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Desired By The Phantom 

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Released June 2016

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Blurb:

Proving the mask isn’t hiding a madman is probably hopeless, but preventing his past from destroying their lovemay just be impossible.

Four years ago Paris was under siege by Erik the murderously vengeful Phantom of the Opera, who swore no one would come between him and his student, the breathtaking Christine Daae. But a broken heart and a blast of conscience have changed him. Vowing never again to let his curse haunt the diva or the Opera Garnier, Erik is content for the world to believe he is dead. That is, until a good Samaritan begins leaving strange packages, awakening both his deepest desire and most forbidden fearlove.

Anna has no way to escape the memories of her past or her bonded servitude to the owners of the Opera Garnier. Ministering to the less fortunate is the only bright light in an otherwise dark existence. When her kind gesture brings her to the attention of the masked and mysterious Erik, her need for redemption became a desire for true acceptances. But Erik’s powerful obsession with Christine and a deadly con that puts everything she knows at risk pushes her to face terrifying choices.

Before lies and the legend of the “opera ghost” threaten the lives of any more people, Erik fights to control his demons and tame a heart torn between two women. Battling the nobleman determined to lock Erik away, Anna must help free Erik from his bonds of madness or once again seal his fate as The Phantom of the Opera…but saving him may just destroy her heart.

Note to readers: previously published under the title “Madrigal.” It has been re-released in this 2nd with new content for your enjoyment.

 

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PROLOGUE ~ PARIS 1885

There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it. There is only an eternally new now that builds and creates itself out of the best as the past withdraws—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Paper. Ink. Figs.

The contents were nothing if not consistent. He never asked for any of it, but who was he to refuse them? The package was always there, the first of every month, consistent in every way—a small bundle painstakingly wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with twine. Sighing, he picked it up. The paper had turned moist from humidity. He rotated it several times and found what he always found. No markings, no card, no indications whatsoever of where it had come from or who had left it. It was a package, and like him, wrapped in complete anonymity.

He wouldn’t open it this time, as there was no real need. He had enough paper to last for some time, and the packaging kept the pages from getting too soiled. The ink would dry if the seal was cracked. He could wait. Alas, but the figs couldn’t. Those blasted wretched figs.

Long fingers nimbly unwrapped a corner. The figs were always in the same spot. The whole thing was maddening in its consistency. Removing an inner brown bag tied with another piece of twine, he paid no regard to the other contents nestled neatly inside. He fumbled slightly with the knot. Even the string was damp.

Water seeped through the walls around him. Paris had been unusually rainy this spring. It invaded everything in his labyrinthine home, making the floors slick, moss grow thick on the rock, and the waters of the lake deepen. No matter to him. He was used to the water, the damp, the darkness. What he wasn’t used to was charity.

He was perfectly capable of tending to his own needs. The packages had been arriving now for months and for whom else could they be left? Some other hunted man living below Paris? Some other misunderstood outcast? No. They were for him. The paper gave it away long ago—being immaculately lined for a Maestro’s notes.

Lengthening his strides, he was propelled past the steps that curved upward toward the opera house. He no longer stopped there to listen to the music.

The stairs he followed led deeper into the labyrinth, further from the place he wanted to be and closer to the place fate forced him to be. One angry twitch snapped the string around the figs. He threw the tiny parcel into a murky corner. The rats would eat them, as they always did.

He hated figs.

CHAPTER ONE

More treats for him, Anna? Has a month gone by already?”

Anna tripped over her feet, nearly plowing headfirst into an abandoned pushcart. She glanced left to right, scanning the fog covered street and spotted the elderly woman hugging the wall of an alleyway. Anna’s wind-burned cheeks stung as she smiled. “Yes, Madame.” She tapped her parcel. “Paper, ink and figs.”

“Who is he? Lover?”

Anna laughed as she scampered across the road to share the dark alley. Mud splashed from the streets and splattered the hem of her dress. No cobblestones in this area of Paris. Nothing noteworthy existed in this quarter. Nevertheless, before darting into the alley, she checked to make certain no one took note. Unlikely they would. In this neighborhood on the opposite side of the green-hued Seine, the poor were in limbo. They didn’t rule like in the heart of the Saint-Antione, rather darted like bedraggled rats out of sight of wary eyes. Anna fished in her coat for the remains of her morning bread and gave it to the old woman.

“I’ve no idea who he is,” she replied. “You’re well aware of that. Stop making him into some fancy gentleman.” Her smile grew at the woman’s toothless grin and her eagerness to steal the package. Anna kept her steps and laughter as lively as the old hag’s, lifting the package high above her head. They’d played this game every month and still the woman never learned that Anna wouldn’t give in.

“How many does this one make?”

Anna skipped backward avoiding the weathered hands swiping at her head. “I’ve lost count.”

Their laughter tumbled around them. How many years had she entertained the hag in this way? Anna was well known around the streets of Paris, among the rejected and lonely. Most outcasts regarded her as one of their own. While not rich, Anna had a roof over her and her basic needs attended. What she didn’t need she gave to others.

The thought of that roof filled her mouth with a bitter taste. Contempt bound her chest as she glared in the direction of the Académie Nationale. The place was more prison than home. Anna knew nothing about music, nor did she fit in with the bourgeoisie that seemed attracted to the arts. The debt her family owed is what bound her there. Every day her routine followed the same unrelenting pattern. She slaved for the administration, bonded to them with barely anything in return with the exception of the few meager coins permitted her. And even that money she spent on others. What Anna most desired couldn’t be purchased anyway.

“What does he look like?” The woman hopped, both hands swatting for the parcel in-between nips at bread. “Handsome, I bet.”

“You think so?”

“Handsome, handsome, handsome!”

A wind gust knocked Anna’s unruly hair across her eyes making the world turn auburn. She placed the parcel on the ground, careful not to set it in mud, and gingerly put her foot atop it. Grabbing hair by the fistfuls, she tamed her runaway locks into a long braid and paused for a second, frowning at her frayed ends. Only twenty-three years old and lightning would strike her before she caught the eye of a handsome man.

What does he look like? Anna wondered as she studied the old woman who crouched low waiting for any chance to swipe the parcel. From one fleeting glance she knew he was tall and hidden behind an expressionless mask. She had seen firsthand the prejudices forcing the infirm and imbecilic into hiding. His living arrangement didn’t shock her. She had seen the desolate live in many places—under bridges, on rooftops, or in crates on the street.

Anna picked up her parcel and hugged it to her chest. She stared off into the distance as she recalled the night she followed him into the cellars of the opera house. Though she’d quickly lost sight of him, she’d uncovered enough to know his genius. Anna glanced at her arm. The music had been as chilling as the sight of him in that mask and recalling it made her flesh pebble.

She shivered at the memory, or perhaps it was the chill to the air. Either way, both were hard to escape.

For whatever his reason, he didn’t want to be known. She knew that feeling well enough. Anna stood in the alleyway watching a cluster of clearly lost people huddle close together. They avoided the shadows as if giant rats were going to leap out and devour them alive. They blurred the streets in colorful dresses and fine suits as they hustled to find their way out of the derelict side of town. For a second she was glad she had nothing to fear about the filthy or the poor. It kept her life moving at an even pace, until that hot lump of envy clogged her throat.

Anna yearned to taste the life of a lady and have a gentleman upon her arm. To live in a world where worry didn’t hang overhead like a loose guillotine would be bliss.

“Not a chance of that happening,” she groused, staring at a young couple hastening down the street.

“Anna’s sad again.” The old woman clawed at a corner of the package.

Anna swatted her away, and nodded toward the couple. “Can you see me upon his arm? Thank-you for your company, Monsieur, but I must tell you—before you charm me further by your affections—I’m desired not only by you, but by the English authorities, the German authorities, the Belgian authorities…” She groaned. “Definitely the Belgian authorities.”

“Anna’s been bad.”

Anna sheepishly smiled. That expression was no stranger to her face, she was used to covering up her shame and remorse in anyway she could. Her past was not her doing. Her life of crime was forced upon her. Maybe my strange Maestro is a criminal too. His hiding would make more sense. Hiding was the last thing Anna wanted to do. Envy rose, bringing the sting of tears. Crying never solved anything so she swallowed the lump of emotion burning in her throat and took a deep breath. It was getting late, so she patted the elderly woman upon the hand and assured her she would be passing by the first of next month as usual.

Stepping into the street, Anna pulled her threadbare coat close around her, intent on heading toward the Garnier. What a contrast between Anna’s two Paris’—the cold and desolate outskirts, and the prosperous inner city.

Such distinctions made her shuck her coat and drape it around the woman’s shoulders before she left in earnest.

The early spring air blasted her skin with needle-like tingles that stung to her bones. Using the package as a shield against the biting wind she tried not to breathe too deeply—the air was cold in her nose and mouth. Anna hastened carefully across and dew slicked streets. Dodging and weaving her way in and out of the hustle of carriages and crowds, she didn’t stop until she reached the Rue Scribe. Winded, her breath fogged in front of her as Anna squatted. At a small stone archway at the entrance of a sewer, she pretended to fumble with a muddy bootlace.

She smiled slyly at the parcel. She confessed to not understanding music, but the music she’d heard him play spoke to every unwanted soul and uplifted the spirit. If she couldn’t walk equal among the women she passed, maybe such a great Maestro as he could. Perhaps her parcels would help.

Once certain she was undetected, she shoved the package between the grates of the archway. If not for the mushrooming gas of rot and mildew, she would wait to see if her parcel was delivered. The stench jerked her upright for a fresher breath of air.

“You can’t wait for him. Stop being ridiculous,” she scolded to herself. Her curiosity would get her in trouble one day. Help who I can and move on. Attachments mean trouble and I’m far too versed in that!

***

“You must know.”

A mantel clock started to clang out the hour. The lateness of the night and weary droop to the box keeper’s shoulders didn’t deter Erik’s questioning.

Folding his arms, he leveled a stone-hard stare at Madame Giry and watched with gathering dismay as the older woman tried to focus on anything but him. Erik knew the office was dark enough that his eyes shone like two lit candles through the depths of his mask. It wasn’t the first time their unusual trait made the floor beneath Madame Giry turn to hot coals. Her jig annoyed him.

“I don’t know, Monsieur. Please leave.”

“You are the concierge, Madame Giry. It is your duty to know everything that goes on in this opera house.”

“Monsieur, I know no more than you. A stranger is reaching out and thinking of you in kindness. It’s a random act. Leave it be.”

He unfolded his arms. Not many in the opera house knew the intimate details of his life. Appalled at how blasé Madame Giry seemed, considering the circumstance, he changed tactics. “It would be wise if you told me what you know, Madame Giry. A stranger taking interest in what lurks in this opera house could arouse suspicion. Would you rather another investigation?”

The old woman’s wrinkles drained of color making her face stand out remarkably against her faded black dress.

“I don’t wish another investigation,” she quavered.

“Nor do I. What makes you think I want to see my peace disturbed?”

The clip to Erik’s voice jolted the woman backward. He instantly regretted his sharp tone, but a part of him was unable to apologize. Far too long he’d been labeled a monster and a madman. Kindness was a confounding luxury rarely extended his way.

“The investigations into the Phantom of the Opera are over.” Saying that out loud made his emotions swing like a pendulum. Erik shoved them all aside. The only emotion he knew perfectly was anger. To him nothing existed underneath it, certainly not pain. “But if you know something to the contrary—”

“I told you, Monsieur, I know nothing!”

“Then why is this occurring? Why would anyone pay attention to me?”

He was a condemned man—fate had seen to that. The atrocities Paris suffered under the grip of the Phantom four years ago were firmly stacked upon his shoulders. Erik faded away into the great, unsolved mystery of the Paris Opera House. After the investigations into his former crimes closed, no one had bothered to look for him. He blocked off all entrances to his house on the underground lake beneath the theater and sealed himself away to live in a tomb. His only contact was Madame Giry, theater concierge and box keeper.

“You are every bit as entangled in this as I,” he continued. “The very nature of you keeping my anonymity makes you an accomplice. I know nothing of this stranger’s intent. I…”

Oh, what was the point? She had no say in the events that condemned him to wallow in the cellars of the Opera Garnier. Threatening her would be a waste of time.

“My apologies, Madame, you are not deserving of my rants. I will bid you good-night.” He was almost at the door when her whisper stopped him.

“Why can’t I deny you? I damn fate for bringing you into my life.”

“Fate had nothing to do with it. You serve me because it is what you wish.”

“You’re mistaken, Monsieur.”

“I am not mistaken,” Erik snipped intending to drive his point home. “You have been kindly compensated for tending to my eccentricity. Have I not rewarded you for serving my necessity to live as a recluse? A franc here, a box of English sweets there? And do not forget all I have done to promote the dancing career of your daughter.”

The feathers of her hat swayed as she nodded. “Very well.”

Her air of bravery fell short of being well performed. Her squared shoulders and lifted chin were ineffective under the way she trembled, branding Erik with an unsettling sense of responsibility. He’d given her control of too many of his secrets, and it pained him to see her as vulnerable to them as himself. In an unconventional move, he knelt in front of her. One by one his long, slender fingers came to rest on the back of her hand. As intimate a gesture as he could display.

“Madame Giry, who?”

Erik followed her gaze to the back of her hand. Her aged eyes scanned his fingers, moving as if she couldn’t rest. Even Erik could feel the difference between the perpetual iciness of his skin and the warmth of hers. Uncertain what her look meant, he lifted his fingers and coiled them into his palm. Rarely touched in his life, what right had he to intimacy? He heard her indecisiveness as she took a breath, and he found he held his as well.

“There’s a woman. Her name is Anna. She’s worked for Messieurs Laroque and Wischard for two years now. Not many pay mind to her unless something is needed. When she’s not here, she spends her time administering to the homeless. I believe you’re one of her charges.”

So it was charity or pity. Those were two things in life he neither needed nor wanted. Erik was on his feet in seconds. “Good-night, Madame.”

He hastened to the door in a race to escape the feelings intensifying inside him. Whoever this Anna was he didn’t ask for her kindness. The world was an uncompassionate place, wrapped first in the swaddling clothes of his infancy, and then later disguised as the dark vaults of an opera house. Quickening his pace, Erik moved deeper into the familiar sanctuary of the darkness. Mankind was better off not knowing he existed and this Anna posed a risk. Something had to be done.

The answer was simple, but the consequence of such haunted him.

Anna had to be stopped—by whatever means necessary.

***

Little could distract Erik from his thoughts when they were dark and they had been since he learned he was a charity case. Nothing he had done thus far had freed him from that horrifying thought of potentially having to kill again.

Murder, he vowed, he would remain in his past. The idea of it knotted the back of his neck making his eyes throb so much he couldn’t enjoy the festivities around him.

Years ago gala evenings were a source of entertainment. A welcome distraction when he needed them to be. Carefully cloaked, he would study the patrons as they filled his theater. He’d glared at nobles and the feeble-minded members of bourgeois as they jostled for rank and prestige; he’d listened as they made pompous attempts at besting one another on the subjects of music and kings. Erik loathed them, knowing the airs they painted were self-inflicted masks. In the past he might have desired a sword upon his hip to partake in the air of forced fraternity, but such frivolity had waned through the years.

Back then, Erik had controlled everything in the Opera Garnier and had done so in complete anonymity. He’d had no need to cajole himself to the classes.

This evening’s gala was different. War and revolution had long ago stunted the crowds and squelched the groveling he used to enjoy. This republic was a confused beast, a paradoxical political regime he found oddly still monarchial. So few were the patrons, it seemed unnecessary for him to wander in shadow. Caution, however, was a necessary evil, thanks to his past.

Angry over being some stranger’s cause for pity and charity, and ripped apart over thinking about killing again had launched him into a morose mood. To calm himself, Erik attempted to do what he’d avoided for years—view the evening’s opera from his box.

Only to find it rented.

The fact he couldn’t indulge himself in the pathetic rendition of La Traviata angered him further. A man of peculiar habits, he expected, despite the passing of time, for things to remain the same, so he held no remorse when he kicked open the door to Madame Giry’s office with such force she shrieked in pitches usually reserved for the reigning diva.

“Why is my box rented?” Erik panted like a bellows.

“Your…your box, Monsieur?”

“Yes, my box.” Within two strides, Erik had Madame Giry backing away from the door and collapsing into a chair. He gestured behind him. “Someone is in Box Five and Box Five is to be kept empty. I thought myself clear, Madame.”

“Even if you’re dead?”

That statement hit Erik directly between the eyes. He wiggled his head and rapped his fingers against his temple. “Ah, yes. Erik is dead. Forgive me for momentarily forgetting.” Sarcasm curdled at his feet like day-old milk.

“Knowing you faked your death and printed your obituary, I didn’t think it would be wise to leave the box empty.”

Erik made a wide arc with one arm and let it slap against his thigh. He conceded to the old woman’s wisdom.

“Death at birth would have been easier.” He chuckled morosely. His voice bounced from wall to wall like an invisible acrobat. It entertained him, but obviously didn’t amuse Madame Giry. She rushed to the door and scanned the hall before shutting it.

“Do you fear Death, Madame, or just me? To quote Bacon: Even at our birth Death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks toward us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh.”

“I don’t like to speak of such things, Monsieur.”

She twisted the skeleton key and locked the door. She may not fear Death, but she feared him. To her credit, he had a habit of startling her.

Fanning his cloak out of the way, he took a seat on the divan. With a flick of his finger, he motioned for her to sit in the chair across from him.

“Speaking of death is nothing compared to being imprisoned by it.” He waved his hand over his face.

The full-face mask was a second skin, shielding the world from the revulsion of his deformity. He was a hostage to an ebony prison, its fake nose and perpetual lack of expression kept him caged beneath a false sense of dignity. His thin lips were the only part of his inhuman ugliness, a death’s head on a living body, vulnerable to the leering eyes of man.

“Why are you here, Monsieur?”

“I am everywhere, and Death is always nigh, Madame. And I am tired of having only Death when I could have so much more.”

Erik let his breath seep out the nose he lacked instead of sighing at her lack of response. His life was a frustrating contradiction. He had a voice more angelic than the heavens, more seductive than any libertine, but a fate that wouldn’t allow him any pleasure. What the good Lord did by giving him such a face and condemning him to such a vexing life, He compensated with the genius He birthed into him. Shame the Lord didn’t realize man would judge by appearance alone.

Leaning back in his chair, he pressed his fingertips together to study the way Madame Giry couldn’t sit still. Her nerves proved why he never bothered to permit the gentleman in him to surface.

“I’m not certain what you expect of me, Monsieur. Did you come here because of your box? What is it you wish?”

“To live like anybody else.”

“Don’t do that Monsieur! You’re supposed to be dead!”

Erik gnashed his teeth and stuck a finger in his ear. The pitches the old woman could achieve at times bested him. He didn’t like being reminded of his faked death and Madame Giry bouncing her knees over it annoyed him.

“It would be bad, very bad for you to return!” She wrung her hands. “You’re are a wanted criminal.”

“You do not need to remind me of such, Madame. Though I did nothing more than merely love her.”

Erik refused to say that name.

“You kidnapped Christine Daaé. You tried to kill the Vicomte de Chagny!”

“I let her go, and I spared his life. I am sure the lovers are living happily ever after,” he rumbled. The woman should learn not to mention the unmentionable.

Erik sat back and folded his arms like a wounded child. Looking away from the old woman’s reprimand, he knew the crux of his melancholy and his desire for company tonight. It didn’t lie in lecturing Madame Giry. That confounded girl and her blasted packages pounded in his head like a kettledrum. A far cry from ecstasy he used to have when thinking of Christine, his one true love.

“Please, Monsieur. I don’t know what it is you wish of me tonight, but I beg you. Don’t make trouble. What’s the point in pining for love unrequited?”

Madame Giry sometimes surprised him with the wisdom he found behind her words. Erik made a note to give her more credit.

“There is no point.” He didn’t bother keeping resentment from his voice. “That wretched vicomte with all his aristocratic glory could never love as wholly or as ardently as I.”

“The past is done, Monsieur. You’ve been forgotten. Don’t change that.”

“And what makes you think I am trying to change that?” A flick of his wrist indicated that the world beyond her cluttered office could go to hell. “I hate men and the world they walk so freely in.” He rethought and shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps not hate…. Envy.”

“How ironic,” Madame Giry whispered.

Erik coiled a fist to his mouth, unappreciative of her reply. Certainly irony, given there was nothing he couldn’t achieve, not a man he couldn’t overpower, nothing in this world outside his realm of comprehension or mastery. Men should envy him, but they never would. So long as the human race refused to look beyond his face, all the genius and beauty buried in his soul would never matter.

“I never should have told you about those packages,” she regretted. “I knew it would stir something in you.”

Erik lowered his fist and snapped his head in her direction. “You have no need to worry over my actions, Madame. That meddling little Samaritan is very much alive—for now! But, be forewarned. I will do what I need to do. I do not require your counsel, nor do I need your pity as well. I have far too much of that already.”

He stood, shoving the chair backward across the stones, creating a shrill scream that made Giry cringe. At the door, he twisted the key and threw it at her feet.

“My box is to remain empty. And rest assured, I will take up no more of your company. Erik is, and always will be, dead!”

***

Even with her vivid imagination, Anna could never have conjured such a fantastic realm as the backstage of the Opera Garnier. The atmosphere buzzed like a hive of honey-drunk bees. Everyone fed off the excitement whether they wanted to be in the limelight or a part of the company making the magic happen.

Anna wanted nothing to do with any of it—especially on gala evenings. Distracted by her want to leave, she plowed head first into a patron.

“Mademoiselle, watch yourself!”

“Pardon, Monsieur, my mistake.” Scooping up his top hat and brushing it clean, she sheepishly handed it back to him.

He swiped it out of her hand and continued in the opposite direction. Anna always moved against the flow. The gentlemen she passed this evening had one destination in mind. The salons. Elegantly appointed rooms well suited for aristocracy’s comfort, filled each night with gentlemen enjoying the company of dancers. Anna often fantasized about being a part of the parties she only heard about in stories. It was just as well that she stayed away. She didn’t really like the aristocracy—or more precisely they­ had her reasons for disliking her.

But it wasn’t out of need to escape the wealthy that hastened Anna through the crowd.

The familiar tap of Jacob Wischard’s walking stick clawed over her nerves and tensed her shoulders. What she wouldn’t give to grab it and plunge it through the man’s heart.

“Anna, I know you hear me.” Wischard’s rebuke stopped her. “Where are you going?” he demanded, reaching her side.

“Any place you are not.”

“Watch your tone, Mademoiselle,” Jacob snapped. He lifted his cane and rested the tip against her bosom. Using it, he backed her toward a secluded area of the hall.

Anna knocked the offending stick away. “What do you want, Monsieur?”

“Stay out of the way of my patrons. You’re to be worked, not seen. Why are you roaming about on a gala evening?”

Gala evenings meant mindless work. She’d had enough of that for one day.

“No reason,” she lied. She hated this man slightly more than his partner Edward Laroque.

“You best watch your behavior, Anna. You’re here out of the kindness of my heart.”

“You’ve a heart?”

He snatched her arm and hauled her in close so the stench of cigars and scotch overwhelmed her nose. “Listen to me you meddling little wench. You’re only here as payment until your bloody father gets me the money he owes. Were it Edward’s choice, you’d still be living on the streets.”

“Much preferred, Monsieur.” She gritted her teeth against the pain when Jacob shoved her against the wall.

“Spare me your tongue. I know you long to be a part of these parties.”

Anna followed Jacob’s hand as it wiped imaginary dirt from her shoulders.

“You’re small and ordinary. You’ve no chance of ever receiving such attention. Your rightful place is astride me, or cowering from Edward.”

Anna’s heart throbbed forcefully in her throat. The muscles in her back seized as the cane rapped against her breast. “I suggest you be in your bed this evening. I might call on you. You wouldn’t want your father to find you were naughty and not there for Jacob, now would you?”

Anna froze watching him leave from the corner of her eyes. The thought of nightfall and the sound of Jacob’s walking stick moistened her brow. She waited until she saw his back before spitting at him. Tonight, she’d spend away from her meager blanket and bed.

Sleeping on the floor was better than waiting for Satan to arrive.

Anna was more than happy to do as Jacob desired. She made herself scarce. The cellars of the Garnier were tremendous as the opera itself. Totaling five, they supported the layout of the stage with a network of traps, hatches, winches, counterweights and revolving doors.

Anna often found respite among the wheels and pulleys of the sub-stage level. She enjoyed wandering among the giant machinery. When lucky, she could watch the teams of horses as they rotated the wheels, which operated the hatches that moved scenery. Sometimes, she even sneaked a pat of a muzzle or two. No horses were employed this evening, so Anna contented herself with roaming free from the demands of the managers.

Tonight, however, it appeared she wasn’t alone, having spent the last several minutes watching the figure of a man move along the far wall. One could easily make a wrong turn in the maze and get lost in the cellars. Certain this was the case, she called out.

“Lost, Monsieur?” Anna moved around a huge wheel. “The way from the first cellar toward the salons is around that corner. You should take care and travel with caution; it’s easy to get disoriented.”

The gentleman kept his back to her and refused to answer.

“I beg your pardon, Monsieur.” She squinted trying to discern shapes in the shadows but it was near impossible sometimes to tell fantasy from reality in the Garnier. A sudden breeze chilled her but nothing moved around but her. Anna scowled and turned in a small circle.

“Monsieur?”

An arm came from the shadows behind her. It wrapped her shoulders keeping her locked against a male’s chest. Her body flashed cold as her scream got lodged behind her fear. Two seconds tore by before anger ignited her senses. Anna bucked and thrashed, dislodging her voice and renting the air with curses as her assailant caged her against his length in an iron tight grip.

His hand slapped against her lips, stifling her cries. So cold were the thin and bony fingers pressed to her upper lip, that pain shot from her mouth into her brain. The more she wrestled, the harder her assailant held her—and the angrier Anna became.

Too many times in her life she’d experienced the darker side of men and their lustful needs. Her life of crime made her a tasteful lady for those of malicious minds. It honed her instinct to fight. Anna drew her knees to her chest and squirmed with every ounce of strength she had. She whipped her head from side to side, managing a breath to scream.

“Get your filthy needs over with already, you bloody bastar—doh!”

Anna hit the floor so hard her breath punched out of her lungs. Rolling to her feet, she scrambled out of the way, frantically searching every corner. The man had evaporated into the darkness.

“Be done with it I say. Have no mercy on me if you must, but let it be a scar on your heart of how you repay a lady who was merely concerned.”

The shadows rumbled to life around her.

“I have done many things in my deplorable, wretched life, Mademoiselle, but I will not even address the filthy assumption you just passed. I assure you, that liberty I will not take unless it is freely given. You stand warned. This is my kingdom in which you so boldly trespass.”

Her heart battered her rib cage. “I do beg your pardon then, Monsieur.” Anna scrubbed her mouth. Her lips were still cold.

The cellars would offer her no relief tonight and unwilling to return to her bed, Anna bolted.

***

Erik squinted at the girl as she ran off, trying to ignore the twitch in his stomach. He only had that unnerving sensation when he thought he’d have to kill again. And he only killed when he found it necessary to protect his secrets. Each time plunged him into a gloomy pit of self-abhorrence. Too many years traversing Europe as a highly skilled assassin had seeped self-loathing into his soul. The genius in him contorted to a darker being as he was forced to do the bidding of wicked men. The power deflected a world that abused him as a degraded and repugnant freak. He spread his fingers across his mask and slammed his head backward against a wheel.

That was too close.

He never asked for the blood upon his hands! It had become a necessary means of survival.

Music and noise rose in his mind forcing a low growl from deep in his throat. The blessing and curse worked against each other to create chaos of his thoughts.

Damn!

He despised being associated with the vermin who’d force themselves upon a woman. Manipulation served as his only means to communicate his deepest desires, until her comment made him drop her. He banged his head again, ignoring the pain that raced up his neck.

This woman couldn’t wander freely about his cellars. His secrets were his only sanctuary and solitude the vice that draped a veil over his demons. To safeguard his life, all he need do was follow and finish the deed. Yet something fixed Erik to his spot. All he desired was peace.

Wasn’t it?

Erik had no idea how long he remained on the sub-stage level, staring off in the direction Anna had ran. But by the time he had moved and made it to his house on the artificial lake below the opera, Erik was in a foul mood. He stared at the music in front of him until it blurred. The same stanza stayed trapped in his head, the same word pounding with every beat.

“Pity, pity, pity!” He arched his arm out and sent papers flying from the organ. The ink bottle shattered against the stone floor, making a small pool before it seeped away into a crack.

The word pity tangoed with shame. He wallowed in them for so long they were second shadows. Erik tired of their unrelenting duet. He poked and pulled a stop knob on the organ making it pop with a satisfying rhythmic snap.

“I want to live like anybody else. Why is that so difficult?” He glowered at the stop-knob; aware he spoke to an inanimate instrument adding to the mark he was irrefutably insane.

Somehow he allowed his genius to be buried beneath his madness. Remorse consumed his life like a spider glutting on a meal. He didn’t even know how to take the simple company of Madame Giry, an old harmless woman, without getting angry any longer.

Plunking his hand on the keys, he drew a moan from the organ.

Such lack of social skills was not his fault. He’d dismissed humankind long ago. Interaction with man he found unendurable and preferred to stay as far away from others as possible. Or so he tried to convince himself. His genius and solitude, matched with a lifetime of emotional and physical scars from a realm reacting to his face alone, had made him a miserable and unpredictable fellow.

He kicked his organ bench backward and rose. He tried not to dwell on the past. He’d plenty of luxuries to share, excellent wines, teas, not to mention his genius talent. Erik could be gentlemanly, if he could figure out a way to have company without being so morose.

Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. “But I do have company!” Clapping, Erik bowed before his guest. “What is it you would like? Ribbons, bows, a day at the Tuleries or perhaps a row upon the Seine? Name what you wish of Erik and any desire will be yours. I will make you a queen for a day—or a king?” He raised an eyebrow.

The rat didn’t respond with its gender or to Erik’s offer.

Pacing the nap of his Persian carpet did nothing to help and speaking to a rat made him seem ridiculous, so he returned to the organ.

Before he took a seat, he ran his fingers across his bookcase. He had no interest in the titles there, only the sketch lying across a vacant part of the shelf. A simple drawing of a Sunday spent in the park where men locked arms with the women who loved them and their children frolicked at their feet. He caressed each figure, tracing the lines. Over time, loneliness had worn away the charcoal.

To taste a life like that was all Erik desired; instead he was a faceless man in the lowest cellar of an opera house. Forget about bringing his genius to the world. No one would ever be able to accept him. Music was his only friend. It would never betray him, pity him, or shame him.

It would never fault him his madness.

The spilled ink had all but disappeared. He mindlessly kicked at the broken glass. Until the arrival of these packages, Erik never questioned his existence. It was and had been since investigations into The Phantom of the Opera ended, ever since he published his own death. Yet…he stared into the shards looking for something.

The packages, aside from the abhorred figs, were so specific to his music. This Anna had to know of it, but how? When he sang, he gazed upon no one except his shadow cast upon walls by the candlelight. The music belonged to him alone. It reflected his haunted memories, his profound loneliness, and his most ardent desires. No one had been near his inner sanctum, of that he made certain.

Erik mastered the art of solitude, forcing a comfort in loneliness, only making human contact when absolutely necessary. Then what drew him to these packages? Why had he spared the girl?

He stooped and picked up the shattered vial, remnants of ink coating his hand. Man wasn’t designed to live in solitude and despite what men had made him to be, he remained one of them.

A stranger is reaching out, thinking of you in kindness. It’s a random act. Leave it be. Madame Giry’s wisdom echoed in his mind.

“I will not leave it be.” The shard glinted in the candlelight.

Someone knew. Someone heard. Someone saw, and didn’t run.

Energy surged through him in a strange new way, making his fingers pulse greedily with an unexplored need. He rose and walked to the table by the organ. Taking the brown package, he ripped the paper off.

It seemed he would need that ink after all.

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Excerpt:

Erik didn’t care about the crowds or their stares. He took notice of no one but Anna. At long last nothing else held control of his mind. The freedom was liberating and addicting.

To him, nothing existed but music, his opera house, and Anna.

The music stopped, but Erik barely could tell over the his throbbing pulse. He stared at her, trying to regain the breath she stole. There were emotions in him he long forgot he had. Exhilaration, excitement… even joy. The effects were too much to take. They were strangling his lungs.

“I must go.”  Far too many eyes weighed on him. He hastened away; hoping Anna wouldn’t follow, but wanting how she spiraled his heart out of rhythm. The lights of the Escalier dimmed and the sounds faded as he escaped down the vestibule toward the street.

“Erik, wait!”

Stopping mid-stride, he stared at the doors. It would be easy for him to continue and slip out of sight. Pass through the doors and rescue himself from all his emotions, but instead he turned. He looked beyond Anna, to the crowds that gathered around the marble steps in the Escalier.

“Don’t go,” Anna pled breathlessly.

The feathers of her costume fluttered against the rosy hue of her cheeks causing a part of his heart to crack. Such a face should not be masked. Stepping up to him, she took his hand and squeezed it slightly.

“Thank you for the dance.” Her blush deepened, tightening his throat. “It was kind of you to notice me.”

He caressed her with his gaze. The last several months of debating his emotion and torment came forward in his mind.

Ladies and Gentlemen…” the sounds of the masquerade drifted around them.

Around her he was a man and a Maestro, part of the human race that had both compassion and dignity.

May we have your attention, please…”

He partook in this charade for one purpose alone. His heart slammed against his rib cage.

Our esteemed and honored guests of this evening…

Her fingers remained entwined in his, and he watched her reaction as he covered her hand with his free one.

“…will now lead us in the grand tradition…

She looked up at him curiously, but spoke nothing. He stepped toward her causing her to tilt her head back to meet his eyes. How could someone so small fit with him so perfectly? The noise in his head, his warning of madness, faded. Not even the din of the crowd beyond could replace the music.

“…of the Midnight Reveal.”

Unsure of himself and his inexperience, he brushed a finger across Anna’s forehead with the inquisitiveness of a child. He’d only kissed a woman once…on her forehead. That had been a magical moment that turned into the greatest hell of his life. In this instance the sordid memories of his past at the opera house disappeared from his mind.

His hand trailed down Anna’s face, tracing the wrinkle to her brow, the small creases on the side of her eye, her mouth plumped in a slight pout. One finger came to rest against her lips, finding them as fascinating as any sculpture he’d ever seen. Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes. He couldn’t resist the pull of having a woman’s lips against his nor could he deny the powerful urges such a thought sent racing through his body.

“Let the countdown begin.”

Twisting his hand, he tipped her chin. Lifting the purse of her mouth higher and higher, he bent deeply to meet their lushness. For the first time in his life his cold lips brushed against the warm allure of a woman’s. Nerves reached out and squeezed him with invisible hands. His muscles seized at the thought of her pulling away, but her shoulders melted into his grip. He hadn’t expected such a reaction and acted upon it.

Tangling a hand in the waves of her hair, Erik fell into his emotion. He kissed her with all the power and passion he had found in their friendship. Though that played in his grip, holding her tightly to him, he kissed her lightly. When he pulled back, he watched as she covered her lips with her fingers and looked away.

He looked beyond her again, toward the rotunda.

Ten…nine…eight…

Desires that before were only ever present in his fantasies blossomed into vivid reality. His chest tightened. The earthy scent of her hair centered on a deeper need. His tingling lips recalled her sweet taste. And the passion? It surged from the depths of his soul—foreign, urgent and welcomed. Treasuring their friendship he discovered he loved the woman, and if she were to love the man—

“…seven… six…”

—she had to know all of him. Staring intently at the rotunda, he forced the shallow demand from his mouth.

“Anna, take off the mask.”

Trembling, she pulled the feathered costume from her face.

“…five … four…”

“No,” Erik’s voice pulsed. “Take off the mask.

Anna gasped and dropped the one she held. Her hands shook. Erik crushed a fist to his mouth. He would not cry out.

“Erik, I…”

“…three…two…”

“Do it!” Grabbing her shoulders, he braced himself for her inevitable reaction.

Erik’s eyes never left the scene over her shoulder. It had to be done. He couldn’t bear to look directly into her eyes. He heard her crying. He hadn’t meant to frighten her, but he had no choice. She teetered on the tips of her toes before lifting her hands to his mask. Hitching a breath, he jerked his head backward. The heat from her hands coming toward his face skipped his heart as they reacted for his most intimate part. Erik trembled too as Anna’s hands shook when the mask slipped away.

One!” The rotunda exploded in jubilation…

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