Hello, all! I hope everyone is not too crazed yet with the holiday but a week away! Well, here's a little reprieve from too much baking, wrapping, sending, decorating, and dealing with screaming little ones (in my case at least!). Another older story. I hope you enjoy it. Now that I've finished my novel, I intend to be working on getting more posted and maybe even something new… We shall see… :)

SUMMARY: "Sacrifice is the heart of love…"

"The Heart of Love"

Rehearsals had finally ended for the day, and wearily, Christine walked down the long hallway to her dressing room. Fatigue wasn't the only weight to her every footstep. She knew who would be waiting for her when she arrived, who had been watching her all day long, lest she dare try to run, who had most certainly listened to her every spoken word for fear she would reveal her secret. She was loath to face him, dreading to hear his voice call to her so enticingly as it always did, knowing that she would not protest. When he was around, her own self betrayed her. Was it any wonder then that she did not trust to be in his presence, that her every step now was unrushed and reluctant?

Despite her slowness, her destination was inevitable, and she finally entered her dressing room, her mind alert to every miniscule noise around her listening for him. Her eyes were drawn to a bouquet of flowers awaiting her on her vanity, and with a bit of a smile, she was drawn to them, seeking out the small card buried between two blooms.

It read: "I'm thinking of you. Raoul."

Her smile grew even brighter, all dark and disturbing thoughts forgotten for the moment. Raoul. Her dear childhood friend and now secret suitor. He was the only light in her life. He loved her so much and was impatient for her to announce their engagement to the world. But he could never understand. He was yet unaware of the other man in her life; he knew that she took lessons with a mysterious teacher, but he had no idea of the true extent of the situation. If it were up to her, he would never know…, but that was only optimistic thinking on her part.

"Christine."

She cringed at that voice and quickly buried the card back in the tangle of flowers. Flipping around with undeniable guilt in her eyes, she faced her open mirror, the gateway to hell, and her addressor, the devil himself.

He was lingering in the shadows as if a part of them, calling her into their secret recesses. Yet it didn't matter how concealing the darkness was; that mask shone like a white beacon on his face. It could never be hidden or forgotten.

Once his presence was acknowledged, he entered the room as if her silent stare was an invitation, and she unconsciously took a step back. As was always the case, she felt overwhelmed by the very aura of him; it was haunting and powerful, the threatening danger of a man who had killed before without mercy. It far exceeded his meager frame and thin stature. In combination with the intensity of his mismatched eyes, it shook her and any resolve that she might have possessed.

Those eyes left her and, to her dismay, landed on the bouquet of flowers. Without a word, he strode over to them and immediately jerked the card free of its hiding place; he knew right where she had put it, leaving her uncertain he had been watching. With feigned interest, he took a moment to read the personal message before apathetically slipping the card back where he had gotten it as if it meant nothing to him.

Christine eyed him warily, waiting for the wrath that she knew would come, but to her surprise, he seemed relatively calm.

"I trust that rehearsals went well," he commented lightly. "What I overheard sounded pleasant enough and will be all the more when you are cast in the leading role."

"You have high standards that I only hope I can live up to," she replied softly, staring down at her wringing hands.

"You surpass my standards with your talent. It is an injustice that it is hidden behind mediocre roles when that cow Carlotta butchers the leading parts with her screeching notes."

It was not uncommon for him to praise her talent; her lack of confidence kept her from agreeing. She saw the way everyone fawned over Carlotta and how the woman's ego far exceeded even her stocky stature. For Christine, she could never see herself as the diva's equal.

"One day," he continued, "when you are the star soprano, then real music will be heard in this opera house." Erik paused a long moment, casting a furtive glance at the flowers again. Attempting indifference, he asked, "And was the Vicomte at rehearsals again today?"

Her entire body tensed. Mimicking his tone as best she could, she answered, "No, not today."

"Ah, so he sent the flowers in his stead." His eyes were fixed on the cursed gift, fire flashing in their depths to hint at the real extent of the anger boiling within him. "The Vicomte is a thorn in my side that must be dealt with."

"No!" Her hand thrust forward as though she meant to touch him, but it halted its path in midair. "Erik, please don't hurt him."

Erik's inquisitive gaze traveled from her outstretched hand to her eyes and back again as he pondered to himself. "I have put it off for far too long and listened to your pathetic pleadings for his welfare, your lies of ending the infatuation you share with him. Usually, just one look in your eyes was persuasion enough…, not anymore."

"Erik, please," she begged, still refraining from a touch.

Again he regarded her suspended hand. "Tell me, Christine. What would you be willing to give to stop me from going to the Vicomte's mansion right now and strangling him with my bare hands? What sacrifice are you willing to make?"

"Sacrifice?" Her voice trembled.

"Yes," he replied assuredly. "What would you say to be ample enough? …A kiss perhaps? …Girls your age are so reckless and frivolous with their kisses, so it hardly seems a worthy sacrifice. But would you give a kiss to save your Vicomte?"

Christine's brow was furrowed with deep creases. A kiss…. She had only ever kissed Raoul. She could not see it as trivial; to her, such a thing was a sacrifice, but for Raoul's life, it seemed worthy enough to grant.

"Yes," she replied, feigning a strength that she did not truly possess. "I would give a kiss."

He seemed pleasantly surprised by her words and urged with the hint of a challenge, "Prove it to me."

Christine knew what he wanted, and even as she considered how inconsequential it was when compared to Raoul's life, she could not make herself follow through with it. Her eyes locked on his mask, her body frozen in its spot. The very idea of kissing that, that face, that monster, made her stomach turn upside down.

"Well?" he demanded impatiently. "If Raoul's life is not even worth a kiss, then-"

"Wait," she interrupted, her hand jolting out in his direction but again stopping before it touched him. "I'll do it. I'll do it."

Nervously, she licked her own lips, hesitating as long as she could before she approached him. He did not make it easy for her, did not meet her halfway in the middle of the great space separating them. He only watched with eyes that never flashed the true anticipation and excitement in his soul as she came nearer and nearer.

Mere inches existed between them. She had never stood so close, never regarded his face so near to her own. Every impulse within her begged her to run away, but she fought them back and remained on legs that trembled violently beneath her.

Tilting her head, she tentatively began to lean toward him, her eyes moving frantically back and forth between his gaze and his lips. In her mind's eye was the vision of what the mask concealed from view, the grotesque swelling of his top lip, and she shuddered to herself even as she continued her approach.

The last coherent thought he had was that he could feel her breath escaping her and entering his lungs, and then her soft lips met his. He had never before known a kiss; he was unprepared for the jolt that such a meager contact sent through him. For a man who had barely ever known even a touch, it was the most incredible of sensations.

Christine held her lips against his for a moment that felt like an eternity to her. Her eyes were screwed closed, and even though she wanted to think of Raoul, her mind could not drift beyond the present. His lips were not Raoul's; they were strangely cold, not at all like the living warmth Raoul's carried. And try as she might to forget about his deformity, she could feel the obscure swell on that side and even a brushing of the hard material of the mask. No, there was no denying whose lips she was kissing.

Drawing back after what she deemed to be sufficient enough time, she met his eye with the hinting of victory in her own.

Erik acted unmoved as though her kiss was little more than a grazing of a hand, but beneath a cultivated countenance, emotion and desire were twisting and pulling. His body was reminding him of the many physical pleasures he had endured his lifetime without knowing, aching miserably for more. Until he had met her, he had concluded that such things were unnecessary and unimportant, but now they were all he wanted.

Continuing to hide his real turmoil, he flatly declared, "I guess that your miniscule sacrifice has saved your lover's life…for the present at least."

She paled at his foreboding comment and stuttered, "What…what do you mean?"

Erik shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, I cannot say when the urge to murder him will once again rise up within me. The next time you may not be around to squelch it with your generous offerings." Carefully calculating his every word, he haughtily set his proposal at her feet. "But…maybe…. What if there was a way for you to save precious Raoul's life entirely?"

"How?" Her better judgment insisted not to ask, that there was some sort of a trap hidden beneath, but for her love of Raoul, she ignored it.

Hesitating as if pondering what he actually already knew, he asked in return, "What would you give to preserve the life of the man you love? …Would you sacrifice…your virginity for his life?"

Her heart beat frantically against her chest, her arms instinctively crossing around her waist as though to shield herself from his penetrating stare. "How dare you ask such a thing?"

"Oh, but a moment ago, you were so flippant with your kisses. A kiss for a moment's safety. Is not a million moments of safety worth your body then? It seems a fair enough exchange if you claim to value the Vicomte's welfare so highly." He could sense the desire to flee rising within her, and before she could act on it, he told her, "You have no idea how many times I have imagined killing him. I can practically feel his smooth neck in my hands as I squeeze the life out of him."

She was shaking her head desolately from side to side. "Erik, please…."

"Do not beg me. It is you who has the power to keep the Vicomte alive and well." Very slowly with a look of sheer domination beaming in his gaze, he closed the distance between them. His confidence increased tenfold when she did not move away, only stared at him with trepidation in her trembling frame.

Erik languidly studied her. "Are you unwilling to put the life of the man you claim to love before your own?" When she did not reply only continued to stare at him, he demanded, "Why are you so repulsed by me? You have seen my true face, and even when it is hidden from you beneath the mask, you are disgusted. You are so eager to forget that I am only a man just like all the rest, same as your handsome Vicomte. We both want the same things, love and desire and happiness, but I am denied them because of my face. It hardly seems fair."

Swallowing against her fear, she bravely replied, "Raoul has never taken a life."

"Just because he hasn't doesn't mean he won't. He would likely be all too willing to kill me himself if he could. That makes him no better than me." Within him, nervousness reigned, but he never allowed her to glimpse it as he raised a hand to lightly brush her cheek. "I have never given you reason to hate me. I have only ever been tender with you. It is only my face that pushes you away. If only you wouldn't have seen the truth, if only you wouldn't have betrayed me, then maybe I would be the one you so faithfully love, then maybe I wouldn't have to use bribery and manipulation to have you." The bittersweet sadness was overwhelming him, but he mercifully pushed it away. No point to wonder what could have been. "I do not expect you to willingly come to my bed out of love or even any affection for me. It is your love for your darling Vicomte that will sway your decision. Sacrifice is the heart of love."

A vision of Raoul flashed in her head, a memory of his sweet, smiling face as he gushed over their future to come, making plans that she had always been afraid to place her hopes upon for fear she would never have them as hers. She knew that Erik's threat was very real; he had so much blood on his hands, so many sins on his soul. He was a murderer, and Raoul could likely be his next victim.

"Your decision, my dear?" he inquired lightly. "I am a very impatient man, as you well know."

Christine closed her eyes, blocking out reality as she gave a single, tentative nod.

Victory soared within him, but he urgently demanded, "Say it, Christine."

"Yes…."

"Yes…?"

Her eyes opened to meet his, and he glimpsed the tears welling within their depths. In a whisper, she answered, "Yes, I will give you what you want."

A wicked grin curved his misshapen mouth as without falter, he dragged her against himself and kissed her hard, claiming his prize. This was not the tentative kiss they had shared moments before; this was ravenous. She tried to pull away, to free herself from his savage hold with frantic second thoughts, but he would not allow it, clutching her tightly. He was in control of this kiss, utterly confident where he had only just been hesitant. He was letting passion guide him, and his tongue parted her lips and slipped into her mouth.

Christine ceased struggling. She knew that she had no choice but to surrender; she had already given consent. As soon as she yielded, she felt her body respond; it was a blatant betrayal of her mind and will and of Raoul.

When he finally pulled his lips away, he wasted no time. His fingers were already moving into her hair, tugging it loose of pins that fell onto the floor all around them.

"You will not harm Raoul then?" she prodded, remaining still as the weight of her curls tumbled over her shoulders.

His fingers entwined in the silken tresses, letting the curls spiral every joint as he cupped her head in his palms. "Do not speak of him to me now."

"But he will be safe?"

His hands were playing over the features of her face. "Your sacrifice will not be in vain. You give me your body, and I give you his life." He pressed his fingertips to her lips. "Now no more talk of the Vicomte or his worthless existence."

Bending down to her, he buried his lips against the side of her throat, devouring the tender flesh there, and in spite of herself, she could not stop her body from arching up to his tempting mouth. Shivers ran up and down her limbs and spine, and tentatively, she raised a tremulous hand and let her fingers slide into his thin hair, holding his mouth in place.

Every bit of sense she still had begged her to end this, but her body was being overcome with the power of the passion he was bringing to life within her until she was writhing against him. She forgot that he was anything other than a man; the desire was that potent.

Erik was astounded by the responses she was giving him. She wasn't shuddering and quivering with disgust as he had believed she would be, but was almost begging him to continue. His hands roamed over her shoulders and downward, cupping her breasts through her layers of clothing before closing around her waist. With a jerk, he yanked her more firmly against himself, pressing his aching manhood to her, knowing that she would feel it.

His hands extended from her waist to her thighs and began to gather her skirt up until they could slip beneath. Her pantaloons were the only remaining barrier that existed as his fingers parted her legs and sought the center of her passion. Even through the cotton material, he could feel her wetness, and he groaned low in his throat in harmony with her cry of desire.

It was that wetness, that tangible proof that she actually wanted him, that made him suddenly release her.

For Christine, reality returned with the sudden chill that attacked where his body had been so firmly to hers. Trembling all over, she abruptly smoothed her skirts back into place if only to keep him from seeing how her hands shook as guilt and embarrassment flushed her cheeks bright pink.

Erik retained his haughty air, but his smile was filled with such hope. "Struggle, protest, feign disgust, but your body is aching for me. This is not a sacrifice for you at all."

"Yes, it is. I love Raoul," she insisted, but her voice was quivering. "You said that if I gave you what you wanted, then he'd be safe."

His grin only brightened. "That was before I knew that I had a chance. Now things have changed. If I can have you because you want me, because you love me and want me to make love to you, then why would I settle only to have you willing with the excuse that it was for the Vicomte? I want you to want me for me, and now that I've felt it for myself with my very fingertips, I believe that it will be so."

"Never," she whispered, determination in her gaze.

He nodded. "I will give you time, time to realize that what you have just felt in my arms is far more real and more powerful than what you could ever feel for that boy." Leaning in close to her for a moment more, he captured her lips in a hungry kiss that she did not fight. And when he pulled away again, he whispered a breath away, "Soon I will have you, and it will not be a fleeting moment of passion. It will be forever."

Before she could reply, he released her again, and with one long look back, he disappeared behind her mirror as if he had never been there at all. The only evidence of his visit was her trembling body and fragile mind. Although she was relieved to be out of his presence, there was a part of her that was disappointed. Disgust rose within her at such an admission. It was as if she was the very enemy of herself, and as her insides fought, she truly did not know which side she wanted to win.

Sliding to the floor in a heap of skirts, she pressed the backs of her fingers to her lips with the vivid memory of his kisses and trembled with self-disgust as she realized that she wanted more….