Hello, ladies and gents! The story I have for you today is told from Erik's POV. It starts at the end but is a story about what could have happened if he had not let Christine go.
And for those of you who have been so kind and patient, wondering when my book would finally be out, the release date is set for August 26, 2011. It will be available in ebook format and print on demand. I will hopefully get to putting together a website for it soon.
SUMMARY: I should have let her go….
"To Look With Blinded Eyes"
I should have let her go…. Love really does make people do foolish things, things that logic proclaims don't fit into the realm of reason. It blinds us to the truth and makes us look for loopholes when none exist.
Christine made a choice, and she was fully aware of every consequence such a binding arrangement implied. Love dulled the razor sharp edges and transformed reality into a fuzzy dreamscape where her choice was a product of her heart. No matter the fiancé dangling by a noose feet away or the incessant tears in her blue eyes, tears I'd been half-mesmerized with all evening, transfixing my addled head at every turn of phrase on their meandering descents. No, I let love wipe clean the slate of truth and write me a new story, one where those tears were evidence of elation and relief instead of horror and pain, one where Christine's heart was as awake as mine in that predestined moment that our lips met. Love convinced me that I was doing the right thing, granting her what she wanted when I freed her former fiancé and forced him on his way alone. Love washed away every image that did not fit into my script. Tears, desperate eyes, hopelessness, the miniscule fractures lining the heart I told myself must be mine. A terrifying notion that I might have spent the next decade or two equally as ignorant, willingly so, composing a libretto for the girl I wanted and manipulating her into acting it out with me. Yes, I am a fool. I must have been to be so sure Christine's every thought and feeling were synonymous with my own, as if we were created of the same fibers, two broken halves of the same whole instead of a contradiction of water and oil.
Her lips were lies. Every product from their perfect pink sanctuary: words, kisses, smiles. Can I be blamed for wanting to believe things so beautiful, for yearning to make them a viable part of my ugly world?
Lie and choose me, but her body was her betrayer. Within the hour of the Vicomte's departure, Christine took ill. A fever. It struck her hard and fast.
I had only just finished cooking a quaint supper, determined to push us onto the path to our future and celebrate this very first night of our fairytale ending. I laid out the table with such nervous precision, urgent to please my new bride. …Bride, I was calling her that in my head despite the absent formality of a proper marriage ceremony. Oh, what did it matter? We would never be a volatile part of society anyway. Let us call ourselves wed; no one would dare contradict it.
Humming contently beneath my breath, I went to collect my little bride from her room where she had retired after the evening's exhaustion. My steps were uneven and uncharacteristically clumsy, but I was apprehensive. I'd never played the role of bridegroom before, not even in fantasies. I was oddly unconfident to portray its nuances. Before Christine had left months ago, we had been acting a different play altogether, and I understood my role of captor and villain. Now…well, I felt awkward. A bridegroom…, and would it be suitable to enter her chamber uninvited, to go to her bedside, to perhaps kiss her awake…?
My stomach quivered with anticipation at the mere idea. A kiss…, and I'd kissed her once already. One kiss that was all mine…, one kiss as the precursor to a lifetime more. It didn't have to be only a single fleeting memory. No, because she was mine, my bride, my Christine. She had chosen me….
As I said, love blinds us to the truth, and at that moment as its willing victim, I smiled, smiled because my damaged face was bare, maskless, had been all night, and my little bride hadn't shunned it and wouldn't ever again. …Yes, I am a fool….
Smiling yet, I entered her bedchamber. No knock, no calls of announcement. …My little bride, how I couldn't wait to share my smile with her!
Lips lie, but a body burning with fever does not. No, no…. That was my first dose of reality, cold and numbing while the skin of my unconscious beloved was searing and hot. She still wore my chosen wedding gown, white and lace, and her flesh was a vividly clashing pink against it, her dark curls clinging to her damp temples and only a nuisance when she was shifting about so restlessly. They tangled their locks and stuck in haphazard chunks to her cheeks with every motion.
Fever…, it was an obvious diagnosis, and while instinct bid me to touch her and confirm, I couldn't, fisting my shaking hands at my sides. My first conclusion, as illogical as it seemed, was that I had done this to her. That kiss! The one I had only just recalled with such euphoric bliss. Of course! I must have contaminated her, must have given her whatever disease I was half-sure I carried in my soul. Yes, yes, my atrocity must be contagious! The guilt tore at my insides. One kiss, something I'd lived my entire lifetime without, and as gentle as it was, as beautiful, it had destroyed Christine! I was so sure of it, and not even rationale argued against me as my trembling fingertips dared to touch my misshapen mouth.
Ugly! Hideous! An abomination! My mouth was a bloated disaster while hers was such exquisite perfection! Her illness was my punishment for believing I had any right to dare touch my lips to hers.
My obedient little love, finally acknowledging that in her heart of hearts, she could love a monster like me, and now I would lose her! To have her stolen away not by her arrogant Vicomte but by God Himself! I would have saw it as fitting penance for my own crimes if not for the fact that Christine did not deserve to die simply for possessing an open and loving heart!
No, this couldn't be my fault; I decided it with relief, and as I dared to inch closer to her bedside, I tentatively grazed my fingertips to her heated cheek. Well, of course she was sick, rationale finally posed. Life and death choices, months of separation and having to play a role for her Vicomte. I had noticed at first glimpse tonight that she looked pale and lacking her usual light. Too much! It had finally caught up with her.
My resolve to take care of my bride only increased tenfold. I knew I must tend to her, to keep loyally to her side and do anything to make her well again. And in my head, gullible as I now believe it was, I concluded that Christine would be grateful, that she would awaken and grin at me and tell me how happy she was to be home and safe in my care. And soon enough this would all be forgotten on the path of our future.
Fevers are a funny thing. When they are awful enough and they rage out of control, they can steal a person's sense and ability to comprehend through their fury.
Christine was moving fitfully upon the mattress, muttering random unintelligible words and phrases. To have to watch her and know that she was suffering broke my heart. How I wished it were me instead! I felt so sure I could conquer any illness, even Death, now that I had Christine in my life, but her…. She was such a small creature, so fragile, her every feature its own tiny porcelain piece of art. I was terrified as I watched her. …If I lost her now…. No, I couldn't even bear the thought!
My agitated eyes raced frantically over her bridal finery. Too many layers, too much fabric and undergarments to restrict breath and comfort. I knew I must remove them, but still, my hands were shaking and terrified. To undress her…, it didn't feel like my right despite this game of bride and groom I willingly indulged. I had only ever entertained notions of such behavior in the caverns of my mind. There, I was the same as every passionate, virile man, yearning and aching for desire's fulfillment. And of course, I intended for more than chaste kisses in our future to come, but…not like this, not a stripping of the only woman I'd ever wanted without her knowledge or consent.
But…a husband, yes, I was a husband now, and I needed to put my bride's welfare first. I needed to take care of her.
Hoarse whispers echoed in the air about her parted lips, more words I could not decipher, but I pretended they were the approval I wanted and yet didn't have as I gently caught her shoulders in my palms and guided her to her side to find the clasps down her back. For all of their quaking, my fingers were diligent and barely touched more than metal hooks and satin material. Parting the gown to her waist, I carefully guided it off, drawing it away and trying not to stare. Detachment, I yearned for its apathy, but when I had never before seen some of those glorious curves and had never been fortunate enough to have inches and inches of creamy skin spread like an artist's canvas before me, my eyes had their own agenda and memorized every vision.
Stockings, slippers, corset, petticoat, every layer uncovered a new terrain of smooth, flawless brilliance. She was still whispering nonsensical syllables, and in my mind's longing, I could string them together and make them into something I wanted, into words of love and desire, into a soft beseeching for my touch. Ridiculous, I know! But I allowed the bittersweet fantasy to tease me, and as she lay stretched before me in only chemise and pantaloons, I traced my fiery eyes over discernible details, never, never touching. A touch, no, I couldn't be allowed such a privilege. So I pretended, used eyes as fingertips and outlined her every shadowed curve and womanly feature. And I ached alone and hated myself for it.
Uncomfortable yet, Christine stirred, and as her dark lashes fluttered over heavy blue eyes, I went numb, petrified in my place. Oh, the indiscretion! Surely, she would be ashamed that I had dared! But though her eyes stared, they never saw beyond the picture show occurring simultaneously in her head, and after only a moment of more muttering, she closed them again.
I did not hesitate this time as I bound her in blankets, no more ravenous ogling and unfulfilled wanting. The little voice of optimism in my head insisted that there could be more later, that the next time it would be as she lay aware and wanting as much as I was. Ah, optimism! How cruel that persistent voice could be! I only wish I could have lost it years before. Its subsequent inspiration of hope was only another cruel tragedy in a life full of far too many.
While it became my goal to make her well, it seemed that her body's was to succumb to illness. Her fever raged despite my every attempt to break it. Years in a Gypsy camp had taught me the particular combinations of herbs to concoct a crude form of medication. Being alone for so much of my life and unlikely to seek a doctor if I ever took ill demanded an exactness to every brew, so I was doubtless that they worked. But though I so carefully measured and mixed and tenderly gave them to my sleeping love, they did nothing. It was as if she was deliberately choosing to remain ill and unconscious. Preposterous as that seemed to me!
Medication failed, I resigned myself to delicately sponging her brow and the small features of her face with cool cloths. The adamant shadow at her bedside, I barely left for even a moment, terrified she'd awaken without me when my presence would surely be a necessary comfort.
As I watched her with unfailing adoration, I pondered what our future would hold once she was well. I harbored dreams of a house in the sunshine, of my wife curled to my side as we watched sunsets, singing for me as my constant muse, kissing me to sleep every night as I held her in my arms. Optimism again, but I couldn't find the desire to argue with it. And I never let myself recall our past or the darkness that had tainted every detail until now. None of it mattered anymore. I was determined that everything would be different. Yes, it must be if her heart was mine.
Hours went by the same, and Christine shifted and whimpered in her restless unconsciousness. Thoughts of the future were shackled to the present. I couldn't look beyond her suffering, and my heart ached in my chest. Tears, I wanted to cry simply because I felt so useless, so helpless. I was supposed to be the strong one. Let death and damnation pose battle with me, but let none of it dare even brush a finger to my love!
She whispered again, and from those flustered lips, I heard the softest whisper, "Erik."
My name! Mine! In the midst of her delirium, and she called for me! In such a horrific situation, happiness should be impossible, but I could not halt its sweeping possession.
"Christine," I whispered back, and lowering the cloth, for the first time I dared to grant a caress from my eager fingers, grazing her jaw and then her cheek. I poured adoration into every touch, determined never to take a single contact of skin to skin for granted. "Open your eyes, Christine, and see your devoted husband who loves you so. You are my whole world; it stops without you. Please, Christine, return life to me."
I whispered every word in passionate echoes, praying that she heard, that my voice could penetrate the fog and find her.
Those lashes fluttered again, parting to reveal shades of blue beneath, and a timid smile touched my lips, my hand yet outstretched and so lightly against her chin. "Christine."
Her stare was unfocused, and I wasn't certain she even noticed my presence at first. Then so suddenly that I hadn't the chance to react, her little hand darted out from beneath the covers and caught mine, grasping tight and firm.
"Don't leave me," she gasped desperately, tears welling at the corners of her eyes. "Oh, please don't go."
"Never," I immediately vowed, shaken to my core. She wanted me! Well, of course, as always, I was her constant.
The hand on mine was sticky and hot, the fever exuding from every silken pore, but it was determined and never loosened its grip as it pulled me closer. I went willing and eager, never refusing even my own modesty's insistence as I took a tentative seat perched on the edge of the mattress. It was strange and odd to consider that in some mundane way, we were sharing this bed, as near to one another as we'd ever been. How silly to dwell on such a point when we were barely sharing even a touch!
"Stay, stay," she was muttering, her frantic eyes glancing idly from my shape to random places about as if they could not settle.
"Always," I vowed again and brought my free hand to barely graze her cheek again. "Always, Christine. I'll never leave you."
She seemed to relax a bit at my words but within a gasped breath, was tugging my hand again as if to draw me nearer still. In hushed consonants, she bid, "Lay with me. Oh, please hold me."
My muscles went rigid with merely the thought, and I wasn't sure I could make them comply. Hold her…. I had only dreamed of such a pleasure.
But she did not allow me time to ponder the logistics of such a feat or to plan it out in my head as I would have preferred. She was pulling me again by my captured hand, drawing me down to her, and left me no choice but to be awkward about it and ungraceful.
Had I thought it out, I would have known exactly how to go about it, where my arms should go, where to rest my hands, but instead I was clumsy, desperate to learn and please her with fumbling appendages that for the first time in my existence felt lanky and oversized to perform such an intimate task.
Hold her…. I wasn't permitted to fathom my own inadequacies, for in the instant I stretched out beside her, she did the job herself and weaved those willowy pale arms about my torso, pulling me the rest of the way to her. My Lord, she could be so strong when she wanted to, when she was convicted. Lost to a fever, she could not seem to recall hesitation or apprehension or the very real fact that she'd never embraced me before. The closest we'd come was that single kiss and that had boasted our usual tremors and quivers of fear at every nuance.
I was half beneath the blankets, never fully cocooned, but the heat radiating from her was what struck my attuned mind first. The fever! It stole inhibition, but it also left me to wonder how much of this she believed was a dream. Her arms were fitted about my shape, her little hands pressing against my back, and as soon as I settled into her grasp, she burrowed her dark head against my chest.
My Christine…. I wasn't sure what to do or how to behave. Was I permitted to grip her back, to touch her, to perhaps lay a kiss to her damp crown? I had no basis for comparison and had never practiced my role of bridegroom to be certain. Dear God, but she was so soft, so tangible against me!
Typically in my existence, I denounced instinct and second-guessed every impulse. How could I not when I'd learned years ago to keep a guard always in place? But this time…, instinct was all I had, and at its insistence, I wrapped my shaking arms around her and twined my fingertips in her silken curls, relaxing in an exhalation and settling in her hold.
She nuzzled her cheek against my erratic heartbeat and scooted closer still as if she could not bear an inch of space between our bodies, and desire became a poignant reality dragged to the forefront. The half-dressed love of my life was arching her soft, feminine curves against my untouched body…. It almost frightened me to consider that my body's reaction was a natural impulse so far beyond my usual control. Desire…. It shamed me to realize that I could do nothing to hide it, and I prayed her fever made her ignorant to its proof.
"A nightmare," she suddenly mumbled, her restless fingers tautly grasping my jacket in their kneading motion. "It was all a nightmare."
"Sshh," I crooned as gently as I could. "The nightmare is over, and you're safe, Christine, safe…in my arms. I'll never let you go."
She calmed at my words, and as I went stiff against her, she turned her cheek to set the sweetest kiss to my flustered heartbeat. I wanted to cry again, but tears kept back until her next words hit the air.
"I love you," she breathed, and a sob shook my shoulders. My hands fisted in the silk of her chemise at the small of her back, and I crushed her in a desperate embrace, finally daring to lay that kiss to her crown.
"Oh, Christine," I whispered amidst tears that were tumbling into her dark locks with their fall. "How I love you! How I've always loved you!"
Kiss after delicate kiss I pressed into her web of curls, and she was acquiescent, never shying away or refusing a single token of my devotion. It was my very dreams brought to life, every tantalizing scene optimism had dangled, …and in the next moment, it was misery.
"Don't let go," she whispered again, pressing to my every plane and feature. "Please, Raoul, don't ever let me go again."
Numb…and then sharp pain piercing a heart that had only just learned to beat. …Raoul…. My delirious little bride had just given away Love's deceptive allure. Love had convinced me that she knew who was in her bed with her, holding her, loving her, but Love was a fickle liar who appreciated playing games with the hopeful. Raoul…, she thought my arms were Raoul's, my kisses, my tears, my adoration. It was bitter and cruel and left me momentarily stunned in my spot.
She was the one moving between us; she was the one clutching tighter with more fitful hands while I might as well have been the corpse she had once dubbed me, unresponsive and empty. I felt as if the life had been drained out of me and left nothing in its place, every dream snatched from my own fitful hands. She was grasping the dream in her addled head; evidently, I was doing the same. Fever made hers linger. I suddenly wished I had a viable infection to blame my idiocy upon, for when tomorrow she could say she lived a dream in delirium, I could only call myself ignorant.
The pain of the heart is a consuming emotion, worse than any other I've ever carried. For a man like me who never accepts defeat or weakness, it left shame in its wake; I was disgusted with myself for my own gullibility, for wanting too much, for believing I could have it. I knew such self-hatred that it boiled like a venomous brew that left every bit of me as lethal as a viper's bite. Toxic, my touch was toxic, my love, every good emotion I'd ever tried to offer. I was the contamination, not the ugly lips I'd wanted to blame and pin Christine's sickness upon at first glance. Me, my heart, my love. They left a stain upon anyone I offered them to, and Christine suffered, suffered because I loved her.
I was poison, but though I abhorred myself for it, I abhorred her equally at that moment, hated her because she didn't love me, because she yanked my every dream out of my hands with her vain heart. Foolish, foolish girl! I ached to hurt her back, to punish her for her cruelty. If she weren't so cold and callous, she would have opened her heart to mine instead of building me dreams to love in her stead.
My frantic eyes glanced down at her dark head, her silk clad, half-bared body flush and molded to my own. No, no, she was mine now. Whatever the musings of her inconstant, immature heart. She had made a choice, and the choice was binding. I was a possessive creature indeed, and I would not give her up even as sense repeated again and again that I should have let her go this night, that I should have never held her to stay. To that rationale, I insisted again that she was mine. Mine now and forever.
As such, I suddenly acted without reasoning and catching her chin with my shaking fingertips, I jerked her features upward, tilting her face to my inspection. She was lost somewhere amidst fever dreams, her blue eyes half-closed and distant, and without impetus, I abruptly forced my lips to hers, sculpting perfection with my own distortions. She didn't respond; I didn't expect her to. A kiss earlier had been a fantasy; this kiss was claiming possession.
I wasn't gentle, not when part of me ached to punish her so badly. I moved my misshapen mouth fiercely against her heated one, kissing her in a way I had never even imagined. No, all my musings had included tender adorations; this was practically damning.
With a growl of self-loathing, I drew back and stared at her flushed face with a peculiar, masochistic thought. I could take her like this, on the cusp of reality with never a protest to be had. After all, she was my wife by her own free will, and it was my right to have her. I could lay claim to her body, take her virginity, mark her in some way so that she could never leave me. It wasn't a transgression when in my mind, we were already wed.
My hands dared to race a path down her back, delving between a silken curtain of curls to find her curves and trace the gentle arch of her hips. She was so beautiful, so perfectly cast. As I stared at her dazed visage, I allowed indiscretion to rule my mind with the perverse urge to trail my misshapen lips over every feature of her glorious body, to learn what perfection felt like to the touch, …to tarnish it with my ugliness and make it undesirable to anyone but me for the rest of eternity.
I hated myself with the thought. I might dub myself a monster, but I certainly did not have to behave like one to prove a point.
With a resigned sigh, I ignored the instinctual pulsations of a desire that would continue to go unfulfilled, and I chose to return to the bittersweet inclinations of a shattered dream. Weaving my arms around her body and cradling her to my chest, I could so easily pretend that this was my happy ending. I could pretend that I was holding my bride, and she was holding me in return, not the lost lover in her heart.
As minutes ticked by, Christine relaxed against me to a less restless sleep, her mutterings quieted and heart a steady beat with my own. I stroked her curls with my fingertips and dared to lay another kiss to her brow, yearning to my very bones and suffering alone. Was that all I'd ever do?
A sharp gasp stirred me from fantasy and unceremoniously returned me to reality. Opening my eyes, I gazed into the horrorstricken expression upon Christine's face, her muscles rigid and tight against me. Pretending was pointless when feverish delirium had passed, and all she could see was the disfigured murderer asleep in her bed with her.
As if abruptly recalling the ability to move, Christine darted out of my arms. She scooted to the opposite end of the mattress, only more agitated as her urgent eyes took in her flimsy state of dress. Accusation bit me from her stare, yet never made its appearance on her lips as she wrapped shaking arms about her own shape.
I didn't offer apologies or explanations. What could possibly be said when we had so flippantly been tossed back into our original roles? Not for the first time in our sordid relationship, I dragged hurt beneath a façade of apathy and rose to stand at the bedside with a calculated coldness to every motion.
"I trust your fever has broken since you suddenly recall that you were sleeping with the devil," I emotionlessly stated. "I will not beseech forgiveness for my rights as your husband. The days of having me knelt at your feet, begging for your favor have come and gone. I don't care if you love me or not now that you are mine."
"H…husband?" she stammered, trembling violently before my glare, and the fear in her eyes, her utter, unavoidable shudder stung me so mercilessly that it was easy to choose anger and a retaliation.
"What did you think when you chose to stay? That we would continue on in our prior circumstance with barely a touch allowed, never a kiss, my repulsive hands kept as far from your body as possible? You wore my wedding dress, Christine; surely the point was clearly made." My words only enhanced her unease, and before pleadings could be made, as I was sure they could come, I insisted, "I have brought you back from the brink of death, and you are further indebted to me for my care. I will consider your gratitude in the form of a kiss."
I watched her pale at the mention, and yet I remained unswayed. How easy it was to fall back into my hated role of captor and manipulative monster! It was not what I wanted, none of this was, but if I had to play the game to win affections that should have been mine, then I was not above doing it. I once tried tenderness with her, and it didn't work, only made me a creature worthy of pity. Being a monster inspired fear, but at least her fear I could control when her heart was full of lies anyway. I would not lay my own vulnerably before her again. No, I'd almost done that the previous night, and look where it had gotten me!
Tears were rimming Christine's big eyes, but I never let her see how they shook me, holding my ground instead of breaking. Her entire frame was quaking, arms fitted tight about her waist as she huddled low enough to conceal many of the feminine silhouettes I had absorbed the previous night. She couldn't know that their grace played in my mind's eye in spite of her meager attempts, or that their memory only encouraged me onward. They made me want.
"Erik, please," she muttered desperately, shaking her head so that those dark curls bobbed in their springy spirals.
"I will not be swayed, and I will not leave without my kiss. Your precious Vicomte's life was worth such a sacrifice, but your own is not? I spent the night as your dutiful husband, nursing you back to health, and I will have nothing for it? A single kiss, Christine. I advise you to concede and do this of your own free will. It will not be pleasant if I must force it upon you." I was reminded that I already had, but that would be my secret to bear.
She hesitated a moment longer, those wide eyes traveling between my conviction and my awaiting, disfigured lips as if unsure which scared her more. Never masking her reluctance, she unraveled her limbs from her torso and edged tentatively across the mattress, closer to where I stood.
I watched her with an undeniable flush of anticipation. My love in her white underclothes approaching with the intent to share a kiss. If only she could know even an echo of the same longing I did!
The tears were still in her eyes, hanging suspended so beautifully and never falling as she raised herself on her knees, tucking disheveled curls behind her ears with quivering fingers. I did not make it easy for her, did not meet her halfway or adopt a less severe expression. I stayed rooted in my place, eyeing her with a hunger I could not fully control.
"Well?" I demanded impatiently as she lingered upon her knees as if contemplating what the demanded kiss could entail.
She shyly licked her lips, and I was captured in that unwittingly provocative gesture with the perverse yearning to know the sensation of that little pink tongue along my own lips instead. I may have denied myself sensual opportunities, but my mind was an erotic fantasy when I chose to let desire run free of its boundaries. Music demanded such a connection to passion's power and a release of inhibition. I could think anything I liked, even if acting seemed unfathomable.
I was determined not to frighten my innocent little bride with even a suggestion, so I kept my hands hanging loose and unthreatening at my sides, my body unmoving and awaiting. Awaiting but staring eagerly as she lifted herself high upon her knees, her curves on display again but never acknowledged as she reluctantly closed the meager distance between us. I saw poorly-hidden disgust, wondering if it had been the same the night before, and I had simply refused to see its truth.
But I didn't have the chance to dwell, not when in my next breath, those sweet lips delicately grazed mine, feather-light at first and then with more and more gentle pressure. Ah, to feel her kiss! It was so different than trying to force it the night before in her bed. Her lips, warm and soft, puckered in a pretty rosebud shape and growing more firm with her confidence.
I allowed her without movement of my own, keeping passive and pliant. My only telltale that I ached for much more was in my hands as they unconsciously made fists to retain control. I wanted! How I wanted!
One kiss, and as she drew back, her eyes nervously flitted to mine, as if to prove that she'd taken my challenge. I considered her a fool. Tempting my temper when I could have demanded so much beyond a single kiss? Perhaps she didn't understand the extent of the fire in my veins. Perhaps she fancied herself in control of me. In control of my pitiful emotions…, as if should she comply and surrender to the mundane details of a kiss, she could twist my heart about her fingers and have me as a willing slave instead. How it infuriated me!
So sudden that she never had the chance to refuse, I caught her upper arms with hands I had to pry out of their fists. Deafening my ears to her small cry, I pulled her off the mattress and set her on her feet, ignoring how she swayed with residual proof of her illness. No, I wouldn't let her fall should the vertigo overcome, not when I intended to hold her. I clasped her firmly against my body, the way I had held her as she had slept, but this time my desire was a reality and revealed. I wanted her to know it, to recognize it, to understand that I was not the same pathetic freak she had left six months before, pining and wallowing in her wake. I had been prepared to adore her and let desire be a blessing between us when I thought love ruled her heart. Now…well, now I would not play games.
Christine shook in my grasp, but she did not fight. She acquiesced and was a yielding mass of warm curves against my aching body. I would not allow that reality to shake me. No, no, I needed to be strong and powerful. I already knew she didn't love me.
In a voice that was husky with the need throbbing through my bones, I stated flatly, "Welcome home, my bride."
That was it. No gushing of eternal devotion or concern for her health after her illness. Those were my thoughts, but I refused to make them into words. Let them remain trapped in my head and in a heart with a locked door. I pondered kissing her again, claiming, but there was horror in her eyes. Horror for her disfigured husband, the monster who'd stolen her life and her freedom. It was something I was unsure I'd ever be able to assuage.
Rather abruptly, I released her, missing her shapes at the first breath of separation, and my only pause was to make certain she was stable on her feet. I'd never let her fall….
But in the next moment, I fled her room, slamming the door in my wake and abandoning the only place I longed to be.
I didn't expect to see my little bride again anytime soon, not until I gave up my silent vigil in the sitting room to seek her out on my own anyway. So it was an unexpected surprise that shook my confident façade when I caught the sound of approaching footfalls. I had been sulking and brooding, lost to an empty stare with the fire in the hearth that a few times had boasted tears. Thankfully, they had not been a reality when Christine joined me. They would have dented my armored veneer.
She brought sunshine with her appearance in spite of every unfavorable emotion in her aura. Beautiful, graceful, not even the lingering dark circles shadowing her eyes or hints of weakness from her bout of fever dimmed her internal glow or the way it radiated around me and sucked me into her charms every time. I was as much obsessed with the spirit as I was the girl; every bit of her, and she should be mine.
Christine shifted nervously on her feet in the doorway, and I did not try to calm her by quitting my intent scrutiny. No, I wanted to look at her. Was I not even allowed that privilege without suspicion? She was properly clothed now, wearing one of the gowns from her wardrobe, this one lilac, and while I missed views of curves and skin, my mind's eye redrew them for me in my head. Memories, …yet they were a disappointment if I couldn't tear fabric away and touch as well.
"So you do not intend to be the uncooperative prisoner locked to starvation in her room?" I had to taunt if only to hide the transgressions in my thoughts. "I was half-sure you preferred your own death to a life with a monster."
"Why would you say that?" she dared to ask, and I shrugged apathetic shoulders.
"Well, that fever of yours obviously had an intended outcome. It probably was a disappointment to wake and realize you were still alive. …I'm sure that was only one in a list of disappointments. Isn't that so, Christine? Opening your eyes to glimpse the disfigured atrocity of your husband's face was likely another and the most horrific of them all. Yes, …you must have believed you were having another nightmare."
My disfigured face, and I hoped the guilt I thought I glimpsed in her was genuine because since I'd left her room, I had made it a point to locate my mask and replace it over my face. I had foolishly hoped never to need it again, not after she had chosen me. What did I care if she was the one to look at my face? If she could stomach and accept the sight, the mask was unnecessary. But…well, another ridiculous, optimistic blunder.
Christine's eyes fluttered to the mask as per my thoughts, but she only said, "I made a choice. I intend to honor it."
"And live as my wife?" I couldn't help but push, and though she was somber with the blatant truth of her future, she gave a single dull nod. "Say it," I commanded with a snap, my hands clutching at the armrests of my chair in their unease.
"Yes, …live as your wife," she softly obeyed. It might as well have been a calling for her own execution; sadness, regret, disappointment, all things that should not factor into a future of bliss and love.
"Then come and sit with your devoted husband. You need not linger in doorways in your own home, Christine."
Her footsteps were trepid and light, but she apprehensively approached my throne-like chair, questions uttered in every motion. Halting and breaking her eyes from mine, she anxiously knelt at my feet, her skirts a pool of purple about her small shape. We had indulged such a pose before, months and months ago, equally as tentative but with a growing comfort in each other's presence. How often had she sat at my feet after a late supper, neither of us speaking as I still felt un-eloquent when her blue eyes were upon me? We would simply delight in each other's company. And now…I had an unuttered wish for it to be the same, for it to be even more than that.
"Will you…," I began, watching her eager eyes raise before I cursed myself. No questions; I shouldn't have to question; I should be able to demand if I wanted. "Lay your head against my knee," I ordered instead and yet my voice was telling and soft, cajoling in a way I had not intended.
And though she hesitated, I saw no fear as she scooted closer and timidly set her cheek against my knee, gazing at me all the while. I seemed the only one fearing at that moment, for my hand shook as I brought it to her and grazed an uncertain caress to her brow.
She tensed, and I dared to report, "No more trace of fever; you are well." It was a flimsy excuse when the truth was that I just wanted to touch her. A husband who needed excuses. It didn't seem fair.
"A wife who shuns her husband's every caress." I stated it emotionlessly even as the truth of it cut to my locked heart, and proving my own point, I attempted another touch, idly stroking her hairline.
She stiffened against me, eyes wide, but she stammered in return, "I will not shun you, Erik. You may touch me if you wish. …You are my husband."
Liar, I wanted to speak the word, but instead made it blatant and undeniable, racing my fingertips along her cheek to her jaw and feeling her fight an urge to recoil. "Should a wife tremble so to bear her husband's touch? It hardly seems acceptable."
Her cheeks tinged pink beneath my fingers, and her eyes would not meet mine. "A wife who has never born the touch of a man would tremble. Innocence and modesty would justify its source."
"And yet I must wonder, would you tremble the same if the Vicomte were in my place?" I asked and feigned apathy. "Would innocence and modesty account for anything if these were his fingers against your skin?"
"Why does that matter?" she suddenly demanded, shaking her head against my knee. "Raoul is not my husband."
"But I must wonder such things, you see, because I've never touched a woman. I cannot say if your trepidation is appropriate. If it is a result of modesty, I should feel humbled and treat you all the more tender because of it. …But if it is only because you are disgusted by the man you've chained your existence to and vowed to obey and adore, then I must be disappointed." I paused long enough to lay my fingers to her cheek, and I watched her lower shame-filled eyes as I dared to tell her, "I've imagined cherishing you as my wife because you want me as your husband, but if I must, I will force such a desire upon you and punish you for pretending it already exists. …Well, I guess my touch is punishment enough, isn't it? My hands upon your virginal body…. It's practically an abomination in words alone."
Blunt, inarguable, and I knew why she still would not meet my eye; her red-stained cheeks revealed it for her.
"I've only ever been a gentleman with you," I told her, carefully restrained in every emotion I set forth. "Perhaps you thought I would remain the same and ignore every one of my unacceptable desires, that simply your word to stay would be enough. But I demanded a wife, Christine, with every trapping that accompanies the title. I may not be able to force your heart to beat to my liking, but you are a superb actress when you choose to be. Perhaps if you play the part, it eventually won't become such a hardship to endure and you won't shudder every time I attempt even to caress your cheek." I formed the blasphemous touch again, trailing the backs of my fingers from her cheek to her lips and back again, and though she did not deny me, her eyes kept distance in their unfocused blue pools.
"You're asking me to lie to you," she softly stated as if that was the greatest sin in my words, and only then did she look at me, seeking confirmation.
"You always lie to me," I replied equally as steady. "I am only seeking to control your façade this time. Yes, lie, but I will know that I chose the game and that beneath it, your heart is as cold and unattainable as it ever was. I'll know, and I'll stop making myself the fool in futile hope of capturing it. …And perhaps if you lie, I'll stop feeling as if every attempted touch, every kiss is a sin. I'll cease to curse myself and my ugliness for ever daring." I could not keep emotion detached as I told her in candid honesty, "I abhor myself, Christine, every detail of my accursed life and my accursed face, but your constant rejections and disgust convince me that I am beyond detestable, that I am as condemned as the devil in hell. You are the one to make me a monster, and I will not endure our marriage under that epithet. Don't make me take on that role and force you to my bed as no better than a common rapist. You chose this life; pretend you actually wanted it. I'm not asking for overdone melodrama and a love that cannot ever breathe; I'm simply asking to be able to touch you without the constant revulsion in your eyes. I feel it's a reasonable compromise."
Christine wouldn't meet my eye again, and abandoning my tactic with a heaved curse, I abruptly got to my feet and stalked away from her, nearing the dancing flames in the hearth in hopes that their motion would hypnotize my mind and take my thoughts far away from here. Every one of my previous dreams was already shattered. What good did this place hold anyway? I had gone from having a consenting, loving bride to existing with a stranger who couldn't even endure the graze of my fingers upon her sacred skin. After holding her the previous night, this was a bitter reality to face. Once again I pondered that I should have let her go and left myself the fantasy for comfort instead.
I had wittingly put her out of my attention, preferring my silent melancholy to a longing I no longer wanted, so it was a bit of a surprise when I felt a small, tentative hand upon my jacket sleeve. Jerking my eyes to her, I wondered when exactly she had risen and come to stand beside me, how long it had taken her to collect courage enough to dare a touch. Perhaps it was minutes, and yet I hoped for seconds.
I didn't speak, didn't ask; I simply stared at that hand, at its delicate construction and deceptively-concealed deadliness. She could kill me with a touch; she wouldn't know that, but it was true. One willing touch, one wanted touch, and the monster before her would crumble to dust, dead and destroyed, and only a man who adored her wholeheartedly would be left, the prince ready to fall at her feet. One wanted touch, and not even the ugliness of her noble prince would matter; only the heart beneath would exist, and it was beautiful despite its abhorrent shell.
"I chose you as my husband, Erik," she softly said, her voice little more than timid whispers. "I do understand what that means and what you expect of me. I…I'll give you what you want, and I won't be disgusted."
I didn't pose my doubts. Instead, I raised my unclaimed hand to my mask and diligently removed it, watching her steadily all the while. She didn't flinch, not even when I felt firelight playing on my scars and illuminating their distortions. Those blue eyes gazed pensively, and then slowly closed as she tilted her face upward, as if expecting a kiss.
A kiss…, but I slowly shook my head. "You won't be disgusted," I repeated her vow with a bite, "yet still you close your eyes."
Her lashes fluttered again as she abruptly attempted a denial. "No, Erik, I-"
"Lie, Christine," I ordered coldly, unable to consider listening to a single excuse, "but at least do it convincingly."
That was all I could endure. With a slight growl of my uncontrollable annoyance, I stalked past and left her standing there with frantic eyes. No, no, I had asked for lies, hadn't I? Lies to feed the cruelty of an internal enemy called Love. Lies to convince me that every detail of this wasn't the sin my conscience was starting to dub it. But lies could never be enough. I wanted love; I deserved love, ached for it. Why when I went to such extents to earn it, did reality mean she wouldn't love me in return? I could play every trick I had, go to great extremes on every plane of life, but I couldn't change her heart. And it infuriated me to be so weak!
I am a man who has survived every hardship and cruelty the world can offer, who has been consumed by every dark power, every bitter emotion, who has been omnipotent and played God at whim. And yet despite it all, I've come to learn that the root of the heart is that betrayer of an emotion called Love. Every other sensation, action, desire, means nothing without love's effulgent intensity. Love is the greatest purpose of existence and makes our lives have meaning. To touch another life is to matter.
Long ago I realized I'd only be remembered for the damage I'd caused, the lives destroyed by my devices. And I hadn't cared because I hadn't ever known of Love's consumption. I hadn't yet been infected by its bite and left to long and envy.
Love takes two hearts, willing and eager. I could love all I wanted, but if I didn't have her love in return, it was meaningless and wasted. It was forgotten. Two open hearts choosing each other…, that was the greater purpose behind existing. I could desire it, but I could not force it to be mine.
As I paced my room with uneven steps, I pondered my situation. Christine didn't love me; she would live with me as my wife with every advantage I wanted to include, but in her heart, she would pine for her dashing Vicomte, perhaps fantasize him in my place and compare our life with a perfection that likely wouldn't have been real anyway. Love's blinding periphery made the Vicomte into prince charming and me the villain keeping them apart. Logic insisted that the intelligent course of action was to release her from a coerced vow and let her have the life she truly wanted even if it was an idealized dream that would leave her as disappointed as I myself currently was. Yes, the intelligent course, before Christine twisted every detail and transformed her acceptance into hatred for her captor husband.
But…well, I had a mind to rewrite the story altogether. Why should there by only two choices, and why should her heart have already made a decision without ever giving me a chance? I was suddenly determined to carve us a new path altogether. If she were willing, I could alter her every perception and make our future a blessing rather than a curse.
I let my ideas form their meandering nuances, desperate not to allow optimism make me hopeful, …not again anyway. Once I felt confident in the course that was laid out, I replaced my mask and surrendered my solitude, seeking out Christine. My doubting nature wondered if she'd spent the afternoon searching for an escape. Perhaps she'd found a way out; perhaps she'd abandoned me, silent and stealthy, while I was engrossed in forming ideas to keep her. Perhaps she was already gone, protected by her Vicomte and vanished from my life….
The very thought had me suddenly rushing my steps with suffocating impatience. Oh God, I shouldn't have left her alone!
My hasty footfalls halted abruptly outside my sitting room. Christine…. Her blue eyes lifted with a start at my flustered appearance from where she sat before the dwindling flames in the fireplace, a book spread in the bed of her purple skirts.
"Erik…," she anxiously greeted, closing the book with trembling fingers and setting it aside. "I…I was waiting for you to come out. I was starting to worry. Shall I go and fix supper?"
Supper…, the dutiful wife, and her façade was intact and cemented firm as ever. It would have been almost too easy to fall into its perfect deception, to forget that her heart could have a contradictory beat and believe it was only mine. But…I had other plans.
Careful not to give any emotion away, I joined her before the fire, hesitant as I lowered myself to kneel on the carpet beside her.
"Erik, …are you all right?"
"No, …no." I was reading her intently, searching for some reason to forgo my idea before I ever even suggested it. Perhaps if she were a stronger girl, more secure in her convictions, less likely to be swayed by the rest of the world, then I'd have no chance. But how often had I wondered if Christine truly wanted to Vicomte or if it was only the idea of him that enticed her? The acceptable man society would approve of, …the man her father would have approved of….
In a tone that didn't allow argument, I said, "You don't love me, …but you could."
"Erik, what do you-"
"I'm not an easy person to love, Christine; I realize that. I do not follow standard principles of what is suitable or desired; I have a difficult heart, …but I could teach you to love me."
"Teach me," she repeated with an uncertain arch of her dark brows. I took it as encouragement because there was the faintest hint of intrigue in blue depths.
"I've taught you so many things, Christine; music, the very soul of it. You loved me in the music; I've no doubt of that." I knew she could not deny, and as I continued to study her beautiful features by the glow of the firelight, I explained, "We love with our eyes first and foremost. Your heart might have loved mine, but your eyes could never allow the face of a demon. Your eyes looked for beauty, for something acceptable to love instead, and they chose the Vicomte with his perfect face. Your eyes made the choice for your heart, and even now they will not look past what they deem as ugly. …My face is an abomination, and you can never love it this way."
Her attention fluttered to my mask and its necessary presence, but she did not protest a single word.
"Your eyes have dubbed my face as repulsive," I continued without sway, "and it is. It's a horror, but…if you could look beyond its malformed canvas, you could love the man beneath."
"And…how would I do that?" she softly breathed, and I almost broke my emotional wall and smiled. Almost…, and it was practically an instinct. Because I glimpsed curiosity from one always so curious and an amount of interest, and it gave me hope.
With flustered fingers, I withdrew a dark scarf from my jacked pocket, holding it up to her inspection. "Will you trust me?" I asked when I knew I didn't have to. And stretching the scarf horizontal, I gave her an indication of what I intended.
She was apprehensive, catching her bottom lip between her teeth as I savored that sweet gesture and its natural impulse, but after a moment, though doubt lingered in blue eyes, she nodded.
My hands shook and fumbled in their usual grace as I lifted the scarf to her. I watched her lashes flutter closed and delicately lay the makeshift blindfold across her eyes, blocking her vision of a man in a mask whose predominant talent was driving her heart away. No, I could be more; I could be everything if she let me.
The scarf was carefully knotted and would not fall loose. Only when I was sure did I reach for my mask and remove its barrier. Paranoia looked for an impossible reaction, so accustomed to her automatic need to recoil from something so hideous. But she was kneeling, unshaken and peaceful, waiting for my guidance with a trust I had never been granted before.
Quivering down every fingertip, I tentatively captured both of her hands in mine, pleased when she did not refuse or protest. She only tilted her blinded head inquisitively, not even a tremble as I lifted those small hands in my larger ones. Between our kneeling shapes, I slid my fingers up her smooth palms until they could press to every match, fingers and thumbs, knuckles misaligned by size, palm to palm. I was conditioning her to the touch of my hands, teaching her to allow and not fear in that one gentle contact.
"Are you afraid of me, Christine?" I dared to ask in a breathless whisper as my eyes memorized every detail of this sweet moment.
An idle shake of her head, and as if to prove herself, her fingers inched to weave between mine, bending to clasp instead of simply caress, her fingertips a gentle pressure against my knuckles. Pairs of hands joined, and with only the briefest hesitation, I lifted them, the terrified one between us, as I brought them to my eager face. Careful, always careful, I disjoined entwined fingers and set her hands from satiny palms to small wrists against my cheeks.
I don't know what I expected when I devised this plan and hoped to be courageous enough to carry it through. I had not dared to fantasize this moment for fear it would only fail. Sense told me that there should be shaking or tension, something to indicate that though she did not see what she touched, her mind recalled and remembered its disgust. But Christine did not give anything away, pliant and permissive to my hold, and when I lowered my clasping hands and left hers, she did not pull away and sever contact as I expected. To my shock, she curved her fingers against the abnormal planes of my face with a firmer touch.
In theory and contemplation, detachment was easy. A thought, an idea of convincing her through touch that disgust was irrelevant. Her hands upon my face…. Ideas didn't bring feelings and didn't prepare me for the overwhelming sensation of her skin to mine. My face had never before been touched by any hands unless violence was involved. Punches, strikes, and I was the one between us to tense, my skin half-recalling pain and readying for it. But there was no pain in the caress of those small, warm hands. There was curiosity, perhaps an odd fascination, a captivation I hadn't fathomed, and no curses or cringes of revealing revulsion.
"Are you…afraid of me, Christine?" I asked again, unable to distinguish any other coherent words when I was being so overcome. My voice caught, a little skip in constant sound, and I prayed she did not realize it was with an attempt to curb tears.
"I'm not afraid of you, Erik," she softly bid. Her fingers moved, making tender caresses as she timidly explored, and I held my breath. I was terrified if I gave her one recollection that it was my face she willingly touched, that my body was mere inches away, close enough that our knees brushed, one memory would remind her to pull away and end this.
So I kept still and silent, and focused on a touch so longed for that it sent tremors down my spine. My eyes fixed on her blindfolded face, on every smooth line and feature, crafted so precisely and contrasting from the ones she touched. Her hands made identical caresses upon each of my cheeks, one cheek so close to normal and one so demented that I was in awe that she dared. Perhaps in her head, she made comparisons, but nothing shook her resolve, not even the dented place where a nose should have existed. No, her fingers caressed it all the same.
And it was too much! I couldn't bear it! I, who had begun this game! I was the one to end it just as abruptly as I shrank back beyond the sweet touch of her hands, ducking out of their reach and leaving them to grasp emptily at open air.
Christine made the softest sound, and I didn't want to let myself believe that it was laden in disappointment. No, I wouldn't even consider it as I reattached my mask with trembling fingers and hid my deformity from sight in the instant before she removed the blindfold.
"Erik?" she softly bid. I could barely look at her and certainly not her eyes. Dear God, they held a hurt! As if I'd rejected her this time!
"I…I'll go and prepare supper," I awkwardly stammered, stumbling to my feet and fleeing her presence while those accusing eyes followed my every movement.
What was I doing? I was the one who longed to tear down walls and yet just as quickly, I was also the one to resurrect them. It didn't seem fair that beneath my every desire lurked so much fear, enough that I could not seem to pin it on trust and believe that when she touched me, she wasn't cursing me in her mind. No, her thoughts were a mystery, and they terrified me!
Supper was silent. We barely even shared a glance, and if I looked up and caught her eye, it filled me with such shame that I had to cower and turn away. She had touched my face; I had manipulated her into it, and as far as I knew, she was as regretful as I was. Regret and shame, and I was coming to know such emotions so well lately.
Evening faded with the flames of the hearth as I stared dully into their sanctuary. I should let her go; it was the most unpleasant thought twisting my brain, and yet I knew it was the right one. But how could I possibly find the strength to crush any fragments I yet possessed of dreams and watch her go to the arms of another man?
Her voice was as lilting as a symphony, and every time she said my name, she convinced me how unworthy I was of her. No, my name was not beautiful enough to grace her sacred voice. She should be speaking the wonders of heaven, not the appellation of the devil himself.
I was tentative as I lifted my eyes to her approach, and my attention caught on her hands as between them, she held my dark scarf, idly twisting it in her grasp. "Christine, …what do you intend to do with that?"
Without a word, she knelt on the floor in the same place as earlier, watching me until the scarf blocked a view as she lifted it over her eyes and tied it back into place. Sight gone, she lifted her little hands toward my presence, inviting me to her, and I wondered what she thought to gain by repeating this experiment. Did she consider this another lesson from her once teacher; did she perhaps hope to prove something to us both?
I should refuse, or so said my lingering rationale, but there was too much temptation in the room. Those little hands, extended yet, and all I could do was recall how soft and warm they were against my skin. I wanted them upon me so badly that desire clenched tight in my gut and left me to follow its pull as I tentatively lowered myself to the carpet with her, creeping close inch by inch until I was within her reach.
The softest smile tinged her full lips as she heard my approach. I felt unworthy of its curves. But I surrendered to her request and hastily removed my mask, gazing upon her all the while. I edged nearer and into the produced embrace of her hands, losing an unbidden sigh as they found my cheeks between them.
Neither of us spoke a single word as if any concrete sound would only be an intrusion, but touch muttered its own volumes of intimate musings. Her hands upon my face…, I never let myself consider that they didn't want to be there of their own accord. No, because she still smiled, encouraging and lovely, and never trembled as her fingertips found the misshapen arch of my mouth and traced its abnormal shape with diligent precision.
I couldn't stop impulse, and as those fingers followed the seam between my lips, I dared to kiss them. Soft, beseeching, reverent. It was gratitude and wanting and every emotion my heart deemed necessary. And her smile never dimmed. It was so beautiful that I wanted it for my own.
Her palms were cupping my face, and suddenly unable to stop myself, I crossed the lingering gap between us and dared to kiss that brilliant grin.
All of our kisses thus far had seemed transgressions in their way, whether they were coerced or stolen unaware. This was the first contact between us that felt requited. I couldn't find regret because she didn't shrink back or tense. She hesitated one instant of surprise, and then her perfect lips were returning the caress and kissing me back.
Dear God, such exquisite sensation! Her touch was firm and demanding, molded to the malformed shapes of my face even though she could not see them. No, she could not see and know disgust, and her skin was acquainted with mine already and was sure in itself. And she kissed me without a single trace of unease. She kissed me because she wanted to. Her lips moved in synchronization with mine; I did not even coax her to follow. As passion made me braver and encouraged more, she shocked me with her uninhibited reply, with fingers that delved into my hair and grew taut with an unshaken hold, with a soft sound like a whimper that escaped in the instant I dared to part her willing lips with my tongue. This was desire I'd only fantasized into existence, and it breathed and writhed between us like a living thing. …And I was suddenly terrified to consider what it meant.
I only tasted her, enough to let her delicious sweetness tingle my taste buds and leave me addicted and yearning for more, and then with reluctant disappointment, I pulled my mouth away, fighting against her surprisingly protesting grasp. She even tried to kiss me again! She leaned her little face close, arching near, but I broke away and wouldn't concede, watching her hands reach and grasp at nothing in my place.
"Are you afraid of me, Erik?" She demanded my earlier question with flustered desperation and a slight hysteria as if she had to speak lest I flee her presence again.
But I extended a shaking hand and caught the scarf about her eyes, untying as I pulled it free. "Look at me, Christine," I commanded. "Look at this pitiful excuse for a face and truly see it. Is it what you envisioned as you kissed me back in its every horrible detail? Or is it just so easy to forget with your eyes covered, when it is a seeming dream between us?"
Her gaze showed her anxiousness, and I chose to make it worse, grabbing her hand as she jumped with surprise and abruptly bringing it to my mangled cheek. She was tense, tense all over again despite the touches we'd shared, but I ignored it and forced her hand back to my disfigurement.
"Still disgusted," I taunted with the unavoidable flare of my temper. I was as angry with myself as I was with her. I should have known better.
"No," she quickly insisted, but her hand was shaking in mine. "And I've never been disgusted."
I would have been surprised by her sudden bravery if I weren't so certain she was lying. "And yet every time my face is bared to you, you shun its hideousness as if it would taint you as well."
"No, not your face," she protested with an adamancy I'd never seen from her. "You. I shun you."
Growling my anger that she would dare such an argument, I caught her shoulders with my hands and pinched tight. "What?"
Her hand was yet against my cheek, and though it quivered, she did not pull it free. "You want so much of me," she suddenly accused. "Every time you look at me, you beg for every bit of myself, Erik. And I could vow it to you, but it won't be enough. You'll always doubt because I couldn't love you as you wanted from the start. I rejected you the same as the rest of the world, and you'll never forgive me for it."
"You reject me still-"
"I chose you," she interrupted when I expected her to back down. "Why is it not enough that I agreed to live as your wife?"
"Because you love the Vicomte," I stated as my reason.
"I feel safe with the Vicomte," she countered. "He doesn't long to rip me apart and take the very heart of me. He makes it easy while you expect a love that is going to change the foundation of the world beneath our feet. And if I can't give it to you, how long until you resent me for it?"
I was staring at her so intently, reading every emotion as it played along her face and believing her every admission. Because she was afraid. Because she was holding my eye with never a flinch and keeping her palm to my mangled face until it steadied. Because I knew she spoke the truth.
"You said you'd teach me how to love you as you want," she reminded, calmer now that the words were in the air. "You were to show me what it means, and yet I'm not so sure that you know it yourself."
"I know love," I protested, and yet my voice had dulled of its sharpness. "I love you. You are the one who chooses the fancies of a rich aristocrat over what I offer at my every breath."
"Why do you keep insisting that?"
"Why indeed," I spat with renewed irritation that became despair as the hand at my cheek opened its fingers and splayed wide against my skin, burning me inside and out. Yet still I spoke accusations. "You had the fever, Christine. You begged me to hold you; it was not by some absurd transgression that you woke in my arms. I held you as you wanted, only in your delirium, it was not the arms of your devoted Erik about you. You pleaded and spoke your eternal love to darling Raoul. He was the invisible presence in our bed, and truths came with his intangibility, it seems. …You said you love him, and you destroyed my every dream for our future in your selfish, little hands."
"Love…," she repeated in a breath, and yet her eyes were bearing into mine all the while, so transfixed and intent. "You're to teach me to love you," she insisted again. "You covered my eyes and took my sight. You believed you had to go to such lengths to convince me to bear your touch, and have I now shown you that such a thing is ridiculous? It's a face, Erik, and I am not cowering from its unordinary construction. I am touching your face, and it is the same as I envisioned it in my mind's eye when you kissed me. Is that what you wished to know?"
"This face, Christine?" I posed doubtfully.
And she shocked me to a gasped breath as she suddenly leant forward in my hold and set the gentlest kiss to the swollen arch of my upper lip. I couldn't bear it anymore, half-certain I would grab her and clasp her and never let her go, despite her every lingering trepidation. And it scared me so much that I abruptly released her and got to my feet, refusing another glance.
"Erik? …You ask for love, and yet you won't accept it."
"Ask for love? Force love upon you, you mean," I corrected with disgust I could not conceal. "I've pushed my heart to yours since the first day, and you're right. I expect a love that transcends every detail of my world. Perhaps you could have given it to me of your own free will if I'd let you, but I tried to manipulate it from you, to force your world to alter as inextricably as mine and weave our lives together in permanent union. But…no, it makes me a monster; in seeking your heart, I nearly damaged both of ours irreparably." I shook a miserable head, suddenly so weighty with its spiraling realities, and before I could think better of it, I met the protests in her eyes and said, "Go back to your Vicomte, Christine. I release you from your choice. Go and find the life you truly want and clasp it with both hands. Never let it go again."
She was starting to rise from the floor, her hands reaching to me, and before she could clasp, I escaped the future I wanted but wouldn't have, the bride attempting to appease with her touch, the house where dreams were supposed to be coming to life but were only hollow shells. And I didn't have to regret it and insist to sense that I should let her go because I already had.
I am quite good at sabotaging my own happiness. Maybe in some vein of utter self-hatred, I feel I don't deserve it and seek to punish myself by taking away every chance. I wanted Christine, ached for her, adored her with every fiber of my being, and yet I wouldn't let myself have her. And why? …Why, because somewhere along a meandering path laden with evil crime and sin, I had grown a sense of regret and morality, a sudden need for penance and redemption, a realization that I couldn't just take what I wanted. I had to earn it. I was not a god separated from humanity because I was so far above it. As much as it pained me to admit, I was a part of it, the same as every other of its species.
And Christine…. I could pine for her all I liked, but plenty of loves went unrequited. There was no written law to say she must love me back because I loved her so hopelessly. No, it had to be her choice, every bit of this, if I was ever going to have her as mine.
Coming to these conclusions was the easy part; following through was another story. I wandered the cold city in the dark, step after adamant step until my desire dimmed, until I felt certain that if I went to the house and found her gone, I wouldn't pursue her in a fit of rage. I offered her escape. If she took it, I had to let her go. As I said, it was a feat that was easier said than done when it meant that I went from having a willing if unhappy bride to nothing but an empty house again.
Nervous, I was nervous as I returned home, wondering if there would be nothing left of a shattered dream, not even fragments to meld back together. The fire was yet lit in the sitting room hearth and cast shadows out into the foyer to welcome my presence. It meant little, answered no question, but I still followed its glow with a twinge of hope I couldn't deny.
And there she was…. I thought I dreamt her image at first. Peacefully asleep upon my couch in her white nightdress, obviously awaiting my return. She could have been gone, could have been in the home of the Vicomte right now, sleeping in his arms. But no…, she hadn't left me. And it meant so much more than the first time she'd chosen me because I'd let her go without threat or consequence. I'd let her go, and here she was with me still.
"Christine," I breathed to myself as I dared to kneel on the floor beside her, gazing upon her as she slept. And with only the slightest hesitation, I bent and gently rested my head against her heartbeat, savouring its music. My Christine…, she was the greatest gift I'd ever been granted.
I felt her stir, the subtle shift in the constant pulse, the breath released in a soft sigh that ruffled the hair along my brow, and as I reluctantly lifted my head, I was shocked to silence to watch a slow smile light her lips when her eyes met mine. Had I ever received such a welcome?
And when walls threatened, I wouldn't let them be built. "I've never loved the way I love you, Christine," I told her, genuinely honest without a temper to make endearments carry the weight of threats. "I never knew such feelings could exist, and…they terrify as much as they consume. I thought to teach you to love me when the truth is you must teach me to love you. …To love you in a way that won't destroy our hearts at its culmination."
She seemed to meditate upon my words, but her little hand rose and reached for my mask. I allowed her with a certain amount of intrigue, watching her remove it without even a tremble and expose my distortions. "This is a man I could love," she revealed. "One who offers me his heart and lets me choose how I will hold it. Beneath your mask is a soul, Erik, and it is so brilliant when it shines. It makes this face beautiful. But how often do you deny its power with your desire to control? You want to force my heart to beat for you, but if you would let it be, it could play a duet with yours instead. Two equal parts of a whole."
Her fingers caressed my cheek, and I dared to turn and graze a kiss to their warm softness. "I love you, Christine."
"Trust my heart to love you back," she bid.
"Why did you stay?" I could not help but pose. "I thought sure I was giving you what your heart truly desired."
"My heart is already where it desires to be. The night I chose to stay I was afraid, Erik, because I saw no trace of the angel I once knew in the madman tossing ultimatums at my feet. I was half-sure he was gone, and I regretted the choice I'd made if it meant I could never have him back. But now I see that heart bared to me, laid beside my own, and I want to be nowhere else."
As she spoke those beautiful words that brought unbidden tears to my eyes, I allowed impulse to guide me and gently touched my fingertips to her cheek, astounded when she did not recoil. "I would love as gentle as a lamb if it meant I would have you forever in my arms."
"No," she said with a hinted smile, "I adore the fire in you too much. Teach me not to run from its possession, and I will teach you not to run from your own surmised doubts."
Fire…, yes, with her, it could burn with flames, and how often had I myself used desire's power to create more walls and lose what I most wanted? I desired her so much, and I was equally guilty of turning it into a seeming sin in the process. It didn't have to be that way anymore, not if she was willing instead of afraid. Fire…, there could be fire.
"And…are you still afraid, Christine?" I asked as I made my fingers move along her cheekbone and down to her upturned jaw. "You tremble still when I touch you. If it is not disgust, …is it fear?"
Her small, timid nod left me to consider how often she'd avoided my touch, how often I'd selfishly made it about me and my face, never considered that she bore her own reasons for hesitancy. How right she was! I created doubts and things to run from and never let her simply love me as she would.
"I won't hurt you," I vowed, "and I won't force you despite what I've let you believe. Make it your choice, Christine. You've chosen to stay as my wife; you decide what that means."
I could see that my words surprised her and cursed my own transgression to make her think otherwise. Yes, I had presented my desire as a punishment. I hated myself for such a thing!
"My hands upon your body," I muttered more to myself in my self-chastisement. "I was the very one to make you fear and denounce it! I made desiring me into a sin!"
"So…teach me something different," she insisted, and her free hand came to clasp my own to her cheek. "Show me that your touch and the way it feels are not something worthy of fear. …I don't want to be afraid of something I want so much, but it pulls me under its waves and drowns me in its power. And is it any wonder why I ran to the Vicomte when he makes me feel nothing like what you do?"
"You love him," I protested and tried to keep the bitterness from my tone.
She shook her head against the couch pillow. "What I feel for Raoul is too easy to be love; it isn't attached to the heart. …What I feel for you…, it overwhelms my every sense and steals my soul."
"But is it love, Christine?"
"Don't doubt, ange," she reminded. Both of her palms cradled my face between their softness, scars never considered. "And if I simply say the words, will it put you at ease? Can you not see their letters in my eyes? Everything I feel is so blatantly put before you. Can you not see my heart, Erik?"
But I did. To know she held my face as if it was any other ordinary face and wanted me, that she chose me even with freedom in her grasp, that in spite of her lingering trepidation, she was yearning to be mine. All of those things spoke volumes to love.
This was our starting point. I had to trust in what she freely gave, and she had to let go of fear to love me. For once, every one of our mismatched emotions was perfectly aligned.
As my answer, I kissed her, shivering to feel her smile, actually smile against my mouth as if this kiss was all she wanted. Her lips pressed to mine, love in every contact. It was my very dream brought to life, even more brilliant than fantasy because it was real.
And so I won my heart's desire. I could have been doomed to an eternity alone. I could have let her go and broken both our hearts in my blind hastiness, forcing feelings upon her shoulders that didn't exist. I could have been the cause of destroying what I longed for most. It was a tragedy only steps away, and I was fortunate that it wasn't mine.
Our path wasn't carved out before us; it was formed as we went along its meandering trail. It wasn't perfect or without foibles as we learned the true nuances of love and desire. It was a life evolving. But Christine loved me; I saw it in every detail of our life together, and I adored her doubly back. She changed me and made me a man worthy of her heart. And I counted myself blessed because she taught me what love truly was. She was my inspiration, and love was our dream together. Two parts of a whole heart.