EVERY SEAT SOLD!

"You're looking very pale, honey; are you all right?" Theodora asked as she paused by the door after popping in to borrow some hairpins. Carlotta would have sent an underling and demanded them but Teddy always did everything herself; she was never accompanied to the theatre even by Martha, though Christine knew the older woman would have preferred to be there to keep an eye on what her former charge was getting up to, which was precisely why Teddy told her to stay at home.

"I'm fine, just tired out," Christine said, dabbing at her nose with a powder puff while her dresser hovered with her first outfit of the evening, the simply-cut, elegantly tailored evening gown she had picked out with Meg what felt like years ago. She gave Teddy a smile in the mirror. "The last few weeks have been rather exhausting."

The Prima Donna pursed her lips and crossed the room once more, giving little Chantal a wordless request to allow them to speak privately. The dresser nodded and scuttled over to the wardrobe. "You're sure it's no more than that? I know I'm a nosey gal and I don't mind if you tell me it's none of my business, but you're not looking well. You've lost your bloom, and no amount of rouge is going to hide it."

"I'm perfectly well, I promise. Really, Teddy, I am," Christine insisted. Physically she felt no worse than she had ever done, but emotionally she was completely worn; even though the strain of keeping secrets she had never wanted was reduced now that the subject of Angelique Claudin's continued existence was out in the open there was still an element of tension between herself and Erik. He was jumpy, his moods often on a hair-trigger, and she found that fatigue and stress were making her feel much the same. For the past few days since their confrontation there had barely been a moment when she was not close to tears. He promised her that he would deal with it, that she would not have to meet her mother-in-law again, but the knowledge that Angelique could turn up at any moment unannounced was making life unbearable for them both. They could ignore her all they wanted, but inaction would not make the problem go away. "I will just be glad when the performance is over."

"As will we all, I think. I've had quite enough of Monsieur Marigny running around and complaining that things are wrong, that the patrons won't be satisfied with the catering or the Whosit of Whatever won't want to listen to Meyerbeer because he hated Les Huguenots," Theodora said, pulling a face. "Where I come from they'd all be told to sit and listen, and if they didn't like it they could lump it! Writing notes to tell us what we should and shouldn't perform... I never heard of such a thing!"

Despite herself Christine could not help but laugh. "They are the patrons, Teddy; this whole evening is about bringing in more money."

Teddy bristled. "Well, I think they could do with learning some manners. To announce that your wife won't meet the cast because she can't be seen to consort with those kinds of people..!"

"It was mainly me she was referring to, I think. She wanted to meet you." Christine had been insulted and embarrassed when the Comte de Châteauroux declared that his Comtesse would not speak to those members of the company she deemed unsuitable; Christine's name had been the first on the list and she knew exactly why. The Comtesse was one of that clique of titled females to which Raoul's mother belonged, all of whom had looked down their noses when Christine was introduced to them as his fiancée. She could still hear Madame de Châteauroux's condescending voice now as the woman peered at her through her lorgnette, asking about her parentage and whether she thought it was quite seemly for the Vicomte de Chagny to be marrying a chorus girl.

"Only because I'm the big name, sweetheart," Teddy assured her. "She has no idea what she's missing."

"You sound like Erik," Christine said, remembering her husband's reaction when informed of this high-handed declaration. "But he was angrier. And the Comtesse won't deign to speak to him, either."

"If he's that angry, it's probably just as well," Teddy replied with a grin, somehow still quite sanguine after being witness to an explosion of Erik's temper the day before when the curtains at the front of the newly-erected stage fell down and swamped the ballerinas. Christophe Fortier's ears had been ringing for hours afterwards. "Mind you, I'd pay good money to see him take her ladyship down a peg or two."

"I think everyone would, but that probably wouldn't be good for business."

"True, true." There was a pause, and then Theodora glanced down at her, a thoughtful expression on her face. "I don't suppose there's any possibility that your fatigue is down to the impending patter of tiny feet...?"

Christine flushed. "I don't think so," she mumbled, her cheeks burning. She pretended to rummage in the drawer of her dressing table for something to avoid meeting Teddy's gaze.

"Are you sure? I mean, you've been married for over a month now and it can happen pretty quickly - " After a moment Teddy apparently realised what she'd said and closed her eyes in sudden mortification. "There I am, doing it again. Of course you're sure! I'll just go away and let you get ready, shall I?"

"No, Teddy, please don't." Christine caught hold of her sleeve. In truth, the business with Erik's mother had pushed such worries to the back of her mind but she could not deny that she was surprised not to have fallen pregnant by now. Madame Giry insisted that such occurrences were quite usual in healthy women, and cited several examples besides her own of newly-married couples being blessed within the first nine months. "Is it normal, do you think, to have been married for several weeks and nothing to have happened?"

Theodora looked torn between offering platitudes and telling the truth. Unsurprisingly, she opted for the latter. "Hell, I'm not the best person to ask, Christine. Some of my sisters had children quickly, some didn't. And even if everything's all right with you, there's still the father to consider. It takes two to make a baby. Are you... is your... are you having normal... you know..."

Her awkwardness, so out of character, immediately made Christine relax and she had to fight back an inappropriate giggle. "Oh yes," she said, feeling herself blush again. "Perfectly normal."

"Well, that's the important thing." Teddy smiled and squeezed her shoulder. She winked. "Keep on doing what you're doing and it'll have happen eventually!"

Christine didn't mention the niggling worry that reared its head occasionally, that though he had said little on the subject she had guessed that Erik thought he might not be able to have children. She supposed it was natural for him to think such things, despite the fact that as far as she could tell the deformity was confined to his face and he seemed to have no difficulties when they were together. Thankfully she was spared having to comment further by the knock on the door; Jean Paul's curly head appeared around it.

"Ten minutes, Mademoiselle Merriman!" he announced, and disappeared again before either woman could respond.

"Shoot!" Teddy exclaimed, glancing in horror at the clock. "I'm not even dressed!" Hitching up her dressing gown she hurried off down the corridor after the runner, calling for her own dresser. James Patterson-Smythe's voice could be heard, berating her for wasting time, and Teddy's response included some rather choice words. Christine shook her head, trying not to laugh, and Chantal, looking slightly anxious, approached with her own dress once more.

She had just stepped into it and Chantal was fastening the back when there was another knock at the door. Christine thought that it was a little early for her own call so she asked the visitor what they wanted and was slightly surprised when she was answered by her husband. Chantal looked scandalised when Christine gestured for her to let him in, having heard only a male voice and failed to recognise it.

"But... but, Madame!" she protested. "You cannot allow a man in here, not when you are..!" She waved a hand to Christine's current state of undress.

"I think we can make an allowance this time," Christine told her with a smile. "Monsieur Claudin has seen me wearing far less than this."

The dresser turned beet red and scurried over to open the door. Christine turned to see Erik on the threshold; she had not laid eyes on him since that morning, when they had had a final rehearsal of her aria, and her heart skipped a beat as time seemed to start flowing backwards as though she was standing in front of her mirror after the Hannibal gala for the Phantom had appeared before her once more. He was dressed as he had not been for months, wearing his perfectly tailored and pressed evening suit and over it the beautifully beaded cloak, the brim of his jet black fedora shadowing his face; a frisson went through her and she found herself wishing they were alone.

"Did you come to wish me luck as usual?" she asked, holding out a hand to him.

Sweeping off his hat he dropped a kiss on her fingers and smiled. "Of course. I would never miss a performance."

"And do you always dress up to wish a lady good luck?" Whether it was born of his unexpected appearance or some inappropriate impulse she wasn't sure, but Christine found herself tossing her hair flirtatiously, feeling like Meg.

Erik's eyes twinkled. "Always, when that lady is my beautiful wife," he replied, and leaned in for a proper kiss. A squeak, hastily smothered, from Chantal caused laughter to bubble up within both of them, and Christine smiled broadly against his lips.

"I've missed this, you know," she whispered, stroking the fine cashmere of his cloak.

His visible eyebrow quirked upwards. "Oh, really?" he purred. "Perhaps I should wear it more often, if this is the effect it has."

Christine glanced over her shoulder, to see her dresser fiddling with the jewellery in the box on the commode. "I think we're a little too affectionate for Chantal. She looks horrified, poor thing!"

"In that case, I shall allow her to continue with her duties," Erik declared, and disentangled himself from his wife's embrace. She pouted, but let him go, and Chantal returned to finish the hooks and eyes that closed the back of the dress. When she was done, and the pearl necklace that had been one of his wedding gifts to her was fastened around her neck, Christine gave a pirouette that would have been more graceful had she not been trying to keep her feet away from her rose pink satin skirts and cocked her head to one side, seeking approval.

Erik slowly looked her up and down, and she did not miss the brief flash of hunger in his eyes; it was probably reflected in her own. "You will make all of those primped and painted matrons wild with jealousy. But I think..." Leaning forwards he adjusted the single ringlet that Chantal had allowed to fall from the forest of pins that held Christine's hair up, draping it artfully across her bare shoulder, his touch making her skin tingle. Satisfied, he nodded. "That should do it."

Knowing that now was definitely not the time to indulge the feelings that were presently trying to take hold of her, Christine dismissed Chantal with thanks; with a relieved smile the dresser gathered up the discarded robe and hurried from the room, doubtless glad she had a short break and probably itching to tell her cronies in the wardrobe department about what she had just seen.

"So, how are things progressing in the salon?" Christine asked, checking her make-up in the mirror. Her aria would close the first half of the show, after Marius and Teddy, and Alphonse with that crowd pleaser, Votre toast, je peux vous le render from Carmen. Escamillo the swaggering toreador was a perfect part for the baritone, and he had been revelling in it during rehearsals, so much so that Monsieur Fontaine had suggested the popular Bizet opera for the next season.

Erik made a 'harrumph' noise, and she glanced up to see him glowering in the reflection. "Most of the audience are fanning themselves and gossiping," he said in a tone dripping with disapproval. "I think they are missing the exclusivity of their boxes and the ability to judge one another's fashion sense without being overheard. The dancers are doing well and the reduced orchestra is in fine voice but I couldn't bear to watch any more; Reyer and the stage manager are quite capable of overseeing things."

Christine turned and wrapped her arms around his waist, beneath the cloak. "Are you still nervous?"

"Not when I'm with you," he told her. "Can we not just forget all of this and go home?"

"You'll be fine." She hugged him. "Just draw on some of that confidence you always used when you were playing the Opera Ghost."

He grimaced. "Confidence is easy to find when you are in a position of power, and even more so when no one can see you."

"Hmm." Christine mulled that one over for a few moments, before asking impulsively, "Would you ever have revealed yourself to me if Raoul hadn't reappeared in my life? I know I kept asking but you always had an excuse why we couldn't meet."

"If I recall correctly you still believed I was an angel at that point," he reminded her gently, and sighed. "I don't know. Perhaps, in time I might have done, but we'll never know now. I had no definite plans, even though Antoinette kept lecturing me, insisting I had to tell you the truth."

"And of course you always listen to her."

"I always listen," Erik said, lips twitching. "I just usually decide not to act upon her advice."

Christine giggled, and rested her head on his shoulder. His musician's fingers were stroking up and down her spine, giving her delightful shivers. "Oh, I wish we could stay here. Do I really have to sing tonight?

"Weren't you the one who was just telling me to conquer my fears?" he enquired in an amused tone.

"Suffering from stage fright is different to just wanting to spend time alone with my husband," she informed him, and stifled her groan when there was a knock at the door and Jean Paul's voice gave her ten minute call. Erik tensed up, knowing that it was his call too, for his piano accompaniment. He slipped off his cloak, laying it carefully across her little sofa and setting his hat on top before taking a quick glance in the mirror, tugging at his waistcoat and smoothing down his hair. Christine reached up and straightened his tie.

"Do I look all right?" he asked anxiously, fingers stealing towards his mask, as though checking it was securely in place. She stood on tiptoe and kissed the cold porcelain, taking hold of his hand.

"Perfect," she told him with a smile. "All those stuck-up matrons will be overcome at the sight of you."

From his sour expression, it was clear that Erik wasn't taken with that idea one little bit. "I was hoping that they might actually listen to and appreciate the music," he said as Christine began to drag him towards the door. "Wishful thinking, I'm sure."

"Maybe you should threaten to drop a chandelier on their heads," she suggested. They could hear Alphonse coming to the end of his aria as they neared the Grand salon and the makeshift backstage area. Meg and Sorelli were on next and Meg, covered in grey and brown feathers, gave them a huge smile as they approached; the Prima Ballerina just nodded and continued the stretches she was performing.

Erik tutted, glancing up at the ceiling. "Those tiny things wouldn't do much damage; there's no weight to them."

Trying not to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the conversation, Christine hustled him into the wings. "Come on, Maestro, your public awaits..."


She had to admit, as she watched the dancers on the stage, that though she was nearing the end of her career Justine Sorelli was as light and graceful as she had always been. In a tutu decorated with long white feathers, her pale gold hair caught up beneath a headdress mimicking the eyes and beak of a swan, she looked regal and elegant as she circled Meg, who moved with deliberate clumsiness as the Ugly Duckling. The murmurs of conversation from the audience that had increased in volume after Alphonse's performance died away once more as the patrons (current and prospective) became caught up in the intricacies of the choreography that Madame Giry had devised. Knowing that Erik had enough on his plate without having the additional concern of composing new music the ballet mistress approached Monsieur Reyer instead and the result had been a delightful little tune that started off with a melancholy air as the duckling lamented her appearance, only to lift its spirits when Sorelli entered as the swan who showed the duckling who she really was. By the end of the piece the two were dancing together and Meg proved that she could match the older ballerina move for move; Christine had no doubt that in a few years her friend would have taken Sorelli's place.

The dance ended as Meg tugged on a cord secreted in her costume and her feathers miraculously (with a little help from the ingenious Madame Michon) turned from brown to white. As the two ballerinas took their bows to the rapturous applause led by the titled gentlemen who liked to frequent the dancers' lounge, Monsieur Marigny took the stage to announce Christine. Butterflies began to beat their wings in her stomach just as they always did before a performance and she let them fly, knowing that they would settle as soon as she stepped out of the wings. In contrast, her husband's expression would have been more appropriate on a man bound for the gallows than one about to show off his talent as a pianist. She squeezed his hand and he turned his head slightly to look at her, his eyes wide and nervous.

"Everything will be all right, I promise," she whispered, and he nodded even though he looked as though he didn't believe her. Bobbing his head down he quickly pecked her on the cheek and drew away, hurrying to the other side of the stage where the piano awaited him, partly concealed behind a drape. Though the audience would be able to see him the shadow cast by the curtain made it difficult for them to guess his identity; the managers had wanted to move it but Erik, perfectly happy in the semi-darkness, had convinced them to allow it to remain. Marigny rolled his eyes and threw up his hands in bewildered defeat but Fontaine seemed to understand and Christine had mentally thanked him for his empathy.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, for your delectation and to end the first half of our little soiree this evening, may I present the rising star of the Opera Populaire," Marigny was saying now, "Formerly known to you all as La Daae, please welcome Madame Christine Claudin!"

There was a mixture of polite but bored claps and more enthusiastic applause from the direction of the Marquis de Borges' party as Christine walked into the spotlight provided by Fortier and his team. Her nerves departing as she knew they would, she glanced towards Erik, waiting for his cue; his deft touch teased the opening bars from the ivory keys, lifting her spirits with the glorious notes, and she began to sing Mozart's beautiful aria, Zaïde's words as she encounters her lover sleeping beneath a tree.

Rest gently, my dearest love

Sleep until your happiness awakes

There, I will give you my portrait

See how kindly it smiles at you

As she sang she turned almost instinctively towards her own love, only remembering at the last moment to face the audience as she reached out, walking to the footlights as she threw her all into the slave girl's passionate plea:

Sweet dreams, rock him to sleep

And in the end let his wishes

Of a joyful conclusion

Prosper as a ripening reality

Christine held the final note as long as she dared; Erik was adamant that a complex cadenza, though it might show off her range to its best advantage, would be an inappropriate end to such a gentle, lyrical piece. As her voice and the piano died away there was what seemed like hours of silence before a thunderous burst of applause, even louder than that for Meg and Sorelli, assaulted her ears. For a moment it was as though she was back in the main auditorium, standing alone on the stage after singing Elissa for the first time; sure enough, in her ear she heard the same lilting refrain that had rewarded her on that night, too:

"Brava...brava...bravissima..."

Glancing at Erik she saw that he was on his feet, smiling and clapping along with all the rest. Elated, she extended a hand and moved towards him almost without thinking; he froze, shaking his head but Christine looked at Monsieur Reyer, who was nodding and motioning for him to step onto the stage. Reluctantly, Erik did so after drawing back into the shadows for a moment as though to gather his courage; as he walked into the spotlight the applause rose in volume and with a little encouragement from Christine he took a rather stiff bow, gracefully lifting her from her own curtsy and leading her back to the wings as the curtain fell, where they were met by a beaming Meg, still in her feathers; there was a curled mixture of white and brown littering the floor where the costume had shed as she bounced about.

"You were both wonderful!" she declared. "I knew you would be!"

Behind them Monsieur Marigny was in front of the curtain, thanking the audience for their attention and telling them that they would be seeing more of Monsieur Claudin in the second half of the programme. His partner joined him this time and added the essential information that there would be refreshments served during the short interval; most of the ladies rose, fans fluttering, and made their way towards the Rotonde du Glacier, where they could stretch their legs and cool down a little. Christine and Meg could not resist doing as they once did in the corps de ballet and sneaking back onto the stage to peer between the drapes; knowing that if Madame Giry spotted them they would be scolded they asked Erik to keep watch for them and in some confusion he agreed, watching them in fond amusement.

"Look! Whatever is that lady wearing on her head?" Meg hissed as a rather buxom matron of advancing years moved between the red velvet chairs, her hair covered with a profusion of what appeared to be denuded flowers. "Did she lose the blooms and doesn't realise she's been left with the stalks?"

Christine shushed her, trying to listen to the conversation of two younger women who were still in their seats.

"So that's Monsieur Claudin," one was saying. "He's not at all what I was expecting."

Her friend looked surprised. "Surely you must have seen the newspapers, Elise?" she asked.

"One can never quite tell a person from a photograph, especially one printed in Le Monde, dear." There was a pause as the first woman seemed to consider her next words. Eventually she said in a stage whisper so loud even Christine heard it perfectly, "Is the mask and affectation, do you think? Some kind of artistic eccentricity?"

The friend started to reply but Christine missed her words as Meg suddenly tugged on her sleeve, demanding her attention. Christine bit back the annoyed snap she was about to direct at her when Meg pointed towards a lone figure in the front row. "She came," the little ballerina said simply, and Christine realised with horror that there was something she had forgotten to tell Erik about her encounter with his mother. Sitting alone, dressed in her evidently customary black, this time without the veil, was Angelique Claudin.