Chapter 38

That night after the performance of Le Baudelaire and the many frantic costume changes and emergency alterations of garments that ripped due to a squabble that had broken out amongst Jammes, Lisette and some other girls over a handsome man in the audience that apparently had been "visiting" all of them without their knowledge, I was exceedingly tired.

Once I was back in my little room, I ordered a bath and sunk into it with relief, gasping at the heat of the water until my skin adjusted to the temperature. I sighed in only the contentment that a bath could bring a harried woman, flitting my fingers through the foam of the new berry vanilla bubble bath oil that Christine de Chagny had given to me tonight as a "thank you" for taking several of her jackets and gowns with the promise to return them to her with some stitching and applique to liven them up. The smell was wonderful, sweet and fruity, but with my favorite scent of vanilla in the background. The bubbles were already softening my skin, leaving it silky, giving evidence to the fact that the gift had been an expensive one. I would have to make sure her garments were carefully and beautifully done.

The Chagnys, especially Christine, had been distraught over the death of Madame Lefevre. Christine had been very fond of the older woman, who had been so patient with her the night of her first performance in Hannibal, making sure the full white gown had fit her perfectly. I'd informed them of the funeral tommorow in the small chapel of the cemetery at Perros Guirec. They'd assured me that they would be in attendance.

I sat up in the bathtub, reaching for a new book that Meg had loaned me, a gothic romance. Besides my book sat my tissue wrapped package of peppermint candy sticks that I'd bought from a small girl backstage named Claire who sold sweets and mints to the cast and staff during performances. I removed one stick from the little parcel and sunk deep into my bath, twirling the candy in my mouth and opening the book to the first chapter.

Soon I was lost in the story of the dark, brooding hero and the delicate, beautiful heroine, defying her lord's desires and needs, willfully disobeying him. The novel was quite graphic to say the least and I read opened mouth, my candy held in my other hand above the water, hardly believing that it was possible for a man and woman to...fornicate in such a position. I looked down at my body, wondering if my own unflexible limbs could ever form such shapes. I sighed at the passion of the character's lovemaking, wishing that I could forget my past and my bastard of a husband's twisting of our marriage bed, and be free enough to allow a man to take me any way he wished. As I read, I couldn't help but envision Erik as the hero and myself as the heroine, our bodies entwined, moving together frantically...

I finally had to stop reading and fanned myself with the book, my face flushed and my heart pounding away. The water was beginning to cool as it was, and my stick of hard candy was almost gone. I still needed to wash my hair. I could always read later.

I set the book down by the side of the tub and submerged my head, and lathered my hands up. I washed my hair quickly, shivering as the water cooled with each passing moment, then submerged my head once more and worked the suds out until the curls no longer felt soapy.

I stood, my teeth chattering and me gasping as the rapidly lowering temperature of the room struck my skin. I dashed to my thick, cotton robe and dove under the covers of my bed, soaking my pillow completely with my sopping wet hair. With a curse, I reached for a linen towel that the running boys had brought and wrapped my head in it then snuggled back under the covers, willing my chills to stop.

Soon, the heat from my body warmed the cocoon of blankets and I stopped shivering. I sighed comfortably and threw the covers off of me and stood to retrieve my book and my sketchpad that dashing into the bed so quickly had caused to fall on the floor. I set both upon my dresser for easy access, then picked up my little parcel of candy and tucked it in a drawer. I went back to my bed and laid down once more, bringing the romance with me to read before I went to sleep.

As I was opening my page to my spot, a knock came at the mirror.

I stared at the mirror, hardly believing that he would knock, rather than just simply stroll into the room with his usual elegant negligence. Perhaps he could become a gentleman afterall...

"Genevieve! May I come in or just continue standing here like a dolt!"

And then again, maybe not...

"Come in," I called, rolling my eyes and going back to my book. At least he'd waited until after I'd gotten out of the tub and dressed.

The mirror slid open and he stepped in, stripped down to his trousers and shirtsleeves. I managed not to stare at the V of exposed throat and chest, keeping my eyes, for the most part, on my page.

He came to me and sat on the edge of the bed by my bent knees, then turned and leaned against the bed's footboard, propping one leg beside my own.

"How goes the designs for Aida?" he asked, his long, ungloved fingers toying with the tassels of the velvet throw he had brought to my room one night.

I lowered my book and leaned over, grasping my sketchbook and handing it to him. As he took it, his fingers brushed mine and the shock went straight to my bones. I raised my book quickly to hide my blush. All these weeks of acquaintance with him and his touch never failed to send chills through me that had nothing to do with being cold.

He flipped through the pages of the Le Baudelaire sketches, until he came to the first Aida sketch, Princess Amneris' gown. He studied it, making a sound of approval in the back of his throat, then turned the page. He had no complaints, except to point out to me that Erique Louroux would look like a bloated sea creature in the blue tunic under his breastplate. I snorted with laughter and asked if I should use white as the shade instead of the deep sapphire.

"He'll look like a massive pastry, but I do suppose that's more appetizing than a beached whale," he commented dryly, turning the page. I nearly choked laughing at his audacity and had to wipe away tears. He smirked at me, his sensual lips turning up at one corner. I lowered my eyes before my thoughts turned to an inappropriate vein. Perhaps I won't borrow Meg's kind of novels again.

He turned another page and let out a massive sigh. I looked up at him curiously, my brow furrowed. Had one of my designs displeased him? It shouldn't have mattered, but his opinion was important to me for some reason.

He looked over at me and shook his head in the negative. "No, my dear, your designs are very well executed. I am just simple annoyed with the choice of our Aida. La Carlotta leaves much to be desired as a reigning soprano. Her voice is a sharp instrument upon the chalkboard of my soul, I'm afraid. The woman leaves me cold." He tossed the sketchbook beside of him and crossed his arms.

I bit my lip behind my book. I had wanted to bring up the subject of Christine with him for days now, but through circumstances and our consistiently turmoiled relationship, it had been impossible. But now he sat before me, disgusted with the current diva who had resumed her place after Christine had married the Vicomte de Chagny. I needed to know how he felt about her. Was he still in love with her? Did he still hold a hope inside of him that she would return?

It was vital for me to know. If one morning I woke and knew without a shadow of a doubt that I could give not only my heart to him but also trust him and myself enough to make love and start a possible life with him, I would need to know that he would be mine and mine alone, with no ghosts of the past clinging to us.

I sat down my book upon the nightstand and sat up, pulling my knees under my chin and wrapping my arms about them.

"Erik?" I asked quietly.

"Yes?"

"Christine had a beautiful voice, didn't she?" I didn't look at him, but studied my fingernails, idly picking at them.

He was silent for what seemed an eternity before he spoke.

"Her voice could make the angels weep." The depth of emotion in his tone had me looking up at him. He was staring sightlessly at the mirror, his masked profile facing me.

"You taught her, didn't you? You were her voice teacher?"

"Yes, of a sort. I suppose you've heard about the 'Angel of Music'?" He turned toward me, his face hardening.

I nodded. Meg Giry had told me everything that I could ever possibly want to know about the Phantom of the Opera and his many forms, including Christine's Angel and the Opera Ghost. What Meg didn't inform me of, the twins certainly did, those two girls' penchant for gossip taken into consideration.

"I became her Angel of Music when she was but seven years old. I can assure you my intent was purely to bring a smile to her sad little face. She'd just lost her father and she seemed such a lost, lonely child. When I'd hear her cry at night about wanting an Angel of Music, it seemed that I could at last be something to someone. She'd light a candle everyday in the chapel for her dead father and that's where I began to sing to her." He stood and walked to the mirror, his voice distant as if reliving the past. "I began to teach her in the chapel or in the dormitories when no one was about. Those lessons gave us both so much joy. I was her Angel and she was mine. A breath of innocence in my dark world."

I shifted in the bed so that I could look at him as he turned and leaned against the mirror's surface. There was a slight smile on his face, remembering those times, teaching a little child. She had probably been his only joy. When had she turned into his own private agony?

"When did you...I mean...when did..?"

"When did I fall in love with her?" He leveled his gaze on me. I blushed and nodded.

He sighed and straightened and came back over to the bed, lowering himself to the floor beside of me so that I could see his masked profile, his eyes meeting mine in the mirror as he sat against the frame.

"She was taking on more of a role in the corps de ballet. Madame Giry had turned her from a rather gawky child into a graceful young woman, her body becoming slender and firm and supple with practice. One day I sat in Box Five, against the wall, hidden from the sight of those on stage. They were rehearsing a simple ballet the Opera was to perform in the spring. I was watching the progress of the dancing, and Christine whirled onto the stage, her arms, so long and graceful held out in front of her, her dark curls flying, her shapely legs lifting and spinning her about the stage, and I looked at her and I wanted her. Wanted her with a ferocity that left me shaking. All the years that I'd lived in my home beneath the opera, my adolescence, my awkward puberty, my years as a young, healthy man, and into my late thirties, I had dealt with physical desire on occassion, but I'd always been able to take care of it. But once my eyes were opened and I really looked at her, I could not make it go away. She was eighteen, I was thirty-eight, old enough to be her father. My lust for her disgusted me, but I could not stop looking at her. When I taught her through the mirror and in the chapel, I couldn't keep my eyes off her. Desire turned to obsession. And somehow that turned to love. I wanted her in every way possible. Her body, of course, but her mind, her soul, her heart. When that boy came to her the night of her first performance, it pushed me over the edge. I could no longer be her Angel of Music. I wanted to be a man to her. And you know the rest..." He lifted a dejected hand and smoothed his hair. "I couldn't keep her with me. And she loved that fop. That night, when Don Juan Triumphant was performed, I made her admit her desire for me, tormenting her on stage, until she surrendered. But when I professed my love to her, she ripped my mask off."

He went silent, his breathing suddenly harsh, his eyes closed on his pain. I scooted close to him on the bed and hesitantly touched his shoulder, the muscles hard with tension. He reached up and clutched my hand fiercely.

"All I could hear were the screams of the audience and the people on stage. Their mouths open in horror, like those who used to gather around my cage at the gypsy fair when I was forced on exhibition. Some screamed, some laughed..." his voice broke painfully.

I threw back the covers and slipped to the floor beside of him, winding my arms about his waist and removing his mask to gently kiss his tears and the eyelid of his sunken eyes. He swallowed hard and leaned into my embrace, his temple against mine.

"I snapped. All I could see was their faces and Christine's looking guilty. I released the chandelier, not even caring if I killed everyone in the auditorium. I took Christine down to my home, made her put on a wedding dress. When Raoul came to save her I nearly killed him, forcing her to choose between becoming mine or losing her fiancee. She chose me. She kissed me. My first kiss... and I couldn't do it. I couldn't bear the thought of waking up every morning and seeing her horrified eyes next to me in the bed, couldn't stomach the thought of forcing her. I let her and the boy go." He let out a shuddering breath, running a hand through his hair.

Beside him, my chin on his shoulder, I was silent, stroking his hand slowly, tracing the veins on the back of his hand. My eyes were damp and burning. I'd never known, never imagined one man carrying so much sorrow and guilt upon him. He was a murderer, an extortionist, a thief, and a criminal with a bounty hanging over his head, but I couldn't, no matter what, no matter how hard I tried, lay the blame completely upon him. He had been treated horrendously by the world and finally when his heart had set upon someone who he believed could share his empty life, she belonged to another. I didn't blame Christine; I could not. We could not choose who we fell in love with. Fate had not given us that power. And I had seen the way the two young lovers looked at one another. There was no doubt that they shared a fierce love and passion. My own heart had sets its cap at this broken man, who if I tried to save from his loneliness, might not ever return my love.

My next question was a difficult one to ask, but I had to know. I simply couldn't sit in ignorance any longer.

"Do you love her still?" I whispered.

He stared at his unmasked reflection in the mirror, almost as if he was forcing himself to, his face hard and determined. He was silent and still.

I suddenly felt ashamed for asking him, and I drew away from him, making to stand up, but he reached for me without looking and pulled me back to his side, one arm going about my waist, until I laid my head on his chest. He pulled the linen towel off my head and worked his fingers through my damp hair as he continued to stare at his face in the mirrror.

"I still love her. I always will. I can never forget her. But...what I feel for her is different now. I do not ever want to see her in pain and I'll kill the boy if he ever hurts her, but I do not want her any longer. She's happy. And I know that if I am...patient...perhaps I can find my own happiness as well...with a woman who has seen my face," he turned to me at last, pushing my wet hair behind my ear, "and who loves me regardless."

I stared up at him, my heart beating slow in my ears. He had heard.