Looking back at the time that passed that year, I find it hard to believe how quickly it passed. They say that when you are happy, time passes more quickly.
That year must have been one of the happiest of my life. That's not to say that that there weren't a few bad moments. You can hardly avoid those. One of the worst was when Theresa Waters and her family came to see Darren.
I had been walking down the driveway to fetch the post and the newspaper, when I had seen a car pull up. I bent down to see who was inside and my jaw dropped.
"Mrs… Mrs Waters." She looked at me silently for a moment and then said,
"Is Darren here?"
"Yes. Hang on, I'll open the gates." I tapped in the code and the gate swung open. The car drove straight past, up the driveway, leaving me there. I closed the gates again and walked up behind the car. When I got to the front door, Theresa had gotten out, with her younger son and her husband, a tall man with dark hair and a thick moustache. The son, Andrew, was about fourteen years old and watched me silently, almost glaring. I opened the door and they followed me in.
Erik was just crossing the Entrance Hall and smiled as I came in, clutching the post.
"Anything in the post?" but I never answered his question because he had seen the Waters. I swallowed hard.
"…In the kitchen." Erik said quietly. Theresa was clutching her husband's arm as she watched Erik. I went to the kitchen door and called down to Darren. He came up a moment later, saying,
"Erik, have you seen my…"
His voice trailed away when he saw his parents and brother standing there. He actually went a little pale.
"Mum… Dad. What are you guys doing here?"
"We want to talk to you, Darren." His father said. Darren blinked and I said,
"Go to the sitting room, Darren. I'll fetch some drinks." Darren nodded and Erik moved to him and said quietly,
"Shall I come with you?" Darren nodded mutely and Theresa looked like she was about to pass out.
When I went back, five minutes later, clutching a tray of drinks, I entered the sitting room to find Darren and his father in the middle of a blazing row.
"Young man, do you have any idea of what you've put us through?" Mr Waters shouted. Theresa was sat on the sofa, clutching a handkerchief to her mouth as she sobbed. Andrew was glaring at everyone and Erik stood silently in the corner, his arms folded as he watched the fight.
"Dad, I am not coming home! For god's sake, I'm twenty one, I can make my own choices!"
I hovered in the doorway and Mr Waters glanced over at me irritably. I went forward and put the drinks on the table before going to stand by Erik. Darren shook his head.
"No, Dad. I've set myself up a good life here. I've got a job, I'm doing really well in my mechanics course, I've got friends, a girlfriend. I'm not going back to London."
"Darren, please. We need you at home." Theresa cried. Darren folded his arms.
"No, you don't. Why do you need me? So I can work in a minimum wage job at Dad's store for the rest of my life?"
"You have a responsibility towards your family, Darren!" Mr Waters shouted. Darren shouted back,
"I have a family here as well!"
"He is not your brother!" Theresa said angrily, pointing at Erik.
I suddenly felt furious at her. How could she march into Erik's home like this and start making demands? How dare she make me feel out of place in my own home? I moved forward.
"Darren can stay here as long as he likes. Whether you like it or not, Erik and Darren are technically brothers and soon he'll be my brother as well!"
"Christine." Erik said, putting a hand on my arm. Theresa stared at me and then looked at Erik.
"You're marrying him?"
"Yes, I am. Have you got a problem with that?" I said furiously.
"Mum, I'm not going back with you. You might as well leave now." Darren said tiredly. Theresa looked at him and then ran out with a sob. Mr Waters chased after her.
Andrew looked at his brother and Darren said quietly,
"Take care of Mum, OK?"
"Come home, Darren."
"I can't, Andy." He said calmly. Andrew glared at him.
"I don't know why she wants you back so badly." And with that he turned and walked out. Darren groaned and rubbed his head. I touched his arm.
"Been better. They'll be OK. We've had worse fights." I hugged him. Erik walked out into the Entrance Hall and I vaguely heard him talking with Theresa. I don't know what passed between them. I never asked.
When Darren and I went into the Entrance Hall, it was only Mr Waters there. I could see on the camera screens that Andrew and Theresa were with the car. Mr Waters looked at Darren.
"We are your family. Does that mean nothing to you?"
"Don't blame this on me, Dad. I'm doing well here." Darren said tiredly. Mr Waters glared at him for a moment and then glanced at me and Erik before turning and storming out of the house.
We didn't hear from them again. Darren called every now and again, just to see how Andrew was but he never visited them. For a while after that, it was a little awkward, but things soon settled down again.
It was interesting, watching how Erik and Darren connected. They became a lot closer after than confrontation, but never to the point of hugging or physical emotion. It was more the sort of friendship guys develop, an awkward, teasing, joking relationship. So much to the point that I occasionally caught them teasing me without my realising it.
Christmas passed, as did New Years. Both celebrations were spent at the Manor, with Dad, Samantha, Nadir, Meg and her mother. We did go to the town Christmas Party. That year, the theme was fancy dress. I ended up going as Aminta from Don Juan Triumphant, costumes borrowed from the Opera House. Thankfully, the evening went peacefully and Erik kept his mask on his face for the whole evening, occasionally throwing suspicious glares around the room.
Dad and Erik became regular chess partners, joining for a game once a month, usually when I was out with Meg, Jessie and Samantha, but they were soon coming together more often, to my utter delight. It was good to know that I could leave them alone for a couple of hours without coming back to bloodshed.
By that time I had turned twenty. Farewell to the teenage years, hello to true adulthood. I've got to say, it scared me a bit. But I didn't have much time to ponder it, as the summer months soon arrived, bringing with them the exam season. It always seemed such a ridiculous time to have exams, in the middle of summer when it's so hot you can hardly be bothered to get out of bed, let alone write about how Chaucer uses context of the 14th century in the Canterbury Tales.
At least I wasn't alone in it. Meg and Darren were facing the same things, and I think Meg was worse of than both Darren and I. Her exam was half practical. You try dancing around a room for fifteen minutes in midsummer. I would have died, but she got through, unsurprisingly, with flying colours and a promise from Erik that the Opera House would be willing to take her on, if she passed an audition. My own exam results arrived in the post on the 23rd July. I sat staring at the envelope for some it, Darren beside me, staring at his own. Erik watched both so us from his spot by the open back door.
"Are you actually going to open those at some point today?" He asked after fifteen minutes. I nodded.
"Do you want me to do it?"
"Christine, this is stupid. Whatever's written down in there isn't going to change if we wait. Let's just get it over with." Darren said, picking up his envelope.
I sighed and took mine. I tore the brown paper open and pulled out the slip inside. Written on it, besides my name, date of birth etc. was my grade for my English Literature course. I glanced at Darren.
"How'd you do?"
"No, you." I said firmly. Darren sighed and held out his slip and I looked at it. "An A? Darren!" I hugged him tightly and he grinned.
"I know! What about you?"
"It's a day for the 'A' crowd!" I grinned, waving my own slip at him.
He hugged me again and then I slumped forward on the table.
"Thank god I'm never going to have to go through all of that again!" Darren laughed and got up as the intercom went.
"That'll be Meg."
I looked up at Erik. He was looking at me proudly. I grinned.
"I can't believe it. I've finished school. God, that's a scary thought."
"Well done, Christine. I knew you'd be fine."
"Just think of all that spare time I'm going to have. You know, I never actually figured out what I was going to do past college." I commented, getting myself a can of drink from the fridge. Erik smiled slightly.
"I couldn't make it professionally, Erik. I haven't practised hard enough over the years."
"I can bring you up to scratch. You could come and do some work at the Opera House." He said. I looked at him.
"Yes. And as for spare time…" he took my left hand and kissed it softly, "How would you like to start planning a wedding?"
I stared at him.
"Really. We agreed to wait until you finished college, we've gone to the counselling and we're already living together. Why wait any longer?"
A large amount of kissing answered that question. Until Meg and Darren returned to the kitchen and Meg said,
"Put her down, Erik, you don't know where she's been." I glared at her.
"Any time. What's up?" I smiled and looked at Erik.
"We're going to start planning the wedding."
"Oh my god, that's brilliant! I saw this fantastic dress the other day-"
"Meg, who's wedding is it?" I demanded. Meg rolled her eyes.
"Well, yours technically, but I plan to interfere whenever possible!"
I looked at Erik and said earnestly,
"Please let's elope. Please."
"No way, you're not taking this away from me." Meg insisted. Erik looked at Darren.
"Control your woman, please." Darren grinned.
"Sorry, Erik, she's a free spirit."
"She's crazy, that's what she is." I put in.
Meg cleared her throat.
"I can hear you."
"We know. Anyway, Meg, remember. Small wedding. Friends and family only. That's us, Dad, Samantha, Nadir, your mum and Jessie. And my family but I'm kinda hoping they won't come." I admitted.
"Why not? You always complain how bad they are but never why." Darren said. I sat down with my drink and pulled a face.
"The last time we were all together was at my mum's funeral. Dad got into an argument with one of my uncles and ended up locking himself in his room. I had to deal with them and when they thought I wasn't listening, they just kept going on about how Dad would never be able to deal with me by himself, and how I was making it so hard on myself and I'd never be able to cope, blah, blah, blah. In the end I just asked them to leave, saying it was too stressful for Dad for them to be there."
"Ouch. That's harsh."
"Yeah. I mean, I've sent them Christmas Cards and we've spoken on the phone, but we haven't seen each other since then. And they don't know about Erik, because otherwise they'll do the concerned relative act."
"Which is…?" Erik asked, sitting down. I sat up straight and put on a stern face.
"Do you think that it is a good idea to carry on a relationship with this gentleman, Christine Marie?"
"They middle-name you?" Meg asked. I nodded.
"Yeah. It's not fun."
"Well, we can invite them and then just ignore everything they say." Erik suggested. I smiled.
"OK. We'll invite them. They might not even come."
"How many relatives are we talking?" Darren asked.
"Two uncles, two aunts, five cousins, three second cousins." I recited. "So if they do come to the wedding there'll be twenty one of us. Unless you want to invite anyone from the Opera House, Erik."
"I suppose I should ask Lefevre." Erik said, unenthusiastically.
"What about Eleanor?"
"Your relationship counsellor?" Meg asked, confused. I smiled.
"I can just spout some psychobabble at her. That'll make her shut up for long enough to get away. Meg, what about your Dad and Denise?"
By the time we had finished, we had a list like this:
Erik, Christine, Meg, Darren, Charles, Samantha, Nadir, Jessie, Marie, Mr Lefevre, Aunt Yvonne and Uncle Thomas, Aunt Martha and Uncle Dominic, cousins (Gemma, Faith, Grace, Patrick, Ben), second cousins (Virginia, Marcus, Richard), Mr Giry, Denise.
"Elopement is starting to sound very appealing." Erik muttered.
"It's only twenty-five. Let's face it, these days a small wedding is at least sixty. You're going for miniscule here." Darren pointed out
"Let's not forget Mrs Lefevre and their two sons, Jessie's boyfriend, Virginia, Marcus and Richard's partners, Gemma's boyfriend, Ben's girlfriend and Denise's baby, Christopher. How old is he now?" I asked Meg.
"Three months. If he screams all the way through, feel free to kick him out."
I knew she didn't mean it. Although she had had reservations about a new sibling, she got on quite well with Denise now.
"So that puts it up to thirty-five. Plus the priest."
"And Eleanor's husband." Erik put in.
"What about Mr Reyer?" I said.
"And Mrs Reyer."
"Thirty-eight." Erik wrote the names down and sighed. "Who else?"
We all considered. Eventually I said,
"What about your work colleagues, Erik? I know we've got Mr Lefevre down, but what about Mr Firmin and the main singers? What are their names…?"
"Ruth, Jasmine, Siobhan, Matthew, Christian and Henry." Erik said.
"And Joseph Buqet, Dad's friend." I said.
"That's forty-six." Darren counted. Erik looked at me.
"So much for keeping it small."
"I know… urgh." I groaned. "We've planning it for twenty minutes and I'm already fed up."
Meg looked from Erik's miserable expression to my despairing one. Then she reached out, took the paper and tore it into pieces.
"Christine, this is your wedding. Invite who you want. I mean, family is kind of a given, but all the others… Eleanor, and the theatre people, do you really want them there?"
"Not really." We admitted.
"Then don't invite them. You're only getting one wedding, do it right."
We looked at her and then each other. Erik smiled.
"She has a point."
"Yeah. OK, us and family. And Jessie, obviously. And I would like the Reyer's there. I've known him for a long time."
We began a new list. I looked at Erik.
"No. He'll turn it all into a publicity event and the place will be crawling with cameramen. What about Mr Giry and Denise?"
"Yeah, they can come."
We looked down at the list. At least we were back in the twenties again. I smiled at Erik.
"Seriously, let's consider eloping."
"Don't tempt me." he replied, getting up to fetch himself a drink.
I realised soon afterwards why they call the wedding day the happiest day of your life. Because frankly, the time leading up to it is so crap, anything would seem good after that. Two weeks later, Erik and I set a date for our wedding. November 18th, two years after we had first confessed our love in the music room. Don't call me the romantic; it was entirely Erik's idea.
Invitations were sent out and two days later I received a phone call from my mother's sister, Aunt Yvonne.
"Christine, I just received your invitation! I had no idea you were seeing someone, let alone that it was as serious as this!"
"I know, Aunt Yvonne, I haven't been great with keeping contact. I've just been so busy." I said. I could see Erik smirking in amusement as he drew costume designs for his next opera and I pulled a face at him as Aunt Yvonne said,
"Christine, we'd be delighted to come. But tell me about this Erik!"
"Well… what would you like to know?" I asked, going to the fridge and taking out some cold water.
"How old is he, what does he do for a living, how did you meet?"
Wow. This was going to be fun.
"He's twenty-nine, he's a musician at the local Opera House and I met him through work."
"You work at the Opera House now?"
"No, I was his cleaner at his house."
Silence. I tried not to laugh as I imagined the look on her face.
"Well… isn't he a little… old for you?"
"Oh. Well. We should get together before the wedding for a dinner, all of us. Have you heard back from Martha and Dominic yet?"
"Not yet. Aunt Yvonne, it's going to be a really small wedding. Just family and close friends."
"I see, Christine, darling. Oh, I must run. Grace, Faith and Patrick are all very excited! I'll call about that dinner, bye!"
She hung up. I stared at the phone and set it on the hook, sitting down with Erik.
"That's it. My brain is actually melting." The phone began to ring again and I groaned. Erik smiled.
"I'll get it."
He went to the phone and picked it up.
"Hello, Erik Lavonne speaking." He stood in confusion for a moment and then passed it to me.
"One of your Aunts."
"Hello? Oh, hello Aunt Martha. Yes, that was him."
I massaged my head as I listened to Martha babble on.
"Christine Marie, have you heard a word that I've said?"
"Dinner on the twenty-first, of course. Yes, we'll be there. Say hello to Grace and Ben for me. Thanks Aunt Martha." I hung up quickly and glared at the phone, daring it to ring again. It didn't, and I sat down pacified. Erik kissed my forehead.
"Don't worry. It will be fine."
"You haven't met my Aunt Martha. She's Dad's big sister and she middle-names me. Don't let her know if you have a middle name. Do you have one?"
"Lucky sod. Oh, god, I'm marrying you in four months and I don't even know if you have a middle name! I'm the worst person ever." I said miserably, feeling like bursting into tears. Erik kissed me again.
"You are not the worst person ever. Stop worrying. Remember, you're going wedding-dress shopping tomorrow with Meg, Jessie and Samantha. Just keep thinking about that."
I had to say, that did cheer me up a little. I took out my notebook.
"OK. We've booked the church, the restaurant for the reception and you've got a clothes fitting on Friday at 2 with Darren, Dad and Nadir. Did you decide who's going to be Best Man?"
"Nadir. And we need to choose wedding rings. Meg delivered a catalogue." He pointed at a wrapped parcel. I nodded and noted it down.
"Right. We also need to sort out flowers and music. And I really wish you'd tell me what we're doing for the honeymoon."
"Christine, would it be a surprise if I told you?" Erik pointed out. I smiled.
"I know. I just hate not knowing."
"It is all sorted. Everything is going to be fine." Erik assured me. I nodded and smiled at him.
"Everything is not going to be fine!" I hissed as I walked into the restaurant with Dad and Erik. Dad sighed.
"It's a bit late to turn back now, Christine."
Erik took my hand and kissed the top of my head.
"I'm here. If they ask any awkward questions, just let me answer."
"OK. But I'm warning you, this is not going to be fun." I told him. Someone called my name and I turned. Sat at a large table were the rest of my family. Aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins. I smiled and greeted them all, hugs all around, kisses on the cheek etc.
"Christine, sweetheart, how are you? Charles, you look wonderful, so healthy!" Yvonne blustered. I squeezed Erik's hand and looked around at them.
"Everyone, this is Erik Lavonne, my fiancé."
There was a moment where everyone looked at him and then smiles, handshakes and we sat down. My five cousins all started to talk with me. I was the second oldest, Gemma was a year old than me. Then in descending age it was Ben at eighteen, Faith at sixteen, Patrick at fifteen and Grace at twelve. We all ordered food and Martha peered at us. Her husband, Dominic, was a nervous looking man. Being married to Martha, I wasn't surprised. Martha said in a we're-all-family-let's-talk voice,
"Christine Marie, how are you?"
"I'm very well, thank you Aunt Martha."
"And you, Mr Lavonne?"
"Erik, please. I am also in excellent health." Erik said smoothly. I loved it when he used that tone, the kind that sent little shivers down my spine.
"Christine Marie has been a little vague in the details, Erik. How exactly did you two meet?" Martha asked, primly sipping her wine. Erik smiled charmingly.
"Christine worked for me."
Martha choked on her sip of wine and once she'd recovered she looked at me coldly.
"Really? That's rather inappropriate, don't you think?"
"I can assure you, Aunt Martha, Erik and I became friends very quickly. We shared a love of music, and he offered to help me in my singing. Neither of us intended to start a relationship." I said calmly. Martha turned her piercing gaze onto Erik.
"And what do you do for a living?"
"I'm a composer, Madame, at the Opera House."
"And that provides a steady income? I suppose you already have a house that Christine Marie will be able to move to, once you are married?" Martha demanded. Dad shuffled awkwardly but I said,
"Actually, Aunt Martha, Erik and I already live together. Erik owns a beautiful house. His stepbrother also lives with us."
"Good heavens." Martha closed her eyes and Yvonne stepped in quickly.
"Christine, why don't you tell us what you plan to do now that you've finished college?"
"Erik is going to help me with my singing, and hopefully I'll be able to take a small part in one of his operas." I smiled.
Martha seemed to have recovered and she interrupted.
"What was the name of that young man I met last time I saw you, Christine Marie? I believe you were very close to him."
"You mean Raoul?" I asked. Erik tensed noticeably. I had managed to get over Raoul's interference. He had not. Martha noticed as well and arched an eyebrow.
"Yes, Raoul, that was it. A lovely young man. Have you met him, Erik?"
"I have, Madame." Erik said stiffly.
"And what did you think of him?"
"Martha…" Dad said warningly. Erik spoke in a carefully polite voice.
"I found him to be a very different person to myself."
"Really? I thought he was quite the gentleman when I met him." Martha commented. I smiled forcedly.
"I don't speak to Raoul very much anymore."
"Why on earth not? He comes from a very good family, you know."
"I found it hard to get on with him when he viciously attacked Erik at the Christmas party two years ago." I said icily.
Martha looked at me silently. Erik put a hand on my arm.
"Christine…" I looked at him and smiled slightly, shaking my head. Martha watched us for a moment and then said,
"So you haven't known each other for two years, but you're already living together, engaged and Christine used to work for you? Charles, what do you have to say about this?"
We all looked at Dad, who said cheerfully,
"Well, Martha, I wasn't delighted about it as you can imagine. But I've gotten to know Erik and he's quite an admirable person."
"I suppose he might be if he didn't cover his face up. Don't you think it a little rude to wear a mask at the dining table?" Martha commented. I sat up straight but Erik looked at me. In that brief glance he told me not to interrupt.
"You will have to excuse the mask, Madame. I am a man of many eccentricities. It comes from living alone for several years and being a musician."
Martha fell silent, watching us piercingly. I looked up at Erik and he smiled at me briefly before turning to Uncle Thomas, Yvonne's husband, and saying,
"Christine tells me you're involved in banking." This began a very long and boring conversation, giving me a chance to talk freely with my cousins. Gemma grinned at me.
"You faced down Mum. I take my hat off to you."
"Thanks Gemma." I whispered. She nodded towards Erik, sat on my other side.
"He's a braver person than I am."
"Tell me about it. I could never do this by myself." I admitted with a smile. She smiled back.
"I'm happy for you, Christine."
Our meals arrived and as I ate my salmon, I listened to Dad and Martha, who were discussing the food. Yvonne smiled at Erik and me.
"You know, you haven't told us where you're honeymooning."
"Better ask Mr Mysterious here. He won't tell me." I laughed, nodding at Erik. He remained composed but smiled slightly.
"We've been through this, Christine. It's a surprise."
"A surprise honeymoon? How romantic!" Virginia sighed. I rolled my eyes.
"I know, but it's driving me insane!"
"I can assure you, Christine, that everything is organised for the honeymoon. And if you don't stop asking me about it, I'm going to take extreme measures."
"Oh really? Like what?" I demanded. He smirked at me.
"I'll have Charles tell us those childhood stories you love so much."
"You wouldn't." I said, narrowing my eyes. Another smirk and I pulled a face at him. He smiled slightly and said,
"Are you going to stop asking?"
"Fine. But you're going to pay when we get home." I warned him.
"I think I'll manage."
"Erik, we haven't heard anything about your parents." Uncle Thomas commented. Erik shook his head.
"I don't know my father and am not on speaking terms with my mother. The only family I have is my stepbrother, Darren. He will be at the wedding."
"How many people are going to be at the wedding?" Ben asked me.
"I think the count was at about thirty-one, last time I checked."
"Is that all?" Yvonne said. I smiled and looked up at Erik.
"We want to keep this small. Close friends and family only. Well, for the ceremony and the meal anyway. We're heading over to the ballroom at the Opera House after the meal for a big reception. Co-workers and everyone else, that sort of thing."
"That's a good idea." Gemma said. I nodded and looked at Erik.
"Unless Mr Lefevre gets hold of it."
"I've given him many warnings, he won't be interfering." Erik assured me. "When it comes to the Opera House reception he can give all the publicity he likes. My private life is another matter. Especially our wedding."
Aunt Yvonne lifted her eyebrows.
"You get a lot of public attention at the Opera House?"
"Yes, it's an attention-seizing place in general." Erik replied. Dad put in,
"I should have brought those magazines with me."
"Dad, you've shown them to nearly everyone!" I complained. The magazines with the article about the Don Juan opening, complete with interviews and pictures of Erik and myself.
"We can see them when we come down for the wedding." Marcus said dismissively. "Speaking of, we really should book a hotel, so we know we've got somewhere to sleep."
"There's no need. You can come and stay with us." Erik said calmly. Martha stared at him.
"They can?" I repeated. Erik smiled at me.
"It's not as if we don't have room, and since we're about to become family, it only makes sense."
"Exactly how big is this house?" Richard asked. I laughed slightly.
"Big. As if in, we have our own ballroom."
"It's more like a mansion than a house." Dad agreed. Everyone looked impressed. Except Martha. She was about to comment but Uncle Dominic interrupted by holding up his glass.
"A toast, to Erik and Christine."
Martha pursed her lips but lifted her glass along with everyone else. I glanced up at Erik and saw he was watching me. I smiled and he kissed me gently. Ben and Patrick whistled and I couldn't help laughing.
Perhaps this wouldn't be a complete disaster after all.
A month passed. Three weeks until the wedding and I was going insane. I sat in the kitchen at Nadir's house, whilst he and Samantha patiently listened to my complaining. Samantha patted my hand.
"Christine, you are forgetting the most important thing. You love Erik, he loves you. It doesn't matter if the flowers are late and the restaurant is double booked. You're getting married because you're in love."
"I know but… I just wanted it to be perfect. I mean, Erik has hardly lived his life at all. I want to get something right for once." I mumbled. Samantha hugged me.
"You don't need flowers to make it perfect. Go and see him now. He's at the theatre, right? Go over and surprise him, see him at work. You'll see how happy he is."
I considered and then nodded.
"OK. Thanks guys, I'll see you later. Oh, Samantha, we've got another fitting on Tuesday, just to make sure the dresses are-"
"Go!" Samantha said, pushing me towards the door.
I hesitated outside the theatre doors. I could hear music. I knew it was Erik's, I'd recognise it anywhere. I opened the door to the main room of the Opera House and looked in.
Dancers were poised on the stage, following the movements of a strict looking woman in dance clothes. A group of singers stood to the right of the room, warming up. I looked around and saw Erik speaking with a man, a little older than myself, drinking from a water bottle. Erik nodded and the man moved off. Erik looked around and caught sight of me in the doorway. His face lit up in a smile and I moved towards him.
"Christine, what are you doing here?"
"I just… wanted to see you." I said lamely. Erik smiled and kissed me. Several people whistled and he turned on them furiously.
"You are not being paid to sit around. Either start singing or get out!"
I raised my eyebrows.
"I do my best. Come on, I'll introduce you to some people."
I met lots of people that day. Singers, dancers, technicians, artists. The main singer, the one who had played Aminta in Don Juan Triumphant was a beautiful woman of about twenty-five called Siobhan. She smiled at me.
"So you're the infamous Christine? It's a pleasure to meet you at last."
"What do you mean 'infamous'?" I asked nervously, shaking her hand. Siobhan laughed and winked at Erik.
"He's got pictures of you all over his office. It's very endearing. We all wondered what you'd be like, the young lady who managed to tame Erik Lavonne."
"She has not tamed me, Siobhan." Erik said irritably. Siobhan laughed and winked.
"Sure she hasn't, sweetie. Looking forward to the reception, Christine."
"Thanks, it's going to be fun."
"I'll get back to work." Siobhan said.
"You do that." Erik told her. I smiled at him.
"I like her."
"Someone has to, she drives me insane." Erik grumbled. I laughed and poked him in the side.
"You like her too."
"Ah, Erik, could you possibly look through this for me?" said Mr Lefevre, rushing in with a sheet of paper. He blinked and smiled brightly at me. "Christine! How lovely to see you again."
"I'm sorry for just showing up, I wanted to see Erik."
"Oh, no trouble at all. Why don't you watch the rehearsal?"
"I can't. I don't want to spoil it for the opening night. Plus there's been a few wedding mess-ups I need to sort out."
"What's happened now?" Erik asked, looking up. I smiled.
"Don't worry. The flowers have been temporarily misplaced and the restaurant double-booked us, but I'll sort something out."
"Do you want me to help?"
"No, you're busy. I'll sort it all out. You get back to work. I'll see you tonight." I kissed him and waved goodbye to the others.
After forty minutes on the phone to the florists and the restaurant my good mood had flown out of the window. I looked at Ayesha who was perched on the table next to me.
"Ayesha, take my advice. If you find a nice little boy cat and fall in love, don't get married, OK? That way lies craziness."
"I'm sure she's listening." Darren said, obviously just getting back from work. "Everything sorted?"
"Just about." I said, going to the cupboard and taking out some aspirin, downing them in one. Darren grinned.
"It'll be worth it."
"It had better be. Otherwise I'm going to be mightily pissed off." I mumbled.
"Go and relax for a while. Do some singing or something. Because if your head explodes, I am not cleaning up or explaining it to Erik." Darren told me. I smiled.
"OK, deal. And you do realise that whilst Erik and I are on our honeymoon you're going to have to do your own washing."
"We'll see about that. I'll just get Meg to do it."
"I'll tell her you said that."
"Oh, come on, don't ruin this for me!" Darren whined as I went upstairs, Ayesha at my heels.
I took out the music for Think of Me and began to play it. I had been practising the piano as well as my singing and could now do both quite well. Ayesha curled up on the lid of the piano, cleaning her face with a paw. I changed the music to All I Ask of You, playing without singing.
Erik came home an hour later. I was still sat at the piano, practising earnestly. I smiled as he came in.
"What song are you doing?" he asked.
"Think of Me."
"Sing. I'll play."
I stood and waited for the right bar before launching into song. But we were distracted a few bars in by Ayesha climbing down onto the keyboard, her paws tapping the keys. Erik smiled and lifted her off the piano. She licked his cheek earnestly and Erik wiped the damp spot, handing her to me. I laughed.
"Oh, she's giving you a kiss."
"How very unsanitary." Erik commented. I pouted and hugged Ayesha.
"I think it's cute."
"You don't have animal saliva all over your face."
"It's cute saliva."
"Christine, please. Anything but that word." Erik said in a frustrated tone. I grinned wickedly.
"But she is cute. And you're cute. No use denying it."
"Oh, fine." I said, putting Ayesha down, where she began to rub her back against my legs.
"From the beginning." Erik said, returning to the keys once more. I smiled and picked up my music.
On November 15th, it began to snow. This was not good. It was hard enough to reach the Manor as it was, but with snow the roads would be ridiculous and my family was due to arrive on the 16th. I was panicking, going completely out of my mind on the morning of the 16th.
Erik, of course, remained perfectly calm.
"Christine, your family will be fine. They may be a little late but that is all."
"How can you be so calm?" I cried at him, pacing the kitchen anxiously. He caught my hands and held me still.
"Because I'm not marrying your family. I'm marrying you. And as long as we're both here, the wedding can go ahead."
I stared at him and then buried my face in his shoulder.
"I don't know what I'd do without you." I told him.
"Christine, you need to rest. You've barely slept at all the past two nights." He was right. I'd been late getting to bed, early getting up and tossing and turning into the small hours. He pushed me towards the stairs.
"Go and get some sleep."
"But they're going to be here soon!"
"I will handle them. Get some sleep." He said firmly. I was too exhausted to argue. I slept for about four hours and I woke to a knock on the door.
"Come in." I mumbled, sitting up. Meg's head poked around the door.
"Everyone's here. Coming down?"
"Yeah…" I yawned, but pulled a face when I saw my reflection. "Hairbrush. Stat."
Once I had combed my hair into something resembling normality and changed into some unwrinkled clothes, I went downstairs. Everyone was in the sitting room. And I mean everyone. Nadir, Samantha, Dad, Darren, Meg, the whole family and Erik. He smiled as I entered.
"Yeah, I really needed it." I admitted before greeting my family. Instantly, the talk turned to the weather, as it was still snowing.
"If the roads get much worse we might not be able to get down to the town." Dad said. I stared at him.
"But… surely it won't be that bad."
"If the worst comes to the worst, I'll phone the priest and have him come here. Either way, we are getting married on Friday." Erik said firmly. I smiled at him.
"We'd better be. We've waited long enough for this."
Aunt Yvonne smiled brightly at me and then said,
"Christine, you really must introduce us to everyone." I looked at Erik and he looked faintly embarrassed.
"It's OK. This is my best friend, Meg Giry. She's my maid-of-honour." Meg waved happily and I pointed towards Darren. "This is Erik's step-brother and Meg's boyfriend, Darren Waters. Samantha, over there, is Dad's counsellor, one of my bridesmaids and is dating Nadir, who is Erik's Best Man."
Everyone said hello. The conversation began about the wedding, plans and running through the schedule for the day. Aunt Martha remained silent for most of it before saying primly,
"Erik, I do hope that you will be removing your mask for the ceremony. Surely your eccentricities can be put aside for one day."
There was an uncomfortable silence among us. The rest of my family seemed a bit confused at our uncomfortable reaction. I glanced at Erik but he nodded at me.
"I'll take this one, Christine. No, Madame, I won't be removing my mask. I never take my mask off in public."
"Well, why on earth not?" Martha said coldly. "Think about how the photographs will look like!"
"Martha, leave it." Dad said sharply but she pressed on.
"Really, Erik, I don't see why-"
"Aunt Martha, could you please not push?" I said angrily. She glared at me.
"Christine-Marie, don't be so ridiculous. This is pure childishness."
"Actually, Madame, there is a very good reason for me to keep my mask on." Erik said icily.
I put a hand on his arm.
"Erik, you don't need to defend yourself."
"Oh, I think I do, Christine." He reached up to his mask but I caught his hand and pulled it away.
"Erik, no. You don't need to do this." I insisted. He looked at me suddenly and the anger faded from his eyes. I kissed him and pressed my lips to his unmasked cheek.
"You don't need to."
"But-" Aunt Martha began again, but was glared at by Erik, myself and Dad. She closed her mouth and sipped her tea. I stood, taking Erik's hand.
"Erik, can you help me get some more tea?"
Once in the safety of the kitchen I looked up at him.
"I'm sorry, Erik."
"Why are you sorry? It's not your fault." He pointed out. I shrugged.
"It's my family though. God, this is such a nightmare." He pulled me to him, kissing me. A few minutes later he pulled his head back and said quietly,
"I'll just learn to keep my temper under control whilst in the vicinity of your aunt."
"She's a stupid old bat." I hissed and Erik kissed me again.
We pulled apart hastily as my cousin Gemma came in. She looked irritated.
"Erik, I just wanted to apologise for Mum. She's an absolute nightmare."
"It's quite alright, Gemma." Erik said graciously. "I'm simply glad Christine managed to stop me from losing my temper."
"Only just." I teased, filling the kettle. Gemma smiled.
"She's so interfering. Yvonne and Charles are telling her off as we speak."
"Don't you just love family reunions?" I said dryly. Faith, Meg, Virginia and Grace came in then and Meg grinned at me.
"Yeah, it's all good. What time is it?" I looked at the clock. It was just past five. "If we aim dinner for about seven, that should give us time to get everything sorted."
"You have got to show us around the house, it's huge!" Virginia smiled. I liked her. She was just past thirty, with dark hair cut into a sleek bob and a cheerful attitude. I looked at Erik and he waved me ahead.
"Go and give them the tour. I'm going to do some music, to calm my nerves." He disappeared and I smiled.
"That's his answer to everything. Music."
Aunt Martha retired to her bedroom when I said I was giving a tour, claiming she had a headache. None of us were particularly disappointed. I showed everyone around to the Ballroom, the Dining Room, and the Library. They had already seen the Sitting Room and the Writing Room was Erik's private chamber so I didn't show them that.
We had gone back into the Entrance Hall when my second cousin Marcus paused.
"What's that music?" we fell silent and I smiled.
"What piece is it? It's beautiful!" Gemma sighed, leaning against her boyfriend, Bill.
"It's Think of Me. We wrote it together." I said. I went to the door of the Music Room and glanced in. Erik was playing calmly, his fingers flying over the keys as if in dance. He glanced up and smiled.
"No, we were just listening." I smiled, holding back the door so he could see the others. Faith dashed into the room and looked around in awe.
"It's so pretty!"
Erik looked rather surprised but didn't speak as everyone trekked in. Meg touched my arm and I looked at her. I began to worry. She had that devious look on her face.
"Christine, why don't you sing for us? Think of Me. Christine won a competition a couple of years ago with that song." She announced to everyone. I flushed and shushed her but Aunt Yvonne smiled brightly.
"Oh, you must sing!" I looked helplessly at Erik. He was smirking. I rolled my eyes.
"Fine. Erik, could you?"
"If my diva commands." He said calmly.
I took my place by the piano as everyone gathered in a semi-circle around us. Erik played the two bars of introduction and I launched into sing, fixing my eyes on Erik. My singing thing. He was reading the music but glanced at me occasionally. I smiled as I sang, feeling that pure joy that can only come with singing.
The cadenza arrived, the peculiarly flowing operatic notes. I managed to pull it off perfectly and sang the last two words in triumph. The song ended and Erik nodded to me. I smiled and looked at our audience. Meg, Darren, Nadir, Samantha and Dad all looked pleased, and the rest of my family were gawping.
"That… you… wow." My second cousin, Richard stammered. I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks.
"It's Erik's influence. He's my music teacher."
"That was amazing, Christine." Patrick said. I smiled and looked at my watch,
"Oh, I'd better start dinner. Do you want to carry on playing for a bit?" I asked Erik. He stood up.
"I'll help you with dinner."
On the morning of November 18th I woke up in the room I had slept in when I had first arrived at the Manor, it being bad luck for me and Erik to see each other before the wedding. I checked my watch. 8:30. We'd worked out a schedule, where all the men except Dad would be going into town at 9 to make sure everything was ready.
I went to the window and looked out nervously. To my delight, the snow had stopped, leaving a pretty white blanket over the ground. The sun shone brightly, as if reflecting the day that was about to come.
And then I realised what was about to happen. This was my wedding day. I was getting married. I was going to marry Erik Lavonne.
Terror, joy and excitement hit me in a blinding rush. I clutched the window sill tightly, trying to breathe calmly. There was a knock at the door and Yvonne looked in.
"Wonderful, you're up! The men have already gone. Why don't you get in the shower and we'll be ready to get you prepared when you come out?"
"Christine, are you alright?" She asked, coming into the room. I nodded, leaning heavily against the wall.
"Just… just realising that this is it. I'm getting married." Yvonne hugged me. For some reason I felt like crying. When she released me I saw she had tears in her eyes too. I took a deep breath.
"I wish… I wish Mum was here."
"She would have been so proud of you, darling. I knew Tia so well. She would have been overjoyed to see you getting married to someone who clearly loves you so much."
That did it. The tears came and Yvonne brought out the tissues. Once I'd cleaned myself up, she pushed me towards the shower.
"Go on, get in that shower! We haven't got all day, you know."
That morning was something of a blur. Hair products, make-up, pulling on my wedding dress, tears coming from everyone, talk of flowers, music, excited chatter and running around. Eleven o' clock arrived and I took one last look at myself in the mirror. Meg stood beside me, beaming.
"You look amazing." She told me.
The dress was… perfect. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to find something that gorgeous. White, of course, with one of those necklines that shows your shoulders, a corset-style top and a long, layered skirt. The bridesmaids were all dressed in dusky pink, with bouquets of the same colour. My own bouquet was dark red roses, my favourite.
"Ready?" Meg asked and I nodded, smiling.
"Get the veil on." She placed the crown of white flowers on my hair and lowered the thin veil over my face. The door opened and Samantha appeared with Jessie. They both beamed at me.
"The car is waiting. Everyone else has gone over to the church."
We went downstairs. Dad was in the Entrance Hall, checking his watch anxiously. He looked up as we entered and he smiled so widely it must have hurt his jaw. He kissed my cheek.
"You're so beautiful." He told me. I smiled back.
"Don't Dad; they just got me to stop crying!" I told him firmly. He smiled and nodded towards the door.
"The car is ready."
We got to the church at a quarter to twelve. It took us ages, having to drive very slowly since the roads were still icy. I prayed that Erik would forgive me for leaving him alone with my family. We got out in front of the church. A path had been cleared through the snow to the front door. I squeezed Dad's hand and he looked at me.
"I can't believe this is really happening."
"You think you can't?" I said quietly. He smiled.
"I know. I can't wait to tell the grandchildren I had their father arrested."
"Let's not rush things." I told him.
The priest appeared in the doorway and smiled.
"You're here. Shall we start?" we all moved towards the door. Meg, Jessie and Samantha stood in front of me and Dad took my arm. The music began and the bridesmaid's moved off. That feeling of terror and joy rushed back and I felt frozen to the spot. Dad whispered,
"I'm so proud of you. And she is too." I looked at him quickly and he nodded. I smiled, forcing myself not to cry as our turn came.
As we turned onto the aisle of the church, I felt like I was going to throw up at any moment. No matter what those fanciful, romantic stories say about Brides being filled with joy and love at the thought of walking down the aisle, I was simply terrified. And then I looked up and saw Erik. He stood at the end of the aisle, looking highly uncomfortable, Nadir and Darren stood beside him. When he saw me, his eyes widened and he looked how I felt. And then a slight smile spread across his face and I was able to return it through the thin veil as Dad walked me down the aisle.
I won't go into detail about the ceremony. It was your average, simple wedding. No special vows, we stuck with the originals. But it was enough. I didn't take my eyes off of Erik. I didn't dare, in case he suddenly vanished. That thought would have been quite amusing. All this time it was him who had been afraid that I would run. Now the tables had turned. And even if I had wanted to run, I wouldn't have been able to. Erik was gripping my hand tightly, the only display of nerves he gave.
The priest began those final words.
"In the eyes of God and in the presence of everyone here, I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."
Erik smiled and lifted my veil, kissing me intensely. I wrapped my arms around him as the church erupted into applause and cheers. When we finally broke apart, there were tears on my cheeks. But they could have been mine or Erik's, I didn't know. He was staring at me and I whispered,
"Are you OK?"
"I'm… I love you so much." He said weakly. I smiled through my tears and kissed him again. Music began to play and we turned to go down the aisle, both of us smiling. As we walked past everyone, I saw more than few people were crying, including my father.
The details of the reception were relatively unimportant. Food, dancing, gifts, speeches. The members of the Opera House had gone all out, decorating the room lavishly and the music was beautiful. Erik and I stayed together for most of the day, occasionally splitting to dance with other people, talking to friends and family.
When we found a chance to sit down I looked at Erik and said,
"OK, you have to tell me now. Where are we going on the honeymoon?" Erik smiled and said,
"How does Italy sound?" I gaped at him.
"Italy? Erik!" I hugged him so tightly he laughed and said,
"I take it that's alright?"
We left for Italy the next day, but not before I left Darren an extensive list of instructions on how to care for Ayesha. Erik ended up pulling me out to the car.
I'm sure you want to know all the details of the honeymoon. But I'm not telling. There are some things you just keep between two people, and that was one of them.
On our return, two weeks later, we got back to the Manor to find Darren, Meg, Dad, Nadir and Samantha waiting for us. After the greetings were done, souvenirs were handed out and photographs were passed around, Dad looked at Erik.
"You're going back to the Opera House, I assume?"
"Back on Monday. We're starting Il Muto."
"And what about you, Christine? Are you going too?" Samantha asked. I hesitated and then glanced at Erik.
"Not yet. I'm not of a high enough standard yet. And besides, there's still plenty for me to do here."
"Like what?" Meg asked curiously.
Erik smirked and I elbowed him.
"OK, fine. You tell them." I said. He shook his head.
"I told them we were getting married, it's your turn."
"What?" Darren demanded. I couldn't help grinning inanely.
"Well… we've discussed it and we want to start a family."
Stunned silence. And then Meg said,
"You had better name one of the kids after me."
"Why would I inflict that on a child?" I asked. Meg pulled a face and Dad said,
"Are you sure? I mean, this is a big step."
"Dad, we're married. I think we're used to big steps." I pointed out. Erik smiled and took my hand.
"We're ready for this. We discussed it extensively."
Dad looked from Erik to myself. I found myself wondering why it was that I was now a married woman of twenty-two but still felt the need to consult my father about everything. Dad smiled.
"Well, short of having Erik arrested again, there's not much I can do."
I laughed and hugged him.
"You can name one of them Charles." He suggested. I lifted an eyebrow.
"Not likely. Besides, we already picked names."
"That was fast." Nadir commented. I nodded at Erik.
"His idea. He gets to the name any boys; I get to name the girls."
"OK, what names have you got?" Samantha asked. Erik smirked.
"If it's a boy, I've chosen William."
"Aw, that's a nice name." Meg sighed. Darren nodded in agreement and Erik looked rather smug. I rolled my eyes.
"He'll be gloating for hours now."
"Well, what name did you pick?" Samantha asked.
I hesitated and looked at Dad. Neither of us said anything. But he nodded and smiled gently. I smiled back and said,
"If it's a girl, I want to call her Anita. After Mum."
There was a moment of silence as we all contemplated this. Darren said,
"What are you going to do about singing? If you're thinking of going pro with this opera thing…"
"Erik's going to train me properly, get me up to standards. If we have a baby before I start at the Opera House, I can still carry on with training and once the baby is old enough to be left with a minder, I can sing professionally."
"You've really thought this through, haven't you?" Nadir said, somewhat admiringly. I leant my head on Erik's shoulder.
Darren and Meg went out for the evening, once everyone had gone, so we could settle in and have some time alone. We sat in the kitchen, talking about nothing in particular. I got up to fetch Jaffa Cakes and when I turned, I saw Erik watching me with a slight smirk. I smiled.
"I find it hard to believe, sometimes, that you are mine." He said quietly. I laughed and put the Jaffa Cakes on the table.
"I know. We're stuck together now. No way out."
"I think we'll manage." He smirked, kissing me. After a few minutes he said, "Music Room?"
We went upstairs and I picked out some music, putting it on the stand. As I did so, I felt a rush of nostalgia, remembering the first time I had entered this room, pencilling in the final notes to Think of Me, the first singing lesson, the time when I had asked Erik why he taught me and he had held me in that way to make my voice soar. A line of song came floating back to me from the recesses of my mind.
You alone can make my songs take flight
Help me make the music of the night
I pondered over these words silently until I realised Erik had said something.
"Sorry?" I said, looking up.
"You missed the cue."
"I didn't even hear the piano." I admitted. Erik looked at me.
"Is everything alright?"
"Yes. Just… remembering." I said quietly. He watched me for a moment and then offered a slight smile, putting his hands on the piano and starting to play. I waited for the cue and began to sing.
A/N: I know I promised a long chapter, but I think this may be bordering on ridiculously long! It's nearly ten thousand words for crying out loud! And by the time I finish this note, it'll probably be even longer!
First of all, thanks to all of you. You are the most wonderful reviewers in the world. You're just so supportive, it's unbelievable. I would LOVE to name all of you individually, but I'd be here for hours. But a few people who I DO need to thank for their loyal support are:
Hikari-no-tsubasa, andersm, twistedmind, Kagome1514, animeobssessed3191, Kristi le Fantome, Kitty Felona, draegon-fire, LovingMemory, Ever Rin, et-spiritus-sancti, The Singing Fox Demon, Rabid Gerbil 666, vegman529, Le Fantom De L'Opera, La Foamy, Maska, Anrion, Lizzie Blac, A.D. Chandler, Sharpie, MadameRowena, Depply-In-Love, GoldenLyre, Silver Eyes Bright, MooMoo-Sama, erik'sangel527, Kristine Von Wharson, ahomelesspirate, Olethros, Erik'sTrueAngel, Maggie, Allison, bobmcbobbob1, Midnight Tango, Rikku Ree, light barrer, Wandering-Phantom, H Sibelius, Noni-Noelle, Neori, ILuvSnuffle805, ReverberatingSilence, MoonJava, Killer Veggies, Masqueraders, Mrs Butler, Dancer of the Opera, KieraLee and fay-sheik-kikyou-chan.
There are so many more that I want to mention, but there are just too many. This story has the most reviews I have ever received. I have read each and every one, and I appreciate them all!
And so it ends. A story I started off the top of my head, with no real idea about where it was going and is now my most reviewed story of all. And you have been the most wonderful supporters all the way through. I hope this chapter satisfied you. I didn't want to end it straight off. I think it's better to leave you with something to think about.
And, of course, a big thank you to the inspirational Norah Jones and her wonderful song, Cold, Cold Heart. It's well worth listening to. Just a subtle hint.
OK, that's enough talking from me. I'll let you all go now. There will be no sequel to this story, so please don't ask. I've left it where I think it works and I hope you think the same. I'm so sad to say goodbye to this story. I've enjoyed writing it so much. What I probably will be doing at some point is going back through each chapter and correcting the spelling mistakes. I just write so quickly I don't notice half to them LOL. I think there was a lot in this chapter that I probably should have done earlier, like introducing Christine's family. But it's up, it's posted, and I'm not going to mess around with it now.
Seriously, gonna go now. Love you all so much. And, since it's your last chance, leave a review on your way out.
Lotsa luv, huggles and Erik-shaped Cookies
(PS: Just so you know, we are now over ten thousand words just for this chapter! What a way to go out)