A/N: Alas, my friends, I give you the final chapter, a bittersweet moment for this phanphic writer…Thank you to all who reviewed and offered encouragement, to those who sent PMs, and to the many who've put this story in their favorites. I appreciate your support over the years…if you're reading this after it's complete, I would still love to hear from you. :) …In this ending you'll notice one area unresolved (well, okay, more than one) but it's necessary and the springboard to the 3rd story in this series – The Claim. You'll notice the chapter spans months - again necessary. The Claim will span years, even decades, (yes, a real challenge and I hope I have what it takes to write it) … and now, without further ado, I give you…
The Treasure of Angels
The moment Erik saw her, he knew.
In truth, he had suspected for some time; previous mistakes and current experience had taught him to be more vigilant in all matters that concerned his Angel.
She stood facing the sea, as beautiful as Venus looking out over the waters that had given her birth, the wind quietly whipping her long curls in tendrils of rippling dark silk. Her emerald green skirts pressed flat against her stomach and legs, ruffling in yards of soft linen that the wind blew behind her. In silhouette, he could see her mysterious smile, the dewy glow of her rosy cheeks and took in a short breath of wonder, as yet amazed that she belonged to him, that she had become his wife. The sea could never have her back; no one else could claim her. She was his for as long as they remained on the earth and even beyond that.
In the four months since their first performance for the gypsies, such nightmares of Christine being taken no longer sharpened his perception or distorted his sanity. Since their escape from France, five times he had almost lost her and five times she had been returned to his desperate embrace. After his startling encounter with the light and the unexpected disclosure of his life, Erik no longer feared that she would be forever taken from him. Since that bizarre meeting, which often gave him pause for reflection, the novel effort to entrust his faith to the higher power Christine served still came difficult but no longer proved impossible.
She turned, her eyes as dark and luminous as the sea in the glowing vestiges of the sun's amber rays, and he stood frozen, astonished anew by her exquisite beauty. She glowed from within though no sparkles were upon her exposed flesh. Yet every inch of her seemed to emanate light, like the mellow luster of a pearl.
Her face brightened even more intensely upon seeing him and she approached, the expression in her remarkable eyes ecstatic, her smile quiet and full, her manner eager yet somehow uncertain. He wished to save her any needless apprehension but at the same time sensed how important it was to her that he let her be the first to speak.
"Erik, my love," she reached for his hand and brought it up to her mouth, her lips landing against the edge of his finger which she kissed reverently, her eyes never leaving his. "I have something to share with you." Her eyes continued to search his as she slowly lowered his hand to her abdomen, pressing his palm flat against the slight curve he felt beneath her skirts and had felt this past week every time they made love.
"I carry your child."
The secret confidence he had known, so quietly put into words, nonetheless stunned him. "You are certain?" he whispered after a moment, though he had no need to pose the question. The truth was etched into every line of her delicate form, the truth he had suspected for weeks but never once spoken.
With all the suffering she had endured her womanly cycle never returned, though the Drabarni explained it could take time, months even, for the return to normalcy after a child was lost and especially after the other traumas her body had suffered. And so, he had given Christine's absence of a monthly phase no consideration, nor had she. But he had noticed other telltale signs that she exhibited while she carried their first child, and had wondered.
Any slight dizziness or exhaustion and the need for frequent sleep she had glibly attributed to her mistreated body still recuperating from the effects of the poison or the miscarriage or their narrow escape or all three. However that did not explain away the tenderness in her breasts when he touched them or this new sickness that struck in the early morning hours or her recurrent disinterest in food. She, too, must have suspected, having experienced many of these signs before. But he had sensed that she feared to speak of the possibility of a child's existence, hesitant to put into words a moment that would remind her of the little angel they had lost. Fearful that she might lose another child by speaking outright of a new babe's presence. He had read all of this in her expressive eyes these past three months and silently offered what encouragement he could, while trying to push aside his own fears.
Their interlude of silence forever passed, she pressed her hand more strongly against his hand that still covered her stomach. "The Drabarni confirmed it this morning. Tell me you are pleased …?"
At the sudden anxiety cresting her soft voice, he drew her to him and held her close. "What I said to you months ago, I meant every word, Christine. And though I cannot help but feel unease for the reasons I detailed then, I can honestly say I am pleased we have been given this second chance …"
She melted against him in relief, her arms tightening around his waist. "That has happened more often than not. A second chance. For both of us. We are blessed, Erik."
"Yes, Mon Ange. The hand of Providence has at last been sympathetic in what it offers me." His lips brushed her hair. "First, to give me the love of an Angel. And now …"
With startling suddenness all these weeks of hesitant conjecture now made into blatant reality struck him with force. They would have a child. A daughter, the Voice in the light had said …
He would be a father. To their child … the child he and Christine had conceived through their love …
This child - who would live!
A sudden wash of strong emotion had him crush her to his heart then immediately pull away, fearful he could hurt her or the babe. He foolishly glanced down at her stomach, as if to be sure all was well, then immediately lifted her into his arms and began walking with her back to the villa. They passed a group of young gypsy girls who covered their mouths and giggled.
Once she recovered from the surprise of his unexpected action, Christine also laughed. "Erik, what are you doing?"
"You should rest."
"I am perfectly well, my love." She glanced at the twilight-laden sky. "Though I wouldn't object to an early evening in bed. But only if you lie with me."
Her husky words against his ear left no doubt as to their true meaning and singed his blood, fueling his desire. "Is it wise? I fear to cause you harm. Or the child."
She pressed her palm to his cheek. "I asked the Drabarni, it was one of the first things I did ask." She giggled softly in embarrassment as if reliving the experience. "It is alright. Expressing our love for one another will not harm me or the child."
"Then I concur. An early evening sounds most agreeable."
His resolute words earned him another giggle from his tempting siren, who could both powerfully ignite his hunger and produce such a tender and obsessive feeling of protection for her at the same time. Indeed, he marveled at the power she held over his emotions, over him, and he felt grateful that the Drabarni at last had some heartening counsel to impart. For he very much doubted he would have been able to keep his hands off his wife for almost an entire year. A week absent of their exclusive music was torture to them both.
Later that night, as they lay together in naked embrace, sated and spent after hours of making love, Erik found his fingertips tracing gentle circles against the slight curve of her stomach and felt curious with regard to what the future would bring. This coming winter, his family would never again consist of only himself and his beloved wife. Another would soon join them, flesh of their flesh. And though he wished to invite such an event, as eagerly and freely as Christine anticipated it, Erik wasn't sure how he felt about the entire prospect, still nervous about becoming a father whose child would abhor him.
Meg glared at the letter she attempted to write, finally throwing down her pen in disgust.
It was of no use. All she could think about was the insufferable boorish noble who had invaded her safe haven four months previously. He had offered nothing more than friendship, and like a fool she had trusted him. At first he'd been considerate and engaging, his inherent charm an attraction she appreciated and fought that much more because of her interest. She had let down her guard, allowing his company, but all too soon had come to anticipate his presence in her life.
She frowned upon remembering …
It had been one week since he found her sitting on a bench in the garden maze, sulking because despite her studied persistence and relentless exercise, her leg still had not recovered enough to withstand rigorous dance. She had been skimming a pamphlet about the mineral springs. Raoul had turned the corner near the tall hedgerow just as she crumpled her pipe dream into a ball and threw it down in angry frustration. Before she could duck down and try to retrieve it, anticipating that he might – he moved to pick it up.
"What's this?" He unraveled it.
"Do you always treat 'nothing' with such contempt?" He perused the details. "It looks like information on a healing spa nearby."
Meg blinked in amazement. "Sérénité les bains is near Whiterose?" The pamphlet had named the city of origin, but she knew little of what existed outside Paris or where. This trip to Rouen was her first time outside the city she once called home.
"It's approximately an hour by coach." He studied her. "Who gave this to you?"
His awful death at the hand of enemy soldiers had not escaped Meg's conscience, and a trace of sympathetic guilt appeared in Raoul's eyes.
"And he recommended this place for your recovery."
His quiet persistence wore on her nerves. His very presence unsettled her, the physical tension that had been brewing between them for months given no outlet, the memory of their passionate embrace on the night Paris burned always confined beneath a thin veneer of over-polite words and curt banter. He appeared to have forgotten their encounter in his parents' conservatory, but Meg could not forget, no matter how desperately she tried.
Realizing he awaited an answer, she shrugged. "It fails to matter now." She had no money to visit an expensive healing resort. At one point, she had considered traveling to Sérénité les bains and seeking work there, in the hope that as part of her wages they would allow her to immerse herself in the mineral waters. Yet she had no skills outside the ballet and to resume her career was impossible until she found a method that could help her bone heal, which brought her back to the waters. It was a vicious circle from which she could find no solution or escape.
As if able to read her mind, Raoul folded the paper and slipped it inside his waistcoat. "If you were able to visit the spa would you wish to?"
She frowned. "I'd like that back."
"You threw it away."
"I didn't throw it away. I threw it down. It's not the same thing."
His brow arched at her childish explanation. "So the idea does interest you?"
Blast his arrogance! "It's mine. I want it back, please."
"What if I could do this for you, Meg? What if I could arrange for you to visit Sérénité les bains?"
"Never!" She sailed to her feet, putting herself at more of an eye-level with him to feel less vulnerable, though he still stood several inches above her.
He compressed his mouth in an irritated line. "Why are you always so stubborn? You didn't mind accepting the hospitality of my aunt these past months. Why will you not allow me to do this one kindness for you? I owe you that much."
"I will not be thought of as a kept woman!"
"A kept woman?" he shot back. "That's ludicrous! Have I ever so much as made one advance toward you since we left Ravenswolf? In all of these weeks have I so much as kissed your cheek or held your hand?"
Her face blazed hot at his oblique reminder of that night, while her treacherous heart bemoaned the accuracy of his claim – he had never again attempted any form of physical contact, not once. Her logical mind chided her that she should be grateful for his distance and drop the matter post haste, but her wounded pride wouldn't let her give in so easily.
"People talk. And that nosy redheaded maid often looks at me as if I've just left your bed!" At the shock of what she'd just blurted her face burned as if fire scorched it.
"Blast the servants – they always find something to gossip about; half the time it isn't true. I have treated you as a lady and shown you nothing but respect and friendship since I've come here. Do you deny it?" His words were clipped, his eyes fiery blue, melting through her resistance and warning her not to proceed, to leave things as they should be and not stir up further the heated waters of trouble and awareness surrounding them.
She had yet to learn not to poke into areas forbidden.
"No, you are absolutely correct. You have kept your distance with all diligence and behaved as the perfect and honorable gentleman that you promised to be upon your arrival." Her high acclaim of his character lost its sparkle at the chill, acerbic manner in which she delivered her reply. "Still, perhaps I was foolish to accept your offer, Vicomte." She lifted her chin. "Even friendship can be misconstrued without a show of public affection."
"So we're back to titles, are we? Damn it, Meg, why do you make everything so bloody difficult all the time?" He took a step closer, breaking the distance. "You want me to go, is that it? You want me to leave Whiterose and never return?"
She swallowed hard, averting her gaze to his waistcoat buttons. "Under the circumstances I think it would be best."
"Do you?" He took hold of her upper arms, startling her. His voice took on a dark, sensual tone, sending goose pimples skittering along her spine. "Is that what you really feel, Meg? What you really want? For me to go?"
"Y-yes." She couldn't look at him and lie. His hands that had not once touched her since he'd come to Rouen now burned through the material of her gown, leaving their imprint and making her feel weak in mind and body.
His husky challenge confused her, bringing her gaze up to his. She gasped at the determination in his eyes that now glowed such an intense blue she felt she could drown in their depths.
"H-how do you propose I do such a thing?" she whispered.
"Like this," he softly grated. Before she realized his intent, he hauled her close, his warm lips smothering hers in a kiss designed to conquer and command her rapid and absolute surrender.
Stunned, she could do nothing for a moment. Reason made a slow return, but before she could push him away, his touch slid down her arms, his hands boldly going to her waist then her hips, pulling her closer. His kiss softened, his tongue brushing against her lips and rendering her defenseless. She parted them, inviting him inside, then softly groaned as he coaxed her tongue to join his. And suddenly, nothing else mattered. Not the meddlesome servants, not the past or the present or the future …
His hands slid around to cup her bottom, drawing her lower body tight against him. Through her skirts, she could feel the hard evidence of his desire, both shocking and exhilarating her, and her hands which somehow had found their way to clutch his shoulders drifted up to tangle in his hair.
His kiss deepened as though he would devour her. She pressed forward, wishing to be closer, clinging to him as he masterfully assaulted every one of her senses. At first the murmurs of distant conversation failed to register in Meg's mind. When it grew louder, one voice sharpened her fading perception and she gasped against his mouth and pulled away, looking at him in horror.
"Meg?" His husky issuance of her name made her swallow hard.
Before her mother and Raoul's aunt could turn at the bend of the path and spot them, she pushed him away hard and escaped in the opposite direction like the weakling she was.
But if she was a weakling he was twice the coward!
He had left Whiterose hours later, without the common courtesy to tell her goodbye. They had shared an odd sort of companionship, in past months sharing afternoon walks and evenings in stimulating after-dinner discussion, though her heart yearned for more. His lack of concern over injuring her feelings – leaving without so much as a word – proved to her what a fool she'd been.
Damn his persistence! And double damn his charm and unerring ability to make her lose all discretion and go weak in the knees, the heart, and the head! She had made it blatantly clear with her wanton response what he meant to her and what she desired from him, the pressure of unexpressed emotions that had been steadily building between them for months exploding in that kiss that proved her months-long carefully contrived indifference to him to be a bald-faced lie.
And still he had left her.
She had been no more to him than a dalliance, an amusement to pass the time. And what else could she be? He was of noble birth, a titled vicomte. And she was a nameless bastard, the product of bitter scandal, though he could not know that. He could never know that! There could be only one outcome for them if they were to invite more, and she would not become his mistress. She would not become like her mother, who bore an unwanted child out of wedlock and later tried to pass herself off as a saint.
It was better that Raoul had gone. Had he stayed, Meg wasn't certain how much longer she could resist him, that her heart and body wouldn't betray her once more and she would end up in his bed like the little redheaded upstairs maid thought, her virtue forever lost, her reputation forever sullied. For she was certain that when he grew weary of her, like many of the noblesse did with their paramours, he would also cast her aside, soon forgotten, and seek a new conquest.
She would be no man's conquest!
Meg picked up the quill again, determined to finish her letter to be delivered to Le Manoir de Clair de Lune.
Once her missive was folded and sealed into an envelope with wax, she went in search of a servant to post it. She had barely spoken to her mother since her arrival, still angered by her years of deceit and silence, only made angrier by her unwanted presence at Whiterose, and upon hearing her voice from the parlor, Meg quietly swept past the room.
Perhaps it was foolishness to attempt to contact the family she'd never known and the grandfather who long ago disowned her mother, but she had to try.
Over the changing seasons as his child grew within Christine's belly, Erik couldn't help but be fascinated by the physical transformation in his Blossoming Rose, who astonishingly grew more beautiful with her advent into motherhood. The glow to her skin was constant, the sparkle in her eyes never-ending. Her breasts grew fuller, the nipples darkening a duskier shade of rose. Her waist thickened, as did other areas that gave her complaint, and often Erik massaged the soreness from her back. But the most memorable moments for him during her pregnancy were when they lay so warmly together, her back to his front, with his hand resting over their child, who thought her parents' slumber meant the time to awaken and greet the new evening.
On the first occasion Erik felt life within Christine's womb, a mild flutter, he had pulled back in unexpected shock then hesitantly rested his hand against her warm skin once more. At the second gentle movement against his palm, their unseen child had from that moment moved into his heart to find a secure haven there. It no longer mattered to him whether she was perfect like her mother or possessed a physical defect like her father, though he fervently hoped for her sake she did not. No matter the case, his daughter would always know love from her parents, of that he could be certain.
The changes in Christine were not only physical, and one issue that continually confounded him, were her bizarre swings in temperament, with little or no provocation, from Gentle Rose to Thorny Flower.
One morning he found her sitting in the grass by the sea, tears running down her cheeks because she found a nest of starlings in a crag near the cave. When he quietly asked if they were dead, certain that must be the case due to her misery, she looked up at him with eloquent eyes shining with tears yet unshed and whimpered, "No, but they were so sweet. Oh, Erik!" She threw her arms around his neck and, baffled, he held her close, curious that the sweetness of birds would make her weep.
That night, he had no more than crossed the threshold of their bedchamber when she turned from the window and snapped at him for scolding Celeste that afternoon. He had defended his position, having caught the little thief riding Christine's horse, but she rebounded that she didn't care if the child rode the mare or not – Saturn needed exercise, did she not? – and then lamented how she wished he would have at least a morsel of compassion for the little orphan, for all the orphans. At the opera house, he had learned that silence often benefited when truth could bring nothing but fear and heartache, so he stood quietly as she railed at him. Halfway through her rant, shock swept over her face, and she rushed toward him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist and holding him close.
"Oh, Erik, Mon Ange, forgive me! I have no idea why I said any of that. I know it still comes difficult for you to put trust in others, and you've come so far in so short a time. I shouldn't have spoken so. I cannot believe I behaved like some pesky fishwife. I have no idea what got into me. Can you ever forgi –" He silenced her by bringing his mouth to hers and swiftly putting an end to her tearful apology.
So as not to upset her unduly or provoke his temper to burst into flame, he learned it wisest to pick his fights with Christine, which thankfully came rare. Half the time she didn't know why she started them and he would much rather kiss her than scold her or she him for silly, mundane matters that were of little to no account.
Over time, Christine's stomach grew to accommodate their budding child and so did their need to find positions comfortable for her when they would come together to share in their intimate music, a practice they both coveted and never relinquished, only entered into with greater care as her time to deliver drew near. Once midwinter arrived, their daughter had grown so that when he rested his hand against Christine's protruding stomach, he could feel the sudden imprint of a tiny foot or hip or a strong roll when the child felt playful and turned over in a somersault, causing Christine to softly groan with a laugh and her entire stomach to move and ripple. To feel such evidence of life nurtured inside his beloved, knowing they had created it with the deepest expression of their love left Erik feeling overwhelmed. Often he quietly sang their lullaby of angels and moonbeams, sending his sated wife to sleep and calming his restless daughter.
The heavier Christine grew with child the more uncomfortable and less active she became. Erik did what he could for her ease, often playing the violin or singing to her in a soothing manner, which she said helped to relax her. Then one morning, she suddenly pushed herself up out of bed with effort, intent on seeing to preparations in one corner of their bedchamber that she had planned as a nursery for the child. Erik donned his robe, finding it impossible to dissuade her and encourage her to rest, so he took on most of the work, hanging diaphanous, rose-colored curtains that would enclose the child in her own little alcove while affording them their privacy. He had crafted a cradle, carving into its curved headboard delicate rosebuds, and when he brought it into their bedchamber, Christine's eyes filled with tears of happiness and she hugged him as close as she was able. They had discussed names, as they had many times before, at last settling on a choice both felt was perfect.
That had been two mornings ago, and when he awoke this February morning of the fourteenth, a day observed for lovers and mild for winter compared to the chill climate of France, Erik found the sheets strangely cool and damp. At first he failed to understand, then remembered a conversation he and Christine shared of what the Drabarni told her to expect. He gently shook her awake, at once noticing the bottom half of her chemise was soaked with clear moisture, the linen clinging to her legs.
He tried to stay calm though his heart hammered within his breast. "Christine, my love, perhaps you should awaken. I think it might be best …"
"Hmm …?" she murmured sleepily.
"The child … our child… " He swallowed hard and moved closer, brushing tendrils of her curls from where they lay against her mouth. "Christine, your water has broken."
Her eyes flew wide open and she blinked, then moved her head to look at him. "But – I don't feel anything." With his help she struggled to sit up, wrinkling her nose at the sodden condition of her chemise and the bedding. "Why don't I feel anything? Erik, could something be wrong?" Her eyes fearfully sought his.
His assurance came weak as he kissed her lightly and donned his robe, belting the sash hard and hoping she wouldn't sense his own fear. Desperate for something to do to take his mind off what would soon occur, he helped her out of the chemise she had insisted on wearing to bed these last few months and drew her robe around her, also tossing the wet sheet to the floor.
"Sit on the chair, Mon Ange, while I find something dry." He helped her to stand.
"I don't understand, I should feel something …"
He walked with her several steps, his arm around her in support, when suddenly she doubled over and crossed her arms over the mound of her stomach.
"Oh!" Her face paled, her eyes went huge, and she gripped his arm. "Never mind. Help me back to bed."
"First I need to remove the rest of the wet bed– "
At her pain-filled and determined words, instead of assisting her he carefully picked her up and retraced the short distance they had walked, laying her down on the edge of the mattress on a dry area.
"I'll get the Drabarni," he said nervously, but before he could go, she grabbed his arm, her fingertips digging into his skin.
"Don't leave me!"
"Christine, she must be told. I'll find one of the children to collect her and come back straightaway."
As he watched, the tension melted from her face and she relaxed, even smiled. "Alright, yes do that. I feel better. The pain has gone."
Erik hardly felt reassured. He knew that the pain for his Angel had only just begun.
He hurried to the door, wrenching it open, and stormed into the corridor, his robe fluttering about his legs. Armando stood nearby arguing quietly with the little French thief. They turned their heads and gaped at the sight of their King, wearing only a loose wrapper, his feet bare, his eyes wild and hair tousled from slumber.
"One of you – go tell the Drabarni that the Queen's time has come. Hurry!"
"I'll go," Armando said.
"No, I'll go," the girl disguised as a boy countered and Armando frowned.
"I can run faster!"
"I know a shortcut –"
"BOTH OF YOU GO – just do it NOW and do it QUICKLY!" Erik growled at the youths, who scampered away like awkward fawns escaping the pointed barrel of a hunter's rifle. Erik returned to the bedchamber, donning his breeches before returning to Christine's side.
The following hours could best be described for Erik as the border between heaven and hell. Between her contractions of torment, Christine was eager and excited – then a sharp pain would grip her loins and she would work desperately to withstand it and not cry out. At some of those times she snapped at anyone near, but Erik felt numb to her cutting words, her suffering intensely felt as if it were his own.
The Drabarni made no secret of her displeasure with his presence there, sending him repeated frowns and insisting that a birthing was no place for a man. At first, when Christine's pains were brief and distant, she assured him she would be well and encouraged him to break the fast. He tried, but food was the furthest essential from his mind. Walking in the corridor only increased his agitation. Going outdoors in the brisk air heightened his feeling of separation from his beloved, who he sensed needed him. Had she not proved to him that together they were strong?
He snapped or growled at anyone who came near and finally could take no more of not knowing what was happening in the bedchamber whose high window he looked toward with irritating frequency. He had suffered with Christine through practically every moment during the loss of their child, rarely leaving her side then. Surely he should be there now – and with her for the birth of their firstborn. Damn whatever proclamation stated otherwise! He had never followed anyone's paltry code of conduct and wasn't about to start now.
Halfway through the door to their bedchamber, he stopped in his tracks, suddenly in doubt.
Christine sat naked on the bed, one woman on each side of her gripping her shoulders as the Drabarni clutched her thighs, encouraging her. At his entrance the old gypsy woman turned to frown in disapproval. Christine caught sight of him, her eyes glowing in relief, and held her hand outstretched toward him in appeal.
Erik needed no further persuasion. He entered the room and closed the door, moving to her side. He nodded for the young gypsy nearest to rise and he took her place, sitting behind Christine. He drew his arm around her, against her collarbone, his palm pressed against the curve of her shoulder. Despite the situation he felt relieved to be near her again and able to witness for himself that she was alright.
"You should not have come back, Su Majestad," the Drabarni said again. "This is no place for a Rom. Your presence is not needed."
"I want him here," Christine countered and she reached up with both hands to grasp his arm, visibly drawing comfort from his presence as she melted against his chest.
He narrowed his eyes in determination at the old woman as he answered his wife. "I will not leave your side, Mon Ange."
That had been hours ago, and Erik wasn't sure how much more of Christine's torment he could take. Perspiration soaked their bodies and trickled down their faces. Hers was deep red, almost violet from the agony she struggled to hold in as another rush of pain came, more swiftly and strongly than before.
"Let it out," Erik softly ordered, his lips near her ear. "Do not try to be brave by remaining silent. Scream if it helps. You are the bravest woman I know."
As if his words of reassurance offered the release she needed, she let out a wail of such agony it struck to the core of Erik's soul, bringing tears to his eyes. God, he had done this to her! He had brought about this terrible suffering …
After several more unconscionable episodes, each period of misery worse than the last, she suddenly wrenched from his hold, slightly hunched over, her eyes wide, her position determined.
"Christine …" He rested his hand against her shoulder in concern.
"No – don't touch me! No one touch me …"
He pulled back, the pain brought by her words minimal, since this was the third time she had curtly uttered them; each time, within minutes afterward, she again desperately reached for his hand. His legs were numb from sitting so long in one position and he shifted his body. Her arm abruptly swept behind her, her fingers latching onto his wrist.
"Don't go! I need you to stay," she said between gritted teeth.
He had no plan to leave but wouldn't blame her if she never wanted him to touch her again.
"Oh, God," she cried out suddenly, clutching the sheets in a tight grip on either side of her. "I can't do this, Erik. I cannot. It's too hard! It hurts too much! Make it stop, Mon Ange. Please, make it go away!"
Her futile, childlike words twisted the knife deeper. He wished he was an angel and could grant her desperate plea. But he knew she had no choice but to see this through to the end and offered what encouragement he was able, though his heart felt torn to coax her to withstand even more hours of crippling pain. He swallowed hard, at once sensing what she needed.
"This from the woman who stood up to a dark spirit of the netherworld, not once but five times? Who was abducted into that world of shadow and had the courage to escape it?" He spoke calmly, trying to offer relief in his tone and words as he stroked her hand that still clutched his. "You can do anything you set your mind to, Mon Ange. You have the inborn strength of your ancestors, able to withstand any battle, be it of mind, body, or spirit. I have seen it …"
"I can't do this without you," she panted in the brief rest she had before the next wretched pain gripped her.
"I'm here, Christine, whatever you need."
"I need you to sing for me."
Sing? His throat felt stretched tight from the anguish of watching and experiencing his Angel's agony; he doubted one note would leave his throat over the lump there. But for her he would attempt it, would attempt anything to give her some reprieve from this sadistic suffering. He searched his heart and began to sing an aria they had composed together for their new opera.
Hearing it, she visibly relaxed and rested against him again, bringing his hand around her, pressing it to her distended stomach. He sang of love and hope, of dreams unheard of at last made possible. Her complete ease, more than he witnessed since this trial of agony had begun, lasted all of one minute if that long. Yet the brief respite seemed to renew her strength as she suddenly sat up in determination while keeping his hand pressed hard against her, clutching it tightly with hers. Crescents were imprinted in both his arms and hands from her frantic hold on him throughout the day, but he barely took note of such insignificant pain, too concerned about her relentless suffering.
"I need to push now," she said, every part of her being suddenly focused on the task ahead of her.
The Drabarni looked between her legs and lifted her head with a nod. "It is time. The head, it crowns. Push with all your might, Su Majestad, but each time the pain ends you also must stop."
Christine gritted her teeth, and Erik wrapped his other arm around her shoulders from the back, offering support as she gave a long, grunting, keening wail of determination, pushing with all the strength he knew she had in her. He felt the slight movement of the babe beneath his hand that she still held clutched to her stomach, her other hand gripping one of the women's, and he felt stunned and humbled to be a part of this moment that brought new life into the world, when in the past he'd brought only death. The spasm of pain ended, leaving her weak and trembling. He kissed her temple, brushing her soaked curls from her face.
"You are the most amazing woman I know, Ma Bel Ange," he whispered. "The essence of my heart, the counterpart of my soul. My love for you knows no bounds …"
At his tender words of affection, she smiled faintly but it came brief as another pain gripped her with brutal force and again she sat up resolute, her body still trembling but her mind clearly focused on nothing else but bringing their babe into the world. Again he offered his body as her support, bringing one hand to her lower back, the other resting against their child. Again he felt movement as the babe slipped lower.
Three more eternal pushes, and a lusty cry filled the air. Even in her outrage to be cast from her warm, comfortable haven their daughter's cry sounded like the sweetest music.
Christine collapsed against Erik in exhaustion, a weary smile of relief and delight on her face. He buried his forehead against her neck, too emotionally drained to do much else, too incredibly anxious to look or ask the question that had been revolving inside his mind since the moment he first realized his beautiful Angel carried his child …
"You have a girl," the Drabarni said needlessly, a smile in her voice as she and the women worked to clean and swaddle the infant. "Perfect in every way," she added, as if reading his mind.
He lifted his head to look at the old woman and she gave a slight nodding smile of reassurance. For the first time, perhaps ever, he found himself faintly returning her smile.
"Please, I want to see her." Christine desperately held both arms out. Soon the Drabarni laid a tiny, wrapped bundle inside them.
"Oh, Erik, look," Christine crooned softly, "She has your beautiful mouth and chin."
"And your luminous eyes and curls," he answered, his words coming choked as he stared with wonder at the tiny perfect face peeking from within the folds of soft wool, her head already capped by wisps of dark, damp ringlets. As yet, her huge eyes stared only at Christine.
"Rest, my love." Erik kissed his wife's temple and quickly moved to stand. She looked up at him in shock.
"You're not leaving?"
"Only for a short time." He worked to keep his voice from trembling, from succumbing to the great well of emotion that stirred within his breast. "I shall return soon."
She nodded, a trifle concerned, and returned her attention to their daughter. Joy and relief bloomed on Christine's damp, rosy face, the image Erik carried with him as he strode outside the corridor. He met Armando coming in from the outdoors.
"A girl," Erik said wearily before the boy could ask. "Healthy. Beautiful. The Queen is well. Spread the news."
The young gypsy gave a jubilant grin and nodded, running back outside.
The tears he could no longer suppress streamed down his cheeks. Erik walked to the edge of the sea and looked over its churning waters as the tide washed in. Evening had come, the skies dark with night. His silent, unasked prayer of endless months had been granted. The child was not impaired but in good health and as beautiful as her mother. But that didn't change the fact that her father bore a face comparable to monsters and demons, spoken by those who had witnessed the curse of his visage.
He could not surrender the fear that his flesh and blood would reject him and could not yet approach the moment when that was sure to happen. Only Christine ever accepted him unconditionally for all he was, the good and the bad … and yet … their child was a part of his Angel. A part of him. Could he hope for such acceptance twice in his lifetime, from one newborn to the world and possibly too young to understand? Or would the mere sight of him terrify her in her innocence and thus break his heart?
How long he paced along the beach, he didn't know, but when Narilla approached, he noticed the campfires in the distance and realized at least an hour must have elapsed.
"Forgive me, Su Majestad, but the Queen wishes your presence at once."
Alarm made his heart stop, as still as a tomb. "All is well? There is no problem?"
The girl shook her head, shrugging as if she didn't know, and Erik silently cursed her ignorance and incompetence. He hurried to the villa, taking the corridor to their bedchamber almost at a run.
"Christine?" he said anxiously the moment he hurried through the door.
"Shh …" She put a finger to her smile then motioned him close with a slight gesture of her fingers. "Come, mon amour. Come sit beside me and our daughter."
The soiled sheets had been exchanged for fresh and she now wore a clean chemise. He swallowed hard at the idea of drawing near to the child but couldn't resist the lure of his wife and moved to sink beside her. The babe lay still, her eyes closed, dark lashes fanning rosy cheeks. At the sudden stir and creak of the mattress as he sat down, she gave a little bleating cry, as innocent and soft as a newborn lamb's, and turned her face to nuzzle against Christine.
"I think she must be hungry …" Christine sounded uncertain as she pulled her chemise off one shoulder, baring her ripened breast. "The Drabarni showed me how to do this, but she wasn't hungry then, and I'm not certain I remember exactly how –" Her words ended in a gasp as the baby found her nipple and frantically latched on, suckling greedily.
Christine's eyes grew soft with wonder. Erik stared at the sight of his tiny daughter taking nourishment from his wife, moved by a dozen different emotions – the most prevalent of them: awe, love, curiosity, and a hint of helpless jealousy to share his wife, even with his child who needed her milk, a feeling for which he was then ashamed.
Christine looked up at him and smiled in understanding. "Her claim is only temporary, my love. Yours is eternal."
It amazed him how she could so often sense his deepest emotions. "After all the suffering you endured, I'm surprised you would ever want me to touch you again."
Her eyes widened in incredulity and she softly laughed. "Perish the thought. It was very difficult, especially at the end, but the moment I saw her the memory of the pain faded. I can't explain it, but the reward of the promise of our little Angelique Rosetta made any suffering worth it to bring her into our world." A glint sparkled in her eyes and her lips turned up in a teasing grin. "Besides, has it not been prophesied that I shall give you more children? There is only one way for that to happen, Mon Ange."
He chuckled, relieved that she could so quickly forget her earlier torment even as he wondered if he would ever be able to erase those images from his mind. He kissed her, also feeling foolish for his earlier selfish thought with regard to their child. He held his beloved close, kissing her wildly tousled hair, as she settled back against him and cuddled their daughter. The sound of Angelique's swallowing came less urgently and more distant as her dark eyelashes fluttered closed. Her small mouth parted, slipping away from Christine's breast, and Christine moved a gentle finger against her rosy cheek and chin, wiping away the milk that leaked from tiny rosebud lips.
"She's so soft, so beautiful …" she whispered in awe.
"Just like her mother." Erik kissed her and then, as had become the custom of so many nights, he began to sing their lullaby, almost without realizing he did.
Instantly Angelique's eyes flickered open.
"She knows you," Christine said with a delighted smile. "She knows her Papa's voice. I think it's time that you meet your daughter."
Erik sat frozen in terror, unable to move away before Christine turned and placed the tiny bundle of their child into his hands. Hesitant, he barely moved as the blanket was lowered against his palms and she moved his hands showing how to hold the babe and support her fragile neck. Angelique weighed next to nothing, in his large hands she felt so incredibly tiny. After all the dark violence of years that these same hands had wrought, he felt unworthy to hold such an innocent and pure helpless being, and a terrible burden overshadowed his heart. What if she could sense the darkness that had been so much a part of him, even beyond the grim disaster of his face? He feared to look down into her tiny countenance, to see the horror and fear begin in those huge velvet dark eyes rimmed in midnight blue, steady eyes that seemed strangely intelligent for one only a few hours' old to the world. Exactly how much did a newborn understand? He knew absolutely nothing about babies. Would she recognize great ugliness and fear him?
"Erik, my love," Christine whispered, kissing his twisted cheek. "Open your eyes."
He could not escape this moment forever, now trapped in its bitter revelation. Steeling his wildly beating heart against certain rejection, he slowly opened his eyes.
Angelique stared up at him, hardly blinking, her expression never changing.
A fount of love burst inside his heart as he looked upon her angelic face, her calm, flawless, perfect face. He stared with awe at the child he and Christine had created, at her small bow of rose lips and porcelain skin, so soft, with a faint hue of rose, those remarkable huge, trusting eyes, below a dark thatch of silken curls.
"Hello, Angelique Rosetta," he said in a low, trembling tone. "I am your father."
At the sound of his voice, her hand flailed, her impossibly tiny fingers finding and clutching the lapel of his robe and he realized then that he had brought her close to his heart. In awe, his finger, huge in comparison, brushed over the fragile but strong ones of his daughter with a feather-light touch.
His moist eyes went to Christine. Weary but radiant, she now lay against the pillow. He couldn't speak, couldn't begin to describe his emotions or express the depth of love he felt for his most Precious Rose, that she would give him such a gift, that she would bear his child. She nodded softly as though she understood.
"She's beautiful … you're beautiful." Words wholly inadequate once he could speak them; he had never been at such a loss for words before.
"Christine, I love you."
At the reverent words he softly sang, his littlest treasure pulled at his shirt, her big dark eyes intently focused on his face. Still, she did not stir, did not cry, her expression unchanged.
"She loves your voice, as I do. She loves her Papa's voice."
Her papa. The intimate words stunned Erik even as they became more real to him, nesting deep inside his heart. He was a father, truly a father … the gravity of that truth weighed heavily upon his mind, initiating a new resolve.
Never would his child want for anything. Never would she know sorrow or lack, despair or rejection, loneliness or pain – not while he had breath in his body to prevent such hardships from lurking near! And beware to anyone who would dare try…
His confidence again returned to him, Erik secured his daughter firmly in one arm and reached for Christine's hand, bringing it to his lips and holding it there. Her eyes answered in kind, returning all the love he felt for her. Lowering their clasped hands but not releasing his hold, he resumed his song.
Upon again hearing the lullaby he penned for her when she'd been a small, frightened child newly moved into a vast, dark theater – the gentle notes that created the initial bond between her and her Angel of Music – Christine's face glowed with unsurpassed happiness, a match to the joy unfolding in Erik's heart …
"Listen for the brush of gossamer wings
That sweep across the night
The lyrical sigh of a prayer,
The quiet notes of a song,
Of angels that dance in moonlight
Speak silently, or speak not at all
In their enchanted presence they bring
For in this hushed night,
You might know
The sight of angels that dance in moonbeams
Watch for the glow that edges the stars
Their radiant faces alight,
Their beauty and allure
Gild the clouds all around
These angels that dance in moonlight
Fear not, little one, in your darkest of hours
Let their songs fill all of your dreams,
And one night you might find,
When your hope is no more
The sight of angels that dance in moonbeams …
~ finis ~