The rest of the morning was to be spent on the ground floor of the house as Erik claimed he didn’t want her to tire herself before they left for the ball. He even had her gather anything she’d need from the room, such as her makeup, jewelry, and underwear, and place them back in her old bedroom. Though he did worry that Alex would overdo things before they even left the Estate, he was more worried that she would stumble onto the other surprises he had in store for her after they returned. For her part, she was aware he was up to something; he’d not been this adamant about her remaining on the bottom floor since her first days in his home. His barely concealed delight at whatever scheme he was setting into place eased her mind and had her believing she’d enjoy whatever he had planned.
In order to pass the day in a leisurely fashion without giving in to her ever-growing curiosity, Alex spent the morning on the computer chatting with Lizzie. Her friend had recently sold her house and moved to a gated community as a result of Christine’s and Raoul’s invasion of her home. When questioned about her relationship with Erik, Alex neatly side-stepped the issue by telling her all about her new position as a set designer. She described his Don Juan Triumphant and, though she was blushing deeply, explained why this particular opera would always hold a special place in her heart. Before she signed off for lunch with her sexy composer, Lizzie brought up one disturbing thought: Alex’s student loans. Now that she had graduated, the payments would begin soon and she’d been out of work for nearly three months. With a sigh, she brought up a few job search sights. It looked like she’d be an accountant after all.
Lunch was usually a quick and simple affair but Erik had other plans. A picnic basket with a neatly folded blanket on top was placed on the table and held all they’d need. There was a lovely place just through a line of trees that overlooked a small pond; far enough away they wouldn’t be able to see the house but not too far for Alexandra to walk. Though the December air still carried the bite of winter, the sky was clear and the wind was calm. With a good coat and a blanket over their legs, they should be able to enjoy themselves with minimal discomfort. And if they did get a bit chilled, there was much to be said for body heat. After calling the main gate to let them know he wouldn’t be at the house and to call his cell if he was needed, he went in search of Alex. He found her in the Library poring over job sites which immediately resurrected all his concerns that she planned to leave him.
“Have you changed your mind about working at the opera house, ma petite?” He kept his voice smooth with effort as his stomach was churning. He couldn’t let her leave him, not now…not ever.
“Of course not,” Alex smiled but her glance was quick and didn’t meet his eyes, “but I remembered that I’ve got some serious financial obligations and no income since early October. So, I’ll actually use my degree and be a hobby artist once more.”
Relieved that she was simply worried about finances, Erik reached over her shoulder and closed the laptop. A gentle finger on her lips stopped her protests as he helped her from her chair and escorted her into the kitchen. “Would mademoiselle do me the honor of her presence on a picnic?” He bowed elegantly and offered her his arm as he picked up the basket. Her smile was genuine this time and she took his arm after planting a swift kiss on his cheek. At the door, Erik helped her on with her coat before donning his own.
“Yes, ma petite chère?”
“Where did this come from?” Alex touched the faux fur collar to indicate the winter coat. “I know it didn’t come from my apartment.”
“Yours wasn’t thick enough for the winter, petite, so I took it upon myself to purchase you a new one.” He wrapped a scarf around her neck and sat a matching hat upon her head before guiding her out the door. “You do like it, don’t you?” He was slightly nervous as he didn’t know how she’d react to his gifts; his Alexandra could be a stubborn woman who too often let her pride get in her way. With a wry smile, he acknowledged how alike they were in that respect.
“Of course, I love it, but you shouldn’t have…”
“Shush. If I wish to spend my money on you, I shall.” Erik’s smile as he interrupted her protests took the bite out of his gentle chiding. He was pleased when she simply shook her head and muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “stubborn mule” though it held more humor than irritation. He chuckled softly and kissed the top of her head before guiding her through the short trail between the trees. The rest of the walk was filled with companionable silence as both became lost in thoughts of the other.
“Oh, Erik!” Alex’s eyes were wide as she surveyed the hilltop and its lovely view of the surrounding meadows. The lake below them sparkled in the sun like one of Mother Nature’s diamond brooches and the effect took her breath away. Behind her, Erik laid out the picnic blanket and basket before approaching and wrapping his arms around her from behind.
“Mademoiselle approves of the venue?” He tightened his hold briefly when she melted against him and buried his unmasked face in her neck. Grinning and placing a gentle nibble on her sensitive neck when she shivered at his low murmur in her ear, Erik then stepped back and guided her to the blanket. After draping the second blanket across their legs, he prepared both of their plates with the simple fare of sandwiches and fruit, pouring them each a cup of hot cocoa from the insulated thermos.
“You never told me you were such a romantic, my love,” Alex chuckled as she leaned against the trunk of a large tree with her hands wrapped around the warm cup.
“I’ve never had reason to be until you tumbled into my life.” He kept his tone light to conceal the depth of his feelings for now but could not resist the temptation to spoil her. “Alexandra…”
She clutched her mug of cocoa tightly as she cursed her runaway tongue. She’d sworn she’d not complicate their relationship by letting him know how much she loved him and yet, at the first opportunity, she blurted it out without thinking. She prayed he thought it a simple term of endearment with nothing more than a lover’s affection behind it. Alex didn’t want him to stay with her out of guilt or a sense of obligation. If he only wanted her as a lover, she would try her best to be satisfied with that and hide her pain from his piercing eyes. His next words, however, ripped open the cage she’d so carefully constructed around the hope in her heart.
“I’ve never had reason to be until you tumbled into my life.” His words were spoken so lightly that she had to dismiss them as teasing. But oh how she wished it to be true! When Erik said her name, and she heard that slight catch to his voice, her heart nearly stopped beating. In her most secret fantasies, Alex had dreamed of a moment like this. The romantic setting was perfect with just the two of them close and intimate; he’d take her in his arms and ask her to stay with him always. She longed for such a moment and yet…squashing her foolish dream, Alex took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.
“I have a gift for you, ma petite chère.” Erik took the mug from her hands and replaced it with a long, black velvet box. Alex kept her eyes averted; frightened he’d see her unreasonable disappointment that the box wasn’t smaller and more square. She hoped he dismissed her shaking hands as excitement as she pried open the lid. Her gasp, however, was genuine at the beautiful ruby and diamond necklace, bracelet, and earring set. This had to have cost a fortune; there was no way she could accept this!
“Erik…I can’t…this is too much…” Oh but she wanted to. The gems were set in platinum, one of her favorites as yellow gold clashed with her skin tone, and were impressive but not gaudy. The focal gem was an emerald cut stone that had to be at least five carats with two dainty chains dangling from the bottom lined with tiny baguette cut diamonds. The chain which held the main stone consisted of three delicate Figaro chains braided around alternating diamonds and rubies. The bracelet matched the chains’ braided design while the earrings were smaller mirrors of the focal stone. Together, it was an astonishingly beautiful set.
“You can, mon amour,” he leaned over and kissed her softly, “and you will. It will also look wonderful with your costume for tonight.”
“But…Erik, you’ve been so wonderful to me and I have nothing to give you,” Alex glanced up at him before her eyes were irresistibly drawn back to the gems. A gentle finger nudged under her chin and she was amazed at the happiness in his golden eyes.
“You have given me something worth far more than anything that can be bought, Alexandra. You’ve accepted me: my face, my horrible temper, even my odd habits. All of the gold and gems in the world cannot compare to such a treasure.” Caressing her cheek softly, almost reverently, Erik leaned forward and captured her lips in a soft, gentle, soul-stealing kiss.