It had taken much longer to pack than it should have but they kept getting distracted. At least, that’s what Alex called it. Erik simply felt they needed to take a break every so often so she could rest. She had tried to point out that while these breaks did, indeed, take place on a bed there wasn’t much rest involved but Erik waved away her concerns as mere technicalities. After packing for most of the day, and taking several breaks to ‘rest,’ the couple had retreated to the Library for dinner and conversation. The chime signaling a message from the front gate put an annoyed frown on both their faces until they recognized their guest as Da’ud. Eager to share their news with him, Erik cleared him through the gate while Alex started another pot of coffee.
The former detective was ecstatic that his two friends had finally admitted their feelings to each other and honored that Erik had asked him to stand as best man. He admired Alex’s ring and they spent half an hour discussing possible wedding scenarios, from the romantic to the truly ridiculous. With great reluctance, Da’ud shifted the conversation to the reason he’d driven out to the Estate. He regretted tainting the happy atmosphere but the couple needed to know that their danger wasn’t yet over.
“While I’m happy that you two thick-headed dummies finally got together, I’m afraid I came to discuss something far less pleasant.” Erik gave him a mock glare for his good natured insult while Alex stuck out her tongue. Neither was prepared for his next words. “Raoul de Chagny, also known as Stanislav Zakharov, killed his doctor and escaped from the hospital ward of the federal prison on New Year’s Eve. All law enforcement agencies are on full alert for the hunt but I knew the two of you needed to be warned.”
The news was initially met with shocked silence; for months, they’d thought the danger was behind them. Alex was doubly upset as no one had informed her that Raoul had survived that night. Logically, she knew they’d kept the news from her so the fear and stress wouldn’t hinder her recovery but fear doesn’t allow for logic.
“Why wasn’t I told?” Her voice was barely over a whisper.
“He wasn’t expected to survive his injury, ma petite,” Erik wrapped an arm around her waist but she stood abruptly and walked to the window. “I did not want you worrying about this man while you were struggling to heal, Alexandra.”
“What else have you kept from me, Erik?” She spun around only to take a step back when she found him directly behind her. Anger born of fear had placed her on the attack. “I am not a child that you have to hide the truth from me for my own good!”
“You are certainly playing the role to perfection.” Erik’s amber eyes flashed dangerously as his own temper sprang to life. Dammit, he’d only been trying to protect her! Why couldn’t she see that? “You were in the hospital fighting for survival. The last thing you needed when you awoke was to be told that Zakharov was still alive.”
“And what about all the time I’ve been home? Why wasn’t I told then? I had a right to know, Erik!”
“There never seemed to be a good time to broach the subject!” His anger was dampened slightly when she called the Estate ‘home.’ But only slightly. “He was in prison; you were getting better. There was no point!”
“Of course there was a point! He hates you, Erik! Do you think he’s going to go after you directly? No, he’ll come after me and use me against you again and it’ll never be over until one of you is dead and…” Bordering on hysterics, Alex burst into tears. Holding her tightly against him, Erik rubbed her back soothingly. “I’m so scared, love. If he wins, if he takes you from me, I’ll die. I can’t live without you, Erik.” Her words were muffled by his shirt and her tears but he heard and understood; he felt the same way.
“He will never take me from you, Alexandra, ma petite chère. We have a lifetime ahead of us, remember? You promised me and I’m holding you to it, mon amour.” Guiding her back to the sofa, he sat and pulled her onto his lap while he continued to soothe her fears.
Da’ud, uncomfortable after bringing such horrible news to his friends when they were finally happy, offered to help in the only way he knew how. “Erik, though I’m no longer with the police, I maintain a concealed carry permit. If you’d like me to stay with Alex while you are at the theatre…?”
“Thank you, my friend. I may very well take you up on that.”
Alex slowly sat up and wiped her eyes though she made no effort to extract herself from either Erik’s arms or his lap. As she listened to the two men discuss not only her safety but the safety of all at the opera house, she kept a firm grip on her fear and examined the situation as she knew it. Raoul would want leverage against Erik which naturally put her at risk along with his adoptive family. She couldn’t rely on someone else to help her all the time. She was stronger than this. She had training, though she was a bit rusty, and it was time she used it.
He cursed the weakness of his body. Though he knew he’d come as close to death’s door as ever he’d been, Raoul de Chagny also knew he was losing the very valuable element of surprise while nearly incapacitated. He hated relying on flunkies to do his work for him for they never did it correctly. Case in point, one Michael Blankenship. The man had said he was an old high school boyfriend of Devereaux’s woman but failed to mention the video he’d shot of the two of them. Nor did he mention the fact that he’d circulated it amongst his drinking buddies. Luring the Roberts bitch away from Devereaux had just become all the more difficult. Killing her wouldn’t do either; he didn’t want a man like Le Fantôme to be left with nothing to live for.
He needed another angle other than the woman. Blankenship’s report of the masquerade didn’t help much as Devereaux only spoke to those directly involved with the opera house: the ballet mistress and her daughter, the managers, and the lead soprano. Adjusting himself on the bed with a curse, Raoul pulled over the table that held his laptop and began researching those the masked man knew. Perhaps one of them could provide him with an inside set of eyes and ears or even become the leverage he sought.
He needed Devereaux in his grasp and under his control. Failure to recruit the Roberts family had left a black stain on his record that did little to endear him to his current bosses. The death of his lover, Christine Daaé, would have been heartbreaking if he had one but the loss didn’t compare to her preference of that freak over him. He’d deliver Devereaux but he was going to have some fun with him first.
As he scrolled through files and made some notes, he was pleased to have several options before him. The Giry’s were Devereaux’s adoptive family? Lovely. Raoul grinned wickedly. The young Megan Giry was petite and beautiful while the mother reminded him of a stern grammar school teacher. That placed one in the seduce column and the other in the torture/kill column. He couldn’t find any other connection between Devereaux and the managers beyond the opera house so he made a note to check into their financial records. Hopefully, one of them had an exploitable vice; if not, they were expendable. Finally, there was the soprano: Carla Goldman…or rather Carlotta Guidicelli as she preferred to be known. The photographs of the masquerade weren’t kind to the singer; the harsh lighting enhancing rather than concealing the signs of aging. Looking through older articles concerning the opera house, he found something quite interesting. Up until the Roberts woman appeared in the masked man’s life, ‘Carlotta’ was often his escort. Well, well, well…hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, they always say. He picked up the telephone to invite her for lunch.
Carlotta entered the restaurant and requested the table that had been reserved in her name. She was slightly disappointed but not surprised to find it empty; the man on the phone had stressed the need for caution and discretion. The mystery combined with a hint of danger had sent a thrill down her spine and she had eagerly agreed to a meeting. Following his instructions, she took her seat and ordered a glass of wine while stealing surreptitious glances around the room. When the waiter returned with her glass, he also bore an envelope with a simple message: Go to the ladies’ room. I will catch your attention on the way and you will join me once you’ve emerged. Taking a sip from her glass, the soprano stood, grabbed her purse, and gracefully wove her way between the tables towards the lounge. As she passed a crowded table, a note was pressed into her hand; wisely, she continued to walk until she was ensconced in the privacy of a stall. Reading the note, she threw it into the toilet, flushed, washed her hands, touched up her make up, and then went to join the mysterious Robert Chaney.
The table that had been crowded on her initial pass was now empty but for a single figure. He wore casual khaki slacks, a pale blue polo, and loafers and carried a practiced air of indifferent scorn for all in the building. With a single smooth move, Carlotta took the seat opposite him and was pleased to see that he was as handsome as he was intriguing. The pale blue eyes and deliberately tousled hair leant him an air of boyish innocence that was diminished by the hint of cruelty in the set of his jaw. Perhaps this would be more fun than she’d originally hoped.
She could feel his appraising gaze and smirked slightly. She’d chosen an outfit that matched her eyes perfectly and clung to her slim, toned frame. If some of the sleek curves were a result of a nip here and a tuck there, she felt justified in order to reverse the effects of aging and a harsh youth of parties, drinks, and men. Her skin was flawless and unlined, thanks in part to the wonders of Botox, and her long red nails were as fake as the perky breasts that nearly spilled from the low neckline of her top. A glass of wine appeared in front of her and she watched her table companion over the rim as she sipped.
“So, Signor Chaney, what can La Carlotta do for you, hmm?”
“For one, drop the atrocious fake accent.” Chaney smiled and leaned forward; Carlotta shuddered. “I’m quite aware that you’re Carla Goldman from some shithole in Jersey, that you ran away from home when you were fifteen, and that you took up prostitution and stripping in order to pay your way onto the stage. I know that you’ve dabbled in nearly every drug on the market – prescription as well as recreational – and have developed a particular fondness for cocaine.” His smile actually reached his eyes as she paled. “I also know that you have an inexplicable fondness for the composer, Devereaux, and would love to see him and his little red-haired whore separated. Am I not correct, signora?” He stressed the title with a voice heavily laden with derision and a smirk upon his handsome face.
“Since we’re laying our cards on the table, then I have to correct you on a few things. Cocaine had begun to damage my voice and so I had to change to alternative forms of entertainment. Also, I have no interest in Erik Devereaux beyond his bank statement and his status in society; two things I will need as I grow older.” She took another sip of wine as she watched the man before her and wondered what his angle was. He didn’t seem the type who’d go for the rather plain girl who’d accompanied the composer to the masquerade but he also didn’t seem to be the type who’d go for the composer himself. If she could figure out he was getting out of all of this, she could possibly negotiate a better deal for herself.
“Very well, that’s a motivation I can respect.” Chaney leaned back with his elbows on the arms of the chair and his steepled fingers against his chin. “I believe we can be mutually beneficial, Ms. Goldman. You want Devereaux and the Roberts harlot separated as do I; together we should be able to make it happen, don’t you think?” Carlotta nodded, a cruel smile playing about her lips. Devereaux would be hers.