Erik wasn’t sure how long they slept, but when he awakened, Meg was already up. She’d evidently washed her hair, as it was wrapped in a piece of toweling, and she was busily washing the rest of herself with warm water from the pot on the gas ring. He smiled softly, enjoying the opportunity to admire her form as she sponged off in the candlelight. Then he frowned as she winced slightly when the washrag skimmed her Venus mont. And was that a bloodstain on her thigh? He moved to stand, only then catching sight of more bloodstains, on the sheets, and on his own member. He gasped in horror as he fell to his knees. “Mon Dieu, Meg… what have I done?”
She looked up at his cry, her confusion evident. “What do you mean, Erik?”
“You… you’ve been so good to me… and I hurt you…” His voice cracked with his remorse. Somehow, seeing Meg’s pain and blood made him feel far worse than anything else ever had.
Meg blinked, and then a look of understanding crossed her face. “No, no… you didn’t hurt me! Not like you’re thinking. I just… you were my first. A little bleeding is usual… and if I am a bit sore, it’s no different from wearing a new pair of pointe shoes for the first time. No matter how well the new shoes fit, they’ll always make the feet sore at first, because they’re new.”
Erik looked at her, his face anguished and his eyes pleading for reassurance. “Really?” he whispered.
In that moment, she knew she loved him. “Really,” she nodded. She dipped the washrag into the pot, wrung it out, and walked over to him. “Look for yourself if you wish,” she murmured. “I promise you didn’t hurt me, Erik. You did nothing that I didn’t ask of you.”
He took the washrag from her and gently finished cleaning her thighs. He also cleaned himself free of her blood before getting to his feet. “I feel so foolish,” he confessed. “But… you were my first as well. I… I didn’t know there would be blood. The, er, books I read... well, they, er... nothing of that was mentioned. It scared me, when I thought I’d hurt you.”
She smiled up at him. “How could you have known?” she said softly. “I only knew to expect it from listening to the other girls’ chatter in the dorms. But somehow, I doubt you ever paid much attention to such things.”
He chuckled ruefully. “You’re right about that,” he nodded. “So… what now?”
“We need to get papers for you,” Meg said. “A certificate of baptism, at the very least, so you can get a passport. I have mine already. Although…” she blushed. “It might be better if we were to travel as man and wife, if you’re willing, which would mean we both would need passports with the same name. So we’d also need a certificate of marriage. Mother gave me the name of someone who… provides such documents… and told me where to look for him.”
Erik blinked. “You really have thought of everything. You… you’re really willing to travel as my… my wife?” He still found it hard to believe that she’d come willingly to his arms, let alone that she’d want to keep in such close association with him. He’d assumed that he would be posing as her father or uncle on their journey.
She misinterpreted his hesitance. “It seemed best,” she said, trying not to sound too disappointed. “But I can understand if you would rather not pretend to be married to me.”
“No, no… I just… I didn’t think you’d want to pretend to be married to me,” he hastened to explain, his face red. “I… guess I’m still trying to believe that you came to me willingly. When I… let Christine go with her vicomte, I thought I was sending away the only woman who even might consider being with me. And since your mother tried to keep you from even knowing about me, I guess I always thought of you as someone beyond my reach.”
“I’m not, though,” she said softly.
He caressed her cheek gently. “I can see that,” he said just as softly. “Although it might take a while for it to really sink in.” He leaned down and gave her a tender kiss. “As tempting as you are, Meg, if we’re going to leave tonight, we’d better dress and go find the person who can get us the papers we’ll need.”
Meg nodded and looked through what small selection of clothing she had, choosing her plainest dress as being the most sensible for the sort of traveling they would be doing this evening. “You’ll need a surname, you know,” she said, “for your baptismal certificate and your passport. Well, our passports, and our marriage certificate as well. Had you given any thought about that?”
Erik pulled on his own least flamboyant suit of clothing and tied his hair back so it wouldn’t show under the wig he’d be using. “I think Benoit,” he said softly. “Because I’ve been blessed with a second chance, thanks to you, Meg.”
She blushed at his words. “Flatterer,” she murmured as she approached to apply the theatrical makeup to transform him into a recovering invalid for their travels.
He waited patiently for her to work her skill on his face and settled his selected wig onto his head. He took one last look around to make sure they weren’t forgetting anything important, and then picked up the two carpetbags that contained all their clothing. “It might sound crazy, but I think I might actually miss this place,” he murmured.
She smiled. “Me too, to be honest,” she said as she opened the trapdoor to the church basement. She took the lead as they tiptoed their way out of the church and through the streets and alleys until they came to the address her mother gave her, of a customs agent who supplemented his income by creating new identities for those who needed them.
Apparently Mme. Giry had been in contact with the man herself, letting him know that her daughter and a friend would come seeking his services in the near future, as he had the necessary papers ready and waiting when Meg gave her name and told him what they sought. The agent gave a small smile as he wrote out their new names on Erik’s baptismal certificate, their marriage certificate, and their passports, then affixed the proper seals to each document. He also supplied a simple gold wedding ring for Meg to wear, in order to lend authenticity to their new identities. “What date shall I put for your wedding date?” the agent asked.
Erik slipped the ring onto Meg’s finger, then looked at her and smiled. “Yesterday?” he murmured, feeling that it was appropriate in light of what they’d shared. She nodded with a smile in return, so he looked back to the agent. “Yesterday’s date, please,” he requested.
The agent nodded. “April second, certainly. Congratulations, M’sieur and Madame Benoit.” He blotted the ink on all the documents and handed them over. “Safe travels.”
Dawn was just breaking over the Parisian skyline as they left the agent’s apartment. Meg handed Erik a walking stick and took the carpetbags from him. “You’re ill, remember?” she said softly. “We’ll walk as far as Boulevard St.-Germain, then hire a cab to take us to the train station, where we’ll take the first train to Le Havre. From there, we take the ferry to England and then we can book a steamship to New York. And somewhere in all that, we decide where we wish to settle.”
“New Orleans,” Erik said with a smile. “If I am recovering from illness, the warmer climate would make more sense, yes?”
“Good thinking,” she grinned as they turned to cross the Seine, moving into the portion of the city occupied by the Sorbonne and its students. Hailing the first cab they saw, they swiftly arrived at the train station and the first test of their new identity papers.
To Erik’s profound relief, the falsified papers and Meg’s skilled work with the theatrical makeup passed muster, and they were not stopped as they boarded the early train to the coast. They both breathed a sigh of relief as the city faded into the distance behind them, although Meg kept to her role as a doting wife caring for her ill husband. He didn’t mind it one bit. In fact, he suspected he was going to hate it when they eventually reached their destination and parted company. But at the same time, Meg had already done so very much for him, he knew he would let her go so she could have the happiness she deserved someday.
Still, he decided, as long as she was gifting him with this time together, he might as well enjoy her companionship. Their crossing to England and the train to Liverpool were as uneventful as their exit from Paris. After exchanging a goodly portion of their funds, he insisted on booking them first class on the next White Star steamship leaving for New York, as well as into an upscale hotel for the three days they would have until the Oceanic sailed.
When Meg protested the cost, he told her, “I had more money hidden in the tunnels than I think you or your mother realized, and I collected it the same night you went and got us food and the makeup. I do not want you cramped in a dormitory in steerage, in the least comfortable part of the ship, when I can afford to purchase us a suite. With everything you’ve done for me, how can you not let me do this for you?” He hesitated, then asked, “Or is it that you would prefer not to share quarters with me for the duration of the voyage?”
Meg shook her head. “Oh, no! Nothing like that, Erik, I assure you! I just didn’t know if we’d be leaving enough money to get properly settled, if we traveled first class. But if you wish it…”
“I do,” he smiled. “And what’s more, we’re going to go shopping for more clothes while we wait to sail. This trip is supposed to be our honeymoon, after all,” he teased lightly. “So I’m going to play the besotted new husband indulging his wife’s every desire.” He paused, and asked shyly, “Will you… pick out a green dress, when we are out? I…I think you look especially pretty in green.
Her eyes softened. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “In fact, if you’d like, you can help me pick out whatever dresses you think I’ll need.”
“At least ten,” he said firmly. “The voyage is to last ten to twelve days, barring excessively bad weather, they told me, and as first class passengers, we’ll be expected to dress for dinner.”
“That’s too much,” Meg protested. “No more than five, and I can use my costuming skills to make it seem like I have a larger wardrobe, by adding scarves or shawls and such. Ten, really! At least two if not three of the dresses I already own will do, you know.” She giggled. “That’s the advantage of being in theatre, at least for a female. More of our clothing is appropriate for evening wear than daytime.”
He laughed with her. “We’ll look over what you brought after supper tonight, agreed? And we can discuss it further if you wish.”
“What are we doing for supper, anyway? The dining room?”
Erik bit his lip lightly. “I… would prefer to have supper sent up, if that is all right with you? Yes, the makeup you did on me got us out of France safely, but I’m not sure I trust it in the warmth of the hotel. And I’m not quite ready to face a crowd without it or a mask.” He took a deep breath. “I know I have to eventually, you’ve made me see that. But not tonight, please?”
She stepped closer to him with a soft smile, reaching up to caress his cheek. He was right; the pancake makeup she’d used to smooth over the worst of his scarring was growing soft in the heat of the hotel’s lobby. “I don’t mind,” she said softly. “Besides, we are supposed to be on our honeymoon. It’s to be expected that we want to be alone.”
“True enough,” he agreed, firmly squashing down the hope that she was hinting that she wanted to be alone with him. “All right, let’s get checked in, then you can supervise the maid unpacking our things while I see about getting our meal sent up.”
“All right,” she nodded, taking his arm as they crossed the lobby to the desk.
The manager peered at them with a slightly jaundiced eye as Monsieur Benoit registered them in his halting English. Whoever the Benoits might be, they were obviously not of the gentry, but new money. Still, if they lacked the refinement of the true upper classes, they did display a certain gentility of manner rather than the coarseness of so many of the nouveau riche. They would be acceptable guests of the hotel. His manner thawed more as the fellow detained his wife for a moment before sending her upstairs with the maid, reverting briefly to their native French to ask if she had any preferences as to their meal. Such consideration spoke well of the man, so he quickly assigned a bellhop to bring the couple’s meal up to their suite as soon as it was ready in the kitchen.
Once Erik ordered their meal, he headed upstairs to find Meg addressing a postal card to her mother, while the maid finished hanging their clothing in the spacious wardrobe. The woman curtsied and left quickly as he entered. He moved over to the desk to look over Meg’s shoulder.
The train from Paris was quiet as trains go, Meg wrote, and the ferry to England quite pleasant. We sail for New York on April sixth, and plan to go from there to New Orleans. I’ll send another card once we’ve crossed the Atlantic, and write properly when we’re settled. Much love, Meg.
She looked up at him with a smile. “That should reassure her, don’t you think?”
He smiled back warmly. “I’m sure it will. You’ve always been thoughtful of her. I remember…” He was interrupted by a knock on the door and the arrival of their dinner. He admitted the bellhop, who entered with a small wheeled cart and set out the various dishes on the table in their sitting room, as well as a bottle of wine.
“Shall I pour, sir?” the young man asked.
“Thank you, but I will take care of it,” Erik told him, tipping him generously.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, “and just ring when you are finished, so I can collect the dishes.” He bowed himself out of the suite.
When the door closed behind the bellhop, Meg smiled. “Go wash your face before we eat,” she said softly.
Erik looked uncomfortable. “Must I?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “You need to become less self-conscious about your scarring. Besides, you already know I am not bothered by it.”
“Nor was it so brightly lighted, where we’ve been staying.”
She actually shook her finger at him. “Erik Benoit, you stop arguing and do as I say! Go wash up so we can eat, I’m starving!”
He stared at her for a long moment, then burst into laughter. He’d been the fearsome Opera Ghost for all those years, yet there she was, scolding him. She was so petite, and yet so fierce and earnest, so very vibrant and alive. He raised his hands in surrender. “I’m going, I’m going.” He could see her trying not to give in to her own laughter as he headed into their private washroom. He couldn’t quite bring himself to look in the mirror… over the years, he’d even taught himself to shave by touch so he wouldn’t have to see himself… but he washed carefully and squared his shoulders before rejoining Meg in the sitting room.
“Much better,” she smiled as he emerged, his face clean.
He blushed as he held her chair out for her. “Thank you, Meg. Wine?”
“Please,” she said as she let him seat her. She kept up a light conversation as they enjoyed their meal, happy to see him grow more animated as they talked, forgetting to try to keep the scarred half of his face turned away from her. After dinner, they looked over her clothes and he eventually coaxed her into consenting to purchase the entire ten new dresses he wished to buy her.
It was only when they both started yawning that he became uncomfortable once more. “Er… you go ahead and take the bed, Meg,” he mumbled. “I can sleep on the sofa.”
She blinked at him. “You… ah… why would you do that?” she asked, a slight tremor in her voice.
He couldn’t meet her gaze. “I don’t… dare… you don’t have to… to… I wouldn’t expect… that sort of kindness again. So I just… wanted to avoid, uh, putting you in a position where you might think…” he trailed off uncertainly.
“Oh, Erik,” Meg sighed. “Even after what we’ve shared, you still don’t believe I find you attractive, do you?”
“Well, I’m not,” he said, looking down and reddening. “Anyway, I don’t want to make it harder…”
She tilted her head, puzzled. “Make what harder?” she asked.
“Letting you go,” he admitted. “But I won’t do to you what I did to Christine. You deserve to be happy. As kind as you’ve been, how could I be so cruel as to stand in the way of your happiness? When it came down to it, I couldn’t even bring myself to hold her… and you have less reason than she did to remain with me.”
Meg shook her head. “You’re wrong, Erik,” she murmured. “I have all the reason I need to remain with you. I want to do so.”
“Shh,” she laid a finger over his lips. “No buts. I’m right where I want to be.”
Erik reached up and slowly took her hand, then leaned down to kiss her gently. “You’re sure, Meg?” he asked softly. “I don’t want you to feel obligated at all.”
She smiled into his eyes. “All I feel right now is desire, Erik. Ever since leaving your shelter, I’ve been waiting for the chance to be back in your arms once more.”
He kissed her once more, savoring the taste and feel of her as he pulled her close. He never quite remembered how they got undressed and onto the bed, but suddenly they were there. He gazed down at her lush curves, tracing them lightly with his hands and smiling at the soft sounds of pleasure she made.
She lifted her hands to caress his chest, shyly exploring his body with hands as well as eyes. She blushed as her gaze slid down past his waist to rest upon his arousal, and blinked. “I think I’m glad it was so dark before, or I’d have been scared, and sure you would never fit,” she murmured.
He couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him. “I’m glad you weren’t scared,” he murmured. “I was scared enough for us both, that I would do something wrong and hurt you somehow.”
“You didn’t, though. You were so very gentle and careful, and made me feel amazing. I want to feel that again.”
“Let’s see if I can remember what I did,” he smiled, dropping his head to suckle one full breast. He was rewarded by her sudden intake of breath and her hands clenching on his shoulders. He ran a teasing finger up the inside of one thigh to trail over the already wet folds of her passage. He probed within, seeking the bud of her pleasure, then moaned as one small hand closed around his shaft.
She smiled at the sound, her hand moving lightly over the length of him, familiarizing herself with the size and shape of him. “I want to feel you inside of me,” she whispered.
He moaned again, rolling her to her back and slowly easing himself into her moist depths. “We do fit rather well, don’t we, Meg?” he whispered teasingly as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Ohhh, Erik…” she murmured as she thrust her hips up to meet his. “Please…”
He had intended to tease her more, but he couldn’t resist the sensations she created with her motion. He began a slow and steady thrusting, leaning in to lick at the shell of her ear. “So hot and tight, Meg… you feel so good…”
She was beyond words as she matched his rhythm, her breath rapid and soft cries of ecstasy escaping her lips. Her hands slid down his back to clutch possessively at his backside as the pleasure built, then broke over her in waves, her passage throbbing around him. “Er… Erik!” she gasped as stars seemed to explode behind her eyelids.
He groaned as her climax washed over her, the throbbing of her passage pushing him quickly to his own apex. He thrust hard and strained forward with an inarticulate cry as he found his release, flooding her with his seed. He collapsed to one side so as not to crush her beneath his weight, and gathered her into his arms, kissing her softly.
She returned the kiss with a sweetness that still took him a little by surprise, then nestled comfortably against him with a soft sound of contentment. “Do you believe me now, that you are a most desirable man, Erik, or must I spend every night of our journey in convincing you?” she teased gently.
He gave a breathless chuckle. “Mm. And what would you say if I said I needed more persuasion?” he teased in return.
Meg giggled. “In that case, I think we will have a most enjoyable voyage!”
Erik laughed, he couldn’t help it. She was so very adorable. “Do you know how wonderful you are?”
She grinned. “Well, I do now that you’ve told me so. You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know.”
He blushed and kissed the tip of her nose. “We have shopping to do tomorrow, cherie, we should sleep.”
“Good night, Erik.”
“Good night, Meg.”
They fell asleep still wrapped in each others' arms.