"He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

(Micah 6: 8)

After the Kiss

Chapter One

Ash drifted through the dreary day and settled onto the snow. Heavy, incandescent smoke wafted from empty windows as crowds gathered to stare and gossip, some to boast of having been in the building when the chandelier crashed. Three urchins with smudged faces pelted across the square, followed by a watchman shaking his fist. Two children escaped his reach, the third knocked into a figure wrapped in a cloak, and bounced back into the watchman's hands. He twisted away, shouted imprecations at the motionless figure and sped into an alley behind her.

The watchman straightened, muttered after the boy and stopped to stare at the girl. Once he opened his mouth to speak, but the misery in her eyes stopped him. He turned back to walk the perimeter of the burned-out opera house, yet couldn't help but peer over his shoulder now and then. The girl didn't move.

When a young man approached her, touched her elbow and spoke to her, the watchman felt his heartache loosen. So she wasn't alone, he thought, and went on. But he watched the pair until his beat turned him around the corner of the building.

"Are you all right?" the young man asked.

The girl nodded, took a deep breath and turned to face him. "I'm fine."

"That boy hit you so hard. I thought—"

"Boy?" She glanced around. "Oh, they were running. Looters, I suppose, hoping to find lost purses or who knows what."

"Or perhaps the ghost."

"Don't, Raoul." She put her hand out as though to stop herself from falling. He took it and steadied her, then led her away.

"Christine, I'm sorry—I've been hearing gossip. I shouldn't have let you come with me. What was I thinking? It's too much, too soon."

She resisted his tug, staring over her shoulder at the ruined opera house. As if finally receiving the answer she'd been seeking, she nodded and allowed Raoul to guide her from its pull. "He's not there, anyway."

"You're sure of that?"

She nodded, and he sighed. She felt his eyes on her but couldn't make herself meet his gaze. She'd hurt him so much already, and he'd been nothing but good to her.

She let him help her into the carriage. He released her arm as soon as she regained her balance and her soul ached for his pain, though he attempted to hide it. At the moment, she couldn't respond. Later, she thought, and leaned against the seat. Her eyes closed, her heart dwelt once again in yesterday as the carriage joggled them over the cobbled street toward Raoul's home.

No more ghost, she thought. Not in that opera house. He is but a man. And she hadn't felt his presence since she'd left him the night before.

Twice she turned to Raoul to ask his thoughts; both times, her courage failed. She needed to address his pain before her own, and she hadn't the energy to do that.

Just as the carriage pulled up the drive, a bit of sunlight swam through the gloom, settled for an instant on Raoul's head, and vanished. The driver slowed the horses and Raoul reached once again to help Christine descend. She murmured her thanks and followed him inside.

"Madame wishes to see you as soon as is convenient, sir, mademoiselle," a voice said.

"Thank you, Henri." Raoul held out his arm to Christine as soon as the manservant had taken her cloak. "Are you ready to face my mother?"

Christine nodded, once again grateful for his strength.

"Christine, my love." The Comtesse held out her arms, and Christine ran to give her a hug, feeling for the first time that day a sense of ease. "First I am told you are still sleeping, and then that you are gone out with my son. Raoul, do you not know better than to take her out there?" She jerked her head, and her expression—that "out there" was such a dangerous and frightening place—made Christine laugh.

"It's good to see some life in you," Raoul's mother went on.

"Oh, Madame, did you think—" Christine hurried to sit next to the woman.

"I think you must be in shock, my dear. My son and I had quite a talk this morning."

Christine glanced at Raoul, who gave her a wry smile before seating himself on a nearby chair. "Maman, she says she is fine."

"My son, she is a woman. You would not understand."

Raoul looked down, and Christine brushed a tear away before either of them noticed. What was worse—her longing and worry, or her guilt? At the moment, neither Raoul nor her Angel could comfort her, nor could she comfort them.

"Christine, now, we must talk." The Comtesse patted her hand. "I have a plan to get you settled—"

"Settled? No!" Did she mean to force her into marriage with Raoul, even after the events of the previous night?

"Bah! You think I am heartless? I am all concern. This is why, as much as I love to have you here, I have made plans. Madame Giry came by this morning to see you—"

"Is she all right? And her daughter?"

"Oui. Both are fine, and they wish for you to stay with them. So, you will go, non? Propriety will be seen to, and you will be nearby."

Again Christine glanced at Raoul, but he'd turned away, resting his forehead on a supporting hand. He must want her gone, despite his care for her comfort that day. Her presence must bring him so much pain. "Yes, then. I will go."

The Comtesse nodded, her eyes shrewd. "This is well. And now, I must consult with my cook. Supper is in half an hour, I believe. You two—" she looked at Raoul, her expression sharp, "—have much to discuss."

She floated out, her chin held high, and Christine heard her faint cluck as she passed her son. He turned his head to watch her leave without seeming to move.

"Raoul," Christine began.

"I know, you're sorry. You never meant—"

"I didn't! You must know that, Raoul, I would never hurt you—I would not choose to. You have been all that is good and I—I have used you badly, but not with intent."

"Of course not."

"Don't be like this, Raoul. I am sorry; I did not mean to hurt you. Those are not empty words."

He stood to walk to the windows behind her. She twisted to watch him. "I know, Christine, and I am the one who must apologize. We are both at fault."

"No, not you—"

He laughed, the sound sour. "What, are we to argue over who is not at fault? My dear, I knew you loved him, long before I ever knew his reach. I thought I could woo you away."

Christine felt her spirit sag under the weight of his words. "But you're an honorable man."

"A man who jeopardized the woman he loves in order to win a foolish game."

"It wasn't a game."

"No." He turned back and once again sunlight haloed his hair before giving in to the smothering clouds. "You're right. The man—it was no game to save him. It is only the play for your heart that I treated as a game—something I could win."

"You might have—"

"Christine. Don't patronize me." He watched her for a moment before moving to sit across from her. "Maman is right. It's best you are not here, but I don't say this out of consideration for my own heart. Gossip will have you sleeping your way to whatever it is you wish to achieve if you stay. Madame Giry's is the best place."

"How will you—"

"And he'll know to find you there."

Startled, Christine stood. "Raoul—"

"What do you want me to say, Christine? That I don't love you? That I do not die inside each time I think of the way you touched him? We both love; you, at least, have hope."

He strode out of the room. Christine spent a moment trying to control the tears before she went to find his mother.

After arranging to move to the Giry household that evening, Christine gathered into a small bag her few things from the room where she'd slept that morning. From the windows she saw the sun break through for the third time. She leaned toward the pane and watched gold tint the clouds.

She would be months sorting her thoughts; years sorting her feelings; forever, perhaps, before she could forgive herself the hurt she'd inflicted on Raoul. But as she leaned against the casement, her cheek inches from the glass but still feeling its cold, peace filled her.

Peace—from where? From whom? It spread through her like the fire-glow of the sunset that filled the room. The flames in the grate paled as the true light swept over it and swallowed it. She hadn't cried for him all day, hadn't been able to. Now, tears poured down her face. And still she smiled. Peace, she thought. And, Angel.

He reached the end of the tunnel before his emotions slowed enough to allow him rest. He leaned against the rancid wall of the tunnel, staring out at the dawn breaking over the city. Even this far from the opera house he smelled the smoke and shuddered.

Dear God, what have I done?

The faint light on the horizon offered no answer. Sickness roiled in his stomach and he struggled to contain it, tasting remorse as bitter as anything Judas ever felt. He swallowed it and set his jaw. He would not give in, not again, not ever again—

Dear God—

The bile lost much of its acid and he could breathe once again. He sighed, nodding. He had forgotten, so soon, that he need not fight this on his own.

The panic abated enough that he pushed away from the wall and moved closer to the tunnel entrance. Ash weighed the mist with its gray filth. Beyond that, tenements crowded the light so that only a faint stirring of mist announced the dawn.

He could not crouch here in the tunnel forever. He must venture into the world. Panic washed over him. He countered each argument as best he could.

I won't be arrested. No one saw me.

I can move among men without fear of reprisal.

Only when the morning light dimmed did he realize he'd covered half his face with his left hand. Without his mask, he felt exposed, as though mere air would rend the tender flesh. Swallowing again, he forced his arm to his side and stepped into the open.

Every nerve in his back braced for a blow. He'd not felt this way since Cecile led him to the window leading to the opera house chapel.

I am a man, now. No one dares beat me.

He walked on, fighting the convulsions that threatened to trip him. He would not cower here; he would not play the beast to any man. He would not—

He stopped. A child, perhaps three years of age, toddled from a doorway to stare at him. Without volition he covered his face once again. The child watched him walk past and, just as he reached the corner, broke into a smile.

A child smiled . . .

He attempted a smile in return and the babe gurgled in delight, then disappeared into the doorway.

His heart might burst with the wonder of it, and the wonder kept him walking though the morning, past the scent of patisseries opening for the day's business, avoiding the merchants and shop girls and dock men hurrying to work. Not one gave him a second glance. All these years he'd believed his face to be the curse, and now, it had earned him a smile, nothing more.

As he walked the streets of Paris he clung to Raoul's promise: say the word and I will follow you. Raoul had betrayed him, tricked him, attempted to kill him, and yet, when he made his promise he'd mean it.

Several times a man in the crowd seemed to be about to speak to him, to threaten him he was certain. He made sure to drop his hand, though it became harder each time, and squared his shoulders. He would not cower. And each time, the man would scurry away, perhaps as frightened by his deformity as he.

The mist burned off, the streets grew wider, and soon he found himself standing before a manor house. Above the gates he read, de Chagny. The gate stood open by an inch, and he took that to be Raoul's assurance that he would keep his promise.

He needed three deep breaths this time to push through the gate, and enter.