I do not own the characters; they were borrowed from various versions of Phantom of the Opera.

How about a happy ending story for today? This one definitely contains more mature content. It is an alternate ending that isn't really based on any specific version.

SUMMARY: Believing Erik to be dead, Christine marries Raoul, hoping to finally have her happy ending. But what happens when Erik returns to claim her once again as his?

The Wedding Night

By right of fairness, it should have been the happiest day of Christine's life. Finally, things had fallen into their rightful place after far too long and too many heartaches, …too much pain. At last, she was getting her happily ever after with the perfect prince charming at her side, and she could only ponder to herself that they deserved this. Most couples did not have to endure so much, did not have to prove devotion so often, did not have to withstand being tortured and threatened with death to stand at one another's side and be committed as man and wife in the end. They had nearly been broken apart and destroyed by traumas almost too heavy to bear, but now everything was in the past and the future shone only bright and promising ahead of them.

Standing before the small mirror in the bathroom of her new home, the de Chagny mansion, Christine could not help but be entranced by the beaming smile on her own lips. Feigned and manipulated as it was, it almost seemed genuine, …almost. How long had it been since she had genuinely smiled and had happiness be attached to it? …And now…. Her groom awaited her, …her new husband, and this was their wedding night. Tonight, she would go from blushing bride and innocent child to full-grown woman. She was anticipating more than fearing the events to bring about such a transformation, hoping they would transform her soul as well. Once a woman, the fears of a haunted child had to vanish, didn't they? This is your happy ending, she insisted to herself.

Admiring the white silk of her nightdress, she lifted her hands to her hair and released a cascade of dark curls that fell heavy on her shoulders. Vainly, she knew Raoul would approve. He'd told her many times that he found her beautiful and that he desired her painfully, these revelations in passionate whispers during fervent embraces. …Ah, stolen moments of supposed bliss, and how few they had been! The commotion of both of their lives had ensured as much, always interruptions, always people about to intrude, …always hidden terrors awaiting in the darkness….

"Not tonight," Christine softly but firmly vowed to the girl in the mirror. On her own conviction, she purposely avoided noticing the remaining dark circles shadowing her eyes, the bit of gauntness to her profile, the paleness of a once creamy complexion. These were the symptoms of the nightmare, and as far as she was concerned, the nightmare itself was over. It had to be! It couldn't keep haunting her now that a golden future had been laid out before her, …could it?

With a deliberate manipulation, she forced the smile back to her lips and buried the darkness in her eyes beneath the light again. Raoul wouldn't want to see such melancholy on his wife's face. And she was just that, as she reminded herself, …Raoul's wife.

A few minutes later when she entered their new bedchamber, no trace of a single somber thought betrayed her. Now it was anticipation with a tinge of apprehension on its wings, the right emotions for a new bride, or so she kept telling herself.

Raoul looked up at her from where he was crouched before the hearth, stoking the fire back to life. He wasn't the Vicomte at that instant to her; no formal attire or proper stature. He wore his nightclothes beneath a thick robe, and across his face with its perfect, handsome features was a similar expression to her own, yet his was rimmed in a swell of desire that she was only just learning to recognize.

"Christine," he breathed, "you are so beautiful."

Her fingers were white-knuckled on the doorknob as she longed to appear brave and mature yet did not seem to know how. She felt instead like an awkward child.

"Come here," he gently commanded, and she willed shaking legs to obey and carry her across the room to his side as he rose to meet her. Immediately, he drew her against himself and just held her close, his hand stroking her hair with a touch that exuded comfort. "How wonderful it feels to have you in my arms!"

She nodded, pressing her cheek to the soft material of his robe. "Very wonderful…, finally."

"Finally," he repeated with wholehearted agreement. "I've been waiting for this night for so long." As he spoke, his hand left her hair and made a path to her waist, lingering against the small of her back and lightly pressing her forward to be flush to his body. "Can you feel how much I want you?"

Christine was trembling all over. Yes, she could feel it, and it was more disconcerting to her than arousing. Apprehension was growing and striving to take over, and she wasn't fighting it as she knew she should.

"Christine," Raoul groaned, arching his hardened desire against her silk-clad frame, and feeling her become rigid and tensed, he bid, "It's normal to be nervous. You've never done this before."

…But he had, she well knew. Oh, he had had quite the reputation before she had become the renewed love of his life. …Too many dalliances even with people she knew in the opera company, but she was also sure that that was beyond him now. He had been forced to grow up just as she had had to. Marriage was the final step in his very own transformation.

…And yet why could she not keep the consideration of his experience from her head on this, their wedding night? Why did it coil sourly in her stomach when he guided her hips to his? …Why did it even matter if he loved and had chosen her in the end?

"Christine," Raoul broke into her pensive demeanor, "everything will be perfect, I promise. Just as the rest of our lives is going to be perfect. Relax, my darling. In a few minutes, you won't even remember to be nervous."

One of his hands kept her against himself while the other sought the ties of her nightdress, and her eyes grew wide with something akin to alarm as they observed his actions. Just as the tie gave way and his lips were lowering to hers, a loud voice in a blatant intrusion, broke their reality apart.

"Take your hands off of my wife!"

The reaction was immediate; Raoul shoved Christine behind himself and faced his old foe head-on, wishing only that he had some sort of weapon within his reach. "Your wife? Lying bastard! Get out of my house!"

Christine's wide blue eyes peered over Raoul's shoulder and took in the image there as if they couldn't get enough of a view to satisfy them. …Erik…, but Erik was dead…. And yet this was no ghost before them. No, this was the pristine elegance, the powerful presence, the graceful captivation of phantom, Opera Ghost, angel, and man all in one masked packaging. The expression he gave was one she had seen many times; haughty, arrogant tilt of his head, never intimidated, undefeatable, unarguably confident. And yet when his eyes, those two mismatched orbs, met hers, there was a flicker of softness there in a flash of something infinitely deeper.

"So you haven't told him then," Erik concluded, cocky façade back in place even toward her. "I should have expected as much. You were determined to have him and his love, no matter the secrets you likely would have carried to your grave, the very sin you committed this day by marrying another man when you are already a wife."

"Christine, don't listen to him," Raoul called over his shoulder yet never took his gaze from Erik's threatening presence. "He's lying to manipulate you again. You know that."

But Christine was shaking her head, ignoring and nearly forgetting Raoul's presence, as she accused the masked angel, "You were dead."

"No," he stated back flatly, "I wasn't. And so you presumed to run off with another man without first being certain your husband was truly gone from this world. Shame on you, Christine. Bigamy is a condemning offense."

"Get out!" Raoul was roaring. "How dare you attempt to ruin my wedding night with your pathetic lies?!"

"As you ruined mine!" Erik growled back at him. "You carried off my bride and tried to deny me what is rightfully mine to possess, and I'll be damned if I'll let you steal it now without a fight." The rage in his eyes created a fire that Christine shrank back to witness, knowing its power, but it was solely focused on Raoul as he haughtily revealed, "Since your darling here has neglected to tell you, I am only too happy to do so myself. You see, de Chagny, Christine and I are married. We were wed that final night in the catacombs, and therefore she cannot be your legal wife when she is already mine. And since we have had to spend our wedding night as well as these last, long weeks apart, I have come to collect her and take her home where she belongs."

Christine's heart dropped like a leaden weight in her chest, held down and nearly suffocated as Raoul met her eye for the first time, questions glowing and blatant in his.

"Christine, -"

"It's true," she admitted honestly in a gasped whisper, tears rapidly filling her eyes and blurring her vision. "Every word is true. I am Erik's wife. I did marry him."

Erik beamed triumphantly and held out a hand toward her. "My dear, our wedding night awaits."

Sneering at the phantom, Raoul caught her arm and prevented her from obeying. "She is going nowhere with you. Even if what you say is true, any vow she made would have been a coerced lie that no court, church, or law would call binding."

A shrewd laugh escaped that masked face. "Then let's go to the law. I tend to think that they shall be too focused on the fact that she has committed bigamy before God and court to look at much beyond that. Would you rather condemn her to prison than admit she is mine, de Chagny? Do you truly believe that is a wise choice for her?" Erik knew he had won, and tossing out his hand again, he commanded, "Christine, let's go."

Silent tears trickled down her cheeks as she observed a frustrated Raoul. "I'm so sorry," she breathed to him with genuine affection for a moment before she stepped toward Erik, lifting her head high and defiant to face her fate.

"Sacrificial lamb," the phantom accused of her façade. "Cry and beg, Christine. At least be true to your character." Bitterness laced his voice, no inkling of the earlier emotions she had seen in his eyes as they glared at her in her wedding night white silk. With a look of pure disgust, he lifted his own cloak from his shoulders and set it around her, the white being lost to dark folds, before he took her intended hand.

Christine had not paid heed to the fact that the hand she had given was claimed by Raoul's large, gaudy ring. She did not even realize it until Erik lifted it in his and abruptly yanked the jewel from her finger, tossing it carelessly toward the dejected Vicomte.

Grasping her firmly in a hold that seemed unbreakable, Erik laid one last threat in place to Raoul's rising rage. "If you ever come near my wife again, it will be the very last thing you do. I may have lost my chance to kill you once, but it won't happen again. You can count on that, de Chagny!"

For one last breath, Christine was able to catch Raoul's eye, but the only emotions she could give were sympathy and grief over what would never be. All of her plans, every one, her happy ending, …everything was shattered to a million shards that couldn't be repaired.

And then she was being dragged out behind a furiously stalking Erik and onto the dark Parisian streets.

Erik…. Her husband…, not Raoul. It was almost impossible to believe this was happening. …And yet hadn't she brought it upon herself? Perhaps had she told Raoul, he would have taken care to be certain the news they had received was true and that Erik was dead. …She should have known better than to believe a feeble mob would defeat the almighty Opera Ghost.

Erik's grip on her hand was unyielding, his pace hasty enough to cause her to stumble over her own slippered feet as she fought to keep up with him. Not even one look did he cast to her, as if he would not even acknowledge her presence anymore, as if all she was to him was a toy he had had to retrieve from a thief, nothing more. And beneath her mediocre attempts at bravado, she was terrified all the more so of what would happen when they arrived at their destination, …when he was forced to face her and she was forced to accept the reality of the situation.

Erik's wife…, not Raoul's. …Bound to Erik for the rest of her life…. Obligated to give herself to him as she had planned to give herself to Raoul not even an hour before…. Oh God….

Finding her voice and a flash of courage, she dared to remind him of her presence as a person and not a trophy. "Raoul will come after us," she called, trying, not very well, to sound strong.

Erik suddenly halted his steps so abruptly that she staggered and had to regain her balance in the instant he rounded on her, staring so coldly right through her skin. Only a look, yet bitter enough to cause a chill over every bit of her, and then he flatly replied, "And he won't find us, so it doesn't matter."

His mask seemed to glow beneath the street lamps' light, as ominous as that first time she had seen it, and equally as disconcerting to her. And yet any fear paled in comparison to what his flashing eyes were doing to her, her knees weak under her weight when their power was fully upon her. He had always been the only one able to shake her so completely with one look, as powerful as any touch could have been.

Anger was rimmed in a blameful disgust as he suddenly accused, "You told them all that I let you go, released you as if none of it had ever happened; our vows, …that kiss…. All of it forgotten and buried away…. As if I would have just given you up!" It was nearly a growl, and on its rugged edge, he flipped back around and went on in his rushed pace as if he had never spoken at all.

Christine cringed to herself under her own guilt. That brunt point of his accusation had been Raoul's idea, and since by all accounts Erik was dead, it shouldn't have mattered. The Vicomte's justification had been to keep Christine out of the mob's focus, to claim her as a minimal victim in the Opera Ghost's drama, to detach her from it all as quickly and easily as possible…. If he had only known that she had married the very man they had been seeking to escape, things might have been different; he'd have realized that she never could be detached from it.

That night was still a jumble of images and broken memories in her head. The opera; yes, it had begun with Erik's opera, the scene of her kidnapping, and she had been carried off and manipulated…. Coercion had prompted a marriage, a threat, idle as it had been, on Raoul's life. At the time, it had been only words; Raoul hadn't even been in danger, and yet she had conceded to marry Erik. …And why? …Why? It hadn't been out of love or fear. It had been in one act; it had been Erik kneeling at her feet and sobbing, professing his devotion and love, begging her to let him love her as he already did, promising that he could love her enough for them both to feel it. It had touched her so intensely, so fiercely tugging at her heart until she had been crying with him and could only nod consent, humbled by his genuine adoration.

That very night they had made vows to one another. It hadn't been seen by God or law; no license gave him tangible proof. She realized she could have said as much, could have denied his words to Raoul then, could have agreed that Erik was lying. But loyalty wouldn't let her do it; loyalty to a friend and angel of so long ago, loyalty to a vow she herself had made and an awkward, almost clumsy kiss that she had allowed him to give with his misshapen lips to seal her own words. Loyalty had been the binding string between them, always pulling her back to Erik, always tightly wrapped around her body. It was his strongest ally in his battle to convince her that so much more thrived beneath, so many emotions she had always been so unwilling to see.

Her short-lived marriage had supposedly ended when Erik had left her in the house and had run off make sure they were protected from the intruding mob, promising to keep her safe. Raoul had appeared to her then with Erik away, shaking reality back into her head, as he had snuck her out, always presuming she had been an unwilling prisoner, never considering to ask otherwise. And then had come the mob's report that Erik had been killed, and she had decided on its wings that Raoul need never know of the truth of her own choice and her spoken vow of eternity. …Poor Raoul. His only sin had been loving her and trusting her far more than he ever should have.

Being jerked roughly down a dark alleyway brought her viciously back to the present and an awareness that she had no idea where they were. "Erik…," she ventured to call, "where are we going? …This isn't the way to your home."

"Obviously not, and since it was destroyed by a vengeful mob, you can conclude why that would be," he snapped over his shoulder at her. "Besides that, do you truly believe me to be a fool? That will, no doubt, be the very first place darling Raoul goes to seek you out. He found his way there once; surely he can do so again…. No, we need to start our own life far away from Paris and the Vicomte and the opera. I've envisioned so much more than that for us. This stop will only be temporary."

"Where?" she posed bravely. "Where are we going?"

His eyes met hers, shimmering with an odd sense of amusement. Did she not know him well enough to be unsurprised by anything anymore? "I have refuges all over the city; the operahouse is only one. A wanted man cannot limit himself to one hideaway lest something like a bloodthirsty mob occurs."

Another turn down a path alongside a rundown warehouse now near the edges of the city, and he halted, their ceased steps leaving them with nothing but deafening silence. She noted how he took care to examine the air around them, listening so intently like some sort of predatory animal. She knew why; he was making certain they hadn't been followed. And she trusted in him enough to know that whatever he concluded would be right.

A moment later, he guided her into the warehouse, sealing them inside its wide, open work room, empty and vacant as if it had not been used in years. Without explanation, she was led to a small staircase down. Always down. She had to wonder if he did that purposely. Perhaps down put him that step closer to hell.

At the bottom of the staircase, all was pitch black, no moonlight entering to illuminate anything about, and her grip on his hand unconsciously tightened, her body scooting nearer to his of its own nervous accord. "Erik," she whispered, but no sooner had the word left her lips than a faint glow appeared in a small lantern he had quickly lit.

He did not refer to his consideration, did not even glance at her as he continued their trek. One would have assumed a lantern was usual and routine, but Christine knew that Erik saw just as well in dark as in light, better even. The lantern was only for her.

At the farthest wall from the stairs, Erik opened a secret doorway, and they were moving downward again, into damp, chilled air, this time going deeper below ground. It reminded Christine of the catacombs, no obvious path, turn offs here and there, and then a hidden door into a makeshift residence. This one was obviously as temporary as he had called it.

It wasn't a home like the one beneath the opera; it was a room. One solitary room. Her eyes surveyed it in the instant they were out of the tunnel and strove to take in every simple detail. A bed caught her attention first, not overly large or covered in more than the necessary blankets…, not like the crafted beds of his other home. Furniture was sparse, an armoire, a table and chairs, no instruments of any sort which surprised her. In boxes here and there were scant bits of music and objects she recognized from his home within the opera, and she wondered if he had perhaps carted over what was salvageable…. There wasn't much….

Erik had left her there within the doorway to go about lighting several other lanterns. There was no fireplace here, nothing to chase the chill out as it tingled her skin discernibly, and she doubted there would be a place for a hot bath as had so often helped in the opera's underground. She was going to have to adjust to cold or so she tried to tell herself with conviction; after all, she had little choice in the matter….

"Welcome home, my wife," Erik suddenly declared as he faced her, only the words were spoken as sharply as any insult. "As I said, this will only be temporary. I apologize that it doesn't compare with the grandeur you only just left, but I can only argue that this was not my original intent. I would have rather forgotten this place existed at all…. Well, I would have rather forgotten a lot of things." He shrugged off melancholy and replaced it with resentment. "And now that we are at last blissfully alone, I think I shall take what is rightfully mine as your husband…, unless, of course, I am too late, and the Vicomte has had you before your sham of a marriage had even come to pass."

It wasn't meant only as an outraged insult; Christine saw the undeniable pain behind his feigned composure as if the mere mention of such a thing was a torture unto itself.

"No," she softly breathed with a feeble shake of her head. "I…I've never…." The very words for the act itself evaded her with her pink blush of embarrassment. Imagining it with Raoul had at least been tolerable if not wanted. She was sure that he would have been gentle with her, even loving, but the very same image with Erik as her lover was cold and terrifying. Never before had she even considered such a thing, always seeing Erik as a sort of mentor and teacher. His demeanor, his carriage, his finesse, every detail of his aura screamed maturity, making it feel like he was so far above her in every sense. She would have even considered him too gentile and reserved for such intimacies.

"Are you afraid, Christine?" he suddenly asked, watching her curl deeper into the folds of his thick cloak with a need to disappear within. How it intrigued him!

"Yes," she admitted honestly, tears reappearing in the corners of her eyes.

Chuckling to her chagrin, he exclaimed, "Ridiculous! It's just one more thing for you to learn, one more thing for me to teach you. The pleasures of the flesh. …Just as in days so long ago when I was 'ange' to you, I will teach you and then fear will be inconsequential."

"You…you've done this before," she concluded, considering with a flicker of surprise that the thought of Erik being experienced in the matter was far more aggravating to her very soul than Raoul's dalliances.

Erik leaned back against the bed with another chuckle, this one less mocking. "I am a scholar, Christine. I have studied nearly every aspect of human life. In the shah's court in Persia, these subjects are not so restrained and taboo. I was able to explore book after book on the nature of sexuality, of pleasure. I devoured every word I could get my hands on, but that was just a fascination, an eagerness to learn. A man could learn the mechanics of a ship if he was inclined yet never actually sail one." His eyes were raking over her up and down, his body responding in kind despite how concealed she was with solely the idea that she was his. "So…to your assumption, no, I have not actually participated in this act myself…, but I know ways to make you burn with ecstasy, melt like wax to a flame, beg for more. Give me the chance to prove it to you."

Christine's eyes were wide saucers, her body quivering and yet out of delight or terror, she could not say. Dear Lord, was she really about to allow Erik to put his hands on her? …She couldn't refuse even if she wanted nothing more. All she could manage was a dull nod of acceptance under a constant trickle of tears that he readily ignored.

"Undress," Erik ordered without pause, crossing his arms over his chest and watching her steadily. He never gave away the desperate ache of his body, keeping his emotions unreadable while he coldly regarded her shaking fingers shoving the thick cloak back to fall and pool at her feet.

This image of her was one he found himself loathing and yearned to tear the silk of her nightdress away in a violent fit. This could only be considered the Vicomte's; she had prepared this for him to take, as if it really was truly his to have. It sickened him to his core. She was a gift, a present with a bow that bastard Vicomte had been untying exactly at Erik's entrance. Damn him!

"Undress!" he suddenly snapped at her with a coldness that had not existed in his last command, and she jumped with terror-fringed eyes, her nimble fingers fumbling over the satin lacing down the front of the gown in her haste. In a swoosh of gentle movement, the nightdress joined the cloak on the floor, and Christine shivered down her spine in a mixture of cold and fear as she stood exposed in only a sheer shift for his regard.

Erik was sure at that moment that he forgot how to breathe. Breathing seemed pointless when something so arousing, so perfect, so undeniably his was within his reach. The flimsy piece of material she wore was sleeveless and rested at mid-thigh, leaving the lines of her strong legs exposed. His eyes made a path up their graceful makeup to linger on the rest of her, every detail of her womanly body revealed like shadows through the shift, every curve, every intimate place that he burned to touch. Sometime during his desirous observation, she had ducked her head and let her thick curls shield the features of her face, hiding her expression from his regard and making her responses unreadable.

"Christine," Erik called, waiting impatiently for her to raise her eyes. She was shaking, and yet her tears had halted their crystalline treks and lay like pearls drying on her cheeks. Under that held stare, he lifted his hand to his mask and removed it, exposing his brutal deformity. "I know it is unpleasant to look upon, but I want you to remember who you are married to, who is making love to you. I am not the Vicomte and will not tolerate you envisioning his milksop hands and flawless features when it is my misshapen lips on yours and my bloodstained hands on your body."

Even as he spoke, he saw a sudden look of horror cross her and desperately tried not to let it affect him. Hadn't she seen his scars enough that the shock should have worn off by now? But as she hurried to stand before him without hesitation, he remembered what was causing her choked gasp. …Ah yes, …the rest of the ugliness….

Christine's fingers shook as they extended to that malformed face, her mind reminding her that she had never touched its distortions before. But how could she stop? The scars and their unnatural horror were secondary to what her eyes saw. No…. She saw gashes and bruises…, healing but recent. The very tips of her fingers grazed one particularly vibrant cut, so deeply marred that she was sure it would leave yet another scar on an already tarnished canvas.

Her tortured expression said what her lips did not as without asking, her fingers landed at the pristine collar of his white, formal shirt and drew it down and back. As expected, …there were even more injuries, and she could already guess that every bit of him was equally damaged.

"This is why," she choked out mid-sob, realization a bitter taste on her tongue. "This is why you didn't come for me sooner, why I was told you were dead. …You nearly were…."

"Angry mobs tend to only be satisfied with vengeance and blood," he replied, attempting nonchalance even though it was difficult as her fingers were loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar to expose more bruised flesh. "It's nothing, Christine."

"Nothing?!" she practically shouted at him. "They beat you nearly to death! Erik, my God, how can you be so callous about this?!"

"Perhaps because while I was at death's door, my loyal wife was off preparing to wed another man! Perhaps because the only reason I survived at all was for you, you ungrateful child! Vowing your existence to me in one breath and kissing the Vicomte in the next!"

Christine was shaking her head miserably as he jerked beyond her gentle touches. "I thought you were dead."

Hands caught her upper arms, vise-like and unbreakable, as he accused, "You don't love the Vicomte. If you did, you wouldn't have married me that night. My words wouldn't have moved you so deeply…. You wouldn't have cried with me as though you could never bear to be parted from me."

"Erik," she weakly protested. "Stop please. I honored my vow and came with you tonight without argument. Can't that be enough? I agreed to be your wife, and I will be loyal to that oath. Please…just take what you want from me, and leave it be."

"The obedient wife," he mocked bitterly. "Doing her duty." His grasp was tightening until she was cringing, sure his fingers were marking the white skin of her upper arms with his brutality. He was practically growling with his rage. "I offer you ecstasy, Christine, pleasure and desire, and love, love the likes of which you've never known, and you spout words of loyalty to me. A vow! A pathetic vow! And is that to be enough?" Yanking her body to his, he allowed no distance between them, stifling a moan at the softness and warmth of her so close. "I could force you to love me if I chose to," he hissed. "I could force so much of you, bend you to my will, steal your very soul!"

That disfigured face was contorted so ugly with his rage and near enough that she could not avoid looking upon it. Each new angry marking glowed vibrantly, accusing her beyond his words, blaming her for every misfortune as if she herself had struck that mangled skin with fists and bitterness and brought them into existence. …And hadn't she? But the ones she had caused were the invisible ones, the ones scarring his soul.

Lost to incessant waves of fury that he ached to take out solely on her, he felt the pull of desire stretching upward to be its equal. Everything else was fading beneath its hypnotic sense of consciousness until he yearned to brutally claim her, to mark her so viciously as his and only his, to punish her for her frivolous and childish heart. Arching his throbbing manhood against her soft body, he felt the shudder that assaulted her and wondered only once if it was out of disgust or if it could possibly be a genuinely passionate response. …A foolish consideration!

"Is this what you like?" he hoarsely gasped, his hands releasing her arms to catch her hips and guide her back and forth with his mimed thrusts. "This is what you were letting the Vicomte do to you when I appeared tonight, wasn't it? Grind his desirous need against you? Does this make you feel anything, Christine? Or can it only be disgust if I am in the role of your husband?"

Disgust…? Dear God, that was the last thing in her mind! When Raoul had been against her, she had still been able to comprehend, to think, to feel apprehension and uncertainty. With Erik this near, she felt only the urgency to surrender, both afraid and overwhelmed by the pull between her legs.

Unwilling to wait for an answer from her half-opened lips, Erik slid a hand up one of her thighs and beneath her shift, seeking it on his own. His fingers did not hesitate, parting her thighs and penetrating her as she jerked against him, her eyes shooting wide open. But all Erik could do was moan and stroke her with an incessant motion he would not let her fight.

"My God, Christine, you are so wet!" he exclaimed huskily. "Tell me that I am the cause! Tell me that you desire me, your disfigured husband, that I am the one that you want to make love to you, …the one that you belong to."

Protesting would have been an impossible lie when his caresses were controlling her body so completely, making her gasp trembling breaths into starved but terrified lungs. And as if sensing this, his hand stilled long enough for coherency to invade in small pinpricks through the sheet of desire.

"Christine," he urged, desperately needing to hear her.

"You," she whispered when her voice would not obey her command to speak. "I want you, Erik."

To hear his own name spoken so fervently across her lips created a shudder down his spine. She wanted him; had he ever heard anything so intoxicating, so deliriously provocative? Wanting to punish her became wanting to please her, to make her as much a slave to the passion as he was becoming, and holding her hazy stare one last instant, he slowly slid to his knees before her, ignoring every opposition his injured body attempted to pose in his need.

"Erik, what are you…?" She never finished the question as suddenly, his misshapen lips were kissing her in the place his fingers had been stroking, his hands catching her hips between them to keep her both upright and in place for his fervent assault when she gave a cry and tried to draw away.

Christine savoured his actions and yet was terrified at the same time, trying again, even if pointlessly so, to recoil out of his fixed hold, but in her next breath, one taken with the intention of a verbal protest, his tongue tasted her and stole rationale with its motion. Shivers racked her body up and down. It was only the grip of his fisted hands in the material of her shift against her hips that held her, for she felt the strength in her knees vanish and with it, her will to fight.

Taking his time, Erik explored that heated area with lips and tongue, encouraged when her struggles became a succumbing parting of her legs for him. This was beyond intimate, beyond the haphazard kiss they had only once shared, and yet it felt so right to learn the secrets of her body, to ache to please her so completely, to derive just as much desire from what he was doing as she was. When her shaking hand gripped necessarily at his shoulder and the fingers of the other one threaded gently in the thin hair along the back of his head, he had to smile against her, knowing any freely given touch by her would have caused a similar reaction. Her hands upon him…; how long had he imagined exactly that?

The desire was overwhelming and suffocating her with every stroke of his tongue, and yet despite its spell, she was watching him so intently, staring at that deformed face and into eyes that never left hers. He didn't need to command her to watch. To her, that image alone was a fascination, intriguing any inklings of consciousness that lingered aware.

And then she was falling down passion's staircase, and nothing else mattered but the explosion of color all around her. The cry that escaped her, so unbridled and hoarse, nearly undid him as well as he rode out her ecstasy with her with gentle caresses. It brought confidence and a reminiscent fraction of his haughty air to know what he had done, to see the flush that had overcome her pale skin, the remnants of a haze in her blue eyes, to feel the way her entire body sagged in his hold, limbs and bones liquefied and weak.

As he watched her recover, Erik pressed a reverent kiss to the smooth, flawless flesh of her inner thigh, lingering in that one tender act for a long, held breath. Was every bit of her so intoxicating and so soft?

"Christine," he huskily called her attention as he rose, dropping her shift back into place and gathering her close to him at the same time, sure if he didn't, she would slip in a heap to the cold floor. One look into her eyes told him something that he adamantly shook his head to see. "I won't let you be shy or ashamed or regret anything we do, most especially all of the things I am yearning to do to you. There is no room for such masochistic emotions. Especially regret. You desire me; I've tasted it." He felt her shudder with his chosen words. "I will not allow you to regret that." Huffing with a sense of frustration, he let his better judgment speak for him as he flatly said, "And neither will you come to my bed out of obligation. Loyalty may have made you come with me tonight and honor your vow, but it isn't the reason behind our lovemaking. Admit it to me, Christine. There is no obligation here. I want to hear you confess that you want my hands and my lips on your body. Not because as my wife, you must, but because you genuinely want me, because you genuinely…love me." The last words were a tight whisper so laden with emotion that she saw the faintest sheen of tears in their wake.

Did she? …Did she love him…? As she stared into that tormented face so near to her own, she tested the theory in her soul. Love…. Did she even truly know what love was? She had thought sure that she loved Raoul, and yet the realization that she was Erik's wife and would likely never see the Vicomte again did not bring the heartbreaking agony she would have thought it should. …No, she hadn't loved Raoul. …But beneath the layers of fear she had added around her heart for months now, running from Erik as if he was the devil himself and never a man, did love exist and thrive? Was love the core center of her every emotion and every consideration? Devil…, it was odd to her to realize that she hadn't termed such an appellation; no, that had been Raoul's doing.

Instead of giving him the answer he was seeking, she held his eye and let her fingers finish the earlier task they had begun of discarding his tie and unbuttoning his shirt. A mixture of disappointment and desire watched her steadily expose merciless injury, yellowing bruises, some still purple with the depth they ran, scabbed gashes, all of these vibrant colors masking the whiteness of his complexion. Across his middle was a bandage, stark compared to the rainbow of colors, and tied around his torso, and when she came upon it, she stopped and raised an unuttered question to him even as her fingers delicately grazed its shielding.

"Sword to the gut," he explained, reinstating his aloofness on the subject. "It will heal…eventually."

Tears shimmered in her eyes with their rounded horror, and she softly demanded, "What happened, Erik? …How did you survive all of this?"

Her fingertips were brushing over the damage idly, his shirt parted to the waist, and it was her constant touch that encouraged him to tell her. "They…beat me, stabbed me, …left me for dead in the catacombs. …And maybe I should have died; a lesser man would have. But I had something worth living for…, you. I was terrified that they would have gone after you, and as far as I knew, you were alone in the house. …By the time I managed to get there, …crawling and stumbling, …bleeding all along the way, the house was destroyed, and you were gone. I almost died right there. I collapsed, passed out for…, I don't even know how long…, days…. When I came back to consciousness, the daroga was there with me. I've told you of him; my Persian friend who keeps an eye out for me. He was the one who told me that you were all right, and it was only that knowledge that made me agree to let him help me." Shaking his head with his own appearing tears, he revealed in a sigh, "I wanted to come after you, …to get to you…, but I could barely move, couldn't walk, was truly half-dead. I begged for the daroga to find you, to bring you to me, to at least give me some news of you. He was smart enough not to mention your impending wedding to the Vicomte till I was strong enough to take it, perhaps knowing I'd make an attempt to go after you right away, no matter what it cost me."

Christine was crying silently with him, trailing fingers over each and every injury as though through touch alone, she could heal him. "I…I didn't know," she whispered, sure if she sought her voice she would sob with it. "They said you were dead, …and…oh, Erik, I'm so sorry."

"I pondered leaving it there," he told her, letting his hands fist in her hair, the curls tickling his skin so deliciously. "I contemplated and agonized over letting you go. What were our vows? Spoken oaths to each other. No one knew; no one would have to. You could marry the Vicomte, and I could let you be. But I am a possessive man, Christine, a jealous one." With the flicker of such intense emotions in his eyes, his grip in her hair tightened. "You were mine; you had agreed to be mine, vowed forever with me, …let me kiss you. How could I have possibly forgotten that? How could I have lived the rest of my lifetime knowing that such an integral part of me was another's? …I knew you didn't love him, but you could love me…. Would it really be so terrible to love me, Christine?"

Closing her eyes, she leant forward to press her lips to the purpled skin below his collarbone, her falling tears striking him with her approach and trickling along his chest. "No," she whispered, turning to lay her cheek to his flesh. "No, not terrible."

Bending near, Erik kissed her brow lightly, relishing the feel of her against him, even as he dared to ask, "Do I still disgust you, Christine? My face, …my broken body…. Are these things so abhorrent to you?"

Better than words, she tilted her face upward and immediately pressed her lips to his bloated, misshapen ones, feeling his shiver at her unrestrained fervency. She was denying modesty and shyness, refusing regret, and instead moving her lips hungrily with his, arching close when his tongue dared to slip within and deepen every desire.

Drawing back after only a moment, she admitted, "I want you, Erik, not out of obligation or duty or loyalty. I ache for you, …only for you."

He had to believe her to keep existing at that moment, closing his eyes with a silent sobbing heave of his shoulders when her fingers trailed so gently over his scarred face, learning its various textures and oddities. And then it was her lips, light butterfly kisses pressed along its details, and she tasted tears, kissing them away from skin so long neglected. It amazed her how those simple caresses, still so timidly given to him, were enthralling her as well, stoking a fire within her that had only dimmed, never extinguished.

Keeping her touches feather light, she softly asked, "Does it hurt you when I touch your face?"

"My God, Christine, you can't imagine how it feels," he sighed, arching closer to her tempting fingers.

Her other hand delved between the parted material of his shirt and ran along the injured skin of his chest. "What about this? Does it hurt when I touch you like this?"

One blue eye and one green bore so fiercely into her as he moaned and edged nearer, gasping, "It burns from within. It sears me, and I never want it to end."

Christine was tentative when her hand grazed his bandage. "But what about this? Erik, if it still hurts you badly -"

"It's healing," he interrupted impatiently. "Don't deny me when I am so desperately yearning to make you mine. Your words, your touch, …I have not the power to resist the desire you've caused within me."

Both of her hands pushed the shirt off of his shoulders so that it fell unneeded to the floor, and with a furrow of her brow, she disentangled from his embrace to walk around and behind him, stifling a gasp at the amount of damage revealed to her. So much pain…. Scooting near, she kissed a path along his shoulder, pressing her chest flush to the bruised skin of his back. As she landed between his shoulder blades, she tilted her cheek and nuzzled his flesh, her curls silken against him.

"Christine," he gently breathed as if reading her mind. "It doesn't matter now. None of it does if you are here with me. I would endure it again and again to have your love."

She did not say a word, only kissed those blatant bruises and the top of his shoulder as she faced him again, her gaze laden with the pain he himself had survived and a compassion so deep that it amazed him. Holding his stare, she slowly slid the straps of her shift from her arms, feeling the garment's slight gust as it descended to her ankles and left her exposed.

"Make love to me, Erik," she urged, catching one of his tremulous hands in hers and guiding it brazenly to her breast.

Erik groaned at the first contact, a lingering hesitation looming in his eyes as they moved back and forth between hers and her body, yearning to memorize every detail of every moment. His fingers grazed her pink nipple, and it immediately hardened with her resonating shiver of delight.

"Erik," she whimpered, and all of a sudden, he leant forward and caught that eager peak between his misshapen lips, devouring it in his kisses while his fingers sought its match. Her small frame writhed and arched closer to him, her hands clasping his head in place even as he had no intention of pulling away…, not when he needed so much more.

Strong arms came around her and aided her idle path backwards to the bed, and it was only as he disentangled himself from her to lift her onto the mattress that she was given any glimpse of the true extent of the pains he was still suffering. It was the smallest cringe, almost imperceptible, but it was enough to concern her and furrow her brow once again.

"Erik," she bid gently as he stood alongside the mattress and unclasped the buckle of his pants, "are you sure you're all right, ange?"

Every movement stilled at that appellation, and he had to revel in its sound. How long had it been since he had been her angel? And yet the rest of her question returned reality. "Yes," he adamantly replied, bending to add a kiss to her shoulder's arched top. "God, yes, Christine. Pain be damned! I want you."

She had to smile at his earnest determination, and it grew only brighter when, despite the power of his desire, he mirrored it back to her, a light in him she had never seen before. "Just…be careful," she tried to warn even if it was laden in a tentative teasing. "I don't want to spend my wedding night re-stitching my husband's life-threatening wounds."

With fingertips grazing her cheek, he breathed, "It is our wedding night, isn't it? The one we never got to have." In his mind was only the consideration of how close they had come to never having one at all, but he did not say it aloud, loath to dim the bright smile she was giving him. "The first of many," he vowed instead and reveled in her slight nod of agreement.

And then he was discarding the rest of his clothes and baring his body to her wide-eyed, inquisitive stare. Any fears that resurfaced went unuttered beneath his constant, reassuring gaze, and when he carefully lowered his body atop hers, he sighed contentedly to the way she eagerly parted her legs as if inviting his invasion.

One thrust deep within, and she swallowed back the pain, instead focusing on Erik's hard body above her, against her, inside of her. Erik, …her husband, …her love….

Desire came slower this time as he sought to rebuild her passion and make her forget the pain. Even as he savoured the completion, the absolute deliciousness of being joined to her, he yearned more to please her, convinced that he needed to show her just how happy she had made him and so infinitely grateful to whatever higher being had put her in his life.

Only after she found release, clinging to his bruised body with fisted hands that never wanted to let go, did he seek his own, thrusting more roughly as she wrapped arms and legs around him and kept him so very close to her. A sharp cry tore from his lungs with the power of his climax, his limbs mimicking her design until he was certain that they could not be disentwined from each other ever again.

"Christine," he breathed hoarsely, burrowing his scarred face in the damp curls at the crease of her neck. "Don't let go of me."

"Never, never," she muttered softly, kissing his temple. In the most hushed whisper, so soft that he was almost convinced he had imagined it, she revealed, "I love you."

He did not ask her to repeat the words, did not draw the elated attention to them that his heart was giving. Part of him was certain that if he did, he would frighten both her and her love away again. All along she had loved him; he was sure of it. But admitting to it and believing it were still at only the edges of her reach. On this subject, he would be patient; he had a lifetime for it.

Christine closed her eyes and breathed him into her lungs, part of her yet afraid to acknowledge that she had actually found her happy ending, here in a cold, hidden room beneath the earth's surface, certainly a place no one else would have ever looked for it. The child in her had concluded that such a thing could only be with Raoul in the acceptable world feeling acceptable emotions, but the woman in her was learning that loving Erik was a far greater prize than any she could have ever wanted…, a gift, …a blessing…. Here was her happy ending all along. And as Erik lay random, reverent kisses along the features of her face, she could not quell the oddly foreign swell of anticipation that raced through her limbs for the future to come.