The masquerade ball was already in full swing by the time the sleek, black limo pulled up to the curb. The driver, one of the security guards from the Estate, opened the door for the two impeccably dressed occupants. Erik stepped out in a formal nineteenth century black tailored opera suit with a crisp white shirt, blood red waistcoat and matching red cravat. He complemented it with a black cape lined with red satin, black fedora, and mahogany walking stick topped with a silver skull glaring out with ruby eyes. He wore a specially made white porcelain mask that gleamed from beneath the fedora and the overall effect was breath-taking. When she first saw him, Alex couldn’t help it; she gaped like a fish. It took her more self-control than she thought she possessed not to drag him up the stairs to his room to spend the night exploring the secrets of her mysterious Phantom.
Once he had his hat in place, Erik turned to help his lady out of the limousine. Alexandra was wearing a matching period ball dress with a pure white sleeveless form-fitting bodice embroidered with red and silver flowers. The skirt was white satin over tulle with a small train in the back and a trim of red and silver embroidery to match the bodice. The jewelry he’d given her on their picnic gleamed on her alabaster skin while long white satin gloves and a faux fox-fur wrap completed the ensemble. When Erik saw her waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs of his home, he felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut. She was more than lovely; she was radiantly beautiful! And this goddess had chosen him. He didn’t have words to describe how he felt in that moment. Alex smiled her thanks at their driver before taking Erik’s arm to climb the stairs to the elaborate foyer.
The moment they entered the grand ballroom, Alex was spellbound. It was decorated like the decadent boudoir of Erik’s Don Juan and they matched its black and red décor perfectly. The orchestra, on a discrete signal from Erik, began playing Point of No Return. Bowing elegantly to a fiercely blushing Alex, who had immediately remembered the first time she’d heard the song, the Phantom pulled her into his arms for a dance.
“That couldn’t have been a coincidence, Erik,” she tried to give him a stern frown but ruined it with a giggle.
“You wound my sense of timing, ma petite,” his golden eyes twinkled with mischief as he held her closer than necessary. “But if I had arranged for that particular song to be played,” he pulled her even closer and softly purred in her ear, “I would prefer it to be when we are alone so we could reminisce properly.”
Alex wondered if pure desirous need could be fatal. The song, combined with Erik’s arms around her and the memories of their night together, shot liquid fire through her blood and she trembled in his arms from the force of it. She knew Erik was fully aware of what he was doing to her for his eyes had turned to molten amber and his lips were curled in the tiniest of smug grins. Perhaps what he needed was a taste of his own medicine? Heedless of the ball, of the guests, of anything but the man in her arms, Alex pulled his lips to hers for a passionate kiss that promised heaven once they were alone. When she would have stepped back he held her close with a soft chuckle.
“Not yet, ma petite, unless you wish everyone to be aware of where we’d prefer to be.” He shifted slightly and her eyes widened as she felt the rock hard evidence of his arousal. After several moments of rather close dancing, Erik felt confident he was presentable and escorted Alex off the ballroom floor. They were immediately joined by Angelique and Meg Giry who were eager to be reacquainted with the lady who’d stolen the heart of their masked friend.
When the managers approached to discuss the upcoming opera season with Erik, the Girys pulled Alex away for a chat. She’d grown to care deeply for Erik’s family in the short time she’d known them. Angelique, though outwardly stern, had a dry sense of humor that sometimes showed itself at the strangest times. She was everything a mother should be to Erik, even on those times when she gave him a piece of her mind. Her daughter, Meg, was equally charming though in a different way. The ballerina was bubbly and full of energy to the point of being annoying at times. She enjoyed an easy, open relationship with Erik that Alex envied. The only thing that made her uneasy was her own precarious position in Erik’s life and thus in theirs as well. Letting her eyes drift back to her handsome Phantom, she told herself once more to take it day by day and be satisfied with that.
“Erik tells me you’re going to join us at the opera house as a set designer,” Angelique’s cultured voice pulled her attention away from her lover.
“Oh! Well, in a way, I suppose. I’ll be working with the designer when I can as a type of internship. I sketch as a hobby and I fear Erik has exaggerated my skills.”
“You’ve not seen him at work, have you?” Meg, a petite blond with startlingly green eyes, ginned and revealed a pair of dimples. “Trust me, if you weren’t any good there’s no way he’d let you anywhere near his opera. Even I had to audition and I’m his sister, for heaven’s sake! If he wants you in such a position then you must be an amazing artist.”
“She is an amazing artist,” two strong arms wrapped around Alex’s waist and she leaned against Erik with a smile. “Maman, you’ve seen her sketchbook. What do you think? Is my Alexandra worthy of a job with the opera house?” Alex shot a surprised look at him; she didn’t know anyone else had seen her sketchbook besides him and Da’ud.
“No, mon fils, she is not worthy of the opera house,” Angelique teased her adoptive son, “she deserves a show in a gallery.”
Alex felt like her dress was a more than appropriate color for her face had to match the red embroidery perfectly. A gallery? No, she was a hobbyist not a professional. Besides, she couldn’t have the financial uncertainty of an artist; she had obligations. An additional thought came unbidden that she would need something steady when Erik grew tired of her and she had to leave. She shuddered which earned her a questioning look from warm golden eyes. Forcing a smile, Alex shook her head to let him know it was nothing. He didn’t look convinced but he let it slide.
“Let me arrange one thing at a time, maman,” Erik chuckled softly and planted a light kiss on Alex’s cheek. “I am but a man, after all.”
“Excuse me? Don’t I have a say in all this?” Feigning irritation, Alex slid from her lover’s arms to glare at him with her hands on her hips. The smile that twitched her lips and the laughter that threatened to break through totally spoiled the effect, however.
“No, ma petite. You do not.” Grinning wickedly, her beloved Phantom pulled her back into his arms and whispered softly in her ear. “But I will allow you to punish me later.” His golden eyes burned with desire as her color rose once more. Dammit, why did he always have that effect on her?
“Erik! Where have you been hiding, my love?” Though she was certain the words were meant as a loving plea, they came out as shrill and whining instead. Frowning, Alex watched as an extravagantly dressed lady approached with her hands stretched out towards the composer. Too much was the impression she got from the woman who grasped Erik’s hands and pulled him from her arms. The lady, planting two noisy kisses on each of his cheeks, commanded attention with too much make up, too much bosom overflowing her dress, too many flowers in her hat, simply too over-the-top. But Erik doesn’t seem to mind, she silently fumed as he let himself be led away from their group. Her temper was stoked even more when the woman looked Alex up and down and then smirked in amused dismissal.
“Child, don’t worry about Erik and that…person,” Angelique’s face and voice held barely hidden contempt. “He’d rather lay in a pit of angry vipers than even consider spending more time than necessary with her.”
“Who is she, Mrs. Giry?” Alex was embarrassed that she’d been so obviously jealous. She was going to have to be more careful or Erik would find out how she feels.
“Angelique, please, we are practically family after all.” Alex wondered what she meant by that as an arm draped loosely around her waist for a motherly hug. “She was born Carla Goldman in some small New Jersey town. Now that she’s a big opera star, she prefers to use Carlotta Guidicelli and fancies herself Italian. Pretentious twit.” The older lady stared daggers at the diva who merely glared back. “She’s aging, and not gracefully at that, which spells the beginning of the end of her career. She’s been dangling after Erik for some time but he wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole.”
“It doesn’t look like he’s all that repelled by her,” Alex knew she sounded like a petulant child but couldn’t help it. A woman like this, someone from his world, was her greatest fear.
“She’s the leading soprano for his opera house. For now, at least. He has to be somewhat civil if he doesn’t want to rely on the understudy. Regardless of what she wants, Erik maintains a professional relationship with the woman. He definitely wouldn’t want any other kind of relationship; he doesn’t know where she’s been.”
“He doesn’t…?” Alex couldn’t stop her giggle.
“Yes, well he might know some of it which only reinforces that thought.” Angelique looped her arm through Alex’s and walked to an abandoned corner to put some distance between them and the other guests. “My dear, let me assure you of one thing; when Erik gives his heart, he doesn’t do so lightly. I wouldn’t worry about the prima donna inspiring anything but exasperation in him.”
“But…” Alex let her eyes wander back to the masked man and the diva, “he hasn’t, Angelique. Given his heart, that is. We have no understanding, made no promises beyond this moment and…”
“Nonsense!” Angelique waved her words away. “I’d taken you for an intelligent girl, Alexandra, but if you can’t see how much that man loves you then you are a fool. The question is…do you love him?”
“More than life itself.” Her answer was immediate and little more than a whisper as she fought the hope the lady’s words stirred to life. Erik chose that moment to look over at them and his slow, seductive smile only stirred her hope more.
“Then you have nothing to worry about, dear. Now, go stake your claim so that Carla knows the score.”
Erik had stopped listening to the diva’s demands the moment he turned to find Alex staring at him with love shining from her eyes. He wondered what Angelique was saying that allowed her to drop the walls she’d put in place since he’d brought her home from the hospital. Whatever it was, he had to remember to thank her when his Alexandra seemed to float to his side. Not caring who was watching, he wrapped his arm tightly around her waist and gave her a brief, hard kiss as a promise for later. Introductions with the diva were quick and stilted and both were relieved when Carlotta chose to storm off to sulk. Erik was just about to pull her back to the dance floor when the managers appeared with an unknown gentleman in tow. Well…unknown to him; Alex had stiffened and unconsciously tried to step behind him. Curious.
“Erik!” The jovial, booming voice belonged to Andre Montgomery, one of the managers. “I’m glad you haven’t left yet; it seems we have a new prospective patron. Michael Blankenship, let me introduce you to Mr. Erik Devereaux, the owner of this fine establishment and its primary composer. With him is the lovely Ms. Alexandra Roberts. Erik, Ms. Roberts, meet Mr. Blankenship, CEO of Omni Microchips.”
Glancing down at the pale and unusually quiet lady at his side, Erik stepped forward to shake the man’s hand. The suit, the cuff-links, even the signet ring were all designed to impress. This man had made a lot of money and wanted the world to know his value. He watched as the patron’s doe-brown eyes slid over to Alex with far too much familiarity and had to restrain himself from seriously injuring a very tender part of the man’s anatomy.
“Alex! I haven’t seen you in ages, my dear, where have you been hiding yourself?” Michael stepped forward as if to take her hand but stopped when she stepped back from him, crossed her arms over her chest, and glared. Erik’s curiosity grew. “Oh come on, you can’t still be mad? That was years ago. Let me take you out to dinner and…”
“Have you lost your fucking mind, Blankenship?” The shock on Alex’s face would be comical if not for the fury in her lovely green eyes. Mindless of the other guests at the ball, however, she kept her voice to a low hiss. “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire much less try to stomach eating at the same table with you.”
“You always were a fiery one, sweet cheeks,” his condescending tone had Alex grinding her teeth. Michael smirked at her heightened color. “Now what do you say we get some drinks and relive old times?”
Smothering a most unladylike curse, Alex turned and stalked to the relative sanctuary of the ladies’ room. Catching his adoptive mother’s eye, Erik motioned for her to follow his beloved. He had to take out the trash.
“It appears the lady doesn’t want to renew your acquaintance, Blankenship.” The steel in his golden voice was sharp enough to split a hair and even Michael had sense enough to recognize the menace in the tone.
“She’s just playing hard to get,” the man had the gall to laugh! “She’ll come around like she did before. Her type always does.”
Erik’s hand was on Blankenship’s throat holding him two inches off the floor before he could blink. Carrying him the few strides necessary, he slammed the man into the wall and held him there taking murderous delight in the many colors the man’s face was turning before it took on a more purplish hue. “Listen closely to me, Blankenship,” The words were the hiss of a cobra ready to strike and the fear that grew in his victim’s eyes brought an equally frightening smile to his masked face. “You are not to attempt any contact with Alexandra from this day forward. No phone calls, no lunches, no casual meetings…nothing. She belongs to me now and I protect what’s mine!” With a final shake to emphasize his point, Erik threw the man into a crumpled lump on floor gasping for air while he went in search of his Alexandra.
Arriving at the ladies’ lounge, he knocked lightly on the door. There was the click of a lock before Angelique opened it a crack to see who it was. Relieved, she gestured for him to come inside as she closed and locked the door behind him. At the far end of the sofa, Alexandra was calmly and carefully dabbing at her hand with a damp paper towel.
“You’re not supposed to be in here, Erik,” like her motions, her voice was calm. Too calm. “If there is anything you are not, love, it’s feminine.” Erik sat beside her and noticed, for the first time, the shattered mirror above the first sink lightly splattered with blood. That explained why she was nursing her hand.
“I won’t let him hurt you, ma petite chère. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.” He pulled her stiff body into his arms and plotted all the things he could do to one Michael Blankenship. It was many minutes before she relaxed into his embrace.
“Just…take me home, please?”
Escorting her to gather their cloaks and his hat, Erik asked Angelique to inform the management that they had been called back to the Estate unexpectedly. The older lady agreed and gave each a hug and kiss on the cheek before watching them leave. Alex was quiet as they descended the stairs to the waiting limousine which worried Erik. He’d rather she rant and rave and scream than hold it in like she was doing. Pulling her back into his lap once the limo pulled away from the opera house, he gently removed the paper that covered her hand to see what kind of damage she’d done. Relieved that there were only minor cuts that had already stopped bleeding, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around her hand just in case the wounds reopened.
“Talk to me, ma petite chère,” Erik begged softly as she remained still and quiet in his arms. “What did that man do to hurt you so?”
“Oh, Erik,” Alex sighed and laid her head on his shoulder, “it was so long ago that I thought I’d forgotten all about it. I was barely out of high school. He was my boyfriend and the first to…well, you know.” His growl let her know he understood and didn’t approve. “Yes, well…my parents had recently been killed, my brother was in prison, and I was lonely and gullible. Mike used that against me. And then he threw a bachelor party for a friend of his and I found out that…that…he’d videotaped us. Together. And was showing the tape to his buddies during the party. He didn’t even have the balls to tell me himself; I had to find out by accident. After dropping my keys and searching for them under the sofa, I found a nicely written critique of my ‘performance’. I have never been so mortified or felt so violated in my life.”
“I’ll kill him.” Erik’s cold voice sent a shiver down her spine as she knew that, in his current frame of mind, he quite possibly would do just that.
“No, love, you will not,” Alex kissed him softly. “He’s neither worth the effort nor the consequences. But I know what you can do for me…” She eased his mask off his face with a small smile before brushing her lips across his scarred cheek. “Make me forget.” Erik growled low and captured her lips in a soul-stealing kiss. He’d make her forget everything but their love and passion.