Holy crap; is that an update? I mean, it's only taken me 10 months! I gotta say this chapter has been through three complete overhauls and I'm still a bit iffy.
For all the people who reviewed and favourited this story, thanks a bunch guys.
Hope it was worth the wait. :)
"You look like you ran over a puppy. What's the matter?"
Christine hadn't even tried to school her expression into something happier as she heard Meg come in through the door. All she had been doing all afternoon was replying the scene over and over her head, wondering where it had all gone spectacularly wrong and whether she could've done something to prevent it.
"Yeah, and the fat kid next door is just big-boned. What's the problem?"
"Christine, you're lying on the couch at – " there was a brief pause as she looked at the watch on her hand, " – 4.30pm in the afternoon with an expression that'd be more appropriate while watching a Shakespearean tragedy. What. Is. Wrong?"
She lifted herself up on her arms to look pathetically at her friend. "You know those flowers from Destler?"
"Yes," her friend said slowly, lowering herself onto the other couch.
"So maybe they weren't just flowers."
There was a muffled sound from across the room that sounded like an exasperated sigh. "You don't say?"
"Hey, do you want to hear what happened or not?"
"Just tell me!"
"I went in to finish off the signs today," she said, flopping back onto the couch, "and as I was leaving Destler kissed me."
Christine couldn't say that Meg's initial reaction of bursting into laughter was the one she was after.
"Meg! This is a problem! Richard was convinced that Destler liked me and now he's been proven right, how the hell am I going to explain this?"
"You're blowing this way out of proportion, Christine, as you always do. Remember Year Seven when we played Spin the Bottle. You had to give Thomas Fletcher a peck on the cheek and you felt guilty for the entire week because you thought you'd made him cheat on Rebecca Hardy?"
"You know, if you're just going to make me feel worse about my predicament then you can just bugger off," Christine replied but the annoyed tone was ruined by a smile.
"I'm just saying it's not the end of the world. Sure, he kissed you – but did you ask for it? Did you want it? Did you stay there and kiss him some more?"
"Of course I didn't!"
"Then explain it to Richard and he'll understand. And don't do that whole 'let's just see how it goes' thing, okay? You need to explain it to him, it's important."
Although she knew her friend was right, she still didn't want to make the call.
"Was he any good?" Meg's voice called from her room as she started pressing the buttons. "Bet he was!"
"Oh, shut up!"
They met half-way, a small cafe just out of the city called 'Oma's Kitchen'.
Their greeting was awkward, she refused to meet his eyes and he was unsure of whether to hug or kiss her. They sat down in silence, read their menus in silence and ordered as soon as the waitress came around.
Christine was afraid their whole meeting would consist of silence until Richard got up his courage.
"Look," he started off, "I've thought a lot about it and yes, I think you might've been right about my overreaction. I still think that the flowers mean something more than an apology but it was wrong of me to think that you thought otherwise – "
" – you were right," she blurted out, unwilling to let him apologise when he'd been right all along, "about Destler and the flowers, I think you were right."
Richard raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"
"He kissed me," she said miserably, looking down at the table, "at our last meeting."
"And it's not like I asked for it," she continued on, gazing back up at him "and I got out of there as soon as it happened but you were right, and now ... "
To her amazement, the only expression that spread across his face was a sort of pitying amusement. "What?"
"I'm laughing at you," he quickly amended, "but you just look so miserable about the whole situation. At first I found it hard to believe that you could honestly think flowers were just flowers but your expression is so woeful I know I was wrong."
"They were just flowers," she said defensively.
"I'm sorry, Christine," he said gently, stalling the conversation as the waitress brought them both plates of pasta, "I should have known your intentions were good, you were only trying to be nice to the man."
"I wasn't trying to be nice," she tried to explain, "it wasn't like that. I just thought, I don't know, that perhaps we'd worked up a sort of professional relationship and that maybe he'd come to respect me. It's difficult working in a profession when everyone thinks you're still a kid."
Richard smiled over his food. "You're far from a kid, Christine. And maybe I gotta admire Destler for realising that you're the sort of woman a guy wants in his life. But you're my girlfriend, not his."
She grinned at him.
"You did it!" the other woman crowed.
Christine raised her eyebrows, leaning back on her chair to view her boss. "Anything in particular? Or should I just assume you're pleased about what a wonderful employee I am?"
Three days after her meeting with Richard she was back at work, trying to get back into a regular routine.
"We got a bonus off Destler," she explained.
Luckily enough the woman was too pleased to take in her concerned expression. She hadn't heard from Destler since the kiss and she'd asked her boss to send through the final invoice, making up some idiotic explanation that Destler would be less inclined to argue about the final tally if it came from someone higher up on the food chain. She'd been expecting some sort of fight over the bill, some petty complaint in order to get it lowered. She certainly hadn't been expecting a bonus.
"A bonus?" she repeated.
Her boss grinned. "He called this morning to thank us personally. Said that you'd earned it. How does that make you feel? Not only did you survive a complete job with Erik Destler but you managed to get more money out of him!"
Her enthusiasm was weak but her boss made up for it.
A week later found another visitor at the Giry/Day apartment.
She certainly wasn't unwelcome and Christine had always found Anne's ability to pop up in their lives after an absence quite refreshing. She and Meg had been out of Anne's hair for some time now but Christine couldn't deny it was nice having a 'Mum' around the place. It made her feel loved.
"So you've finished with your most recent client, then?" Anne started the conversation as they sat down for dinner. "Complete and done?"
"Meg told you about Destler," she said flatly, shooting her room-mate a stare. Oddly enough Meg was too busy trying to stuff homemade lasagne into her mouth to return the look.
Anne merely shrugged, not concerned by the annoyed look. "She may have mentioned it, yes."
"I appreciate the concern but I am an adult. My problems are mine to deal with."
Her expression must have conveyed some sort of point because the other woman. "I hear you, Christine. Shall we talk about something else then, perhaps? Maybe Meg can take a break from shovelling to offer up some sort of conversation?"
As the meal ended, Christine followed Anne into the kitchen, carrying the dirty plates. Although she knew she should just let the topic die, she couldn't quite help herself – she remembered what Anne had said when she first found out that her surrogate daughter was working for Erik Destler.
"You said Destler was dangerous," she said pinning the other woman with a stare, "you said I should get through the job as quickly as possible. What did you mean by that?"
"Just precisely what I said. He's not a man to be trifled with. I'm glad your job with him is done."
"You're not telling me something," she said flatly, dumping the plates into the sink, "you wouldn't specifically warn me off working for the man if you didn't have a reason."
Anne merely shrugged. "I only meant what I said, Christine."
"Why won't you tell me?"
"Why does it matter so much to you?" the older woman returned. "You're job is done with him, you'll probably never see him again."
And Anne was more than right – she and Destler certainly didn't run around in the same social circles even if she did want to see him again. She couldn't quite explain why the information was so important to her but she knew that Anne was holding something back.
"Right, Christine?" Anne prompted, and when she met the other woman's eyes she was confused to find concern there. "You're not going to see him again?"
"Of course not," she said quietly, "why would I?"
"Mr Destler I do apologise but the woman just barged in and she simply wouldn't leave your office!"
Erik stood at the doorway, gazing impassively at one Anne Giry. "It is of no consequence, Emily. You may leave us."
The terrified secretary left immediately and he shut the door behind him as he walked through to his desk. "Anne Giry. I'd like to say I'm surprised but I'm not. To what to I owe this pleasure?"
"Oh, I think you know," the woman replied, a frown set in her features.
Erik shook his head, taking a seat as he surveyed the irate woman. "And what particularly about Miss Day would you care to chat about?"
"I'm going to say this as a friend – or as the friend I used to be – and I'm only going to say it once. Stay away from her."
"As my friend?" he scoffed. "You're threatening me?"
"I'm giving you a warning, Erik. I suggest you heed it."
He lunged out of his chair, looming over the desk to glare at her. "You don't give me warnings anymore, Anne. You don't have that right!"
"I have every right!" the woman hissed, glaring back.
"Christine Day is an adult, perfectly capable of fighting her own battles. She's not even your child, Anne."
"I consider her to be as much," the woman answered sharply, "and she is bright and happy; what is it exactly that you think you can offer her, Erik? And don't you dare turn this back to the mask. If anyone was going to see through that, it would be Christine."
He snarled, turning away from her and his desk to the window. "It is always about the mask with you, Anne."
"You've made it about the mask. It's consumed you whole and you're more dangerous for it. Do you think she deserves someone like you?"
"And who does she deserve?" he retorted, distaste colouring his tone. "Someone like Richard?"
"Richard isn't likely to lash out because she says the wrong thing or because he's in a bad mood. Richard isn't likely to sink into himself for weeks at a time and refuse to communicate with anyone. Richard isn't likely – "
" – to make her happy," he finished, "you honestly think she deserves someone as boring as him? You think a woman with a mind like that deserves a man like Richard Channel?"
"She deserves to be happy," Anne answered quietly, "and you know as well as I do that's not something you can offer. Don't drag her down into the darkness with you, Erik. If you do have feelings for her, you'll let her go."
"Get the hell out of my office!"
She exited the room at his command, looking back only once to see the man at the window, shoulders hunched as he gazed out at the world.
And that, as they say, would have been that. The end of the story. But there'd been one mitigating factor.
Fate, if you will.
"A dinner?" Christine read aloud from the piece of cardboard in her hand. "What for?"
She was firmly entrenched on Richard's couch, a bottle of cider on the table beside and she was about as relaxed as someone ought to be on a Friday night. Although she'd visited his place before, she'd never stayed the night and he'd never cooked for her. The prospect of not having to cook for herself more than outweighed her desire to sleep in her own bed, so she'd readily agreed.
"It's a law firm; they just want a reason to get drunk so they call it a dinner instead."
She looked at the invitation doubtfully. "I'm all for getting drunk on someone else's money but why do you want me to go? Isn't it just for your lawyer buddies?"
Richard laughed and the sound echoed from the kitchen. He didn't have an open plan living and dining room as she and Meg did and his kitchen didn't have a bar table but the two rooms were close by and it was still possible to have a conversation. "Well those buddies are bringing their partners. I just figured it'd be nice to bring you as well."
Even as oblivious as she could be, Christine knew the nonchalance in his tone was fake – he clearly wanted her to come but was unwilling to show just how much. "Well, I guess it could be all right," she started off, even though deep down she had no real desire to attend, "and it'd be nice to meet more of the people you work with."
He appeared at the door-way, a hopeful expression on his face. "And the free alcohol," he piped up, "don't forget that."
In the face of such enthusiasm she couldn't bring herself to say no. "Why not?"
"Excellent!" he beamed, retreating back into the kitchen. "Which is why I know you'll still be willing to come when I tell you who else is coming along."
Christine frowned, stepping up from the couch and swiping her drink as she wandered into the kitchen. "Who else do I know that would be coming?"
He turned from the stove and she could tell from his expression it wasn't someone particularly nice. "Well, to be honest I'm not entirely sure whether they will come along but usually the bigger clients get invited to these shin-digs."
"What client of yours would I – oh," she trailed off, realisation hitting her. "Destler."
"Yep," he nodded, "look, I know it's awkward with the kiss and everything but you haven't heard from him in two weeks and he's notorious for not showing up to these sort of things – "
She tuned him out slightly, as she tried to work out why she was feeling so hesitant about going. Because Richard was right – it had been two weeks and she hadn't heard a single thing from him, save the telephone call to her boss. Surely if he was thinking of pursuing the issue, he would've called? He would have contacted her in some way?
And then she mentally reprimanded herself. Why the hell would you want him to contact you anyway!
" – and I can tell you're not listening to me because you've got the frown dimples."
She quickly glanced back up at him. "I do not have frown dimples!"
Richard grinned, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead. "You do, sweetheart. They're not as cute as you're 'beaming grin' dimples but they're pretty cute all the same."
She tried to look disgruntled but it was hard with him smiling at her. "Oh, whatever."
"Honestly, if you don't want to come I'll understand," he said seriously.
She shook her head. "No, I'll come. Like you said, Destler hardly ever comes along to these things anyway."
To be fair, the location was pretty fantastic.
A recently done-up surf club on the edge of the beach it apparently sported some pretty magnificent views – it wasn't a place she would regularly attend (and not only because her wallet couldn't afford it) but she felt even if the night was a bust, it was worth it to see the place. The only bad thing seemed to be the minimal parking and Richard huffed and groaned as he eventually parked his car on the street.
"Maybe you should get yourself a chauffeur?" she offered as she shut the door and readjusted her cardigan.
"And increase the opportunities for me to drink myself to death?" he enquired, pressing the lock on his key and dropping it into his pocket. "No thanks."
She laughed as her took her hand, leading her back towards the club and down the car-park driveway to the entrance.
The reception area was formal and a man in a suit greeted them and asked for their names, checking them off before ushering them through a double set of doors. Entering through to the entertaining area, she was pretty thrown back. An assortment of rounded tables filled the first half of the open area with a dance floor taking up the second half. A bar was situated along most of the right hand wall.
But the most spectacular thing of the room was the floor to roof glass windows, displaying the ocean on a relatively calm night. With just enough moonlight to illuminate the slight waves, it was a magnificence view.
"Geeze," she said eventually, trying to stop herself from gaping, "it's fantastic."
"I know," Richard said warmly, placing his arm around her and giving her a smile.
Although her evening was precisely fun-filled (Richard seemed hell bent on introducing her to everyone he knew and the names and faces had started rolling into one great mass) she was still enjoying herself. It was a classy venue filled with some pretty high-rolling entities and although she could have felt entirely out of place, she rather felt a bit more adult than she ever had before.
As if maybe she could fit in with these people; talk about world matters and not feel like a child. Although she knew that most people whose parents died young were forced to grow up fast, she'd never felt like that had happened to her. In fact, it had always been the opposite. There were still people back at the office who insisted on calling her 'kid'.
"You've been coming along in strides," a booming voice brought her back to the conversation at hand, "best thing we did was hire you, Richard. You and I both know that Destler can be a bit of a handful but you've dealt with each situation that has come up."
It was Richard's boss, George. Christine rather thought the name didn't do the man justice, if that were at all possible. At well over 6 feet the man towered over most people and he was built like a tank. He wasn't the sort of bloke she figured for a lawyer but listening to him speak she'd realised he wasn't a man to be trifled with.
"You've got yourself a great man there, Christine," he continued, and she smiled as Richard turned a bright shade of red, "I wouldn't let him go."
"I'll keep that in mind."
It was about that time that something came along to put a dint in the evening – Destler made his appearance even though he was well over an hour late. And she was soon to lean that if she had been worried about the situation being awkward in any way, shape or form, she was completely wrong.
They were forced to greet him, being in the same circle as Richard's boss at the time.
"Mr Destler," George said, "you made it!"
Christine couldn't say that the man in question looked thrilled to be there and she wondered why he had bothered to turn up if he was hell bent on being displeased with everyone there. As introductions were made her anxiousness increased until they reached she and Richard.
"And of course you know Richard and this would be his lovely partner, Christine."
"Indeed," the man said shortly, giving them each less than impressed looks, "we've already been introduced. Miss Day used to work for me."
And that was it. Although she certainly hadn't been expecting a bear hug, she was certainly taken back by his cold tone and complete dismissal as the man actively turned on them to start a conversation with George.
As the night progressed, it became entirely evident that Destler was treating her like everyone else: rude and exceedingly arrogant. Although the room sported closed to a hundred people, they still crossed paths every now and then and every meeting was much the same. The conversation was short and stilted and he offended everyone in every possible way – especially her and Richard.
Part of her was outraged – furious even. She'd spent the better part of four months dealing with the man, handling his bullshit and this was how he was acting? Simply because she'd run out on him after he'd inappropriately jumped her in his office? Another part of her knew she was being ridiculous. After all, she'd said to Richard she wanted nothing more to do with him and here he was giving her the best excuse to do so.
The topping on her Destler filled night came three hours after the party had started, where the man in question managed to corner her after she'd come out of the ladies room.
"What is it that you want, Mr Destler?" she asked coolly when he stepped to her side as she tried to make her way to the bar.
"Who says I want something?" he replied, and a frown crossed her face.
"You've been an asshole all evening," she answered bluntly, "if you've come over here solely to annoy me than congratulations, you've succeeded. You can go away now."
"Are you worried I might ruin your perfect evening?"
Your mere presence has ruined my evening, she thought uncharitably but decided against saying it. "I am trying to enjoy a good night," she conceded, "you're not making it easy for me."
"You want to fit in with these people, don't you?" he sneered as she was eventually forced to stop and deal with him. "You want to be filled with a false sense of satisfaction and security that only comes from people who are too rich."
"That's a bit ridiculous coming from a man as rich as yourself," she retorted quickly, "besides, these people are Richard's co-workers, his boss and his clients. What do you think I should, Erik? Turn up the music and start dancing on the tables?"
"I think you want a boring, perfect little life. Marry a lawyer, be his wife in a little house with 2.5 adorable kids. Domesticated."
She was speechless; where the hell had that come from? It wasn't remotely appropriate to speculate on her life like that! Who, or even whether, she married was completely her own business and her life was her own!
"You're going to follow this path because it's safer," he said. "And Richard can give you this safe little life. So you can hide away from anything remotely dangerous."
She opened her mouth to tell him where to shove it but they were interrupted by a server carrying drinks. Before she knew it, he had disappeared out the door.
It took her ten seconds before she made up her mind, knowing it was only the alcohol that was making her brave enough to chase him out the door and into the car-park.
"You tell me I'm hiding?" she spilled out, slightly out of breath. She'd caught him just before he'd gotten in his car, a fair way up from the entrance. If she hadn't been so furious at the man, she would've marvelled at her ability to run so far in such inappropriate shoes. "That's more than a little hypocritical coming from someone who wears a mask."
Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it was the wrong thing to say. But she held herself together because hell, she was slightly tipsy and yeah, she was more than a little annoyed at him (and okay; mostly because she knew after this night she'd never have to deal with him again and there was something comforting about being able to let out the pent-up rage at the infuriating man in front of her).
"No, I'm pretty sure you heard me," she replied in a tone that conveyed more confidence than she perhaps felt.
The car door slammed shut and he turned slowly to face her. The lighting wasn't fantastic, there was a street light about three car spots up on the left, but the expression on his face was pretty clear regardless. "You think this is by choice?"
"Of course it's by choice," she retorted, "you wear a mask because you want to hide. How is that any different to what you said to me before?"
"I'm not sure, Christine," the reply came but the sarcasm dripped from his words, "maybe because you're not actually disfigured?"
"No, I don't believe that," she said simply, outright refusing to let him get the best of her, "you put on a mask because you want to hide some aspect of your person from the world. You don't get a free pass simply because you're disfigured, Erik. The world doesn't work like that."
"Oh, you're absolutely right, Christine. Because the world would definitely give me a break if I took off my mask and dealt with my problems head on, wouldn't it? People would love me so much more if they knew what I really looked like, wouldn't they?"
"Of course they wouldn't, you patronising son of a bitch," she snarled, "but your consistently disgusting attitude towards life and people in general is far more disabling than your disfigurement, trust me."
In the end, she isn't quite sure what made her do it. It certainly wasn't solely the alcohol but combined with her anger it was enough for her to contemplate it. In one swift movement she was in front of him and before she could comprehend that she was actually doing it, she had ripped off his mask.
"Are you happy now?" he hissed, after the moment of shock had passed. "Is this what you wanted to see?"
She wasn't going to lie; some part of her was physically repulsed by the sight in front of her. The shadowy light didn't help; making the twisted and grotesque flesh seem like it was somehow crawling. It spread up and down the left side of his face, red and puckering down to his chin and up almost to his hairline. The eye itself seemed sunken into his face and she thought it a marvel that he hadn't lost his sight.
"Come, look closer at the gargoyle."
"Stop it," she whispered, her shocked expression turning into a frown, "you're being crude because you want me to be disgusted."
"Because you are disgusted!"
She stared at him – really stared, not just at his disfigurement but at the man as a whole. Of course the sight in front of her was scary – in a world filled with people who consistently tried to hide their blemishes and look beautiful all the time, his disfigurement was something out of the ordinary. But she knew this man; as much as she didn't want to; and although he had a great propensity to make everyone hate him, she'd seen the better parts of his personality.
Mostly she just thought it unfair that someone as intelligent as him had been cursed with his face.
"May I touch it?" she asked, her expression challenging.
And for the first time since she'd met him, she saw uncertainty cross his face. But there was no refusal, so slowly she reached out, her fingers grazing over the flesh and she saw him flinch slightly. The flesh was bumpy as it looked but she was intrigued – how had this happened? Simply by birth? Or had there been an accident?
It was a strange moment, broken by the loud call of her name.
Their eyes met and instantly she dropped her hand. "Richard."
"My mask, please."
She handed it out to him and watched as he turned slightly to fix it to his face. Although Richard had called again, she ignored him for a moment. "You shouldn't hate yourself for something that's not your fault, Erik," she said eventually, "because if you didn't hate yourself then perhaps you wouldn't hate everyone else."
"You should get back to the party," the man said quietly.
She'd walked a few steps back to the entrance before he called out her name. "Christine?" She turned, giving him a curious look. "I don't hate you."
Silent and contemplative, she walked back to where Richard was standing.
"Where were you?" he asked, concern all over his face and she instantly felt guilty.
"I had an argument," she said eventually, hating herself for lying but knowing he wouldn't understand, "I think you can guess with who."
"Out here? With Destler?" he asked. "Are you okay?"
"Alcohol always makes it seem like a better idea than it is," she shrugged, "I was just so angry at him – I wanted him to understand what a jerk he was being."
"Destler is nothing, okay? You don't have to worry about what he thinks about you because his opinion doesn't count."
"I know but he was being so rude to you – "
He wrapped her up in a hug. "You don't have to worry about him anymore; he's gone."
She felt awful, like she was betraying this good man who had done nothing but be an excellent boyfriend, but she was filled with a sense of despondency. She felt like she and Erik had shared something in the car-park; as if by revealing his mask she had revealed some inner part of him and the thought of not seeing him again after that was disappointing.
But that was ridiculous. She'd spent the better half of the year alternating between hating the man, loathing the man and wondering why his flashes of good personality were so far and few between.
Why did she care?
It looks so puny when I format on here, but that's 13 pages! /whine
Up next: Richard's in for a shock when he realises that Destler isn't going to give up without a fight.