All right, here we go! Last chapter! I enjoyed writing this story so much, and I'm thrilled to know it's being enjoyed right back by my amazing readers! I am so blessed and lucky to have such awesome phans!
As some of you may have heard via my Facebook page, "The Opera Ghost Unraveled" is now available through amazon! So anyone looking for a fun and passionate Christmas gift, there you go! This upcoming year, all before this baby gets here, I'm shooting to have "Pirouettes" finally out, another vampire book out, AND a second volume of "Manifestations of a Phantom's Soul". Stay tuned for more info! And if I don't post anything until after the New Year, have a wonderful holiday season, everyone! Many good wishes and blessings! :)
Jealousy was a blazing fire in my gut that was not extinguished even well after Christine left with the Vicomte. It was my plan, and yet I was sick with every consideration of my Christine pressed to the Vicomte's side. It haunted me even as the shah's ignorant guards tied my hands behind my back and made me a prisoner again.
"Are you sure about this?" the daroga muttered beside me, equally captive with genuine fear in his eyes.
"Quite. Don't doubt me, daroga. You should know better than that."
"Usually, I do, but we are currently restrained. Can you untie those knots?"
"I can, but I won't need to," I spoke with a confidence that exceeded fake Opera Ghost roles. "You worry only about how I'm going to get rid of the Vicomte's infuriating presence now that I've let him into our lives, and I will take care of everything else."
"Erik," the shah called as he stalked before us and tilted a haughty head. "What a relief to have you back where you belong! You really should know better than to make attempts at a normal existence. You aren't built for it! Your dalliance with the little opera diva should be proof. Trying to force your love? That is further abomination on your soul." He chuckled and concluded, "I like you evil and malevolent. Why did you ever leave my employment to begin with? You could have been one of the most highly regarded assassins in the world."
"Exactly!" I snapped. "But I figured out there was more to life than killing."
"Yes," he agreed with another laugh, "forcing love on a young, innocent girl. So how far did this little scheme of yours go? Did you force her to your bed as well?"
That one stung when I had the truth in fragments of confined memories. Forced… When I pondered, it sickened my stomach. Imagine! Forcing such things of Christine and cheapening what had been freely given! It would have been empty lust.
"I do not rape the undeserving," I spat back at him. "And it may be a shock for you to hear that love runs deeper than desire."
"And you knew she'd be disgusted with the very concept," the shah pushed onward. "Sharing the bed of a man scarred from the inside out… Well, that is a repulsive scene to be sure."
"Ignore him," the daroga spoke up, and I gave him credit considering how frightened I knew he was. "You speak to a man who uses desire as a weapon and punishment. He doesn't know what love means."
"Ah, Nadir," the shah crooned, coming to stand but inches away, "you are going to boast greater scars than your friend here before I'm through with you. I will have you begging for death."
The threats shook the daroga's collected bravery, but he sought a poised posture and replied, "Maybe, but through it all, I'll know I'm loved, and that is something you cannot take from me."
"Spoken by a man full of fear," the shah retorted. "And what of you, Erik? Eager to return to the dungeons and inevitable death? I am not sensing the same break in you that I did that last night I tortured you. I suppose we'll have to find it again."
"I'm not afraid of you," I declared without waver, and I wasn't. Not anymore. I wasn't even escaping my bindings when I could have because I had already won with intelligence as my sword this time. I even smirked at the shah as I concluded, "I'm not going back to your Persian torture chamber and neither is Nadir."
"Oh?" he scoffed. "You are outnumbered and restrained, but go ahead and attempt a struggle if you wish. Perhaps we'll start your torture here."
A chuckle left my lips as I fixed him in my stare and stated, plain and blunt, "You are a pompous, arrogant bastard with a falling regime. Violence is not the way to people's hearts, and making them your victims is a sin that God will judge you for when you lose it all and end upon his doorstep. You will see. The tides will turn, and you will be the victim."
I spoke from concrete knowledge of the subject, and glaring at the shah, I noted that that could have been me if I'd continued on a murderous path of cruelty. A heartless, merciless monster in nuances that exceeded ugliness and scars. Thank God for Christine! She was my salvation. As she said, God works in mysterious ways…
He was about to launch into a tirade, perhaps attack in his aggression, but a fierce knock at the door had him darting his stare to its threshold. "Who is it now?"
"That will be the Paris gendarme," I stated, resolved and without emotion. "You see, my friend, the Vicomte reminded me that cancelling opening night was going to upset our many wealthy patrons who already paid for their tickets with heavy donations. And it did! I was hauled in as manger and questioned if I'd stolen funds to which I had to report that we couldn't hold our opening because my star soprano had been kidnapped by a foreign ambassador to sing for him in his private suite. You can imagine the reaction I received to such news! The gendarme were eager to investigate, and…well, if they figure out you are the shah of Persia, God knows what they will do to you."
"Ingenious," Nadir commented beside me with a glowing grin as without warning, the shah backed toward the windows with a fear I was pleased to cause. Yes, a violent ruler of a foreign land known for the blood on his hands would not be well-regarded in this country, especially with two victims tied in his room.
The gendarme pounded against the door. It would be mere moments until it broke apart, and as the shah and his guards climbed out the window, he yelled back, "This isn't over!"
"Yes, it is. Come back, and you'll be dead the next time we cross paths." My threat followed him out the window, and when the door finally gave, it was the first place I pointed the uniformed policemen with a tilted head.
All I could think about was returning home to Christine, but we had questions to answer first. More half-truths: I'd come to recue my soprano, and the foreign ambassadors were angry they did not get their private concert and took it out upon me as manager. The lies flowed just as smooth as honesty as I dubbed the daroga my chauffeur and met his glare with a blameless smile. We were about to be free men; might as well take advantage and add some jest to the mix.
When we were finally allowed to leave, I abandoned the daroga with fire beneath my feet, rushing through the now dark city streets back to the opera. Oh, I did not doubt I still bore danger upon my shoulders. The shah was a powerful enemy to have, but for now, I'd take my victory for what it was, knowing the gendarme would pursue and woe to him if he were caught!
Faster, and I harbored an irrational fear I'd find an empty house and Christine off with the Vicomte, as if the hero truly earned the spoils, and I would have nothing. The idea made me rush at a ferocious pace and travel the dark corridors like a shadow demon, floating and flying with feet that barely touched the ground. I didn't stop until I burst through my front door, and gasping shallow breaths, I frantically surveyed the scene.
Christine…curled on my couch asleep. It was a dream come to life.
"She tried to wait up for you," the Vicomte softly reported as he rose from my chair. "But…we didn't know when you'd return, and she fell asleep. I kept her safe…for you." I could tell it hurt him to say it, but he gave a solemn nod at my presence. "I'm glad you aren't dead," he insisted, half-hearted, but as he cast a glance at Christine's peaceful shape, his expression softened. "It would have tormented her if you were gone…again. She may have thought that all the time we were together I didn't know some part of her was missing, but…she wasn't as good at hiding it as she thought. I knew, and…it tortures me that it was you. She suffered because her heart was yours. No matter what I did to try and earn it, I never could come close. I just hope you realize what a gift you have."
But I did, and I adored her one more instant in my stare, trailing the fine porcelain sculpt of her features and savoring the knowledge that they were mine. "Come on," I suddenly bid to the Vicomte, who was also adoring her in his stare, "I'll take you up. I don't trust you to walk the path alone and not get yourself killed, and…though I cannot condone your attachment to Christine, I do owe you my gratitude for what you did tonight. Your death wouldn't be polite compensation. …Thank you."
I hoped he realized how hard it was for me to utter those words. They stiffened my tongue and did not want to come loose without effort. But he took them with another nod and glance at Christine before he followed me out of the underground.
This part was just as torturous as awaiting the gendarme's questions. I wanted to be back with Christine, but first I had to rid us of the Vicomte and lock up securely, patrolling the entire building in my paranoia before finally, I could return to her.
She was still asleep on the couch, such a beautiful portrait, and with a contented sigh, I knelt on the carpet and set my cheek on the cushion beside hers, studying her so close that her every breath tickled my skin. Oh, to feel it uninhibited! I had the thought and ripped my mask away in my eagerness, knowing when her eyes opened and she saw my scarred face, she would be elated and not horrified that a monster watched her sleep.
Desperate for that exact look, I gently bid, "Christine, love, wake up." My hand cupped her cheek and brushed fingertips along her hairline, encouraging a ripple-less return to consciousness and dreams that carried over with her.
Blue eyes fluttered, and as they found mine, a soul-deep sigh left her lips. "Erik…"
"Yes, love, I'm here and real and yours." Anyone else would have blanched to see a corpse's head with bloated lips speaking such vows, but my Christine beamed a brilliant smile and lifted her hand to imitate my pose and caress my disfigurement as if it was all she longed for.
"How did you get away?"
"Intelligence and wit. You'd be surprised how much better such things work over violence." I trailed my fingers along her cheekbone and nose, onward to outline her full, pink lips, every facet dearer to me than anything I owned. "I will fill your head with every detail tomorrow. But right now, I ache to carry you to bed and sleep in your arms."
That night after she found the haven of sleep again, I stayed awake and uttered prayers. For so long, doors to God and reconciliation had felt closed to me, but now to have escaped the shah and be home with Christine as my future, I felt redeemed. I prayed for us both that night and thanked God for putting her in my life to save me. My very own angel…
It was Faust's opening night…again. The patrons were not pleased with the delay, and as compensation, I vowed to host a Masquerade Ball at the season's end. Ah, the upper class and their parties! It was accepted with positive responses all around, and I was suddenly the greatest manager the opera had ever had.
As I finalized details in my office, listening to the bustle outside in the corridor, a visitor came with a knock at the door. I was pleased to find it was the daroga, smiling his greeting. "I was nearly trampled on my way inside. Is this how every performance day goes?"
"Oh, they're just over-exhilarated with pent-up anxiety from the first time we attempted to open. And every department has their own superstitions as well. The ballerinas used to perform some sort of chanted séance to the Opera Ghost as good luck before every show. Now that the Opera Ghost is their manager, they stood outside my office door this morning and chanted like cloistered monks at noonday prayer." My report had the daroga snickering beneath his breath, but I got all-out laughter when I added, "They wanted to do it inside around my desk, but I banished them to the hall. Those girls are the most irrational little brats in existence. If they'd put as much effort into their dancing as they do endorsing each other's fears and drama, I might actually start to find ballet favorable and worthy to grace the opera stage."
"And didn't Christine used to be one of them?"
"Yes, but she is the exception to every rule, and watching her dance in a tutu was an exercise in self-control. The Opera Ghost couldn't haunt the ballerinas when he was too aroused with the concept of being anywhere near Christine. She tamed the ghost."
"And the man," Nadir added with another chuckle. "Or so it seems now that you are a husband."
The title was still so new and odd to hear. Every time Christine said it, I felt my heart ache as much as when she spoke her love. Now to hear the daroga speak it, I fathomed its letters a privilege I was fortunate to own.
"Was this rash little ceremony a response to having to hear that Vicomte call her his fiancée?" the daroga posed, and I shrugged. Rash and hasty. I'd practically dragged Christine to a church the day after our drama with the shah, but…well, dragged was a harsh word. Dragged but willingly so. She'd laughed most of the way there as she fought to keep up with my hurried pace.
"I didn't want to wait a second longer. Near separation experiences have such an effect." I eyed him with suspiciously arched brows that he only saw in half with my mask in the way. "And on the topic, when are you off to join your family?"
"Tomorrow morning. I wanted to see your opera first, so that I might fill my wife's ears with its tale…albeit without the singing. If I imitate the melodies, she's likely to throw a shoe at me and wish for my continued absence! Ah, it will be heaven to see her!"
I knew that feeling so well, enduring prison and torture with it in my heart, and all I could think as I watched the glisten of love in the daroga's eyes was that I longed for Christine so that I could show her the same look.
"Well," the daroga muttered, "actually, I also came to tell you that I have it on good authority that the shah boarded a ship back to Persia. His guards were caught, but he escaped to return to his evil ways."
That was no surprise, but I'd heard that the caught guards were revealed as the shah's men and set to death. "The shah would be a fool ever to return to France," I concluded. "He can hide behind his crimes in his country, but there is no mercy for such sins here."
"I truly pray you are right because you and Christine deserve a blessed future without threat lingering."
"A threat lingering? Oh, we have one of those!" I exclaimed with a smirk. "It's called the Vicomte. It seems even a marriage does not rid us of his presence. He's our new best friend, do you know? He comes to supper and lavishes attention on my wife. I would wring his throat, but my darling wife takes pity on his case and continuously poses the argument that dearest Raoul has no one else and would I really want to be so alone if I were in his place?" I rolled my eyes at the melodrama.
"And where is jealous Erik in all of this?" the daroga questioned with obvious skepticism.
"He is sustaining himself on Christine's new seemingly brilliant idea of matching the lamenting, lovelorn Vicomte with her dear friend Meg Giry, one of those tutued brats. We just have to get Meg beyond her fear of the once Opera Ghost so that she may join us for supper, and then once darling Raoul is happy, we may all be happy."
The daroga laughed and clapped his hands. "It's practically its own opera show."
"Oh, I know it, and I live it," I reported sarcastically. "Hence what happens when one spends too much time in an opera house."
"And why I will be getting out before you all corrupt me to be equally dramatic." His grin held an element of melancholy as he deemed, "I shall miss you, my friend. We've endured hell together on more than one occasion now. It would be nice to share some pleasant memories at some point."
"I'd call this one pleasant, and if you require more, then you need to collect your wife and child and bring them to Paris on a lengthy vacation trip."
The daroga pondered such an idea with a slow nod. "Perhaps I shall. Besides, what would you do if I weren't here to check in on you every now and again? I fear you'd miss me."
I acted arrogant, even though his words rang true and commented sarcastically, "And the opera melodrama is already wearing off on you. Get out while you still can. Lest you start with tears and gushing eternal devotion to the Opera Ghost!"
I received a chuckle in return, and he decided, "Christine is quite good for your temperament. I don't recall you ever being so droll. Give her my regards and thanks, will you?"
He gave one last grin and a fond nod before finally taking his leave, and I was truly sorry to see him go. Certainly, he reminded me of the times in my life I'd rather forget, but he was also one of the only people I could call 'friend' and mean it. His presence would be missed.
I had five minutes of semi-peace with only the buzz of conversations in the corridor as company before another knock. This time I knew who it was before she even opened the door and slipped inside.
I was in the middle of signing a paper, and before I even glanced up at her, I demanded, "You are not a part of that chatter in the hall, are you? You best be preserving your voice for later."
But all thought fled my brain and with it any care for vocal welfare or the show in general as I regarded her. She wore her frilly dressing gown, no layers or corsets, nothing but her curves highlighted by its fitted shape.
"Lock that door," I ordered distantly, unable to tear my eyes from her body as she giggled and obeyed.
Never a hesitation, and once we were confined, she hurried to my seated posture and lighted upon my lap with a bold smile. "I missed you."
"Oh? …I thought you'd be engrossed in preparations and crazy rituals like the ballerinas."
She considered with arching brows as my hand lifted and trailed the smooth column of her throat. "Perhaps I am starting my own ritual, and now before every performance, I will steal away with my husband the Opera Ghost and be voraciously devoured for good luck."
"Voraciously devoured?" I quoted with a thrilled chuckle, and as she removed my mask, I did not hesitate to comply, burying my misshapen mouth along that tempting throat and lavishing skin with kisses. "Is this what you had in mind?" I asked and felt her shiver and lose her breath against me.
"Yes, yes, more," she muttered and eagerly straddled my hips as my hand roamed the partition in her dressing gown and found her bare beneath.
"Vixen!" I scolded. "Maneuvering the crowded corridors in nothing but this silk wrap! How utterly brazen of you!"
She scoffed her disagreement and slid her hand to the buckle of my pants. "As far as everyone but you knows, I am wearing every proper undergarment beneath like the perfect lady and Opera Ghost wife."
"Oh, and stealing into my office and locking the door behind you isn't telling anyway?"
"No, but once I have you moaning and crying out, it will be," she proudly concluded as her hand found its path into my clothing and eagerly stroked my erection without gentleness. And the little tart! She got just what she wanted as I shuddered and lost a fitful moan to be her willing victim.
"You are shameless!" I gasped with the hint of a chuckle. "And how lucky I am to have you!"
"So very lucky." Her blue eyes glistened in impish delight and the bit of mischief I'd been starting to drag out of her. As such, she played no games with what she wanted, and lifting her hips over me, she took me inside in one quick thrust that made us both cry out.
It was fevered and quick, her body moving over mine with remaining articles of clothing rubbing in friction. I could feel the scars beneath sting and burn, and I didn't care. I was equally as urgent. Let her tear open every wound in her vehemence, and I'd simply call myself blessed to be her victim.
I didn't doubt we were overheard, neither of us bothering to keep the arrival of our pleasure silent, but I concluded it wasn't a bad thing. Love and passion combined, and when everyone else perceived me as only the masked Opera Ghost, perhaps I should make it known that I was also a man worthy of Christine. I wanted us to seem as close to ordinary as we could get and strangle gossip and cruelty at the source, never to touch us again.
Entirely spent, she dropped weakened limbs and sagged against my chest, her body melting into mine as if bone and muscle lost tenacity and buckled. I had a sudden wish for clothing's loss when her skin was such a delicious texture and temptation to mine. But I settled for remaining sheathed in her wetness and wrapped her up in my trembling arms.
"Now how are you ever going to have the strength to be the diva after that?" I questioned as I set random kisses to her hairline and temple.
"Oh, I have no worries about that," she muttered back. "Give me five minutes to recover, and I will exceed your every expectation."
"You already did," I teased and nipped her earlobe with my teeth, savoring her delighted gasp and the way she arched her hips and made me stir within her. "Little diva, and you will have them all as eager to kneel in your shadow as I am."
"And later, may I also be the diva with you and have you as I wish, succumbing to my every whim and command?"
I moaned my agreement before I could make words. "Yes, most definitely, my diva. Bend me to your will."
She laughed her anticipation and wove her arms about my neck, pressing her face to my jaw as she whispered, "Can we spend forever this way, Erik?"
"That is my intention," I promised and kissed her dark crown. "Forever, my beautiful wife."
I felt her smile against my skin, lips pulled taut in the arched shape, and it was as savored as language. I wanted to keep it…forever.
Opening night was a rampant success, and Christine sang with more passion and vibrancy than I'd ever heard her. I watched from Box 5, out in the open where she could see me, never giving any regard to the glances cast up from the audience every time the lights brightened between acts. Let them stare and speak; nothing grazed me. I was more invincible as a man in love than I'd ever been as Opera Ghost. Because Christine lifted blue eyes solely to me during final bows, the diva with accolades all around and thunderous applause as her appreciation, and she blew me a kiss and made her love evident to every person in that theatre.
My greatest achievement. For all the agony we'd both suffered, we'd reached the happy ending where we could just love without any intrusions or fears. And as I blew a kiss back to her and gave her a supplicating bow from my box, she beamed with adoration, and I knew this, this love was what life was all about.
Love had given me a bruise at its first stirring, a bruise that never healed; no, it progressed its possession upon my heart until it flowed my bloodstream with its essence. A bruise became a deep and permanent scar, prominent and always on display, and I wore it proudly. This was a branded mark every person could see, vulnerable in its exposure, and yet it was the most beautiful scar I owned. I prayed love marked me again and again in scar after scar and showed the world that I belonged to Christine. Now and forever, I was hers.