Hello, people! I hope everyone had a wonderful and relaxing Easter!
First off, a reminder to anyone interested: the deadline for the cover art contest is April 15th. All the details are on my website and Facebook page. I'm hoping to have my Phantom collection out by the end of May, and I'm so excited to be including one of you guys as my cover artist!
Also, "The Devil's Galley" should be out in paperback within the next week. I'm just waiting for the final email to say it's available. Right now my life is extra hectic with the opera approaching. "The Magic Flute" performances are April 27th and 28th, and let me just tell you that it is going to be a fun and amazing show! I get to wear these huge, 6 inch platform, Gothic boots complete with chains and buckles. One of my cast mates said they look like something a Bratz doll would wear! I'll have pics on my Facebook and website, hopefully video as well. But if anyone wants to come and see it live, please do!
OK, so this was a little aggressive one-shot. I was in the mood for something a bit more violent after writing "Where Nightmares End". Enjoy!
SUMMARY: An aggressive outburst and its consequences.
"Let It Bleed"
Rehearsal had just ended, and with hesitation in every step, Christine wandered the corridor to her dressing room. Usually, her footfalls were not so weighted. She knew her lesson would follow an afternoon's grueling practice, knew her teacher would expect nothing but the exceeding of her best efforts despite fatigue. She knew she'd be led beneath the opera house into dank, dark passages and be expected not to be disturbed by the shadows or the stranger in a mask who had lost every aspect of an angel a month ago. No, she was supposed to pick up the novel thread of strength she depended upon to keep going and make even this most unorthodox situation seem something akin to normal. It was an exhausting endeavor, but she had no other choice. The instant she stopped playing the role, she fell to the frightened little girl inside again, and he hated her weakness more than anything else.
Today's reluctance had other facets and a certain underlying deception she was yet unsure how to explain. The Vicomte had made an appearance at rehearsal. Young and handsome, brimming in an internal light that exuded from every charming smile, she'd been unable to refuse his company. He'd asked to take her to lunch, but knowing Erik's jealous nature, she had refused…but compensated with a brief conversation up on the opera house roof. It had felt safe there, out in the sunlight as far from shadows as they dared reach. She'd savored every second; it had felt like freedom.
And now she headed back to chains and locks, to the dungeons like a prisoner with execution on the brink. It didn't seem fair.
Slipping into her dimly-lit dressing room, she shut out the rest of the world with trembling fingers. A lingering fear wondered if the Vicomte would make another visit with an invitation to supper perhaps. She was half-afraid she'd consent when such an offer was more appealing than another evening spent with the disfigured Opera Ghost, desperate to please him and always skirting his temper. When he'd been an angel, she'd anticipated every second shared, eager at every breath to be with him, to please him and gain his love. But ever since she'd unmasked him and learned what he was, he preferred a sullen demeanor, reserved and aloof, half a step from rage as if to punish her for curiosity's consummation. She'd destroyed the illusion, and he'd spun it into a nightmare instead of rebuilding the dream.
Nervous steps brought her to the mirrored doorway, and she gazed at her reflection, looking for telltales of a committed deception. Erik had ordered her to reject Raoul and stay out of his presence, and she'd willfully disobeyed. He must know, likely spied her kind smiles and congeniality. She wasn't fool enough to assume he did not watch at every moment. She only hoped asking forgiveness would be enough to appease him. She'd take the blame upon her shoulders, never lie about it, and hopefully, apologies would win out.
But…the mirror did not click or open to her. No angel awaited her presence, ready to take her to his home somewhere near the gates of hell. Her breath caught in her throat with a rush of worry. Was this her penalty then? To be ignored and deny them both the music they loved?
For all the hardships in between, the music was ecstasy and brilliance. It was the music that drew her to him again and again. Intoxication, an addicting drug that raced euphoria through her system. Without it, life wasn't nearly as satisfying. Reality was black and white, and the music made it rainbow-hued. Only he brought her full potential to the surface and made her sing with a voice she often couldn't fathom was hers. And then he'd sing to her or play his beautiful melodies upon his piano, and the rest of the world would fall away. There was no Vicomte then, no disfigured face, no dubious past, nothing but him. She loved the music and wondered if he made such dependence within her purposefully to keep her attached. A game and a trick, but she didn't care about that, only that her life would be futile if she never had the music again.
He wasn't coming for her. It grew more obvious as the minutes ticked by. Every agonizing second beat into her and brought guilt in waves as she faced the extent of her betrayal.
And what was she to do? Give up and return home alone with regret to twist and ache within her? Pound on the mirror glass and beg for his presence in tears and sobs like a penitent child? No, …no, she had to be stronger and more convicted, not the meek little girl ready to run away. Erik kept insisting she needed to be more than that or she'd never succeed to her heart's desire. She often wondered if he meant only on the stage, or if he was the very reason a resilient spirit was necessary.
With a nod of decision to the girl in the mirror, she set to find the hidden lever that unhinged the door. He'd shown her its secret just in case, but she'd never had need for such knowledge until now. She fumbled a few times before finding it and mustering might to gain access. On quiet feet, she stole away into the passages, having traveled this path alone only in dreams.
She didn't need to call upon memory. By the time she reached the lowest cellar, music called her. Angry, bitter chords ground out and shaking the stone walls in fortissimo. They commanded her to stay away, revealing aggression and malice, and yet she didn't listen. How could she when she knew she was their muse and inspiration? It should be her and not the piano taking such a beating, her bones struck instead of ivory by the violence in his hands. She would beg mercy, pity, fall to her knees in dejection if she must, anything to gain forgiveness and stop such torment.
Without another thought, she hurried the rest of the way with an odd sense of anticipation in her belly. She couldn't explain it if she tried. She feared his rage and temper, and yet there was something to be said for the power of the emotions that fueled him. She'd never met another human being so driven by heart, and it intrigued her in the way the music did. She had a suspicion that he loved her, though he'd never spoken beyond possession. She should condemn the very idea of the Opera Ghost in love with her, but…it held an unacceptable thrill. She cursed herself for wanting a heart she didn't know how to hold.
The door was left cracked, and her trembling fingers set to its cool surface to push it wide, slow and desperate to avoid a single creak. But luck was on her side, and nothing stirred his musical trance. He played wildly, his back to her so that she could watch his hands span the keys in his haste. Not a single fault or missed pitch, all perfection as he worked. She let herself be mesmerized on the motion of his narrow shoulders, the rocking of his posture with music's flow as if he were another instrument and not the master of virtuosic creation. She caught glimpses of his fingers at the far end of the keyboard and shivered to note tense joints and pounding pace. Rage to the outer extremities and into his core. …She shouldn't be here.
All of a sudden, so abrupt that she jolted on her feet, he halted and flipped about on his piano bench to face her with daggers piercing from his mismatched eyes. That diabolical mask was stark; its white casing accused more viciously than words and carved him into the evil villain instead of her once-adored angel. The angel might have listened to her beseeching and granted forgiveness; the devil before her didn't seem nearly so merciful as he glared in venomous spite.
"How dare you come down here?" he hissed, and she shuddered to hear that golden voice strained in his bitterness.
"You…you weren't waiting for me," she stammered in soft tones, each laden in a rise of apprehension. "Rehearsals ended, and…you weren't there."
A grating laugh left his lips, cold and tingling the surface of her skin as he spat, "I was under the impression I was no longer wanted. You disregarded my existence today as if I meant nothing to you. Surely that must mean you are finished with me. Forgive me if I am mistaken. I have little knowledge of human emotions, you see. I don't know how to interpret blatant disrespect and impertinence other than as rejection."
Every word was laced in a mixture of sarcasm and anger, and guilt attacked anew to bear his blame and know he had a right. Fighting not to crumble, she straightened shoulders and sought an unwavering voice. "There was never rejection. I awaited you in my dressing room after rehearsal as you ask of me, but you never appeared. I did not disrespect-"
"You disobeyed," he snapped, fisting hands atop the piano's silent keys. Her eyes were riveted to the image, envisioning the amount of damage he could cause with the same hands that made the music she so loved. "Of your own will, you refused my rules and enacted defiance. Tell me I am wrong," he taunted, mocking with a tilt of that masked face. "Well?"
She would not lie, as she reminded her sense of self-preservation. No, …no, he wouldn't hurt her. "You told me to refuse the Vicomte, but he came to rehearsal to see me." Shaking his head solemnly, she admitted, "We went for a walk on the rooftop. I did nothing wrong, ange. We only talked of our childhood."
"You blatantly disobeyed me!" he reminded as if she'd forgotten such a crucial sin. "I commanded you to stay away from him, and you deliberately chose his company! Why do you spite me, Christine? Have I not been generous with you? Have I not molded your talent, given you the music, given you everything with no request for compensation? I ask nothing of you but that you abide by my commands, and you fell to vanity and greed! You naïve child! I seek to keep you pure, and you falter because the handsome Vicomte dotes upon you and falls at your feet with his blasphemous words and impropriety! 'Beautiful'! He dared to call you 'beautiful', and you swooned and sighed. Vain, little chit!"
"He was being polite," she argued back, but her voice did not possess his vehemence and made her sound fragile instead of brave.
"Polite? No, he was seeking to sugarcoat a path to his bed! Why do you think I am strict with you, Christine? Why do you believe I place restrictions upon you? I will not let you become another of his conquests, bedded like a harlot and tossed aside. That is the reality of the world, but you look at a handsome face with perfect lips spouting praises for your physical countenance and like a weak-minded child, you falter and cling to every word!"
His vicious insults gave a deep strike, and Christine bit her lip against a rise of tears. She didn't want to believe his accusations. Raoul was a good man, a part of her past with a kind heart. He wouldn't be callous enough to hurt her.
Striking fists to the keys and making shrieking dissonance resound, Erik got to his feet and stalked closer as she clung to the doorframe with a shaking hand. "And what did you reveal of your fallen angel, Christine?" he pushed, though she was doubtless he already knew his answer. "Come, come, speak freely. You had the bravado to play the coquette for him, but I get a frightened mouse? Answer me!"
"Nothing…incriminating," she stammered through tears. "I only told him that I am taking lessons with a great teacher."
"You told him that your lessons were a secret."
"Yes, but I never said anything that would betray you. I never told him who you were…or what you've done," she justified, clutching with firmer fingers when she saw anger rising and quaking his entire frame.
"And you think that will appease him? A 'secret'? He'll be anxious for details now, eager for truths he should never have as his. No one knows of my existence, Christine, only you, and you've put a target on my back in your vain need to capture your Vicomte's affections."
"He's my friend-"
"Friend? You touched him! You held his hand in yours and allowed him to caress your cheek before he left!"
"I did nothing wrong," she found a spark to argue in the fiery sear of his gaze. "Raoul is my friend. I allowed nothing beyond propriety. I promise, ange. I committed no fault, no more than a conversation with a childhood friend."
But Christine saw no understanding in his hard stare and no waver to forgiveness. With an abruptness that made her gasp, he caught her forearm in a viselike hold and jerked her free of the doorframe's stability.
But he dragged her deeper into his home, yanking forceful enough to make her trip in her haste to keep his pace. Down a dim corridor to the last room. She'd never been inside, knowing it was his bedchamber, but he did not hesitate to pull her within its sanctity, growling rage when her steps faltered again.
"Please," she whimpered, tensing at the fierceness of his grip with a certainty he'd leave marks.
She was never given the chance to survey her surroundings as he hauled her to a tall object covered in a thick blanket. One tug had the blanket falling away and revealed a full-length mirror. It was odd. For every time she'd stayed in his home, sleeping in her beautiful bedroom down the hall, she'd noted there were no mirrors, not even a small one in her bathroom as if reflections were unwanted and not allowed. And yet he had this one in his possession, covered and concealed.
It was larger than the one in her dressing room, antique and gold-plated. She wondered if it had history and meaning. She never had to ask.
Dragging her to the glass and holding her by shoulders before him, he hissed, "Disobedient child! I shall teach you what it means to be dutiful. This is what my mother used to do when I was a naughty child. She made me stand for hours at a time before the mirror glass, mask-less, and face the monster I truly am. She gave me nowhere to run or hide from it. No, she made me see reality and reminded me that I was ugly and unwanted. Look, Christine!" he shouted and shook her hard enough to make her gasp.
Christine stared with tear-filled, wide eyes at her reflection and the masked face above her shoulder, the hands gripping fierce and fitted to her collarbone with their boney shape. "I'm sorry," she pleaded, meeting his mismatched glare in the glass. "Please, ange, I'm sorry."
But he pushed her shoulders closer to the glass and kept her firmly in place. One of his hands dared to break free and lifted to his mask, and though her breath caught in her chest, she made no protest as he jerked it free and put his disfigured face in the mirror's glass with her.
"Look and see the monster, Christine," he commanded coldly. "The mirror shows what we'd rather not see. It shows what is real."
His ferocious grasp shoved her until her chest touched the cool surface, and his hand snaked up her nape to cradle her crown, giving her no way to look from his distorted face.
"Here is your reality, Christine," he hissed near her ear and made her shudder. "This face, ugly as it is, is yours, and you are mine. You will touch no one else; you will grant smiles and affection to no one but me. Is that understood?"
Tears fell faster down her cheeks, blurring malformed features and every harsh edge as she bore the brunt of his words. Every command was harsh and cold, and a sob left her lips as the hand cupping her head dug fingertips into her skull.
"Stop this, Erik," she begged. "Please."
"Why? You see a monster in the mirror, a monster with a callous heart. That's what I see anyway. Ugliness and beauty don't factor into it this time. A monster who would trample every soul in her path if it meant she'd have a Vicomte as her eager lover."
Christine cried harder. A monster… He called her a monster, and the bitterness in his intent stare said he meant it. "I'm sorry, …so sorry."
"No, see the little monster with her pretty face. Vicomtes like a pretty face. They love beauty and innocence in their beds. And with handsome features, they need little effort to get what they want. Your Vicomte will steal your heart because he is perfect. Perfect face, perfect family, perfect fortune. When I…I am denied even a touch."
For the first time, she caught the somber sadness hidden beneath the rage, and though she watched his reflection through tears, she noted that he was fixed in a stare with himself, observing his face and its deficiencies as if he hadn't noticed their oddity in ages.
With a suddenness that made her shriek, he released her shoulder and struck a violent fist to the mirror. The sound of crack and shatter resounded the air as glass flew, sparkling in irregular shards off candlelight.
Before she could react beyond horror, he had her wrist and dragged her away from the broken mirror. Sense had yet to catch up, and as it faltered, her focus was on the hand that held her. His knuckles were streaked in blood, and the red poured in rivulets along his fingers to strike her skin.
"Erik," she whimpered, but her voice seemed to fuel his unpredictable rage. With a growl so vicious that she sobbed, he caught both her wrists in his bloodied hand and jerked them above her head. Gentle didn't seem to exist as he yanked her to the bed and forced her chest down upon the mattress, bending over her until his frantic heartbeat thudded against her spine.
"Stop this!" she shouted, but his free hand came into her disheveled curls and pushed her cheek into the bedclothes. She couldn't form words, nothing but continued cries. Struggle became feeble and useless, so she lay pliant and focused on the harshness of every breath inhaled against her back.
Erik was victim to his inner turmoil. Monster! He was a monster; he'd tried to make Christine see herself the same, and yet who was the real demon between them? She sobbed again, and it only enraged him further. Damn her weakness and her naïveté! He had had to watch her flirt and laugh with the Vicomte as if they were two equals and he was the freak on the outside again. No, this was his to take and rightfully so!
Pressing her harder into the mattress, he felt his body react to her warmth and nearness. He couldn't stop it, even as rationale called it a transgression. His Christine pinned beneath his weight, her wrists clasped above her head, soiled with his blood as it stained her. With a moan he could not contain, he arched his stiffening erection into her skirts, grinding it against her backside and burying his unmasked face into her falling curls.
In a hoarse whisper, he bid, "You drive me to insanity, Christine. You and your inconstant heart! You hurt me with the careless flick of your fingers as if I am nothing to you. You forget that I am a man who wants and aches for you. My God, you are anger's inspiration! You are responsible for the madman I become! You force me to be this cruel to you! I only want to love and adore you, but you entice me to violence."
Desire was potent when mixed with the agony in his soul, and without her eyes upon him to shake guilt to the surface, he found the nape of her neck with his misshapen mouth and claimed it in a fierce kiss. "This is your fault," he insisted in husky tones. "My God, Christine, what are you doing to me? I am consumed with the need to hurt you back, and my mind ponders which would be greater retribution: to strike you and make you feel pain as I do or to bed you and claim your innocence as mine! I want everything. Love, desire, lust, passion. Anger overwhelms and makes sins into something yearned for. It makes me want to punish your willful behavior and remind you that you are mine. …Oh, Christine."
She cried still; he could feel the sobs rack her small body as he held her down, but he deafened his ears and his heart's desperate pleas and leaned closer to press a harsh kiss to her dark, silken crown. A moan tore from his lungs, and he nudged her feet apart and thrust his hardened length against her. How he ached for her! He longed to lose himself in her warm body, join to her as if she were his other half, never to separate again.
But she whimpered again like a wounded dove, shivering and shaking beneath him, and in a choked whisper, he heard her say, "Your hand is bleeding."
"Let it bleed," he muttered, his voice thick and hoarse. He barely noticed the sting, but as he lifted his head, he saw his fist tight about her slim wrists and his blood streaking both their fingers. The injury was not what shook him; it was the vision of a fierce grip and her porcelain skin sullied and stained in reds.
With a growl of self-loathing, he let her go, lifting his weight. He was unsurprised when she immediately darted for the door, her footfalls echoing as she went.
Damn him for his temper! For his jealous nature and his cruelty! He sank into despair, but as tears came and rimmed his eyes, he focused on the mattress where he'd held her. Blood smeared the place where hands had been, but…blood also marked the spot where her face had been pressed.
"Oh God…," he sobbed, and without a thought, he ran after her.
Never a pause, never a slowed pace, he rushed into the dank catacombs and through stone passageways in pursuit. He caught glimpses of her silhouette ahead, her skirts trailing as her breaths echoed the walls with heaved inhalations.
He was stealthier, and no noise betrayed. She didn't know his presence until he had her with an arm about her waist, dragging her off her feet.
"No!" she shrieked and fought, thrashing about as a mess of flailing limbs and falling curls. "Let go! Let go of me!"
But he kept a desperate hold, never loosening despite her urgency. "Sshh," he crooned and pressed misshapen lips to her crown. "Christine, stop, ange."
"No, no, let me go! Erik, you hurt me!"
"I know," he bid softly and felt the regret well and tear at his soul. "Sshh. I won't hurt you again, ange. Never again. Please, stop fighting me, and let me see."
She still sobbed, but her body sagged in his grasp, muscles losing their rigid torsion and limbs dropping defenselessly to her sides. With great care, Erik guided her about in his embrace and tilted her face up to his observance. Shadows did not deter his sight and showed him the damage caused by a foolishly shattered mirror.
Cuts, one above her brow, one along her cheekbone, one at the glorious arch of her lips, and one lining her jaw. All were shallow, and he thanked God that none were deep enough to scar. Oh God, if he'd damaged her permanently as he himself was damaged…
He sought to seem strong and detached, but the tears in his eyes whispered truths as he held her uncertain blue gaze. "Let me take you back to my home. I need to clean those cuts and make certain no glass is left behind. Please, Christine, come with me."
He saw continued wariness and only then recalled that his face was exposed. Perhaps it wasn't only a monster's actions making her anxious but his face as well. But as tears made luminescent paths and mingled with bloodstains upon her pale skin, she gave a solitary nod and did not struggle when he swept her off her feet and carried her back.
Erik walked quickly, refusing to glance and meet her accusatory stare again. He'd done this. He'd hurt her, and it was beyond idle threats when wounds remained. Damn his accursed touch! He'd cursed the Vicomte's, but the Vicomte did not draw blood in his attempts. The Vicomte knew the delicacy in a caress, and Erik wounded to the very heart.
As if she were fragile, he brought her to his awaiting couch. When was the last time he'd carried her? That first night he'd taken her to his home? He'd been desperate to avoid such pleasures since that night. Now he saw why his intuition had cast doubts and kept him hesitant in her presence. Perhaps it knew injury would be the result. As he set her down and gave up the warm softness of her body, he mourned the loss and settled for cold solitude instead.
Still avoiding a shared look, he insisted, "Let me get some water and towels. …Stay here."
He did not await a reply. He hurried with frantic motion; it was more than necessities he was after. He went first to his room and sought his mask. His eyes caught and held on the shattered mirror as if jagged cracks shrieked their blame. Never had he considered that his actions could hurt Christine. Was that not his greatest flaw? He never thought beyond his own pain and hurt, his own rage, and now Christine was a casualty.
The glass was missing shards here and there, bits scattered in the carpet, others having dared strike Christine's beautiful face, and others yet embedded in his knuckles. He felt the burning sting of his wounds, but gave no mind. He'd attend to them later after he was certain Christine was well. What were more scars upon his damaged body anyway?
His eyes passed multiple images of his distorted features, magnified and twisted on the damaged surface of his mother's mirror. Perhaps this was her retribution beyond death, punish her sinful son and his crimes by causing him to hurt what he most loved…
Sneering self-hatred, he grabbed his mask and hid his deformity behind its protection with echoes of his mother's voice in his memory commanding him to conceal his monstrous face, to never be without the mask in her presence, insisting he was condemned to suffer for daring to be born. She'd made it clear from the first day that he was an unlovable creature destined for hell; perhaps he should have listened to her.
When he finally returned to the sitting room, he found Christine exactly as he'd left her, sitting perched on the couch cushions, staring blankly ahead as tears fell. Oh God, what had he done to her?
"Christine," he gently called, and with the mask to be his confidence, he met her hurt gaze this time as he approached and sat on the cushion's edge. It did not go unnoticed that she started and recoiled, adding inches of distance between them. He knew she was afraid, but he kept tender tones as he said, "I need to clean the cuts and make sure no glass remains. Drink this first."
Rummaging through his collected accoutrements, he found a bottle of brandy and poured a small glass. Pity he kept no morphine or laudanum on hand, but he'd learned long ago that he preferred to let himself suffer when painful situations arose. He deserved anguish in every way, but Christine did not.
She regarded the glass oddly before conceding to take it. Watching him, uncertain all the while, she took a small sip and cringed her distaste. "No, thank you," she decided and tried to hand it back.
"Drink it, Christine. It will help with the pain."
"It…doesn't hurt that much."
"It will," he predicted. "This is not going to be pleasant. I only wish I could suffer it for you…"
"Your hand…," she muttered distantly, but he shrugged off her attempt and kept his bloodied knuckle from her sight.
"Drink," he urged again and was grateful when she complied. He was hesitant to touch her again, but he had no choice as he surveyed the injuries with intent eyes. "How dare I mar such glorious exquisiteness?" he bid to only himself and fitted fingertips beneath her chin to guide her features up to the light. "I told you I wouldn't hurt you again, but will you let me tend to the damage I've caused? …I'm sorry, Christine."
Her nod was hollow as she sipped her brandy, but he took it as encouragement when she did not shrink and allowed his fingertips to find one cut.
Erik was as gentle as he could be, working with diligence and feeling her eyes always upon him. He cleaned the first cut and cringed to hear her soft gasp when he searched for glass fragments. Tears threatened, tears of self-loathing and thick compassion, but he held them at bay with the internal insistence that he had a task to attend to first. He could not be swayed even as she winced and tears shimmered in the corners of her eyes instead. No, he needed to see to her as best he could and then when alone, he would wallow in masochism.
One cut and then the next, and he coerced her to sip the brandy, praying for its numbing effect to overcome. But as he took out an embedded shard from the cut on her brow, she gave a cry and the tears in her gaze tumbled along her features.
"I'm sorry," he desperately pleaded and outlined the cut with tender fingertips. "So sorry… Dear God, Christine, I never meant for this to happen! I never thought… Please don't believe I did this intentionally. Even in my rashness, I would never hurt you."
"But…the words you said," she softly whimpered. "You didn't intend to make me bleed on the outside, but inside, you wanted to wound me and bruise my soul."
Her accusation stung him with its validity, and as her lids fluttered closed as if desperate for distance, he fixed his focus on diamond tears dangling from her dark lashes before they tumbled free.
"You're right," he admitted, and those blue depths opened in surprise. "You expected me to lie, didn't you? Shirk off guilt and place it upon your shoulders instead?"
"I expected more cruel words," she revealed in a whisper and did not lower lids again even as he tipped her face to the side and pretended to care only about the cut on her cheekbone.
"Shall I apologize again?" he bid, grazing her cheek with his towel. "I can speak the words until my tongue stiffens, but it will not change intent. I was crude and vile to you, spoke sins and insult. …I am a selfish man, Christine, full of malice and violence. I do not readily share what's mine. I should not have faltered beneath my temper, but if threats are how I must hold you, then they will be my doctrine and law. I cannot allow you to play frivolously with my heart while you dangle all I ache for to your Vicomte instead. Please understand that."
She remained silent, and though he sought acceptance in her constant stare, he could not read her expression. Perhaps the brandy was finally taking effect because arguments were lost beneath the pensive arch of brows.
"Why did you put your mask back on?" she suddenly asked, and he instinctively jerked back, watching her hands with a fear of their movements. Curiosity often ruled his Christine, and hands acted on its will instead of sense. He was not about to find out where her curiosity would lead them both again.
"Is it not better this way?" he posed back, keeping her hands always in his periphery as he went back to work and delicately grazed the cut above her lip with his towel. This time she barely flinched, and he was doubtless the brandy was her bravery's spark.
"But you took it off this time," she reminded. "You put your face on display, not I. And so quickly, you hide it again."
He gave an idle shrug. "It is a weapon when I choose to use its deformity for fright. …Didn't it frighten you, Christine?"
His gaze moved between his task at the pink arch of her lips and her blue stare as she slowly shook her head. "No, it didn't frighten me. Not your face… It frightened me when you shattered the mirror glass and hurt us both. Why would you do such a thing?"
Such blatancy, and he pushed it onward, guiding her cup to her lips for another sip before he grazed her cut again and revealed, "The mirror shows truths, and I didn't favor what I saw. A monster beside the fair maiden. It was an ugly portrait, and…it angered me that it looked so wrong."
Her brow furrowed with his admission, eyes always on him, and as he carefully searched the gash above her lip for glass, he felt the slow approach of her hand.
"Don't," he warned lowly as he continued. "Christine, …don't risk shaking me from my work."
"It must be impossible to do a decent job of it with your mask hindering your sight," she softly concluded and touched fingertips to the mask's edge.
"Christine," he attempted again, yet aggression never made another appearance, suffocated by lingering guilt.
"Will you attack me to stop me?" she bluntly demanded, and he wondered if she comprehended her audacity as he glanced into her hazy, heavy-lidded eyes. "Will you break another mirror, something more fragile this time? Will you hold me to the couch cushions with your body? Will you strike me as you threatened…or take other liberties to claim my innocence?"
He noted her fierce blush as she avoided his provocative language and cursed himself again for daring to utter profanities. "None of those things. Can you not see that I am remorseful for my brazen behavior?"
"Then what will you do if I remove your mask, Erik? How shall you punish me?"
"The sight of my face is punishment enough," he decided. "Don't you agree?"
Christine didn't answer, steady and watching him with intent conviction as her fingers fitted about the mask, and though he didn't stop her, he hesitated with his task long enough for the mask to be taken and air to strike his scars. He waited for a reaction, but her blue gaze remained unshaken and clouded, and he wondered if his deformity looked less stark to her numb mind, perhaps almost ordinary when shock could not be offered. No, she simply stared and breathed and allowed him to return to cleaning her wounds with never another disturbance.
Erik felt awkward without the stability of coarse material against his face. After his transgressions, he took his abashed exposure and its vulnerable state as penance and permitted her silent scrutiny with nothing more than a tensed jaw to reveal his discomfort. He let her look and sensed the trail of her gaze along his horrendous features. But when he would have expected something to insist her duress and disgust, perhaps a caught breath, a furrowed brow, averted examination, she gave nothing but a continued emotionless study.
Her stare was relentless and unnerving, and as he finished with the cut above her lip and admired its pink peak and arch with coveting eyes, he dared to ask, "Am I ugly, Christine?"
She seemed to ponder a long moment, and he had a fear that she could not interpret the question beneath liquor's daze, but she slowly replied, "Your anger is ugly. It is the only thing I truly fear."
"The only thing?" he posed with hinted hope. "And my face then?"
"I do not fear your face, but I fear that you will use it to justify anger's destruction. You hurt me tonight with anger as your sword."
A tirade and outburst, and how he regretted every second granted to its possession. It was so easy to be victim to his temper with the right impetus, and the Vicomte ignited nothing but fire between them.
"I'm sorry, Christine," he beseeched again, giving up the last cut to hold her gaze. "My words and actions are unforgiveable. I am the monster you saw in the mirror, the real monster between us, the one who broke the glass and made you bleed. But I am also the man who adores and reveres you like a goddess, who tended you with gentle fingers and never force, …never again. I can be more than I am. I will prove it to you. Please let me."
Her weighty lids drifted closed with his pleading, lashes resting idly upon her cheeks and peace smoothing every anxious line that an evening's trauma had rendered.
It wasn't much beyond a murmur, and with care in every endeavor, he set trembling palms to her shoulders and guided her to lay back, pleased when she cuddled her temple to the couch cushion. After exhausting events, injury, and alcohol, she did not fight as sleep came, and with never a single hint to betray his presence, he lingered at her side, taking in every flawless expanse of skin and equally, every inkling of damage he'd inflicted. The red of cuts shone severe on a pale palette and made him curse softly beneath his breath at his condemning nature.
"I love you," he breathed to her sleeping, marked face, unable to regard her and not view ugly wounds. "Oh, Christine, forgive your fallen angel. All I do, every thought and feeling, everything I am is tied to you. I only wish to keep you. I vow to be ever-devoted, faithful, tender, and beloved if only you vow to be mine."
She gave no reaction to his words, nothing to say they'd made an impression in the land of dreams. Perhaps it was best she did not know of the pathetic beast ready to weep for her heart. Anger and threats made sense on the misshapen lips of a monster; oaths of unending love were trite and humiliating if they presented weakness.
But…for one instant, he forgot that he was undeserving. With the greatest gentleness, he leaned down and grazed feather-light kisses to each cut. The one at her jaw, the one upon her cheekbone, the one on her brow, and finally, with much care, the one at the arch of her lip. His mouth was bloated and brushed her upper lip with his attempt, and it thrilled him because it was almost a kiss. Innocent where earlier he had been vile and savage. Now there was damage in need of mending and injured places that could bear only delicacy. He was determined to grant them solace and prayed tenderness would help them heal to nothing.
Drawing back with guilt written in mismatched eyes, he dared to rest his unmasked, disfigured cheek to the steady beat of her heart. Its metronome tapped against his scars as if rushing forward in caress, and he sighed his contentment to savor every proof of her life. His Christine…
But tonight he'd granted her the heinous truths in reality, and though he refused to lose her, he knew he'd conjured a difficult battle for himself. She would run to her Vicomte after this; such an outcome was obvious and inevitable. In his haste to keep her from the arrogant, rich boy, he'd pushed her into his arms and given her the very reason to flee. But no… Erik was determined that he'd have her in the end. No matter what he must do, the crimes he would commit, the damage left to be sculpted by his hands, he would win. Vicomte be damned! Christine was his!
And as he kept his cheek to the calm of her heart, anger creased his features and pulled them ugly and taut. He was a monster; the mirror never lied. A monster lay with his cheek upon her heart as if he deserved such a gift, and a monster vowed at that moment that whatever the sins spread in his path, he would have her forever.