The week after Christmas seemed to crawl slower than a snail to both of the occupants of the Devereaux Estate. New Year’s Eve was the traditional date for the opera house’s annual masquerade ball, a grand affair that brought patrons and artists together for a night of entertainment to kick off the upcoming opera season. After Alex’s last medical review, Erik had consulted with the doctor and, as long as she didn’t over do it, he’d be able to truly escort her to the ball on his arm instead of in the much-despised chair. He was trying to keep it a surprise but it was difficult when the doctor had approved all physical activity as long as she got plenty of rest.
Erik barely slept the night before the ball; instead, he held his Alexandra and watched as she slept. Her hair framed her face like a fiery halo made all the brighter by the inky blackness of his satin sheets; he was pleased that she was letting her hair grow long for he loved its brilliant color. Unable to resist touching her, he brushed the back of his hand lightly across her cheek and felt his heart fill to overflowing when she smiled and whispered his name. She was beautiful and tonight, after the ball, she will be his once more. He faced the coming night with as much trepidation as eager anticipation. The ball represented all he sought to avoid during the rest of the year; the posturing and fawning and deal-making of the management, actors, and patrons was enough to turn his stomach. Let the managers deal with that side of things, it’s what they were hired for anyway. But tonight he wished to attend if only to show off the lovely creature at his side and in his heart.
Eager to get their day started, Erik woke his love with gentle, feather-light kisses that deepened with the passion that was never far from the surface. When they finally broke for air, he buried his face in her neck and held her tight as he struggled for control. He sat up, bringing her with him, and placed a final kiss upon her brow before rising. They had fallen into a comfortable routine in the month she’d lived with him so he started down the stairs to start the coffee while she headed for the shower. As the door closed behind him, however, he missed the stricken look on Alex’s face as she saw his costume hanging on the closet door. With a suppressed sob, she darted for the bathroom where she could let her tears flow unchecked.
Oblivious to her pain, Erik returned with a tray containing coffee, fruit, pastries, juice, and a single red rose tied with a black silk ribbon. Beneath the rose was her invitation to the ball, he’d show her the costume he’d chosen after she’d eaten. His first hint that all was not well with Alex was the length of time spent in the bathroom. She’d never been one to fuss over her morning ablutions and already she’d taken twice as long as normal. He became worried that she might have fallen and knocked lightly on the door. His concern grew when she failed to answer and he knocked again with more force while calling her name.
“Alexandra, are you alright, ma petite?” He tried the knob and was astonished to find it locked. Worry soon grew to full-blown panic; she’d never locked him out before. He kept his voice even only with great effort. “Please open the door, ma chèrie, your coffee shall get cold and I have a surprise for you.”
“I may be a while, Erik. Go on without me and I’ll join you later in the Music Room.” He frowned at the lack of emotions in her voice. Was she angry? He couldn’t think of anything that could have happened to spark her temper. Maybe she had been crying instead? If she was in pain, she needed to tell him.
“Open the door, Alexandra.” His concern was quickly turning to anger at her stubbornness; the silence stretched between them and fueled his temper. “That was not a request.”
“I’m a big girl, Devereaux; I can get myself out of the bathroom, thank you very much.” Ah, so it was anger. At least he didn’t have to worry about her health.
“I’m sure you can, ma petite, but if you do not do so quickly I will be compelled to come aid you. I feel certain you don’t want that to happen, now do you?” His golden voice was silky smooth and as sharp as a freshly honed razor blade.
The stress and uncertainty of the last few weeks had all come to a head when Alex realized that they wouldn’t be forfeiting the ball, just her. Erik had never once said he loved her or that their relationship, however it was defined, was a monogamous one. Perhaps he already had a date, a beautiful singer who was able to share his love for music in a way she never could. She continued to torment herself with such thoughts - picturing a beautiful woman in his arms while they danced, his golden eyes smiling down at her with love and desire, their kiss as they succumb to their passion – and her despair was giving way to anger. If he was just going to abandon her for an easy romp at the ball, then he can go and good riddance. She’d be better off without him. In order not to collapse into hysterics at the prospect of having to leave Erik, she welcomed the anger and stoked it.
The click of the lock sounded unusually loud and she risked a glance at the man she loved. He blocked the doorway with his tall, imposing frame; his eyes molten amber with fury and a set of odd tools in his hand. Her heart beat quickly at the sight of his angry magnificence. My God he was irresistible when furious. Unwilling to back down from his temper and show her misery, Alex merely crossed her arms and arched a brow as she stared at him.
“Bravo, Devereaux, you’ve slain the demon named Door and made your way to the lady it held captive. Don’t you feel special?” She prayed the sarcasm hid her nervousness; he looked positively dangerous.
Erik tossed the tools into a corner and stalked towards her, his eyes pinning her in place as surely as any physical bonds. The closer he came, the more nervous she got and she hid her shaking hands behind her. When he was mere inches from her, he stared into her eyes and Alex felt he was looking into her very soul. In that one brief moment, her defenses cracked and revealed all her pain and sadness before she managed to tear her gaze from his. She tried to resist the firm but gentle hand that guided her eyes back to his face but he would brook no opposition. Once more she was caught in his liquid pools of amber fire.
“I will have my answers, ma petite,” his voice was a sensuous purr that caressed her skin and made her blood run hot. The fingers that glided across her cheek left a trail of tingling fire and she wanted nothing more than to fall into his arms and to hell with the future. The corners of his lips curled up in the barest ghost of a smile. “You do not want to be angry, Alexandra; in fact, you are not. Are you? No, the anger is but a mask to hide your true feelings. It was you who demanded that there were to be no masks between us, ma petite chère. I’ve left off wearing mine; it is time you do the same.”
As much as she tried to fight it, Alex couldn’t stop the tears that came to her eyes nor control the trembling of her body beneath his gentle hand. “Why didn’t you tell me you were attending the ball without me, Erik?”
“Come with me.” Suddenly, he stepped away and she felt the loss of his body heat keenly. Feeling numb, she followed him and sat on the edge of the bed at his gesture. “Look on the tray, Alexandra.”
Biting her lip and risking a glance at his impassive face, she inched over to the night stand and looked at the breakfast he’d prepared for them. The rose brought tears to her eyes once more and she caressed its soft petals before inhaling its lovely fragrance. She took the envelope that had lain beneath the rose and opened it. Alex brought a hand to her mouth to stifle a sob; the envelope contained her invitation to the ball. He had planned to take her all along. Gentle hands on her shoulders turned her into his embrace as Erik ran his fingers through her damp hair.
“Shhh…no more tears, ma petite chère.” He murmured against her hair. “I didn’t mention it as I wished to surprise you. Your costume is now hanging in your closet. Oh, no, ma chère,” he tightened his hold on her to keep her from rising, “you can see it later. Right now you will tell me, please, why you didn’t let me know this had been bothering you.”
“It seemed so petty…” Alex stopped when he shook his head. Damn, he wasn’t going to accept that. “Um, well…”
“The truth, Alexandra.”
“I…I didn’t want to presume…I mean, we’ve made n…no commitment to each other.” She gave a shrug, “I figured if…if you wanted me there, you’d have asked by now.”
Erik stared at her in shock. Did she truly have no idea how he felt? But no, he could see it in her eyes; she thought she was nothing more to him than a pleasant interlude. All this time…
“Alexandra, ma petite chère…” He longed to set her mind at ease but didn’t want to spoil the surprise he had in store. But perhaps he could give her a hint. Leaning down, Erik brushed her lips with his and smiled tenderly. “I didn’t ask because I thought you knew I’d have no other at my side tonight. And you will be at my side, ma petite; the doctor says you may leave the chair at home as long as you don’t overtax your strength. I have…plans…for tonight after the ball so I will ensure you do not grow too weary.”
A faint blush stained her cheeks as she imagined all sorts of things he could have planned. Grinning wickedly, Erik pulled her closer and nibbled his way up her neck; all the while wondering how he was ever going to be able to wait until after the ball. He teased her mercilessly, placing light kisses on her face but studiously avoiding her lips. When she whimpered in frustrated protest, he finally let her guide his lips to hers. Sighing in delight, Alex eagerly accepted his kiss, even deepened it, but ever in the back of her mind remained a single, heart rending thought: he still had said nothing about love.