"A baby?" Erik said, looking dazed. "You're actually going to have a baby?"

Christine didn't know whether to laugh or cry, he sounded so bewildered. She pulled on his arm again and he did finally sit on the bed beside her. "Yes," she told him, guiding his hand to her stomach and holding it there, even though there was nothing to feel yet. "We're going to have a child."

"I can't believe it..." he muttered, and a moment later turned his head to peer at her accusingly. "You told me you couldn't be pregnant! When I asked - "

"I know, and I can't quite believe it myself but the doctor assures me it's true." She glanced at Doctor Lambert for support and he nodded. Smiling brightly Christine caressed her husband's hand as it rested on her slightly swelling belly. "Isn't it exciting, Erik? There's a little person, made of you and me, growing in here."

Staring at the floor Erik rubbed at the unmasked side of his forehead, his face crumpled in a frown. She waited, knowing that even though she had longed for this moment it had been impossible to gauge what his reaction might be; sometimes he agreed that children would be a blessing but at others... the idea that any child might inherit his deformity must always have been uppermost in his mind. How could it not be? He had told her more than once that he would rather not have children at all if there was even the merest chance that they might suffer as he did. From the corner of her eye she saw the door open a fraction and the doctor slip away, leaving them alone. In the ensuing silence she continued to stroke the back of Erik's hand, wordlessly willing him to say something, anything to acknowledge the existence of their child.

Eventually he raised his eyes to meet hers before his incredulous gaze dropped to their joined hands over the smooth white fabric of her nightgown. "It's certain?" he asked quietly, and she nodded. "I managed to... I did... it's really mine?"

"Who else's could it be: the milkman's?" she asked, her elation bubbling up into laughter that she could not contain at the sight of her usually so poised and assured husband stumbling over his words. The relief that she was not ill or going mad, that almost everything she had been suffering these past weeks was due to her condition, was incredible. "Of course it is yours, you silly man! We made this baby together; you and me."

"It's impossible; wonderful but impossible," Erik breathed.

"You always knew it might happen."

"Yes, but I never actually dared to imagine that it could. I thought that this would have put paid to anything of that kind." He waved his free hand towards his mask, mouth twisting in a bitter sneer. Christine caught it and moved it aside, reaching for the mask and pulling the porcelain away, dropping it onto the bedclothes. She took hold of his chin, forcing him to look straight at her.

"Erik, stop talking such nonsense," she said sharply. "Just because half your face is damaged it does not mean you cease to be a man in any way. You have proved that to me many times, right here beneath these sheets, and you deserve to have a child as much as anyone else. I know that you will love our son or daughter with all your heart, whatever they look like."

He closed his eyes, drawing in a long, shaky breath, and nodded. Christine kissed the end of his mangled nose. "I'm going to be a father," he whispered, and she kissed him again.

"You're going to be the best father in the world," she told him, and he laughed, the sound choked by the emotion that brought tears trickling down the ruin of his right cheek.

"How... how could you not have known?" he asked. "You said... your monthly..."

"The doctor told me that can sometimes happen. And," she admitted ruefully, "I did not have the most comprehensive education when it comes to matters such as this. Madame Giry always encouraged abstinence, and any ballet rat who fell pregnant was hurried away before anyone could ask questions. I did not realise what was happening to me for the same reason I failed to spot that Hortense was in the family way: a mixture of innocence and ignorance. When the older girls spoke of the consequences of love I was too timid and embarrassed to ask for explanations."

"And I did not notice because I have more knowledge of the reproductive cycles of horses than of women," Erik muttered with a sigh. "What a pair we make! The blind leading the blind."

"We'll learn," Christine promised. "At least we have people we can turn to for guidance."

"Yes, I am sure Antoinette will bombard us with advice." He arched an eyebrow and she giggled, knowing it was true. "How long will it be before you start showing?"

"A few weeks, perhaps? I'm not really sure." She frowned, confused by the question. "Why do you ask?"

"Your Adalgisa robes will need to be rather voluminous to hide it."

Christine's hand stole to her mouth and she bit back another laugh as she realised the awkwardness of an obviously pregnant woman playing a virgin priestess. "Oh, yes. I hadn't thought of that. I suppose it's no more ridiculous than Carlotta playing a consumptive young courtesan."

Erik's lip curled. "That took rather more of a leap of the imagination."

She rested her head on his shoulder, fingers playing idly with the pearl-headed pin that fastened his tie. "Do you want to tell Angelique that she's going to be a grandmother?"

"Hmm." He eyed the closed bedroom door balefully. "I think she already knows."

"Would you do something for me?" Christine asked two days later as they climbed the front steps of the convalescent home to which Hortense had been transferred. Run by the Sisters of Charity, it was suggested by Angelique when it transpired that on her release from hospital the ballerina had no one to look after her; Hortense had apparently not been keen on the idea but reluctantly agreed when it became obvious that she would need help until she recovered her strength.

"You know that I never refuse your requests," Erik told her, pulling a face when she pointed out that the statement was not strictly true. "Go ahead: what do you wish me to do?"

"Will you allow Hortense to audition for the chorus? I know we are a soprano short and Monsieur Marigny was saying only last week that we need to find someone new," she added when he opened his mouth to object. "She really wants to sing; she told me that she was ready to approach Monsieur Reyer when you decided to drop that backcloth on Carlotta."

"Have you heard her? Does she breathe correctly? How is her range? Will she need tuition?" he asked, and she rolled her eyes at the questions, so typical of him. "Don't forget that she will need time off when the child arrives, and we will have to find a replacement for you not long later."

Christine's hand, as it had been doing ever since the doctor confirmed that she was expecting, moved almost automatically to cup her stomach. "That will not be for months yet. Hortense will have to stop dancing now, and if she can't dance she won't have enough money to pay her rent or put food on the table, you know that. In her circumstances she has no chance of protection from the baby's father."

"Yes, I am well aware of that." Erik sighed, and when he glanced off into the distance over her shoulder she knew he was thinking about Grigore and how it was partly his fault that Hortense was in such straits. Christine had told him several times that he couldn't blame himself for what had happened, but it was obvious that he still did. If the gypsy hadn't been seeking information about him, Hortense might never have crossed Grigore's path in the first place. Eventually he met her gaze and smiled slightly. "I'll think about it."

"Thank you." She linked her arm through his and together they entered the rather austere building.

After asking at the little desk in the foyer they were conducted by one of the nuns to an airy room at the back of the house where several women of varying ages were sitting in the afternoon sunshine; all were engaged in some form of employment, whether it was knitting, embroidery or simply reading aloud to their companions, making it clear that though they were recovering they were not expected to be idle. Hortense was reclining on a little sofa in the corner, darning a shirt, and looked up eagerly when her visitors were announced; for a moment Christine hardly recognised her, for without her protective mask of make-up, her dark hair pulled severely back from her face, she looked much younger, more vulnerable. She realised that they might even be the same age.

"Oh, how kind of you to come," the ballerina exclaimed when they had removed themselves to the small terrace and sat in relative seclusion, occasionally observed by one of the sisters from a nearby window. "And you remembered the lilacs!" She breathed in the scent of the flowers, her eyes closing for a moment in delight. "Thank you. I am so grateful to you both."

"How are you, Hortense?" Christine asked after a slightly awkward pause.

"I am well enough. I did not lose the baby, though the doctors cannot be sure that no damage was done." Hortense looked at the floor, her hands twisting together in her lap. "We will just have to wait and see."

Christine smiled reassuringly. "I'm sure there is nothing to worry about."

"I hope so. I could never have murdered my own child but part of me would have welcomed a miscarriage, just for a moment, until it actually seemed to be happening." The ballerina glanced up and returned the smile with a tired one of her own. "I knew then that I couldn't bear to lose my baby."

"You must keep him or her safe, until I can provide them with a playmate." Christine turned her gaze down to her own belly, and Hortense's eyes widened as she gradually understood the implication. Impulsively she reached across the table and caught hold of Christine's hands.

"Oh, I am so happy for you both!" she cried. " Have you told them at the Opera? How did Meg take it?"

"She screamed," Christine said, laughing as she recalled her best friend's enthusiastic reaction. "I think the managers heard her in their office!"

"It's wonderful news. I confess, it is something of a relief to know that there is someone else going through the same experience at the same time," Hortense murmured, her lashes dipping shyly.

"You will have to tell me what to expect. Won't she, Erik?" Christine asked, turning to her husband, who had sat quietly through the conversation so far, looking rather uncomfortable at being surrounded by so many women. The only other male in the vicinity was the gardener, sweeping up fallen leaves.

"If you wish to discuss such things I am quite happy to go for a walk," he said, starting to get to his feet.

Hortense looked distressed at the idea, and she caught hold of his sleeve. "Oh, no, Monsieur, please don't leave! I wanted to thank you; if you hadn't been there I don't know what might have happened. He might have killed me... or worse." She cradled an arm protectively across her swelling stomach.

"You have no need to thank me, Mademoiselle. Believe me, I was only too happy to teach that piece of scum a lesson," Erik replied, sitting down once more. "Men like him only understand one tongue, and I am sad to say that it is the language of violence. They know nothing else."

"Do you... do you think he will do as you told him, and stay away?" Anxiety sharpened Hortense's features.

Christine watched Erik carefully, wishing she knew exactly what transpired behind the theatre that night. She had asked more than once, but each time he was sparing with the details, telling her only that blows were traded and he had warned Grigore off. "If he knows what is good for him, he will keep far away," he said now. "He is well aware of what might happen if he does not."

Silence fell, broken only by the occasional chirrup of a bird in the trees and the squeak of the gardener's wheelbarrow as he moved about. Hortense glanced away, chewing on her lip as though she wanted to say something but wasn't sure if she should; Erik tapped his gloves against his knee in the attitude of a man who would rather be somewhere else. Christine folded her hands in her lap, sensing that it might not be wise to interrupt or change the subject.

At length Hortense began hesitantly, "I am... truly sorry for those nasty comments I made about your appearance, Monsieur. It was childish of me, and I find myself quite ashamed of my behaviour."

"I will not say that such remarks do not hurt, Mademoiselle, but you were not the first and I know that you will definitely not be the last to make them," Erik told her, raising his eyebrow.

"Even so, I did not understand and though ignorance is no defence, I still wish to offer you my apologies," she said. "Will you accept them?"

He sighed. "Yes, of course. I am grateful for your change of heart."

"Thank you." Hortense paused, gnawing on her lip again. Christine had a feeling she knew what the ballerina was going to ask, and felt her hand creeping towards her husband's as it lay on the table, wondering what his reaction would be. "I don't mean... I don't wish to pry," Hortense said slowly, "but I did gather that you and Grigore knew each other. I will not repeat what he called you, but - "

"I am sure you can appreciate that the subject of my... relations, such as they were, with that man is a delicate one," Erik told her, and Christine was proud of him for remaining calm; not so long ago the mere mention of his past would have thrown him into a rage. "I would rather not go into such a sordid tale in the present company; it is not one suitable for the ears of ladies." He glanced at Christine, and she smiled encouragingly. "If I tell you that Grigore's father made a business deal in which I was a very unwilling partner, and earned himself a tidy fortune from my face, will it be sufficient?"

Hortense frowned, as she considered and put two and two together in her head. Even without all the information, what had passed between Erik and Grigore on Saturday night was evidently enough for her to understand, whether whole or in part, and she nodded. "Thank you, Monsieur, for being so honest with me."

Erik inclined his head, but his fingers tightened around Christine's. The silence returned, rather more awkward than before; Christine was about to break it by asking Hortense if she had considered any names for her baby when Erik cleared his throat and much to her surprise said, "Christine tells me that you wish to sing. As we are in need of new blood in the chorus I would be pleased to give you an audition, if that is what you would like."

"Monsieur?" Hortense's eyes were round, and she clasped her hands together in delight. "Do you really mean it?"

"I am willing to listen to you sing a piece of your own choosing, to see whether you have potential." Erik smiled, but he raised a finger to stall the ballerina before she could speak again. "I will warn you now, however, that I am a hard taskmaster and I do not stand for laziness. Christine will tell you that."

"Oh, Monsieur Claudin, if you give me a place in the chorus I will be the most punctual and attentive student anyone could wish for," Hortense assured him, pressing her lips together in an attempt to stop the foolish grin that was trying to creep onto her face. She started out of her chair, and it seemed that she would try to kiss Erik but thankfully recovered herself in time and settled for offering him a hand which he shook solemnly. "I promise you that you will not regret it."

"Do not jump the gun, Mademoiselle; I have yet to hear your voice," he warned, but the words did little to dampen her elation.

"I know, but..." Hortense hugged herself, her drawn face alight with joy. "Only three days ago it seemed that my life was all but over, and now I have hope again. Being given the opportunity to sing... it is more than I could ever have imagined. You must be an angel, Monsieur."

"Not just any angel," Christine said, looking at her husband with a fond smile. "The Angel of Music."

"Erik, I am expecting, not ill!" she exclaimed crossly, throwing down the libretto and stalking off across the room to stare out of the window. "There is no reason to treat me like a piece of china!"

She heard him recovering the score for Norma, putting the pages back where they belonged and setting it on the piano. "I am only concerned for your welfare," he said, his voice tight. "I do not wish you to over-exert yourself."

Frustrated, she fisted a handful of the velvet curtain. "I am quite capable of attending rehearsals. If I do not, how will I ever manage come opening night? And do not say that I have a capable understudy as we both know that is not true unless you wish to change the key of all my lines and give the part to Marie Durant." Christine glanced over her shoulder to see him standing rather forlornly by the fireplace; he was deliberately looking away, his lips clamped in a thin line. Bruno, lying under the piano bench, sat up at the sound of the raised voices and whined. "Erik, I will be fine," she told him in a softer tone, letting the curtain fall and returning to his side. "Pregnancy in a natural state for a woman; I will not turn to glass or need to be wrapped in cotton wool."

"I only want to keep you and the baby safe," he muttered. "Is that so very wrong?"

"No, not at all. But you will suffocate me, my love, if you keep this up. Do you know how embarrassing it is to be told in front of the entire company to sit out an important scene because standing for too long might tire me?" She took hold of his hand, gripping it tightly when he tried to pull away. He refused to look at her, keeping his gaze fixed on the garden and blinking furiously. "I am not a little girl, Erik; I can decide whether I can or can't do something. Playing Adalgisa will not harm me or the baby; Teddy has the much more strenuous part. You are worrying for nothing."

"Can you really blame me for being concerned?" Erik demanded, finally turning his head. Anger flared in the depths of his mismatched eyes. "You are going through something in which I cannot share, and no matter how many books and monographs I read upon the subject I cannot fully understand. I only want to do what is best for you and for our child."

"I know." Reaching up she cupped his cheek with her free hand, stroking his jaw. He sighed and leaned into her touch. "But trying to protect me from every draught and stumble is not the way to go about it. I will tell you when I am feeling unwell, I promise."

Without warning he swept her up into her arms and carried her to the armchair in the corner, sitting down and settling her on his lap. "It is so difficult to watch you going through such discomfort," he said as she rested her head on his shoulder. "I wish that there was something I could do."

"Just being here is enough. And the sickness will pass in time. Although it is unpleasant it is quite normal."

He idly twirled a lock of her hair around his finger. "It seems hardly fair that after having played a relatively minor part in creating a child the man steps back and the woman has to suffer such indignities to give it life."

"It has been happening for quite some time now," Christine told him, giggling. "Blame Eve and her transgression in the Garden."

Erik shook his head, hugging her tighter. "You know that I don't want you to risk your life for this child, don't you? If there was any chance that you might not be able to - "

"Are you thinking about my mother?" she asked, raising her head to meet his gaze. It was troubled, and she understood why. "I am not my mother, Erik. Just because she did not survive my birth it does not mean that history will repeat itself."

"You cannot know that," he objected.

"And you cannot know otherwise. It is out of our hands."

He buried his face in her curls; the porcelain of his mask was cold against her neck and she wished he would take it off. "I couldn't carry on if I lost you. My mind shies away from even the thought that you might - "

"Then don't think it." Christine's hand stole to the knot behind his ear that secured the mask, and caught it when it fell away from his face, setting it on the table at their side.

"There is something else," he said, closing his eyes as he felt the breath of air on his deformity. "My mother is not sure how I came to look this way but she does not think anyone else in the family was ever as ugly as me. My father was apparently just as shocked as she so it is probable no one on his side was so cursed. She did mention that she was very ill while carrying me, and if that was in some way to blame for my disfigurement - "

"We cannot know either way. If your misfortune is not inherited then there is every chance our child will escape. And even if they do not, we will love them just the same," she told him firmly. "You have nothing to fear, I promise."

"I will try to believe you, my dear," he promised, offering her a rather watery smile.

"Good. We will take whatever comes, one day at a time." Christine's eye fell on the mask, and she took a deep breath, deciding to broach a matter that had been consuming much of her attention since she discovered she was pregnant. "Erik, I know you will probably not find this easy, and I don't want to pressure you in any way, but when our child arrives I would be so happy if you did not wear your mask around them. I want them to see you as you are from the moment they open their eyes, to know the real you, not a piece of porcelain."

Erik drew away from her, but the high back of the chair stopped him moving very far. Fear sparked in his eyes and her heart lurched. "You... you want me to show this monstrosity to our baby? You actually want me to terrify them from the moment of their birth?" he asked incredulously.

"No, I want them to see their father. Babies cannot judge, Erik; they will accept as normal anything with which they become familiar," Christine said soothingly. "If they see your face from the first they will never think there is anything wrong; you will simply be their papa who looks a little different to everyone else."

"Until someone kindly points out to them that their father is a freak," he muttered bitterly.

"We will cross that bridge when we come to it. People will always be cruel and we sadly cannot stop them, but we can make sure that our home is a haven from such blinkered opinions." She wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him close, and rested her forehead against his, feeling the lumps and grooves of his mangled flesh. "We will raise the most enlightened children in the world."

"Children? You intend us to have more than one, then?" Erik asked, sounding amused despite himself.

"Well, I would rather see what happens with this one before we consider that but yes, I think so," Christine said with a smile. "I often think about my brother Stefan, and wonder what he could have been like had he lived. You were an only child, too; did you never wish for siblings?"

He sighed heavily. "I didn't really know what brothers and sisters were. But yes, you're right; I suppose it would be nice for our child not to be alone."

"Does that mean you are going to relax a little and allow me to decide when I am ready to stop working?" she enquired, pulling back slightly so she could see his face properly. "I know I have been irritable and cross of late but I will not be able to bear it if we are fighting all the time until this little one arrives."

"Will you promise not to overreact and burst into tears after every tiny criticism?" he countered, arching his lone eyebrow. "I think poor Eugène Reyer will go to pieces before long, especially with Hortense now in the chorus. One pregnant woman is challenge enough, but two - "

"You poor men; you have no idea how terrible it is to have no control over your emotions!" Christine shook her head, trying not to laugh. "Very well, I will do my best. There is something else, though," she added, feeling sharp teeth pulling at the hem of her skirt and glancing down to see Bruno sitting beside the chair. The spaniel was looking rather put out at being so ignored. "How do you think our adopted child here is going to take to no longer being the centre of attention?"