing, the lattermost of which Raoul was showing a real aptitude. The clock struck eleven o' clock and Erik rose to stretch.

"Come, brother. It is time for bed. We must hurry, so Father Christmas may visit." Raoul chuckled, looking pleasantly muddled by the brandy. His embrace was a sloppy tangle of limbs.

"Goodnight, Erik."

"Goodnight, Raoul."

The Comte's chamber was bloody freezing. The fire had gone out and Erik yawned, wondering if it was worth the effort of rekindling it. He thought not when he could just nestle close to Christine. Erik beheld his love sprawled on her belly, damp hair hanging in her face as he shucked off his coat and removed shoes and socks. She looked like a sleeping, drooling angel. Madame Villon had reported that both children were already sleeping, and story time had been a rousing success. Erik hoped he wasn't permanently supplanted; he rather enjoyed reading to them. Erik heaved a sigh and burrowed into their pocket of warmth beneath the coverlet, draping his arm over her and burying his nose in her hair. She smelled of fine soap and warm, sweet female. Peace unfurled in his soul. The ring would keep until morning.

XXX

Christine waded through the syrup of indistinct dreams toward the rich murmur of Erik's whispers. What was he saying . . .? She felt him curled behind her, warm and solid with his face buried in her hair. Erik spoke a short phrase in a different language, the consonants short and sharp. Another phrase, in a more guttural register. Then another, with the same spice and savor of the Persian's voice. Cracking open one eyelid, she saw only darkness, without the barest shred of daylight visible. Still the small hours of the night, then. What was he doing practicing languages at such an hour? Christine kept her limbs loosely relaxed, her breathing even. Perhaps he would let some sweet secret slip when he thought her safely asleep.

"Jag ӓlsakar dig." A sweet melting feeling trickled through her at Erik's whispered confession of 'I love you' in her native Swedish. Warmth tickled her scalp as Erik sighed.

"They seem so small, those words, no matter what language I speak them in, or how many times I say them. So . . . inadequate to describe what I feel. I need more descriptive words: 'adoration,' 'worship,' yes, that's closer. Adoration gathered into a band of diamond . . . worship written with my body to yours . . ." Christine couldn't stifle the soft whimper that escaped her.

"Christine?" his voice was a little sharper. Christine feigned limpness, an impish impulse wanting to hear more sleep-soft declarations.

"Christine," he sang softly, weaving such aching longing into the syllables.

Her body warmed and softened, nerves tingling in delicious awareness of where his body was pressed to hers, still chastely clothed. With a languorous purr, she nestled back, rubbing sleepily against the decidedly hard lump behind her. Let him think she was asleep and dreaming.

"Erik . . ." she slurred, her voice husky and low. Let there be no doubt as to who she was dreaming of. Her beloved uttered a wonderful sound, part groan, part whimper, and all desperation. Erik's arm, draped comfortingly over her belly, began to creep, stealthily wadding up her nightgown to caress the bare skin beneath . . . After some fidgeting behind her, he pressed against her naked and hot and so, so hungry. There was such power in it: in how much he desired her, in how she could seize control like a horse taking the bit between its teeth. In all of their loving, there had been love, and lust, and wild desperation, but never play.

"Oh love . . ." a gust of warm breath fluttered over her ear and cheek as he panted, throbbing against her bared arse. Smiling through a curtain of her hair, Christine rolled onto her belly, trapping his hand between her mound and the mattress. A dull jolt of pleasure speared her at the blunt pressure of his callused fingers. Oh, that felt good. Still feigning sleep Christine rocked and ground herself against his trapped hand, whimpering and uttering broken fragments of his name.

"Oh God," Erik groaned, tugging feverishly at the nightgown separating them. Christine shivered a little as he pressed warm, open-mouthed kisses to her newly bared shoulder.

"Christine, oh love, wake up. Wake up for me darling, I need you," he growled, punctuating the words with a light nip on her earlobe. She exhaled a soft breath. Arousal swept through her, pounded in time with her heart and ached with the sweet well of moisture between her thighs. His clever fingers stroked and rubbed that pert little nubbin of pleasure . . .

"Erik?" her voice sounded convincingly sleep-roughened and unfocused.

"Yes," Erik hissed. Hard fingers curled under her chin, holding her still so he could plunder her mouth with his. Even with her eyes adjusted to the dark, she could make out little more than his shape looming over her. All she could do was smell sweat and male and musk and feel: heat, the rasp of his stubble, the wet, secret joust of his tongue, the hot, urgent press of his naked skin against hers.

"I love you," she whispered when they broke apart to breathe, feeling Erik's breath gust against her face.

"Oh I love you too. I wanted you to wake up; I needed you to know it was me." Her heart broke at his tenderness.

"I know a couple weeks here don't make up for a year of abuse," he crooned, nuzzling her cheek with his nose.

"No. But you make up for it." Christine's softly spoken words drew a groan from him.

They separated long enough for Christine to yank her nightgown over her head and for Erik to shuck off the encumbering cocoon of blankets with a twitch of his shoulders. Christine rose onto her hands and knees and was rewarded by a gentle tweak of his fingers between her thighs. Hot, shivering pleasure made her body arch toward that touch, the cold room made her skin stipple with gooseflesh and her nipples tighten.

"Yes, good girl. Just like that." Erik's voice sounded like the urgings of a fallen angel, eager for the sins of the flesh.

His free hand smoothed down her back in a gentle, proprietary caress. His mouth mapped her flesh, starting at the small of her back and reversing the journey his hand had just made. Erik draped his body over hers, carefully moving aside her hair so he could kiss and nibble at the nape of her neck. She arched into his lazy affection, his wonderful animal heat, teasing his hardness with gentle flares of her hips. His wicked fingers rubbed and Christine bit her lip to contain her cries.

Gripping her hip with his free hand, Erik sheathed himself in her in one long, slow slide. All she could do was gasp and buck and feel: hot, hard, buried so deep . . . Her breaths emerged in hiccupping stutters as he thrust. No possibility of thinking of anyone other than him, no, not with him draped over her back, fingers knotted together in the sheets, his fingertips kneading at her pearl in time with his methodical strokes, not with his voice in her ear and his kisses dusting her shoulder blades. So good . . .

"More. Erik, please . . ." she panted. Christine arched her back, taking him deeper, thrusting back to meet each stroke. Erik's exhaled breaths emerged in a low whine, his thrusts faster and harder.

"Oh . . . oh . . . oh yes! There! Right there!" Christine cried, her attention inward, to that sweetly tortured spot inside her that Erik stroked with the blunt head of his manhood. Their cries rose and tangled together in crude harmony as her climax crashed over her in a blinding assault of heat and pleasure. Another pounding flurry of thrusts and he followed her, filling her up with hot spurts of his seed. His lax, warm weight settled on her back, hips lazily rocking, lips dropping messy kisses on her shoulder and neck. A pleasure-saturated thought hoped his seed would take root inside her; that they'd made a baby tonight. It seemed the only gift of worth she could give him.

Feeling her faint shiver as their sweat cooled in the frigid air, Erik gently removed himself from her to gather the blankets over them. Christine nestled against his side, rubbing her cheek against his chest. Several minutes ticked by in sleepy touching, Erik's fingers in her hair and hers stroking his belly.

"You're right, you know," she said at last.

"Hmm? About what, darling?" the words were distorted by a yawn.

"They don't quite describe what I feel either." She felt the weight of his gaze, equal parts amusement and exasperation.

"How did you like my suggested descriptors?" Christine hummed, pecking a kiss on his chest.

"Worship was quite successful, as long as it's mutual."

"Quite," he replied, drawing her up for a lingering kiss. Settling comfortably against him, Christine listened to his heartbeat for a few moments.

"And . . . adoration?" she let the sentence hang. Chuckling, Erik sat up, reached for something, then drew her up cross-legged and facing each other.

"I'll fetch a candle, my love. So you can properly admire your adoration." Christine giggled, pecking a kiss on his hand before he rose.

The candle lit, Christine paused to admire the tautness of his form, his mussed hair, the heart-breaking beauty of his scarred face. Husband. Yes, she would like calling him that. Expression grave, Erik gently grasped her hand and dropped a kiss on the back.

"Your ring, darling." It fit perfectly. Of course it did. Christine tilted it toward the light and admired the square diamond flanked by two round emeralds. Emerald, a de Chagny color, and she would be surrounded and protected by it forever.

"Do you like it?" his voice held an endearing note of vulnerability. Christine kissed it away.

"Of course I do. It's perfect," she whispered against his lips, and saw his green eyes light up.

"Jag ӓlsakar dig," Erik whispered.

"Je t'aime," Christine replied.

In any language, it was true.


 

Chapter Text

Epilogue

London

September 1872

He was trying his best, Erik would give him that. Raoul had learned music was Erik's best distractor, and failing that, copious amounts of brandy and chess were the prescribed cures. Since the younger de Chagny son seemed to be woefully tone-deaf and hopeless at the pianoforte, brandy and chess would have to suffice. Erik's tense, feverish regard settled on his brother as he contemplated the ivory and ebony patterned board between them. London society agreed with him. Perhaps it was the pretty London ladies charmed by his accent and shyness, or that he had finally settled into the role of Vicomte and no longer acted if his cravat was trying to strangle him. Either way, day by day Erik saw less of the wary, hurt, hunted stable-boy Raoul had once been.

A muffled screech bled through the walls, and Erik closed his eyes. God in Heaven, she had been struggling for hours. The pains had begun in the wee hours of the morning, and had escalated into labor before luncheon. Now as the day stretched on into evening, Erik's nerves were fraying. How much longer could she hold on? He must have uttered a truly pathetic sound, because Raoul grasped his wrist.

"She'll be all right, Erik." Dark blue eyes were grave and sympathetic, though Erik could see his pallor and the sheen of perspiration in the weak sunlight peeking through the London rain. A pretty lie. Irrationally angry, Erik shook off his brother's grip. Brandy made his temper short and his tongue loose.

"You don't know that. She and the babe could . . ." Erik choked on the end of that sentence; it sat in his throat like a burning coal. He had seen the blood and sweat and pain it took to bring a babe into the world and had tasted the poisoned horror of seeing a dead child, of seeing glassy blue eyes pierce him with their helpless misery.

Shaking hands clutched fistfuls of his hair and tugged, the pain anchoring him. A sob shook his frame, shook his soul. Christine . . .

"The midwife is with her. The physician too." The knowledge brought no solace. His eyes fell on the teak and ivory box on his study desk. Would he add another requiem before the day's end? It was his fault. He'd put that child in her belly and now she was suffering for it. Choking back a whimper, Erik regarded his brother with bleak eyes.

"She's so small, Raoul. Smaller than Claire. If she starts bleeding . . ." A muscle ticked in Raoul's jaw.

"She won't. Christine's strong." The almost truculent stubbornness in Raoul's voice reminded Erik of their father.

"Yes. Yes, she is," he whispered. Yes, his love was brilliant and strong, a diamond.

"At least Jacqueline and Elise are at the library with Madame Villon. I wouldn't want them-" Raoul's sentence was cut off by a short shriek, this one full-throated and sharp with pain. The gunshot to the chest had been less painful than that sound. Before he had even made a conscious decision to move, Erik had burst from the study and was scaling the stairs three at a time.

"Erik, don't-!" Raoul's voice chased him up the stair, but he didn't care. He just needed to see her, just once more . . . please God, don't let her . . .

The door's fragile lock gave way under his determined heave. Christine lay on their bed, limp and panting with the physician laboring between her blood-smeared thighs. The midwife flitted about, and caught sight of Erik looming in the doorway.

"Sir, you cannot be in here!" her low, drawling voice snarled.

Pain-glazed brown eyes opened and she beheld him. A look of profound relief creased her beloved features and she opened her arms. He could no more deny her than he could cease to breathe. He settled behind her, leaning against the headboard, combing her sweat-soaked hair and peppering her feverish brow with kisses. Their fingers twined, and Erik felt how she trembled.

"I'm here, love. I'm here. I'm not leaving you," he crooned, nostrils flaring at the scent of sweat and blood.

"Oh Erik. I wanted you here. I need you here. Please stay," Christine whimpered, nuzzling his throat. Erik turned a baleful eye on the midwife, daring her to utter one more word.

"Erik . . ." Christine's voice was hoarse and weak, "She won't come. Our baby. She won't come!"

"What is the matter?" he snapped. Damned fools, they were utterly worthless! The physician's blue eyes were steady, calm.

"The babe's shoulder has not descended properly. We need to-" the physician's words were cut off by Christine's low moan as the contraction shuddered through her. The fine white lawn of her nightgown clung to the ripe mound of her belly, and Erik could see the muscles shiver. Her head thudded against his shoulder, short fingernails digging into his palms. He was grateful to share some small measure of pain with her.

A long, wrenching shudder wracked her body, leaving her limp and panting in his embrace. Erik saw the horrible truth. Christine would rapidly exhaust herself like this. Trying to choke down his terror, he nuzzled her cheek, crooning to her through the interminable hell of sweat, contorted muscle, wracking pain and Christine's screams. Words were such weak, small things in the face of such agony.

Erik's hands moved to stroke her belly. Christine's slender, white-knuckled fingers kneaded his upraised knees, knotting in handfuls of his trousers.

"Please, please little one. Help your mama. Come now, your papa and your uncle and your aunts want to meet you." Christine's watery laugh sounded like a sob.

"Here's the head!" Between Christine's thighs, Erik caught a glimpse of a dark tuft of hair, slicked with fluid and a whitish curd-like material. Was it breathing?

"Now Countess, you must draw up your legs and push on the next contraction." Dr. Watson's French was clumsy, but Christine nodded. The physician's blue eyes blazed with urgency, thick hands cradling the precious head of their little one. Christine blazed too, gathering her flagging strength with such valor that Erik stood in awe of her. Their fingers braided on Erik's legs and her cry shred the air as the next contraction struck.

"Erik, is she out?" Christine voice was nothing but a reedy whisper. Eyes fixed on that tiny tuft of hair, Erik could see no progress. Oh God . . . oh God please . . .

"Right, now we need to pull her legs up. As close to her chest as she can get them. Mary, when I say, you must press down just above the pubic bone."

"Yes, Dr. Watson."

"Just a little longer, love. She's almost here. She's almost ready." Erik whispered, watching as Mary the midwife climbed onto the bed and braced long-fingered hands on Christine's belly.

"Once more, Countess. Once more now!" Dr. Watson shouted. Christine pushed, Mary pressed, Dr. Watson tugged and Erik could only watch in wonder as his child slid into the world in a gush of fluid and blood. Working quickly, Dr. Watson raked a finger through the babe's mouth, then slapped it smartly on the back. The little one offered a weak hiccup, then began to cry in earnest. Tears blurred the image and Erik blinked them away.

"My baby . . . oh Erik look . . . look at her!" Christine found the strength to lift herself up, reaching for their beautiful, perfect child. The cord and afterbirth summarily dealt with, Erik could only stare in blank, dazed relief.

"Not 'her,' Countess. It's a boy. You have a fine healthy son," Dr. Watson's thick mustache twitched in gentle amusement, the midwife winding a warm cloth around the tiny body before laying their son in Christine's outstretched arms. Words were such weak, small things in the face of such joy.

"A son. Look at our boy, Erik!" Christine had never looked more beautiful, sweaty and flushed and weeping with her arms full of their baby.

"He's beautiful," Erik choked, admiring the red, scowling face, exhausted with the effort of being born.

"What shall we name him? We were so certain it was a girl," Christine laughed.

"Gustave. For your father," Erik pronounced. Tears slipped down Christine's cheeks and she said, "Yes. Gustave Thomas de Chagny."

Fin