Oct. 20 – 10:00am
After his frustrating search of the tree line failed to reveal any clues, Erik changed into casual clothing with one of his loose fitting masks and returned to Alex’s side. Looking down at her sleeping face, he frowned at the dark smudges below her eyes, evidence of restless nights. The past week had been hard on her, he knew. She’d lost her brother, her best friend, and her sense of safety and security. She was thrown into close association with a masked stranger who was more monster than man. She’d been shot at, threatened, blackmailed, and now lay injured in his guest room. He knew she had felt safe here and he was actually surprised she’d waited so long before attempting to walk the grounds. He had contemplated inviting Angelique and Meghan to keep her company but had considered it too dangerous. In light of recent events, his concerns had been justified.
He had asked Da’ud if he knew anyone named Raoul in Alex’s past who might be sending her messages. He recounted the previous night’s visit from the doctor and the young intern who seemed to have taken a likening to Erik’s guest. Reading through the saccharinely sweet texts, he viewed them with suspicion. Like Christine’s call, it seemed too much like a coincidence. He could well understand an attraction to her, God knows, he battled his own every day; however, the fact that this Raoul had arrived, was so persistent to get her number, and then send such an unusual number of text messages in so short a time seemed more than a bit odd. The boy had an agenda, of that he was certain.
Tossing the cell phone aside with a heavy sigh, he raised his mask enough to run a weary hand over his eyes. He’d gotten very little sleep in the past few days, less than normal, and it was starting to catch up to him. As he set the mask back in place, something nagged at him on the periphery of his memory, something concerning Alex and the mask. It struck him like a bolt of lightning; she’d seen him without the mask. Twice! As he concentrated on the events, he couldn’t remember her reaction. Granted, they had both been furious at the time but he’d never known someone who failed to react at all to the sight of his hideous face. And then in the Music Room after she’d seen him unmasked yet again, she had returned his kisses with a passion that astonished as much as inflamed him. Was it possible that she truly didn’t care about the twisted flesh that made up his mockery of a face? Erik snorted in disgust at his fantasy. They had both been angry at the time; he doubted she even remembered what she saw if, indeed, she saw anything at all. No one had ever been able to look upon his face except for Angelique and Meghan. He attributed it to having saved Angie’s life and growing up around Meg who’d often tugged his mask off as a toddler. But they were the only ones. Christine had pleaded with him to keep the mask on even during their most intimate moments. Both his platoon-mates in the Marine Corps and fellow agents were decidedly more comfortable when he wore the mask than when he didn’t. And, of course, one couldn’t forget his mother. This unknown woman who’d nurtured him with her body for nine long months had taken one look at his face and abandoned him, believing him spawned from the very bowels of Hell. He looked at Alex with suspicion and hope at war within him. Still, if there was even a chance…
Shaking his head, he closed off that line of thinking; it could only bring heartache. He checked her bandage while she slept to prevent her from being uncomfortable and in pain. He was returning to his seat by the bed when he spied an artist’s sketch book on her dresser. Curious, Erik flipped through a few pages. He picked up the book and settled into the chair to look through it with more care. A pencil sketch of her brother caught his eye and he was amazed at her talent. With a few lines and some shading, Alex had captured Samuel in the midst of some mischief. There was a slight upward turn to the boy’s lips and a twinkle in his eye that betrayed how close he was to laughter. And she had accomplished all that with a simple charcoal pencil. What on earth was she doing with a pedantic Finance degree when she could draw with such perfection? He continued to look through the pages until he stared down into his own eyes. Once more, she’d rendered the portrait in pencil except for his eyes. She had colored them a molten shade of amber with a hint of fire reflected in them. The effect was startling and beautiful. As he took in the entire picture, however, Erik’s heart pounded loudly in his ears. She had drawn him unmasked in vivid, horrific detail. A soft groan from the figure on the bed reluctantly drew his gaze away from her sketch pad.
“What happened?” Alex kept her eyes closed as her hoarse whisper cut through the silence of the room. The bright light was making her head throb.
“You were shot twice,” Erik kept his voice low and soft; he’d lecture her later. “The one on your upper arm is a superficial grazing and will heal within a few days. The second shot was to your side and we had to remove the bullet. It will take longer to heal and you’re lucky it didn’t hit any vital organs.” He could feel his temper rising as he remembered how long it took him to find and remove the bullet. Growling, he rose from the chair to pace around her small room. “What exactly were you doing outside? And alone? Were you trying to get killed? Dammit, Alexandra, had I not been downstairs at just the right moment we’d be wrapping you in that sheet instead of covering you with it! Haven’t Da’ud and I both stressed the care you have to take until this situation is resolved? What were you thinking?” Erik was nearly shouting by the time he noticed that the usually spirited Alex had quietly rolled over onto her uninjured side, her short hair curling just enough to hide her face. He watched her body tremble as she cried silently and felt his anger drain away.
“Alexandra,” gently he brushed her hair from her face and tucked it behind her ear, wiping away her tears with the backs of his fingers. His tenderness was her undoing and she couldn’t stop her sobs, weakly pushing against him when he lay on the bed and pulled her gently into his arms. “I’m here, ma petite, it’s alright. You’re safe now.” He held her close and crooned soft words of comfort into her hair. Eventually, her tears gave way to an exhausted form of peace sprinkled with soft hiccups and sniffles.
“I am sorry, Erik,” she stated quietly once she’d regained control. “It’s just been so much…too much. I’ve not long gotten past the deaths of my parents and now Sam…and Lizzie.” Silent tears trekked down her cheeks to settle in her short auburn locks and she could feel his lips in her hair, soft as a butterfly’s wing. She felt so safe, so secure, that she believed she could tell him anything.
“When my parents died, I accepted their ruling of an accident at first. I was only nineteen, still more child than adult, and Sam was already under investigation. When I started getting phone calls about a week after their funeral I just assumed it was because of Sam. No number showed up on Caller ID, no one ever said anything, so I didn’t think much of it. I’m not even sure I said anything to the police who were gathering the evidence in the case. I didn’t want to provide anything that would keep Sam away any longer than necessary. And then he was gone for two years, in jail, but the calls didn’t stop.” Alex shivered and Erik gently brushed the tears from her cheeks before gathering her close once more. He wondered if she’d ever told this to anyone before and was honored she’d chosen to tell him after his deplorable show of temper earlier.
“Sam came home much different than when he’d left. We were twins, you know, and had always been able to talk about anything. Now he was quiet, secretive. He kept to his room or at the café with his friends. The calls still came, maybe once or twice a month, but I’d convinced myself that they were just misdialed numbers. And then we got a small drive in the mail, like the one Sammy sent, with a single audio file on it. It was a recording of my father refusing to leave his company to work for a foreign controlled competitor. As the conversation began to escalate into an argument, my father left the room saying he had an important dinner engagement to attend with my mother. They were going to the restaurant where he proposed twenty-five years ago to celebrate their wedding anniversary. They never made it.” As she spoke, Alex laced their fingers together where they rested across her stomach.
“Do you still have the drive, petite?” Erik murmured softly while turning his hand to hold hers, palm to palm. At her nod, he dropped another feather-light kiss on the top of her head. “We will retrieve it when you have recovered. It could prove useful.”
“We?” She questioned quietly as shifted to lay flat so she could look up at him. Before he realized her intentions, she slipped her right hand out of his and gently slid the mask from his face. She stopped him with gentle insistence when he tried to turn away from her and caressed the mangled, scarred flesh of his right cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You would let me go with you?” Her warm gaze never wavered as she ran her fingers lightly over each ridge and valley, memorizing its texture. Erik couldn’t suppress the shudder that wracked his body at her gentle touch on his most hated feature.
“Yes, Alexandra,” he raised his hand to cover hers, amazement lighting his golden eyes at the lack of disgust in her pale green ones. “I won’t deny you your right to help us but I do ask that you trust Da’ud and I to know what affects your safety and ours.” She nodded content she wouldn’t be shut out of the plans that so intrinsically concerned her and, giving his distorted cheek a final caress, rested her hand against his chest as she snuggled close to him. She fought the pull of the medication, not wanting to lose the beautiful experience of lying in his arms.
“Now may I ask you a question, ma petite? I confess it is one that has puzzled me for some time.” Erik’s voice was still little more than a whisper as his arms unconsciously returned to her waist to hold her against him. His heart gave a slight lurch when she gently caressed his hands before lacing their fingers together once more. “Where did you learn to handle a weapon?” Alex chuckled softly at the confusion in his voice and, without thinking, brought one of his hands to her lips before answering.
“From the age of sixteen, I participated in handgun competitions throughout the state. As I grew older, I maintained proficiency in the 9mm and actually taught safety courses until my college courses took all my time. I’d not handled a Beretta in some time but it’s like riding a bicycle; you never forget.”
They both fell silent after that, content to simply enjoy the peace and companionship that can only be found in the arms of another. Alex listened to his strong heartbeat beneath her cheek and wished she could hold onto this moment forever. As moody, dangerous, and temperamental he was, Erik attracted her more than any other man she’d ever known. She feared allowing her heart to become involved but equally feared it was too late. She was torn between running away from him and the feelings he evoked within her, feelings more powerful than any she’d ever felt before, or running towards him so he could fan into a raging inferno of pleasure the flames that his touch ignited. Lulled by the rhythmic beat of his heart and the strong medication that still ran through her veins, she gave a final sigh of happiness and drifted to sleep safe in Erik’s embrace.