Chapter One

The strong wind blew sharply from the North, freezing noses and causing shivers. Brown, orange and yellow leaves crunched underneath boots like the crackling of paper. Children played tag in the meadow beside the market while blissfully ignoring their mothers' admonitions. Winter was in the air - soon to be upon them.

Christine de Changy wrapped her cloak tightly around her. The basket she carried was awkward but it did feel good to get out of the house. Several servants cautioned her about the conditions and offered solicitously to go in her stead, but Christine would not hear of it. Somehow it made her feel more alive to be in such inclement weather. She had been secluded too long and the blustery elements in some way cheered her.

She paused to make a few purchases; enjoying the haggling peddlers. She stopped beside a floral cart admiring the fragrant roses, leaning and taking an appreciative whiff of their sweet scent, and continued on her way. There was a bolt of cloth needed for servant's clothes, as well as some more cheese for dinner. Jostling her way through the throng, she mentally went over her shopping list.

Standing aside waiting for the grocer to finish with one of his clients, she looked down to inspect the contents of her basket. To her surprise, there lying among the various items was a perfect, red rosebud. Involuntarily, she voiced her surprise softly wondering how she had picked it up and forgotten to pay for it. She did not remember placing it there. As she made off to pay for the rose, a gentle hand caught her elbow and a voice she thought never to hear again whispered, "Christine!"

Frozen in place, she knew it was him before she turned and gasped with recognition. Suddenly self-conscious, she felt the heat rise to her cheeks even as she put out her hand towards him as though to determine if he were real.

Erik. Here. His same commanding presence, familiar black cloak and hat low on his forehead. He looked down at her with eyes that were intense but unreadable behind the mask. They stood staring at each other in disbelief for several moments. Finally, Christine spoke softly "Erik, I....I can't believe it is you."

Struggling to find his voice and speak normally, Erik uncharacteristically cleared his throat.

"What are you doing here?" she stammered, abruptly realizing her rudeness. "I mean, where.."

"It's all right, Christine. I apologize for frightening you but when I saw you, I wanted to say hello." Erik replied.

Nervously laughing, she answered, "Well, the last place I expected to see you is here at the market!"

He continued to watch her keenly from beneath his hat. Christine was at a loss as to what in the world to say. Gratefully, she turned her attention to the impatient grocer who had obviously been trying to get her notice. After telling him what she required, she turned back to Erik. The brisk wind caused his cloak to swirl around him and, unexpectedly, she remembered the feeling of being wrapped in its warmth.

She looked up at Erik silently imploring him to speak. He shifted and looked away from her, "I should not have made you aware of my presence here. Forgive me for making you uncomfortable, Christine."

"Oh, Erik, is just that I was surprised. Truly." she answered, worriedly wondering if he meant to depart. "It is good to see you." she said honestly. He swiftly brought his gaze back to her as though to gauge the truthfulness of her words. Satisfied, he replied in a low voice, "You look well, Christine."

"Thank you. You look well, too, Erik. Are you living close by?" she faltered.

"Actually, yes. I live on the other side of the village in a home I purchased when I realized I would be required to remain here indefinitely on business." he answered. "I would not have accepted the commission had I known you were also a resident here. I do not want to cause you any distress, Christine." He looked apologetically at her as though sorry for his presence once again disrupting her life.

"No, I don't mind, Erik. Tell me, what business are you in?" she looked up at him curiously. She was extremely grateful that the conversation was progressing until she could get her heart to beat normally.

"I am an architect and I work with a master builder. I have only been here three weeks." he stated. Erik stared at Christine as though he could not quite believe she was before him. Both felt the strong undercurrent of unasked questions between them. She nodded in answer and looked up at him tentatively. "Will you walk with me?" she hesitatingly asked. He signaled his acquiescence and they strode onward, each unnervingly ill at ease. It had been five years since they had last seen each other and that parting was an unbearably painful memory.

Even so, Erik could not help asking her curtly, "And how is the Vicomte?"

She halted, taking a deep breath. She brought her eyes to Erik's. "He's dead."

Startled by complete shock, Erik stood speechless looking at her. "He died from a wasting illness about two years ago." Christine explained but did not meet his eyes. Erik watched her profile as she continued, "It came upon him suddenly and he dismissed it until he could no longer walk." Erik stayed beside her stunned into complete stillness. All these years, he had imagined his Christine blissfully happy with her easy life shared by her young man. To think of the grief she must have endured these past years was unthinkable. He realized that she was looking up at him with an expression he could not place.

Belatedly, he replied, "I am so sorry, Christine. I had no idea."

"Of course you wouldn't, Erik. Don't be distressed for me. I survived." she murmured, while beginning to walk again. Erik continued to walk quietly beside her for several moments. Christine took another breath and, in a desperate attempt to change the subject, said "How do you like our little village? It is very different from Paris, is it not? I have not been to Paris since...well, since I left." she awkwardly ended.

To put her at ease, Erik pushed his deep thoughts away and answered lightly, "Yes, it is quite peaceful here. Of course, I don't venture out much. I've been terribly engaged with a new project and have not had the opportunity for leisure exploration."

"Tell me what you have been working on, Erik." Christine asked.

As he went on to explain his most recent project, Christine strolled along beside him desperately trying to gather herself. Seeing him again was like wakening all the quivering uncertainties he evoked in her so long ago. She was dreadfully curious to ask him what had happened after she left the Opera but knew it would be highly insulting to inquire it of him. Erik looked extremely well and Christine realized with a start that they had never before walked together in daytime. Of course, today the sun was obscured behind dark clouds and she understood that was perhaps the only reason he would be out. She listened as he continued to converse about an estate he was planning. Who would have ever thought she would meet him again? Remembering all the conflicting emotions he had roused in her, she involuntarily shivered. Erik paused beside her, "Are you cold, Christine?" She almost answered in the affirmative in the off chance he would offer her his cloak once more, but she shook her head. "No, not terribly. It does look as though it may rain and I should be returning home."

Erik nodded as though accepting her inevitable leave-taking once more. With a charged quiet, they regarded each other again intensely. It had been a very long time and so much had happened between them. Uncomfortable as it was, both were glad they had chanced upon the other. Erik gazed with uncertainty at Christine, "May I escort you home, Christine?" He realized she would probably wish to be rid of him and the memories he evoked, but his long-standing manners could not abide her traveling alone. Looking up at him, she answered softly, "Yes, Erik, I would like that." Slowly, they walked down the pathway together unconsciously stepping as one.