It was late afternoon in spring and a light breeze blew from the open doors. Sunshine streamed in through gauzy, white curtains dimming the brightness. The rolling, French countryside beckoned to her but she could not go out to play yet.

One more time, she attempted to sing the song properly. She mentally went over the list: shoulders back, tummy in and head up. The child was absolutely adorable at five years of age and appeared an exact replica of her mother. But she had been blessed with her father's voice.

It was to him that she concentrated her efforts now. She so loved to please Papa. Singing with the precise pitch, the little girl struggled with the unfamiliar language of Italian. She wished she could sing the song in her native French, but Papa had insisted she learn this aria.

He played for her as she practiced, watching keenly and falling in love with her once again. From the moment she had been placed in his arms, he had adored her with a fierce devotion. Other than her mother, he loved her more than anyone in the entire world. Her birth had totally changed his entire life. The first time she smiled up at him at two months of age, he had lost his heart completely to her. Unlike most fathers, he stubbornly demanded that he be permitted to care for the infant as much as possible. He had done most of the chores for his daughter leaving a rather bored, overpaid nanny.

His wife had watched his relationship with the little girl evolve into an uncanny bond. Danielle rarely had to cry long as her father seemed to know intuitively what she wanted. Rather than cause any female jealousy, this attachment between Danielle and her papa met a need in the mother's heart. For she, too, had enjoyed such a relationship with her own father, and was grateful her daughter had the same opportunity. Both father and daughter worshipped the ground she walked on. She was well aware that she had truly been blessed. And the sight of her husband so entranced with their beautiful child often moved her to tears.

Erik had held Danielle almost constantly until she struggled from his grasp to walk. Her husband would have spoiled the child completely if it had not been for her gentle influence. Children who could not be controlled would never be disciplined enough to learn the rigors of voice, Christine reminded him. Acquiescing reluctantly to her wisdom, he usually found it necessary to leave the room rather than be present when she was punished.

Gazing now at his daughter, Erik realized once more that his wife had been correct. Danielle was a pretty child with an amazing, promising talent. Yet, if he had his way when she was a toddler, he would have turned her into a lovely, coddled brat. He smiled to himself as he played while thinking of his wife's sagacity. He owed his beautiful bride so very much.

After she finished her song strongly, Danielle looked to Papa for approval. Still sitting on the bench, he opened his arms to her and she leapt trustingly into them. Looking up at him with huge blue eyes, she asked, "Did I do well, Papa?" She knew she had sung satisfactorily but Danielle loved to hear his praise.

"Very well, ma cherie. You have been working hard. I believe I will have to relinquish you to the stage sooner than I would like." He smiled down at her sweet innocence.

She wrinkled her little nose and hugged him tighter. "Well, I won't go if you don't go with me."

He kept his arms about her, nuzzling the top of her hair in a gesture of fatherly enjoyment in her love. Erik closed his eyes and relished the feel of their child in his arms.

His wife watched silently from the doorway. Leaning unobserved against the wall, she marveled at the love all three of them shared. Never would she have thought there could have been a greater happiness in store for she and Erik then when they had first married.

After they had wed six years ago, Erik and Christine had spent almost an entire year traveling. Smiling wryly, she recalled that most of that year had been spent in bed. That had been such a special, sweet time and they had made precious memories. Upon learning that she was with child, Erik had insisted that they settle down in northern France.

She watched with gratification as Danielle prodded her father's mask with her chubby finger. "Papa, why do you wear this when we are at home? I don't like it." The expression on the unmasked side of his face as he concentrated on his daughter was priceless and Christine's heart soared within her. Danielle's naiveté and total lack of fear at his disfigurement had healed Erik better than she believed possible.

Looking at her with deep love, he softly answered, "Well, my pretty child, I don't wish to frighten you or our servants."

"Frighten me?", she asked in a high, squeaky voice. "You never frighten me. And I don't care what our servants think. I like to see your face, Papa." Christine held her breath in response to Erik's possible reaction. From infancy, Danielle had never been bothered by Erik's deformity and, to her knowledge, this was their first conversation about it.

There were no sweeter words he could have ever heard than what Danielle said to him. "I like to see your face, Papa." Her innocent acceptance of his horrifying countenance had always moved him deeply. Erik continued to gaze down at this little angel in stunned silence.

Pushing at him, the little minx persisted and put her hand on the mask. "Papppaaa! Please? Please let me take it off! I won't sing again until you do!" she threatened with a glint in her eyes that assured him she meant what she said.

Christine stood stock still. As though he could sense her presence, Erik looked up and caught her stare. They both remembered when another young girl with dark curls had taken his mask away. An inconceivable expression passed tenderly between them as they looked at each other over their daughter's head. Silent messages conveyed back and forth in that timeless moment. The love passed from one to the other as Christine nodded, silently encouraging him in his trepidation.

Taking a deep breath, he answered in a deliberate casualness, "Well, my sweet girl, if you won't sing until I take this off, then that is what I must do to see that you complete your lessons."

Danielle's delight at having won was evident and she clumsily untied the ribbons. Taking his mask off of his face, she placed it upon the piano. Turning to her father again, she kissed his marred cheek guilelessly.

"That is better." declared the mite. Hopping off the bench, she entreated him to let her sing in French now.

Erik sat at the piano fighting to keep back the tears. Danielle would not understand if he gave in to the emotion and would believe that her Papa was sad. He brought his eyes back to his wife and she smiled through her own tears. Their Danielle had bestowed a gift upon them both with her pure, sweet deed.

The child broke them both from their reverie with her impatient stomp. "Paaaaaapa!" Erik started and immediately began to play Danielle's favorite melody. She clapped her hands and went to stand next to him singing her heart out. When she finished, Erik told her she had done beautifully today. He gave her permission to go play with her puppy if she wished. Clambering up onto the bench, she stood to wrap her arms about his neck and squeezed tightly. Popping a quick kiss on his lips, she jumped down and ran out the door with no thought except her spotted puppy.

He sat looking down at his hands resting upon the keys. Christine walked slowly over and sat next to him. Wordlessly, she placed one of her hands over his own. They stayed that way for many minutes in silent communion. Finally, Erik looked up to meet her affectionate eyes. How he loved her! Never would he get used to her presence in his life. He was consistently taken with the knowledge that Christine was his wife.

"It is incredible how innocently Danielle can remove masks that we have worn for years, is it not?, she smiled. Erik returned her smile and lifted her hand to his lips.

He nodded, answering, "She is so like her mother. She is constantly amazing me."

Christine wondered if now was the proper time to tell him. She vacillated after witnessing his tender exchange with Danielle. Should she wait? Her indecision must have shown upon her face for he said to her, "What is it, my dear?"

Guiltily, she looked up at him through her lashes. "What is what?" she answered, pausing for time. She should have known better; he could read her mind at times.

Lifting her chin with his hand, he asserted knowingly, "You have something to tell me. Do not hide it from me, Christine." He chuckled, "Come now, take off your mask."

She laughed easily at his teasing tone but was suddenly shy. What she told him would change their lives forever.

Erik waited patiently, as he knew she would tell him. His eyes adored her as he attempted to decipher her news.

Sighing, she turned to face him. Taking both of his hands in her own, she declared softly, "We are going to have another child."

He looked at her in astonished, incredulous happiness. "Truly?" he whispered and his eyes went unconsciously to her belly. Placing a trembling hand upon her cautiously, he looked back to her eyes as a tear spilled from his own. "Another baby?" he asked incredulously.

Christine smiled brilliantly at him and wiped her own tears away. She nodded, "I have suspected for about two weeks now but I did not want to tell you until I was certain." Looking at him with a maternal smugness, she promised, "It is a boy."

He threw his head back and laughed with joy. "Oh? You are quite sure of that, my dear? And how did you come to this conclusion?" She looked so beautiful and he was still so in love with her. A baby!

"Yes." she told him. "I knew Danielle was a girl, didn't I? I knew then."

"That you did." he acknowledged, "But, my love, you did have a 50/50 chance of being correct." His eyes twinkled with newfound wonder and exultation.

Christine settled herself into his arms. "Well, I am right. You will see."

He held her tenderly as they basked in the intimate knowledge that they were expecting another little angel. Erik closed his eyes at the beauty that was their life together.

Rushing in and interrupting their tender moment in childlike impertinence, Danielle saw them and ran to her mother. Christine hugged her little girl to her breast knowing a great contentment. Here she was in her husband's arms, holding their charming daughter and their son was sheltered safely inside her.

Danielle pulled back and pouted prettily. "Mama, I don't think we should keep the puppy."

"Whyever not, Danielle? I thought you loved him very much." Christine said in surprise. Danielle had begged for a dog for months.

"Yes, I do love Puppy. But he does not know how to play right." Her daughter looked up and confirmed her prediction by saying petulantly, "Patrice and Martelle have sisters to play with. But I want a little brother."

Erik stared open-mouthed at Danielle in startled, stunned bewilderment. Christine turned her head to look at him in satisfied triumph.

"Mama! Can I have a baby brother, please????" the little girl insisted with the naiveté only a young child can possess. As though she only need ask her mother to make it a reality.

Christine took Danielle's face in her hands and promised, "Yes, my love. You will have a baby brother."

Finis

( Alison Fey, 2003