It was just as her servant had said: a red door tucked into a back alley in the area between some of the small town's shops. Christine readjusted her bonnet and nervously glanced around to be certain no one was nearby. With quick, determined steps, she approached the door, lifted her hand to knock - and paused. On the other side of the door, she heard music, beautifully played on a piano. She pressed her ear to the door, trying to discern what the piece was for a moment, but hearing a hansom cab pass nearby startled her - after all, what would people think if she was seen in such a strange place? - and she quickly rapped on the door.

The piano didn't stop so she knocked harder. This time, there was a pause in playing. She knocked once more to be certain she was heard. At this, the piano started up again, playing louder and more forcefully as if to drown her out.

She had been planning this mission for weeks now and she wasn't going to waste her determination on a dead end. She insisted she be heard and knocked much more forcefully this fourth time.

"Hello?" She said, the music continuing fortissimo. Pressing her ear to the door, she was able to pick out the tune - Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu. The playing was quite masterful, enchanting even, yet it vexed her so that the person on the other side of the door knew she was there and was trying to drown her out by banging the piece out as loudly as possible. She refused to be ignored and, after another glance around to be sure she was quite alone, lifted her voice and started singing to match the main melody.

Now the playing faltered. Christine stopped singing. Slowly, the playing began again, seemingly waiting for her to sing once more. After a moment or so, she added her voice back, just for a few notes. The playing abruptly stopped and was replaced by the sounds of heavy, rushed footsteps coming to the door. The peep hole slid open and she saw a strange, amber-colored eye on the other side.

"Who's there?" The question was rudely barked without so much as a "how do you do".

"Good evening." Christine tried to maintain her civility and composure. "I understand that you are a doctor...Is that correct?"

The eye searched around until it found her, pointed straight towards her. "Were you the one making that noise?"

"It's called 'singing'," she said.

"Don't tell me what's singing and what's not. Were you the one...singing?"

"Yes, sir. It seemed to be the only way to get your attention. Are you a doctor or not?"

"No, no, I'm not any kind of doctor."

Christine dropped her chin to her chest. "...oh. I'm...sorry to have interrupted your playing. Good day, sir."

"Wait…" The eye narrowed. "What do you want?"

"I want to speak with a particular doctor about an...illness."

"What sort of illness?"

"Monsieur!" She exclaimed. "It's a personal matter that I don't wish to discuss here in a back alley with someone who isn't a doctor through a hole in a doorway! Good day!"
"Fine - " The eye blazed, the voice seemed to rattle Christine down to her bones. "I am a...sort of doctor. I just don't like to advertise."

Christine stood on her tiptoes to try to get equal with the eye. "That's exactly what I'm looking for, monsieur - I was told that you were an unconventional doctor and I have a...a modern illness."

There was a sigh and the peephole closed. For a second, she thought she had lost his attention but then she heard several locks unlatching and the red door swung open.

Standing to the side and holding open the door, the man ushered her inside. "Come in."

Christine hesitantly stepped into the apartment, wondering for the first time since she set out that afternoon if it was entirely the best idea that no one knew where she was. The room was warm and dark, the walls lined with volumes upon volumes of books and tasteful artwork, classically styled furniture all around. There, to the side, was the grand piano she had heard earlier through the door and it was utterly magnificent. It seemed to be custom made, the black lacquer polished to brilliance, little unique touches on the edges and the legs. On top of the piano, an unusual cat - cream colored with dark chocolate tips - lay watching her with half-closed brilliant blue eyes. She gave an apathetic yawn and allowed Christine to scratch her under her chin.

"Oh, monsieur - your home is so charming! And what a divine piano! Your cat is absolutely precious. Why, the jewels on her collar almost look like real diamonds!"

"Almost," he said.

She turned to face the man and had to stifle a gasp of surprise. He was impeccably dressed, tall with dark black hair that was greying at the temples, angular and lean. On his face, though, he wore a mask. It was made of porcelain perhaps and covered the majority of his face, leaving only his mouth and chin exposed. Two golden eyes, seemingly lit with fire from within, stared out from the mask with a fierce intensity. She felt like a mouse being sized up by a cobra.

"You're wondering why I wear a mask," he said, walking towards and then past her. "It's just as you imagine. I have a severe deformity and I don't wish to share it with the world." He brushed the tails of his morning coat from underneath him as he took a seat at the piano, his eyes still pinned to her, taking her breath away.

"This can go many ways…" He lay his elegant, long hands upon the piano and began to play. His fingers began to spin music like magic; it was even more entrancing up close and without a door between them. "...You might think 'how bad can it be?' and, in a fit of misguided, girlish curiosity, you snatch my mask away. What you would see would terrify you. You would run out, tell others that a monster was in their midst, and I would be driven away from my lovely, comfortable home, something I would find incredibly tedious at this point in my life because as you can see, I have many books I'm fond of and they take quite a while to pack up."

Christine remained quiet, trying to focus on his words but feeling his music flowing through her. God, it had been so long since she had heard such wonderful music! She felt starved for artistry, her soul finally gorging itself on beautiful sound.

He continued. "You seem like a woman of good manners..." Those golden eyes raked her up and down. "I believe I can trust you to be polite and afford me this one peculiar eccentricity. Please don't make me regret opening my door to you. Now, my dear - let's hear that voice. Come, come, don't be tongue tied - you felt so comfortable performing on my front stoop."

He played a scale, motioning for her to follow along. Christine hadn't sung for ages, not really. She had given a few little performances for her husband Raoul's friends in the parlor of their home but she herself had clipped the wings she used to soar on rather than face her feelings of unfulfillment. Besides - the angel of music had never felt worthy enough to visit her and give her divine inspiration.

Her voice was weak from disuse, but as she went through a few scales, she felt herself warming up.

"My dear, you're singing from here - " The man indicated an area at the center of her chest. "Dig deep - bring it from here -" With his long, elegant hand, he seemingly pulled her breath deeper within her. The hand followed the sound traveling from her center, up her throat, out of her mouth. It was as if he knew how to reach the very core of her and under his gentle yet firm guidance, he mined that longing within her, bringing out a sound she never knew she was capable of. She felt as if she had reached a deep, intimate place within her and it thrilled her in a way she didn't quite understand.

He kept working with her, playing more complicated bits and encouraging her to follow along. She felt at first as if he were toying with her but she couldn't help but keep going. He seemed to know just what she needed to reach further with her voice than she had gone before. As they continued, he seemed to be enjoying himself as much as she was - and perhaps even holding back from expressing that pleasure just as she was as well. After all, it was improper for two strangers to share such a deep, almost intimate connection...wasn't it?

After a while, he stopped playing and turned to her with a gleam in his eye. "Hmm...A fine instrument, could use a little polishing. Tell me - where did you learn to sing?"

"I used to be a soprano at the opera populaire in Paris, sir."

"A soprano?" She could almost see his eyebrow raising under the porcelain mask. "When?"

"Oh, a few years ago now. It wasn't for very long; I was married shortly after my debut." She wrung her hands together nervously. "Sir, I didn't even have a chance to introduce myself. I am the Vicomtesse Christine de Chagny. And you, sir? How should I address you…?"

He look at her with his penetrating gaze as if searching for something. "...You may call me Erik."

"Just Erik? Not doctor…?"

"Just Erik is suitable."

Erik resumed playing, trying to remember if he had ever heard her perform at the opera before. The older he was, the more loathe he grew to leave his comfy little home secreted away in this tiny town. And yet, the opera called to him and so from time to time, especially if the program was worth it, he would travel to Paris and stay with his good friend Nadir Khan. Nadir had a modest pension and couldn't afford a luxurious box seat on his own while Erik had grown rich by hook or by crook (and sometimes even by legitimate means!) and so as a favor to his friend, he kept a box at the theater for him. As the box afforded a great deal of privacy, Erik felt it was a good investment for himself as well. Nadir had made a friend at the theater - and Erik suspected their friendship went a bit deeper - a woman with some standing who did Erik the favor of letting him in by a side door and making sure no one ran across him on the way to their seats.

Perhaps this girl had been on stage during one of those years where Erik had been too melancholy, too misanthropic to leave his little nest. Nadir had written him a few letters describing an astounding talent that had seemingly come from nowhere but by the time Erik felt obliged to visit the theater again over a year later, the singer had vanished. Could it have been this girl who now appeared at his door?

He surmised she could possibly be in her mid 20s, perhaps even approaching 30 but good eating and an easy life had preserved her beauty. She obviously had money; her dress was of the most up-to-date style and she had the genteel manners of a society lady. Yet there was a little hint of betrayal in her mannerisms, an inkling that she was a pretender to wealth and had perhaps come from a more unfortunate background. He had seen girls like her ascend from ballet rats to mistresses or wives of wealthy men, from the stage to the box seats. Perhaps she had chosen a secure life with a monied husband - a vicomte even! - and left the stage. Who could blame her for making that choice? Erik had known poverty, too, and had done far worse things than giving up his music for a morsel to eat. Still…she hungered for music and art; it was plain on her face.

"So...you used to perform at the opera?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Did you have a favorite part?"

"Oh, too many to count! But, I suppose if I had to pick one…" She tapped a slender finger against her rosebud lips as she searched her mind. "I guess Marguerite from Faust was always an intriguing part, so moving and so human."

Marguerite! Faust! Erik felt as if he had been lanced straight through by divine lightning. Was this another of God's cruel tricks, to send him someone who shared the same interests he did? Letting someone in who was a potential friend was worse than allowing a foe to darken one's doorway. With a friend there was longing, there was loneliness, there was loss. It was even crueler that this temptation should take the form of a lovely young woman with such an incredible voice. No; Erik would rather face down an assassin than a potential friend.

"Monsieur," she said, breaking his train of thought. "If you'd like, I can attempt the jewel aria for you. I haven't sung it for so long, and I'm sure my voice isn't the best it could be, but if it's something you would like…" She smiled sweetly, the smile of someone who was trying to curry favor. He couldn't resist such a tempting offer.

"We could...attempt it. Please don't strain your voice on my behalf."

"It won't be anything much, just a bit of...a bit of fun that we're enjoying together."

He nodded. "Start wherever you'd like and I'll follow along."

"Que vois je la?" she began, her voice hesitant at first. By the time her Marguerite discovered the casket of jewels, she had found her footing. "Mon dieu - que de bijoux!" Her voice was so clear, so strong, so full of emotion. As they continued, they fed off of each other, losing themselves to the music.

When the last note played, Erik realized that his heart was hammering in his chest from excitement. No, no, no! This wasn't good! He needed to control his emotions, to remove himself from temptation, because whatever desire he felt - for friendship, for kinship for anything else - would never be resolved. It was better to go without wanting than to be tormented by unfulfilled cravings. He needed to get this girl out of his house immediately.

"What did you come here for?" he asked, trying to mask the effect her singing had on him with curt words.

"...I need a cure, monsieur. You see I have a sort of modern sickness and...Mon dieu, I'm shaking! May I please sit…?" She pressed her trembling hands to her heart, her cheeks flushing pink.

"...You're right; I've been a poor host. Please follow me to the parlor. Perhaps a cordial will steady your nerves." He rose to his feet and gestured for her to follow him to his parlor towards the back of the house, leading her deeper into his home against his rational wishes. Damn his manners!

Christine followed behind him, looking all around at his lovely yet eccentric apartment. It was quite narrow, more like a wide hallway. It was an unusual place to have an apartment but it made sense for his unusual needs. Its position between the storage spaces of a few local shops afforded him quite a bit of privacy and silence. They passed a modest kitchenette and she imagined the large door to the right of the main parlor was where his bedroom was no doubt situated. The parlor was a bit wider than the rest of the apartment and had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked a river. Heavy black curtains were drawn to the side revealing the cloudy afternoon sky, letting in a soft, hazy light.

She sank into the plush, velvet couch and politely accepted a cordial from her enigmatic host. He poured himself a significant snifter of brandy and took his place in a wingback chair opposite her. He folded his long, elegant limbs, took a sip, and fixed his intense eyes on her once more.

"Now, my dear...You mentioned a 'modern' illness? What does this mean?"

"Well…" All of the nerves that singing had taken away came back two times stronger. She took little sips of the liqueur to try to steady herself. "One of my servants mentioned that you had unusual methods of treating illnesses, that you had studied in the orient and knew medicines that are unconventional - "

"I know who gossiped to you," he snipped at her. "You do a few favors for the sick child of one's washerwoman and suddenly one's business is spread out everywhere. If I could do without servants, I would, damnable gossips." After doing that one favor, Erik already had a few other unfortunates turning up at his door, asking for this or that. They're lucky he still had some sort of remnant of a heart and didn't turn them away.

" - yes, well, my husband and I have been struggling with my issue for a few years now and that's one of the reasons that we've come to this little town. He thought being away from the busy city would settle me and the weather here is so mild…"

"Nerves? Is that all?" He shifted in his seat and took another long pull from his glass. "There's a perfectly suitable doctor in town who can prescribe you something to deal with that."

"Not nerves, monsieur - something else. The doctor here in town is so...so old! I'm afraid he's not willing to try anything...different." The little cordial glass trembled in her grasp as she brought it to her lips. "Have you heard of...female hysteria?"

Erik almost expelled his drink from the hole that served as his nose. "I beg your pardon?"

"Female hysteria, sir...Do you know of this condition?"

Of course Erik had read about this idiotic so-called condition, something that confused him so thoroughly. How could these men of science be so ignorant and prudish about the simple act of sex? Could they be so clueless about women's pleasure, have their heads rammed so far up their self-important posteriors, that they couldn't comprehend that women had needs too? Even in Persia where women were kept hidden away, there was a wealth of erotic literature, art, poetry to help a couple achieve mutual happiness. To see the condition that his homeland was in with respect to something that he so desperately wished for was depressing to say the least. He felt sorry for all of these doctors' wives.

Now a clearer picture of the being before him came into focus. No doubt she had been locked up in the conservatoire while climbing the ranks in the opera. The vicomte had probably seen her perform and snatched her up at once. Either he was very young and clueless about the act or very old and indifferent to a woman's needs and the poor girl never had her own desires considered. She, not knowing any better, had probably grimly suffered under her husband's selfish labors, enduring his carelessness as a good wife and faithful Catholic.

"Monsieur...doctor….Erik….My husband and I have been trying since we were married for a child. I've tried to give him everything he wants but lately, I find myself unable to even...perform...the basics. Everything is so painful, it's like I've shut up as tight as a clam. He's growing impatient with me…" She lowered her eyes.

How he, the oldest most friendless virgin in the world, found himself having a sex talk with such a beautiful creature was beyond his comprehension. For once he was incredibly grateful for his mask because it was hiding a raging fire in his cheeks. He tried to remain composed and took another full gulp of his brandy.

"Have you heard of...inducing a...a…forgive me if I get the term wrong, monsieur - inducing a hysterical paroxysm?"

A yataghan to the gut, a pistol at the back of his skull, a flavorless poison slipped into an unguarded meal...Erik had pictured his own death many times, but never once did he imagine perishing so thoroughly from embarrassment in his own parlor.

"Excuse me?"

"Is that the correct term? A doctor makes an...adjustment...to a woman's...feminine area...and induces a hysterical paroxysm as a cure for hysteria?"

"Yes - I'm familiar with this but - but - " He stood suddenly and turned away from her. "I'm not that kind of doctor. I can...perhaps give you a book that can explain how you can do this for yourself but - "

"Please!" He heard a rustling of skirts and turned to see that she had thrown herself to her knees in front of him. "I've lied to my family and my servants and came out alone to see you, desperate for help! My servant told me your abilities are without equal...and I'm afraid, monsieur - afraid that I'll never be cured!"

Another issue came to him...It was far too easy, too convenient for husbands to dismiss their wives with claims of hysteria and send them away to an asylum for "recovery". That was another cruel practice; the women with money might be condemned to a spa-like prison, others thrown into a hospital for the insane. The thought had obviously crossed her mind, evident in her desperation.

"Erik...I have money...I'm willing to pay any price…" Her clasped hands, her pleading eyes, her grave tone hinted at other things, things that, if Erik were a weaker man, he would take advantage of. It was taking all of his strength as it was to simply look at her begging before him for something so intimate, so shocking.

Then, a thought bloomed in his mind...Not exactly the most noble thought because while he played at being a gentleman, he knew deep down in his soul he was a remorseless monster. What other opportunity would he have to touch a willing woman? Perhaps he could simply do this small favor for both of them...She would go back to her husband, refreshed and inspired, and he...he would have had at least one morsel of human contact in his miserable life. He had to remain clinical, professional, but...there was that risk, the danger of lighting that fire within him. Once he went down the path of desire, he could become ungovernable, insatiable, obsessed. There was nothing to be done once his passions were set in motion. He had no scruples getting what he wanted when it was simply stealing a bejeweled cat's collar or some unsuspecting idiot's coin-laden purse. It was another matter when it came to another human being.

No, he could never sink so low as to take a woman by force even though he could do so very easily. When he couldn't get what he wanted, he would turn to dangerous ways to drown out the yearning within him. He had already weaned himself from opium and morphine before; he was loathe to inspire himself to turn to those methods of wiping his mind clean again.

Still - what other opportunity would he have to touch a woman? Just once, it would be only just this once...And he would be doing an innocent girl a harmless favor.

"Madame," he leaned down and took her by the arms, gently bringing her to sit on the couch once more. "You have already paid me with that beautiful song earlier. I will...I will help you but...I must confess, I know the technique but haven't performed it before."
"I've heard of your skill, monsieur," she said excitedly. "I'm certain if you try - "

"Yes, yes...I'll try. Now, perhaps...I'll get you another cordial to help you relax and just...get comfortable here on the couch. I'm going to go wash up and I'll join you in a bit."

"Oh...Oh, thank you, monsieur!" She grasped his hand and pressed his cold, bony knuckles to her forehead in gratitude which was enough to make him shudder with anticipation.

What did you get yourself into, you immensely foolish idiot?

Erik poured her another cordial and went to his bathroom to clean his hands under hot water hoping to warm up his usually cold touch. He ran through his understanding of the act and of feminine anatomy over and over in his mind, veering between dispassionate, clinical interest and eager, half-restrained lust.

He returned to the parlor, pausing to look at her sitting so stiffly on his couch, the late afternoon sun - what little filtered through the smattering of clouds - illuminating her creamy complexion. The cordial and her anxiety stained her cheeks a charming, bright pink. He strode across the room, determined, yet the way she lifted her eyes to him almost completely undid his resolve.

"Where do you want me to be, doctor?"

"Err…" He glanced around at the room. "I'm afraid I'm not set up to receive any patients. Here on the couch will be as good a place as any. Here - " He tucked a few overstuffed pillows into the corner of the sofa and brought a little footstool towards her. "Lay back on these and place your left foot right there. That should be comfortable enough."

She lay back on the pillows, her hands knit tightly together on her stomach, but kept her shaking knees together.

He grasped the hem of her voluminous skirts. "Are you comfortable?"

"Yes."

"You understand that...this is a very intimate procedure?"

"Yes."

"And that you have a right to say no to me at any time, no questions asked? You have a right to leave at any time, that I will not force you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable?"

" I trust you; you are, after all, a man of science, a doctor."

"Yes. Yes, I am." I have a doctorate in lying to pure, trusting innocents. "I will begin the procedure then."

She nodded and took a deep breath, pointing her eyes to the ceiling. He lifted her skirts and folded them over up to her waist. Gently, and with hands that shook from suspense, he pressed his fingers between her peaked knees and parted them, placing one tiny foot on the footstool he had provided to the side of the couch and pressing the other knee against the backrest. Her little leather bespoke boots were covered with charming spats that had tiny shiny buttons running up the sides. Her stockings were a deep plum color and had a darling little design woven into them. Her crisp white linen bloomers were edged with the most exquisite Swedish lace, a touch of finery out of most women's reach. There, at the center, was the gap in her bloomers revealing the delicate pale skin of her inner thighs contrasted with a mass of dark brown curls. Within the soft, voluminous hair was the object of his scholarly interest, visible only as a small slice of pinkish flesh.

Hesitant and trembling, he extended his fingers and brushed the soft skin. She gave a little sigh and shifted around a bit.

Feeling a bit of sweat beading on his forehead behind his mask, he lifted his eyes to her. "Are you still comfortable? Do you want me to continue?"

"Yes, yes...Please proceed. I'm sorry, I'm just so - "

"Please don't apologize. This is new to us both, after all…"

He returned his attentions and tried to gaze at the wonder before him with a removed, scientific eye. He spread the flesh, revealing a deeper, more vibrant pink inside of myriad lovely little folds. He was fascinated; it was so beautiful and seemingly throbbed with a force that looked as if it wished to pull him into it. He fought against a longing to suddenly plunge face-first into this little piece of human heaven.

Slowly, softly, he stroked the skin. She shuddered but made no move to stop him. Growing bolder, he continued exploring the exterior of her sex with easy, studious movements. At the top was a little pearl he had read about, a place where women could draw pleasure from. Using two fingers, he stroked around it, moving closer and closer. He was almost all the way into a scientific mindset until she moaned - a sweet little cry from her golden voice.

All of the confidence the brandy had afforded him drained out of him and he became so keenly aware of every mote of dust in the air, every hair against his hand, the magnified sound of her rustling dress, the pulsing of her blood beneath her creamy skin. He pressed on despite his trepidation, stroking the area that she seemed to get pleasure from faster and faster.

She moaned, she shivered, she slightly shifted about. Whatever he was doing was working and he felt his heart soaring. To think that he - he! - could give a woman such sensations set him aflame. She had closed her eyes which allowed him to watch her glorious expressions as she bit her lip, knit her brow, pressed her eyes tightly shut. Ah - what an incredible sight!

He decided to try something more. Keeping his left fingers busy working in circles around her sensitive spot, he pressed his right index finger between the silky pink lips. At this, her thighs jumped and shuddered. She suddenly sat up, coming up so quickly and so closely to his face, they were almost in a kiss.

Gathering his wits, he tried to speak, hearing his voice crack. "Madame, did I hurt you…?"

"A little but...but...it's important to try…" she said, her sweet breath hot and hard across his face.

"Madame, we can try but if it's impossible you have to listen to your body…"

"Just go slow," she said, nodding. "I'm feeling better it's just...I guess it's my condition."

"Yes, vicomtesse. Perhaps a bit of...massage?"

"Perhaps…" She lay back on the pillow and positioned herself closer to him, spreading her legs even wider. He was almost in physical pain from his yearning and struggled to keep his head clear. He was so close to losing control, he knew now that this wasn't the best idea, but he collected himself and pressed on.

You are doing her a favor, this is just a medical procedure...You can do this, you can manage…

As if playing a piano, he lay his hands at the juncture of her thighs, caressing her beautiful flesh. He ran his hands firmly up and over her legs. Beneath her bloomers, he felt the ruffles of her garters around her thighs and he playfully plucked at them. With her eyes still closed, she smiled. It was a quirky little gesture that went far towards relaxing them both. Ah, how he longed to kiss her exposed skin, to pull at her underthings with his teeth, to dive down between her legs!

After warming her up a bit and putting her more at ease, he refocused his efforts on the main area. Once again, he worked on and around the apex of her sex with his left hand. His right index finger tentatively slipped between the soft folds once more and he was surprised to note that it was now slick. His previous efforts had yielded results!

Slowly and carefully, he worked his index finger deeper inside her warm, wet opening. He felt as if he was dying and yet truly living for the very first time. He had imagined this moment, had read about it in the many books that lined his home, but never once did he picture that this would happen to him. He steadied his hands, softly working at her, and glanced up to see if she was still enjoying his efforts. Her eyes were still closed, her brow still adorably furrowed, but now her little pink lips were pursed and parted, her breathing quickened. What an amazing view!

Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Ayesha, his Siamese cat, had perched herself on the wingback chair, judging him through narrowed eyes. For a second he felt on fire with shame but hurriedly looked away and refocused; the guilt would come later. What a wanton, immoral scoundrel he was!

He paused and retracted his hand for a second, wondering what more he could do. This temporary stop caused his patient's eyes to flutter open.

"Is there something wrong, vicomtesse?"

"Please - don't stop, monsieur!" she said, urgency in her words.

"You were feeling something, vicomtesse?"

She vigorously nodded. "Your hands - they're like magic!"

Under his mask he flushed a dark scarlet. What an incredible achievement he had earned! "Madame flatters me."

She waved her hand at him. "Please continue; I felt as if I was close to a...a…"

"...hysterical paroxysm?"

"...a revelation!"

"As you wish, madame."

She lay back, throwing her arm across her eyes and repositioning herself once more. Her other hand drifted across the front of her bodice slowly, sensually.

He believed it was time to perhaps try another finger. His left hand took up its previous rhythm and now his middle finger joined his index in exploring her depths. Soon, he was working both hands together with a steady tempo, a natural cadence emerging just as when music flowed from him. Before too long, she was bucking her hips against his hand, her darling chirps and purrs and gasps and cries coming faster.

And then - ! A miraculous quiver started in her legs that radiated up throughout the rest of her body. Her back arched, her hands curled into her skirts, and her mouth parted to let out an almost musical moan. The flesh around his fingers pulsed and quickened. As the convulsions subsided, she collapsed back into the pillows. He took this as his cue to withdraw his hands. Her head remained tossed back, her breath still came in little gasps through her parted lips.

"I'll….allow you to compose yourself, madame." He lowered her skirts, stood, and hurried to his bathroom, trying to hide his almost painful and obvious arousal.

He threw open the cold water tap but before he plunged his shaking hands into the cleansing stream, he paused. Drops of her beautiful fluid glimmered on his hand. Although he felt on fire with shame, he also felt strangely compelled to bring it to his lips. Without hesitation, he lapped it from his fingers, savoring it, savoring her.

God...what madness is this?

He scrubbed his hands hurriedly, his mind swirling with images, reeling with disbelief. The sweat from his brow and the heat from his face was uncomfortable underneath his mask. Would it hurt to just remove it for a moment, to cool his burning skin?

The answer, of course was yes, because moments after he removed his mask and splashed the cold water on his bare face, he heard a gasp from the doorway. He glanced up and saw her figure reflected in the mirror above the sink. Although it was dark and he didn't have the lights on, she must've seen his face reflected too.

His face, his accursed face! He quickly pressed a hand towel to his face to dry it and to hide it.

"I'm...sorry, I didn't mean to intrude...I'm just so grateful...I was worried you weren't - "

"Please go back to the parlor; I'll rejoin you shortly," he said, perhaps a bit more forcefully than he wished. She nodded and scurried away.

What a fucking monster, he said to his reflection in the mirror, the warmth of his triumph receding and his usual self loathing flooding back with a vengeance. She no doubt had the good graces and at least a smidgen of gratitude to contain the revulsion she must feel for him now after catching a glimpse of his hideousness to end the afternoon with a polite goodbye. He replaced his mask, steadied himself, and went back to the drawing room where she was sitting once more on the couch, Ayesha making herself a cheerful nuisance on her lap.

"Are you feeling better, vicomtesse?" he asked, keeping his distance.

"Oh, doctor - "

"Just Erik will do."

"Erik. It was...incredible!"

Her expression had not a hint of disgust or fear and instead she seemed flushed with excitement. Perhaps she hadn't seen after all…?

"Are you certain I can't pay you?"

"Helping my patients is its own reward," he mumbled. "I trust you are recovered enough to go home now?"

She nodded and, after gently removing Ayesha from her lap with a quick little scratch under the chin for a goodbye, she followed him back to the front room.

He ran his fingers over a section of the many books that lined his hallway and extracted a tiny tome.

"Here, my dear; perhaps this will help." He pressed the slim book into her hands. "It's an ancient lover's manual, filled with descriptions, illustrations, and poetry."

She flipped through a few pages and blushed. "This is...not exactly clinical."

"I don't believe your issue is altogether clinical. Perhaps you can introduce this to your husband, try something new?"

"I...I don't know if Raoul would be altogether open to these sorts of ideas…" She shrugged and tucked the book into her purse.

"Well..." Erik coughed. "You can always take a lover. Many unfulfilled wives do such a thing, just be sure they're discrete. It's more common than you would believe"

"A lover…"

"I would hate to introduce you to any ideas that go against your vows, though. There's a section within the book that demonstrates how you can...induce a hysterical paroxysm in yourself."

She nodded and then, after a quiet moment, she stepped closer to him, looking up at him with a searching expression.

"I sincerely thank you for performing this unusual service for me. You've helped me immensely."

"The pleasure," he said, "was all mine."

With a little curtsy from her and a small nod from him, he opened the door for her and she slipped away into the early evening, back to her old life. With hands that felt as heavy as lead, he turned each of the many locks on the door, locks that he installed to keep the entire world at bay. What a fool he was to let her in, to give in to his mad schemes! He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms tightly around himself, wondering how he could go on living without her now that he had heard her voice, experienced her pleasure.