Happy Thanksgiving weekend! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday full of turkey and pie! What I'm posting today is another oldie. I've used the concept of pretending in a few stories, but this one is a little different. I hope you enjoy it!
Some of you know from my website updates and Facebook page that my novel "Opera Macabre" has been nominated for book of the month at iBookBuzz. To anyone who has voted, I thank you so much! For anyone else who could help me out, there is information and a link on the homepage of my website. It takes only a second to cast a vote, and polls are open until Tuesday. I appreciate it so much, and an extra thank you to anyone who votes or encourages other voters.
Also, I'm truly considering the singing book tour idea and am currently looking for venues and ideas. I will be updating my website and Facebook page as information becomes available for that as well as for the publication of my next novel.
SUMMARY: In an effort to earn her happy ending, Christine accepts Erik's proposition and learns love through pretend.
"A Beautiful Lie"
A sea of masked faces whirled around the makeshift dance floor on the stage of the opera house as the string ensemble played a brilliant waltz. It was the night of the annual Masquerade ball. Paris' finest were in attendance as if boasting their generous patronage to the arts. Though they were masked, the most affluent made certain their presence was known, prepared to reap the benefits of their stature.
One such aristocrat, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, was recognized by everyone immediately. No mask could hide his flawless, handsome features, but even as the opera's managers attempted to fawn over him, the young Vicomte shooed them off to devote all of his attention to his lovely companion for the evening.
Christine held his arm as they meandered through the crowd, making their way to the dance floor. She was poignantly aware of the gossip and blatant stares she was receiving; if only those busybodies had any idea that she was actually secretly engaged to Raoul. That would certainly give them something worth talking about! The very thought brought a fleeting smile to her lips, and she suddenly felt the weight of the diamond engagement ring dangling on a chain around her neck, tucked now beneath the neckline of her gown. It was foolish really that they were hiding the news. Raoul wanted to shout it from mountaintops; it was she who was so adamant about keeping quiet for the time being. It would cause a stir in both their worlds, but she hardly cared about that; it was someone else's world that she wanted to avoid stirring, someone whose retaliation to such news would be far worse than biting comments and sharp stares….
Pushing the morbid thoughts aside, she did not allow her smile to waver as Raoul began to lead her in the dance steps. No, no dark thoughts tonight. They would still be there waiting tomorrow.
Christine's feigned bright countenance lasted well into the night as she spent dance after dance in Raoul's arms. Laughter fluttered from her lips; she was such a wonderful actress that no one would have believed that it was far from real.
After awhile, nearly exhausted, she wandered to stand on the sidelines as Raoul reluctantly abandoned her to converse with an acquaintance. Her feet ached in her pretty little slippers, and realizing that she was likely disheveled from dancing, she smoothed her gloved hands over her pale pink skirt and adjusted her lace-trimmed mask.
Glancing through the many faces seeking Raoul, her eyes came to rest on the elaborate staircase, a part of the current production that was being used by the party goers this evening. At the top of the stairs, the crowd suddenly parted and revealed someone dressed as the Red Death.
Someone…. She knew who it was immediately, and like a moth to a flame, she was drawn to him. His eyes behind that skeleton's head sought her out. She felt a shiver race the length of her spine the instant his gaze found her, bearing into her as if he could see every secret on her soul. A wordless command seemed to resound through the ball over the noise of the crowd and the orchestra, and she automatically began to approach him as he descended the staircase to meet her.
Christine felt like a sleepwalker, wandering on the plane of dreamscape without acknowledgement to reality pirouetting about her; nothing else existed but a beckoning command somewhere in her subconscious. Her only motivation was to get to him, her angel, her captor.
At the foot of the staircase, he came to stand before her, holding her eyes mesmerized in his. Erik knew the sort of power he had over her, knew it was unethical to exploit her in such a manner, but he could not help himself. She was so beautiful, shining with youth and innocence. Torturously, he had watched her spend the night in the arms of the Vicomte, longing to be the one in his place, to hold her, to feel her against his heartbeat where she belonged. And now there was no Vicomte to destroy the illusion; now she was his.
Erik trailed eager eyes over her, taking in her flushed cheeks at the edge of her mask, the tendrils of baby curls clinging to her temples, but as he observed and sought to memorize every nuance, his gaze abruptly halted, his expression darkening.
"What is it?" Christine heard herself ask in a breathless whisper as if the voice were no longer her own.
He did not answer, and following the path of his locked gaze, she saw what he did, and her heart leapt in her chest. Her ring! During the dancing, it must have escaped and was now on display for everyone to see, …for Erik to see.
"Erik," she stuttered, fighting to devise some sort of plausible explanation.
Before she could realize what he meant to do, his gloved hand caught the gaudy trinket as it glinted off the stage lights, and with his harsh tug, the chain around her neck broke free, dropping the ring into his grasp.
She gasped, her hand clutching at her now bare throat. She could feel the sore indents from the fierceness of his actions. It surprised her. For all of his temper and rages, he had never before laid a hand on her with the intention of causing pain. But there was no question of his intent at present as his eyes shot fire.
Erik nearly growled at her with the intensity of his anger and desolation, and with a sudden swirl of his cloak, he vanished from her sight as if he had never been there at all.
Wide-eyed, Christine stared at the open place where he had stood, her hand grabbing at her throat, missing the heaviness of her necklace. She was shaking from head to toe. Never before had she seen such a look in his eyes; it frightened her.
Hardly taking a moment to consider her actions, she suddenly darted into the crowd, rushing for the edge of the stage. A hand caught her arm, and she gave a terrified cry as she flipped around.
"Christine, what happened?" Raoul asked, worried by her frantic expression.
She could not answer as she yanked out of his hold. Shaking her head in a wordless apology, she turned away and hurried back on her intended path, hearing him call her name after her as she lost herself in the vast crowd.
Making sure that Raoul did not follow, she disappeared down the long corridor of dressing rooms. It was dark and empty now; no one was around to help her or find her. But she refused to consider that as she stumbled into her dressing room, locking the door behind her.
She hesitated only long enough to light an oil lamp, and then mustering every ounce of courage she possessed, she faced her mirror.
"I know you're here," Christine said confidently, pleased that her voice did not tremble as her body did. "Come out."
Her reflection in the glass began to fade after only a moment as the hidden doorway opened to her trepid eyes. The Red Death himself stood stoically framed by the mirror's base, his powerful gaze piercing her like a lance.
Straightening her shoulders and insisting to herself that she was not afraid, she demanded, "Give me back my ring."
Apathetic was his chosen demeanor as he strode into the room, ignoring her command. "The Vicomte will be quite worried when he finds that you have so carelessly run off. He will think that you have encountered some terrible misfortune."
Christine stifled every instinctive urge that begged her to move away. Extending her palm as she fought not to quiver and cower, she again demanded, "My ring."
Erik regarded her bemusedly. "Have you lost something?"
"You had no right to take it from me."
"Your ring? I haven't seen it." Erik glanced at her bare throat and cringed at the marks his fierceness had left on her flawless skin. …Heartache was a powerful emotion. "Your fiancé will be sore when he learns that you have lost your engagement ring."
The bitterness in his voice stung like a harsh slap. "It…it isn't like that. I haven't given him a definite answer-"
"Don't you dare lie to me!" Erik snapped. "I will not tolerate lies! I deserve the truth!"
Shaking, Christine lowered her eyes to the carpeted floor, knowing that he was right. "I…I was going to tell you…."
"Were you? Or did you plan for me to learn the truth after the wedding perhaps?"
"Erik, please." She couldn't look at him; the pain in his voice was so raw, so real. She had not considered how much she would hurt him, preferring to think of him only as the villain standing in the way. Now there was no denying that even villains had hearts as Erik's seemed to spill its secretive contents in every beautiful tone.
But a pause had him reining emotions again, every one that should have been called unacceptable, and replacing them with a malevolent sneer, he chose cruelty as his weapon. "You have deceived me, played with my heart like an ignorant child. I have killed for far less."
Christine's eyes shot up to his. He couldn't possibly mean to….
He laughed aloud at her assumption. "Killing you wouldn't be beneficial to me." Leaning back on her vanity, he bridged his fingers thoughtfully in front of him, studying her in the dim lamplight, and finally contended, "I have a proposition for you."
"A…a proposition?" She could not help but be on guard.
"You want to leave here, to marry the boy, to have me permanently out of your life. I can give you all of that…for a price, of course." He pondered a moment, though he obviously already had his plan in mind. "I want one week, one week with you…as my wife."
"What?" The color drained from her face, pooling out of her with the arrival of terror, and her brow furrowed beneath the weight of her thoughts as she fought to understand.
"I realize that I can never have you in the way I wanted, not with that boy tugging from his corner. All that will result is pain and death if I choose to ignore your wishes and force my own on you, so I am willing to settle for one week to live the life I should have had."
"I…I don't understand what you mean. I cannot be your wife."
"No, but you could pretend. You are the most wonderful little actress I know. How many of your contrived smiles for the Vicomte lately have been fraudulent?" Erik tilted his head to one side, running eyes over her as she shivered under his powerful gaze. "I want one week with the woman I love loving me in return, being my wife with all of the duties and privileges that title brings, …even if the emotions behind it aren't real."
Christine shook her reeling head and demanded in a hushed tone, "How can you ask such a thing of me? I am to marry Raoul."
"Yes, poor handsome Raoul. You do realize that if we continue on our current trek, he will be the one to suffer. I may have said that I had no intention of killing you, but the Vicomte…. He has stolen what should be mine. He must pay for that insolence. Choosing to do this could save his life." The more Erik spoke aloud of his random idea, the better it seemed. Christine, as his willing wife in a fantasy that for one week would be his.
"I…I couldn't possibly," she stammered. "What you are asking is too much."
"Is it? I am offering you your fairy tale ending and your handsome prince charming, the life you so adamantly claim to want. All that I want in return is one week."
"As your wife." She said the word as if it were an insult.
"You have a choice to make," he retorted sharply. "And I advise you to consider well. Your future happiness and that of your precious Vicomte are at stake." Standing up, he stepped toward the mirror, calling over his shoulder. "I expect your decision tomorrow. If you are here awaiting me after rehearsal, then you have agreed to be my loving, devoted wife; if not,…." He trailed off, shrugging nonchalantly. "The Vicomte's welfare is of no concern to me."
With that, he left her there, retreating to his darkness as she stared wide-eyed in his wake.
Behind the mirror's glass, Erik lingered, watching her, wondering at the thoughts in her head. He was disgusted with himself for the way he had treated her and the ridiculous proposal he had made. It wasn't what he wanted, but then again none of this was. It was immoral to force her into the role of his wife and cruel in a manner that he had never wanted to be towards her. Part of him hoped that she would refuse him, but the other part…. The other part wondered if it would really be so terrible to fall into the dream.
In the dressing room, Christine had hung her head low, her expression hopeless. Erik gently touched the glass, wishing he could be touching her, wishing that he were not the cause of her sadness. But as it was, they each had their roles to play, and yet tomorrow, they could be reversed, could be scripted as something new; tomorrow hope could be a dream instead of a nightmare. Tomorrow….
The next day, Christine felt like she was in a daze. Her mind drifted off in every direction, causing her to trip through rehearsal, fumbling entrances and notes. No matter how much she went over an impossible ultimatum in her head, she was afraid that her choice had already been made for her. All she could do was accept it.
One journey would seal her fate. During lunch break, she escaped the confines of the opera house with a purpose, hurrying through the Parisian streets. One visit, one lie, and no one would seek her out; no one would know just what she'd shamefully committed herself to hold as her decision. She told herself that it was for the good of everyone, that her sacrifice would ensure happy endings. …But she didn't truly believe it.
Later as Monsieur Reyer ended rehearsal for the day, Christine wearily staggered to her dressing room. Her entire body was trembling; she felt as though she walked to her own execution.
Nearly the instant she entered the room and closed the door behind her, the creak of the mirror's hinge caught her ear, and her eyes darted to the secret doorway in time to see him wander inside. He was obviously wasting no time claiming his prize when she recalled so many days where he wouldn't dare emerge from the dark and step into her light; perhaps he didn't want to risk her changing her mind and fleeing, shattering his illusion before she had ever let it begin. His seemingly confident air angered her as it permeated off him in a glaring smirk; it was as though he knew that she would give in to his proposition.
"Good evening, Madame," he greeted. Madame, his wife….
She cringed with the thought, and he immediately scolded, "Ah, ah. You are to be my devoted, loving wife. Not one abhorrent expression if you want to preserve your future happiness."
It took every ounce of effort within her to wipe the hateful look from her eyes and replace it with a sweet smile. Biting back every comment that yearned to break free, she instead said, "Good evening, mon époux. I was anticipating the moment when I would see you again."
Excitement bubbled within Erik. Even if this was all a lie, to read such a kind sentiment and see a smile on her lips was blissful. When was the last time she had bestowed a smile upon him? …He couldn't even remember….
"I trust rehearsal went well," he stuttered. He was not the sort of man to fumble for words, but under the swelling emotions within him, he was nearly overcome.
"Not particularly," she replied. "I was distracted, …thinking about you." It may not have been true in the pleasant sort of vein, but it wasn't a lie.
"I am delighted that I am the subject of your thoughts, but I wouldn't be a good teacher if I did not say that I don't wish to interfere with your talent."
"Always the teacher first and husband second," she commented, feeling oddly sure that her assumption would be entirely accurate.
There was adoration beaming in his eyes, and it was so sincere that it shook her. She fought not to be influenced by his fantasy, to cling tight to the world as she knew it to be, but he seemed to desire the illusion, so desperate for her love that it fuzzed the distinct edges of reality and made her suddenly terrified what that would mean.
"Well then," he broke into her muddled thoughts and with only a slight fumble to insist that it was anything but a natural gesture, he dared to offer his arm, "shall we set out for home?"
She hesitated in spite of the game, knowing that going with him ended any chance to change her mind. She had to do this…for Raoul and their future. Swallowing back her fears, she smiled at him, her expression her own mask to hide behind, and slid her arm through his, laying her palm on his sleeve. It was the closest to a touch she had granted him since becoming aware of his true face.
Their journey was in uncomfortable silence. As the boat sailed them in view of Erik's hidden lair, Christine momentarily forgot her trepidations to admire the warm glow radiating out from the cracks of the door, welcoming her from the damp chill of the catacombs.
"I have dinner awaiting us," he told her, his voice jolting her back to the present. "You needn't worry about clothing; there is a wardrobe full of gowns in your room."
Her room…. He had shown it to her once before, that first night she had come to this house when his guise had been that of an angel. Never had she explored it or stayed in its canopy bed, though its presence had been inviting.
Erik watched her carefully at every chance, urgently trying to decipher her thoughts in her every expression. Daring to break the fantasy for a brief moment, he asked the question that had been bothering him since they left her dressing room. "What sort of explanation did you give the Vicomte for your absence?"
Her real discontent overcame her; she did not try to hide it. If he was taking a respite from his ridiculous game, then she would as well. "I went to see him during lunch. I told him that I had an aunt in the country who was very sick and that I must go and attend to her for the week."
Bitterness twisted in his stomach. Here she was at his side, but hours before she had been in the arms of the Vicomte, making vows of love and devotion to him instead. Almost sharply, he declared, "Your superior acting skills likely made him believe you."
Was he speaking of Raoul or himself…, she wondered but did not dare ask.
Succumbing to the lie once again before the truth could be learned, he lightened his tone and smiled at her sweetly. "Welcome home, my beautiful wife."
Erik helped her out of the boat but did not release her, keeping her hand captive in his gloved one. Still his eyes went to hers, asking permission without a word, but she only smiled with her actress' air and even curled her fingers around his palm.
This was heaven! He had never known what happiness could feel like. Lost in the dream, he ushered her to dinner in his elegantly decorated dining room, casting furtive glances at her between bites. Conversation was pleasant; he told her a story about one of the many misfortunes he had caused for Carlotta in such great detail that she laughed. He had actually made her laugh!
As she finished the last bit of food on her plate, she said in honesty, "Supper was delicious. You are a wonderful cook."
"One of my talents that you were unaware of." He teetered a glass of red wine in his hand, making the liquid spin before he took a sip, careful to avoid hitting his mask.
Christine suddenly wished there was still an entire plate of food in front of her. If dinner was over, then…what next?
Erik could sense her discomfort as she shifted in her seat. Setting down his glass, he suggested, "Would you like a hot bath? I know how chilled it can be here. A hot bath will help."
"That…sounds wonderful," she replied with a silent sigh of relief. Some sort of escape…. Even if it was only delaying the inevitable….
"There is running water in your bath chamber, and nightclothes are in your armoire."
Christine nearly leapt to her feet. "Thank you. I will return soon." With that and a quick forced smile, she fled the dining room for her bedchamber. She did not hesitate to lock the door behind her, unsure what he would expect as her husband. Did the title even if feigned mean that he could enter any room uninvited? She was loath to find out.
A little while later, Erik sat in his living room, studying the fire in the hearth absentmindedly when the sound of soft footsteps caught his ear. With the hint of reluctance, he turned his head and watched as she tentatively entered the room. His eyes took in the vision of her in her nightdress and wrap, but any pleasant thoughts died when he read the fear in her gaze, blatant despite her fake smile.
Slowly, he rose from his chair and took note with a stab of remorse how she jumped as if startled. Pretending he did not notice, he gently called, "Christine, come here. I have something for you."
She was skeptical. He read her suspicion amidst her reluctance to comply, but on shaky knees, she wandered closer to the hearth and halted at a seemingly safe distance from him.
Erik stepped to the mantle and opened a trinket box set atop it. Withdrawing its contents, he faced her but did not approach. He simply held out his hand and waited until she hesitantly took what he offered.
"A wife needs a wedding ring," he told her, but the ring she held had captured her attention.
She had never seen anything like it. The stone was large and pale purple, glinting and shimmering in the firelight. On either side of it were two smaller diamonds.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, twirling it in her hand so that she could watch it sparkle.
"I purloined it during my stay in Persia. I never thought I'd actually have anyone to give it to."
Christine tore her eyes from the continuous glisten to regard Erik. "I can't accept this, Erik. It's yours."
Erik shook his head even as she held it out to him. "You are my wife, and I want you to have it. It's meant for you."
With a hesitant nod, she stared transfixed as she slipped it on her finger. "It fits perfectly."
"As I said, it is meant to be yours."
She was slightly affected by the sadness in his voice. It was odd to her that she had the urge to comfort him, an urge that she quickly denied.
Erik took a step closer to her, and she instinctively recoiled before forcing herself to remain in place. Her mind spun a web of thoughts about what was to come, but she tried to be brave, to remember why she was doing this. For a happy ending…, yes, this was for her happy ending.
As she waited for her fate, to her surprise, he simply pressed a feather-light kiss to her forehead and then moved away again. His lips left a cold chill to her skin.
"Goodnight, Christine," he bid as he strode back to stand before the hearth.
"Goodnight," she echoed with confusion creasing her brow. She knew and understood her wifely duty…. Why was he denying it? Wasn't that what he had wanted all along in proposing this game?
She thought to ask but quickly thought better of it, scampering off to her room lest he change his mind. She would count herself lucky. Maybe this experience wouldn't be as awful as she had thought.
Erik listened to her leave but did not cast another glance in her direction. All he could do was wonder why he had begun this when it could only result in pain. Things would never change.
The next day, Christine found it much easier to retain her jovial mood. Without the previous night's pressure, acting as his wife was little more than being kind and congenial. As the minutes went by, her fake smiles were becoming more and more real.
Erik refused to let the hopelessness of the situation affect him, choosing instead to fall victim to the dream. He spent the day with her as he always imagined, a shared breakfast, her lesson with him as diligent teacher, then reading together, telling each other snippets of text and discussing. After dinner, he even suggested a walk by the river, which she eagerly accepted with a grin he thought might be real.
Emerging up into the world, Christine was suddenly aware of how deeply she missed it when hidden away underground. The air, though cold, was fresh and delicious against her skin, the dark evening sky alight with endless stars. She halted a few steps ahead, gazing upward in awe. Were the stars ever so bright?
"Don't you miss the world when you spend all day locked away from it?" she asked over her shoulder as he came to join her.
Erik shrugged. "I have seen little good come from this world you so love. It is no loss to me to be without it." His hand instinctively pulled the rim of his fedora lower as though it could hide the stark glow of the mask.
"But look at the stars, Erik. There are so many; it is amazing."
"For all the beauty God created, mankind is so intolerably ugly," he commented flatly. "It is a cruel reality." Before she could make a reply, he offered his arm, replacing a smile. "Shall we?"
Nodding and smiling in return, she looped her arm through his, and he seemed pleased that she did not hesitate. It surprised Christine that she could become victim to this game as much as he. It simply called for living in the present moment and pretending that this was the outcome of all the pain they had both endured.
Her eyes drifted to the glistening ring on her finger set atop his arm. His ring…. With this ring, she was his wife…. It left her to wonder if this was the way things would have been if it were true.
Their walk was spent in silence but comfortably so. The breeze off the river was frigid, and Christine leaned closer to Erik, ignoring her mind's warnings as she savoured the sensation of his body so near. It was with great reluctance that he led her back to the opera house and the catacombs.
Later after a hot bath to warm her again, Christine sought him out as she had the previous night. There was a lingering apprehension knotting her stomach that she could not be certain was unnecessary.
Much like the night before, she found him in the living room, standing near the fireplace, staring into the flames.
"Are you warm?" she asked, her voice breaking his reverie as he flipped around to face her.
"Oh," he replied, trying not to show how she had startled him. "The cold does not affect me. I am accustomed to it." A bit of his sadness returned with his tumultuous thoughts.
"Are you all right?" she asked, concerned in a way that was not acted.
He nodded with a forced smile. "Yes, …fine…. It's getting late. You should go to bed."
"All right," she replied softly. She was about to turn and go when his voice stopped her.
Erik hesitated, not daring to step closer as he softly asked, "May I…. May I kiss you goodnight?"
Her heart leapt in her chest, her voice trembling as she answered, "A husband does not need to ask his wife for a kiss."
Shaking his head, he told her, his eyes fiercely serious, "I am not asking you as my wife. I am asking you as Christine."
She was strangely moved by his words, and without a word, she nodded her reply.
Hardly able to breathe, he approached, and she tilted her face upward expectantly, watching him with nervous eyes. He ran his gaze over her, studying her face and her parted lips. Never in his life had he felt more uncertain or more afraid.
Bending slowly, he only brushed his lips over hers, so gently that a shiver raced down her spine in his wake. Then almost abruptly, he backed away again.
"Goodnight," he softly bid, dragging his eyes back to the fire.
Confusion formed deep wrinkles in her brow. Was it wrong for her to want more? It had to be…, but as much of a relief as it was that he did not ask more of her, she felt a queer sense of rejection and disappointment.
"Erik?" she called gently.
"Hmm?" He would not face her.
Without thought, she came to stand beside him, waiting until he turned to her. "May I kiss my husband goodnight?"
He stiffened, wanting to refuse, wondering if she was only playing well at his game, but all he did was give a single nod. His body's desire was far too potent to fight.
Lifting her hand as her ring sparkled in the firelight, she cupped the unmasked side of his face in her palm, holding his fearful gaze. Her lips met his lightly at first, testing, careful to avoid the barrier of the mask. Gently, her mouth moved against his, coaxing him to respond, delighted when he did.
Erik made no move to hold her, keeping his hands in fists at his sides even as they tingled with the need to touch her. He imitated the motions of her kiss, unfamiliar with such an act but yearning only to please her. His entire body quivered with the swelling urge of desire, thick and heavy beneath his skin as he fought to keep control.
Christine was lost in the strangeness and foreignness of kissing him. She had only ever been kissed by Raoul, and never had she dared to take the lead as she now was. Erik's lips were different, cold as the catacombs and yet seeming to warm from their contact with hers. Even as she kissed him, her body wanted more.
Abruptly, Erik burst out of her spell and jerked away, cringing out of her reach. "Go to bed," he ordered coldly without even a look.
Hurt but without protest, she obeyed, glancing at him over her shoulder as she fled for the sanctuary of her bedchamber.
When she was out of earshot, Erik succumbed to the tears that threatened, sliding into a heap on his throne-like chair. He pressed his fingertips to his lips where hers had been touching his, missing their softness and warmth. She would never understand how bittersweet every moment with her was considering his future of loneliness. Why had he ever started this accursed game?
In her room, Christine collapsed into her bed, but her mind was alert with visions of the past moments. She had been playing a part, hadn't she? The dutiful, loving wife…. And yet had she ever felt more like herself than this past day spent with Erik?
What was she doing? She wanted to scream at herself and her ridiculous mind. Raoul was her fiancé; he was the man she loved. All of this was an act, a role like so many others she had played. It would secure the future she wanted, the future she was determined to have…. And yet more and more, she was forgetting that future. It was fading away with each smile she gave to Erik.
With a tormented sigh, she buried her head in her pillow and prayed for sleep.
The next morning, Christine awoke to a light rapping on her door. Pushing her bedraggled hair back from her face, she quickly leapt out of bed, smoothing her nightdress with suddenly nervous hands as she scurried to answer.
Opening a crack, she peered out with sleepy eyes.
"Good morning," Erik greeted her, fully clothed and smiling cheerily.
"Is it morning?" she asked, her voice still thick with sleep.
"It is very early, but, yes, it is morning." His eyes traveled over what he could glimpse of her disheveled appearance with consuming tenderness. "As always, you are enchanting, no matter the hour."
She could feel her cheeks redden under his compliment, grateful the shadows hid it from his notice. "Thank you, but why, may I ask, are we awake at this early hour?"
"Actually," he began, "there is someplace I want to take you, and we need to have an early start to reach it. Dress warmly and meet me in the living room."
Nodding her consent, she watched him hurry away with a twinge of amusement. Had she ever seen him so excited about anything?
Quickly, Christine prepared, selecting a light grey, woolen gown with a thick, black cloak. Her long locks she weaved into a single braid that hung heavily against her back, simple yet pretty. She took an extra moment to regard her appearance in her vanity mirror, smiling at a girl who smiled back. That girl seemed genuinely happy, her blue eyes glowing with vivacity. She wanted to argue that it was a stranger staring back, but it was herself, only herself, and how it disturbed her!
Christine found Erik waiting impatiently for her in the living room, a travel bag in hand.
"What is that?" she asked curiously.
"You will see when we arrive." With that, he ushered her out of his home and to the world above.
Their first stop was the opera house stables, housing horses used mainly for show onstage. Without explanation, Erik sought out a lovely white horse. The animal neighed happily when it saw him and eagerly approached.
"He knows you," Christine declared, amazed.
Erik stroked the horse's long mane fondly. "Oh, Samson and I are old friends."
Cocking her head playfully to one side, she demanded, "Do you steal him often?"
"No, I borrow him often," Erik corrected her with an innocent grin. "What does it matter? This poor animal hardly gets enough exercise as a stage horse, so in reality, I am keeping him in shape."
She just shook her head and watched as Erik saddled the horse and loaded him with his pack. When he was ready, he turned to her hesitantly.
"Do you mind riding with me on Samson? It is much easier than saddling another horse, especially considering that Samson is as gentle as a lamb. I cannot say the same for some of the others."
"I would be happy to ride with you," she replied. "I haven't ridden since I was a child."
"Don't be afraid. I'll hold onto you." Meeting her eye, he assured, "I won't let go."
"I know." There was far more flashing between them, a vow, a loyalty, a devotion, and flustered, she looked away, busying herself with climbing onto the horse.
Erik swung on behind her, and immediately, his senses were assaulted with her, her scent wafting his nostrils, her soft, warm back pressed so firmly to his chest, wispy curls that had escaped her braid tickling his skin.
Christine was grateful that he could not see the tumult of emotions in her eyes. She wanted to scold herself and her betraying heart. What was wrong with her? Why could she only concentrate on the erratic beating of his heart against her back and his shallow, tremulous breaths? Why was her every urge begging her to lean into him? She fought to focus her mind on the feeling of being horseback instead and the lack of stability as Samson adjusted to their weight, but as Erik tentatively brought his arms around her to hold her in place, her concentration was lost again.
Determined to keep control, Erik clicked to Samson to go and busied his attention with the task of riding. They left the stables and the opera's grounds and then traveled by sideways and alleys through Paris. The sun had only just risen hidden behind a thick layer of grey clouds, and yet to Erik's eyes, so unaccustomed to natural light, even veiled sunlight burned and blinded him until he finally adjusted.
Everything was quiet, not many people out on the streets, but he still took the byways, staying out of sight until, at last, the city ended and open land began.
Christine's eyes wandered the landscape, fields full of browning grass with dormant trees here and there scattered sparsely about. Ahead of them, the trees thickened, and Samson's hooves crunched brown leaves as he entered thicker brush.
The ride was long. They went from forested areas to open fields and back again, occasionally passing a lavish estate house. Christine had no notion where they were and wondered how Erik could tell when they passed nothing that could be considered any sort of landmark. The air around them held a mid-fall chill as the sun fought to brighten up grey clouds, but cold seemed inconsequential. Christine did not even notice its sting with Erik so close. Their bodies seemed to create an impenetrable heated barrier.
After awhile so deliciously warm and content as she was, Christine dozed off, her head leaning gently against his chest and being cradled by his heartbeat.
Erik gazed down at her in silent adoration, studying her as she slept, her features beautifully peaceful. His eyes were drawn to the lovely line of her throat, and he had the urge to press kisses down the length of that creamy column, to burrow his lips in its crease and taste her skin. He could fantasize such a scene into existence: an outing with his lovely bride, over-laden with eager caresses and kisses, the very libretto of a couple in love.
It seemed all too soon when they finally arrived at their destination. Erik pulled Samson to a halt, the motion rousing Christine as she, with a flush of embarrassment, sat up straight and tall in the saddle and tried to create as much distance as she could.
"I'm sorry," she stuttered, casting flustered glances over her shoulder. "I guess I fell asleep."
"No apology is necessary," he replied, hoping she wouldn't catch the disappointment in his voice. Swinging down from the horse's back, he continued, "We're here."
A chill overtook her body where his had been keeping her warm, and she missed its branding imprint. Forcing her eyes to scan their surroundings in a lackluster attempt at distraction, she shook her head in confusion at the vast number of leafless trees in every direction.
"And where exactly is here?" she asked skeptically.
"Patience." Lifting his arms to help her down, he half-expected her to refuse, but she didn't, setting her palms atop his shoulders and letting him aid her descent. Taking it as encouragement, he did not pose question as he caught one of her hands in his and began to lead her forward. "This way."
"But the horse," she protested, glancing back at the idling animal.
"Don't worry about Samson. He won't go too far. It always seems inhumane to me to chain him up."
She nodded her understanding, but words fled her as he brought her to a clearing ahead.
"What is this place?" she breathed, gazing in awe. What stood before her were the remnants of what appeared to be a medieval hall. The basic stone walls stood covered in vines, weathered with age; in places, they had corroded completely, leaving open holes that extended up to the roofless sky as daylight and cold poured in around them.
"I found this when I first came to France," he told her, watching her take it all in and pleased with her astonishment. "There are many such places all over the world; you would be surprised. They are the remnants of a bygone age, lost amid nature."
"Was it a castle?"
"A small one, probably belonging to a lord or count." Gently tugging on the hand he still held, he led her through a long crack in the front wall and into the castle.
It was just as Erik remembered. Before them was a stone staircase leading up to a platform, all the remained of the second floor. Much everything else between decaying stone walls was open with sparse patches of grass and bushes growing about. The leftover castle had become a part of the forest itself.
"And no one knows this is here?" she asked, incredulously scrutinizing every feature.
"I'm reasonably sure that it is forgotten. Of course, I haven't been here in years." Releasing her hand, Erik wandered into the middle of the small room. "I used to come here and write music with my violin. Every piece was so ridiculously melancholy and wallowing."
"Wallowing?" she asked with a smile. "Was none of it happy?"
"I don't think I wrote a happy note until I met you. It's impossible to write about happiness if you've never known it."
"After our wedding, you mean?" she teased, thinking that he was playing the game.
But his expression was cast in solemn seriousness. "No, I mean the moment I first saw you and was overcome by your beauty."
His honesty made her uncomfortable, and shifting back and forth nervously, she avoided his stare and changed the subject. "I didn't know that you played the violin. Why have you never played for me?"
"I haven't played in a long time," he replied, "but if you like, I will play for you when we return home."
It was surprising to her that she knew so little about him, and yet she realized that she had never taken the time to learn. She had spent every moment running from him, being afraid of things that didn't seem to be real anymore. How could they be real in this fantasy game of make believe?
"Christine," Erik called, drawing her mind out of her thoughts, "sing."
Raising one dark brow with another unspoken question, she complied with his command. Taking a deep breath, she let her full soprano pour forth. Her first note startled her as it resounded crystal clear off the stone walls, and she jumped with surprise. At Erik's smile, she began again, this time expecting the resonating echo that followed.
Erik leaned against what remained of a stone stair rail, his eyes feasting on the vision of her as her beautiful tone drew him under her spell. She had chosen Marguerite's Jewel aria from Faust, and as she glided effortlessly through the notes, he felt a shiver run up his spine. Had any earthly sound ever been so exquisite?
She landed on her final high note, and the full pitch bounced all around them. Her smile was brilliant and beaming. He longed to be a part of the scene.
Before the magic was lost, he suddenly sang to her a line of recitative from the final act of Faust.
Christine felt goosebumps arise on her flesh at the sound. It was no wonder to her that she once mistook him for an angel. No mortal man could possess such golden tones. He had not sung to her since he had been her angel, and hearing him now made her realize how much she felt a loss without it.
Without hesitation, she replied with Marguerite's answer, falling into the role, and then he began their final duet in the opera, singing to her:
"Oui, c'est toi je t'aime…"
Erik did not approach her; he stayed at the stair rail, but his gaze bore into her as he sang, letting his voice weave around her. She stared back, almost mesmerized, and when it came time for her to sing, he heard her voice quiver before becoming strong, her expression laden in awe as if to insist she hardly felt worthy enough to sing with him.
How he wished that this were not a game they played, that her sung words of love had true sentiments behind them!
As the song ended, Erik began another, delighted when she smiled with genuine pleasure to continue to sing with him.
They did not cease until much later when they had sung through half a dozen songs, their voice weaving around one another's in a brilliant beacon of sound. Then almost reluctant to end, he brought his travel bag up the staircase to the remaining platform at the top and revealed to her excited eyes a large blanket, which he spread atop the stone floor and a packed lunch. Lounging, they ate as grey clouds passed above their heads in the nonexistent roof.
Sipping a glass of wine, Erik told her, "I have dreamt of bringing you here for so long; I knew you would appreciate such a place."
"It's beautiful," she replied, clutching her own glass in both hands. In her mind, she contemplated the previous night for the hundredth time, wanting to voice her thoughts, wanting to ask the questions his behavior had incited but not daring to. Instead, she chose another difficult topic and hesitantly asked, "Erik, if I asked you a question, …would you give an answer and not be angry with me for it?"
His brow furrowed, but he said, "If I can, I will tell you anything you'd like to know."
She paused, sipping her wine slowly before softly putting a curiosity into words. "What happened…to your face?" Once it was said, she could not look at him.
Erik's entire body stiffened. His impulse was to snap at her for daring to ask such a thing, but he commanded every inkling of self-control to stay calm. He reminded himself that she was not trying to hurt him, that she couldn't realize. Swallowing back his pride, he attempted to sound detached and aloof as he said, "I don't know…. Can we find a more pleasant topic of discussion?"
"No," she insisted, made confident by his lack of anger. "You keep saying that there are so many things I don't know about you. Well, I'm trying to learn, …and as your wife, I think I deserve to know the truth."
He felt inclined to argue that fact, but clenching his jaw tight with repressed emotion, he reluctantly revealed, "I was born this way…. My mother said that I was marked by the devil."
Christine wanted to touch him and give him some form of solace when she glimpsed his pain, but she kept still as he continued speaking, his gaze focused on his glass.
"I never considered myself marked by the devil; I believed I was just unfortunate or perhaps that God had cursed me with this face that so disgusts you as a cruel joke. From what I have seen in my lifetime, He isn't a very fair God."
Shame crept with a pink blush over her skin as she remembered the way she had condemned and ran from him after stealing his mask away. She had only considered her fear at the time; never had she even thought that he was just a man whose fate had been thrust upon him, who suffered far more than any human being should for something that he was born possessing.
"Erik," she called tenderly, one of her hands timidly setting atop his, "it is a face, nothing more. It is skin, muscle, bone; it is not you or your heart or soul. Those are the things that shine through, and they are beautiful."
"Don't," he commanded, pulling his hand from her grasp. "Don't play my wife now and give me honeyed lies. I can't bear it."
"I'm not lying-"
"You were repulsed by what you saw!" he nearly growled at her. "You told your perfect fiancé that my face was grotesque and deformed, a monster I believe you called me."
Cringing, she felt tears threaten to well up at her own guilt and cruelty. Only now through his eyes did she see how ignorant she had been. "You're right. I did say those horrible things to Raoul. But I regret every word. I'm sorry, Erik. You are not a monster; you are a good man."
"Stop, please, stop," he suddenly begged, and the desperation in his voice silenced her. He looked as if he would cry. "I can't dare let myself believe you. Go back to pretending, Christine. Play your role as my wife, and don't say anything else about that."
"Why?" she whispered with her own tears.
"Because I can't accept it to be true. Because if it is, then all I am left with is the question of why you chose him, of why I wasn't good enough for you…." Abruptly, he forced composure and hid the extent of his pain as he coldly demanded, "Play your part, or I will have to go back on my word and end this game and the Vicomte."
His threat wasn't valid; Christine knew that he wouldn't follow through on it, but she gave up anyway and with only the sheen of tears in her eyes to reveal the truth, returned to his game.
Unspoken thoughts and fake smiles shadowed the rest of the afternoon. She was grateful when they finally returned to the opera house, and she could have some time alone. In the solitude of her room, she was finally allowed to let her tears overcome her.
It was quite late when Christine emerged. She had attempted to sleep, but could not find it, tossing and turning until she finally had to rise. She wondered if Erik was still awake and was almost pleased when she saw the light of a fire coming from the living room. Its warmth called to her and drew her in as her bare feet wandered silently across the carpeted floor.
She didn't need to make a sound; he seemed to feel her approaching presence, turning to regard her as she paused in the doorway.
"Couldn't sleep?" he asked gently.
She shook her head. "Neither could you, it seems."
"I had a lot on my mind."
Christine shifted back and forth and softly asked, "Me?"
"Always you. I don't think I ever have a thought that isn't about you."
With the hint of a smile on her lips, she entered the room, remaining a fair distance from where he stood near the fire. "Earlier, you said that you would tell me the answer to anything I asked."
"Yes?" Erik probed with an inkling of reluctance as he recalled her last question.
She couldn't say why she needed an answer or where she found the bravery to ask, but the words tumbled out of her mouth. "Why did you send me to bed last night like a disobedient child?"
She could tell that he meant to dissuade her from her train of thought, so she quickly went on. "I came here and agreed to your terms under the impression that I would be required to fulfill the duties of a wife, and yet you haven't taken what is rightfully yours to take."
"It is rightfully your fiancé's to take," he corrected her sharply, "when you become his wife."
"I am not his wife," she protested. "I am yours."
Snapping his fingers, he pointed at her. "And that is exactly why I sent you away. Because this is all a game to you, albeit a game I started, but a game just the same. I do not want you in my bed because you feel you must in order to save your precious Vicomte's life. I want you in my bed because you want me, because you choose me, …because you love me…."
On shaky knees, Christine slowly closed the distance between them, coming to stand before him. Her voice trembled as she bid, "Pretend that I am your wife, and I will pretend that I love you."
"Christine," he breathed, a flash of tears in his eyes at the very idea.
Lifting a hand to trail her fingertip over the outline of his lower lip, she whispered, "I love you, my husband."
That was all she needed to say for him to eagerly fall into the fantasy again. Perhaps he just yearned to believe in it so badly that it was easy to block out reality and the rest of the world.
Before she could realize his intention, he captured her lips with his in a fierce kiss, refusing to listen when common sense begged him to hold back. This was the way he had wanted to kiss her the night before, passionate, deep, fervent. His arms wrapped around her soft body, pulling her flush against himself, encouraged when her arms encircled his neck.
Christine's head was swimming. Never before had she felt anything so powerful. Liquid heat coiled in her belly as she felt the hard maleness of him pressed firmly against her; it coursed through her veins until it settled with a dull throb between her legs.
Suddenly, he yanked his lips away, unable to free her from his embrace as his hands clutched the soft fabric of her nightdress.
"Tell me what you are imagining," she breathlessly gasped, gazing at him through darkened eyes.
She nodded. "Yes, today we were married in a beautiful ceremony in a church…," she trailed off, waiting for him to continue the story.
Erik immediately understood. "You wore a gorgeous gown of white with lace trim, and I cried when I saw your beauty as you walked down the aisle. I vowed to love you forever beyond life and death, and when we sealed our love with a kiss, it was magic, so perfect, so eternal. And all day long, I envisioned our wedding night and showing you how much I love you."
"And now it is our wedding night," she urged, lost in his words.
"Yes, and I will make love to you as I always dreamt I would." His voice was husky with the desire burning his body, but suddenly, he shook his head and protested, "No, …no, this isn't real."
"It's a fantasy," Christine agreed, one of her hands cupping his masked cheek. "And I want to be lost in the fantasy with you. Please, Erik, let the fantasy be real."
How could he deny it when he ached for just that? As his eyes bore into hers, he swept her into his arms and carried her to her bedroom. He didn't want to consider anything beyond this moment when her eyes told him that she truly wanted him as well.
Setting her on her feet in the center of the room, Erik acted out the fantasy in his mind. Taking great care, he unbraided her beautiful curls, letting them fall free and loose over her shoulders. Then patiently, he undressed her, not touching skin until she was completely bared to him.
Christine blushed under his ravenous gaze as he studied every inch of her, but he glimpsed no shame or regret, only a shyness that made his heart ache with adoration.
With the most delicate touch, he began to explore her flawless skin. It amazed him to watch his stark white hands with his long fingers, details he had known as his for his entire life, and then contrast them with hers, her creamy, smooth flesh, every nuance fragile and perfectly cast. Her eyes closed beneath heavy lids, her breaths echoing around him. It was the greatest delight to him to know that he was causing such feelings in her. When his fingertips found her so wet and ready for him, a groan rumbled in his throat.
Hardly able to wait for patience to catch up, he carried her to bed and laid her atop the mattress, quickly undressing beneath her fevered stare. When at last, he was bared and towering over her, she eagerly parted her legs, never a hesitation in the depths of her blue eyes.
Erik tried to be gentle as he entered her, shuddering as her wetness surrounded his aching body. She cried out, but clung to him with fisted knuckles.
"Sshh," he crooned, pressing penitent kisses to her forehead as he held still within her. "The pain will subside in a moment."
Christine nodded with wide eyes, trusting him in a way she never had before. And when he began to move within her, she knew no pain, only desire.
Erik was very tender with her, relishing the delicious sensations as they built within his body. There was no rush; he wanted her to find pleasure first and was only too happy to give it. Only when she lost all control, crying out his name as her body spasmed with ecstasy did he seek his own and a bliss he never wanted to end.
Afterward, neither of them spoke. They lay under the covers as he held her, but he was unsure what to say, what to feel and believe. Eventually, Erik felt her drift off to sleep, and laying a tentative kiss to her brow, he watched her until his eyes grew heavy.
A little later, Christine stirred from her slumber. It was Erik's sleeping form beside her that returned reality, and a slow smile curved her lips with the memories flickering in and out of focus. As her eyes studied him, taking in every detail of his masked face, she called gently, "Erik?" She had to wake him; she couldn't help herself.
"Hmm…." It was a long minute before he opened his eyes, but finding her beside him made him jump into a seated position with surprise. "It…it wasn't a dream."
"No," she replied, "not a dream, but not quite real either."
His fingers pressed to her lips to quiet her. "Don't talk about reality yet; it's still night."
Only too willing to comply, she smiled at him and reached up to trail her fingers over his mask. "What happens next?"
"What do you mean?"
Sighing contently, she explained, "Now that the wedding is over. What will happen to us tomorrow? What is our future?"
Never had he believed he would hear such words from her; it made him happily fall back into the dream. "Tomorrow we leave on an elaborate honeymoon, a tour of Europe with all the luxuries money can buy. When we return, you will sing in the opera, and I will write music in our lovely little house outside of the city."
"Is there a porch on this lovely house?" she asked with a blissful grin.
"Of course, with white spindles and a swing. We will sit on it every evening to watch the sun set and another day end." If only…. He wanted to treat it lightly, but his heart ached with desperate disappointment.
Her fingers were still caressing his mask. Softly, she said, "I want to see your face."
His limbs went numb with the very idea, his head shaking a firm refusal as words failed him.
"You are my husband," she insisted with determination. "May I not look upon the face of the man I love?"
"Christine, …you needn't do such a thing as penance for the words you said to the Vicomte. I do not expect you to find my face as anything but repulsive; you need not pretend otherwise to ease your conscience."
"In playing this game of pretend, we have had to forget the past and all past indiscretions. That is what I am asking of you now." She could see another refusal before it crossed his lips, and she continued, "You don't want to remove your mask because without it, you are vulnerable. Baring your face is more intimate and frightening an act than baring your heart. But, Erik, I've already seen your face; I see it still in my dreams at night. It doesn't disgust me. It is your face. It doesn't change who you are to me." She spoke a truth that had been present far longer than she realized.
"You are playing your part in this deception," he accused bitterly. "I can't bear to continue this now; I can't bear to have you look at my face and lie to me. Please, Christine, that is the only thing I can't do. It would hurt too much."
"This is no game, and this is no lie. Let me show you that your face doesn't matter, that I am not repulsed by you. Trust me, Erik. Please, I am not lying to you."
His eyes raked her face, searching for the telltale crack in her pretense, but he couldn't find it. He yearned for her words to be true, needed to believe her. If his face didn't matter, it gave him hope.
His hands trembled as he gave in to her, and watching her intently, ready for the disgust he was so sure he'd see, he removed his mask.
Christine broke their shared gaze and shifted her attention to his scars. This was the first time she studied his face. The only other time she had seen it, she had cowered in fear and refused to look. It shamed her to remember it now. How quickly had she shunned him simply because of his appearance, something he had not caused and could not change.
Keeping her actions tentative lest he stop her, she lifted her hand and lightly traced the myriad of scars marring his cheek. It was skin; it was just skin. The texture was slightly different, the color slightly darker than the rest of him, but that was all. It was nothing to recoil from in disgust. It was only a face…. It was ridiculous that this had stood as the barrier between them.
Erik shivered under her soft touch, tears welling in his eyes. "Stop," he gasped out. "Please stop."
Jerking her hand back, she worriedly asked, "Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to."
He was lifting the mask back to his face, but she caught his hand in hers and held it tightly.
"Wait," she protested frantically. "I'm sorry. I won't touch you again."
"You didn't hurt me," he replied, pulling free, but before he could replace the mask, she grabbed hold of his hand again, unwilling to let this end so easily. "Let go, Christine."
"Why? Why do you want to hide your face? I haven't given you any reason to."
Erik's gaze held hers furiously. "I accepted your feigned love; I will not accept your feigned compassion as well."
"But it's true-"
"The last three days have been nothing but lie after lie, every smile, every laugh, every kind word. I asked for lies, and you gave them to me. And this is one more."
Her hands clutched his to keep him from acting and hiding his face, and her eyes locked fixedly on his mismatched ones, staring so deeply. "This is not a lie. And neither is this." With that, she leaned in close and pressed her lips to his ravaged cheek. It was a long kiss, delicate, her lips soft against flesh that had never known the pleasure of any sort of human touch. Turning her face, she laid her smooth cheek against his scarred one, releasing his hand so that she could wrap her arms around him.
Erik was overcome with the desperation to believe this was real. How he ached for it! He wished for it more than he had ever wished for anything in his life. Crying softly, he nuzzled his cheek against hers, embracing her as if terrified ever to let her go again.
Drawing back after a moment, she smiled tenderly and asked, "May I touch you, or will it hurt you?"
"It doesn't hurt," he managed to say. "Your touch is blissful."
Once again, Christine lifted her hand to his cheek, holding his eye with a silent question as she caressed him. This time, he did not pull away, watching intently, studying her every expression as if terrified to know what she was feeling.
Softly, he said, "I am not a handsome man."
Her fingers moved with a careful ease as she replied, "That is arguable."
"I am not your handsome Vicomte."
"I never asked you to be." Her fingertips outlined the swell of his misshapen mouth, her mind matching realities and deciphering that these were the very same lips she had received dozens of kisses from only hours before. With the mask in place, they could almost be misconstrued as perfect.
Shuddering with rising desire, he replied, "You deserve a handsome man like the Vicomte."
"And you deserve to be loved." Her words were a hushed whisper, her gaze concentrating on her task and avoiding his. "Will you kiss me, Erik?"
Eagerly, he complied, finding her lips with his. His eyes closed, but hers remained open, taking in the sight of his true face. Her hand brushed up and down the scars, her fingers growing accustomed to the texture.
Erik was aching with the need to possess her again, his hand drifting beneath the blankets to cup her breast. Drawing his lips away, he hoarsely whispered, "I want to make love to you like this…as myself with my true face."
Christine could only nod, arching into his touch as his fingers brushed over her nipple. She could feel the passion swelling to life within her again. It overwhelmed her in a way she could not deny. Her lips found his scars with kiss after kiss as his caresses grew more fevered until the rest of the world was fading away to only desire.
As day dawned, Christine awoke alone in her bed. She was shivering, missing the warmth his body had given her, the pleasantness of his weight beside her. Slowly, she sat up, clutching the blankets to herself, her curls tumbling down her back to dangle in messy coils around her. Her head felt hazy, her memories of the previous night flashing in rushed snippets. An image of him leaning over her, his eyes hungry with desire just before he had entered her, caused her entire body to tingle.
She needed to find him, needed to see him and know that he had similar thoughts and feelings. In a flurry of movement, she arose and dressed in a pale blue gown. It delighted her that her skin carried his scent, as though she had been marked as his.
Pausing at her mirror, she fluffed her thick bun of curls and smiled at her reflection before leaving the room. As she suspected, she found him standing near the hearth, lost deep in thought. It was a sharp disappointment when she saw that he had replaced the mask, hiding once more behind its security.
Erik lifted his gaze to her as he heard her enter the room, his eyes bearing the sadness in his heart.
"I…I wondered where you were," she stuttered. A new sense of nervous awkwardness hung thick in the air between them. Nothing would ever be the same, …and yet she wasn't sure that she wanted it to be.
Without a word, he held out his hand, offering her what he held in his palm, and hesitantly, she took it, her hand barely brushing his.
"My ring?" she asked, a tremble in her voice as she studied the Vicomte's engagement ring.
"Go back to your fiancé," he replied, his voice tight and bitter. "This ridiculous game of pretending is done."
"W…why? The week isn't over-"
"You needn't worry. You have played your role superbly. I don't think anyone else could have been more believable. It was just as I asked of you, and now I want you to return to the Vicomte. You are free of me, of my world, and as I promised, I will let you go and have your happy future."
Christine shook her head, her fist clenching at her ring without notice. "But I haven't fulfilled my promise. I was to give you a week as your wife-"
"Why can't you understand?" Tears resonated in his eyes and his voice. "I cannot keep pretending. It is a beautiful lie, but believing in it is tearing my soul apart. I can't hold you and love you for the rest of my life. I have to let you go to another man, the one you truly love…." He trailed off, taking a breath as sobs threatened. "You gave me so much, far more than I could have imagined, and I am grateful. Last night was the most wonderful night of my life, but it was only a lie…."
"No, it wasn't," she protested.
Erik couldn't look at her anymore, turning to stare apathetically into the flames. He had to be unfeeling; he couldn't let her see how deeply he was aching. "We have to stop pretending. You are not my wife. Return to the Vicomte and marry him, and don't look back."
With a fierce flash of anger, he rounded on her and shouted, "Christine, this is killing me! Go! Leave me now before you destroy me to nothing!"
She shrank back, tears filling her eyes, and with a sudden cry, she turned and ran from the room, from the house, from that horrible underground world and the disfigured angel who longed to be her husband. Her heart sting, but its inspiration was his pain.
Christine didn't stop running until she emerged into the daylight, her eyes burning and squinting in the brightness of the clouded sky. Her mind was reeling with torturous images of the agony in his eyes. A lie, he called it a lie, and it was, wasn't it? The previous night was a part of their game…. No! No, it wasn't! And it tormented her to consider that he thought so! She had been a coward to hide behind a game of pretend, to use it if only to let herself learn to feel. A lie had existed in the beginning, but somewhere along the way, it had become real. She had given herself to him not to fulfill her role as his wife, but because she wanted to love him and know what it would be like to be loved by him. He had to know! She had to tell him! But first….
The Vicomte de Chagny was more than pleased to hear that Christine was awaiting him in the library. He hurried down to meet her, his eyes gleaming with adoration when they fell upon her. His happiness quickly faded.
"Christine, what is it? What's wrong? Is your aunt not well?" He caught her hands in his, gasping at their coldness.
She was shaking her head, her brow furrowed as she admitted in a whisper, "I lied to you, Raoul. I shouldn't have, but I thought it was the only thing I could do."
The Vicomte was desperately trying to comprehend her broken thoughts. "Lied? What do you mean?"
Opening her palm to him, she revealed his ring. "I can't marry you, Raoul. I'm in love with someone else."
"Christine, …what are you saying? …I don't understand what has happened."
"I am so sorry," she replied with genuine compassion as she regarded his pained expression. "I thought I was pretending with him when really, I was pretending with you. I pretended to know what love was, but how could I when he was the one to teach it to me? …I can't marry you, Raoul."
Raoul still fought to understand her, but her resolve was unshaken and her conviction true. "Don't do this, Christine. I love you."
"I'm sorry," she repeated and set the ring into his hand. "But I love him."
She ran, her hard soles echoing on the cobblestone streets as she weaved between crowds that stared after her as if she had lost her mind. She wasn't entirely sure she hadn't.
It seemed a never-ending journey back to the underground of the opera house, but finally, she was there, throwing open the door and yelling, "Erik! Erik!"
Erik was startled by her frantic calls, hurrying to meet her in the hallway as she sought him out. "Christine, what's wrong? What are you doing here?"
Her eyes drifted to the suitcases in the doorway of the living room and the dark cloak on his shoulders. "Are you going somewhere?" He only nodded, and she demanded, "Why?"
"Did you truly believe I could stay here with memories of you in every room? And then to consider you with the Vicomte, marrying him, starting your life with him? …I have to leave and find a new place far away from here."
"You can't!" she shouted desperately. "Erik, you can't leave me!" She suddenly threw her arms around him and hugged tight, pressing her face to the curve of his shoulder. "I love you! I love you!"
Erik stared down at her dark head, wondering what had gotten into her. "Christine, I let you go to the Vicomte. I promised that you would be free to marry him. What else do you want of me?"
"Just you," she replied and then repeated softer, "Just you."
Catching her wrists in his hands, he pried her loose, pushing away. "I told you that I couldn't bear to play this game any longer. Why must you torment me with more lies?"
"I am not lying; I never was. Erik, please you must believe me." Tears filled her eyes. "Last night, what we shared, every word, every emotion, it was all real and honest."
"It was a fantasy."
"Then I want to be lost in the fantasy with you and not for a week, for the rest of my life…." Tentatively, she stepped close again, and when he did not back away, she lifted her hand to remove his mask. With hazy eyes, she traced the scars as she had the night before. "I love you; it is the truth of my heart, and if I must prove it to you a million times over, I will."
Tears gathered in his own eyes as he wrestled with his thoughts, wanting to believe her with a desperation that twisted in his soul. "Prove it to me right this moment."
"Marry me without reserve or hesitation; marry me because you love me." He was so certain that she would refuse, but to his surprise, she smiled brightly.
"I will, with all my heart and soul," she replied.
Swept on the tide of soaring emotion in his veins, he suddenly caught her in his arms and kissed her, all the more lost when she met his kiss feverishly, willingly opening her mouth as his tongue tasted her. He lifted her off her feet, never ending their kiss. He meant to make her his bride that day, but first, he eagerly succumbed to the passion flaring within, receiving only a moan of desire from her as he carried her to the bedroom.
In the fervent melding of bodies, he let the depth of his love and adoration, his utter happiness overwhelm him, losing himself in her as she clung to him with wild abandon. And all he could think as he came crashing back to earth was that if it was all a lie, then as long as they both believed in it, it would always be true.
Afterward, Christine held him in her arms, his tortured face pressed to the flawless skin of her chest, and she whispered fervently, "I love you, Erik."
He did not look up at her, only clutched her with desperate hands, unwilling to ever let her go again.
A beautiful lie, he thought to himself as he drifted off to a dreamless sleep.