"Are you all right?" Christine asked Erik much later when they were getting ready for bed, tired of hearing the words directed at herself. She sat hugging her knees, watching him methodically unbutton his waistcoat; though it was not the done thing to wear a black waistcoat in female company he had refused to change it for white or cream, claiming that he preferred the silhouette of a completely black suit. Christine supposed that it was also his way of cocking a snook at etiquette and convention. "I'm sorry that I didn't tell you what Meg had done; I forgot all about the invitation until it was too late."
"I don't blame you. But Little Giry and I will be having words upon the subject at some juncture," he replied ominously, discarding the waistcoat and undoing his cufflinks. His tie followed, the top two studs on his shirt opened, and he headed for the bathroom, leaving the door ajar.
"Please be gentle, Erik," Christine begged. "Don't frighten her."
There was silence for a few minutes, save for the running of water from the faucet and splashing in the sink as he washed. Through the gap in the door she could see his hand reaching for the towel and moments later he emerged, unmasked and tying the belt on his dressing gown. He looked tired, and she knew that if the bone-deep exhaustion she was feeling showed on her face she must appear much the same. As she reclined against the pillows Erik came and sat on the bed beside her, reaching for her hand. He stared down at their linked fingers for some time before he said quietly, "Do you really think I would?"
"Erik - " she began but he shook his head.
"No. Christine..." His eyebrow and its ghostly twin drew together in a frown of frustration and he chewed on his lower lip as though searching for the right words. Eventually he lifted his eyes to meet hers and the mismatched gaze was troubled. "I have wanted to speak to you about this for days but there has been no opportunity. When... when you told me about the letter, and the musical box... you were terrified. I haven't seen you look that way since the rooftop, after Joseph Buquet died. Did you really... did you honestly believe I would... harm you?"
There was genuine hurt and confusion in his eyes. Those last few days had been a blur of anxiety and heightened emotion; not so long ago she had told Raoul confidently that Erik would never do her harm, and she had believed it. She still did believe it, deep in her heart; the thought that the man who was sitting beside her, stroking her hand with his gentle fingers, the man who had been so shy, so hesitant when they first made love, would ever intentionally injure her was abhorrent. So why had she imagined, even for a moment, that he might? It was not as if she had never stood up to him before, pulled him back from the brink of madness. Why had she feared him, even for a moment? Christine rubbed at her forehead, feeling an encroaching headache building behind her eyes, and sighed. "No," she said. "But for a while I wasn't thinking clearly, and in the heat of the moment... I was scared, I suppose, scared of losing you and everything we have together. I thought that you would hate me, that you would never wish to look upon me again. Fear conjures up all kinds of strange fancies."
"And you still fear the man that I was," he stated flatly, releasing her and looking away. "It seems I will never be rid of him."
"No! Erik - " Sitting up she reached for him, taking his face between her hands. "That there is still darkness within you I understand. But you are doing so well, rising above that shadow. You saved Hortense, but you also showed mercy to her attacker. I would not have truly blamed you if you had killed him; you had reason to and a man with less control might have done so but the point is that you did not. I must ask your forgiveness for ever doubting you; the only defence I can offer is that I was half out of my mind with worry."
"Oh, my darling..." Erik rested his forehead against hers. "You were right to doubt me. When anger takes me I cannot always control myself. But one thing I will promise you, and if I ever break my promise may whatever god is listening strike me down, I will never, ever hurt you. The merest thought of such a thing cuts me to the quick; I would rather die myself. Can you believe me?"
Christine nodded, and pressed her lips to his. The kiss gradually deepened, his arms wrapping around her as he eased her gently back against the pillows, fingers working at the laces of her nightdress. Suddenly desperate for him she pushed herself against him, feeling him respond, but as his hand slipped inside her chemise she felt her gorge rise and had no choice but to push him away, becoming entangled in the sheets as she desperately ran for the bathroom.
For the second time that evening she had the utterly humiliating experience of being found by her husband with her head over the toilet. This time, without a door between them, he laid a hand on her back, taking hold of her hair with the other and drawing it away from her face as she heaved and brought up what little there was left in her stomach. Her throat burned, her body feeling as if it would turn inside out, and he rubbed gently between her shoulder blades, murmuring reassurances.
"Easy, Christine, easy," he soothed, and she held onto his calm, steady voice as she retched painfully once more.
After what seemed like years, it was over and she collapsed into his embrace, utterly spent. Erik carefully wiped her mouth, and washed her face with a cool cloth, before lifting her and carrying her back to the bed. He set her down on the mattress as though she were made of eggshell china and she was grateful for his consideration for she felt so fragile that there merest touch might cause her to snap. Drawing the blankets over her he bent, brushing back a lock of her hair and laying the back of his hand against her brow. His fingers were deliciously cool against her burning skin.
"My poor love," he said softly, and she closed her eyes, feeling unutterably weary. "Go to sleep now. If you are still this way in the morning I will send for Doctor Lambert."
Christine heard him moving around, undressing and turning off the lights. When the mattress dipped beside her she rolled over, instinctively wrapping herself around him and holding on tight. His arms circled her waist and she rested her head on his shoulder, all too easily tumbling into the welcoming embrace of Morpheus.
It seemed as though barely a moment had passed when she groggily opened her eyes and pulled her face from the pillow to the accompaniment of the hall clock striking eleven.
A quick exploration of the sheets beside her revealed that she was alone, but on the bedside table stood a vase containing a single late rose from the garden and from downstairs came the delicate strains of a Beethoven sonata, drawing her from the bed even though she would have liked nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep. Erik would probably insist that she slept as long as she needed, and the idea was tempting, but she had missed too much of the day already and the thought of lying around like an invalid was not one she really wanted to entertain unless absolutely necessary.
Thankfully the nausea seemed to have passed, and she was feeling rather more human by the time she had washed and dressed. A piece of plain bread and butter and a cup of tea without milk helped to settle her stomach a little more and, inwardly tutting at the lack of evidence that Erik had actually consumed breakfast, she made her way to the music room. The sight that met her eyes when she reached the doorway brought a smile to her face, washing away any lingering fatigue: Erik was sitting on the piano bench with his back to the door, and just from his posture she knew that his eyes were closed and he had completely lost himself in the music; his head moved almost dreamily from side to side, his fingers flying lightly over the keys with the confidence of one who knew the piece they were playing by heart. At his side, sitting to attention on the rug was Bruno, tail gently wagging and tongue lolling as he watched his master demonstrate his genius.
"You've gained an audience," Christine remarked when the sonata came to an end and Erik straightened, stretching out his hands to ease the joints.
He smiled slightly, reaching down to rub the spaniel behind the ears. "He obviously prefers Beethoven to Strauss. Either that or the piano is more congenial to him than your voice." Turning on the stool he ran an anxious eye over her; she knew that she was still pale and had pinched her cheeks in an attempt to bring some colour to them but she was sure she must look much better than she had the previous night. "How are you feeling?"
"I might not be able to face much in the way of food for a few days but I don't feel nearly as horrible as I did," she told him honestly. "I must have eaten something that disagreed with me."
Erik frowned and got to his feet, resting his hand against her forehead again. "You seem much cooler," he said. "And the sickness..?" She shook her head. "It strikes me as strange that you become ill from a dish you prepared and which we both ate."
"Perhaps the milk was off. I didn't touch it this morning and I was so nervous yesterday that I may not have noticed."
"Hmm." He didn't look convinced but evidently chose not to dispute her theory. In truth Christine wasn't sure what it was that might have upset her; she wasn't prone to stomach trouble as a rule, and couldn't remember the last time she had been physically ill with such violence. "I will go out and fetch some more; Bruno needs a walk in any case. Then I suppose I will have to start preparing dinner."
The last was proclaimed in a tone that suggested cooking was the last thing he really wanted to be doing. Knowing that he had no objection usually to helping in the kitchen, she could only assume that it was the intended company that produced such reluctance. "Why did you ask your mother to dinner if you do not really want her here?" Christine enquired gently. "I am grateful to you for extending an olive branch, but I would rather you did not force yourself to do something that is obviously repugnant to you."
He sighed heavily. "There are too many questions I cannot allow to remain unanswered, and I do not wish to torment myself by waiting too long, wondering what those answers may be. And I... I don't know what to think about her any more." Christine took his hand and he squeezed her fingers tightly, sinking back down on the piano stool. "She looks like my mother, sounds like my mother, but the woman I knew all those years ago would never have voluntarily touched me, let alone kissed this rotting flesh I call a face. That she is still capable of playing games is obvious given the underhand manner in which she returned the snake charmer, but..." He looked up at her, eyes wide and pleading. "What am I to do?"
She kissed the top of his head, and took a moment to inhale the scent of his hair oil, which was a great deal more pleasant than that of the brand most men tended to use. He wouldn't tell her where he bought it and she had a sneaking suspicion he made it himself, deciding that apothecary would have to be added to his list of accomplishments. "You are to be calm, and civil, and treat her as you would any other guest in this house. She is making an obvious effort to make amends; it will do no harm to meet her halfway."
"You're right, of course." There was a pause, and then he asked, "What did you think of her?"
Christine had to carefully consider that one. "She is rather less intimidating than I imagined."
Her confession seemed to amuse him. "Yes, I imagine she would be. I suppose that age has mellowed even her."
"Well, you can ask her about that later," she said, giving him a hug from behind. He captured both her hands with his, long white fingers dwarfing her own, and held onto them for a long time.
Erik was out with Bruno when there was a knock on the front door.
Christine, busy polishing the hall floor, cursed inwardly and climbed stiffly to her feet, suddenly able to feel all of the stress five years of dancing in the corps de ballet had put upon her joints. She had waited until Erik left the house to embark upon a frenzied cleaning regime, knowing that if she suggested it he would forbid her to exert herself after the upsets of last night; whatever his opinions, however, she refused to allow her mother-in-law to see the house at less than its best. He had been vocal upon the subject of Angelique's scathing tongue and though she had yet to see evidence of it Christine was not willing to give the older woman any ammunition.
"Coming, coming!" she called; discarding her apron and hoping against hope that Angelique had not decided to arrive early. When she opened the door she was so surprised – and relieved – to see Chloe, Teddy's housemaid, standing there that her knees almost gave way. Catching herself on the doorframe she gave the other girl a rather bemused smile; Chloe was looking rather nervous, and clutching a portmanteau in both hands. "Hello! What can I do for you?"
Chloe returned the smile slightly uncomfortably, and dug into the pocket of her coat, producing a slightly crumpled envelope that she handed to Christine. Frowning, Christine opened the door wider to allow the maid into the hall and quickly opened the letter, which was addressed with Teddy's hurried scrawl.
Dear Christine (it read)
I hope you'll accept the little gift that comes bearing this note.
Apologies for the presumption, but Erik was telling me that you'd not been feeling quite up to scratch lately and I know how difficult it must be keeping up that big house all on your own, so I decided that I can spare Chloe for as long as you need her. I guessed that your current lack of domestic help has something to do with Erik not being comfortable with the idea of a stranger around the place, so I assumed you'd prefer someone who was already aware of his appearance over an unknown from an agency. I can assure you that, as far as I have discovered at least, Chloe is completely trustworthy and I'm willing to give her a glowing reference should you need one!
Get yourself better soon, darling, and Jimmy sends his love,
Christine glanced up at Chloe; the maid was peering surreptitiously around the room, as if trying not to make it obvious that she was interested in her surroundings. The simple, understated hallway was a far cry from the gilded ostentation of Teddy's rented abode. "Do you know what this says?" Christine asked. Chloe nodded. "And are you quite happy with the situation? I will not make you stay here a moment if you would rather return to Mademoiselle Merriman."
Chloe shook her head. "I do as I am told and go where I am sent, but I am quite content to be in your employ, Madame," she said shyly, taking a tighter hold on her bag. "I am used to working in a much smaller household; my previous employer was an elderly lady and I was her only maid. I took care of all the domestic work, including the cooking, and I am quite willing to do the same here if that is what you wish."
"Well, we will discuss everything in greater detail later." There was one subject that needed immediate attention, and Christine knew it, remembering how nervous Chloe had been around Erik during his convalescence in Theodora's home. She thought carefully, trying to find a tactful way of phrasing the necessary question. "There is one thing I need to clarify now, though: will you be comfortable working around my husband? I know that he can be somewhat intimidating at times, but he does not mean to. I do not want you to be unhappy or feel awkward in any way."
"Thank you, Madame," Chloe said, turning her gaze to the floor. She was silent for a few moments, and Christine felt sure that she would decide to return to the Rue Saint Denis, but just when she was opening her mouth to suggest that she hail a cab to take the maid home Chloe spoke again. "Mademoiselle Merriman has spoken to me regarding Monsieur Claudin. I know that for much of the time when he stayed with us he was ill and bad-tempered because of his injuries, but he was never less than civil to me. Mademoiselle Merriman assures me that he is a kind and generous gentleman, and as she obvious respects him greatly I am willing to take the chance."
Christine nodded, the feeling of relief sweeping through her once again.
"I am also aware of Monsieur Claudin's sensitive nature regarding his... face," Chloe added carefully, looking up to meet Christine's gaze. Her brown eyes were full of compassion. "You may rely on me not to mention it to anyone."
"He will be grateful," Christine told her, and the other girl smiled. Retrieving her apron and seeing the tin of polish sitting on the stairs, she pulled a face. "Now, do you have any objection to helping me out with this floor? My mother-in-law is expected in a couple of hours and I want her to be suitably impressed."
Chloe looked briefly surprised that her new mistress would ask her to assist with the cleaning rather than handing her the polish and rag and leaving her to get on with it, but she recovered well, stowing her bag under the hall table and unbuttoning her coat. Her pretty face took on a determined expression. "If you will show me where you keep the dusters, Madame, I'm sure we can have this house sparkling in no time."
"Don't come in!" Christine shouted, bringing Erik up short on the threshold, Bruno at his heels.
He blinked at her, and gave her a look that suggested he thought she had run mad. "Why ever not?" he demanded, obviously wondering why she would dare deny him access to his own home.
"Take off your shoes first," she said, walking carefully across the gleaming and slightly slippery floor. Erik shot her a glare but did as he was told, lining his boots up carefully on the mat. "And pick Bruno up, please. Don't let him make muddy paw prints across the hall."
"And how do you know he has muddy paws?" Erik enquired, raising an eyebrow.
Christine smiled mischievously. "Because you have mud on your trouser-legs. And you've been gone for hours so I can only assume that he dragged you down to the river and refused to return when called."
His pout of annoyance was enough to tell her that she was right. "Blasted animal," he grumbled, hoisting the spaniel into his arms, much to Bruno's irritation. He squirmed and barked, only subsiding when Erik held up a finger and looked him steadily in the eyes. Christine couldn't quite believe that he had apparently actually succeeded in hypnotising the dog. "I swear he has selective hearing. I'll have to give him a bath before I do anything else, as doubtless you'll scold me for allowing him to dirty the house otherwise."
She tried not to smile at the sight of him padding towards the stairs in his stockinged feet. It was so domesticated and homely and difficult to reconcile with the imposing, inscrutable image he liked to project to the outside world. He stopped in his tracks, however, when Chloe emerged from the kitchen, the picture of a housemaid now in apron and lace cap. She saw Bruno and her face lit up; the spaniel started towards her with such speed that Erik nearly dropped him, only his lightning reflexes saving the floor from a mess of drying mud and dog hairs.
"Would you like me to take him, Monsieur?" Chloe asked, her voice wobbling only slightly and betraying her nerves. "I can clean him up while you get ready; there is hot water in the copper and I will bring some upstairs in a moment."
Nonplussed, Erik could not help but stare at this entirely unexpected intruder. "Thank you," he said faintly, allowing her to lift Bruno from his suddenly unresisting grasp. The spaniel was quick to lick the maid's face and she laughed as she bore him off down the stairs.
"Christine," Erik said a short time later, when he had recovered the powers of speech, "Precisely what has been going on here in my absence?"
"I'll tell you while you're getting changed," Christine promised, all but pushing him towards the staircase. "And you'll need to be quick; your mother will be here in less than an hour."
Startled, he pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket and his eyebrow flew upwards towards his hairline as he evidently realised the time. "Good Lord, I had no idea it was so late. That dog completely distracted me."
"I guessed that," she said. "You forgot the milk as well."
"I am not entirely happy with the situation," Erik admitted, tugging at his collar in the drawing room mirror and grimacing. The points drooped slightly and Christine inwardly winced, knowing that she was far from proficient with starch. He sighed and turned away from his reflection. "Tell me honestly what you think about this present of Theodora's."
"Honestly? I think it's very kind and thoughtful of her. It makes so much sense, Erik," she added when he frowned. "We need some help, you said so yourself, and who better than someone already familiar with your - "
"With my disgusting appearance, yes. I was rather shocked to find her here; I thought I'd frightened the little mouse to death on more than one occasion."
Christine couldn't choose which misapprehension to correct first. Instead she settled for a fond but frustrated sigh. "The point is, we need another pair of hands around the house and Chloe seems the ideal person for the job. Teddy is offering to spare her and I don't think we should be churlish. Would you prefer a complete stranger found by an employment agency?"
"You know damn well that I would never entertain such a notion," Erik said in a dangerous tone.
"Well, then. Be gracious and accept our friend's generous gift."
He harrumphed and paced back and forth for a few moments, hands clasped behind his back.
"I'm sure Chloe knows how to properly starch your collars," Christine remarked.
"Christine, don't try my patience," he warned. She watched him as he came to a halt before the window, staring out onto the street. His shoulders relaxed ever so slightly, and she knew that she had won even before he spoke. "I suppose it does make sense. You need rest and I don't have time to clean this place from top to bottom as well as do the laundry and the cooking."
"As the man of the house I doubt anyone would ever expect you to," she told him, getting to her feet and joining him at the window, slipping her hand into his. "Does that mean you're agreeing then? Chloe can stay?"
"Yes, she can stay." He shook his head at her squeal of delight; she stood on tiptoe to kiss him on his unmasked cheek. "Yet another to add to the coven of witches currently surrounding me. I swear I shall end up entirely henpecked; any reputation I have managed to retain will be completely shattered."
Christine rolled her eyes. "I very much doubt that." She glanced out through the lace curtains and saw a familiar figure in black approaching the front door. "But here's another woman to subjugate you: your mother has just arrived."